Rethinking Anarchism: Carlos Taibo

The following is a partial translation of the “Prologue” and a complete translation of “Chapter 1” of Carlos Taibo’s Rethinking Anarchy: Direct Action, Self-Management, Autonomy (La Catarata, Madrid, 2013).  We have translated and posted work by Taibo before, but this is our most extensive effort.  And we hope that it is but the first in a series of what will be the complete translation of the book.  In this way we hope to share with English readers the work of one of the most significant anarchist voices today in spain.


It is strikingly evident that we are witnesses to a remarkable renewal of libertarian ideas and practises.  The corresponding movements, which have often been taken for dead, demonstrate a surprising capacity for survival which in the last instance is sustained by an undeniable fact: we are before a current of thought and action whose constant presence can be verified since time immemorial.  The interest in anarchism is ever greater at a moment when the word crisis resounds everywhere and with it a growing awareness of the terminal corrosion of capitalism and the general debacle that may accompany it.  And it is increasingly obvious that the discourse of capital – there is no alternative other than our own, they tell us – is crumbling.  There are ever more people who take notice of it and ask vainly for some explanation for the presumed appropriateness of that which in all evidence no longer has any.

The perception of what constitutes anarchism’s virtues and its flaws has change continuously, often notably, over the course of time.  This is the case most significantly the case in the last quarter century with the collapse of Social Democracy and Leninism.  Many appear to have been mistaken, especially those who saw in anarchism a project completely incapable of addressing the problems of complex societies.  The arguments today appear farcical, arguments that continue to be repeated, that suggest that anarchism is a world-view of the past, imaginable only – whatever these terms may mean – in the minds of simple people who inhabit backward countries.  And it is surprising that there are those who fail to appreciate the greater problems with growth, industrialisation, centralisation, mass consumption, competition and military discipline.  Anarchism does indeed imply the aim of restoring many of the characteristic elements of particular communities of the past.  But it also carries with it the effort at a complex understanding of the miseries of the present, and ventures in favour of self-management, de-mercantilisation and an awareness of limits.

The above should not be taken to mean that libertarian thought offers answers to all of our concerns.  Even less does it mean that an aggiornamento is not necessary, something that at times seems to be indispensible, because it is necessary to rethink, or to clarify, many of the concepts that we have inherited from the classics of the 19th century.  We need with urgency to adapt anarchist thought to new realities, even more so as the problems of that it identified a century or a century and a half ago –authoritarianism, oppression, exploitation – have in no way abated.  In some sense, we find ourselves before two interrelated paradoxes.  The first recalls that while, on the one hand, anarchism encounters unquestionably great difficulties in positioning itself in the societies in which we unfortunately live, while on the other hand, it is felt to be ever more necessary to confront the calamities of these societies.  The second underlines the weakness of the organisations that claim an anarchist identity in affirming themselves at a time in which the more general and significant diffusion of the libertarian project is nevertheless remarkable.

In light of what has just been stated, it appears ever more pressing to break with the isolation specific to many of the identitarian forms of anarchism, and to do so, in addition, from the non-dogmatic perspective of those who have, necessarily, many debts and who know that they do not dispose of – I will repeat – answers to everything.  One must face the tension between the inescapable radicalness of the ideas that we defend and the awareness that they need to reach out to many human beings and be of practical consequence.  Because we are unsatisfied with what we are, convinced of our necessity, conscious of the glories and the miseries of the past, it often becomes evident that we talk a great deal, but that we do not act in ways that are desirable.

Chapter 1: About Anarchism

What Anarchism Is

Given that anarchism has a manifestly anti-dogmatic outlook, it will hardly be surprising that determining what is properly anarchism is a singularly complex task.   It may however be assumed that there are two distinct perspectives relative to it.  While the first understands anarchism to refer to a way of life that, sustained by a way of seeing the world, manifests itself through behaviour that sinks its roots into time immemorial, the second refers to a specific doctrine that, with clear defined outlines, saw the light of day at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th.

