The specter of noble anarchism

Are they noble or authoritarian?

In a recent article, Gabriel Kuhn engages with an essay titled ”Anarchism, The Revolutionary Movement of the Twenty-First Century”, written by David Graeber and Andrej Grubacic in 2004. In the essay, Graeber and Grubacic herald the beginning of an ”anarchist century”, by looking at some contemporary trends in social movements and radical politics. They trace the outline of a “movement of movements”, which they identify with a form of “small-a anarchism”, that moves beyond specific anarchist and mass organizations, and works primarily through a hollowing out of the state rather than attacking it head on. Kuhn questions this assertion on several grounds.

Kuhn’s article is a welcome contribution to a much needed conversation about what anarchism could be today and going forward, and about the role of anarchists in ongoing social movements. My intention here is not to defend the original essay, Grubacic has already written a clarification and knows better than me exactly what the intent and meaning of the essay was. Rather, I’d like to grapple with the content of Kuhns text, in relation to how I understand Graeber’s and Grubacic’s article as well as anarchism in general. Because while on some level I think I agree with Kuhn, I find that the way he sets up his argument leaves me somewhat confused and unconvinced.

Kuhn critiques the “movementism” championed by Graeber and Grubacic as somewhat aimless, and calls into question whether this process of a rupture-less “hollowing out” is viable. Kuhn also questions the notion that we’re seeing a resurgent ”anarchic” wave of social movements, and instead points to growing fascist and reactionary presence in mainstream politics and social struggles. He finally asks if we are really making the kind of progress the authors seem to gleam in their essay.

Kuhn states that “[o]verall, anarchism’s historical influence has been much greater than often assumed”, and goes on to say that “[w]hile anarchism’s reformist legacy is strong, its revolutionary legacy is weak”. The confusing choice of wording aside – contributing to progressive reforms through direct action should not be conflated with reformism – there is truth to this statement, but it also sets us up for the most concerning part of Kuhn’s argument.

Kuhn writes that “[a]n important factor is that anarchists – for noble reasons – refuse to take on a role that revolutionary events often require”. This is a rather remarkable statement from someone who I think views anarchism favorably. For me, almost entirely to the contrary, anarchism is attractive exactly because it opens up a space of immediate action and analysis and doesn’t shy away from tackling problems head on and at their root.

What are these roles often “required” during revolutionary events which anarchists refuse to take on? It is a mystery to me, unless one construes anarchist refusal to take over state machinery or organize in hierarchical manner as a sign of nobility, and not a conscious strategy based on analysis and observations of what is effective and what has the potential to prefigure the desired outcomes.

The only clue we get is a quotation from Friedrich Engels’ polemic text “On Authority”. Originating as it did, in the midst of the conflict and collapse embroiling the First International, it is a text which treats its subject matter as a weapon to hurl at perceived enemies, and not as a matter for honest exploration. A full critique of “On Authority” is beyond the scope of this text, but needless to say, in it Engels makes some seriously damning conflations of force and authority, and the arguments were rightfully rejected wholesale by the fledgling anarchist movement of the time.

Anarchists cannot subscribe to authoritarian notions of revolution, this much is true. But that does not mean anarchists in general can be said to shy away from upheaval, ruptures, and violent self-defense. Rather, the point is how these things are organized in order to reproduce autonomy instead of top-down authoritarian structures. Defending yourself from attacks, and dismantling hierarchical and oppressive social relations, is in no meaningful way authoritarian or un-anarchist.

Kuhn then turns to Rojava and the (at least partial) success of the revolutionary struggles in that area. He notes that many “movementist” anarchists – including Graeber and Grubacic – have followed this struggle with excitement, while the values and methods of the Rojava revolution do not align with the impetus of movementism, with “parties, cadres, strategy, and grand theory”. It seems strange to me to first characterize the authors’ position as purely “movementist”, and then pointing out their inconsistency in supporting the Kurdish struggle.

If anything, this shows that they indeed do support movements that violently defend themselves, and acknowledge that ruptures can play an important part in revolutionary theory and practice. It also goes without saying that it makes no sense to only support movements that already fully align with whatever theory or practice one subscribes to. It is not only possible, but in my opinion necessary to support potentially liberating movements with all their faults. Of course, doing so more or less critically, and from an anarchist perspective, by supporting the self-organizing impulses within them, and not the leaders or processes of hierarchical ossification.

This last remark also points to a bigger general issue with Kuhns argument. He seems concerned with a tendency to neglect things like strategy and grand theory, on the part of the alleged movementists. But the very essay Kuhn refers to explicitly states that one of the problems of contemporary anarchism is the “overlooking of the effectiveness of theory“, and critiques a “reluctance to go beyond developing small-scale forms of organization” as part of its “political visions”.

It seems like Kuhn is describing the most extreme version of gradualist, spontaneist movementism, and not only presenting this as the authors’ position, but also goes on to substitute it for a general problem within anarchism. I don’t know about Kuhn, but I couldn’t name a single anarchist that subscribes to this exact position – a wholesale rejection of revolutionary ruptures, strategy, or larger political visions. Which isn’t to say that these things don’t need a lot of focus going forward.

Kuhn writes that anarchists “need to present models of revolution that differ from the Leninist one but are more substantial than the hope for some kind of historical magic”. Yes, absolutely. But isn’t that what anarchists have always tried to do? At times, it is hard to tell if Kuhn is lamenting an unfortunate development within parts of the anarchist movement, or confirming that anarchism as a whole is inevitably unable to grapple with concepts of power and revolution.

Part of this confusion, I think, stems from trying to measure anarchism by the yardstick of authoritarian ideology as well as contemporary statist and capitalist society. In this sense, anarchism is doomed to failure for the time being, because it aims to dismantle social hierarchies, not use some of them to alleviate others, or manage them all in a kinder way. But this is how movements for radical social change always fare – they lose, and lose, and lose – until they win. And until such a time, the victories of anarchism and anarchic practices will be submerged under the logic of hierarchical society, often hidden in plain sight in the everyday struggles and practices of people.

Kuhn ends by underlining the importance of anarchist organizations and anarchist ideas, which is great, but then, once again, undermines this emphasis by saying that “[a]narchists will in all likelihood not lead a revolution in the near future – or ever, considering the paradox implicit in the idea itself”, sounding much like one of the pure “movementists” he is critiquing.

What I personally take away from Graeber’s and Grubacic’s text is the observation of a real trend in social movements, with a shift of focus from mass organizations to a slightly more nebulous “movement of movements”. A trend that is somewhat exaggerated in my opinion, and one they extrapolate too far in terms of seeing it mostly replacing larger explicitly anarchist organizations or “anarchic” unions like the IWW. But a trend nevertheless, for better or for worse.

Here, there is an opening which it would serve us well to fill with discussions about how this shift has affected social struggles, and how the small-a anarchism in social movements could relate to explicit anarchist organizations and other mass organizations – something that for instance both platformists and anarcho-syndicalists have grappled with. Kuhn opens that door with his remarks, and adds valuable insights, but never truly steps inside. Will anarchists never lead or be a significant part of a revolution? Arguably, we already have, and we might yet in the future. But for that to happen, the specter of movementism as well as that of noble anarchism has to be exorcised.