Editorial: Still for nonviolent anarchism

IssueApril - May 2024
Comment by Milan Rai

Back in the 1970s, Peace News used to advertise itself in the pages of Freedom, the anarchist paper with these words: ‘“Peace News” – the other anarchist weekly.... “Peace News” for the theory and practice of nonviolent anarchism.’

Freedom no longer exists as a printed paper, sadly – that disappeared 10 years ago – but its online version continues to carry reports of anarchist action around the world.

Peace News has long been committed to some version of nonviolent anarchism as part of its vision of revolutionary nonviolence. We’re just as proud of that today as we were in the 1970s.

For PN, taking nonviolence seriously leads in a deeply anti-authoritarian direction, as the Russian author (and anarcho-pacifist) Leo Tolstoy argued in the nineteenth century.

At the back of this issue, we are carrying a review of a book about the people’s uprisings that took place around the world in the 10 years during and after ‘the Arab Spring’.

The author, Vincent Bevins, a mainstream journalist, is extremely sympathetic to the young protesters who put their bodies on the line in the cause of social justice, democracy and freedom. 

He is also unsympathetic to the anarchism-in-practice that many of these protesters fell into or chose. 

The review sums up Bevins’ argument: ‘The anarchist energy, the horizontalism, was powerful as a disruptive and oppositional force, but had fatal weaknesses. It was useless for steady ongoing improvements. Nor, despite the ideals of the activists, was it up to addressing underlying structures of economic power that make people poor – and also deny them any means of changing things.’

As a statement about the anti-establishment movements of the ‘protest decade’, this may well be largely true.

As a statement about anarchism and ‘horizontalism’, this is very far from true.

The word horizontalidad (‘horizontalism’) was invented to describe the combination of direct democracy (in neighbourhood assemblies) and direct action (taking over hundreds of workplaces and reclaiming land) seen in Argentina on a large scale after the 2001 economic collapse.

US activist and sociologist Marina Sitrin wrote an excellent book about the Argentine experience: Horizontalidad: Voces de Poder Popular en Argentina (Chilavert, 2005), which was translated into Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina (AK Press, 2006). (We published an excerpt in PN 2485.)

What Sitrin documented was how (in a time of crisis and breakdown) people naturally took up anarchistic, anti-authoritarian ways of working, and used them not only to throw out five successive governments, but to make desperately needed ‘steady ongoing improvements’ in their lives, including community bakeries and kitchens as well as worker-controlled factories.

What Sitrin and many others noticed was that ‘horizontalism’ spread around the world, influencing Occupy in Greece, Spain and the US, for example.

What about anarchism? 

Well, there is a long history of anarchist trade unions which have, year in and year out, fought for ‘steady ongoing improvements’ in their members’ lives. 

In South America, anarchist trade unions had a major role in the labour movements of Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Paraguay and Uruguay. In Peru, anarchist unions played a leading role in the six-year campaign that finally won the eight-hour day in 1919.

These unions were definitely ‘up to addressing underlying structures of economic power that make people poor’, though that doesn’t mean they won every struggle.

In Spain, the anarchist movement, led by the CNT union, carried out a sweeping revolution in Catalonia in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War, establishing workers’ control of most of industry and democratic land reform in agriculture, putting power in the city and the countryside largely in the hands of ordinary people.

(Yes, the revolution was defeated – but only after liberals, socialists, communists and fascists, inside Spain and abroad, all joined forces to crush the anarchist challenge.)

These movements, and many others, show how anarchism has often been a constructive force making a practical difference in the lives of large numbers of people.

Here in Britain, to take just one example, three PN workers live in a housing co-op that would not exist without the help and support of Radical Routes, a network of dozens of housing and worker co-ops and social centres. This is a network created and maintained by anarchists that has lent over £1.5m since 1988 to take millions of pounds worth of property out of personal, private ownership and into collective, tenant-controlled ownership.

It is just not true to say that anarchism is only ‘a disruptive and oppositional force’, and that it is not up to the job of tackling the ‘underlying structures of economic power that make people poor’.

Yes, there are all kinds of anarchisms.

‘A French writer, sympathetic to anarchism, wrote in the 1890s that “anarchism has a broad back, like paper it endures anything” – including, he noted, those whose acts are such that “a mortal enemy of anarchism could not have done better.”’ – US anarchist Noam Chomsky

Bevins writes about the afterlife of the young protesters he interviewed, saying that some went into representative (party) politics; some became Leninists; and some just became inactive: ‘Not one person told me they had become more horizontalist, more anarchist, or more in favour of spontaneity and structurelessness’ (emphasis added). 

Anarchism is not just ‘spontaneity and structurelessness’. Its greatest achievements, in the Spanish Revolution, came after decades of preparation and education and organising and struggle against injustice, and decades of building highly structured – and democratic – people’s organisations: unions, schools, social centres and so much more.

The anarchist thinker Mikhail Bakunin wrote in 1842: ‘The urge to destroy is also a creative urge.’ Now, in 2024, anarchists are called to put into practice another truth: ‘The urge to build – and to learn and to organise and to listen and to empower – is the foundation of anarchist creativity.’

Nonviolent anarchism must be a key part of this.

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