It should not be forgotten, in relation to the first of these perspectives, that the adjective anarchist is very frequently employed to describe peoples and initiatives very much prior to the end of the 18th.  This use of the term has made itself evident in reference to – and these are a few examples among many – Chinese peasants, members of religious movements in Medieval Europe or specific expressions of piracy.[i]  The label has also framed reflection in accounts of the condition of primitive societies, such as the Nuer studied by Evans-Pritchard, the Piaroa considered by Overing, or the many peoples invoked in the writings of Sahlins and Clastres.  It seems that the consideration of this condition has an important consequence in the matter of fixing what should be of interest in an eventual history of anarchism; this last, in addition to addressing the evolution, relatively recent, of particular ideas, must also approach the condition and the deployment of many human initiatives engraved in the distant past.  Because in the general body of anarchism – in conformity with this perspective – what is of greater relevance corresponds to practices more than to theoretical reflections.

For the rest, it is true that there exist important relations between the two perspectives of anarchism that I have so poorly glossed.  To site but one: that which reminds us that in the eyes of some historians, anarchism was little more than a temporary and extemporaneous manifestation of what has been called “primitive rebels”.  From this point of view, the past invoked by the first of our perspectives would then so burden the content of the doctrine located in the heart of the second that the consequence could be nothing other than a useless jumble.  This does not seem to be the best moment to address such nonsense.  I will limit myself to recalling that, seen from a distance, if the primitive rebels appear preferable to their modern inheritors, it should be emphasised that the historical practise of anarchism is open to anything and includes frequent manifestations in complex societies.  I would also ask myself about the primitive condition of people that, like Noam Chomsky or Bertrand Russell, have identified themselves – with or without reason – with anarchism, or remember that, to my understanding, the answers that anarchism offers too many of the problems of the present are much more keen than those forged by their ideological competitors.  And this because, although anarchism is, yes, a state of mind, this last is accompanied by a body of ideas and shared experiences, even though often of differing kinds, and even contradictory.  In this body of ideas and experiences a lucid and reflective discourse is frequently apparent, which thereby obliges one to suspect the very extensive perception of anarchism as an amorphous thing burdened by its emotional and irrational condition, impulsive and novelesque, romantic and propitious of dejection.  However, and again, and in the way that I have just suggested when I speak of primitive rebels, what is wrong with emotion, especially when these are impregnated with rational elements?

In the end, it would some proper to anarchism that we understand it as the product of a kind of mix of the two perspectives summarised, held together on the basis of the idea that in the last analysis there is a memory that transmits values and experiences in such a way that one and the other, contrary to lapses and appearances, do not die.  The configuration of anarchism as a practise/doctrine calls upon the demands of a whole tradition – that formed in the last centuries around phalansteries, communes, soviets, factory workers’ councils, collectivisations or French Mays – which, even though more often than not possessed of modest historical resonance, scarce concretisations and precarious consolidation in time, carries with it examples that shine in a magma of misfortunes.  This tradition would certainly be significant at the time of explaining current phenomena.  It is sufficient to bring up in this respect a fairly widespread view that considers a movement such as that of the 15th of May (15-M) as a response, among us, and in one of its forms, that is fed simultaneously from three decentralising traditions – the local, the nationalist and the anarchist – with the primary influence lying in the political culture of the country where it originated.

It is certain that the propensity to live in the past, which is not absent from many of the expressions of libertarian culture, may have been at the origin of the idea that anarchism itself is an ideology of the past.  Before this, it is necessary to emphasise that the majority of anarchists do not celebrate any nostalgic attachment to the past.  While, on the one hand, they begin, and without hesitation, with the conviction that the libertarian tradition provides extremely useful tools to think and to change what lies today before us, on the other hand, they demonstrate an awareness of an undeniable fact: if we accept the first of the perspectives under consideration here – that which sees anarchism as essentially a type of conduct – the conclusion that there are many and very diverse interpretations about the precise meaning of this conduct is unavoidable.  Some of these interpretations do in fact lead to equivocations and simplifications, like those that are woven around persons who are simply unhappy with the existing political and economic realities in which they are obliged to live, who act under the cover of an ephemeral reaction of a merely aesthetic nature and in which circumstances are overly emphasised.

