Anarchism and the Future of the Left

There’s no doubt that today anarchist ideas of one kind or another have a strong influence among radicals in the Canadian state (and in the US and EU countries, to varying degrees). Anarchist bookfairs, especially the big one in Montreal, draw hundreds of people who come not just to buy books and zines but to take part in workshops, watch films and socialize. Many of the people organizing for migrants’ rights, in solidarity with indigenous people, against police brutality and in other campaigns identify as anarchists. Anarchism has a lot more influence than it did twenty years ago. This isn’t likely to change. This means that anarchism matters to everyone who cares about the future of the Left.

US-based writer and speaker Cindy Milstein has written Anarchism and its Aspirations in the hope that it will contribute “to building a better anarchism and encouraging new anarchists.” This short book is a model of the kind of writing that the Left needs a lot more of. It’s consciously written as a political intervention, not an academic publication. It deals with big ideas in a clear and accessible style. It’s informed by the ideas of past fighters but tries to go beyond them rather than dogmatically reassert them.

Anarchist Libertarian Socialism

While it’s presented as an overall introduction to anarchism, Milstein’s book is more of an introduction to the version of anarchism Milstein favours than to the different political tendencies found under the umbrella of anarchism (just as an introduction to Marxism is usually an introduction to the kind of Marxism supported by its author). For Milstein, anarchism is a libertarian socialism, “a synthesis of the best of liberalism and the best of communism, elevated and transformed by the best of libertarian Left traditions that work toward an egalitarian, voluntarily [sic], and nonhierarchical society.”

She makes an important related point that’s unfortunately tucked away in an endnote rather than up-front in the text:  “Rather than the tired debate about Marxism versus anarchism, which ignores the authoritarian as well as the antiauthoritarian strains within each tradition, it’s much more accurate to see the divide as being, broadly, between those on the libertarian versus nonlibertarian side of social transformation.” By “libertarian Left” she means “all those revolutionaries, both Marxist and anarchist, striving toward a variety of bottom-up social organization.”

For Milstein, the distinguishing and “most compelling” feature of anarchism is its ethics. These are values of liberation (freedom from coercion and restraint) and freedom (by which she means people’s freedom to determine their own lives), equality along with a recognition of the differences among people, the principle of “from each according to their abilities and passions, to each according to their needs and desires,” mutual aid, an ecological outlook, voluntary association and accountability, joy and spontaneity and unity in diversity. She also argues that anarchists are united by a vision of social reconstruction that’s put into practice in the here and now, by politics that prefigure the future society they want to see and by self-organization in direct action.

Milstein poses a crucial political question: “how can each and every one of us – not just a counterculture or a protest movement – really transform and ultimately control our lives and that of our communities?”

The book makes a number of other important points, including the observation in an endnote that “diversity of tactics” has often come to mean “everyone can do what they want, regardless of how that impacts others” and that this should be challenged. It’s unfortunate that this and some other arguments aren’t developed more fully.

In the introduction, Milstein mentions some of the horrors of the years since the heyday of the global justice movement and writes “I worry that in the face of this morass, anarchists are becoming increasingly nihilistic and far less concerned about ending social suffering.” I think she’s right. But her presentation of what anarchism is downplays the versions of anarchism – such as “primitivism” and “anti-civilizationism”– that are the most unlike the kind she supports.

There is definitely an anarchist tradition of libertarian socialism committed to revolutionary social change. But there have always been other kinds of anarchism too. Milstein recognizes this, but she doesn’t offer a critique of them. Taking these other anarchisms more seriously would make for a more complicated picture of anarchism than what’s offered in the book (just as anyone who tries to write about Marxism in general has to deal with the diametrically opposed politics that have claimed to be Marxist).

That said, Anarchism and its Aspirations is an effective introduction to one kind of anarchism — a politics dedicated to social revolution against capitalism and state power, genuine democracy, internationalism, opposition to all forms of oppression and taking seriously the relationship between the goals (or ends) we seek and the methods (or means) we use. These are all important commitments. The next Left will be stronger if it’s made up of many more people who try to act on them.

