Demanding the impossible: the methods, possibilities and limits of anarchism

A review of Davide Turcato's "Making Sense of Anarchism," and Matthew Wilsons, "Rules Without Rulers," that explores the methods, possibilities and limits of anarchism.

Submitted by Gorko on May 4, 2016

Davide Turcato, “Making Sense of Anarchism: Errico Malatesta’s Experiments with Revolution 1889-1900,” (Oakland: AK Press, 2015).

Matthew Wilson, “Rules Without Rulers: The Possibilities and Limits of Anarchism,” (Winchester: Zero Books, 2014).

The recent works on anarchism by Davide Turcato and Matthew Wilson, far too briefly reviewed in the paragraphs that follow, are rich both in content and incisive commentary. Turcato and Wilson delve far and wide, and do so with great depth.

My remarks will be more critical of Wilson than Turcato, perhaps a reflection of the fact that Wilson’s work is meant to have anarchists arise from their dogmatic slumbers.

One of the themes that both authors discuss, arguably it is the most important, deals with the possibilities and limits of anarchism. Turcato and Wilson begin from divergent starting points, but it is possible to see that both come to adopt similar, if not exactly the same, conclusions.

I would highly recommend anarchist reading groups read both works concurrently and then discuss them in depth. I happily read them one after the other through serendipity rather than design.

Wilson is concerned with the limitations of anarchism, believing that anarchists must honestly face up to these limitations lest the movement, now enjoying an upsurge, once again should peter out. Wilson makes highly critical remarks of anarchist thinking, but these remarks, it must always be kept upper most in mind, are done with the view to rescuing anarchism from its own limitations.

Although anarchist ideas, Wilson recognises, have played important roles in the upsurge of popular and social movements in recent times nonetheless anarchism remains “a distant dream” not because of the usual suspects, propaganda, the state and so on, but because of the nature of hitherto prevailing anarchist thinking.

Anarchism is a distant dream because it “is simply not seen as being a realistic political philosophy by the vast majority of people.” Notice the emphasis upon perception.

It is *seen* as being unrealistic for “the anarchist’s demand for absolute freedom must now be considered at best considerably more difficult, if not ultimately untenable.” Anarchism is *seen* as being unrealistic because it *is* unrealistic.

This is most graphically demonstrated in the case of crime and anti social behaviour, indeed here can be found “the primary reason why anarchism has remained such a marginal philosophy.”

A society, such as ours, that commits crimes of such scale as the invasion of Iraq under those elastic words, “for reasons of state,” has no such problem with crime and a society whose dominant institutions, corporations, are so anti social that they strike at the fabric of society and ecology with by now terminal consequence faces no such foundational dilemma due to anti social behaviour either.

The dichotomy is left unexplored by Wilson.

Much rides on Wilson’s conception of anarchism as implying absolute freedom. Citations by anarchists to this affect, from the classics to today, are not hard to find. But rhetorical flourishes need to be tempered with the reality of debate among anarchists, both of yesteryear and today, over such matters as autonomy and organisation, the platform and synthesism, free speech and safe spaces and the like.

The debate between individualist anarchists and social anarchists on absolute freedom and sociality has been a recurrent theme of anarchist history, and a discussion of the impossibility of anarchism due to absolute freedom that ignores this history, as Wilson largely does, can readily be charged with mounting a strawman argument.

Turcato begins at the other end of the spectrum. Turcato detects a dominate “inclination to accept anarchist oddity as plausible and unproblematic, rather than question it, is common, and has vitiated the historiography of anarchism, from the ground level of factual accuracy up to historical explanation.”

Turcato argues that the historian must ascribe to anarchist history, both of deed and thought, a principle of charity; anarchists acted and thought with reasons cogently drawn, not with naïve and irrationalist impulse. With this principle firmly in mind Turcato analyses the life and thought of Errico Malatesta from 1889 to 1900, years when Malatesta’s ideas of anarchism gelled and cemented.

The starting points of Wilson and Turcato cannot be more stark. Wilson starts with an inclination to accepting anarchist oddity, seeking to save anarchism from its own oddity, whereas Turcato sees such inclination as a violation of the principle of charity.

The points made by Malatesta in debate with autonomists on organisation are worth bearing in mind with reference to Wilson’s strawman. Turcato writes that, “for Malatesta, organization was a necessity of life: organization and society were near synonyms.” Furthermore, “the anarchist society was at the same time the society where organization was its highest, and authority at its lowest.”

At this point Turcato cites Malatesta with force; “if we believed that there can be no organization without authority, we would rather be authoritarian, because we would still prefer authority, which hinders and aggrieves life, to disorganization, which makes it impossible.”

No absolutist day dreamer was Malatesta. The anarchist society is the most ordered and organised because it is in such a society that individuals would together, “make agreements, join forces, distribute tasks, and take all those appropriate measures to reach the goal that constitutes the object of an organization.”

Both Wilson and Turcato, however, agree that “performative revolution” or “prefigurative revolution” is an essential feature of anarchist thought. For Turcato performative revolution, coherence between means and ends, forms “perhaps the most fundamental and universal principle of anarchist action: a non authoritarian society could not be achieved by authoritarian means.”

Wilson also sees coherence between means and ends, what he refers to as prefiguration, as a core feature of anarchism. However, the matter of means and ends needs to be rethought in the light of the impossibilities of absolute freedom. Anarchists “must accept that the ends they seek must be understood as necessarily partial; anarchism will never provide a perfectly libertarian end, so anarchist means to achieve liberation need not be perfectly libertarian either.”

As can be seen much rides on the strawman here. Only a cursory glance of the provisions on tactical unity in the platform is needed to take this for the strawman it is.