The Doctrinal Body

As things were, it does not appear too difficult to establish the principal elements that moulded the doctrinal body of anarchism.  I will mention: the rejection of all forms of authority and exploitation, and among them, those constructed around capital and the State, the defence of societies based on equality and liberty, and the consequent postulation of free association from below.

It is certainly frequent that anarchists have defined themselves first on the basis of what they reject – the State, capitalism, inequality, patriarchal society, war, militarism, repression in all of its forms, authority – rather than from what they have defended as an alternative.  In the wake of this, there have not been a few who have understood, following an argument that merits attention, that anarchism, which has celebrated a noteworthy sagacity at the moment of identifying problems and defects, has not always been at the same level of what was hoped for when the moment came to offer effective solutions for one and the other.  Even though the argument has some basis, it is good to offer a direct response: more often than not, the competing worldviews cannot even assume their capacity to identify problems and failings.

Libertarian thinkers have often had to confront, in the end, a considerable number of equivocations and misunderstandings.  In fact, to take but one example, they have shown a notable effort in emphasising that in anarchism there can in no way be found a rejection of organisation.  What are rejected are the coercive forms of these, such as those represented by States, armies, churches, or businesses.  What this last implies, at least in principle – I will admit that the case is more complicated than it might appear -, anarchists respect the authority of doctors, architects or engineers.


It is important to underline that, in relation to its doctrinal positions, that anarchism assumes – or should assume – a non-dogmatic position in all areas of life.  There is no principle – not even its own – which cannot be debated.  In this respect, it is useful to recall the words of Tomás Ibáñez: “To recognise the extreme fragility of anarchism is to perhaps demonstrate a greater anarchist sensibility than to endeavour to deny it or to admit it unwillingly.  It is precisely because of its imperfection that anarchism situates itself at the level that it pretends to occupy.”[ii]

Anarchists have always displayed a manifest concern before closed programs that so please those who commonly never succeed in making real such programs or, even more, have violated them as part of parties and institutions.  They also do not carry with themselves any pretension to construct a scientific theory, as accepting this also brings with it, in one way or another, the acceptance of an authority that takes on the task of managing it.  In this order of things, anarchism is rather, as suggested by David Graeber in many of his writings, an inspirational and creative impulse[iii] that seeks to preserve – I would add – an open attitude before diversity and difference – even knowing full well how difficult it is to impose non-imposition – and in this regard it suspicious of norms with universal application.

The consequence of all of this has been very often an eclectic and plural thought, against the commonly homogeneous and monolithic condition of Marxist doctrine.[iv]  Josep Termes has emphasised, without going further into the matter, that the Spanish libertarian movement had a multiform character, such that anarchist doctrines often functioned as a background that failed to hide the primacy of working class action led in a reasonably autonomous manner by the workers themselves.[v]  “Who believes that that which is called anarchism in Spain is a conscious anarchism, theoretically grounded in the great libertarian thinkers, is mistaken; the great masses and the leadership, with few exceptions, possessed nothing other than a revolutionary instinct”, added Jacinto Toryho.[vi]  Furthermore, among the Spanish libertarians, attention was accorded to both disparate and original positions: as again Termes reminds us, the corresponding subculture found sustenance in neo-Malthusianism and birth control, sexology clinics, naturalism, nudism, vegetarianism and esperantism.[vii]

The Learned and the Sciences

I have already noted that libertarian thought never aspired to develop a science with the aim of identifying, for example, an eventual and determined development of society.  The issue though is not only limited to this: libertarian thought always exhibited an evident suspicion towards what was called the learned and intellectuals.

