Anarchism 101 : Introduction to theory and practice


Note : Most of the content in this text was found online, slightly edited and organized in order to create a short introduction to anarchist ideas, strategy and practice.

If you’re reading this, chances are you already have pretty good idea of how fucked we are in 2020. That’s why this modest text will not be focused on analyzing how we got there or on persuading the reader that anarchism is indeed a viable option to consider.

Instead, we’ll try to explain how to create a strong anarchist movement today, capable of giving an appropriate response to the ecological collapse and the social, racial and gendered systems of domination.

To sum it up quickly, the key idea is that with art and aesthetics, research and analysis, organizing and action, we become ungovernable and create other worlds in the ruins of this one.

Before delving into the subject, we need to define a few words to make sure we’re on the same page.

  • Anarchism is a social movement which aims to abolish capitalism, the state, patriarchy, racism and all other systems of domination through direct action and establish anarchy: a society in which everyone is free, equal and bonded together through relations of solidarity.
  • Social ecology is a social theory that views the world in terms of first nature (the natural world) and second nature (the human-crafted world), premissing the study of both nature and society on the idea that ecological problems are rooted in problems created by social hierarchy.
  • Anti-fascism is opposition to fascist ideologies, groups and individuals. The anti-fascist movement began in a few European countries in the 1920s, and eventually spread to other countries around the world.
  • Intersectionality is a way of understanding and analyzing the complexity in the world, in people, and in human experiences. The events and conditions of social and political life and the self can seldom be understood as shaped by one factor. They are generally shaped by many factors in diverse and mutually influencing ways. When it comes to social inequality, people’s lives and the organization of power in a given society are better understood as being shaped not by a single axis of social division, be it race or gender or class, but by many axes that work together and influence each other. Intersectionality as an analytic tool gives people better access to the complexity of the world and of themselves.
  • The matrix of domination is a sociological paradigm that explains issues of oppression that deal with race, class, and gender, which, though recognized as different social classifications, are all interconnected.

As anarchists – or at least, radical libertarian leftists – our movement has to be focused on addressing the matrix of domination as a whole, but emancipation movements should be led and organized by the people who are directly impacted.

« If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together. »

Lilla Watson

Building an anarchist movement today

A. Principles of an anarchist movement

“The goal of anarchism isn’t to turn everyone into anarchists. It’s to encourage people to think and act for themselves, but to do both from a set of liberating values.”

Cindy Milstein, Anarchism & Its Aspirations

Moral skepticism
Understanding morality (« objective » right and wrong) as illusory, as all values are creations of conscious beings, rather than features of the universe itself.

Agency ethics
A created ethics which holds that we should maximise agency (« freedom and well-being » in Kropotkin’s words) to the greatest extent possible.

Viewing the world in terms of relations between socially-embedded but also self-directing individuals, rather than of atomised individuals or inescapable collective structures.

From Alan Carter’s Radical Green Political Theory

Viewing social development as being the ongoing result of an ideopolitical substructure selecting the aspects of a techno-economic structure within it. The political selects which ideas are channeled into wider social forces and relations. The consequence for our movement is that our material struggle must be supported by a cultural one.

From Alan Carter’s Radical Green Political Theory

About the « reform versus revolution » debate
Social change has been framed as a choice between reform and revolution for a long time now but this way of interpreting political action fails to represent the reality of the strategies used by different political actors today. Here’s a better way to frame social change :

Taming : Trying to make the current system more humane.
Erosion : Trying to gradually break down the current system and replace it with alternatives.
Rupture : Trying to achieve a sudden break with it.

Taming and erosion are most often considered the same thing by revolutionists, being classified under the rubric of “reformism”. This implies that wanting to gradually erode structures of power is the same as merely wanting to tinker with the status-quo. Whereas “revolution” is generally seen as synonymous with rupture – typically some big apocalyptic insurrection – even though those generally never happen unless preceded by a great deal of erosion which makes the existing system unsustainable.

Today’s radical leftits like to think they’re pursuing rupture, when most of the time they’re doing taming in their actual practice. Their tactics tend to involve pursuing the same kind of goals left-liberals do: less economic inequality, the rights of marginalised groups. The only difference is they’re pursuing those goals at the grassroots instead of at the state level.

Instead of this “think rupture, perform taming” approach, we should adopt a strategy of erosion as our primary praxis, but welcome and facilitate rupture if and when it’s possible.

See the “Dual power strategy” paragraph for more on this.

Means and Ends
Anarchists held that society [is] constituted by human beings with particular forms of consciousness engaging in activity – exercising capacities to satisfy motivational drives – and in so doing simultaneously transforming themselves and the world around them.

