J.1 Are anarchists involved in social struggles?

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

J.1 Are anarchists involved in social struggles?

Yes. Anarchism, above all else, is a movement which aims to not only analyse the world but also to change it. Therefore anarchists aim to participate in and encourage social struggle. Social struggle includes strikes, marches, protests, demonstrations, boycotts, occupations and so on. Such activities show that the "spirit of revolt" is alive and well, that people are thinking and acting for themselves and against what authorities want them to do. This, in the eyes of anarchists, plays a key role in helping create the seeds of anarchy within capitalism.

Anarchists consider socialistic tendencies to develop within society as people see the benefits of co-operation and particularly when mutual aid develops within the struggle against authority, oppression and exploitation. Anarchism, as Kropotkin argued, "originated in everyday struggles." [Environment and Revolution, p.58] Therefore, anarchists do not place anarchy abstractly against capitalism but see it as a tendency within and against the system -- a tendency created by struggle and which can be developed to such a degree that it can replace the dominant structures and social relationships with new, more liberatory and humane ones. This perspective indicates why anarchists are involved in social struggles -- they are an expression of these tendencies within but against capitalism which can ultimately replace it.

However, there is another reason why anarchists are involved in social struggle -- namely the fact that we are part of the oppressed and, like other oppressed people, fight for our freedom and to make our life better in the here and now. It is not in some distant tomorrow that we want to see the end of oppression, exploitation and hierarchy. It is today, in our own life, that the anarchist wants to win our freedom, or at the very least, to improve our situation, reduce oppression, domination and exploitation as well as increasing individual liberty for "every blow given to the institutions of private property and to the government, every exaltation of the conscience of man, disruption of the present conditions, every lie unmasked, every part of human activity taken away from the control of the authorities, every augmentation of the spirit of solidarity and initiative is a step towards Anarchism." [Errico Malatesta, Towards Anarchism, p. 75] We are aware that we often fail to do so, but the very process of struggle can help create a more libertarian aspect to society:

"Whatever may be the practical results of the struggle for immediate gains, the greatest value lies in the struggle itself. For thereby workers [and other oppressed sections of society] learn that the bosses interests are opposed to theirs and that they cannot improve their conditions, and much less emancipate themselves, except by uniting and becoming stronger than the bosses. If they succeed in getting what they demand, they will be better off: they will earn more, work fewer hours and will have more time and energy to reflect on the things that matter to them, and will immediately make greater demands and have greater needs. If they do not succeed they will be led to study the reasons of their failure and recognise the need for closer unity and greater activity and they will in the end understand that to make victory secure and definite, it is necessary to destroy capitalism. The revolutionary cause, the cause of moral elevation and emancipation of the workers [and other oppressed sections of society] must benefit by the fact that workers [and other oppressed people] unite and struggle for their interests." [Malatesta, Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, p. 191]

Therefore, "we as anarchists and workers, must incite and encourage" workers and other oppressed people "to struggle, and join them in their struggle." [Malatesta, Op. Cit., p. 190] This is for three reasons. Firstly, struggle helps generate libertarian ideas and movements which could help make existing society more anarchistic and less oppressive. Secondly, struggle creates people, movements and organisations which are libertarian in nature and which, potentially, can replace capitalism with a more humane society. Thirdly, because anarchists are part of the oppressed and so have an interest in taking part in and showing solidarity with struggles and movements that can improve our life in the here and now ("an injury to one is an injury to all").

As we will see in section J.2 anarchists encourage direct action within social struggles as well as arguing for anarchist ideas and theories. However, what is important to note here is that social struggle is a sign that people are thinking and acting for themselves and working together to change things. Howard Zinn is completely correct:

"civil disobedience . . . is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that numbers of people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience . . . Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That's our problem." [Failure to Quit, p. 45]

Therefore, social struggle is an important thing for anarchists and we take part in it as much as we can. Moreover, anarchists do more than just take part. We are fighting to get rid of the system that causes the problems which people fight against. We explain anarchism to those who are involved in struggle with us and seek to show the relevance of anarchism to people's everyday lives through such struggles and the popular organisations which they create. By so doing we try to popularise the ideas and methods of anarchism, namely solidarity, self-management and direct action.

Anarchists do not engage in abstract propaganda (become an anarchist, wait for the revolution -- if we did that, in Malatesta's words, "that day would never come." [Op. Cit., p. 195]). We know that our ideas will only win a hearing and respect when we can show both their relevance to people's lives in the here and now and show that an anarchist world is both possible and desirable. In other words, social struggle is the "school" of anarchism, the means by which people become anarchists and anarchist ideas are applied in action. Hence the importance of social struggle and anarchist participation within it.

Before discussing issues related to social struggle, it is important to point out here that anarchists are interested in struggles against all forms of oppression and do not limit ourselves to purely economic issues. The hierarchical and exploitative nature of the capitalist economy is only part of the story -- other forms of oppression are needed in order to keep it going (not to mention those associated with the state) and have resulted from its workings (in addition to those inherited from previous hierarchical and class systems). Domination, exploitation, hierarchy and oppression do not remain in the workplace. They infest our homes, our friendships and our communities. They need to be fought everywhere, not just in work.

