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Anarchism For Beginners

Anarchism For Beginners

by Marcos Mayer, Sany? (Illustrator)

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During the second half of the Twentieth Century, the ideas of leading anarchist thinkers such as Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin seemed destined to fade into history. But today they are finding new energy and power. Libertarian flags wave above the crowds at anti-globalization and anti-corporation rallies. Anarchist axioms appear in contemporary debates on


During the second half of the Twentieth Century, the ideas of leading anarchist thinkers such as Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin seemed destined to fade into history. But today they are finding new energy and power. Libertarian flags wave above the crowds at anti-globalization and anti-corporation rallies. Anarchist axioms appear in contemporary debates on neoliberalism and ecology. Websites passing on anarchism’s radical principles proliferate in cyberspace. Popular intellectuals like Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Osvaldo Bayer, Noam Chomsky and Murray Boochkin acknowledge in their work the debt they owe to the towering nonconformist figures who preceded them.

The anarchists’ fight against power, oppression and the State, which reached its pinnacle with the farmers’ collectives of pre-Franco Spain, has influenced societies around the world. Vanguard artistic movements high and low, from dada to punk, were inspired by anarchism. In Anarchism For Beginners, Marcos Mayer aided by illustrations from the incomparable Sanyú, takes readers on a journey through the anarchist movement, explaining its principles and documenting its influence, inspiring figures and indefatigable fighting spirit.

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For Beginners
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For Beginners
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Steerforth Press

Copyright © 2003 Marcos Mayer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-934389-73-7


Anarchism Revived

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the rebellion against an unjust world found an opening within the anarchist tradition. The State was revealed as an enemy of liberty. And the libertarians were reborn. The anarchists left as their primary legacy an anti-authoritarian spirit that remained within the culture after the second World War and today has new formulations in theory and in practice.

There are many that think the anarchist movement belongs only to the 19th century, with some resonance in the 20th, but that history has passed it by both in doctrine and in political practice. Today however, it seems to be regaining its former strength, reorganizing, and emerging as a valid alternative for those who believe its history is not over yet.

The anarchists' fundamental belief is that the State or Government is the primordial tool of the oppression mankind has endured throughout history and the reason it is necessary to create ways of living in solidarity and freedom.

Little by little, the texts of Kropotkin, Proudhon, and Malatesta are regaining a relevancy that looked to be lost in the bottom of the barrel of time. And they're leading to new formulas with significance today.

Global versus universal

In activism against globalization (the Buy Local Movement for example), different anarchist organizations are playing a role in an effort to tip the scales, whether its preparing petitions against multinational companies or using the internet to transmit their message.

In reality, the economic side of globalization consists, basically, of getting work done in the cheapest place (usually Third World countries) and selling products where the concentration of wealth is highest. Anarchism has plenty to say about this.

Also, militant liberals apply themselves, dedicate themselves to smaller protests, and to no less affect, by supporting self-management in factories, for example, and promoting worker's unions.

Anarchism has been an active participant in squatter's movements and in the fight against the abuse of recreational drugs. In short, anarchism has been rediscovered to do battle against oppression on various fronts.

Sights set on power

Although he never declared himself openly an anarchist, the French philosopher Michel Foucault contributed, in recent times, a different concept of power that seems to have taken hold in various rebellious groups that attacked different fronts at the same time.

For Foucault, power not only oppresses but produces a certain type of wisdom and control. This presence of power as something that goes farther than just repression made him think of the necessity of finding a way out of this net covering everything. He found it in the private sector; in some ways, the same way some anarchists set their ideas in their federations and communities.

Foucault was not the only contemporary thinker to find inspiration in the anarchist position. Others include some who look to the libertarian texts for a starting point to reimagine our society completely. Such is the case for American Noam Chomsky, who has openly declared he is an anarchist.

Chomsky continues to be one of the intellectuals most critical of the politics of his own country, and has been steadfastly opposed to the United States' invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Web of Webs

These intellectual contributions were made at the same time that a more spontaneous movement of different groups that attached themselves to anarchistic ideals because they no longer saw solutions in the political system and they were disenchanted with the world around them.

The discourse of anarchism has united various causes: that of environmentalism, feminism, the institutionalization of the mentally ill and the treatment of prisoners in jail. As if there were a new need to incorporate all the increasing complexities of society.

At a certain point, it appeared the thread of anarchism would be cut short. The anarchist movement, having risen from the fiery fight for social justice in the 19th century, was interrupted by the advent of Fascism, Nazism and the consolidation of Stalinism that surrounded World War II.

The secret of power is total domination of the government.

This concurrence of powers that reached into every aspect of life, not only obliterated millions of lives, but also a culture and an ideology. Anarchism, which up to that juncture had experienced notable growth, fell in the middle of the fight. It would be a half a century before it was revived and resumed its path.

Proudhon, the pioneer

The foundation of anarchism is a book titled What is Property?, published in 1841. In that work, the Frenchman Joseph Proudhon raises his opposition to any relationship based on economic benefits and postulates that the social contract upon which liberal ideology is based is a charade. The concern should be to preserve one's autonomy when confronted by social inequality and pressures of the State.

