Anarchist FAQ/What is Anarchism?/3

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A.3 What types of anarchism are there?

One thing that soon becomes clear to any one interested in anarchism is that there is not one single form of anarchism. Rather, there are different schools of anarchist thought, different types of anarchism which have many disagreements with each other on numerous issues. These types are usually distinguished by tactics and/or goals, with the latter (the vision of a free society) being the major division.

This means that anarchists, while all sharing a few key ideas, can be grouped into broad categories, depending on the economic arrangements that they consider to be most suitable to human freedom. However, all types of anarchists share a basic approach. To quote Rudolf Rocker:

   "In common with the founders of Socialism, Anarchists demand the abolition of all economic monopolies and the common ownership of the soil and all other means of production, the use of which must be available to all without distinction; for personal and social freedom is conceivable only on the basis of equal economic advantages for everybody. Within the Socialist movement itself the Anarchists represent the viewpoint that the war against capitalism must be at the same time a war against all institutions of political power, for in history economic exploitation has always gone hand in hand with political and social oppression. The exploitation of man by man and the domination of man over man are inseparable, and each is the condition of the other." [Anarcho-Syndicalism, pp. 62-3] 

It is within this general context that anarchists disagree. The main differences are between "individualist" and "social" anarchists, although the economic arrangements each desire are not mutually exclusive. Of the two, social anarchists (communist-anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists and so on) have always been the vast majority, with individualist anarchism being restricted mostly to the United States. In this section we indicate the differences between these main trends within the anarchist movement. As will soon become clear, while social and individualist anarchists both oppose the state and capitalism, they disagree on the nature of a free society (and how to get there). In a nutshell, social anarchists prefer communal solutions to social problems and a communal vision of the good society (i.e. a society that protects and encourages individual freedom). Individualist anarchists, as their name suggests, prefer individual solutions and have a more individualistic vision of the good society. However, we must not let these difference cloud what both schools have in common, namely a desire to maximise individual freedom and end state and capitalist domination and exploitation.

In addition to this major disagreement, anarchists also disagree over such issues as syndicalism, pacifism, "lifestylism," animal rights and a whole host of other ideas, but these, while important, are only different aspects of anarchism. Beyond a few key ideas, the anarchist movement (like life itself) is in a constant state of change, discussion and thought -- as would be expected in a movement that values freedom so highly.

The most obvious thing to note about the different types of anarchism is that "[n]one are named after some Great Thinker; instead, they are invariably named either after some kind of practice, or, most often, organisational principle . . . Anarchists like to distinguish themselves by what they do, and how they organise themselves to go about doing it." [David Graeber, Fragments of An Anarchist Anthropology, p. 5] This does not mean that anarchism does not have individuals who have contributed significantly to anarchist theory. Far from it, as can be seen in section A.4 there are many such people. Anarchists simply recognise that to call your theory after an individual is a kind of idolatry. Anarchists know that even the greatest thinker is only human and, consequently, can make mistakes, fail to live up to their ideals or have a partial understanding of certain issues (see section H.2 for more discussion on this). Moreover, we see that the world changes and, obviously, what was a suitable practice or programme in, say, industrialising France of the 1840s may have its limitations in 21st century France!

Consequently, it is to be expected that a social theory like anarchism would have numerous schools of thought and practice associated with it. Anarchism, as we noted in section A.5, has its roots in the struggles of working class people against oppression. Anarchist ideas have developed in many different social situations and, consequently, have reflected those circumstances. Most obviously, individualist anarchism initially developed in pre-industrial America and as a result has a different perspective on many issues than social anarchism. As America changed, going from a predominantly pre-capitalist rural society to an industrialised capitalist one, American anarchism changed:

   "Originally the American movement, the native creation which arose with Josiah Warren in 1829, was purely individualistic; the student of economy will easily understand the material and historical causes for such development. But within the last twenty years the communist idea has made great progress, owning primarily to that concentration in capitalist production which has driven the American workingman [and woman] to grasp at the idea of solidarity, and, secondly, to the expulsion of active communist propagandists from Europe." [Voltairine de Cleyre, The Voltairine de Cleyre Reader, p. 110] 

Thus rather than the numerous types of anarchism being an expression of some sort of "incoherence" within anarchism, it simply shows a movement which has its roots in real life rather than the books of long dead thinkers. It also shows a healthy recognition that people are different and that one person's dream may be another's nightmare and that different tactics and organisations may be required at different social periods and struggles. So while anarchists have their preferences on how they think a free society will, in general, be like and be created they are aware that other forms of anarchism and libertarian tactics may be more suitable for other people and social circumstances. However, just because someone calls themselves or their theory anarchism does not make it so. Any genuine type of anarchism must share the fundamental perspectives of the movement, in other words be anti-state and anti-capitalist.

Moreover, claims of anarchist "incoherence" by its critics are usually overblown. After all, being followers of Marx and/or Lenin has not stopped Marxists from splitting into numerous parties, groups and sects. Nor has it stopped sectarian conflict between them based on whose interpretation of the holy writings are the "correct" ones or who has used the "correct" quotes to bolster attempts to adjust their ideas and practice to a world significantly different from Europe in the 1850s or Russia in the 1900s. At least anarchists are honest about their differences!

Lastly, to put our cards on the table, the writers of this FAQ place themselves firmly in the "social" strand of anarchism. This does not mean that we ignore the many important ideas associated with individualist anarchism, only that we think social anarchism is more appropriate for modern society, that it creates a stronger base for individual freedom, and that it more closely reflects the sort of society we would like to live in.