Therefore, anarchists are convinced that human life and the struggle against oppression cannot be reduced to mere money and, indeed, the "proclivity for economic reductionism is now actually obscurantist. It not only shares in the bourgeois tendency to render material egotism and class interest the centrepieces of history it also denigrates all attempts to transcend this image of humanity as a mere economic being . . . by depicting them as mere 'marginalia' at best, as 'well-intentioned middle-class ideology' at worse, or sneeringly, as 'diversionary,' 'utopian,' and 'unrealistic' . . . Capitalism, to be sure, did not create the 'economy' or 'class interest,' but it subverted all human traits -- be they speculative thought, love, community, friendship, art, or self-governance -- with the authority of economic calculation and the rule of quantity. Its 'bottom line' is the balance sheet's sum and its basic vocabulary consists of simple numbers." [Murray Bookchin, The Modern Crisis, pp. 125-126]

In other words, issues such as freedom, justice, individual dignity, quality of life and so on cannot be reduced to the categories of capitalist economics. Anarchists think that any radical movement which does so fails to understand the nature of the system it is fighting against (indeed, economic reductionism plays into the hands of capitalist ideology). So, when anarchists take part in and encourage social struggle they do not aim to restrict or reduce them to economic issues (however important these are). The anarchist knows that the individual has more interests than just material ones and we consider it essential to take into account the needs of the emotions, mind and spirit just as much as those of the belly:

"The class struggle does not centre around material exploitation alone but also around spiritual exploitation. In addition, entirely new issues emerge: coercive attitudes, the quality of work, ecology (or stated in more general terms, psychological and environmental oppression) . . . Terms like 'classes' and 'class struggle,' conceived of almost entirely as economic categories and relations, are too one-sided to express the universalisation of the struggle. Use these limited expressions if you like (the target is still a ruling class and a class society), but this terminology, with its traditional connotations, does not reflect the sweep and the multi-dimensional nature of the struggle . . . [and] fail to encompass the cultural and spiritual revolt that is taking place along with the economic struggle." [Post-Scarcity Anarchism, pp. 151-2]

For anarchists, exploitation and class rule are just part of a wider system of domination and hierarchy. Material gains, therefore, can never completely make-up for oppressive social relationships. As the anarchist character created by anarchist science-fiction writer Ursula Le Guin put it, capitalists "think if people have enough things they will be content to live in prison." [The Dispossessed, p. 120] Anarchists disagree -- and the experience of social revolt in the "affluent" 1960s proves their case.

This is unsurprising for, ultimately, the "antagonism [between classes] is spiritual rather than material. There will never be a sincere understanding between bosses and workers. . . because the bosses above all want to remain bosses and secure always more power at the expense of the workers, as well as by competition with other bosses, whereas the workers have had their fill of bosses and don't want any more." [Malatesta, Op. Cit., p. 79]

J.1.1 Why are social struggles important?

Social struggle is an expression of the class struggle, namely the struggle of working class people against their exploitation, oppression and alienation and for their liberty from capitalist and state. It is what happens when one group of people have hierarchical power over another: where there is oppression, there is resistance and where there is resistance to authority you will see anarchy in action. For this reason anarchists are in favour of, and are involved within, social struggles. Ultimately they are a sign of individuals asserting their autonomy and disgust at an unfair system. As Howard Zinn stresses:

"Both the source and the solution of our civil liberties problems are in the situations of every day: where we live, where we work, where we go to school, where we spend most of our hours. Our actual freedom is not determined by the Constitution or by [the Supreme] Court, but by the power the policeman has over us in the street or that of the local judge behind him; by the authority of our employers [if we are working]; by the power of teachers, principals, university president, and boards of trustees if we are students; by the welfare bureaucracy if we are poor [or unemployed]; by prison guards if we are in jail; by landlords if we are tenants; by the medical profession or hospital administration if we are physically or mentally ill.

"Freedom and justice are local things, at hand, immediate. They are determined by power and money, whose authority over our daily lives is much less ambiguous than decisions of the Supreme Court. Whatever claim we . . . can make to liberty on the national level . . . on the local level we live at different times in different feudal fiefdoms where our subordination is clear." [Failure to Quit, pp. 53-4]

These realities of wealth and power will remain unshaken unless counter-forces appear on the very ground our liberty is restricted -- on the street, in workplaces, at home, at school, in hospitals and so on. For the "only limit to the oppression of government is the power with which people show themselves capable of opposing it." [Malatesta, Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, p. 196]

Social struggles for improvements are also important indications of the spirit of revolt and of people supporting each other in the continual assertion of their (and our) freedom. They show people standing up for what they consider right and just, building alternative organisations, creating their own solutions to their problems - and are a slap in the face of all the paternal authorities which dare govern us. Hence their importance to anarchists and all people interested in extending freedom.

