MYTH #1: ANARCHISM MEANS CHAOS, REVOLT AGAINST TECHNOLOGY, OR ANYONE DOING WHATEVER THEY LIKE WITH NO CONSEQUENCE
Anarchism is a form of libertarian socialism that opposes social and economic hierarchy and inequality – and, specifically, capitalism and landlordism, as well as the state – and proposes a strategy of internationalist class struggle and popular revolution from below by a self-organized working class and peasantry to create a self-managed, socialist and stateless, social order.
In this new order, individual freedom would be harmonized with communal obligations through equality and participatory democratic forms. This is the opposite of selfish individualism, which is not a feature of anarchism, but of the capitalist order. And to achieve this new society, cooperation is necessary, including a mass movement for change that embodies the features of the society to come: democracy and pluralism, as well as solidarity and humanism, and a revolutionary vision
MYTH #2: ANY IDEA OPPOSED TO THE STATE IS “ANARCHIST”
Anarchism is not just against the state: it is also against all capitalism, all social and economic hierarchy and inequality. A society based on capitalism but without a state is not anarchist; it would still involve exploitation, with one class of people working for the benefit of another. Many ideas that are nominally opposed to the state, such as neoliberalism, embrace other forms of oppression. Anti-statism is a necessary feature of anarchist thinking, but it is only one part. Opposition to the state does not come from opposition to rules: it comes from, on the one hand, an understanding that the state is an institution of elite/class rule, and, on the other, a general opposition to domination and exploitation, of which opposition to the domination of the state is just one example.
MYTH #3: ANARCHISM HAS ALWAYS EXISTED, EVEN IN ANCIENT TIMES
This myth actually comes from the anarchist movement itself, and seems to have emerged mainly from the 1890s. It’s a political myth that locates anarchism throughout history and traces it back into ancient Asia and Europe. But it’s a myth created by a very new movement: anarchism is a modern political ideology of quite recent origin.
Anarchism was a product of the modern period, not the expression of a universal, ageless urge for freedom, and it emerged from within the labor and socialist movement. It only emerged in the modern world, which is based on capitalism, modern industry and the modern state, and the ideological beliefs that human progress is possible and necessary by securing direct control of history and using science: science and rationalism, tolerance and debate, and universalism and human rights were essential to human emancipation.
MYTH #4: ANARCHISM HAS NO NON-EUROPEAN HISTORY
There were no groups in most of sub- Saharan Africa and much of Asia or the Middle East at this time, mainly because these regions were only starting to be affected by capitalism and the modern state.
Once large working classes emerged in those areas, anarchism followed. In the early 1900s, substantial anarchist movements emerged in Australia; East Asia especially in China , Korea, Japan and Vietnam, and, to some extent, the Philippines; as well as south- ern Africa, mainly in Mozambique and South Africa; and in South Asia, mainly in India. In the Middle East, anarchism was mainly a force in the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire. In the meantime, large movements continued to exist in anarchism’s traditional strongholds in the Americas, the Caribbean and Europe.
MYTH #5: ANARCHISM IS NOT ABOUT CLASS POLITICS
All anarchists agree that the struggles of the lower classes – the popular classes, meaning the working class which works for wages, and the peasants, meaning small family farmers who do not employ others – are the forces to change society.
Only these classes have a basic interest in changing society. The ruling class – the landlords, the capitalists, the state managers, the military leaders – benefit from the current system. The “middle class” is too weak to change society, and generally benefits, although not always. The middle class is not just anybody with an okay income: it means middle managers, professionals like lawyers, doctors, teachers and small businesspeople.
Only the popular classes have the numbers to change society. Only exploited classes can make a society without exploitation, because only these classes do not need exploitation to exist.
MYTH #6: SYNDICALISM WAS INVENTED IN FRANCE IN THE 1890S AND DIED OUT BY THE 1920S
Syndicalist ideas were first developed by Bakunin and the Alliance in the 1860s and 1870s, and were first applied on a large scale in the 1870s and 1880s, in Cuba, Mexico, the United States and Spain. This was the “first wave” of syndicalism. It was central to the anarchist wing of the First International.
There was a “second wave” in from the 1890s onwards. This started in France, and lasted into the 1930s. It has sometimes been called the “glorious period” of syndicalism, and saw a massive expansion of anarchist influence in the labor and socialist movements, spanning East Asia, Europe, Latin America, North America and parts of Africa. The movement in South Africa, for example, was mainly syndicalist, and connected to a big rise of syndicalism in Australia and Britain.
