An introduction to the history and ideas of anarchism

Where better to start a look at anarchism then to look at the state of the left as a whole. The organised revolutionary left today is at its weakest for many years. Its not so much a question of the triumph of capitalism however as the failure of the bulk of the ideologies of socialism. The collapse of both labourism and the USSR has left the vast bulk of the left confused and demoralised, either dead, dying or repeating decade old slogans in a state of living death.

The left and the state

The left for the most part consisted of those who wanted to liberate the rest of us. There were two distinct flavours, labour parties that said elect us to office and we will gradually abolish capitalism for you. Not only has this not happened despite labour government becoming common but in countries like France and Australia in the 80's labour governments actually led the assaults on the wages and standard of living of the working class.

The bulk of the revolutionary left came to consist of Leninists in what has been termed 57 varieties. Like the labour parties they promised if we put them into power they would sort out the problem for us. They may have recognised that the creation of socialism would first require the overthrowal of capitalism but in power they have been every bit as anti-working class as the social democrats were, perhaps in fact more so. Their idea of building socialism after the revolution consisted of smashing all working class organisation outside the control of their party from factory committees to trade unions. This side of the revolution they spent more time squabbling over who was the vanguard than anything else.

the predictions of anarchism

Anarchism arose out of the 1st international as a movement that said socialism cannot be created for people it must be created by them. As such it was based on absolute opposition to any form of minority power. It predicted that the authoritarian aspects of Marxism would prevent the Marxists creating socialism, instead what would be created would be a dictatorship of scientists. Today many of their writings from the 1870's are uncomfortably prophetic in relation to what became of the state centred left.

what is anarchism

So what exactly is anarchism. Above all its the idea that an individuals freedom should only be constrained by the freedom of others, that there should be no government. This definition is of course inadequate but from it flows the opposition to capitalism and authoritarian socialism. Its aim is nothing less than the liberation of humanity. Anarchism has taken many forms, to really define it in its complexity you have to look at the historical process of the anarchist movement. Unlike most of the rest of the left we have no wish to remain static, scholarly re-interpreting the works of the early prophets and arguing over the number of angels a pinhead. Our aim is revolution.

A history of Anarchism

1st International & IWA

Anarchism arose as a current in the 1st international in the 1860's. The term had certainly been used before then and it is possible to see the seeds of the idea of anarchism in the writings and activities of movements and individuals before this date. Most notable perhaps groups like the Levellers at the time of the English civil war, the sans culottes of the French revolution and some of the writings of Proudhon but these are all incomplete and flawed. Contributing towards that latter movement that was to emerge just over a century ago.

Marxism also arose out of this period and too a large extent the two opposing currents defined each other and much of the events of 20th century socialism. Indeed Marx and Bakunin (the most vocal of the anarchists) had met (and argued) in Paris in the 1840's. There was much the two currents agreed on in particular the importance of historical materialism as a tool and also the importance of Marx's economic work. Bakunin said of Capital

"His [Marx] great work Capital, is not in the least a fantasy...It is founded on a very extensive, very detailed knowledge and a very profound analysis of this system and of its conditions. Karl Marx is a man of immense statistical and economic knowledge. His work on Capital, though unfortunately bristling with formulas and metaphysical subtleties, which render it unapproachable for the great mass of readers, is in the highest degree a scientific or realist work: in that sense that it absolutely excludes any other logic than that of the facts".
Marxism, Freedom and the State, Freedom Press, page 27

The conflict between Marxism and anarchism occurred over the question of the state. Could socialism be introduced by a minority either using the existing state or using one of their own creation after a revolution as the Marxists claim or could socialism only be introduced through the actions of the working class itself. Now after the collapse of the eastern block and of the labour parties it is clear that the statist path to socialism is a failure. Unfortunately such was the ideological dominance achieved by Marxism in the period after world war two that for many this signals the end of socialism itself.

The conflict between Marxism and Anarchism in the first international ended bitterly. At a conference rigged through Marx's control of the standing orders committee Bakunin and two other leading anarchists were expelled on a variety of bizarre charges. Marx moved the international to New York where it promptly died. The Anarchist sections of the international continued to meet for several years and were later to reform as the IWA which is still with us today. In the interim the anarchists built mass revolutionary unions, Marxism turned almost completely to reformism with only a tiny revolutionary rump.

Russian revolution

The next significant event in the history of anarchism was the Russian revolution. Paradoxically not so much for its success but rather its failure there and the way that revolution was to shape the left for the next 70 years. If the first international had seen the Marxists and anarchists fall out over the issue of the state the Russian revolution was to clarify this divide in blood. The immediate aftermath of the Russian revolution saw a society were the working class were in control through workers councils and factory committees. The state as such had ceased to exist that when gently pushed in October it has fallen to dust.