For example, when workers go on strike a number of fundamental transformations can occur. Workers can develop their capacities by learning to engage in direct action and self-direct their lives; acquire new motivational drives such as the desire to stand up to their boss or become a dues paying member of a union; and transform their forms of consciousness, by which I mean the particular ways in which they experience, conceptualise and understand the world, such as coming to view their boss as a class enemy or realising that to improve their situation they have to collectively organise with other workers.

Through engaging in such activity workers not only transform themselves but also develop new social relations. They form bonds of mutual support and solidarity with fellow workers while they transform the social conditions under which they live, such as earning better wages or making their boss afraid of them.

For anarchists one of the main consequences of the theory of practice was that there is an inherent connection between means and ends. The end goal of anarchism – free or libertarian communism – is a stateless classless society in which workers collectively own the means of production and self-manage their workplaces and communities through councils in which everyone has a vote and a direct say in the decisions that affect them. […]

[But] people who want to and are able to reproduce a communist society will not magically come into existence. A communist society can only emerge through a social revolution that abolishes capitalism and therefore will have to be created by the people who presently live under capitalism. Given this, in order to achieve a communist society the majority of the population has to engage in activities during the struggle against capitalism itself that transform them into people who want to and are able to self-direct their lives and their community through local councils and federations of councils. If this does not happen, then communism will not be created. This is because for communism to exist real people must establish and reproduce it day after day through their own activity.

Revolutionaries therefore have to use means that are constituted by forms of practice that will actually transform individuals into the kinds of people who will be able to and want to create the end goal of communism. If revolutionaries make the mistake of using the wrong or inappropriate means then they will produce people who will create a different society to one they initially intended.

« It is not enough to desire something; if one really wants it adequate means must be used to secure it. And these means are not arbitrary, but instead cannot but be conditioned by the ends we aspire to and by the circumstances in which the struggle takes place, for if we ignore the choice of means we would achieve other ends, possibly diametrically opposed to those we aspire to, and this would be the obvious and inevitable consequence of our choice of means. Whoever sets out on the highroadand takes a wrong turning does not go where he intends to go but where the road leads him. »

Errico Malatesta

The Dual Power strategy
To accomplish [our goals] as a movement of the working classes in all our variety, we must organize with all who are exploited and oppressed by the capitalist system [and all other systems of domination]. That means working together not just in the workplace, but in our communities (online and in real life), our blocks and our prisons, our schools and our neighborhoods, our homes and our streets, to build grassroots power. We recognize that this includes those workers engaged formally and informally at the point of production, logistics, and realization, but also those who are unemployed, retired, incarcerated, dependent, or disabled, and all those who do not own and control the means of capitalist production as part of the 1% or their lackeys.

Ours is an emergent strategy that will unfold in unique ways in a variety of different contexts. The struggle will be different in different places, and our tactics will have to change accordingly. Nevertheless, we believe that a shared path has opened up in struggles around the world, and this is the one we wish to pursue. It consists of building our way toward our ultimate goal of libertarian socialism, assembling it piece by piece. In short, our method consists of embodying the world we dare to dream.

Let’s get specific. How do we effectively build political spaces where direct democracy, mutual aid, solidarity, and an ecologically sustainable human existence can prevail ?

To start with, we need to be able to provide for our immediate needs. In doing so, we must organize to seize control of powerful nodes of production, reproduction, and realization while simultaneously cultivating models of the society we wish to live in.

Dual power is a strategy that builds liberated spaces and creates institutions grounded in direct democracy. Together these spaces and institutions expand into the ever widening formation of a new world “in the shell of the old.” As the movement grows more powerful, it can engage in ever larger confrontations with the ruling class—and ultimately a contest for legitimacy against the institutions of capitalist society.

In our view, dual power is comprised of two component parts: (1.) building counter-institutions that serve as alternatives to the institutions currently governing production, investment, and social life under capitalism, and (2.) organizing through and confederating these institutions to build up a base of grassroots counter-power which can eventually challenge the existing power of capitalists and the State head-on.

In the short term, such a strategy helps win victories that improve working people’s standard of living, helps us meet our needs that are currently left unaddressed under capitalism, and gives us more of a say over our day-to-day lives. But more excitingly, in the long run these methods provide models for new ways of organizing our society based on libertarian socialist principles. They create a path toward a revolutionary transition from a capitalist mode of production. This revolution will liberate us from both the need and the drive to create wealth for the rich, making possible a socialist mode of production that seeks to benefit all of humanity and free us from the lonely confines of commodity relationships

There are many examples of various counter-institutions, but they all share some core characteristics: they are directly democratic, are created and run by the people who benefit from them, and are independent of control by the State and capital alike. By building these organizations, working-class people can create a new form of social, political, and economic power that exists in tension and opposition to the power of [all systems of domination].

