Anarchism's Mid-Century Turn
A Review & Response: Unruly Equality: U.S. Anarchism in the Twentieth Century,
Publisher: Toward Freedom
Date Written: 03/05/2016
Year Published: 2016
Resource Type: Article
Cx Number: CX19387
No matter how one feels about it, the current state of anarchism has represented something of a mystery: What was once a mass movement based mainly in working class immigrant communities is now an archipelago of subcultural scenes inhabited largely by disaffected young people from the white middle class.
The turn to pacifism also locked the anarchist movement in a particular "prefigurative" orientation.
Prefiguration has always existed in three forms: 1- the notion that our revolutionary organizations would later provide the means of coordinating and managing society; 2- counterinstitutions like anarchist schools, bookstores, co-ops, and utopian communities; and 3- lifestyle practices like free love and vegetarianism. However, these different interpretations of "prefiguration" have received different measures of emphasis at various points in time. The IWW stressed the first; the Catholic Worker and the Modern School movement, the second; and the counterculture, the third.
As Holley Cantine, editor of the journal Retort, advised: "Communities and various other kinds of organization must be formed, wherein the ideals of the revolution are approximated as nearly as possible in daily life. The new society must be lived out by its advocates; both as a way of influencing the masses by example, and in order to iron out weaknesses of theory by actual experiment."
As it happened, little genuine experimentation resulted -- either in the artistic sense of playful improvisation, or in the scientific sense of testing hypotheses against evidence. Instead, the prefigurative imperative produced an elaborate moralism. Anarchists became preoccupied with the minutiae of individual choice rather than organizing collective action.
This attitude rested on a contradiction inherent to the prefigurative idea. Morally, prefiguration demands that we act as though the society we want to create were already in existence today; and as strategy, it promises that we can create that society by doing so. The problem is that, were we capable of behaving as we would in a society without capitalism and the state, then there would be no need to abolish either. Instead, it is only possible to act as free and equal beings under conditions of freedom and equality; we cannot create those conditions simply be pretending they exist. The effort, at least as a whole politic, is in fact counter-productive since it turns our attention away from the structural features of our society and toward the moral character of individuals within the movement.
Moreover, the society that our present scenes would seem to prefigure is not on the whole a place where sensible people would want to live. It is as status-obsessed, gossip-ridden, and cliquish as any private school, as prying and sanctimonious as any country church, as prone to splits and purges as the most rigid Leninist sect. Its chief virtues are that it is too small and disorganized to actually succeed in being particularly oppressive. Of course that is only part of the picture, but it is the part that an emphasis on prefiguration tends to foster.
What we are left with, after a few decades of these practices, is the structure and culture of the pacifist movement without its commitment to nonviolence. In fact, even where insurrectionary anarchism has come back into fashion, these same dynamics have continued to hold, only animated with fiery hyperbole and occasional window-breaking.