In these two famous phrases we find the summary and the seeds for the basis of anarchist actions. And its destiny. The search began with Proudhon, both to achieve the abolition of the State and to find new ways to ensure a just and free society.

Proudhon proposed the basis for what was called theoretical anarchism, in the context of the people's revolution that spread across all of Europe. With the ideas of the French Revolution of 1748 only half-fulfilled, people took to the streets, first in 1830 and again, more intensely, in 1848.

The general feeling was that equality continued to be just out of reach and that the system of political representation was another method of perpetuating injustice. In this climate of discontent, the works of Marx were born, on the one hand, and the works of anarchists on the other, and are the two forms that social protest would take through history.

Bankers without fortune

After the revolution of 1848, Proudhon continued to preach anarchism in several Parisian newspapers, where he launched his plan to set up a bank that would give laborers low interest loans and in this way generate and encourage industrial enterprises that did not depend on a boss.

Proudhon's purported mutualism was reflected in how the Bank of the People functioned. The scanty interest rates that were charged were enough to cover basic costs, but his example didn't catch on and spread.

Despite becoming a deputy of the people, Proudhon's opposition to the government of Louis Bonaparte led the authorities to throw him in prison for three years. There, he thought of a plan for government. By way of the people that visited him, he distributed it to various political parties and persons. But he was unable to break the indifference which the powers that be always held for anarchist projects.

In any case, Proudhon knew that his intentions were doomed to failure. His iron-willed opposition to political parties and the political system forced him to maintain independence, or be tied only to isolated projects such as the Bank of the People.

Proudhon took issue with the revolutionary strategies of 1848. But he always maintained his opposition to the State and any form of property, whether it was private or collective, just as the Communists suggested.

Many have seen a utopian perspective of anarchism in the works of Proudhon. Like all pioneers, first he set goals then he tried to find ways to achieve them. In these first steps of anarchism, political action was barely a theme.

Unlike other anarchists, Proudhon believed that family and marriage should stay the same as they had been historically. He felt the same way about discipline.

In light of this view, so different from the trajectory of anarchists who came after him, it is clear that Proudhon thought only in terms of political organization; to put it another way, he was convinced that society should run its course, without an external authority to interfere with the private sphere.

Criticisms by Marx

The arguments of Proudhon began to become popular with the working class. Marx - who met with him in Paris in 1844 – responded to his book, The Philosophy of Misery, with another whose title says it all, The Misery of Philosophy, where he launched furious attacks against anarchist tenets.

The principal criticism Marx had of Proudhon was his rejection of the idea of class struggle and his failure to identify the workers as the vanguard of the revolution still to come. For Marx, Proudhon used vague categories to interpret society and didn't recognize the true agents for change. This distinction would stand for decades.

Mikhail Bakunin, the road to revolution

The appearance on the scene of the Russian Mikhail Bakunin marked a new stage in the struggle between anarchists and marxists. He was born in the province of Tvar, in 1814, and his parents wanted him to follow a military career. Three years after he started his studies, he was already an officer.

While failing to adapt to the demands of barracks living, Bakunin quickly discovered other paths of study, specifically the study of philosophy, and especially that of Hegel, which is another source, along with liberalism of anarchist doctrine.

Little by little, his ideas converted him into a political agitator. He had to go into exile, but his struggle continued. In 1844, he undertook a trip to Germany, where he became intensely politically active. And even though he is absent from Russia, he is stripped of his aristocratic titles and condemned to life in Siberia.

Building on Proudhon, Bakunin added, both theoretical and doctrinal innovations, as well as revolutionary mystique and fervor. If the libertarian society was Proudhon's concept, for Bakunin it was a reality he urgently wanted to bring to fruition.

The State, the oppressor

Because of his sentence Bakunin chose France as his next destination. There he had meetings with Proudhon and Marx, from whom he distanced himself because of his ideas of a leading role for the proletariat, though they all agreed on the rejection of private property. For Bakunin, any form of the State would be an oppressor.

These differences marked the entire relationship between anarchism and marxism. Lenin said that "anarchism is reactionary," while the libertarians believed you could not replace a dictatorship led by the bourgeoisie with one headed by the proletariat because power always corrupts.

To be against the State was, for Bakunin, to also be against war, which was always the consequence of the oppression of one class by another and the eventual exportation of that conflict over the borders.

War meant, in addition, the moment when the State weighed most heavily on the people's lives, and for anarchists, it meant a way of defending the interests of the privileged using the people as cannon fodder. This political pacifism is another mark Bakunin left.

Voting still falls short

Bakunin also mistrusted the validity of representative democracy given the power differential between the classes. The vote, as it operates in a liberal society, is a way to validate the structures of power and continue to do everything as it is, without affecting the root of oppression.

This position marked a definitive difference between Socialists (who thought that the parliament was a political space to conquer) and anarchists. The difference also hides an attitude: for Socialists, any path to power is valid; for Bakunin, there should be complete consistency between ideas and practice.

