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Anarchism and Its Aspirations — Book Excerpt

By AK Press | March 11, 2010

Cindy Milstein’s new book, Anarchism and Its Aspirations, has been printed and is on its way to our warehouse. It’ll be available at the Bay Area Anarchist Bookfair this weekend (where Cindy will be giving two talks).

For those of you who can’t make the bookfair, you can order it now (at a 25% discount!).

Wherever you are, here’s a taste of what’s in store: two brief excerpts lifted from the book’s title essay. Enjoy!


The aim of anarchism is to stimulate forces that propel society in a libertarian direction.
—Sam Dolgoff, The Relevance of Anarchism to Modern Society, 1970

Classical anarchism’s aims were no bulwark against the brutal transformations that swept the globe with the rise of actually existing communism and fascism. Historical forces drove society in a murderous direction. Anarchism did not disappear during this time. Yet its ranks were decimated. Touchstone figures were killed, including Gustav Landauer by protofascists following the Bavarian Revolution in 1919 and Erich Mühsam by Nazis in the Oranienburg concentration camp in 1934. Others died in prison, like Ricardo Flores Magón in 1922, and some committed suicide, such as Alexander Berkman in 1936. Anarchists were increasingly isolated. Kropotkin’s death in 1921 marked the last mass gathering of anarchists—for his funeral procession, and then only with Vladimir Lenin’s permission—in Russia until 1987. Thousands of anarchists worldwide were incarcerated, exiled, or slaughtered. They were victims of repressions like the Red Scare in the United States and purges of radical opposition by numerous Communist parties. As a result, anarchism became far less vibrant, a ghost of itself. This made it difficult for people to discover the politics, further reducing the number of anarchists and anarchistic efforts. It was as if the antiauthoritarian Left skipped a generation or two.

At the same time, the world itself was transformed—but in a polar opposite way from anything that anarchists had advocated. Fascism, Bolshevism, and Maoism; the rise of the United States as a world superpower; the birth of multinational financial institutions along with the “advancement” of capitalism; the cold war with its nuclear threat: these and other emergent phenomena dramatically expanded the forms of domination that any liberatory politics needed to address. Attempts to rebuild anarchism were slow going, but never truly disappeared. In the postwar era, through the 1960s and beyond, anarchism struggled to tailor itself for the late twentieth century. It gained insight from other overlapping or like-minded movements, such as radical feminism and queer liberation, or the Autonomen in Germany and Zapatistas in Mexico. It inspired, both explicitly and in less obvious ways, everything from the playful urban politics of Amsterdam’s Provos to new forms of radical ecology like the antinuclear movement and Earth First! to the British poll tax rebellion.28 While anarchism seemed behind the curve on some issues—the collapse of Communism and the subsequent rise of unipolar neoliberalism, for instance—it continued to grow and develop.

By the close of the twentieth century, the “battle of Seattle” in 1999 was, for anarchism, just one manifestation of a whole chain of reinventions within its own tradition.29 Often seen as the birth of a “new” anarchism, the now-famous role of anarchists in Seattle’s mass mobilization against—and successful shutdown of—the World Trade Organization meetings was more a marker of something that had already occurred: a modern anarchism had developed in a direct, however hidden or circuitous, line from its “classical” past. What Seattle did do, though, was spotlight this reinvigorated anarchism, whether via images of “black bloc” anarchists throwing bricks through Starbucks windows, or explanations of how the affinity group and spokescouncil model worked in practice.30 Mostly, it gave visibility and voice to anarchism in general, helping it recapture the political imagination, in league with a host of other “movements from below” around the world.

The modernization of anarchism is also marked by what at times seems an almost dizzying array of different emphases. This increasing multiplicity is frequently a healthy development, challenging anarchism to remain germane to today’s world, and draw its reconstructive visions from potentialities within the present. Yet anarchism is not immune from the increasing fragmentation and immediacy, among other conditions, that characterize much of contemporary capitalist society. It is just as damaged by the phenomena it decries. Even as anarchists advocate a community of communities, they are, like most people today, alienated from any sense of place and hence each other. Nonetheless, there remains a profound sense of recognition between anarchists, based on a shared set of distinct values, which in turn structure their lives and projects. So let’s return to this amorphous entity called anarchism, in order to add flesh to what still may feel like a vague definition by exploring the constellation of sensibilities that describes all anarchists.


