Chapter 3. The Characteristics of Anarchism

Submitted by GrouchoMarxist on April 26, 2012

These aims are characteristic of anarchism, not only because the whole anarchist doctrine rests upon them as a fundamental basis, but also because anarchism alone promotes them and pursues their realization and, therefore, they constitute the essence that distinguishes anarchism from all the other schools of socialism.

If we reduce the antitheses existing in the various schools of socialism to those that distinguish anarchist-communists from socialist-collectivists (these being, after all, the only vital trends of popular socialism, the only ones involved in this controversy, because, according to Merlino, what is essential in anarchism has been absorbed by socialist-collectivisim) this will expose in a much clearer way the exact terms of their differences.

In the collectivist society, promoted (almost without exceptions) by the International Socialist Party, work and satisfaction of needs will be directed by the workers’ collective by means of representatives, administrators, functionaries — in short, by what the socialists like to call the ‘administration government’ — because, after the disappearance of the existing division of society in classes, the political functions of government would have no reason to exist, and the government would be nothing but a council charged with the collective management of the social estate.

In an anarchist society, the free individual within the free society would proceed to take care of his interests personally. To conceive of a government — even if it were a simple administrative government — one must implicitly agree that ”All the interests of the whole people be concentrated in the hands of a few; that a small number of people act for the whole nation; that instead of letting the single individual think for himself, he be forced to submit to the will of those who think for all the people”.

Now all this is inconsistent with the free and egalitarian society of which we are talking.

The contrast is even more violent if the standards with which a collectivist society arranges each person’s participation in work and in pleasure are compared to the standards which would prevail in an anarchist-communist society.

The collectivist-socialists demand from each one, according to his ability. rewarding each ability in proportion to its work.

The communist-anarchists say instead that anyone who, of his free will, takes part in the productive process according to his capacity, will receive according to his needs.

While the collectivist-socialists limit their demands to the finished product of their work, the anarchists proclaim that regardless of the value of the product, the individual worker will be entitled to the full satisfaction of his needs.

* * *

The antithesis of the economic and political aims of the two schools points again to a contrast of means.

While the socialist party promotes “A struggle by trades to obtain immediate improvements in the working conditions — hours, wages, shop rules, etc (reforms) and a wider struggle that aims to conquer political power, state and local administrations, charitable institutions for the purpose of transforming them from tools of oppression into tools capable of expropriating the ruling class (political and administrative electoral competition)”[21] — the anarchists believe that no effective conquest in the economic field is possible so long as the means of production remain the personal property of the capitalists. Reforms can appear to be beneficial for a short time. The worker who used to work ten hours a day in the past and works now only eight hours, the worker who used to earn three lire a day and now earns four lire, feels that he has gained something until he realizes that the high cost of living — inevitable consequence of the reduction of working time and raise of pay — has re-established the equilibrium to the exclusive advantage of the . . . capitalist. But the anarchists believe that to solicit these reforms is not and cannot be a function pertaining either to the proletariat or themselves.

The anarchists, like the socialists, want and urge the expropriation of the bourgeoisie, but they do not hope at all for its generosity nor its philanthropy and justice. Confronted with the violent pressure of the masses trying to overthrow it, the bourgeoisie throws out each day a little of its ballast; it gives up some of its arrogance or it makes some inane concession — paid holidays, laws protecting women and working children, state medicine, etc, but only for the purpose of saving its bankrupt privileges.

That is their business: reforms remain — and should remain — a concern and a function of the ruling class, not of the anarchists, nor of the socialists either, if they are sincerely convinced that the expropriation of the ruling class is an inevitable condition of their economic emancipation.

Consequently, anarchists believe that rather than short-range ineffectual conquests, tactics of corrosion and continuous attack should be preferred, which demand from strikes of an openly revolutionary character more than shorter hours or paltry wage increases; which demand, instead, the experience of a more extensive solidarity and an ever deeper awareness as an indispensable condition for the realization of the general economic strike of a whole trade, of all the trades, in order to obtain, through the inevitable use of force and violence, the unconditional surrender of the ruling classes. Merlino, himself, knows that they yield only to force. Thus, instead of the mere passive and polite resistance so fervently recommended by the socialists, the anarchists prefer boycott, sabotage, and, for the sake of struggle itself, immediate attempts at partial expropriation, individual rebellion and insurrection — actions which usually reap so much socialist horror and cursing, but which exert the most spirited influence over the masses and resolve themselves in a moral advantage of the highest order.

The different standards by which socialists and anarchists evaluate reforms lead to a different and divergent political action.

The socialists believe that reforms are an indispensable and inevitable way to the gradual elevation of the proletariat, and so they delude themselves about the advantages they may realize. They consider the winning of reforms as a specific function of their party, and for this they have given up the most important and characteristic part of their economic aims. Undertaking a whole series of political struggles and conquests, they have had to retreat from the course which they had so courageously taken at first, and they have ended by confusing themselves with the old radical democracy that they had violently broken away from a score of years before.