In addition, social struggle helps break people from their hierarchical conditioning. Anarchists view people not as fixed objects to be classified and labelled, but as human beings engaged in making their own lives. We live, love, think, feel, hope, dream, and can change ourselves, our environment and social relationships. Social struggle is the way this is done collectively. Such struggle promotes attributes within people which are crushed by hierarchy (attributes such as imagination, organisational skills, self-assertion, self-management, critical thought, self-confidence and so on) as people come up against practical problems in their struggles and have to solve them themselves. This builds self-confidence and an awareness of individual and collective power. By seeing that their boss, the state and so on are against them they begin to realise that they live in a class ridden, hierarchical society that depends upon their submission to work. As such, social struggle is a politicising experience.

Struggle allows those involved to develop their abilities for self-rule through practice and so begins the process by which individuals assert their ability to control their own lives and to participate in social life directly. These are all key elements of anarchism and are required for an anarchist society to work ("Self-management of the struggle comes first, then comes self-management of work and society" [Alfredo Bonnano, "Self-Management", pp. 35-37, Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, no. 48, p. 35]). So self-activity is a key factor in self-liberation, self-education and the creating of anarchists. In a nutshell, people learn in struggle:

"In our opinion all action which is directed toward the destruction of economic and political oppression, which serves to raise the moral and intellectual level of the people; which gives them an awareness of their individual rights and their power, and persuades them themselves to act on their own behalf . . . brings us closer to our ends and is therefore a good thing. On the other hand all activity which tends to preserve the present state of affairs, that tends to sacrifice man against his will for the triumph of a principle, is bad because it is a denial of our ends. [Malatesta, Op. Cit., p. 69]

A confident working class is an essential factor in making successful and libertarian improvements within the current system and, ultimately, in making a revolution. Without that self-confidence people tend to just follow "leaders" and we end up changing rulers rather than changing society. So part of our job as anarchists is to encourage people to fight for whatever small reforms are possible at present, to improve our/their conditions, to give people confidence in their ability to start taking control of their lives, and to point out that there is a limit to whatever (sometimes temporary) gains capitalism will or can concede. Hence the need for a revolutionary change.

Only this can ensure that anarchist ideas are the most popular ones for if we think a movement is, all things considered, a positive or progressive one then we should not abstain but should seek to popularise anarchist ideas and strategies within it. In this way we create "schools of anarchy" within the current system and lay the foundations of something better. Revolutionary tendencies and movements, in other words, must create the organisations that contain, in embryo, the society of the future (see section H.1.6). These organisations, in turn, further the progress of radical change by providing social spaces for the transformation of individuals (via the use of direct action, practising self-management and solidarity, and so on). Therefore, social struggle aids the creation of a free society by accustoming people to govern themselves within self-managed organisations and empowering the (officially) disempowered via the use of direct action and mutual aid.

Hence the importance of social (or class) struggle for anarchists (which, we may add, goes on all the time and is a two-sided affair). Social struggle is the means of breaking the normality of capitalist and statist life, a means of developing the awareness for social change and the means of making life better under the current system. The moment that people refuse to bow to authority, its days are numbered. Social struggle indicates that some of the oppressed see that by using their power of disobedience they can challenge, perhaps eventually end, hierarchical power.

Ultimately, anarchy is not just something you believe in, it is not a cool label you affix to yourself, it is something you do. You participate. If you stop doing it, anarchy crumbles. Social struggle is the means by which we ensure that anarchy becomes stronger and grows.

J.1.2 Are anarchists against reforms?

No, we are not. While most anarchists are against reformism (namely the notion that we can somehow reform capitalism and the state away) we are most definitely in favour of reforms (i.e. improvements in the here and now). Anarchists are radicals; as such, we seek the root causes of societal problems. Reformists seek to ameliorate the symptoms of societal problems, while anarchists focus on the causes.

This does not mean, however, that we ignore struggles for reforms in the here and now. The claim that anarchists are against such improvements are often put forth by opponents of anarchism in an effort to paint us as irrelevant extremists with no practical outlet for our ideas beyond abstract calls for revolution. This is not true. Libertarians are well aware that we can act to make our lives better while, at the same time, seeking to remove the root causes of the problems we face. (see, for example, Emma Goldman's account of her recognition of how false it was deny the need for short-term reforms in favour of revolution. [Living My Life, vol. 1, p. 52]). In the words of the revolutionary syndicalist Emile Pouget:

"Trade union endeavour has a double aim: with tireless persistence, it must pursue betterment of the working class's current conditions. But, without letting themselves become obsessed with this passing concern, the workers should take care to make possible and imminent the essential act of comprehensive emancipation: the expropriation of capital.

"At present, trade union action is designed to win partial and gradual improvements which, far from constituting a goal, can only be considered as a means of stepping up demands and wresting further improvements from capitalism . . .

"This question of partial improvements served as the pretext for attempts to sow discord in the trades associations. Politicians . . . have tried to . . . stir up ill-feeling and to split the unions into two camps, by categorising workers as reformists and as revolutionaries. The better to discredit the latter, they have dubbed them 'the advocates of all or nothing' and they have falsely represented them as supposed adversaries of improvements achievable right now.

"The most that can be said about this nonsense is that it is witless. There is not a worker . . . who, on grounds of principle or for reasons of tactics, would insist upon working ten hours for an employer instead of eight hours, while earning six francs instead of seven . . .

