A Primer on Anarchism


Anarchism is given a bad rap by folks who rarely take the trouble to understand what they are criticizing. Alexander Berkman's classic text on anarchism, The ABC of Anarchism, is a good place to start in educating the ignoratti.

Originally published in 1927 by the Vanguard Press, the volume is written to working men and women as a means of explaining to them the promise of a world without government. It is filled with powerful insight. For example, "[g]overnment remains strong because people think authority and political compulsion necessary." Of course, Berkman is right. The history of political ideas is the history of attempts to make oppression feel virtuous. What else is, for example, the Divine Right of Kings, than a fairy tale to pacify the weak?

Berkman remains an under studied figure in American intellectual history. He emigrated to the United States from Russia in the late 19th century, and was a leading anarchist thinker and activist. His attempt to assassinate Henry Clay Frick in 1892 during the Homestead Steel strike -- as an act designed and intended to inspire others to revolt -- was a dismal failure, resulting only in a long prison term for Berkamn, and the production of his memorable prison memoirs. He was ultimately deported with Emma Goldman in 1919.

I recently read this book for the first time as an effort to understand why I find anarchism so much more appealing, and realistic a political philosophy than what is being peddled by the right and left. Berkman's unflinching view satisfies: little people do get screwed by capital and those in power; they remain oppressed because they choose their chains; there is an alternative.

Even so, I remain unconvinced that a world without government is really possible, and Berkman's romantic view of human possibility is not persuasive. Anarchism remains a powerful methodological tool for deconstructing the myths that sustain the status quo. Every claim that the given order of things is necessary can and should be met by a courageous examination of the failures of the status quo.

What's important is to avoid the trap into which Berkman falls: One need not design a better world in order to earn the right to criticize what exists -- that is a rhetorical trap designed to stifle criticism. It is enough, in the end -- more than enough, to hold a mirror to the world as it is and to show that the given order fails to deliver what is promised. Anarchism remains he most sublime form of realism. An anarchism without illusions, a methodological anarchism, offers a world seen without blinders. Berkman's work is a useful starting point.

 

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