Bakunin, to cite one example, always maintained a distance with regard to the learned, intellectuals and scientists, and with respect to them, contested in particular the Comtean goal of elaborating a “scientific government” or the Marxist aim of creating a similar form of rule under “scientific socialism”.  (Of course, the elaboration of this last concept owes more to Engels than to Marx, who often defended a radical critique of the presumptions of scientific knowledge).  It is true, however, that many of the anarchists of the 19th century, with Proudhon at the head of the list, as well as Bakunin, defended the rigour of science as a counterweight to religion, and this even as they remained cautious with respect to the first.  Kropotkin, for his part, always showed fastidious with respect to the virtues attributed to science.  Today, it can be stated that a reasonably sceptical attitude continues to prevail in relation to the learned, intellectuals and scientists in libertarian discourse and this as much in its doctrinal expression, as well as in its concrete realisations.

To further clarify the anarchist perspective, it is not without value to recall that the collectivisations that occurred during the Spanish Civil War were not planned by scientists and intellectuals: they were carried out by a simple people apparently without knowledge.  The precarious relation between Spanish libertarians, who gave shape to a movement with obvious popular roots, and the intellectual world, has still to be studied.  However much one invokes the youthful years of Azorín, of Camba and of De Maetzu, or the episodic spasms of Sender and Léon Felipe, something distanced one reality from the other.  This is so much the case that only with the passage of time did Spanish anarcho-syndicalism accept, though with reticence, the development of labour unions created for professional intellectuals.  Lastly, it is significant that the majority of the theorists of Spanish anarchism – we leave out the exceptions of Tarrida del Mármol, Salvochea, Mella, Puente, Abad de Santillán and the members of the Urales family[viii] – were self-taught workers.

Schools and Currents

It is true that in speaking of the doctrinal body of anarchism, that it has not been without its schools and currents.  There are individualist anarchists, as there are those – the majority: mutualists, collectivists, communists … – who are not.  There are anarchists who appeal to the people in general, as there are those who link their demands to a specific human group.  There are anarchists who give overwhelming priority to work within labour unions, as there are those who distrust this.  There are pacifist anarchists, and those who are less so.  There are anarchists who adhere to a flexible discursive doctrine, as there are those who find vitality in a working class vein, who tie themselves to a world of counter-cultures.  Lastly, appealing to a classification that has found some echo, there are anarchists with an upper case A – those who did not integrate any of the aforementioned currents – as those with a lower case a – those that did belong to some current.  What concerns me in this instance renders it difficult to develop any general criticism of anarchism, while those eventually targeted may not feel concerned by it.

The existence of distinct schools has however rarely provoked destructive debates.  And this because there does not exist between the majority of these schools the same degree of confrontation that is revealed, for example, between the different currents that claim allegiance to Marx’s thought as their source of origin; an allegiance commonly portrayed furthermore by the use of the names of one or another political leader or thinker.  The distinction between mutualists, collectivists and communists does not have in anarchism accordingly the same significance as what separates Leninists, Trotskyists and Maoists in the ideological tradition of Marxism.  Furthermore, it is equally the case that with anarchism, there is no personal icon placed above others; in particular, there is no Marx, as there is no canonical text on the scale of The Communist Manifesto or Capital.

However much this remains the case, and even though there exist no Bakuninists or Kropotkinists today, it would be absurd to deny that the individuals who give their names to such identifications continue to carry considerable weight; something with little to recommend for itself within the libertarian world and its’ iconoclasm.  There is also little awareness of how frequently the principal theorists of 19th century anarchism were often contradictory thinkers and blinded by their epoch as concerns, for example, problems raised about women, science, technology, or natural resources.  We may perhaps be permitted to conclude that we have made some progress in this domain over the last few years, when it becomes evident that those who are considered the most important contemporary anarchist theorists do not have the same aura as that which emanates from the great figures – Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Flores Magón, Ferrer i Guàrdia or Malatesta – of the 19th or the early 20th centuries.

