In this installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of my anthology of anarchist writings, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss how movements against nuclear proliferation and the draft in the early to late 1960s helped turn some people towards anarchism, as they came to see the role of the state in perpetuating rather than resolving conflict.
Resisting the Nation State
The anti-war movements in Europe and North America that began to emerge during the late 1950s started as “Ban the Bomb” or anti-nuclear peace movements, the primary aim of which was to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons. These movements began to adopt a more expansive anti-war approach as draft resistance movements also began to emerge, first in France in response to the war in Algeria, and then in the U.S. as the war in Vietnam escalated and intensified.
Many people in the various peace movements were pacifists. Some of them began to move towards an anarchist position as they came to realize that the banning of nuclear weapons was either unlikely or insufficient given the existing system of international power relations. Many came to agree with Randolf Bourne that “war is the health of the state” and became advocates of non-violent revolution, for one “cannot crusade against war without crusading implicitly against the State” (Volume Two, Selection 34).
Veteran anarchists, such as Vernon Richards, despite recognizing the limitations of peace marches, realized that for “some the very fact of having broken away from the routine pattern of life to take part” in a march, and “for others the effort of will needed to join a demonstration for the first time in their lives, are all positive steps in the direction of ‘rebellion’ against the Establishment,” for there “are times when the importance of an action is for oneself” (Volume Two, Selection 33).
Some of the people opposed to conscription in France and the U.S. also gravitated toward anarchism, as they came to realize not only that meaningful draft resistance was illegal, thereby making them criminals, but also the degree to which those in positions of power were prepared to use force not only against their “external” enemies but against their own people to prevent the undermining of their authority. As Jean Marie Chester wrote in France in the early 1960s, the young draft resisters had, “through their refusal, unwittingly stumbled upon anarchism” (Volume Two, Selection 31).
Unlike more conventional conceptions of civil disobedience, where demonstrators emphasize that their disobedience is an extraordinary reaction to an extreme policy, accepting the punishment meted out to them because they do not want to challenge the legitimacy of authority in general, anarchist disobedience and direct action suffer from no such contradictions but instead seek to broaden individual acts of disobedience into rejection of institutional power by encouraging people to question authority in all its aspects. From individual acts of revolt and protest, and experience of the repressive measures the State is prepared to resort to in response, will come a growing recognition of the illegitimacy of State power and the hierarchical and exploitative relationships which that power protects. As the Dutch Provos put it, the “means of repression” the authorities “use against us” will force them “to show their real nature,” making “themselves more and more unpopular,” ripening “the popular conscience… for anarchy” (Volume Two, Selection 50).
During the 1960s, anarchist ideas were reintroduced to student rebels, anti-war protesters, environmentalists and a more restless general public by people like Murray Bookchin (Volume Two, Selection 48), Daniel Guérin (Volume Two, Selection 49), the Cohn-Bendit brothers (Volume Two, Selection 51), Jacobo Prince (Volume Two, Selection 52), Nicolas Walter (Volume Two, Selection 54) and Noam Chomsky (Volume Two, Selection 55). While libertarian socialist intellectuals such as Claude Lefort from the Socialisme ou Barbarie group, who came from a Marxist background, regarded the anarchist ideas and actions of the student radicals of the May-June 1968 events in France as the “brilliant invention” of “naïve prodigies,” the Cohn-Bendit brothers, who were directly involved, replied that, to the contrary, those events were “the result of arduous research into revolutionary theory and practice,” marking “a return to a revolutionary tradition” that the Left had long since abandoned, namely anarchism (Volume Two, Selection 51).