Anarchism For The Curious
When I was a wee lad (like 4 years ago), I had a geography teacher who was a very overt libertarian. He’d occasionally(1) talk about the usual libertarian spiel, about how the free market provides “freedom of choice”, and “incentivises creativity”. The basic stuff you’d expect from a libertarian.
During these years I didn’t have much interest in anything outside of programming and video games, so I didn’t think much to it and just thought “oh that makes sense, I guess”. I wasn’t into politics much, I much preferred video games like Metal Gear Solid that definitely isn’t political at all.
But then, one day, I decided to think about it and realised it made no sense.
How does it incentivise creativity when most of the top selling video games are soulless garbage? Freedom of choice? More like freedom to choose between this bland cover based shooter, and this even more bland cover based shooter. The only time I’ve ever enjoyed a cover based shooter was Vanquish (2010), and that game made no money.
So that’s how geography and video games made me an anarchist.
Today, I’ll give you an introduction to the things I’ve learnt from 4 years of reading too much political theory. I understand that not everyone wants to read political theory, and for good reason. It’s boring, it’s so boring. I’ve wasted so much of my life reading this shit, if I spent that time doing math I could probably have a good job by now.
That’s why I’m putting this into an easy to digest blog post, so you don’t make the same mistake I do.
But first, we gotta talk about definitions. I find this the biggest hurdle when discussing it with other people, where we say the same words, but we’re actually talking about different things.
During legal studies, I was taught that anarchy meant “a state of lawlessness”. So when I learnt that people where “anarchists”, I assumed that they were people who wanted a world with no laws, which in my head, looked like the post apocalyptic wastelands of Fallout.(2)
So that was completely wrong.
Wikipedia calls anarchism a “political movement that is highly skeptical towards authority and rejects all unjust forms of hierarchy. It calls for the abolition of the state which it holds to be undesirable, unnecessary and harmful.” This is already a fine definition, but I think it needs something to be added and can also be shortened.
As far as I’m concerned, anarchism is a “stateless, classless society which rejects all forms of hierarchy”. The Wikipedia definition only mentions the state as a hierarchy, but you can have a hierarchy without a government (the state) in libertarianism, which is divided by classes.
You may be thinking: “hey this all sounds pretty familiar”, and it should because anarchism is just communism (or a purer form of it). I think this is where most people get confused, because nobody knows what the fuck communism is.
Lots of people have heard the phrase: “communism is when the workers own the means of production”. That seems to be most basic and commonly accepted definition, but then people go on to say “the USSR was communist”, which is incorrect if you go by the previous definition. I think it’s pretty clear that the USSR (state) controlled the means of production instead of the people.
Instead the USSR is better described as “state capitalist”, which is where the ”state undertakes commercial (i.e. for-profit) economic activity and where the means of production are organized and managed as state-owned business enterprises…“
Because of this confusion, communism has been split into “anarcho-communism” and “authoritarian communism”, where the USSR is authoritarian communist. Even though by definition you can’t be authoritarian and communist at the same time, I don’t think it’s worth the effort to try and argue(3) about this (especially it seems to be accepted by the majority of people) and we will accept that “authoritarian communism” is a real thing that just means “state capitalism”.
This means from now on we should be using the term “anarcho-communism”, so we don’t get confused with the other communisms(4). I’m also going to shorten anarcho-communism to ancom, because I hate typing the entire thing.
Anyway back to the main point.
Ancoms believe that political power is corrupt and corrupting, that any politician is naturally corrupt and that anyone who enters into mainstream politics will become corrupted. They believe that political and economic power should be held by every member of society, and that a system of direct democracy should be implemented to allow the entire community to legislate on matters which affect them.
All means of manufacturing will be owned by the collective community and used for the benefit of that community. There will be no state, no government, no currency, no political parties and no social prejudice.
If this is the first time you’ve heard of this, I wouldn’t blame you if you were still confused. How would it actually work? Since anarcho-communism has never been done on a large nation wide scale (it has been done on smaller scales and we will talk about that later), we can only theorise on how it would.