Let us agree that, as things stand, it is quite rare, in a debate between libertarians, that there is a discussion about whether Bakunin or Kropotkin said this or that.  Given that contemporary anarchism is a complex mix of sensibilities, rather than referring to what was said by the classics, it is more common to interpret and infer what they might say today, without any concern for fidelity.  In this sense, and even if one may appreciate the effort to rationally organise our knowledge as carried out by Paul Eltzbacher, and his is one example among others, in his Anarchismus[ix], the result is somewhat sterile as seen from our vantage point.

Anarchists and Libertarians

In the pages above, I have employed indistinctly – and I will continue to do so in the majority of what follows – the adjectives anarchist and libertarian, even though, as can be observed, with evident pre-eminence given to the former.  For a long time, and as regards what is closest to us, the two adjectives have been taken as almost perfect synonyms.  When one spoke of, for example, the Catalan Libertarian Movement, it was taken as obvious that one was speaking of the Catalan Anarchist Movement.  And yet I do not believe that it would be a mistake to state that these adjectives do exhibit some difference.  It would appear that the first, anarchist, carries with it an ideological and doctrinal weight that is greater than that of the second, libertarian.  Someone is an anarchist – supposedly – because they have read a Bakunin, a Kropotkin and a Malatesta, and adheres, to a greater or lesser degree, to the ideas expressed by these authors.  The ideological or doctrinal vein weakens somewhat, by contrast, with the adjective libertarian, which has a less well defined identity and, in this respect, easily allows for a reference to people who claim to believe in direct democracy, assemblies and self-management, without necessarily being anarchists.

It will be clear from this moment on that though it appears to me that reading Bakunin, Kropotkin and Malatesta is highly recommendable, that I am more interested in the non-identitarian mental horizon that is tied to the meaning – I admit debatable – that I attribute to the adjective libertarian.  In other words, I am more interested in the organisation and the people who are captured by what the adjective invokes, than by the organisation and the people who adhere punctiliously to the anarchist canon, understanding nevertheless that I believe that these last more often than not act, fortunately, without strict adherence to doctrine or identity.  To put matters differently: I firmly believe, according to my terminological distinction, that not all libertarians are at the same time anarchists, but that the majority of anarchists manifestly, by logic and consequence, accept the rules of the game of libertarian practice.

In the beginning of 2011,[x] I wrote a text in which in substance I defended the necessity of forming a libertarian and global organisation that could welcome whoever, regardless of their ideological position, or even lacking any such position, declared their commitment to direct democracy, assemblies and self-management.  And even though I continue to believe in the good sense of this idea, I confess that its bases were shaken when, a few months later, the 15th of May movement appeared.  It was a matter of choosing between, all things considered, what would in the end be little more than a libertarian circle – the proposal of the essay – and the horizon of preparing an organisation of self-management that would break moulds and frontiers.  In this sense, and regardless of the fragilities of 15-M – which are undoubtedly many – I remain with the libertarians, and with the anarchists, who would prefer to work with the movement of the 15th of May, rather than sustain coteries.  They would prefer to work with common folk, rather than animate closed and self-centred circuits.  My friends would be no doubt thankful, those who fear identitarian projects, and the dogmas and legacies that often weigh upon them.

I cannot however hide the fact that these terminological options that I propose bring with them their own problems.  I will leave aside those that derive from the fact that it is difficult, very difficult, to be an anarchist.  To define oneself in this way – some will think – is to put the bar too high and, in this case, to take upon oneself an exercise of less than recommendable arrogance.  I remember that on the so distant date of 1976, with the occasion of a meeting organised by the Confederación Nacional de Trabajo (CNT) in Manzanares, in Ciudad Real, to one of my bus companions someone asked if he was an anarchist.  The one questioned answered with a modesty not devoid of irony, that he was an “an acratilla”.  In a different sense, and additionally, the not so subtle identification of anarchy and disorder, so pleasing to the makers of public opinion, does not appear fortunately to have made much progress among us.

