Anarchy in Action : Preface

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(1924 - 2010) ~ British Anarchist Writer and Social Historian : ...lived with the title of Britain's most famous anarchist for nearly half a ­century, bemused by this ambivalent sobriquet. In Anarchy in Action (1973), he set out his belief that an anarchist society was not an end goal. (From : Guardian Obituary.)
• "...the bombs you are worried about are not the bombs which cartoonists attribute to the anarchists, but the bombs which governments have perfected, at your expense." (From : "Anarchism as a Theory of Organization," by Colin ....)
• "It is, after all, the principle of authority which ensures that people will work for someone else for the greater part of their lives, not because they enjoy it or have any control over their work, but because they see it as their only means of livelihood." (From : "Anarchism as a Theory of Organization," by Colin ....)
• "The anarchists, who have always distinguished between the state and society, adhere to the social principle, which can be seen where-ever men link themselves in an association based on a common need or a common interest." (From : "Anarchism as a Theory of Organization," by Colin ....)


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“Nothing to declare?” “Nothing.” Very well. Then political questions. He asks: “Are you an anarchist?” I answer. “... First, what do we understand under ‘Anarchism’? Anarchism practical, metaphysical, theoretical, mystical, abstractional, individual, social? When I was young”, I say, “all these had for me signification.” So we had a very interesting discussion, in consequence of which I passed two whole weeks on Ellis Island.

Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin

How would you feel if you discovered that the society in which you would really like to live was already here, apart from a few little, local difficulties like exploitation, war, dictatorship and starvation? The argument of this book is that an anarchist society, a society which organizes itself without authority, is always in existence, like a seed beneath the snow, buried under the weight and its injustices, nationalism and its suicidal loyalties, religious differences and their superstitious separatism.

Of the many possible interpretations of anarchism the one presented here suggests that, far from being a speculative vision of a future society, it is a description of a mode of human organization, rooted in the experience of everyday life, which operates side by side with, an in spite of, the dominant authoritarian trends of our society. This is not a new version of anarchism. Gustav Landauer saw it, not as the founding of something new, “but as the actualization and reconstruction of something that has always been present, which exists alongside the state, albeit buried and laid waste”. And a modern anarchist, Paul Goodman, dedared that: “A free society cannot be the substitution of a ‘new order’ for the old order; it is the extension of spheres of free action until they make up most of social life.”

You may think that in describing anarchy as organization, I am being deliberately paradoxical. Anarchy you may consider to be, by definition, the opposite of organization. But the word really means something quite different; it means the absence of government, the absence of authority. It is, after all, governments which make and enforce the laws that enable the “haves” to retain control of social assets to the exclusion of the “have-nots”. It is, after all, the principle of authority which ensures that people will work for someone else for the greater part of their lives, not because they enjoy it or have any control over their work, but because to do so is their only means of livelihood. It is, after all, governments which prepare for and wage war, even though you are obliged to suffer the consequences of their going to war.

But is it only governments? The power of a government, even the most absolute dictatorship, depends on the agreement of the governed. Why do people consent to be ruled? It isn’t only fear; what have millions of people to fear from a small group of professional politicians and their paid strong-arm men? It is because they subscribe to the same values as their governors. Rulers and ruled alike believe in the principle of authority, of hierarchy, of power. They even feel themselves privileged when, as happens in a small part of the globe, they can choose between alternative labels on the ruling elites. And yet, in their ordinary lives they keep society going by voluntary association and mutual aid.

Anarchists are people who make a social and political philosophy out of the natural and spontaneous tendency of humans to associate together for their mutual benefit. Anarchism is in fact the name given to the idea that it is possible and desirable for society to organize itself without government. The word comes from the Greek, meaning without authority, and ever since the time of the Greeks there have been advocates of anarchy under one name or another. The first person in modern times to evolve a systematic theory of anarchism was William Godwin, soon after the French revolution. A Frenchman, Proudhon, in the mid-nineteenth century developed an anarchist theory of social organization, of small units federated together but with no central power. He was followed by the Russian revolutionary, Michael Bakunin, the contemporary and adversary of Karl Marx. Marx represented one wing of the socialist movement, concentrated on seizing the power of the state, Bakunin represented the other, seeking the destruction of state power.

Another Russian, Peter Kropotkin, sought to give a scientific foundation to anarchist ideas by demonstrating that mutual aid — voluntary cooperation — is just as strong a tendency in human life as aggression and the urge to dominate. These famous names of anarchism recur in this book, simply because what they wrote speaks, as the Quakers say, to our condition. But there were thousands of other obscure revolutionaries, propagandists and teachers who never wrote books for me to quote but who tried to spread the idea of society without government in almost every country in the world, and especially in the revolutions in Mexico, Russia and Spain. Everywhere they were defeated, and the historians wrote that anarchism finally died when Franco’s troops entered Barcelona in 1939.

But in Paris in 1968 anarchist flags flew over the Sorbonne, and in the same year they were seen in Brussels, Rome, Mexico City, New York, and even in Canterbury. All of a sudden people were talking about the need for the kind of politics in which ordinary men, women and children decide their own fate and make their own future, about the need for social and political decentralization, about workers’ control of industry, about pupil power in school, about community control of the social services. Anarchism, instead of being a romantic historical by-way, becomes an attitude to human organization which is more relevant today than it ever seemed in the past.

Organization and its problems have developed a vast and expanding literature because of the importance of the subject for the hierarchy of government administration and industrial management. Very little of this vast literature provides anything of value for the anarchist except in his role as destructive critic or saboteur of the organizations that dominate our lives. The fact is that while there are thousands of students and teachers of government, there are hardly any of non-government. There is an immense amount of research into methods of administration, but hardly any into self-regulation. There are whole libraries on, and expensive courses in, industrial management, and very large fees for consultants in management, but there is scarcely any literature, no course of study and certainly no fees for those who want to do away with management and substitute workers’ autonomy. The brains are sold to the big battalions, and we have to build up a theory of non-government, of non-management, from the kind of history and experience which has hardly been written about because nobody thought it all that important.

“History”, said W. R. Lethaby, “is written by those who survive, philosophy by the well-to-do; those who go under have the experience.” But once you begin to look at human society from an anarchist point of view you discover that the alternatives are already there, in the interstices of the dominant power structure. If you want to build a free society, the parts are all at hand.

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November 30, 1995 :
Preface -- Publication.

July 22, 2019 18:42:32 :
Preface -- Added to

February 28, 2020 14:35:59 :
Preface -- Last Updated on


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