Anarchy in Action

Anarchy in Action

by Colin Ward


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Anarchy in Action by Colin Ward

The argument of this book is that an anarchist society, a society which organizes itself without authority, is always in existence, like a seed beneath the snow, buried under the weight of the state and its bureaucracy, capitalism and its waste, privilege and its injustices, nationalism and its suicidal loyalties, religious differences and their superstitious separatism. Anarchist ideas are so much at variance with ordinary political assumptions and the solutions anarchists offer so remote, that all too often people find it hard to take anarchism seriously. This classic text is an attempt to bridge the gap between the present reality and anarchist aspirations, “between what is and what, according to the anarchists, might be.” Through a wide-ranging analysis—drawing on examples from education, urban planning, welfare, housing, the environment, the workplace, and the family, to name but a few—Colin Ward demonstrates that the roots of anarchist practice are not so alien or quixotic as they might at first seem but lie precisely in the ways that people have always tended to organize themselves when left alone to do so. The result is both an accessible introduction for those new to anarchism and pause for thought for those who are too quick to dismiss it.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781629632384
Publisher: PM Press
Publication date: 01/15/2018
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 872,325
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Colin Ward (1924–2010) was Britain's foremost anarchist writer. Editor of Freedom newspaper and then Anarchy magazine from 1947 to 1970, he is the author or coauthor of over thirty books, including Anarchy in Action, Talking Anarchy, Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction, Cotters and Squatters, The Allotment, and Arcadia for All.

Read an Excerpt


Anarchy and the State

As long as today's problems are stated in terms of mass politics and 'mass organisation,' it is clear that only States and mass parties can deal with them. But if the solutions that can be offered by the existing States and parties are acknowledged to be either futile or wicked, or both, then we must look not only for different 'solutions' but especially for a different way of stating the problems themselves.

— Andrea Caffi

If you look at the history of socialism, reflecting on the melancholy difference between promise and performance, both in those countries where socialist parties have triumphed in the struggle for political power, and in those where they have never attained it, you are bound to ask yourself what went wrong, when and why. Some would see the Russian Revolution of 1917 as the fatal turning point in socialist history. Others would look as far back as the February revolution of 1848 in Paris as "the starting point of the twofold development of European socialism, anarchistic and Marxist," while many would locate the critical point of divergence as the congress of the International at The Hague in 1872, when the exclusion of Bakunin and the anarchists signified the victory of Marxism. In one of his prophetic criticisms of Marx that year Bakunin previsaged the whole subsequent history of Communist society:

Marx is an authoritarian and centralising communist. He wants what we want, the complete triumph of economic and social equality, but he wants it in the State and through the State power, through the dictatorship of a very strong and, so to say, despotic provisional government, that is by the negation of liberty. His economic ideal is the State as sole owner of the land and of all kinds of capital, cultivating the land under the management of State engineers, and controlling all industrial and commercial associations with State capital. We want the same triumph of economic and social equality through the abolition of the State and of all that passes by the name of law (which, in our view, is the permanent negation of human rights). We want the reconstruction of society and the unification of mankind to be achieved, not from above downwards by any sort of authority, nor by socialist officials, engineers, and other accredited men of learning — but from below upwards, by the free federation of all kinds of workers' associations liberated from the yoke of the State.

The home-grown English variety of socialism reached the point of divergence later. It was possible for one of the earliest Fabian Tracts to declare in 1886 that "English Socialism is not yet Anarchist or Collectivist, not yet defined enough in point of policy to be classified. There is a mass of Socialistic feeling not yet conscious of itself as Socialism. But when the unconscious Socialists of England discover their position, they also will probably fall into two parties: a Collectivist party supporting a strong central administration and a counterbalancing Anarchist party defending individual initiative against that administration." The Fabians rapidly found which side of the watershed was theirs and when a Labour Party was founded they exercised a decisive influence on its policies. At its annual conference in 1918 the Labour Party finally committed itself to that interpretation of socialism which identified it with the unlimited increase of the State's power and activity through its chosen form: the giant managerially controlled public corporation.

And when socialism has achieved power what has it created? Monopoly capitalism with a veneer of social welfare as a substitute for social justice. The large hopes of the nineteenth century have not been fulfilled; only the gloomy prophecies have come true. The criticism of the state and of the structure of its power and authority made by the classical anarchist thinkers has increased in validity and urgency in the century of total war and the total state, while the faith that the conquest of state power would bring the advent of socialism has been destroyed in every country where socialist parties have won a parliamentary majority, or have ridden to power on the wave of a popular revolution, or have been installed by Soviet tanks. What has happened is exactly what the anarchist Proudhon, over a hundred years ago, said would happen. All that has been achieved is "a compact democracy having the appearance of being founded on the dictatorship of the masses, but in which the masses have no more power than is necessary to ensure a general serfdom in accordance with the following precepts and principles borrowed from the old absolutism: indivisibility of public power, all-consuming centralisation, systematic destruction of all individual, corporative and regional thought (regarded as disruptive), inquisitorial police."