Turcato writes that for Malatesta, “anarchists were to strive for the full realization of their ideal, even if anarchy was not an immediate possibility, and whether or not it could ever be realized. In a way, he literally urged anarchists to be impossibilist, in the spirit of Max Weber’s remark that ‘all historical experience confirms the truth – that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible.’”

This is quite of the same temper as Bertrand Russell’s refrain that anarchism ought be “the ultimate ideal, to which society should continually approximate.” The creation of an anarchist society is an open ended process, and the limitations of freedom cannot be known a priori but can only be discerned through continued experience.

So Turcato, in this context, cites Malatesta to much effect; “it is not a matter of achieving anarchy today, tomorrow, or within ten centuries, but of walking toward anarchy today, tomorrow and always.”

For Malatesta, on Turcato’s reading, anarchism is a *method* of emancipation.

Turcato writes, “anarchy was no longer defined, more or less statically, as a blueprint, an ideal description of how a perfect society would be organized as a whole. Instead, it was dynamically described as a method defining an open ended process, which guaranteed that the best possible society be reached, without describing what its specific traits would be.”

Furthermore, “to the extent,” that the process of emancipation in capitalist society, “was informed by anarchist dispositions, and therefore conducted by anarchist method, the result could only be an anarchist society.”

By contrast, Wilson argues that anarchists should pay more regard to what an alternative society would look like through the development of more formal plans of detailed future social arrangements than what anarchists have historically constructed or even been interested in constructing.

Wilson argues that the anarchist failure to do so closes off the imagination, leads to failure to come up with timely solutions to potential problems, and helps to cement the view that anarchism is unrealistic and so cannot inspire revolutionary upheaval.

One can mount arguments against all three of these objections.

Firstly, the development of detailed blue prints in capitalist society closes off the imagination right when it is at its most powerful and far reaching, namely at the moment of emancipation. It is at this very moment that the deadweight of history has been discarded, when the mind is liberated from orthodoxies. What wonder might come to the minds of free men and women? How restricted is the mind of men and women locked in chains and bondage?

Secondly, the more detailed a blueprint of a future society is the more in tune it is with prevailing orthodoxies. The most detailed blue print out on the market at the moment, participatory economics, is not communist for instance. It is *hard* to draw up a blue print of a communist society now because we are so used to conceptions of work handed down to us after centuries of capitalist practice and indoctrination. A society based on remuneration for effort will likely lead to class structure, elitist conceptions of work, and a reversal of whatever egalitarian tendencies exist in the society.

I am interested in the problems of communist society. Telling me now that I should struggle for a society based on remuneration for work rather than need tells me precisely zero about the dilemmas of communist society.

Furthermore, Turcato writes of Malatesta’s ideas in this context, “that after the revolution collectivism would be experimented with in some places and communism in others,” and “so long as no power was established to thwart the process of social experimentation, the method of trial and error would eventually yield the best solution, that is communism.”

The third objection is not a particularly serious one. The Russian, French or any other revolution did not happen because people were inspired by blue prints of, say, information exchange between consumers and producers. Social revolutions are social constructions, and they have social causes. An anarchist revolution, on my terms hopefully an anarchist communist one, will occur, in part, when people imbue anarchist principles and values not detailed blueprints.

I cannot but help form the image in my mind as I write these words of the red guards brandishing the thoughts of Chairman Mao.

Malatesta’s conception of anarchism as method is worth further exploring here. Turcato writes, “In this perspective, anarchy characterizes a decision making process, rather than a specific social arrangement, similarly to the notion of democracy. In either case, it would be a category mistake to require a detailed description of society, for the essence of such positions is that the specific shape of a society be left to its members.”

If we were to be residing in a tyrannical raising objections regarding how a democratic society would deal with the problem of crime and anti social behaviour would not be an argument against democracy. That decision is for us to make, not the tyrant. Arguments for democracy are not and need not be so specific. As Turcato relates, the same applies to Malatesta’s methodological conception of anarchism.

Wilson makes powerful points regarding what he refers to as “social prefiguration.” Wilson argues that most anarchist action today takes the form of direct action such as “summit mobilisations, blockades, office occupations,” and the like. Wilson argues that social prefiguration is a more useful anarchist strategy than direct action.

Social prefiguration is, “the creation of space and processes which fulfil the needs and desires of members of any community, and which do so along anarchist principles of horizontal control and mutual aid, as well incorporating other values which anarchists might well be expected to endorse, such as sustainability.” Wilson furthermore states, “whilst social prefiguration is not *sufficient* in and of itself for bringing about radical social change, I believe it is *necessary, * and that it should be given much greater emphasis within the anarchist movement.”

These are powerful observations, for summit mobilisations and the like of their very essence do not build socialism.

As Wilson states, such social prefiguring, building the new society, quite literally, in the shell of the old, could be done through a federation of worker owned and managed workplaces, and of localist and ecological communes. One could imagine such federations developing from the local up to the regional, national, and international levels.

This should include emancipatory industrial unions, such as anarchosyndicalist unions and the IWW, workers’ councils, insurgent radical democrats within official hierarchical unions and other more traditional forms of libertarian class struggle. This is vital for class struggle at existing points of production is an essential ingredient of social prefiguration in capitalist society. One virtue of direct action, which simply cannot be neglected, is that it helps build up mobilisations and strike activities as preludes to a general strike.

If we were to purge Wilson of the strawman, and the argument due to blue prints, we would have something that Malatesta would recognise as a relevant *method* of anarchism for our times. It would be characterised by multiple social forms; here collectivist, there communist; here a commune, there a union; here a cooperative, there a popular assembly. Through such social construction the dilemmas of future society would be discussed and acted upon in practice not in theory.

What Wilson calls social prefiguration *is* anarchism, and whatever society were to result from it we may justly call an anarchist society.

A society working toward making as possible the impossible.