Can I be a non-purist anarchist?

anarchy lol

So when I became a radical first I described myself as an anarchist.  Eventually some things that bummed me about the anarchist scene pushed me towards a form of libertarian bolshevism.  Now I’m spreading my wings/tentacles, opening my mind a bit again, and I’m wondering – maybe I’m already an anarchist?  Maybe I’ve actually still been one for the last five years?  Help me out here.  (Also note I’m not abandoning the label socialist, I’m hoping a person can be both.)

Could we have an anarchism which is not a manic drive to eliminate all rules or functional hierarchies or routines, but instead is a mission to defeat the main ruling class of society, eliminate all oppressions of specific demographics, and to generally create a situation where nobody-is-in-charge-because-everybody-is-in-charge?

Note that I said “functional hierarchies.”  There are obviously material and ideological hierarchies in society that I oppose, whether it’s the main hierarchy of ruling-class-over-everyone or the dehumanization of specific groups.

However – THE HORROR – I think it’s okay for a political group to elect a leader (as long as they can be questioned, easily removed, etc).  And THAT is the kind of thing I am talking about.  Can I really be an anarchist if I hate bosses but believe in realistic organizing methods?

If I am a direct-democratic, anti-capitalist revolutionist who believes in workers’ self-management, huge redistribution of wealth, fighting demographic oppressions, and a healthy distrust of all formal leadership, do I qualify?


I already know there is some vocabulary within anarchism to describe what I am.

For example, apparently I am a “specifist.”  That means I think it’s okay to have groups of people who are explicitly radical, and which disallows people who don’t fit the basic purpose of the group.  I think it’s okay to make that rule.  Some anarchists would call that oppressive.

I’m class-oriented and labor-oriented, so maybe I’m an “anarcho-syndicalist.”  Apparently this doesn’t precisely fit, because I embrace a variety of tactics regarding unions.  For example, I think it’s okay to faction-fight within a pre-existing union for improvements, whereas from what I hear the syndicalists think this is a bad idea, and stand for setting up a splinter or competitor union which is radical from the start.  Whatever; obviously I’d be some kind of red anarchist.

I am also apparently an “anarcho-collectivist” and not precisely an “anarcho-communist.”  Anarcho-communists believe in immediately de-commodifying absolutely everything, from the major banks all the way down to consumer commodities like pencils and oranges.  This places a heavy reliance on pure spontaneity, and frankly I don’t yet trust the entire population just as it emerges from capitalism.  I think it’s too open to exploitation, attempts by criminal cartels to seize and corner goods, etc.

Apparently “anarcho-collectivists” believe in placing all workplaces under collective ownership, but still requiring people to show up and work to get paid.  At first this sounds too similar to the same-old-shit of capitalism, but when you realize that we’ve eliminated the massive profits being skimmed off by private owners (pay hikes all around!), plus instituting workers’ democratic management of the workplace, it’s actually a huge, revolutionary difference.

Do I believe in starving people who refuse to work, even under such improved conditions?  No.  I just don’t believe in giving them free money to buy cell phones.  So maybe I’m a collectivist-communist hybrid.

I also know that I am NOT an “insurrectionist.”  I believe in insurrection, but a constant insistence that it should be right this second is stupid.  Revolution is a social process, of which insurrection is the climax.  I believe in uniting a huge majority around issues that truly affect them, and then convincing that huge majority to batter down the power structure (not the infra-structure!) and build a new arrangement for itself.  I believe that every step of that process is revolutionary (including right this second), not just the one day when the Senate gets raided.  I believe in social movements, not a few people either breaking windows or trying to become serious terrorists.


There’s a lot of situations in which a person will be called “not a ‘true’ anarchist.”  This is what I’m worried about.

For one thing, I’m not really into the obligation to have a weird lifestyle, and I don’t buy into consumption-based politics.  I think every commodity is covered in blood, so I’ll enjoy my Gatorade.  I think that only certain types of movements have the capability to gain critical mass or physically alter the system, and that fair trade coffee is not one of them.  And until then, I think it’s obnoxious to lecture people about how they shop, given that we have so little time and money anyway.

