Anarchy In The UK — and elsewhere. (An analysis of ANARCHISM: a much misunderstood political philosophy)
By Ian R Thorpe
An outbreak of rioting, violence and looting in Britain’s inner city communities in August 2011 was described by the media as anarchy. But to dismiss what was simple criminality as anarchy disrespects a well thought our political philosophy. In the real world anarchism would be unworkable as a system of government but the ideas it offers us are a powerful antidote to the control freakery of the political and corporate establishment. The term anarchism which describes a social system based on anarchy, without formal and hierarchic government (no monarchs, oligarchs etc…) is derived from two Greek words, an archos which together mean “without a chief or head.” Anarchism was one of the most radical and influential political philosophies to develop in Europe during the 19th century. The defining ideal of anarchism is that government should be abolished in order to allow human communities to flourish in a state of anarchy, without the constraint of authoritarian oversight. Another belief of anarchist is that the people should be allowed to live in free associations, sharing work and its products.
Although the practical beginnings of anarchy as a political movement came in the 19th century, anarchism has theoretical roots in the writings of two English social reformers of the period know as “The Age Of Reason. These were Gerrard Winstanley and William Godwin. Winstanley was a 17th-century agricultural reformer who believed that land should be divided among all the people. At the time the opposite was happening; as a result of the enclosures acts peasant farmers were being deprived of the common land on whish their sheep, goats and pigs cattle had grazed and foraged for centuries (The other slaves) The other,Godwin, in a book entitled ‘An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice’ (1793), argued that authority is unnatural and that social evils arise and exist because people are not free to live their lives according to the dictates of reason. He might have been disappointed had this been put into practice because not only were the majority of poor people uneducated and thus dependent on those in authority, the priest, the Lord of the Manor’s or his baliff or foreman and the village elders, to do their reasoning for them. But it was a good idea on paper.
The term anarchism was coined by French political writer Pierre-Joseph Proudhon who laid the theoretical foundations of a political movement. Proudhon’s ideas were in many ways similar to socialism, though not to Marxism in that it did not put the all powerful state at the top of a many layered bureaucratic hierarchy. Proudhon urged that in place of the unrestricted rights of owners of private property, the people should control the means of production that they use. Instead of government Proudhon desired a federal system of agricultural and industrial cooperatives.
Proudhon’s theories attracted a lot of followers in an era when intellectuals were questioning the old, hierarchic social orders with their rigidly stratified class structures. Among the most influential although few are widely known now, were the Russian radicals Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin, Emma Goldman; Frenchman Georges Sorel; and the American Paul Goodman. These individuals all elaborated theories of anarchism based on Proudhon’s work.
As with all broad political philosophies there evolved many different tendencies covered by the umbrella term anarchism. Some even interpreted it as a call to establish a Trotskyist system and as Trotsky called for permanent revolution and advocated achieving this aim through terrorism the term anarchist has become associated with lawlessness and violent insurrection. Any group of protestors who resort to destruction of property, looting and terrorising the population are quickly dismissed as Anarchists by the dark forces of authoritarianism when in fact they are just criminals. While some more level headed supporters of anarchism claim that out of such a breakdown of social order a new order would emerge others, with more justification, fear widespread disorder and lawlessness could only lead to the imposition of repressive laws and heavy handed policing by an authoritarian government. Though Trotsky showed valid insight into the nature of human societies when he spoke of every revolution being ultimately betrayed because as soon as the accede to government the revolutionaries become the new establishment, clearly the system he advocated would be unworkable and have catastrophic consequences for any society that adopted it.
Some elements continue to insist however that the only means to change society is through terrorism. This type of political campaigning, known as “propaganda by the deed,” appeals mainly to the young or the obsessively insane, the fanatics. It has led to a number of high profile political assassinations over the years. More reasonable thinkers including Sorel and Goodman, tried to combine the goals of anarchism with those of trade unions in an ideology dubbed anarcho-syndicalism, or revolutionary syndicalism. The main tool of this movement was the general strike, by which anarcho-syndicalists hoped to achieve their goal of abolishing capitalism and the state and of establishing organized worker production units. Economic and social change brought about by the Industrial Revolution led to an explosion of political theories such as anarchism, communism, and socialism, as well as to modern liberalism (not the crypto liberalism of the politically correct left but the traditional liberalism that flourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The three main movements of the political left were at first united by their basic desire to overthrow the existing political order. the anarchists however soon split from the others when it became clear the communists and socialists of the Labour movement were moving towards replacing the old all — powerful elites with an all — powerful central state. While the communists and socialists wished to take control of the state and through that control impose their ideas, the anarchists wished to abolish the state altogether. Anarchism continued as a mass movement until the end of World War II. It was especially strong in Spain, where anarchists played an active role in the Spanish Civil War.
The movement declined because after of the success of communist in the Russian Revolution it and the victory of the hard line authoritarian Bolsheviks in the wake of the old system’s collapse it quickly became clear what kind of oppressive, tyrannical regime the revolutionaries would replace the old order with and also because of the suppression of anarchists by Fascist governments in Italy in the 1920s and Germany in the 1930s. In Europe’s other great industrial nations, Britain and France, and in the USA, support for anarchistic movements was eroded as liberal governments undertook massive social reform programmes to improve the lives of the great mass of industrial workers. Although there was a revival of anarchism during the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1950s and 1960s, anarchism persists primarily as an ideal, a warning against the dangers of concentrating power in the hands of governmental or economic institutions.
Though myself sympathetic to the ideals of non violent anarchists, small government, minimalist laws and a system that allows as much personal freedom as possible on the understanding that those who step over the boundaries of what is acceptable to the group must face appropriate consequences I have always accepted that a nation could not function with zero taxes and no government at all. There are certain functions that can only be provided by government, certain aspects of individual or group behaviour to which the will of the majority must apply. And there must be an authorised (by the will of the majority) body to enforce such laws as their are and to administer justice. Mob rule is not a fit system for either policing or justice and we must all shoulder our hare of the responsibility for protecting the weak from exploitation by the strong.
Not a new article but one I thought deserved a run out in the current climate, first published on my Philo & Sophia page at Greenteeth Digital Publishing
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