Blasting the Anarchist Canon


The current online issue of Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies (ADCS) is called “Blasting the Canon,” with articles debating the whole concept of an “anarchist canon,” that is whether anarchism can be defined in terms of foundational or “canonical” texts. I don’t think so. Anarchism is not like Marxism, which must relate somehow to the writings and theories of Karl Marx. It is a collective and evolving product of countless individuals in a wide variety of circumstances.

As I wrote in the conclusion to my three volume anthology of anarchist writings, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, “what I hope to have demonstrated in the material included in this anthology is that there is indeed an anarchist current running throughout human history, from the nonhierarchical sensibilities and social relationships found among people living in stateless societies, to the nonhierarchical and anti-authoritarian worldviews of the Daoists and various religious sects, heretics and free thinkers, to literary and popular utopias with their visions of freedom and well-being, to the radical egalitarianism of the anarchist currents in the English and French revolutions, to landless peasants and indigenous peoples, to artisans and workers resisting industrialization and factory discipline, to artists seeking freedom of expression, to students and draft resisters, to women, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people struggling against patriarchy and heterosexism, to the discriminated, dispossessed and all manner of people seeking sexual and social liberation.”

I was given a maximum of 1000 words in the “Blasting the Canon” issue of ADCS to respond to the claim of Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt in Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism, that there is an anarchist canon, which consists of nothing other than the class struggle anarchism that can be traced back to Michael Bakunin and his Alliance of Socialist Democracy. Van der Walt wrote a rejoinder that was over twice as long, which he has now posted online, in what can only be described as an ongoing campaign not only to redefine anarchism to exclude any anarchist currents which cannot trace their lineage back to Bakunin and the Alliance, but to discredit any contrary views.

Unfortunately, the online version of my brief piece contained some typographical errors. Accordingly, I am posting the original version here.


The Anarchist Tradition

In their critique of the so-called “seven sages” approach to anarchism in Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism, Counter-Power, Volume 1, Schmidt and van der Walt claim that there “is only one anarchist tradition, and it is rooted in the work of Bakunin and the Alliance” of Socialist Democracy (2009: 71). This is the tradition of “class struggle” anarchism, which for Schmidt and van der Walt is not merely “a type  of anarchism; in our view, it is the only anarchism” (2009: 19). This is an extraordinary claim, based upon a historicist definition of anarchism which excludes even Proudhon, the originator of the doctrine and the first self-proclaimed anarchist, from “the broad anarchist tradition,” by which Schmidt and van der Walt really mean the more narrow tradition of class struggle anarchism (2009: 18). According to this approach, the “broad anarchist tradition” is really nothing more than a form of socialism, one which is libertarian and revolutionary (2009: 6). Anarchism, as a distinct doctrine, disappears, subsumed under the socialist rubric.

That there are different schools of anarchist thought does not mean that only one of them qualifies as “anarchist,” no more than the fact that there are many different schools of socialist thought means that only one of them qualifies as “socialist,” although the Marxists used to think so. Schmidt and van der Walt argue that their narrow definition of anarchism makes anarchism a coherent doctrine because differing conceptions of anarchism with contrary ideas are now excluded from the very definition of anarchism. But if anarchism is just a form of socialism, and there are differing conceptions of socialism, then any definition of socialism that encompasses these competing and sometimes contradictory conceptions of socialism is similarly deficient. If only one body of thought can qualify as anarchist, to avoid charges of “incoherence,” then only one body of thought can qualify as socialist.

But Schmidt and van der Walt accept that there are competing and contrary conceptions of socialism, including anarchism and Marxism. If both anarchism and Marxism can be considered forms of socialism, despite their many differences, then there is no reason why there cannot be different forms of anarchism. Just as Marxism may be an internally coherent theory of one kind of socialism, without that entailing that contrary conceptions of socialism, such as “class struggle” anarchism, cannot be “socialist,” so can different conceptions of anarchism be internally coherent, even though they may be contrary to each other to greater and lesser degrees, and still remain “anarchist.”

Marx and Bakunin

Marx and Bakunin

Schmidt and van der Walt then conflate anarchism with self-described anarchist movements, so that anarchism cannot but be the ideas expressed and embodied by these movements, which they claim all trace their lineage back to Bakunin and the First International (2009: 44-46). Anyone who cannot trace his or her ideological roots back to this family tree does not qualify as an “anarchist.” This is a completely circular argument, and a problematic way to approach the study of anarchist ideas and movements.