Kropotkin too warned us that "the State organisation, having been the force to which the minorities resorted for establishing and organising their power over the masses, cannot be the force which will serve to destroy these privileges" and he declared that "the economic and political liberation of man will have to create new forms for its expression in life, instead of those established by the State." He thought it self-evident that "this new form will have to be more popular, more decentralised, and nearer to the folkmote self-government than representative government can ever be," reiterating that we will be compelled to find new forms of organisation for the social functions that the state fulfils through the bureaucracy, and that "as long as this is not done, nothing will be done."

When we look at the powerlessness of the individual and the small face-to-face group in the world today and ask ourselves why they are powerless, we have to answer not merely that they are weak because of the vast central agglomerations of power in the modern, military-industrial state, but that they are weak because they have surrendered their power to the state. It is as though every individual possessed a certain quantity of power, but that by default, negligence, or thoughtless and unimaginative habit or conditioning, he has allowed someone else to pick it up, rather than use it himself for his own purposes. ("According to Kenneth Boulding, there is only so much human energy around. When large organisations utilise these energy resources, they are drained away from the other spheres.")

Gustav Landauer, the German anarchist, made a profound and simple contribution to the analysis of the state and society in one sentence: "The state is not something which can be destroyed by a revolution, but is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently." It is we and not an abstract outside identity, Landauer implies, who behave in one way or the other, politically or socially. Landauer's friend and executor, Martin Buber, begins his essay 'Society and the State' with an observation of the sociologist, Robert MacIver, that "to identify the social with the political is to be guilty of the grossest of all confusions, which completely bars any understanding of either society or the state." The political principle, for Buber, is characterised by power, authority, hierarchy, dominion. He sees the social principle wherever men link themselves in an association based on a common need or common interest.

What is it, Buber asks, that gives the political principle its ascendancy? And he answers, "the fact that every people feel itself threatened by the others gives the state its definite unifying power; it depends upon the instinct of self-preservation of society itself; the latent external crisis enables it to get the upper hand in internal crises. ... All forms of government have this in common: each possesses more power than is required by the given conditions; in fact, this excess in the capacity for making dispositions is actually what we understand by political power. The measure of this excess which cannot, of course, be computed precisely, represents the exact difference between administration and government." He calls this excess the "political surplus" and observes that "its justification derives from the external and internal instability, from the latent state of crisis between nations and within every nation. The political principle is always stronger in relation to the social principle than the given conditions require. The result is a continuous diminution in social spontaneity."

The conflict between these two principles is a permanent aspect of the human condition. Or as Kropotkin put it: "Throughout the history of our civilisation, two traditions, two opposed tendencies, have been in conflict: the Roman tradition and the popular tradition, the imperial tradition and the federalist tradition, the authoritarian tradition and the libertarian tradition." There is an inverse correlation between the two: the strength of one is the weakness of the other. If we want to strengthen society we must weaken the state. Totalitarians of all kinds realise this, which is why they invariably seek to destroy those social institutions which they cannot dominate. So do the dominant interest groups in the state, like the alliance of big business and the military establishment for the "permanent war economy" suggested by Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson in the United States, which has since become so dominant that even Eisenhower, in his last address as President, felt obliged to warn us of its menace.

Shorn of the metaphysics with which politicians and philosophers have enveloped it, the state can be defined as a political mechanism using force, and to the sociologist it is one among many forms of social organisation. It is, however, "distinguished from all other associations by its exclusive investment with the final power of coercion." And against whom is this final power directed? It is directed at the enemy without, but it is aimed at the subject society within.

This is why Buber declared that it is the maintenance of the latent external crisis that enables the state to get the upper hand in internal crises. Is this a conscious procedure? Is it simply that 'wicked' men control the state, so that we could put things right by voting for 'good' men? Or is it a fundamental characteristic of the state as an institution? It was because she drew this final conclusion that Simone Weil declared that "The great error of nearly all studies of war, an error into which all socialists have fallen, has been to consider war as an episode in foreign politics, when it is especially an act of interior politics, and the most atrocious act of all." For just as Marx found that in the era of unrestrained capitalism, competition between employers, knowing no other weapon than the exploitation of their workers, was transformed into a struggle of each employer against his own workmen, and ultimately of the entire employing class against their employees, so the state uses war and the threat of war as a weapon against its own population. "Since the directing apparatus has no other way of fighting the enemy than by sending its own soldiers, under compulsion, to their death — the war of one State against another State resolves itself into a war of the State and the military apparatus against its own people."