Counter-institutions can include, but are not limited to: community councils, popular neighborhood assemblies, worker’s councils, syndicalist unions, rank-and-file trade unions, worker-owned cooperatives, locally and regionally networked redistributive solidarity economies, participatory budgeting initiatives, and time banks. They also include collectives committed to the provision of mutual aid and disaster relief, tenant unions, community land trusts, cooperative housing, communal agriculture and food distribution systems, community-owned energy, horizontal education models, childcare collectives, and community-run health clinics, to name a few.

These structures cannot exist in isolation but must actively network and support one another across communities and regions. Where this dynamic is newly emerging, counter-institutions must strive to support the creation and fostering of similar organizing. When possible, these counter-institutions link up politically, economically, and socially to form a self-sufficient ecosystem; and ultimately, confederate into direct-democratic political bodies in and across communities all over the world.

B. Where can I start ?

The personal is political
Since we live under various systems of domination, we are not immune to them. We have incorporated a lot of the mental structures and patterns of behaviours they facilitate. Getting rid of them is an ongoing work and nobody will ever be 100% woke.

Yet, if you want to get involved in an anarchist movement, you better start by analyzing yourself, your privileges and the injustices you face. You don’t have to read theory every day and be able to quote authors in random conversations to add a valuable contribution to the movement. But neglecting theory or self-criticism can lead to hurting comrades. Try to educate yourself on issues your allies face and don’t expect them to do it for you.

That being said, « deconstruction » takes time and we can’t all be exactly on the same page at the same time. Our movement should leave room for little honest mistakes and practice radical empathy as long as we’re dealing with genuine comrades.

The affinity group : molecule of the movement
From an anarchist perspective, organizational structure should maximize both freedom and voluntary coordination at every level of scale, from the smallest group up to society as a whole.

You and your friends already constitute an affinity group, the essential building block of this model. An affinity group is a circle of friends who understand themselves as an autonomous political force. The idea is that people who already know and trust each other should work together to respond immediately, intelligently, and flexibly to emerging situations.

This leaderless format has proven effective for guerrilla activities of all kinds, as well as what the RAND Corporation calls “swarming” tactics in which many unpredictable autonomous groups overwhelm a centralized adversary. You should go to every demonstration in an affinity group, with a shared sense of your goals and capabilities. If you are in an affinity group that has experience taking action together, you will be much better prepared to deal with emergencies and make the most of unexpected opportunities.

Anarcha-Feminists assert that the small group is not simply a reaction to male hierarchical organization, but a solution to the movement’s problems with both structure and leadership. In 1974, Cathy Levine, the cowriter of “Blood of the Flower,” wrote the anarcha-feminist response to Freeman, “The Tyranny of Tyranny.” Levine argued that feminists who utilize the “movement building” strategies of the male Left forgot the importance of the personal as political, psychological oppression, and prefigurative politics.

Instead of building large, alienating, and hierarchical organizations, feminists should continue to utilize small groups which “multiply the strength of each member” by developing their skills and relationships in a nurturing non-hierarchical environment. Developing small groups and a women’s culture would invigorate individual women and prevent burn out, but also create a prefigurative alternative to hierarchical organization.

« The reason for building a movement on a foundation of collectives is that we want to create a revolutionary culture consistent with our view of the new society; it is more than a reaction; the small group is a solution. »

Cathy Levine

Relative to their small size, affinity groups can achieve a disproportionately powerful impact. In contrast to traditional top-down structures, they are free to adapt to any situation, they need not pass their decisions through a complicated process of ratification, and all the participants can act and react instantly without waiting for orders—yet with a clear idea of what to expect from one another.

The mutual admiration and inspiration on which they are founded make them very difficult to demoralize. In stark contrast to capitalist, fascist, and socialist structures, they function without any need of hierarchy or coercion. Participating in an affinity group can be fulfilling and fun as well aseffective. Most important of all, affinity groups are motivated by shared desire and loyalty, rathert han profit, duty, or any other compensation or abstraction.

Some affinity groups are formal and immersive: the participants live together, sharing everything in common. But an affinity group need not be a permanent arrangement. It can serve as a structure of convenience, assembled from the pool of interested and trusted people for the duration of a given project. A particular team can act together over and over as an affinity group, but the members can also break up into smaller affinity groups, participate in other affinity groups, or act outside the affinity group structure. Freedom to associate and organize as each person sees fit is a fundamental anarchist principle; this promotes redundancy, so no one person or group is essential to the functioning of the whole, and different groups can reconfigure as needed.