Greater are the problems that come with libertarian.  One, the principal problem, is born of a well known fact: in North American political culture, the adjective libertarian refers to a kind of extreme liberalism, individualistic and possessive.  And even though this meaning of the term has today some currency among us, I do not believe, at least for the moment, that it has served to altogether push aside the sense of collectivity and solidarity that have always marked our libertarians/anarchists.  It is not too much to add, lastly, that one meaning of the adjective libertarian, very common in Latin America – that which associates it with the actions of the liberators of the early 19th century – scarcely raises any difficulty for what comprises my terminological distinction.

Mutual Revitalisations

They have been many, and very significant, the contributions of anarchists and their movements.  But the echo of their theorisations and corresponding practices expand, and significantly, when are included those realised by those – following the terminological distinction already discussed – who inspire themselves, more generally, from the libertarian tradition.

This echo reveals itself in a variety of disciplines.  With no desire to present a final balance, I can refer to examples in pedagogy (Ivan Illich, Alexander S. Neill), psychiatry (David Cooper, Ronald Laing), geography (Élisée Reclus, Kropotkin), anthropology (Sahlins and Clastres, referred to earlier), epistemology (Paul K. Feyerabend, whose work we welcomed openly four decades earlier, without for the most part understanding its significance), and the critique of technology (Lewis Mumford, John Zerzan), or of other domains (Cornelius Castoriadis, Michel Foucault and, again, Illich).

In this same sequence, however, it is also important to refer to the mutual inspiration that libertarian thought and movements of greater or less affinity have experienced.  There are the examples, in this case, of pacifism and anti-militarism – one may cite the names of Tolstoy and Gandhi here – , of movements dedicated to contesting imperialism and racism, of those engaged in the struggle against all forms of ethnocentrism, of networks dedicated to bringing an end to the exploitation and marginalisation experienced by women, of organisations which defend animal rights, of vegetarianism and veganism, of those who have elaborated a counter-culture, situationism and zapatismo, of those who challenge globalised capitalism, or, finally, to close the list, of those who have given priority to ecological concerns and with them, the discussion around the environmental and resource limits of the planet.  I speak of movements that have been fed by libertarian thought – their current state would be difficult to explain without this relation – and which, as a consequence, have contributed to the perception of those, always, and as remembered by Daniel Barret, whose horizon is that of anti-capitalism, anti-statism and anti-authoritarianism.[xi]

The Individual and the Collective

The majority of the traditions of anarchist thought have in fact a socialist or communist character.  Consequently, it is held that it is in society, and in social life, where the greatest human virtues are revealed, and among them, cooperation, solidarity and mutual aid.  It is further added that this social life has been the object of various historical aggressions, many of them originating in the State.

Having said this, it is important to remember that at the same time libertarians have always assumed a cabal defence of the individual and her/his powers.  Even though anarchist thinkers have ultimately attributed different meanings to the word freedom, all of them, without exception, understand that it is a central element in any emancipatory project.  It is sufficient to recall that for Emmanuel Mounier, dignity, rebellion and emancipation were the three concepts that gave strength to anarchism and referred to what is most profound in the human being.[xii] From this perspective, it is furthermore necessary to postulate the voluntary character of any adherence to anarchism:  there is nothing more absurd than the pretension to impose libertarian communism or anything like it.

I recall that recently a colleague reproached me for including a text by Max Stirner, an individualist anarchist par excellence, in the anthology of libertarian thought that I submitted for publication in 2010.  I believe that the criticism, though legitimate, was unjust.  And this because Stirner is not the wild and misunderstood individualist that he is commonly portrayed to be.  In fact, the majority of the individualist anarchists do not reject forms of collective organisation and action: what they do reject, as do most anarchists, are those forms, among them, that imply in one way or the other the use of authoritarian procedures.  In this way, individualist anarchism – which is not mine – has contributed, for example, to a healthy and radical challenge of all institutions – not only of the State – and their corresponding relations of power.  It has accordingly been enriching for the more emblematic currents of social anarchism.  As not everything is reducible to the power of the State or capital, or, to its defects, and as this power can frequently take on elaborate forms that are often difficult to perceive, to defend against it the autonomy of the individual is always an honourable as well as necessary task.