MYTH #7: ANARCHISM WAS MARGINAL EVERYWHERE EXCEPT IN SPAIN
This idea, which I will call “Spanish exceptionalism,” building on J. Romero Maura, is totally wrong. In the “glorious period,” anarchists and syndicalists influenced large movements, particularly unions, in countries as varied as Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador , France, Germany, Guatemala, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, the United States, Uruguay and Venezuela.
In a number of countries, the broad anarchist tradition dominated the revolutionary left, even if it did not dominate the unions. In many cases, “the marxist left had in most countries been on the fringe of the revolutionary movement, the main body of marxists had been identified with a de facto non-revolutionary social democracy, while the bulk of the revolutionary left was anarcho-syndicalist, or at least much closer to the ideas and the mood of anarcho-syndicalism than to that of classical marxism…”
MYTH #8: ANARCHISM WAS REALLY A MOVEMENT OF MARGINAL GROUPS, SUCH AS STUDENTS, TRAMPS, CRIMINALS AND THE LONG-TERM UNEMPLOYED
The largest movements in the broad anarchist tradition were the syndicalist trade unions of the 1870s to the 1940s, and the majority of people formally enrolled into the anarchist movement were waged workers. The great strongholds of anarchist power were, in a great many cases, urban industrial centers. The bastions of anarchism in the late 1800s and the first quarter of the 1900s were the great cities of Alexandria, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Chicago, Guangzhou, Havana, Hunan, Lima, Lisbon, Madrid, Montevideo, Mexico City, Porto Alegre, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Santiago, Shanghai and Tokyo.
Anarchism’s first and greatest appeal was amongst wage laborers, where it assumed the form of radical unionism. This is not to say that anarchism ignored the rural areas, where anarchism also attracted large numbers of wage laborers, mainly the farm work- ers of large estates and commercial farms, but also small peasants.
MYTH #9: ANARCHISM DIED IN SPAIN IN 1939 AND ONLY REEMERGED IN THE 1990S
It is quite true that anarchism was at a low point in the twenty to thirty years that followed the defeat in Spain in 1939. As you can see many of my main examples are from before the 1940s. The massive repression seen with the defeat of the earlier anarchist revolutions and anarchist-influenced movements, the rise of Marxism-Leninism, smarter states, and huge mistakes by the anarchists and syndicalists all played a role.
The idea that the movement disappeared and then only re-emerged in the 1990s is wrong. Anarchism and syndicalism remained important working class and peasant currents in many contexts after 1939. This included, for example, important roles in France and Poland in the 1940s, Bolivia and China into the 1950s, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Cuba into the 1960s, Mexico and Korea into the 1970s, with major revivals elsewhere in the struggles of “1968” and the 1970s.
MYTH #10: ANARCHISM WAS ABSENT IN ANTI-RACIST, ANTI-IMPERIALIST AND NATIONAL LIBERATION STRUGGLES
There is a quite a bit more I could say, but let me raise one last issue. The movement was never some narrow factory-based or farmer-based movement, but rather raised a very wide range of issues. Anarchists in Cuba, active from the 1880s, played a key role in fighting anti-black racism and then in the 1890s war of independence. In the United States of America, they actively op- posed racist segregation and organized black workers. The movements in Korea and Ukraine, and in Mexico, were part of larger anti-imperialist struggles – anarchist attempts at a different form of national liberation, where the masses – not new elites – were in charge. Anarchists and syndicalists pioneered black unions in southern Africa, and developed a comprehensive program for freedom.Other key examples include Algeria, Egypt, China, Czechoslovakia, Ireland, Macedonia, Puerto Rico and Poland – meanwhile movements influenced by anarchism or syndicalism like the original Zapatistas, Sandinistas and the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union of Africa in southern Africa were also crucial.
The movement is expanding, and we can expect it to be a major revolutionary tradition worldwide in the next 20 years or so if we do the job right, and rebuild carefully.
But it is perfectly possible the movement can and will throw away its chances, by organizing loosely, rather than in coherent formations with tactical and theoretical unity; by not learning from past mistakes; be weakened by uncritically absorbing fashionable non-anarchist and anti-revolutionary ideas like post-modernism, liberalism and crude identity politics, defining itself as different purely by the violence of its language or actions, or getting wrapped up in bourgeois agendas; engaging in destructive sectarianism and ultra-left posturing, creating tiny anarchist inward-focused milieus rather than an anarchist presence among the popular classes, the masses. Anarchism is from the “beloved common people” (Bakunin), and without them it dies, It must go to the people, merging with the masses and their struggles. Today, anarchism remains basically a working class movement in the composition of its core militants, but can it reach most of the class?
We shall see.
Lucien van der Walt
Anarchism’s Relevance to Black and Working Class Strategy ~ Dispelling Ten Myths
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