"What appears to afford some credence to such chicanery is the fact that the unions, cured by the cruel lessons of experience from all hope in government intervention, are justifiably mistrustful of it. They know that the State, whose function is to act as capital's gendarme, is, by its very nature, inclined to tip the scales in favour of the employer side. So, whenever a reform is brought about by legal avenues, they do not fall upon it with the relish of a frog devouring the red rag that conceals the hook, they greet it with all due caution, especially as this reform is made effective only if the workers are organised to insist forcefully upon its implementation.

"The trade unions are even more wary of gifts from the government because they have often found these to be poison gifts . . . Wanting real improvements . . . instead of waiting until the government is generous enough to bestow them, they wrest them in open battle, through direct action.

"If, as sometimes is the case, the improvement they seek is subject to the law, the trade unions strive to obtain it through outside pressure brought to bear upon the authorities and not by trying to return specially mandated deputies to Parliament, a puerile pursuit that might drag on for centuries before there was a majority in favour of the yearned-for reform.

"When the desired improvement is to be wrestled directly from the capitalist, the trades associations resort to vigorous pressure to convey their wishes. Their methods may well vary, although the direct action principle underlies them all . . .

"But, whatever the improvement won, it must always represent a reduction in capitalist privileges and be a partial expropriation. So . . . the fine distinction between 'reformist' and 'revolutionary' evaporates and one is led to the conclusion that the only really reformist workers are the revolutionary syndicalists." [No Gods, No Masters, vol. 2, pp. 71-3]

Pouget was referring to revolutionary unions but his argument can be generalised to all social movements.

By seeking improvements from below by direct action, solidarity and the organisation of those who directly suffer the injustice, anarchists can make reforms more substantial, effective and long lasting than "reforms" made from above by reformists. By recognising that the effectiveness of a reform is dependent on the power of the oppressed to resist those who would dominate them, anarchists seek change from the bottom-up and so make reforms real rather than just words gathering dust in the law books.

For example, a reformist sees poverty and looks at ways to lessen the destructive and debilitating effects of it: this produced things like the minimum wage, affirmative action, the projects in the USA and similar reforms in other countries. An anarchist looks at poverty and says, "what causes this?" and attacks that source of poverty, rather than the symptoms. While reformists may succeed in the short run with their institutional panaceas, the festering problems remain untreated, dooming reform to eventual costly, inevitable failure -- measured in human lives, no less. Like a quack that treats the symptoms of a disease without getting rid of what causes it, all the reformist can promise is short-term improvements for a condition that never goes away and may ultimately kill the sufferer. The anarchist, like a real doctor, investigates the causes of the illness and treats them while fighting the symptoms.

Therefore, anarchists are of the opinion that "[w]hile preaching against every kind of government, and demanding complete freedom, we must support all struggles for partial freedom, because we are convinced that one learns through struggle, and that once one begins to enjoy a little freedom one ends by wanting it all. We must always be with the people . . . [and] get them to understand . . . [what] they may demand should be obtained by their own efforts and that they should despise and detest whoever is part of, or aspires to, government." [Malatesta, Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas p. 195]

So, anarchists are not opposed to struggles for reforms and improvements in the here and now. Indeed, few anarchists think that an anarchist society will occur without a long period of anarchist activity encouraging and working within social struggle against injustice. Thus Malatesta's words:

"the subject is not whether we accomplish Anarchism today, tomorrow or within ten centuries, but that we walk towards Anarchism today, tomorrow and always." [Towards Anarchism, p. 75]

So, when fighting for improvements anarchists do so in an anarchist way, one that encourages self-management, direct action and the creation of libertarian solutions and alternatives to both capitalism and the state.

J.1.3 Why are anarchists against reformism?

Firstly, it must be pointed out that the struggle for reforms within capitalism is not the same as reformism. Reformism is the idea that reforms within capitalism are enough in themselves and attempts to change the system are impossible (and not desirable). As such all anarchists are against this form of reformism -- we think that the system can be (and should be) changed and until that happens any reforms, no matter how essential, will not get to the root of social problems.

In addition, particularly in the old social democratic labour movement, reformism also meant the belief that social reforms could be used to transform capitalism into socialism. In this sense, only Individualist anarchists and Mutualists can be considered reformist as they think their system of mutual banking can reform capitalism into a free system. However, in contrast to Social Democracy, such anarchists think that such reforms cannot come about via government action, but only by people creating their own alternatives and solutions by their own actions:

"But experience testifies and philosophy demonstrates, contrary to that prejudice, that any revolution, to be effective, must be spontaneous and emanate, not from the heads of the authorities but from the bowels of the people: that government is reactionary rather than revolutionary: that it could not have any expertise in revolutions, given that society, to which that secret is alone revealed, does not show itself through legislative decree but rather through the spontaneity of its manifestations: that, ultimately, the only connection between government and labour is that labour, in organising itself, has the abrogation of government as its mission." [Proudhon, No Gods, No Master, vol. 1, p. 52]