In the aftermath Russian workers started to construct a new society, one where they were in control. At this stage they overwhelmingly supported the Bolsheviks for the Bolsheviks appeared to be creating this society alongside them. They had won this support through their support in turn for the workers seizing and running the factories and for the creation of soviets. "All power to the soviets" was probably the slogan that encapsulated the October revolution and it was one the Bolsheviks too had used.

Within a few short months however the Bolsheviks were to destroy the gains of the October revolution. First the workers were denied the power of running the economy through organs they controlled. Instead the state took over. They were denied the right to even locally run each factory, or even elect the management. Instead the Bolsheviks re-introduced one man management. They believed socialism could only be introduced by their party wielding state control and stopped at nothing to make sure their decisions were implemented. As workers left the party in droves and either joined one of the left opposition groups or struck against the new state they were crushed. The Anarchists started growing and they were raided, shot and imprisoned, their press shut and their organisations banned. The militarisation of labour was introduced and strikers were shot, all the gains of the revolution were destroyed in the name of building socialism.

By 1921 organised opposition outside the party was destroyed, its last stronghold crushed in Kronsdadt where those who made the revolution were mown down by the Bolsheviks for defending it. The Bolsheviks even turned on the minority within their own party who wanted limited workers democracy in the unions. Opposition within the party was banned, opposition outside the party had been destroyed. Before long the internal opposition was to fall prey to the tactics it had used to smash working class resistance.

I mentioned the failure of the Anarchists in the Russian revolution. What was this failure. Basically the anarchists knew what the Marxist strategy of state control was likely to lead to. The anarchists in the first international had argued against such a dictatorship of scientists. They were smaller than the Bolsheviks in numbers but they had influence as far back as the 1905 revolution when the anarchist Voline initiated the formation of the Petrograd soviet (and was offered but refused the role as chair). They completely failed to capitalise on this early support and even as the revolution approached failed to build a libertarian pole of attraction to counter act the Bolsheviks. Their growth after the revolution was too late, they were crushed by the Bolsheviks using the state machinery.

In 1927 exiled Russian anarchists living in Paris attempted to analyse why this had happened. They published their conclusions in a pamphlet called "The organisational platform of the liberation communists". basically they said it came down to a lack of organisation unity & theoretical theory so that instead of having one or more national organisations the Russian anarchists were divided into a plethora of small groups. They called for the creation of new organisations with unity of theory and action, where issues would be debated out, agreed and implemented by all the members.


If Russia proved that socialism could not be build through the state the Spanish revolution of 1936 proved that the anarchist method of organising the economy could work. Spain had a mass anarchist union built over the course of a couple of decades. When the military tried to launch a fascist coup in 1936 the members of the CNT led the fight against this coup that defeated half the military forces in Spain. Through out much of Spain the government existed in name only, it commanded nothing.

The Spanish anarchists immediately set about the task of re-organising industry and agriculture not as the Russian Marxists had tried by decree from the top down but from the bottom up. All over republican Spain peasants and workers met to decide how to re-organise their workplace. These meetings elected delegates to regional bodies to decide on priorities for the national running of the economy. Anarchist militias were created overnight to defend this revolution where the officers were elected and discipline was democratically decided.

Anarchists called the idea behind the national co-ordination mutual aid. Whereas the Bolsheviks had used raiding parties to take food from the peasantry and had denied any initiative to the workers the anarchists used a different route. They realised these people had made the revolution, they alone could defend and organise it. When you gave aid to workers elsewhere it was not because you expected punishment if you did not or because you expected something directly in return. It was because you realised it was in your interests to do so, by the same principle you supplied the lemon grove regions with food you were supplied by the factories with nails.

The success can be measured it the statistics so loved by economists. 700 trams came onto the streets of Barcelona where 600 had been. Passengers carried increase from 183 million to 233 million. The real proof is the reaction of the people, the CNT went into the revolution with perhaps one million members yet collectivisation covered 7 million. The CNT was mostly an industrial union, it had only 34,000 members in Aragon, Navarre and Rioja yet here most of the land was collectivised. Millions of non-members, peasants who Marxism had written off as only interested in their own patch of land voluntarily joined the collectives, sometimes not immediately but after the collectives had been demonstrated in practise.

