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Anarchism still inspires

Food for thought: books on sale at the recent anarchist meeting in St Imier Roger Wehrli

Anarchists have always been a small minority on the Left. Their history is littered with failures but their basic libertarian ideals are enjoying a resurgence in social movements like Occupy Wall Street.

Anarchism has “largely taken the place of Marxism in the social movements of the 1960s”, according to the American anthropologist David Graeber, one of the intellectuals most quoted by the Occupy movement.

“Even those who do not consider themselves anarchists feel they have to define themselves in relation to it,” he wrote.

That may be wishful thinking on the part of a militant anarchist, but classic libertarian thought is increasingly being picked up by today’s social movements. For example, the principle of “self-management” where decisions are based on consensus and hierarchies are rejected.

Anarchism today appears to be feeling the belated after-effects of 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“In the last 15 years anarchism has been on the up,” says Gabriel Kuhn, an anarchist philosopher originally from Austria.

Kuhn attended a recent global anarchists gathering in one of the “cradles” of anarchy, St Imier in northwestern Switzerland. The event marked the 140th anniversary of the founding of the anti-authoritarian International Workingmen’s Association (see related story).

Kuhn believes that the fall of the communist regimes proved anarchists right to some extent. For the anti-capitalist Left, he says, traditional Marxist thinking has lost its attraction.

“In the 1990s, many people were prepared to criticise dictatorial forms of socialism, but still had their reservations about anarchism” he told

“It was considered utopic, romantic and chaotic. But those same people have since ended up taking over many of anarchism’s principles: a democracy where everyone has his or her say, a horizontal structure, a sceptical attitude towards hierarchies and politicians, as well as the principle of direct action.”

St Imier was a milestone in the initial phase of the anarchist movement, which saw significant numbers of anarchists taking part in the workers’ struggle in different countries, getting revolutionary experience during the Paris Commune, in the Ukrainian Soviets and finally Republican Spain.

But this phase of anarchism is considered to have ended with the Second World War.

From class struggle to social change

Anarchist thought re-emerged among the movements of the 1960s, where libertarian inspiration was strong.

“As part of the New Left of 1968, anarchism changed its character. Cultural aspects took on a more important role. Rebelling against the bourgeoisie replaced traditional class struggle,” Kuhn said.

Anarchism influenced the New Left and was influenced by it in turn, and the movement opened up to other perspectives.

“Economic issues were considered more critically, while attention also shifted to other forms of domination: patriarchy, racism, sexual discrimination and the destruction of the environment,” Kuhn added.

After 1968, anarchism branched out. Generational cycles followed.

“Nineteen sixty-eight was a first turning point, then perhaps the 1980s, with the punk movement, and the 1990s, with the insurrection of the Zapatistas in Mexico, the beginning of the anti-globalisation movement and the arrival of the Internet,” said Marianne Enckell, archivist at the International Centre for Research on Anarchism in Lausanne.

The 19th century vision of a great revolutionary reawakening, although not entirely gone, has now given way to the idea of living life as autonomously as possible.

“It is less and less about change, and more and more an attempt to apply anarchist ideals in daily life,” said Edy Zarro, one of the organisers of the Ticino anarchist publishing house La Baronata, who was also at the Saint-Imier meeting.

The concept of self-management is key.

Everyday anarchism

The self-managing organisations that have sprung up in Italy, Spain and elsewhere in recent decades have been able to experiment libertarian theories. Thanks to their horizontal structure and flexibility, it was possible to integrate ideas from other social movements.

Il Molino, a self-managing social centre that started in Ticino in 1996, was strongly influenced by the Zapatista movement in Mexico.

“Comrades went to the Chiapas region, bringing back new ideas from which we extrapolated theories and practices that are now helping us,” said Paolo Casellini, one of the centre’s activists.

“It is interesting for anarchists and libertarians to adopt methods of horizontal, self-managed consensus,” added Michele Bricòla, one of the editors of the Ticino anarchist magazine Voce Libertaria.

“You don’t have to go far – not as far as Mexico – it’s enough to look at what’s going on in Val di Susa, with the NoTav movement,” he added, which is opposing a high-speed rail link under the Alps between France and Italy.

However, among anarachists themselves, not everyone is comfortable with cosying up with other movements or ignoring authority rather than fighting it out in the open.

Revolutionary practice

Most anarchists seem to have given up the claim to political power that was developed by the movement’s theoreticians during the 20th century,  preferring to network with other social movements.

“Before, we would spout our theories, but now we are here to learn,” said Peter Schrembs, an anarchist in Ticino for the past 40 years.

“In any case, anarchists are such a minority that if they aren’t willing to work with others, they won’t achieve much,” said Michel Némitz of the self-managing cultural centre Espace Noir in St Imier, one of the international meeting’s organisers.

“And it won’t just be anarchists who will kick off the revolution, but also ordinary people. We don’t want to do anything in the name of the people. We are not some kind of revolutionary vanguard.”

Anarchism today seems to focus not so much on theory but on practical aspects, concrete action inspired by libertarian methodology.

As Graeber has written, “anarchism has tried to be an ethical discourse about revolutionary practices.” This discourse is based on the assumption that freedom cannot be achieved with authoritarian methods, and that social change begins with change in everyday relationships.

At the 1872 St Imier congress, a number of workers’ federations from Italy, the US, France, Spain and French-speaking Switzerland who sympathised with the anarchists expelled from the First International set up an organisation whose aim was the destruction of all political power. Its founding principles were autonomy of its member associations, and federalism.

Anarchism enjoyed a certain amount of support from workers in Latin countries, but the anti-authoritarian International as it was known did not last long. For the most part, anarchists were famous for their assassinations of heads of state.

Like most political movements that arose after the French Revolution, many anarchists subscribed to the idea that violence could be a legitimate instrument of political struggle. However there were also pacifist tendencies, one of the best known representatives of this being Tolstoy.

The lurid legend woven around the figures of anarchist assassins along with police repression and the open hostility of Marxists weighed heavily on the libertarian movement.

Only on rare occasions – during the Paris Commune of 1871, in the Ukrainian Soviets of 1917, and the Spanish revolution of 1936 – was anarchism close to translating its utopia into real terms: a society of solidarity between free and equal persons, without any form of domination.

(Translated from Italian by Terence MacNamee)

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