So, anarchists oppose reformism because it takes the steam out of revolutionary movements by providing easy, decidedly short-term "solutions" to deep social problems. In this way, reformists can present the public with they've done and say "look, all is better now. The system worked." Trouble is that over time, the problems will only continue to grow because the reforms did not tackle them in the first place. To use Alexander Berkman's excellent analogy:

"If you should carry out [the reformers'] ideas in your personal life, you would not have a rotten tooth that aches pulled out all at once. You would have it pulled out a little to-day, some more next week, for several months or years, and by then you would be ready to pull it out altogether, so it should not hurt so much. That is the logic of the reformer. Don't be 'too hasty,' don't pull a bad tooth out all at once." [What is Anarchism?, p. 64]

Rather than seek to change the root cause of the problems (namely in a hierarchical, oppressive and exploitative system), reformists try to make the symptoms better. In the words of Berkman again:

"Suppose a pipe burst in your house. You can put a bucket under the break to catch the escaping water. You can keep on putting buckets there, but as long as you do not mend the broken pipe, the leakage will continue, no matter how much you may swear about it . . . until you repair the broken social pipe." [Op. Cit., pp. 67-8]

What reformism fails to do is fix the underlying root causes of the real problems society faces. Therefore, reformists try to pass laws which reduce the level of pollution rather than work to end a system in which it makes economic sense to pollute. Or they pass laws to improve working conditions and safety while failing to get rid of the wage slavery which creates the bosses whose interests are served by them ignoring those laws and regulations. The list is endless. Ultimately, reformism fails because reformists "believe in good faith that it is possible to eliminate the existing social evils by recognising and respecting, in practice if not in theory, the basic political and economic institutions which are the cause of, as well as the prop that supports these evils." [Malatesta, Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, p. 82]

Revolutionaries, in contrast to reformists, fight both symptoms and the root causes. They recognise that as long as the cause of the evil remains, any attempts to fight the symptoms, however necessary, will never get to the root of the problem. There is no doubt that we have to fight the symptoms, however revolutionaries recognise that this struggle is not an end in itself and should be considered purely as a means of increasing working class strength and social power within society until such time as capitalism and the state (i.e. the root causes of most problems) can be abolished.

Reformists also tend to objectify the people whom they are "helping": they envision them as helpless, formless masses who need the wisdom and guidance of the "best and the brightest" to lead them to the Promised Land. Reformists mean well, but this is altruism borne of ignorance, which is destructive over the long run. Freedom cannot be given and so any attempt to impose reforms from above cannot help but ensure that people are treated as children, incapable of making their own decisions and, ultimately, dependent on bureaucrats to govern them. This can be seen from public housing. As Colin Ward argues, the "whole tragedy of publicly provided non-profit housing for rent and the evolution of this form of tenure in Britain is that the local authorities have simply taken over, though less flexibly, the role of the landlord, together with all the dependency and resentment that it engenders." [Housing: An Anarchist Approach, p. 184] This feature of reformism was skilfully used by the right-wing to undermine publicly supported housing and other aspects of the welfare state. The reformist social-democrats reaped what they had sown.

Reformism often amounts to little more than an altruistic contempt for the masses, who are considered as little more than victims who need to be provided for by state. The idea that we may have our own visions of what we want is ignored and replaced by the vision of the reformists who enact legislation for us and make "reforms" from the top-down. Little wonder such reforms can be counter-productive -- they cannot grasp the complexity of life and the needs of those subject to them. Reformists effectively say, "don't do anything, we'll do it for you." You can see why anarchists would loathe this sentiment; anarchists are the consummate do-it-yourselfers, and there's nothing reformists hate more than people who can take care of themselves, who will not let them "help" them.

Reformists may mean well, but they do not grasp the larger picture -- by focusing exclusively on narrow aspects of a problem, they choose to believe that is the whole problem. In this wilfully narrow examination of pressing social ills, reformists are, more often than not, counter-productive. The disaster of the urban rebuilding projects in the United States (and similar projects in Britain which moved inner-city working class communities into edge of town developments during the 1950s and 1960s) are an example of reformism at work: upset at the growing slums, reformists supported projects that destroyed the ghettos and built brand-new housing for working class people to live in. They looked nice (initially), but they did nothing to address the problem of poverty and indeed created more problems by breaking up communities and neighbourhoods.

Logically, it makes no sense. Why dance around a problem when you can attack it directly? Reformists dilute social movements, softening and weakening them over time. The AFL-CIO labour unions in the USA, like the ones in Western Europe, killed the labour movement by narrowing and channelling labour activity and taking power from the workers themselves, where it belongs, and placing it the hands of a bureaucracy. The British Labour Party, after over 100 years of reformist practice, has done little more than manage capitalism, seen most of its reforms undermined by right-wing governments (and by the following Labour governments!) and the creation of a leadership of the party (in the shape of New Labour) which was in most ways as right-wing as the Conservative Party (if not more so, as shown once they were in power). Bakunin would not have been surprised.