Paths to Revolutionary Change

There are other aspects of this anarchism that are more questionable. For starters, Milstein seems to see social revolution against capital and the state as happening in a very gradual way: “In the best-case scenario, people can look back over their shoulders to realize there’s been enough of a widespread transformation to constitute a revolution.”

I don’t claim to know precisely what future socialist revolutions would look like, and anyone who says they do is either lying or deluded. But if we look not just at the two revolutions that briefly established socialist democracy in the 20th century – Russia in 1917 and Spain in 1936 – but also at, for example, the massive popular struggles in Bolivia from 2000 to 2005 that brought down governments and had real revolutionary potential, we see upheavals, not shifts that are only noticeable with hindsight. True, people can’t establish democratic control over all aspects of society and begin to reconstruct it in a single event. Revolution would have to be a process, but one that involves a rupture with the established order.

Related to the gradualist notion of revolution is an over-estimation of what small self-organized alternatives within capitalist societies represent. Milstein uses the example of Food Not Bombs in different places and suggest that “such projects could form a dual power to the powers-that-be” if they became more connected with each other and similar efforts. “The idea is that people establish counterinstitutions as well as lifeways that gain enough force” to eventually replace “centralized power.” It’s for this reason that the book argues that people should start “right now, to translate movement structures into institutions that embody the good society.”

The problem is that there is a huge gap between the movement structures that exist in most parts of the world and the radically democratic institutions that would be required for people to run society themselves. Trying to turn what is today into what we wish existed (but doesn’t) is bound to fail. Institutions of direct democracy that create a situation of dual power only arise when large numbers of people discover through their own experiences that companies and capitalist states can’t meet their needs and then organize themselves to take matters into their own hands.

There’s an alternative to the approach Milstein proposes that doesn’t look to a radical elite to change society from above. It’s “the conception of overturning the capitalist system through the active and democratic mobilization of the mass of the working class… This perspective highlights strategies for change that challenge the dominant power structure through building counter-power from below. This counter-power is necessarily built within capitalist society, fighting for immediate improvements and reforms, yet is always oriented towards the creation of new forms of democratic participation that challenge the limits and, ultimately, the existence of existing institutions… we build a counter-power when people become active in their own cause: occupying, striking or taking demands to the streets” (Alan Sears, “Notes Toward a Socialism for the Times,” New Socialist 63).

If counter-power from below is the key, radicals should put their energies today into organizing in workplaces and communities, doing whatever they can to foster self-organized movements. This orientation to social struggle, which ultimately aims for high levels of mass direct action that give birth to new democratic institutions that could replace capitalist rule throughout society, is different from the approach proposed in Anarchism and its Aspirations. It emphasizes collective action that mobilizes people against employers, landlords, university administrators and so on. Milstein’s approach looks to “reinvigorating or initiating civic gatherings, town meetings, neighbourhood assemblies, community mediation boards.”

There are other points in the book worth debating, including the claim that “globalization is structurally undermining the centrality of states” (it was action by states that prevented the current Great Recession from becoming a very deep economic depression in 2008-09), the lack of attention to workplace and union struggles, the book’s particular approach to ethics, the suggestion that centralization (rather than undemocratic centralization) is inherently bad and a number of claims about events and thinkers in the recent and not-so-recent past.

In spite of these criticisms, Anarchism and its Aspirations is a welcome effort to argue for libertarian socialist politics at a time when many anarchists reject them. I hope it will be read by anarchists and by people who don’t consider themselves anarchists. To use Milstein’s phrase again, all “revolutionaries, both Marxist and anarchist, striving toward a variety of bottom-up social organization” need to explore where we agree and where we disagree as we work together towards the next new Left.

David Camfield is one of the editors of the New Socialist webzine.