There’s a good video series on the internet website double-u double-u double-u dot youtube dot com called “How Anarchism Works“ by NonComplete. To be honest, you should probably just watch that instead of reading this (people seem to like videos more anyway). But it's one of the more comprehensive (and accessible) attempts to explain how an ancom society could work.
I certainly would have liked to have just watched videos instead of wasting 4 years of my life reading boring-ass books. And it’s not just that they’re boring, you have to learn how to read them first before you can even understand anything. They are all in a very different prose than what I and most people are used to, so unless you come from an academic background it can be hard to grasp at first.
But I digress, let’s get back on topic.
I recommend watching the videos before I go on, but if you don’t feel like it, I’ll summarise the first few videos for you.
Individuals self-organise into “wards” of ~150 people (according to the video this is the most efficient number of people to work with) and wards would organise into “communes” of ~10,000 people (and communes could group up into bigger ones of millions of people and so on).
Wards (and communes) would practice “direct democracy” where each individuals decide on policy directly, this is in contrast to our (at least where I live) “representative democracy” where people vote for representatives who then enact policy initiatives.
Wards could also have a “ward council” of ~10 people to organise the day-day activities. Individuals could be chosen to go on the ward council through democracy but the video argues for “sortition”, which is just choosing at random. People would hold a position in the ward council for around three months, so if it were chosen randomly, you would expect to be on the ward council every 3-4 years.
In a commune of 10,000 people with wards of 150 people there would be 70 wards. Each ward could choose (democratically or through sortition) 2 people (2 x 70 = 140 people) to represent their ward in the commune to help organise resources between wards.
Ideally as money would not exist, wards make “contracts” with each other to provide goods and services. Each ward could do a specific job (like firefighting, bakery, etc.) and would trade this service for the services of another ward.
People wouldn’t be constrained by their ward or commune, there would be free travel between them all and you could move whenever you wanted.
Unfortunately it seems to be impossible to avoid all forms of hierarchy as it may be needed in order for a complex society to organise, but anarchism attempts to put as much emphasis on the individual (and in turn, the collective) as possible.
That should be how it would work in its most general sense. There’s still loads more to cover, but it’s at least a baseline.
You may have remembered me saying that we would look at a how anarchism has been done on a smaller scale in real life, so now let’s talk about the Paris Commune, because having a theory on a sociopolitical structure is one thing but there’s no point if it doesn’t work.
The Paris Commune of 1871 was the most important urban popular rising in Europe between the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of February 1917.
There’s a lot of context you will need to know first however, so ready up for a history lesson.
The Commune resulted in part from growing discontent among the Paris worker. During the war and the siege of Paris, various members of the middle and upper-classes departed the city. Workers and their families were displaced from the city centre to outlying suburbs with virtually nonexistent public transport. Since Paris was the imperial capital, as well as the principal business centre and urban resort of the rich in France, Paris workers were exposed to the extravagances and excesses of the court and of the wealthy elite in this “New Babylon.”
At the same time there was an influx of refugees from parts of France occupied by the Germans. The working class and immigrants suffered the most from the lack of industrial activity due to the war and the siege; they formed the bedrock of the Commune’s popular support.
The political alienation of the Paris working class from the Second Empire did not mean that a revolutionary situation existed in Paris before 1871. It took the Franco-Prussian War, the siege of Paris, and the decisions of the government to transform political alienation into violent revolution. The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War on 19 July 1870 rapidly led to the defeat at Sedan on September 2, when Napoleon III and approximately one hundred thousand French soldiers surrendered.
By September 19 German forces had surrounded Paris, cutting it off from the rest of France. Paris had modern fortifications, consisting of a thirty mile rampart and sixteen outlying forts; the city had numerous defenders, including both regular soldiers and members of the National Guard (a civilian militia), who were reasonably well supplied with weapons and ammunition; and the city initially had substantial food stocks.
On January 28 after months of siege, Paris is surrendered to the Germans in an armistice with a preliminary peace treaty between France and Germany signed at Versailles on February 26. While all regular troops are disarmed, the National Guard is permitted to keep their arms — the populous of Paris remains armed and allows the occupying armies only a small section of the city.