There’s a “situationism” which seems to imply that a person must be constantly breaking laws and indulging in extreme hedonism in order to be a “troo anarchist.”  What if I’m tired from work, which I have to do to live, and I just want to go home and watch TV in between protests?  Does that make me a bad person too?  Would you place me on the low end of your implied hierarchy of evaluation?  (Note that I’m not against counterculture, just against the obligation.)

There also seems to be a marxist-anarchist dividing line on certain tactics and practices.  I’m trying to figure out if I just consistently fall on the marxist side or if there are splits within anarchism over these things.

For example, I think the black bloc can be counterproductive.  I tend to encourage demonstrations where the largest amount of people would feel safe and welcome.  I am also skeptical of the idea that deep down everyone at a demonstration constantly wants to riot and just needs a little boost.  There’s a time and place for it, but another problem is that “the bloc” tends to operate on a rogue basis without consulting the groups who set up a protest (say, during the long process of organizing and meetings during which a demonstration is typically planned).  Obviously once part of the crowd incites a riot, the police can crack down on everyone.  That’s bad for my broad-movement model, because it makes it hard to bring a stroller.

I also am against consensus decision-making.  I think simple democracy is good enough, and consensus is so time-consuming as to be unrealistic and repellent to working people who have busy schedules or kids.  Simple democracy satisfies my hope of an anarchism which is not purist, but creates a situation of everyone-in-charge.

Seriously, let’s keep in mind – in American society, democracy is actually radical.  We don’t have democracy at work.  We have hardly any democracy in politics, really effectively none (when’s the last time you actually voted on a policy?).  We also don’t have democracy or true democracy in most voluntary organizations, even many progressive organizations.  Achieving basic democracy in the USA would itself entail a tremendous revolution.

So what do you think?  Can I circle that A?  Or am I just an evil Leninist infiltrator?

15 thoughts on “Can I be a non-purist anarchist?

  1. Tomorrow I was going to publish my article concerning our right or duty to react.
    I noticed similar points in your article when I wanted to place some other references (which I will continue tomorrow).
    We are always bounded by time, having our household duties (have going to prepare supper now), but though our free time, the time to react and the time people have to earn their living, have become in wrong proportions, that already may be a good reason that more people should react against the contemporary system which is bringing more and more people in modern slavery.

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  4. The answer to your second paragraph is YES. Anarchism is anti-authoritarianism, not anti-organisation nor anti-leadership. Colin Ward wrote a good book titled “Anarchy in action” on the question of realistic organizing methods, explaining how revolutionary and societal unity doesn’t require authoritarian central direction. There’s a huge qualitative difference between a central leadership issuing strategy directives which the executors on the ground use as their guiding policy framework, and a central command authority issuing orders which the executors on the ground obey to the letter on pain of being punished as traitors.

    If “the vanguard” is defined purely as whichever group happens to have the most advanced revolutionary conciousness at the moment, then the vanguard obviously ought to be leaders of the movement. It becomes problematic only when established leaders are vested with authority to repress revolutionary activities because too much progress would threaten their particular position. That’s what stops bureaucratic unions and “democratic”-centralist parties from being truly revolutionary. It’s also why anarchists tend to favour tactics like the black bloc: “Don’t be too spontaneous or active, it will incite oppression, only do exactly what I say is best for the overall movement” is the creed of the reformist usurper who has no intention of defeating the oppressors.

    Your comments about collectivism are spot on. Anarcho-communists like me mostly see collectivism the same way Lenninists see state-socialism: as the essential transitional form between capitalism and communism, where the existing economic structures are put to use by the dictatorship of the proletariat. Your criticism of anarcho-communism only applies to the “purist” revolution-in-a-day version beloved of teenage idealists.

    I have to agree with you about all the lifestyle nonsense associated with the Anarchist subculture. The original idea was to make culture war part of the class war by rejecting traditional bourgeois propriety and to discover an authentic materialist humanist culture based on fulfilling each other’s wants. I know a few who keep this ideal alive, but overall it has devolved into pointless punk hedonism that only serves as a consumerist distraction. This is the unfortunate “Anarchist / Lifestyle anarchist” division that Murray Bookchin complained about. Anarchism is a political theory and movement that can manage quite well without its followers adhering to a certain lifestyle.