Also, it is funny to hear left-wing "revolutionaries" and "radicals" put forward the reformist line that the capitalist state can help working people (indeed be used to abolish itself!). Despite the fact that leftists blame the state and capitalism for most of the problems we face, they usually turn to the capitalist state to remedy the situation, not by leaving people alone, but by becoming more involved in people's lives. They support government housing, government jobs, welfare, government-funded and regulated child care, government-funded drug "treatment," and other government-centred programmes and activities. If a capitalist (and racist/sexist/authoritarian) government is the problem, how can it be depended upon to change things to the benefit of working class people or other oppressed sections of the population? Surely any reforms passed by the state will not solve the problem? As Malatesta suggested:

"Governments and the privileged classes are naturally always guided by instincts of self-preservation, of consolidation and the development of their powers and privileges; and when they consent to reforms it is either because they consider that they will serve their ends or because they do not feel strong enough to resist, and give in, fearing what might otherwise be a worse alternative." [Op. Cit., p. 81]

Therefore, reforms gained by direct action are of a different quality and nature than those passed by reformist politicians -- these latter will only serve the interests of the ruling class as they do not threaten their privileges while the former have the potential for real change.

This is not to say that Anarchists oppose all state-based reforms nor that we join with the right in seeking to destroy them (or, for that matter, with "left" politicians in seeking to "reform" them, i.e., reduce them). Without a popular social movement creating alternatives to state welfare, so-called "reform" by the state almost always means attacks on the most vulnerable elements in society in the interests of capital. As anarchists are against both state and capitalism, we can oppose such reforms without contradiction while, at the same time, arguing that welfare for the rich should be abolished long before welfare for the many is even thought about. See section J.5.15 for more discussion on the welfare state and anarchist perspectives on it.

Instead of encouraging working class people to organise themselves and create their own alternatives and solutions to their problem (which can supplement, and ultimately replace, whatever welfare state activity which is actually useful), reformists and other radicals urge people to get the state to act for them. However, the state is not the community and so whatever the state does for people you can be sure it will be in its interests, not theirs. As Kropotkin put it:

"We maintain that the State organisation, having been the force to which the minorities resorted for establishing and organising their power over the masses, cannot be the force which will serve to destroy these privileges . . . the economic and political liberation of man will have to create new forms for its expression in life, instead of those established by the State.

"Consequently, the chief aim of Anarchism is to awaken those constructive powers of the labouring masses of the people which at all great moments of history came forward to accomplish the necessary changes . . .

"This is also why the Anarchists refuse to accept the functions of legislators or servants of the State. We know that the social revolution will not be accomplished by means of laws. Laws only follow the accomplished facts . . . a law remains a dead letter so long as there are not on the spot the living forces required for making of the tendencies expressed in the law an accomplished fact.

"On the other hand . . . the Anarchists have always advised taking an active part in those workers' organisations which carry on the direct struggle of Labour against Capital and its protector, -- the State.

"Such a struggle . . . better than any other indirect means, permits the worker to obtain some temporary improvements in the present conditions of work [and life in general], while it opens his [or her] eyes to the evil that is done by Capitalism and the State that supports it, and wakes up his [or her] thoughts concerning the possibility of organising consumption, production, and exchange without the intervention of the capitalist and the State." [Environment and Evolution, pp. 82-3]

Therefore, while seeking reforms, anarchists are against reformism and reformists. Reforms are not seen as an end in themselves but rather a means of changing society from the bottom-up and a step in that direction:

"Each step towards economic freedom, each victory won over Capitalism will be at the same time a step towards political liberty -- towards liberation from the yoke of the State . . . And each step towards taking from the State any one of its powers and attributes will be helping the masses to win a victory over Capitalism." [Kropotkin, Op. Cit., p. 95]

However, no matter what, anarchists "will never recognise the institutions; we will take or win all possible reforms with the same spirit that one tears occupied territory from the enemy's grasp in order to keep advancing, and we will always remain enemies of every government." Therefore, it is "not true to say" that anarchists "are systematically opposed to improvements, to reforms. They oppose the reformists on the one hand because their methods are less effective for securing reforms from government and employers, who only give in through fear, and because very often the reforms they prefer are those which not only bring doubtful immediate benefits, but also serve to consolidate the existing regime and to give the workers a vested interest in its continued existence." [Malatesta, Op. Cit., p. 81 and p. 83]

Only working class people, by our own actions and organisations, getting the state and capital out of the way can produce an improvement in our lives, indeed it is the only thing that will lead to real changes for the better. Encouraging people to rely on themselves instead of the state or capital can lead to self-sufficient, independent, and, hopefully, more rebellious people. Working class people, despite having fewer options in a number of areas in our lives, due both to hierarchy and restrictive laws, still are capable of making choices about our actions, organising our own lives and are responsible for the consequences of our decisions. We are also more than able to determine what is and is not a good reform to existing institutions and do not need politicians informing us what is in our best interests (particularly when it is the right seeking to abolish those parts of the state not geared purely to defending property). To think otherwise is to infantilise us, to consider us less fully human than other people and reproduce the classic capitalist vision of working class people as means of production, to be used, abused, and discarded as required. Such thinking lays the basis for paternalistic interventions in our lives by the state, ensuring our continued dependence and inequality -- and the continued existence of capitalism and the state. Ultimately, there are two options:

"The oppressed either ask for and welcome improvements as a benefit graciously conceded, recognise the legitimacy of the power which is over them, and so do more harm than good by helping to slow down, or divert . . . the processes of emancipation. Or instead they demand and impose improvements by their action, and welcome them as partial victories over the class enemy, using them as a spur to greater achievements, and thus a valid help and a preparation to the total overthrow of privilege, that is, for the revolution." [Malatesta, Op. Cit., p. 81]

Reformism encourages the first attitude within people and so ensures the impoverishment of the human spirit. Anarchism encourages the second attitude and so ensures the enrichment of humanity and the possibility of meaningful change. Why think that ordinary people cannot arrange their lives for themselves as well as Government people can arrange it not for themselves but for others?

