[This is a repost of something Jeremy wrote on his blog in 2008. While “Someday We’ll Be Ready…” aims beyond the ideological lines and labels that anarchism gets locked into, some of the ideas here are still relevant–reluctant anarchists (and radicals of all stripes) really do need to be careful to not lose their revolutionary edge]
In my now almost 13 (!) years as an anarchist, I have noticed a pattern in anarchist circles that is both completely understandable and really unfortunate. I’ve noticed that anarchists broadly fall into two categories: the loud & proud anarchists, and the reluctant anarchists.
- Loud & proud anarchists are clear in their self-identification as anarchists, they tend to embrace the historic anarchist tradition, they often use historic anarchist symbols like the black flag and circle-A, and they are usually not afraid to talk about fighting a revolution, smashing the state, overthrowing capitalism, etc. They are also often open to bold and militant action, often without thinking too deeply about the consequences.
- Reluctant anarchists, on the other hand, tend to be ex-loud & proud anarchists who have since lost their desire to claim their “anarchisticity.” They have often been humbled by the amazing work of non-anarchist traditions, and/or have been embarrassed by the overall whiteness, straightness, punkness and unflinching militance of loud & proud anarchists, all to the point where self-identifying as an anarchist ceases to make sense or even brings up shame. Reluctant anarchists thus tend to spend more time among non-anarchists than other anarchists, they often eschew militant Anarchist action to engage in “progressive” work that loud & prouds might call reformist, many of them embrace anti-oppression and identity politics in ways that have strained their relationships with the mostly white, straight anarchist subculture, and they tend to only share their anarchism with the soft whisper of a closely guarded secret, or through code-words like “anti-authoritarianism,” or “libertarian socialist.”
If the highly biased descriptions above didn’t make it clear, I fit squarely in the reluctant anarchist camp. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that I tend to not like loud & proud anarchists, and I would generally choose to hang out with radicals of many other tendencies (revolutionary nationalists, women of color and white feminists, queer & trans liberationists, some types of marxists, green party folks, old new lefties) rather than hang out at the loud & proud anarchist infoshop. I think my reasons are pretty clear: I don’t feel comfortable in the loud & proud subculture; I don’t agree with the dusty, turgid politics of class war anarchists and I think primitivist green anarchism is just silly; I think that loud & prouds’ sense of intersections and anti-oppression analysis are really lacking; I don’t like the sectarian and alienating ways that many loud & prouds talk about non-anarchists; I think the militance-for-militance sake attitude is often not only strategically bankrupt but dangerous to our movement; when I am around them I feel judged for the way I dress and the way I approach process; and, more deeply, I feel embarrassed, on almost a bodily level, to be associated with them because they remind me of who I used to be and of so many of the mistakes I have made.
But I don’t want to get hung up talking about loud & proud anarchists. I know I am over-generalizing, yet I also know that my sentiments are usually confirmed at every explicitly anarchist function I attend in the United States (maybe other countries are different?). Regardless, I am much more interested in talking about my folk, the reluctant anarchists. Because while there are definite reasons why well-meaning, critically thinking folks might choose to back away from the anarchist label, I think it can be costly to our politics. I think many of us reluctant anarchists lose some important things in the transition, which I think we might want to reclaim.
In many cases (I think the Bay Area might be different, bless their cutting-edge radical souls), when we step back from anarchist politics, we reluctant anarchists enter into new political spaces that take away our edge. We enter into the non-profit sector and learn important skills that we might not have even thought about before; we enter into coalition-based campaign work and realize that demanding a vague revolution is way, way different than fighting for specific, winnable demands (although groups like the Northeast Federation of Anarchist Communists seem to have learned that lesson while maintaining their anarchism, good for them!); we go to school and conferences and study groups and learn about analyses of the system that traditional anarchist sources don’t even touch. Sooner or later we have learned so much more from other places and traditions that it feels silly to still call ourselves anarchists…
…yet for many of us that loyalty still remains. We still feel something there bonding us to “the idea” (as the Spanish anarchists used to call it), but we often chalk it up to nostalgia, nothing more. Yet I think our instincts are right. There is something in anarchism that most of our new non-anarchist spaces aren’t quite matching, and the blurrier that something gets, the more we stand to lose. I think that in far too many cases, we slowly begin lose the revolutionary, utopian, deeply democratic values and ideals that originally drew us to anarchism, that make anarchism so special, and we end up settling into the goals and values of the new spaces we occupy, at the price of our revolutionary edge.
For me, there are three sort of basic things about anarchism that make it important to me:
1) Its deep faith in individual human beings, and its utopian belief in the kind of society that human beings can construct by working together. This is what gives anarchism its profound and beautiful interplay between the social and the individual, between individual human desire and expression and collective solidarity. This is what makes Crimethinc stuff so appealing to so many, I think, and it is also what makes anarchists generally the life of the party. Unlike so many others, we actually have a sense of entitlement to a much better world, and we aren’t afraid to say that. Many people have never even been asked what kind of better world they could have, yet anarchism takes pride in its utopianism. It urges us to dream in ways that even revolutionary socialists can’t often match. That dreaminess is contagious. And it shouldn’t be dismissed lightly.
2) Its profound rejection of all forms of illegitimate authority and oppression. Anarchism has, within the very roots of the word itself, a strong foundation for a holistic, anti-oppression analysis. While anarchism has historically been the tradition of certain, sometimes privileged groups, and while it has historically focused on capitalism and the state at the expense of other systems of oppression, there is no lack of powerful stories of anarchists in queer and trans liberation struggles, animal rights struggles, anti-racist and anti-imperialist struggles, abolitionist struggles, disability right struggles, and more. Some of the founders of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence are anarchists…and I don’t think that’s just a coincidence for how radically grassroots and revolutionary some of their ideas are. Same for Critical Resistance. Anarchism has always had an anti-oppression streak to it, and potentially now in 21st century more than ever.
3) Its commitment to actually practicing the values we share as we fight for the society that we want. Anarchism doesn’t hold pragmatism above all else, unlike so many other political tendencies and spaces. Instead anarchism holds its values above all, and it urges us to practice our ethics in the here and now rather than waiting for a revolution or a winning of state power. We are called to build the new world in the shell of the old, to experiment here and now with grassroots democracy, with socialist resource sharing, with gender-norm fucking, with new communal arrangements. This is where anarchism gets its militance from, because we are the ones we’ve been waiting for…if not us, who? If not now, when? Anarchism pushes us to avoid rock-stars, demagogues, and experts. It demands that we listen for the quietest and we look to the smallest. It is also why anarchists can feed the homeless for free from dumpsters, why anarchists knew how to fix bikes better than anyone when everyone else was still driving, why they have lovely gardens…the DIY ethic is a deeply anarchist ethic, and it is shame when reluctant anarchists get re-tied to consumerist, wasteful, ultra-pragmatic spaces when we leave anarchism behind.
These three things are what make me continue on as an anarchist. It doesn’t matter whether we use the anarchist label or not, but I think building a 21st century anarchism is all about reclaiming these three basic values and principles, and then building off of them using all of the vast resources we’ve acquired in non-anarchist spaces. Through innovation and exploration and synthesis, I believe we are capable of new levels of revolutionary work in the U.S., and that is what I want to get into next time. Leaving behind our reluctance, there is some work to do.