    You’re right about democracy – achieveing a meaningful democracy in work and politics constitutes a major revolution. Consensus methods are only appropriate for decisionmaking within cells where people already understand and trust each other.

  5. I really enjoyed reading this. I hear my own thoughts throughout it. Consumer choices are still important, though – especially for those producing things like fair trade coffee. No, it doesnt support a complete overhaul and restructuring of the oppressive global trading system, but it helps farmers survive. And it’s easy, and not even that much more expensive. I know it’s a small point of yours to dwell on, but it hit a nerve, because changing consumer alliances, in the meantime, while organizing for revolutionary change, when youre going to buy the product anyway, does actually matter.

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  9. This post summarizes my attitudes almost to a tee…with the one *crucial* exception that I reject the entire concept of ‘anti-statism’, so am not actually an ‘anarchist’ – any large, complex society will need to replicate the institutions of ‘the state’ in some way, and there will always be a period where somebody has to comply to a law they aren’t entirely happy with and has to wait until they can attend the next meeting or whatever to exercise their ability to do something about it via the mechanisms of a direct democracy. Also, with private property destroyed, yet there being no or very few ‘nationalised’ industries, the vast inequities of wealth that will force any state to inevitably bow before private power overwhelmingly will simply not exist. Genuine, utterly radical, democracy is what is key here – not some nebulous concept of ‘anti-statism’. Provided the entire economy aside from a few state services is democratically owned and operated by the workers via workplace democracies, the ‘state’ issue really *doesn’t matter* as the basis from which state institutions are supported is *radically* different.

    …In any case, I love the blog – really penetrating, interesting analysis.

  10. Pingback: Anarcho-statism | spreadtheinfestation

  11. My answer is evil leninist infiltrator but that just reeks with your own words, and no external evaluation is needed. You label yourself as such and have that consciousness.

  12. A couple things:

    First, not *all* anarcho-syndicalists insist on the creation of separate, explicitly anarchist unions – what is sometimes called the “outside-and-against” strategy. While many anarcho-syndicalists are members of such organizations, anarcho-syndicalism is actually a good bit more diverse than that. There are many anarcho-syndicalists who engage in entering mainstream unions in order to democratize/radicalize them, or push for more militant action in defense of workers. In fact, a lot of the specifically anarchist unions throughout history came about by anarchists taking part in, and eventually ‘capturing’ (in an ideological sense) pre-existing, mainstream labor unions. Yet other anarcho-syndicalists engage in other strategies and tactics, for example, helping to form shop-floor committees, workers’ councils, industrial networks, or workers’ centers. Anarcho-syndicalism, in its broadest sense, entails the idea that anarchists must involve themselves – in whatever way – in the labor movement and in workers’ struggles, and to push them towards more radical/revolutionary/anarchist methods and aims, in order to eventually overthrow and abolish capitalism – in essence, the idea that ‘the emancipation of the workers must be the task of the workers themselves.’

    Secondly, while some anarcho-communists, especially in the US and, to a lesser extent, the broader ‘anglosphere’, envision decommodification, communization, and the abolition of money as a sort-of spontaneous free-for-all – where production is reduced to ‘free play’, and distribution to ‘free sharing’ – most do not. Most anarcho-communists take the old communist motto, ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’, very seriously, and regard the first half of that equation as just as important as the second half. With this in mind, most anarcho-communists envision a highly structured and organized form of economic arrangement, where everyone who is able to *would*, in fact, be obligated to perform some sort of socially valuable or necessary work, and in return, society would provide for all of their needs (and, hopefully, to a reasonable degree, most of their desires as well). Even Kropotkin, the preeminent theorist of anarcho-communism, believed that if someone was able but not willing to work, then society would be under no obligation to provide for them. There have been various proposals for how such production and distribution would be organized, with many involving some sort of ‘calculation in kind’, but I won’t belabor anyone with that much detail, I just wanted to clear up some potential misconceptions.

    • hm ok.

      “if someone was able but not willing to work, then society would be under no obligation to provide for them”

      doesn’t that require the existence of a state to keep them from consuming resources not apportioned to them? are we hoping such enforcement is spontaneous? is popular enforcement a state or not a state? hm.

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