By this date the siege had transformed the situation in Paris. A revolutionary leadership had emerged, partly through vigilance committees set up in each arrondissement or district. A popular revolutionary program had been developed, including the introduction of an elected city council or commune, the election of all public officials, and the replacement of the police and the regular army by the National Guard.
Finally, the Versailles government on 18 March attempted to disarm Paris and sent French troops (the regular army) to remove cannons parked in the working-class suburbs of Belleville and Montmartre. But, angry crowds of National Guards and civilians obstructed the troops, as well as some troops who, through fraternisation with Paris workers, refused to carry out their orders. Several officers were arrested and two generals, Generals Claude Martin Lecomte and Jacques Leonard Clement Thomas were killed by their own soldiers.
A panicked Thiers, fearing that troops of the Paris garrison and civil servants would become prisoners of the insurgents, ordered all soldiers and government civil servants to withdraw to Versailles, thereby creating a power vacuum. The remaining representatives of authority in Paris, the mayors of the city’s arrondissements, the National Assembly representatives of Paris, and the Central Committee of the National Guard all agreed that elections should be held on 26 March for a new commune or city council. Political radicalisation during the siege, hatred of Thiers and the Versailles government, and the behaviour of the bourgeoisie (who tended either to leave Paris or to boycott the elections) led to a sweeping left-wing victory: only nineteen moderates, as opposed to seventy-three members of the Left, were elected. The Paris Commune was formally proclaimed in a solemn ceremony on March 28.
Despite its increasingly desperate military situation, the short-lived Paris Commune was remarkable for its social and political character. The Paris Commune was first and foremost a democracy. The government was a body elected by universal suffrage. Most members of the commune council belonged either to the lower middle class or to the working-class elite, at a time when upper-class elites dominated governments throughout Europe.
Although distorted by military demands and limited by lack of time, Communard priorities can be discerned. Communards believed in grassroots democracy and the election and public accountability of all officials. The National Guard, recruited from all able-bodied men, replaced the police and the regular army. Women-friendly policies included equal pay for male and female teachers, support for women’s committees and women’s cooperatives, and pensions for common-law wives of National Guards killed in action.
The Commune decreed the separation of the Church from the State and the confiscation of church buildings, the destruction of religious symbols, the dismissal of religious personnel from their jobs, and the planning of a secular educational system all featured in an anticlerical crusade.
Other decrees included:
- Remission of rents owed for the entire period of the siege (during which payment had been suspended).
- Abolition of child labour and night work in bakeries.
- Granting of pensions to the unmarried companions and children of national guardsmen killed in active service.
- Free return by pawnshops of all workmen’s tools and household items, valued up to 20 francs, pledged during the siege.
- Postponement of commercial debt obligations, and the abolition of interest on the debts.
- Right of employees to take over and run an enterprise if it were deserted by its owner; the Commune, nonetheless, recognised the previous owner’s right to compensation.
- Prohibition of fines imposed by employers on their workmen.
The Commune lasted 71 days. The final week of the Commune (21–28 May), “the Bloody Week,” witnessed atrocities on both sides.
Communards burnt prominent public buildings, such as the Hôtel de Ville and the Tuileries Palace, and executed hostages, including the Archbishop of Paris, Georges Darboy (1813–1871) on 24 May, and a group of fifty (mostly priests and policemen) on 26 May.
Meanwhile, the French army spent eight days massacring workers and shooting civilians on sight. The operation was led by Marshal MacMahon, who would later become president of France. Tens of thousands of Communards and workers are summarily executed (as many as 25,000); 38,000 others were imprisoned and 7,000 are forcibly deported.
The total military defeat of the Commune and the harsh treatment of suspected Communards virtually destroyed the radical Left in French politics for nearly a decade and massively discouraged any future resort to violent popular revolution in France.
Although a failure due to its hopeless military situation, Karl Marx in “The Civil War in France” (1871), praised the Commune’s achievements, and described it as a proletarian government that had destroyed the bourgeois bureaucratic machine and as “the glorious harbinger of a new society” that should serve as a model for future revolutionary governments.
As at the time Paris had around 2 million occupants, I find the Commune to be a good example for how an anarcho-communism could work. Even with intense military pressure, they managed achieve a workable society, although short lived.