It doesn't look like this, of course, if you are a part of the directing apparatus, calculating what proportion of the population you can afford to lose in a nuclear war — just as the governments of all the great powers, capitalist and communist, have calculated. But it does look like this if you are part of the expendable population — unless you identify your own unimportant carcass with the state apparatus — as millions do. The expendability factor has increased by being transferred from the specialised, scarce and expensively trained military personnel to the amorphous civilian population. American strategists have calculated the proportion of civilians killed in this century's major wars. In the First World War 5 per cent of those killed were civilians, in the Second World War 48 per cent, in the Korean War 84 per cent, while in a Third World War 90–95 per cent would be civilians. States, great and small, now have a stockpile of nuclear weapons equivalent to ten tons of TNT for every person alive today.

In the nineteenth century T.H. Green remarked that war is the expression of the 'imperfect' state, but he was quite wrong. War is the expression of the state in its most perfect form: it is its finest hour. War is the health of the state — the phrase was invented during the First World War by Randolph Bourne, who explained:

The State is the organisation of the herd to act offensively or defensively against another herd similarly organised. War sends the current of purpose and activity flowing down to the lowest level of the herd, and to its most remote branches. All the activities of society are linked together as fast as possible to this central purpose of making a military offensive or a military defence, and the State becomes what in peacetime it has vainly struggled to become. ... The slack is taken up, the crosscurrents fade out, and the nation moves lumberingly and slowly, but with ever accelerated speed and integration, towards the great end, towards that peacefulness of being at war.

This is why the weakening of the state, the progressive development of its imperfections, is a social necessity. The strengthening of other loyalties, of alternative foci of power, of different modes of human behaviour, is an essential for survival. But where do we begin? It ought to be obvious that we do not begin by supporting, joining, or hoping to change from within, the existing political parties, nor by starting new ones as rival contenders for political power. Our task is not to gain power, but to erode it, to drain it away from the state. "The State bureaucracy and centralisation are as irreconcilable with socialism as was autocracy with capitalist rule. One way or another, socialism must become more popular, more communalistic, and less dependent upon indirect government through elected representatives. It must become more self-governing." Putting it differently, we have to build networks instead of pyramids. All authoritarian institutions are organised as pyramids: the state, the private or public corporation, the army, the police, the church, the university, the hospital: they are all pyramidal structures with a small group of decision-makers at the top and a broad base of people whose decisions are made for them at the bottom. Anarchism does not demand the changing of the labels on the layers, it doesn't want different people on top, it wants us to clamber out from underneath. It advocates an extended network of individuals and groups, making their own decisions, controlling their own destiny.

The classical anarchist thinkers envisaged the whole social organisation woven from such local groups: the commune or council as the territorial nucleus (being "not a branch of the state, but the free association of the members concerned, which may be either a cooperative or a corporative body, or simply a provisional union of several people united by a common need,") and the syndicate or worker's council as the industrial or occupational unit. These units would federate together not like the stones of a pyramid where the biggest burden is borne by the lowest layer, but like the links of a network, the network of autonomous groups. Several strands of thought are linked together in anarchist social theory: the ideas of direct action, autonomy and workers' control, decentralisation and federalism.

The phrase 'direct action' was first given currency by the French revolutionary syndicalists of the turn of the century, and was associated with the various forms of militant industrial resistance — the strike, go-slow, working-to-rule, sabotage and the general strike. Its meaning has widened since then to take in the experience of, for example, Gandhi's civil disobedience campaign and the civil rights struggle in the United States, and the many other forms of do-it-yourself politics that are spreading round the world. Direct action has been defined by David Wieck as that "action which, in respect to a situation, realises the end desired, so far as this lies within one's power or the power of one's group" and he distinguishes this from indirect action which realises an irrelevant or even contradictory end, presumably as a means to the 'good' end. He gives this as a homely example: "If the butcher weighs one's meat with his thumb on the scale, one may complain about it and tell him he is a bandit who robs the poor, and if he persists and one does nothing else, this is mere talk; one may call the Department of Weights and Measures, and this is indirect action; or one may, talk failing, insist on weighing one's own meat, bring along a scale to check the butcher's weight, take one's business somewhere else, help open a cooperative store, and these are direct actions." Wieck observes that: "Proceeding with the belief that in every situation, every individual and group has the possibility of some direct action on some level of generality, we may discover much that has been unrecognised, and the importance of much that has been under-rated. So politicalised is our thinking, so focused to the motions of governmental institutions, that the effects of direct efforts to modify one's environment are unexplored. The habit of direct action is, perhaps, identical with the habit of being a free man, prepared to live responsibly in a free society."


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Table of Contents

I Anarchy and the State,
II The Theory of Spontaneous Order,
III The Dissolution of Leadership,
IV Harmony Through Complexity,
V Topless Federations,
VI Who Is to Plan?,
VII We House, You Are Housed, They Are Homeless,
VIII Open and Closed Families,
IX Schools No Longer,
X Play as an Anarchist Parable,
XI A Self-Employed Society,
XII The Breakdown of Welfare,
XIII How Deviant Dare You Get?,
XIV Anarchy and a Plausible Future,

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