J.1.4 What attitude do anarchists take to "single-issue" campaigns?

Firstly, we must note that anarchists do take part in "single-issue" campaigns, but do not nourish false hopes in them. This section explains what anarchists think of such campaigns.

A "single-issue" campaign is usually run by a pressure group which concentrates on tackling issues one at a time. For example, C.N.D. (The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) is a classic example of "single-issue" campaigning with the aim of getting rid of nuclear weapons as the be-all and end-all of its activity. For anarchists, however, single-issue campaigning can be seen as a source of false hopes. The possibilities of changing one aspect of a totally inter-related system and the belief that pressure groups can compete fairly with transnational corporations, the military and so forth, in their influence over decision making bodies can both be seen to be optimistic at best.

In addition, many "single-issue" campaigns desire to be "apolitical", concentrating purely on the one issue which unites the campaign and so refuse to analyse or discuss wider issues and the root causes of the issue in question (almost always, the system we live under). This means that they end up accepting the system which causes the problems they are fighting against. At best, any changes achieved by the campaign must be acceptable to the establishment or be so watered down in content that no practical long-term good is done. This can be seen from the green movement, where groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth accept the status quo as a given and limit themselves to working within it. This often leads to them tailoring their "solutions" to be "practical" within a fundamentally anti-ecological political and economic system, so slowing down (at best) ecological disruption.

For anarchists these problems all stem from the fact that social problems cannot be solved as single issues. As Larry Law argued:

"single issue politics . . . deals with the issue or problem in isolation. When one problem is separated from all other problems, a solution really is impossible. The more campaigning on an issue there is, the narrower its perspectives become . . . As the perspective of each issue narrows, the contradictions turn into absurdities . . . What single issue politics does is attend to 'symptoms' but does not attack the 'disease' itself. It presents such issues as nuclear war, racial and sexual discrimination, poverty, starvation, pornography, etc., as if they were aberrations or faults in the system. In reality such problems are the inevitable consequence of a social order based on exploitation and hierarchical power . . . single issue campaigns lay their appeal for relief at the feet of the very system which oppresses them. By petitioning they acknowledge the right of those in power to exercise that power as they choose." [Bigger Cages, Longer Chains, pp. 17-20].

Single issue politics often prolong the struggle for a free society by fostering illusions that it is just parts of the capitalist system which are wrong, not the whole of it, and that those at the top of the system can, and will, act in our interests. While such campaigns can do some good, practical, work and increase knowledge and education about social problems, they are limited by their very nature and can not lead to extensive improvements in the here and now, never mind a free society.

Therefore, anarchists often support and work within single-issue campaigns, trying to get them to use effective methods of activity (such as direct action), work in an anarchistic manner (i.e. from the bottom up) and to try to "politicise" them into questioning the whole of the system. However, anarchists do not let themselves be limited to such activity as a social revolution or movement is not a group of single-issue campaigns but a mass movement which understands the inter-related nature of social problems and so the need to change every aspect of life.

J.1.5 Why do anarchists try to generalise social struggles?

Basically, we do it in order to encourage and promote solidarity. This is the key to winning struggles in the here and now as well as creating the class consciousness necessary to create an anarchist society. At its most simple, generalising different struggles means increasing the chances of winning them. Take, for example, when one trade or one workplace goes on strike while the others continue to work:

"Consider yourself how foolish and inefficient is the present form of labour organisation in which one trade or craft may be on strike while the other branches of the same industry continue to work. Is it not ridiculous that when the street car workers of New York, for instance, quit work, the employees of the subway, the cab and omnibus drivers remain on the job? . . . It is clear, then, that you compel compliance [from your bosses] only when you are determined, when your union is strong, when you are well organised, when you are united in such a manner that the boss cannot run his factory against your will. But the employer is usually some big . . . company that has mills or mines in various places. . . If it cannot operate . . . in Pennsylvania because of a strike, it will try to make good its losses by continuing . . . and increasing production [elsewhere] . . . In that way the company . . . breaks the strike." [Alexander Berkman, What is Anarchism?, pp. 199-200]

By organising all workers in one union (after all they all have the same boss) it increases the power of each trade considerably. It may be easy for a boss to replace a few workers, but a whole workforce would be far more difficult. By organising all workers in the same industry, the power of each workplace is correspondingly increased. Extending this example to outside the workplace, its clear that by mutual support between different groups increases the chances of each group winning its fight. As the I.W.W. put it: "An injury to one is an injury to all." By generalising struggles, by practising mutual aid we can ensure that when we are fighting for our rights and against injustice we will not be isolated and alone. If we don't support each other, groups will be picked off one by one. and if we go into struggle, there will be no one there to support us and we are more likely to be defeated.