Fascism & Stalinism

From the early 1900's anarchism grew massively in Europe. Syndicalists unions developed mass bases in most of the European countries, commonly they are still with us in name today. But the period between the start of W.W.I and 1950 saw the distraction of much of what had been built. The anarchist organisations that had been built in Italy and Germany were smashed by fascism. During the second world war fascism smashed the organisations of Eastern Europe and France. The anarchists played a major role in the resistance and as Germany was defeated went on to try and overturn capitalism in many of these countries. In the west they were smashed by the allied armies with the aid of the communist parties, in the east they were smashed by Stalinism. This reached a height in Bulgaria and right up to the 70's anarchists in the west campaigned for the release of the survivng Bulgarian anarchists. Most did not survive that long they died in the purges and concentration camps of the Stalinists in the late 40's and early 50's.

This was aso a time when Russan marxism was attracting more and more followers in the west. The russan economy seemed to be booming, they beat the US into space with Sputnik. The anarchists were written out of the history books in country after country by right wing historans and marxists alike. By the mid 60's anarchism was considered almost extinct as indeed was the prospect of socialist revolution. The combination of adherance to the USSR on one hand and the creation of the welfare state on the other seemed to offer no place for anarchist politics.


Several events led to the re-birth of Anarchism throughout Europe. The risings inEastern Europe in '56 and '68 put a question mark over the success of Soviet socialism. The revolutionary wave that broke throughout the world in 1967 and '68 saw many looking for an alternative to the straight jacket moralism of the offical opposition in the shape of the social democrats and the CP's. What emerged was, perhaps best typified by organisations like the 22nd July movement in Paris and commonly confused but it re-opened the discussion of anarchism and put the red and black flags back on the streets. Francos'death in 1976 saw nealy half a million people attend the first CNT demo in Barcelona. The nature of the re-birth was such that as the revolutionary tide retreated many of the organisations collapsed and fragmented but out of these a minority built new organisation and started redeveloping the anarchist idea.

This process is currently being echoed in Eastern europe following the collapse of the regime and its move towards the market economy. There too saw a rapid re-birth of anarchism and the rapid growth of anarchism as compared to any other left current. There too mistakes were and are being made but out of these are arising a new movement. To a large extent we are facing a stage cleared of much of the ideological drudge of the past. The stateist left has collapsed or is in the process of collapsing. It wont' vanish for a while yet but the rump has no influence and for the most part is reduced to a call for past glories.

Anarchism today

We are very much part of that new growth in Anarchism. The WSM was founded by people who had been through several earlier groups and were making the first steps in founding an Irish anarchist tradition. Over the last few years however we have consolidated ourselves and made contacts internationally. We have developed a reputation among activists as being serious and committed.


Internationally syndaclism is by far the largest current in Anarchism. We don't consider syndaclism a complete set of answers but we recognise it as a significant step. We are in contact with a number of syndaclist unions internationally both within the IWA and outside it. These include the Spainish CNT, CGT and other unions with over 20,000 members and the Swedish SAC with some 15,000. Smaller unions and Propaganda groups exist in many other countires of the world.

Outside Europe

Anarchist groups have also re-emerged outside Europe and North america in Nigeria, South Korea, Japan and Uraguay amongother countires.


One consequence of the historical weakness of anarchism in the English speaking world and of the collapse of this weak influence in the post WWI period is that on re-emergance the label was used by all sorts of people well outside the anarchist tradition. To a large extent in the late 50's and early 60's in became devorced altogether from the class struggle and instead came to represent a combination of liberalism and lifestylism.

As a label it just came to mean dropping out and rejecting the present society, it lost its history of working class militancy, fighting back and winning. in Britan the reaction to this came at the start of the 80's with the emergance of groups like Class War that in contrast to the pacifist liberalism of those who called themselves anarchists preached a creed of violence and McDonalds. They representedthe new growth arriving in Britain along with groups like the Anarchist Communist Federationa and the Direct Action Movement.

What makes the WSM different

The WSM is different from any other left group in Ireland. We have little in common with the Leninist left with their obsession with recuitment and slogan mongering and almost nothing in common with the reformist left. Although we commonly work alongside members of these groups on specific interests our aims and methods of acheiving them are completly different from them.

We are also different if not so radically from many of the existing anarchist groups you may have come across. Princaply this is because we place a high emphsis on the battle of ideas, we spend a lot of our time working out exactly what the bosses are up to and how to oppose them. When we decide on something we all put it into practise.

This arises from the historical experiance of Anarchism. Anarchism is a developing set of ideas not one carved in stone by a line of dead figure heads. We belong to the tradition of anarchism that reassed its ideas after both the Russan andSpanish revolutions to counter act the mistakes anarchists made in these events. This tradition is commonly know as 'Platformism' within the anarchist movement after the 1927 pamphlet entitled the The Organisational Platform of the Libetaran communists.