An affinity group can range from two to perhaps as many as fifteen individuals,depending on your goals. However, no group should be so numerous that an informalconversation about pressing matters is impossible.

Learn each other’s strengths and vulnerabilities and backgrounds, so you know what you can count on each other for. Discuss your analyses of each situation you are entering and what is worth accomplishing in it—identify where they match, where they are complentary, and where they differ, so you’ll be ready to make split-second decisions. One way to develop political intimacy is to read and discuss texts together, but nothingbeats on-the-ground experience. Start out slow so you don’t overextend.

Indigenize anarchism. Queer it. Recontextualize it. Make it yours.

Bandilang Itim, Twitter

Once you’ve established a common language and healthy internal dynamics, you’re ready to identify the objectives you want to accomplish, prepare a plan, and go into action.

Affinity groups are resistant to infiltration because all members share history and intimacy with each other, and no one outside the group need be informed of their plans or activities. Once assembled, an affinity group should establish a shared set of security practices and stick to them. In some cases, you can afford to be public and transparent about your activities, in other cases, whatever goes on within the group should never be spoken of outside it, even after all its activities are long completed.

An affinity group can work together with other affinity groups in what is sometimes called a cluster. The cluster formation enables a larger number of individuals to act with the same advantages a single affinity group has. If speed or security is called for, representatives of each group can meet ahead of time, rather than the entirety of all groups; if coordination is of the essence, the groups or representatives can arrange methods for communicating through the heat of the action. Over years of collaborating together, different affinity groups can come to know each other as well as they know themselves, becoming accordingly more comfortable and capable together.

When several clusters of affinity groups need to coordinate especially massive actions—before a big demonstration, for example—they can hold a spokescouncil meeting at which different affinity groups and clusters can inform one another (to whatever extent is wise) of their intentions. Spokescouncils rarely produce seamless unanimity, but they can apprise the participants of the various desires and perspectives that are at play. The independence and spontaneity that decentralization provides are usually our greatest advantages in combat with a better equipped adversary.

Stop wondering what’s going to happen, or why nothing’s happening. Get together with your friends and start deciding what will happen. Don’t go through life in passive spectator mode, waiting to be told what to do. Get in the habit of discussing what you want to see happen—and making those ideas reality.

Without a structure that encourages ideas to flow into action, without comrades with whom to brainstorm and barnstorm and build up momentum, you are likely to be paralyzed, cut off from much of your own potential; with them, your potential can be multiplied by ten, or ten thousand. If every individual in every action against the state and status quo participated as part of a tight-knit, dedicated affinity group, the revolution would be accomplished in a few short years.

An affinity group could be a sewing circle or a bicycle maintenance collective; it could come together for the purpose of providing a meal at an occupation or forcing a multinational corporation out of business through a carefully orchestrated program of sabotage. Affinity groups have planted and defended community gardens, built and occupied and burned down buildings, organized neighborhood childcare programs and wildcat strikes; individual affinity groups routinely initiate revolutions in the visual arts and popular music.

Murray Bookchin, an american theorician of anarchism and social ecology, believes that a specific kind of affinity group should be the priority : the study group.

« A future movement for basic social change will not satisfy the needs of our time —- its sense of disempowerment, alienation, displacement, meaning, and community — unless it pieces itself together consciously, bit by bit, with the aim of ideological clarity and theoretical coherence. Education, in my view, is the top “priority” for a radicalization of our time. Only by a supreme act of consciousness and ethical probity can this society be changed fundamentally. That it needs “objective forces” to promote that consciousness and ethics over and beyond educators is clear enough, but I hold more than ever that the study group, not only the “affinity group,” is the indispensable form for this time — especially in view of the appalling intellectual and cultural degradation that marks our era. »

The first Anarcha-feminists also formed studygroups which also acted as affinity groups, and formed and dissolved quickly. Many groups were located in university towns, partially due to the success of AnarchoFeminist Network Notes as a communications network, which allowed activists to communicate and organize outside of major urban areas. Collectives were often small, flexible, and project based. Because they required intimacy and small size, when groups became too large, as the Des Moines and Cambridge based BlackRose Anarcho-Feminists did, they split into multiple study and action groups.

These groups also acted as affinity groups that collectively participated in action around various local and national issues, from the local food coop to international political prisoner support to the lesbian movement to ecology struggles and the anti-nuclear movement.