Therefore, from an anarchist point of view, the best thing about generalising struggles is that as well as increasing the likelihood of success ("Solidarity is Strength") it leads to an increased spirit of solidarity, responsibility and class consciousness. This is because by working together and showing solidarity those involved get to understand their common interests and that the struggle is not against this injustice or that boss but against all injustice and all bosses.

This sense of increased social awareness and solidarity can be seen from the experience of the C.N.T in Spain during the 1930s. The C.N.T. organised all workers in a given area into one big union. Each workplace was a union branch and were joined together in a local area confederation. The result was that the territorial basis of the unions brought all the workers from one area together and fomented class solidarity over and before industry-loyalties and interests. This can also be seen from the experiences of the syndicalist unions in Italy and France as well. The structure of such local federations also situates the workplace in the community where it really belongs.

Also, by uniting struggles together, we can see that there are really no "single issues" -- that all various different problems are inter-linked. For example, ecological problems are not just that, but have a political and economic basis and that economic and social domination and exploitation spills into the environment. Inter-linking struggles means that they can be seen to be related to other struggles against capitalist exploitation and oppression and so encourage solidarity and mutual aid. What goes on in the environment, for instance, is directly related to questions of domination and inequality within human society, that pollution is often directly related to companies cutting corners to survive in the market or increase profits. Similarly, struggles against sexism or racism can be seen as part of a wider struggle against hierarchy, exploitation and oppression in all their forms. As such, uniting struggles has an important educational effect above and beyond the benefits in terms of winning struggles.

Murray Bookchin presents a concrete example of this process of linking issues and widening the struggle:

"Assume there is a struggle by welfare mothers to increase their allotments . . . Without losing sight of the concrete issues that initially motivated the struggle, revolutionaries would try to catalyse an order of relationships between the mothers entirely different from [existing ones] . . . They would try to foster a deep sense of community, a rounded human relationship that would transform the very subjectivity of the people involved . . . Personal relationships would be intimate, not merely issue-orientated. People would get to know each other, to confront each other; they would explore each other with a view of achieving the most complete, unalienated relationships. Women would discuss sexism, as well as their welfare allotments, child-rearing as well as harassment by landlords, their dreams and hopes as human beings as well as the cost of living.

"From this intimacy there would grow, hopefully, a supportive system of kinship, mutual aid, sympathy and solidarity in daily life. The women might collaborate to establish a rotating system of baby sitters and child-care attendants, the co-operative buying of good food at greatly reduced prices, the common cooking and partaking of meals, the mutual learning of survival skills and the new social ideas, the fostering of creative talents, and many other shared experiences. Every aspect of life that could be explored and changed would be one part of the kind of relationships . . .

"The struggle for increased allotments would expand beyond the welfare system to the schools, the hospitals, the police, the physical, cultural, aesthetic and recreational resources of the neighbourhood, the stores, the houses, the doctors and lawyers in the area, and so on -- into the very ecology of the district.

"What I have said on this issue could be applied to every issue -- unemployment, bad housing, racism, work conditions -- in which an insidious assimilation of bourgeois modes of functioning is masked as 'realism' and 'actuality.' The new order of relationships that could be developed from a welfare struggle . . . [can ensure that the] future penetrates the present; it recasts the way people 'organise' and the goals for which they strive." [Post-Scarcity Anarchism, pp. 153-4]

As the anarchist slogan puts it: "Resistance is Fertile." Planting the seed of autonomy, direct action and self-liberation can result, potentially, in the blossoming of free individuals due to the nature of struggle itself (see section A.2.7). Therefore, the generalisation of social struggle is not only a key way of winning a specific fight, it can (and should) also spread into different aspects of life and society and play a key part in developing free individuals who reject hierarchy in all aspects of their life.

Social problems are not isolated from each other and so struggles against them cannot be. The nature of struggle is such that once people start questioning one aspect of society, the questioning of the rest soon follows. So, anarchists seek to generalise struggles for these three reasons -- firstly, to ensure the solidarity required to win; secondly, to combat the many social problems we face as people and to show how they are inter-related; and, thirdly, to encourage the transformation of those involved into unique individuals in touch with their humanity, a humanity eroded by hierarchical society and domination.

AddThis

  


Like what you are reading?  Get a notification whenever we post a new article to

Anarchist Writers via Facebook or Twitter

where you can also like and comment on our articles


 

Posting comments

 Like most sites we have a major problem with bots trying to post spam into the comments section.  While looking for a better solution we are reduced to only on turning on the ability to anonymously comment for brief periods around the posting of new articles.  But if you are a regular visitor you can comment at any time by creating an account on the site and logging in before posting. But the Spammers also set up accounts so to reduce the workload of deleting those we only turn on the ability to create accounts for brief periods which we announce on our Twitter & Facebook accounts so follow those to hear when we have that turned on.  We do want you to be able to engage with us via the comments and we are very sorry for the fact that we can't find a better way of dealing with spam.