Essentially the lessons this tradition holds are twofold. Anarchist syndaclism is not a sufficent method of overthrowing capitalism. As well as seizing the economic base of society as the syndaclists did in Spain it is necessary to physically smash the government as they did not. They belived that once the control of the economy was in the hands of the workers all that was needed was to fight off the thrashings of the dying ruling class. We do not, like the Friends of Durruti who opposed the CNT on this very issue we say.

Secondly a large loose organisation is not enough. What is needed in an organisation based around tacticl and theoretical unity where disagreements are argued out and position adopted rather than ignored. The loose organisations of the past had difficulty in arguing against authoratarian socialism and at times of crisis were inclined to follow the informal leadership.

Our experience

The test of Activity

The test of any anarchist organisation is in what it does and what it says. Many leninist groups are happy to sit back and throw insults at each other, only popping out now and again for some token involvment. We see particapation in struggle even at the current low level as th ecore to our politics. Particapation alongside activists who do not share our views but with whom we have common aims in limited areas. The purpose of our involment pure and simple is to win gains while demonstrating that anarchist methods are a practable means of struggle.

TUUAP & unions

The trade unions are central to out politics. Not because we think they are revolutionary but because they are a body which unites most Irish workers even if in a distorted way. They represent a collective recognition of the class struggle, unions exist as a recognition that bosses and wokers have contradictory interests.

The unions are however controlled by a bureaucracy that is un accountable to the membership. In most unions it is difficult if not impossable for the members to alter policy. On top of this bureaucrats are paid huge amounts in comparison to those they represent so that their life style resembles the bosses more than it does the workers. Add to this the fact that increasing numbers of union officals have no experiance of working on thes hop floor at all but instead come straing out of industral relations school or student unions.

Its of little surprise that the bureaucracy can sometimes almost be as big a problem as the management. We work to counter all these things and to make unions more democratic by building links beween shop stewards and union activists which can go around the bureaucracy and oppose it. At the momet we are involved in Trade Union Fightback a grouping of union activists who oppose the Plan for Competitivness and simiar deals. In the last two deals this group managed to co-ordiante considerable rank and file opposition.

We also get involved in strike support groups like the recent Pat the Baker one. Our aim in this sort of involvment is not only to help win the strike but also build confidence among activists and demonstrate that workers can run campaigns etc for ourselves. In short we aim to move away from dependance on any elite, bureaucratic or revolutionary.


Although we see the unions and workplace as central to our politics we also see it as vital to get involved in issues affecting the wider community. In recent years we were involved in the founding of the Dublin Abortion Information Capaign. This provides an example of what it is possable for a samll group of revolutionaries to acheive.

At the time of its setting up we were the only far left group willing involved. Presumable the others did not see abortion rights as an immediate issue for recruitment. DIAC leaflettted in O'Connel st about once a month giving out 'illegal' abortion information. When the X case occured two years ago DIAC was out leafletting that Saturday and so in a position to act immediately. It called pickets for the following week and a march on that Saturday. This march saw some 15,000 particapate in and arguably resulted in the overturn of the injunction.

Publications & meetings

Anarchism is about ideas as well as action, in fact the two are intertwined. As well as our activity demonstrating the practicality of anarchist methods of struggle we also belive its important to publisice anarchist history and theory. Meetings such as these are one such forum but we also produce a regular magazine called Workers Solidarity. In the future we will be producing a more theoretical magazine aimed at developing and discussing anarchist theory. Our aim with all these is to stir away from the turgid jargon and mantra repeating of the marxist left and instead present our ideas in clear language.

International work

An Irish revolution would have no hope of succeeding on its own, capital is now multi-national and the fight of the workingclass against it has to regardless of natioanl boundaries. We are regualar contact with 45 other anarchist organisations around the world covering every continent. Our long term aim is to beome part of an international grouping or organisation. One concrete activity we are involved in is solidarity action with comrades in other countires who come under state harassment. This involves protest letters and embassy pickets and over the last year has included Nepal, Nigeria, Ukraine, Russia and Peru. In addition to this we also have a solidarity fund for aiding anarchists particulalry in the third world with printing costs, legal fees and supporting the dependants of prisoners.

Making the future

That sums up perhaps what we see as anarchism and gives some clue as to how wesee the anarchist movement developing. A revolution is possible and oppertunities for revolution will be thrown up within a couple of decades. Its success will depend on the level of working class organisation and a widespread support for the project of building an anarchist society. The work we are doing today is aimed at both these things, to build up the level of working class self activity and to promote the idea ofanarchism in general. In fact these two go hand in hand. Every individual has a contribution to make in this process and we hope you will look at anarachism in general, our politics in particual and joinus in this project.

text of a talk delivered in 1994 to a WSM meeting

WORDS Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )


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