This last feels more correct in light of the fact that the majority of the traditions that find their inspiration in Marx’s thought give only very modest attention to the condition of, and the defence of, the individual, as they often only concern themselves with new and old forms of domination and alienation.  And the deficiencies of the epigones of Marx remain surprising – as of course do Marx’s – as regards the different manifestations of domination.

Human Nature

How human nature is perceived in anarchist thought remains an endless discussion.  From the beginning and at the basis of this dispute, one suspects an easily identifiable fact: that Godwin, Stirner, Bakunin or Kropotkin in no way share the same conception.  A historian of anarchism, Peter Marshall, has referred in this respect to the rational benevolence of Godwin, the conscious egoism of Stirner, the destructive energy of Bakunin, and the altruism of Kropotkin.[xiii] This in addition to the fact that among anarchists, one finds everything: ascetics and libertines, hedonists and the circumspect, the affable and the asocial, lovers of work and defenders of the right to laziness, the creative and the sordid.

Many of the expressions of anarchist thought seem to reveal the existence of a discernable human nature, common to all times and places, sharing some kind of essence, such as Nietzsche spoke of with the “will to power” or in bald claims about general competitiveness.  Even with this, what is common and what stands out among anarchists is the conviction that the human being, through mutual aid and solidarity, can live without coercion and authority.  To her/his failing, the ascendancy of these last is the product of an interested operation that distorts the primordial reality, which accordingly demonstrates the degree to which power corrupts and generates undesirable practices and values.  This last is expressed in some such terms, however much it is evident, at the same time, that the suppression of power does not put an end to these practices and values.  Otherwise, anarchist thought begins from the assumption that human nature modulates itself, according to different states of mind, different factors: despite being the product of its environment, as this last can be modified, so too human nature can change.

Many have said that anarchism embraces a romantic and morally good vision which consequently tends to idealise the human condition.  And even though there is no shortage of arguments to support such a conclusion, there are also, and well founded, arguments supporting the opposite.  I believe, without going further, that the rejection of power and coercive authority proper to anarchism can only be explained by virtue of a realistic fear of the consequences of one and the other.

It is perhaps necessary to recall, lastly, that many have been the anarchist thinkers who do not conceive of revolution as an explosive social rupture, but rather as something that calls upon, to a considerable degree, the recuperation of values and ways of conduct that have always been present, though often hidden.  For Kropotkin, let us remember, mutual aid was the rule in stateless societies.  A similar idea is expressed in the words of the German anarchist Gustav Landauer that I now cite: “The State is a condition, a relation between human beings, a human mode of conduct: we destroy it when we establish other relations, when we behave differently.”[xiv]

Without Leaders

When it is affirmed that we need leaders, it is as if one is referring to a biological reality which is, for this reason, natural, rational and inescapable.  Such a necessity however has an ideological and induced character and is little more than one more consequence of the rules of a system interested and determined in reproducing itself.  The rejection of leaders is not therefore a caprice: they quite literally exemplify the condition of the social model that we suffer.

In addition, the idea has often been expressed, and in an apparently more cautious way, that even though leadership is an unhealthy reality, it is an intrinsic part of the organisation of human societies, which we have no choice but to accept.  This is a quite common thesis, in particular, in many of the Marxist or Marxist inspired criticisms of anarchism.  The reply is straightforward: on the basis of an argument of this type, one would also have to accept accordingly many of the other characteristics of our social reality, such as, for example, exploitation, alienation or the absence of solidarity.

