Anarchist theory: what should be done?

Published in Anarchist Studies, Vol. 15, No. 2, 2007, pp. 106-108.

Brian Martin

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Where is anarchist theory going? Where should it be going?

It's useful to make a comparison with other bodies of theory. Marxism and feminism spring to mind. Despite the collapse of socialist states, Marxism remains influential among scholars, among whom the study of Marx's works continues to play a big role. Anarchism shares with Marxism a preoccupation with classic theorists - for Marx and Engels substitute Bakunin and Kropotkin - but anarchism has never had anything like the scholarly attention or intellectual commitment inspired by Marxism.

Feminism remains a vibrant theoretical enterprise, drawing on a variety of thinkers. Once again, anarchism has received far less scholarly attention.

Both Marxism and feminism were inspired by, and inspired, social movements. Each has developed esoteric theoretical branches, largely restricted to scholars (and maybe their students) and separate from the day-to-day concerns of activists. Anarchism has not had a theoretical wing of similar scale or exclusiveness.

In a narrow sense, anarchism can refer to a critique of the state and to anti-state practice. In a broader sense, it can refer to a critique of domination - incorporating a critique of the state plus critiques of capitalism, patriarchy, racism and other oppressive systems - and associated practices. Anarchists seldom try to impose an anti-state lens on all forms of oppression. But few Marxists and feminists are one-dimensional either.

More than other forms of critique, anarchism contains a vision of an alternative - a self-managing society - and preferred means for achieving it, namely a practice that reflects the goal. This is unlike Marxism, in which the ultimate goal of communism, a society without the state, has never been well articulated, and in which the means are justified by the ends: capturing state power is the means to achieve stateless communism. Feminists subscribe to an ideal of gender equality, but this has many versions, from anarcha-feminist visions to a hierarchical society in which women hold just as many positions of power as men. Feminists differ considerably concerning the means to achieve their ideals.

If social goals and methods play a large role in the anarchist project, what does this say about anarchist theory? Should scholarship be dismissed as elitist and therefore incompatible, as a means, with the goal of an egalitarian society? This doesn't make sense, at least in the short term, because anarchist practice needs critical scrutiny, like any other practice. But are there ways to supplement conventional modes of scholarly production?

Anarchists point to a long tradition of radical education, including schools in which teachers and learners make decisions collectively. Modes of decision-making are a key part of what is often called the hidden curriculum, namely the things learned through the structure of the educational process rather than the formal things studied. Egalitarian education suggests a different process for producing and using theory.

There is also a tradition of activist learning and teaching, especially in times of oppression, social crisis or revolution, such as teach-ins against wars and learning within opposition movements. However, this does not seem to have had much effect on the content of what is learned, nor has it given rise to sustained alternative modes of intellectual production.

Inspiration can be drawn from the new mode of network production, used in creating free software through voluntary contributions managed by an individual or small group, and extended to other domains, most prominently wikipedia. How this could be adapted to intellectual work in more traditional areas remains to be seen.

Activist groups occasionally have adopted an extreme ethos of egalitarianism, making the assumption that everyone can develop the full range of skills needed in the group, everything from organising events, dealing with disputes and public speaking. This is commendable when it empowers members who might otherwise be stuck with less attractive tasks, but it may inhibit advanced intellectual work.

Studies of expertise show that many years of persistent practice and training are needed to make world-class contributions. Surely this applies to developing new anarchist theory. Yet becoming a talented theorist should not - according to anarchist ideals - lead to any special privileges. Managing the tension between expertise and egalitarianism is an important task for anarchists. The existence of this tension may help explain why anarchism has had such a low profile among scholars.

What sort of theory should be developed? One possibility is a high-level, grand theory of domination, oppression, inequality and/or hierarchy. It would bring together, or supersede, separate critiques of capitalism, patriarchy, the state and other oppressive systems. Anarchists have long been eclectic, freely drawing on other critiques, such as the Marxist analysis of capitalism. A grand theory of domination would be a specific anarchist contribution.

Another possibility is a high-level, grand theory of anarchist alternatives, providing the general conditions for and constraints on a society built around equality, solidarity and freedom. The alternative might be a single model or a set of plural, diverse self-managing societies. The theory might be centred on the alternative structures or it might focus on self-organisation, namely the process for creating and maintaining desirable alternatives.

Another opening for anarchist theory is addressing particular topics aside from traditional ones such as the state, education, and workers' self-management. Possibilities include bureaucracy, communication, defence and technology. Anarchist perspectives have little visibility in these areas.

Anarchist theory might also address personal and interpersonal dynamics, such as self-understanding, commitment, happiness, friendship and solidarity. Such issues are important in their own right and have connections to big-picture approaches to politics and economics.

Finally, there is meta-theory: an anarchist theory of theory, including an anarchist theory about anarchist theory. What is the role of theory in the anarchist project? Should theory include both simple and complex facets and, if so, how should the complex aspects relate to the simple bits? How and to what extent can theory become a collective project, linked with practice? Is there a simple way to learn how to develop theory, so that lots of people can join in?

There's certainly plenty to do!