Their trust in immediate improvements, in gradual gains, and in legislative reforms, was bound to reconcile them with parliamentary activity, since these reforms could be initiated, approved and proclaimed only as laws of the State. This, in turn, had to reconcile them to the State, which would be entrusted with the application and compliance of such reform laws. And this would inevitably reconcile them with the hated bourgeoisie, since only with the co-operation of its less backward sectors could they hope to attain the parliamentary sanction for the desired reforms.

Not only has this deviation led the Socialist Party to disavow many of its original tenets, but it has pushed the party down the slope of systematic concessions, rejecting the action and essence of socialism itself.

For direct pressure put against the ruling classes by the masses, the Socialist Party has substituted representation and the rigid discipline of the parliamentary socialists, who have always sacrificed the general interest of the proletariat to the advantage of their own political and parliamentarian function. And instead of fostering the class struggle, which was, in the past, the characteristic mark of socialist organization and activity; it has adopted class collaboration in the legislative arena, without which all reforms would remain a vain hope. Thus, the need to gain the trust of the ruling classes, whose collaboration was necessary for this work of reform, and of the State, which was to supervise its application, compelled the Socialist Party to renege on the essential aims of socialism; ie, the expropriation of the bourgeoisie and the social revolution. These became on the part of ‘scientific socialism’ the favourite target for the sarcastic laughter and ferocious ironies of its bemedalled prophets.

* * *

Since the anarchists value reforms for what they are — the ballast the bourgeoisie throws overboard to lighten its old boat in the hope of saving the sad cargo of its privileges from sinking in the revolutionary storm — they have no particular interest in them except to discredit their dangerous mirage, for they are sure that social reforms will come anyway, faster, more often and more radically, as attacks against the existing social institutions become more forceful and violent.

Hence, they have always firmly resisted appeals that favour legal action, especially electoral and parliamentary action, because anarchists are convinced that: “In the electoral process, the working people will always be cheated and deceived; that they will never succeed in sending their own comrades to Parliament, but even if they did manage to send one, or ten, or fifty of them there, they would become spoiled and powerless. Furthermore, even if the majority of Parliament were composed of workers, they could do nothing. Not only is there the senate, the king, the court, the ministers, the chiefs of the armed forces, the heads of the judiciary and of the police, who would be against the parliamentary bills advanced by such a chamber and who would refuse to enforce laws favouring the workers (it has happened); but furthermore laws are not miraculous; no law can prevent the capitalists from exploiting the workers; no law can force the owners to keep their factories open and employ workers at such and such conditions, nor force shopkeepers to sell at a certain price, and so on.”[22]

Contrary to electoral and parliamentary action, which requires disciplined authoritarian organizations, anarchists favour direct action by the workers and abstention from political activity.

The anarchists’ electoral abstentionism implies not only a conception that is opposed to the principle of representation (which is totally rejected by anarchism), it implies above all an absolute lack of confidence in the State. And this distrust, which is instinctive in the working masses, is for the anarchists the result of their historical experience with the State and its function, which has, at all times and in all places, resulted in a selfish and exclusive protection of the ruling classes and their privileges. Furthermore, anarchist abstentionism has consequences which are much less superficial than the inert apathy ascribed to it by the sneering careerists of ‘scientific socialism’. It strips the State of the constitutional fraud with which it presents itself to the gullible as the true representative of the whole nation, and, in so doing, exposes its essential character as representative, procurer and policeman of the ruling classes.

Distrust of reforms, of public powers and of delegated authority, can lead to direct action in the struggles of demolition and vindication. It can determine the revolutionary character of this two-fold action; and, accordingly, anarchists regard it as the best available means lor preparing the masses to manage their own personal and collective interests; and, besides, anarchists feel that even now the working people are fully capable of handling their own political and administrative interests, and, made conscious by the experience of past mistakes, they are advancing towards the ultimate forms of liberation — social revolution, economic communism, anarchy!

The antithesis between socialists and anarchists is also evident in the means of propaganda and action.

The socialists need authoritarian organizations, centralized and disciplined, for their legal and parliamentarian activities. Their action lies in the ceding of power by all to someone, the delegate, the representative, individual or group, and their action is therefore condemned to be circumscribed within the choking confines of the existing laws.

Anarchism rejects authority in any form: to the principle of representation, it opposes the direct and independent action of individuals and masses: to egalitarian and parliamentarian action, it opposes rebellion, insurrection, the general strike, the social revolution.

Having thus briefly defined the traits that distinguish anarchist theory and the anarchist movement from those of the socialists, we have only to relate them to the notion of progress.

According to Metchnikoff — and we refer to him because we think that nobody else has defined progress in a better way — progress means a continuous succession of phenomena in which energy manifests itself at each stage of evolution with an ever-growing variety and intensity; the series is called ‘progressive’ when, at each one of its stages, it reproduces all its previous traits plus a new one that did not exist in the preceding phases, and which becomes, in its turn, the germ of a new plus in the following stages.

Now, in the succession of those social phenomena which mark the evolutionary steps of property and the State, of economic and political forms, what place do anarchist-communism and socialist-collectivism occupy? Which of these two doctrines and movements reproduces all the traits of the preceding phases, adding a new trait non-existent in preceding phases, and will be the embryo of a new trait appearing in all subsequent stages?

