All anarchists share a desire to abolish government; that is the definition of anarchism. Starting with Bakunin, anarchism has been explicitly anti-statist, anti-capitalist, and anti-authoritarian; no serious anarchist seeks to alter that. Leftists have consistently supported and promoted the functions of the State, have an ambiguous relationship to capitalist development, and are all interested in maintaining hierarchical relationships. In addition, historically they have either tacitly ignored or actively suppressed the desires of individuals and groups for autonomy and self-organization, further eroding any credible solidarity between themselves and anarchists. On a purely definitional level, then, there should be an automatic distinction between leftists and anarchists, regardless of how things have appeared in history.
Despite these differences, many anarchists have thought of themselves as extreme leftists — and continue to do so — because they share many of the same analyses and interests (a distaste for capitalism, the necessity of revolution, for example) as leftists; many revolutionary leftists have also considered anarchists to be their (naïve) comrades — except in moments when the leftists gain some power; then the anarchists are either co-opted, jailed, or executed. The possibility for an extreme leftist to be anti-statist may be high, but is certainly not guaranteed, as any analysis history will show.
Left anarchists retain some kind of allegiance to 19th century LH&R and socialist philosophers, preferring the broad, generalized (and therefore extremely vague) category of socialism/anti-capitalism and the strategy of mass political struggles based on coalitions with other leftists, all the while showing little (if any) interest in promoting individual and group autonomy. From these premises, they can quite easily fall prey to the centralizing tendencies and leadership functions that dominate the tactics of leftists. They are quick to quote Bakunin (maybe Kropotkin too) and advocate organizational forms that might have been appropriate in the era of the First International, apparently oblivious to the sweeping changes that have occurred in the world in the past hundred-plus years — and they then have the gall to ridicule Marxists for remaining wedded to Marx’s outdated theories, as if by not naming their own tendencies after other dead guys they are thereby immune from similar mistakes.
The drawbacks and problems with Marxism, however — for example that it promotes the idea of a linear progression of history of order developing out of chaos, freedom developing out of oppression, material abundance developing out of scarcity, socialism developing out of capitalism, plus an absolute faith in Science as the ideologically neutral pursuit of pure Knowledge, and a similar faith in the liberatory function of all technology — are the same drawbacks and problems with the anarchism of Bakunin and Kropotkin. All of this seems lost on left anarchists. They blithely continue to promote a century-old version of anarchism, clearly unaware of, or unconcerned by, the fact that the philosophical and practical failures of leftism — in terms of the individual, the natural world, and appropriate modes of resistance to the continued domination of a flexible, adaptable, and expanding capitalism — are shared by this archaic form of anarchism as well.
Those of us who are interested in promoting radical social change in general, and anarchy in particular, need to emulate and improve upon successful (however temporary) revolutionary projects for liberation, rather than congratulating ourselves for being the heirs of Bakunin (et al.). We can do this best if we free ourselves from the historical baggage and the ideological and strategic constraints of all varieties of leftism.Credit: Lawrence Jarach, “Leftism 101,” with permission
American anarchist Lawrence Jarach is an author of the “Anarchy 101: Instead of a Meeting” primer. Jarach is a contributing editor of Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, and has published in the Berkeley Daily Planet, Killing King Abacus, Green Anarchy and L’EnDehors.
Jarach is also a musician, performing as a vocalist and trombonist for punk-polka band Polkacide.