A Revolutionary Stance

First and foremost, anarchism is a revolutionary political philosophy. That is, anarchism is thoroughly radical in the true sense of the word: to get at the root or origin of phenomena, and from there to make dramatic changes in the existing conditions. Anarchism aspires to fundamentally transform society, toward expansive notions of individual and social freedom. Much of the time, in practice, this means engaging in various “reforms” or improvements, but ones that at the same time attempt to explicitly articulate a revolutionary politics. This reform-pointing-to-revolution is certainly hard to navigate, much less implement. Debates within anarchism relating to strategies and tactics hinge on this question, and rightly so, since capitalism, in particular, has an astonishing knack for recuperating anything that seems to stand in its way.

Despite the difficulties, anarchists never advocate a purely reformist attitude. They try their best never to participate in reform as an end in itself, or to bring about improvements that also make the present social order look attractive. Their efforts to move from “here” to “there” intentionally highlight how current social arrangements cannot, by their own raison d’être, meet everyone’s needs and desires. Anarchists do not “rest content with the ideal of a future society without overlordship,” as anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker put it long ago; they simultaneously direct their organizing efforts at, for one, “restricting the activities of the state and blocking its influence in every department of social life wherever they see an opportunity.”31 Anarchism is not satisfied with remaining on the surface, merely tinkering to make a damaged world a little less damaging. It is a thoroughgoing critique aimed at a thoroughgoing reimagining and restructuring of society. It views this as essential if everyone is to be free, and if humanity is to harmonize itself with the nonhuman world.

As mentioned earlier, anarchism from the start focused on what appeared as the two biggest stumbling blocks to a libertarian society: capitalism and the state. This pair, sadly, are still the predominant forms of social immiseration and control. Capitalism and statecraft loom large in terms of naturalizing—and thereby being at the root of—this immiseration and control. Their separate yet often-interrelated internal logics consolidate power monopolies for a few, always at the expense of the many. This demands that each system must both continually expand and mask its dominion. To survive, they have to make it seem normal that most people are materially impoverished and disenfranchised as economic actors, and socially impoverished and disenfranchised as political actors. They have to restructure social relations in their own image—as unthinkingly assumed ways of being and acting. The world that most of humanity produces is, as a result, denied to the vast majority, and a relative handful get to make binding decisions over all of life. Anarchism is therefore staunchly anticapitalist and antistatist, which ensures that it is a revolutionary politics, since battling such primary systems necessarily means getting to the root of them. Moving beyond capitalism and states would entail nothing less than turning the world upside down, breaking up all monopolies, and reconstituting everything in common—from institutions to ethics to everyday life.

So, for example, whereas many in the global and now climate justice movements focus on corporations as key, anarchists see these entities as only one piece of capitalism, and a piece that if removed, wouldn’t destroy capitalism—bad as corporations may be. One can have capitalism without corporations. Capitalism’s essence—ensuring that society is forged around compulsory social relations along with inequities in power and material conditions—would remain in place. And given capitalism’s grow-or-die logic, small-scale capitalism would by definition unfold into a larger scale again. Or as contemporary networked and informational capitalistic structures indicate, allegedly localized capitalism can be a way to hide an increasing concentration of social control and injustice. Capitalism itself, in its totality, and because it strives toward totality, is the root problem. Anarchists, then, look to wholly undo the hegemony of capitalist economic structures and values, or the many components that mark capitalism as a system—from corporations, banks, and private property, to profit, bosses, and wage labor, to alienation and commodification.


28. A sampler of some histories of these movements includes Alice Echols, Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967–1975 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989); Andy Cornell, “Anarchism and the Movement for a New Society: Direct Action and Prefigurative Community in the 1970s and 1980s,” Perspectives (2009), available at; Tommi Avicolli Mecca, ed., Smash the Church, Smash the State! The Early Years of Gay Liberation (San Francisco: City Lights Publishers, 2009); George Katsiaficas, The Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Social Movements and the Decolonization of Everyday Life (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2006); Ziga Vodovnik, ed., YA BASTA! Ten Years of the Zapatista Uprising: Writings of Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2004); Richard Kempton, Provo: Amsterdam’s Anarchist Revolt (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2007); Barbara Epstein, Political Protest and Cultural Revolution: Nonviolent Direct Action in the 1970s and 1980s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); Earth First! Journal, available at; Danny Burns, Poll Tax Rebellion (Scotland: AK Press, 1992).
29. While there are numerous books, articles, films, and news accounts about this mobilization, many written soon after Seattle 1999, the most recent one is David Solnit and Rebecca Solnit, The Battle of the Story of the “Battle of Seattle” (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2009), timed for the tenth anniversary.
30. For more on black blocs, see; David van Deusen and Xavier Massot, eds., The Black Bloc Papers, 2nd ed. (Shawnee Mission, KS: Breaking Glass Press, 2010), available at For more on affinity groups and spokescouncils, see
31. Rudolf Rocker, Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice (1938; repr., Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2004), 73.
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