If anarchism is whatever Bakunin and his associates said it was, then of course Bakunin and his associates qualify as anarchists. But if other people develop conceptions of anarchism contrary to that of Bakunin and the Alliance, then they don’t qualify as anarchists,  even if they did so around the same time as Bakunin, or even before him, as in the case of Proudhon (2009: 83-85). Gustav Landauer, whose communitarian anarchism was heavily influenced by Proudhon and Tolstoy, both of whom Schmidt and van der Walt exclude from the anarchist canon, cannot be considered an anarchist because he was not a Bakuninist. Anarchism then becomes a much more narrow body of thought, from which no significant departures or modifications can be made without risking one’s status as an “anarchist,” much as what happened with Marxism, inhibiting any significant innovation as anarchism must remain within the general confines of its “original” formulation. This turns anarchism from a living tradition into an historical relic.

While Schmidt and van der Walt exclude Proudhon from the “broad” anarchist tradition, Bakunin and Kropotkin certainly did not do so. Bakunin praised Proudhon for “boldly [declaring] himself an anarchist,” and described his own revolutionary anarchism as “Proudhonism widely developed and pushed right to these, its final consequences” (Lehning, Selected Writings of Michael Bakunin, 1974: 100 & 198). Kropotkin similarly observed that Proudhon “boldly proclaimed Anarchism and the abolition of the State” (Kropotkin, Evolution and Environment, 1995: 56).

Proudhon the Anarchist

Proudhon the Anarchist

There are other ways of defining anarchism, including recognizing that there may be different “anarchisms,” which allow for anarchism to be conceived as a truly “broad” tradition of thought comprising different schools, currents and tendencies, something which Kropotkin acknowledged, having participated in the formulation and refinement of anarchist views, including the movement away from Bakunin’s collectivism to anarchist communism, the debates between the insurrectionists and the syndicalists, the disagreements over direct action and propaganda by the deed, the role of technology and the nature of post-revolutionary society.

Later anarchists, such as Landauer, were aware of these debates and participated in some of their own, developing new ideas and approaches incorporating elements from the anarchists who preceded them, often in a very conscious manner, but also departing from them in significant respects. For them, anarchism was a broad and living tradition, always subject to change, not restricted to the general form initially developed in the particular historical circumstances of the First International.

Gustav Landauer

Gustav Landauer

Post Script

Van der Walt’s claim that Landauer does qualify as an anarchist because he was martyred during the 1919 Bavarian Revolution cannot go unanswered. Landauer certainly qualifies as an anarchist under my approach, but he was not a “class struggle anarchist,” in which case, under the Black Flame approach, despite his martyrdom he does not qualify as an anarchist. His economic views were based on Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s mutualism. Black Flame excludes both Proudhon and mutualism from the anarchist canon. With respect to the means of action, Landauer was a proponent of non-violent or “passive” resistance, inspired by the political writings of Leo Tolstoy, who is also excluded from Schmidt and van der Walt’s “anarchist canon.” Landauer did not think much of Marx’s “class analysis” and rejected his theory of historical materialism, which provided the basis for Marx’s claims, rejected by Landauer, that the working class was destined to abolish capitalism and class society as part of the process of technological and economic development spurred on by capitalism (see the selections from Landauer in Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE-1939)).

anarchism volume 1


The Russian Revolution: Dictatorship or Social Revolution

The Russian Revolution

By 1918, the Bolsheviks under Lenin had abolished the Constituent Assembly and were in the process of establishing their one party dictatorship, paving the way for Stalin‘s ascension to power and the end of the Russian Revolution. In the following piece, written by the Russian anarcho-syndicalist, Gregory Maksimov, he argues that what the Bolsheviks were doing, despite their claims to the contrary, was creating a state capitalist dictatorship with its own ruling class, the party bureaucrats who would now form a new class to rule over the working masses rather than leading the people to socialism.

Bolshevik Propaganda Poster

Paths of Revolution

Is ours a social revolution? There are some who argue that a social revolution presupposes a ‘final and fundamental upheaval’, while others prefer to focus their attention on the character and essence of the day-to-day revolutionary movement. But we shall not dispute whether it is the movement or the decisive upheaval that merits the name of revolution. For since the movement is linked with final goals and since both the movement and the upheaval constitute a single uninterrupted process, must we not examine them together when talking about the revolution?

In answering this question, however, we must not conclude that, simply because there has not yet been a decisive social transformation, there has therefore been no social revolution. For in order to call a revolution ‘social’, it is enough that the movement should simply be striving to bring about this definitive transformation. When the question is put this way there can be no two opinions as to whether or not our revolution is a social revolution.