By solving this first point we will arrive at the solution of the main problem.

Obviously, if it can be proven that anarchist-communism conforms to this definition of progress much more than does socialist-collectivism, one could no longer speak about decadent and moribund anarchism; one would conclude instead that socialism is decadent and moribund. As vitality, energy, and the possibility of realization, are the conditions of progress, so inertia, stillness and death are its contradiction and denial.

For us this demonstration seems to be easy. A mere glance at the historical evolution of property is enough to see the progressive succession of the steps marking the way from slavery to economic freedom.

Greedy and autocratic at its origins, which were fraud and violence, property; ie, the right to use and misuse one’s own things without restraint (and it is well to remember that at that time human beings were among the things owned), knew no opposition nor limitations, not even the need to explain or justify it. It was the right sanctioned by the well-known aphorism: “Blessed be the owners, for asked why they own, they can reply simply: ‘Because we do!’”

But insolent, arrogant abuse arouses anger, instigates protests, ignites rebellion, and dispels the curse from the hearts of the resigned serfs. The gospels, the holy fathers of the church the christian doctrine, brand wealth as a crime, the rich as god’s enemies, admonishing that a camel can more easily pass through the eye of a needle than a rich person through the gates of heaven; Christianity opposes the absolute right of property with charity, as a prize for renunciation, as a token of grace.

Human rights — barely dawning on the horizon of Rome — will, through Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius,[23] take from property as a first conquest, the right of life and death over slaves, and then, reaching maturity, will require that it live with honesty, not offend anyone, and give each person his own due.

Notwithstanding the bloody rebellion of the Anabaptists, property will remain privileged, feudal, lordly during the middle ages, but it will humble itself and will seek to justify itself. Therefore, the fief is the due and fitting reward for bravery in war, or for the political wisdom one’s forebears have displayed in the service of king’s cause, or the church, or the country. It is, above all, the reward for the continued loyalty and devotion of their descendants.

After the rights of man and citizen, the equality of rights and obligations have been proclaimed upon the ruins of the Bastille, a much more profound revolution than the one that sprouted from the Encyclopaedists begins, one that is based upon the substitution of individual effort with mechanical and collective means. And property no longer seeks its justifications from investiture, legal gifts, or rights, but from genius, from savings, from the indispensable co-operation that the bourgeoisie and the capitalists have given to the revolution, from the indisputable improvement of the general condition of life.

Though in real life things have remained unchanged in their essence, what a distance has been travelled in the ethical and juridical field from the old Roman concept of property, which gave the owner absolute right of life and death over his slaves, to the laws now existing in the more developed of our nations, which, by recognizing the workers’ right to security and pensions, sanction the social function of property!

The social function of property, which is after all the pure and plain negation of the right to private properly, was perceived by the Jacques, who rose under Caillet’s leadership in the fourteenth century, crying, “Fire to the castles!”; by Thomas Muentzer’s anabaptists, in the sixteenth century, who in their proclamation of faith advocated “The perfect community of property, redeemed by the spirit”;[24] by Babeuf’s and Buonarroti’s egalitarians who — after the French Revolution had been usurped with impunity by the bourgeoisie, ”. . . mainly because it had wanted to impose one form of government over another, without caring

about the conditions of those for whom any government that considers itself legitimate is supposed to look after and provide for” — proclaimed that the “. . . main sources of all the evils that harass mankind are the inequality of fortunes and private property”;[25] and by the English Levellers, who in the nineteenth century maintained that “The land owners are thieves and murderers who must be destroyed and proclaimed that all land is the common property of mankind.[26]

It was the task of modern socialism — the clear diagnosis and the implacable criticism of Godwin and Owen, Saint-Simon and Fourier, Proudhon, Marx and Bakunin[27] — to point out the horrible symptoms from which all kinds of miseries and pains spring; to search deeply for their causes; to identify and define the social function of property; and to draw from this bold premise the unbiased conclusion that everything must belong to everybody and must present the hypothesis of a world without god, without king, without government, without masters.

But the tendency to blunt the insolence of private property (a tendency that is nothing but the longing of those who produce to be free from capitalist oppression) is not extinguished nor abated by the State and the law agreeing to and accepting some symbolical concessions that say property must have a social function.

Indeed, in the second half of the nineteenth century, from this concession, strictly theoretical and formal, begins a slow and relentless investigation of the institution of private property, concluding with its unavoidable condemnation. Proudhon is the main unrelenting investigator, and, although he has later been repudiated by his disciples in almost all the branches of socialism, the proofs and the elements of guilt collected by him, arise mockingly every time the criticism of private property resumes its destructive task.[28] From Proudhon’s tragic conclusions, the ideal and the movement of socialism were born to present a new concept and to bring to the series of phenomena that mark the progressive evolution from slavery to freedom in the field of economy a new characteristic that did not exist in the preceding phase and that will be the germ of a new evolutionary period in the following phases.