Why I am/am not an anarchist

I first encountered anarchism as a political philosophy in 1966-67 at University, courtesy of a lovely guy, a Jewish pacifist with whom I became friends for a while. On a summer job processing peas one year, I met a guy who was in the Syndicalist Workers’ Federation – between us we even organised a go-slow action at the factory. I picked up a couple of publications on an Easter CND Demo in 1967 and witnessed my first ‘anarchist action’ – if that is what you could call it. On the last part of the march, a bunch of people led by a guy in a black beret and waving red and black flags, moved out of the main body of the march and ran shouting up the outside. I have no idea what they were doing or what happened afterwards; they disappeared without trace. It was funny, but nothing more.

I didn’t really bother with anarchist ideas until I had been through the Stalinist-Trotskyist mill and become thoroughly disillusioned. I picked up again some of those early publications and began to make contact again to explore papers like Freedom and groups and journals around Solidarity. In time, I worked out some sort of muddled philosophy based around a mixture of anarchist and syndicalist ideas, modified by my reading of Cornelius Castoriadis (aka Paul Cardan). At the time, the best outlet for this seemed to be the Anarchist Syndicalist Alliance, which published a paper called Black and Red Outlook. While I was, for a short time, its General Secretary (not as grand as the title sounds) and tried to use this base to reach out to other broadly libertarian socialist groups, this was personally not a good time and I suffered one of my periodic burn-outs. I gave up on everything to do with politics for many years and even disposed of my collection of socialist and anarchist literature.

I have never really returned to anarchism since those days in the early 1970s, though I kept sporadic contact with Solidarity until it eventually disbanded and still have a collection of pamphlets and books from that stable, as well as other broadly ‘councilist’ theorists. I have even bought again some of the books I threw away: principally Kropotkin and Rudolf Rocker. I guess I would more happily, then and now, describe myself as a libertarian socialist in a fairly general sense. I tried for a couple of years to work inside the Socialist Workers’ Party in the 1980s on that basis: doomed to failure against the demands to respect democratic centralism, toe the party line and not argue too violently with visiting regional officers.

During that period, the anarchist movement tended to succumb to various trends that came and went. There was the Punk Rock scene, which featured a lot of overpaid stars using anarchist symbols and rhetoric, peppered with expletives, in order to fill their pockets and delude disaffected youths. There was the ‘animal liberation’ movement’s adoption of what they called ‘direct action’. Later, there was the emergence of the ‘black bloc’ at anti-globalisation protests also using what they called ‘direct action’. None of this was remotely connected to the principled and well-organised use of direct action by syndicalist unions in the past, nor by non-violent dissident groups like the Committee of 100: both of these were part of wider movements and grounded in well thought out ideas, rather than the life-style behaviour of nihilists and anti-humanists who simply came and went.

Sadly, the ‘black bloc’ style of action is still around, generally parasitic on activities organised by trade unions and other movements. It is a pathetic, brain-dead form of protest, generally bringing discredit on the movements with which it is associated, probably heavily infiltrated by police agents and having more in common with the worst forms of jihadism and fascist street thuggery than with the movements they purport to represent. The only effect is usually to bring heavy police action against those who are engaged in peaceful activity, while the perpetrators of the window-smashing and throwing of Molotov cocktails hightail behind their black balaclava face masks like the cowards they really are.

I remain influenced by the ideas of some anarchist thinkers where these are based on class. But, given the idiots out there who profess to be the live movement, excuse me if I don’t call myself an anarchist.

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3 thoughts on “Why I am/am not an anarchist

  1. For me, political labels are descriptors, rather than definers. Anarchism does not define what I think, it describes what I think. What I mean is that I have a set of thoughts about the workings of the world and how I think it should be, and anarchism is the word that best describes that set of thoughts. As I continue to think about things, if I find that anarchism no longer describes what I think, I will find another term. I don’t care how other people use the word, or what they do in the name of anarchism (well, I do care, but not in the sense I am talking about here). So long as the word works to describe my thinking, I am an anarchist.
    Anarchists hold a handful of principles in common, but much of it is self-definition, based on how one thinks we will get to making those principles happen. I dislike all attempts to say that “my kind” of anarchism is the only kind. No one tendency or approach can claim to be the “live movement.” Even among the key figures, there are major differences; there is little in common between Colin Ward and Albert Meltzer, for instance. I draw what I can from each of them, and from many others, to further my own thinking, as well as drawing on the ideas of those who are not in any way anarchists or anarchistic. Some day maybe I will discover that some of those non-anarchists have influenced my thinking to the extent that anarchism no longer describes what I think, in which case I will stop calling myself that way. But for now, anarchism is the word that describes what I think, so I use it, neither because of nor in spite of what others do with the word.

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    1. I know what you mean – hence the ambiguous title to the original post. Maybe for public consumption I prefer to call myself a ‘libertarian socialist’, which probably reflects the direction from which I came to anarchist ideas, as well as the general influence of people like Castoriadis and Maurice Brinton on my thinking over the years. I guess the ‘push’ factor is the behaviour of some groups who call themselves anarchists, with whom I would not wish to be associated.

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  2. Clarifying that a bit further. I have some sympathy with the syndicalist element in the anarchist movement, where they concentrate on organising working class people in workplaces and communities and help build resilience, solidarity and self-organising capabilities. That takes time, effort, hard work, grass roots activity. It is a lot harder than grabbing a flag, wearing a face mask and throwing bricks at the police and through shop windows, then running away. There are two sides to freedom: self-development and self-discipline at the personal level, and collective development and collective discipline at the social level. Castoriadis preferred to call this ‘autonomy’, but had to distinguish his definition from the individualist interpretations that have been more common. This is why I would rather call myself a socialist, maybe even without the need for the libertarian prefix, as socialism without the kind of freedom in which I believe would not be socialism at all.

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