Yes, our revolution is indeed a social one, for the revolutionary masses are aglow with the destruction of the class system; for a countless series of victories have been won by the workers and peasants under the banner of socialism; for our revolution has been a class war. But is it moving along the path towards socialism?

A ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, they call it. But isn’t the organization of future socialism to be founded on the liberation of humanity from class distinctions? Within the framework of this dictatorship, however, we can see that the centralization of power has begun to crystallize and grow firm, that the apparatus of the state is being consolidated by the ownership of property and even by an anti-socialist morality. Instead of hundreds of thousands of property owners there is now a single owner served by a whole bureaucratic system and a new ‘statified’ morality.

Lenin: Proletarian Discipline

The proletariat is gradually being enslaved by the state. The people are being transformed into servants over whom there has risen a new class of administrators — a new class born mainly from the womb of the so-called intelligentsia. Isn’t this merely a new class system looming on the revolutionary horizon? Hasn’t there occurred merely a regrouping of classes, a regrouping as in previous revolutions when, after the oppressed had evicted the landlords from power, the emergent middle class was able to direct the revolution towards a new class system in which power fell into its own hands?

The resemblance is all too striking. One cannot deny it. And if the elements of class inequality are as yet indistinct, it is only a matter of time before privileges will pass to the administrators. We do not mean to say that this inequality and these privileges are arbitrary, or that the Bolshevik party set out to create a new class system. But we do say that even the best intentions and aspirations must inevitably be smashed against the evils inherent in any system of centralized power.

The separation of management from labour, the division between administrators and workers flows logically from centralization. It cannot be otherwise. There are no other words to the song. The song goes like this: management implies responsibility, and can responsibility be compared with ordinary labour? Responsibility demands special rights and advantages. Such is the source of privilege and of the new anti-socialist morality. Hence we are presently moving not towards socialism but towards state capitalism.

Will state capitalism lead us to the gates of socialism? Of this we see not the least bit of evidence. Will the new government not contrive ‘artificially’ to concentrate property in its hands, as is deemed necessary from the Marxist point of view? Will it not complete the class stratification of the country, which capitalism could not accomplish ‘naturally’? And will the emergence of a single owner really ease the task of achieving socialism?

Soviet Show Trial

Arrayed against socialism are — together with thousands of former small and large property holders — thousands of administrators. And if the workers should, owing to the division of the population into two hostile classes and to the deepening of class consciousness, become a powerful revolutionary force, then it is scarcely necessary to point out that the class of administrators, wielding the powerful state apparatus, will be a far from weak opponent. The single owner and state capitalism form a new dam before the waves of our social revolution.

We anarchists and syndicalists —indeed all who believe that the liberation of the workers is the task of the workers themselves — were too poorly organized and too weak to hold the revolution on a straight course towards socialism. It goes without saying that socialism will not fall from the sky, and that only one conception of socialism is not enough. But now, in the midst of the revolution, we must lay the foundation for socialism and create the organizations for the revolutionary struggle and the economy. The plan for this foundation, in order to conform to the plan of socialist construction, must not be centralist, for, as we have already explained, socialism and centralism are antithetical.

Revolution or Dictatorship

Is it at all possible to conduct the social revolution through a centralized authority? Not even a Solomon could direct the revolutionary struggle or the economy from one centre. And if this is impossible for an intellectual, then it is even more impossible for a worker, who is so little versed in the affairs of state. The worker in a centralized state, alienated from his proper way of life, feels like a fish out of water. What he needs, rather, is an atmosphere in which the functions of management and labour are close together or even merged with each other.

The people made the revolution without orders from any centre. They tore power to shreds, scattering them over the vast revolutionary countryside, thereby confronting power with local self-rule. But that splintered and dispersed power poisoned all the soviets and committees. Dictatorship appeared again in the new garb of Executive Committees and Councils of People’s Commissars; and the Revolution not recognizing it embraced it. Not seeing the enemy, the Revolution was too sure of victory and bit by bit put power in its hands.

There was an urgent need for systematic organization and for the co-ordination of activities. The Revolution looked for this but too few elements were aware of the necessity and the possibility of federalist organization. And the Revolution not finding it, threw itself into the arms of the old tyrant, centralized power, which is squeezing out its life’s breath.

We were too disorganized and too weak and so we have allowed this to happen.

Gregory Maksimov, September 16, 1918