Bakunin's revolutionary career participating in the organization of the militant anarchists, spans other European countries: Czechoslovakia, Prussia, Poland (where he was received as a hero). In Dresden, Germany he was taken prisoner and eventually deported to Russia.

Despite his almost constant exile, Bakunin's legacy is strongly linked to the situation in Russia. He began his revolutionary career denouncing what was happening in his country.

The revolution that came in from the cold

By asking for a confession from Bakunin, the czar commuted the sentence of the death penalty imposed by the German courts. These confessions, which were uncovered in 1912, included qualified denouncements by Bakunin himself, once he was out of Russia, as an unpardonable transgression for an anarchist.

In Siberia, he married Antonia Kwiatkowska, daughter of a businessman and twenty five years younger. Many biographers of Bakunin believed that Antonia was a bad influence and that she pulled him away from revolutionary life during his time still living in Russia.

Bakunin earned a living, first giving private tutoring, and later as a salesman. The relative freedom he enjoyed allowed him to resume, in parts, some of his revolutionary projects.

The very possibility of moving beyond the state's custody led him to plan his escape, which he did, by boat, first to Japan, then to California, ending up settling in London, where he starts to write his master work, God and the State.

The Conquest of Europe

Having been away from Europe for twelve years, Bakunin made up for lost time. First he engaged in Poland's struggle for independence from the Russian empire, but the expedition failed. Then he found a fertile place for his ideas: Italy.

The fraternity is clear in its platform: opposition to the state and religion. In 1867, the Congress for Peace and Freedom convenes, which includes, among others, the poet Victor Hugo. There, Bakunin met Garibaldi, while ideas he'd conceived increasingly gained favor with the youth.

He'll pass the ensuing years, between agitating and disseminating his ideas. But his health suffered while his pessimism grew due to the defeat of the Paris Commune and discussions with Marx. He left for Bologna to participate in the rebellion and, somehow, find a dignified end.

He traveled to Switzerland. His health deteriorated. He put on lots of weight and had trouble walking. Asthma makes life difficult for him, even when resting. His memory is no longer what it was. He studies philosophy and listens to Wagner, although he continues to admire Beethoven the most.

The end is near. Doctors diagnose him with a variety of diseases. He no longer can stand up and does not even have the strength to eat. Finally, he died on July 1, 1876, at three in the afternoon.

The eternal solitude of death will not be the definitive end. On the contrary, after his death Bakunin's work begins spreading throughout the world and his ideas increasingly attract followers. He becomes the flag-ship anarchist thinker whose value is recognized even by an adversary as staunch as Marx.

Infinite Freedom

Following Marx, Hegel, and the teachings of their dialectical method of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, Bakunin believed the progress of man is achieved in stages.

History consists of the progressive negation of Man's animal nature.

Based on the method of Hegel's dialectic theory, which is also the starting point for Marx, Bakunin concluded that humanity will inevitably move towards a new form of society.

Another feature of Bakunin's thought is intense atheism, one of the marks he left on anarchism, which is fiercely antireligious and which influenced Dostoyevsky, who adopts his line of thought on God.

The rejection of any form of religion, which Bakunin considered one of the faces of oppression, will win over vast constituencies, including Spanish & Italian campesinos, who have a long anticlerical tradition. In Buenos Aires, for example, the newspaper El Burro was launched in 1930—an illustrated newspaper devoted almost exclusively to mocking the Church.

But, without a doubt, one of the salient features of Bakunin's proposal was his idea of freedom, on behalf of which he justified anarchist's actions. It was never an individual's freedom, but always a freedom based on solidarity.

With this ideal, not always prominent among historians of anarchism, Bakunin's political belief, based on an ethic of solidarity, proposed a concept of freedom that overcomes all individualism: One is only free in a free society.

The idea of collectivization as the means of production brought Bakunin close to communism's ideas. Hence, the difference must be clarified. It is not a question of imposing equality from above but it must be the decision of the entire society.

Here the door opens on the discussion. Should we wait until the citizens become aware on their own or must we address a political militancy? What are the means that will be debated and implemented within the history of anarchism? From violence to propaganda, from unions to elections.


Excerpted from ANARCHISM FOR BEGINNERS by MARCOS MAYER, SANYÚ. Copyright © 2003 Marcos Mayer. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Marcos Mayer is a journalist, professor and writer. He is the author of, among others, Remendios del Paraíso, (which won the Antorcha Prize), The Essential Writings of Che Guevara, Ahora el Humor (interviews with Argentinian comedians), and a critical text analyzing Ernesto Sabato’s Sobre Heroes Y Tumbas. He has written for a variety of print publications, and edited several anthologies. He teaches journalism at the Centro Universitario Devoto, a Buenos Aires prison university where he also runs a newspaper with the inmates.

Sanyú is the pseudonym of Hector Alberto Sanguililano, an illustrator and cartoonist who has been published in the principal newspapers of Argentina since 1974. He has adapted literature to illustrated works, taught courses, been a judge of illustrations and comics, and organized two gallery shows of Argentinian comics and the history of comics. He is the author of 100 Years of Comics in the World.

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