Although the expression anarchist leader is a contradiction in terms, the problem of leadership has revealed itself – let us not forget – in the very heart of anarchist organisations.  It is sufficient to remember, among us, the intense polemics, in the decade of the 1930s, that were caused by the creation of the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI) and its presumptive, or real, intention to control, in the manner of a self-proclaimed vanguard, the whole of the libertarian movement.  Bakunin himself was often accused, not without reason, of seeking to create secret and hierarchical organisations.  There was of course another side to the Russian revolutionary: that which, in his defence, expressed a premonitory suspicion – I have referred to it earlier – with respect to a society governed by socialist savants which he believed Marx defended.  And it is the case that, even though it is obvious that the latter was not always an authoritarian Jacobin and vanguardist, this ideological mark was often present in his work and, in particular, in his conduct.

That the problem that concerns us here existed does not mean that there is no record of significant responses to it.  In many of the publications of Spanish anarchism, articles, generally anonymous, of persons of humble origin predominated.  In addition, it was frequently debated whether it was convenient to identify the authors of such collaborations, in an evident desire to contest leadership and personalisms.[xv] It appears, furthermore, that the eventual leaders that anarchist movements would embrace did not exhibit the same kinds of characteristics that shaped the phenomenon in other scenarios.  They referred more to intellectual and moral qualities – even if through them the discussion could arise in more traditional terms – than to the condition of persons who exercised a power that was beyond control.

I may add that in the case of anarchist movements, and as I have had already occasion to note, there was no strict doctrine to administer and supervise.  The movement saw itself as collective and consequently susceptible to self-correction.  From within, there was no place, therefore, for self-proclaimed vanguards which, guardians of a supposedly superior knowledge, so often revealed themselves to be behind those whom they said they led.  As the Russian anarchist Volin said: “The central idea of anarchism is simple: no party, no political organisation or ideology that places itself above or at the margins of the mass of workers to “govern” or “lead” them, can liberate them, even if it truly desires to do so.  Effective emancipation cannot be realised except through the direct action of those interested, of the workers themselves, brought together, not under the flag of a political party or of an ideological organisation, but in their own class organisations (labour unions, factory councils, cooperatives …), on the basis of concrete action and self-management, helped, but not governed, by the revolutionaries who work in the very midst, and not above, the masses.”[xvi]

It is not inappropriate here to follow the intuition that instead of emphasising the proud rejection of leaders, that what imposes itself is what is so forcefully put in the place of it: the direct democracy of equals.


Many of the criticisms levelled against libertarian thought do not refer to the meaning of the general project that it defends, but rather, and more precisely, to its viability.  With remarkable frequency, mention is made in particular of its presumably utopian nature, far removed, we are told, from the real possibilities that human societies offer.

The first response that this argument merits takes the form of a frank claim to utopia.  This – say the libertarians – does not have a negative character, as Marx and Engels attributed, without going further, to the utopian socialist.  Furthermore, Peter Marshall maintains sensibly that anarchism is utopian in that it permanently imagines a world that can be, but is at the same time very realistic to the extent that at its bases, it rests upon deeply rooted traditions of mutual aid.[xvii] Anarchists are, in addition, very realistic, as much as regards the actually existing order, as well as with regards the postulation of the unavoidable necessity for a new order, for which they have outlined precise programs rooted in a conception of collective action and respect for personal autonomy.  Consequently, they seem to propose suggestive responses to the problems of the society of our time, responses that are not so ready to hand from other, presumably realistic perspectives.  If libertarian thought displays, on the one hand, an unparalleled pessimism as regards power, it also manifests a notable optimism, on the other hand, as concerns the possibility of re-establishing human relations marked by norms of equality and solidarity.

I will admit, anyway, that it is difficult to put anarchist ideas into practice.  What do we gain, however, if we renounce the attempt, especially when there are ever more people who do not perceive in them, with the consequent fear that this instils in those who govern us, something distant and incomprehensible?  And does anyone seriously believe, in the end, against the relation between means and ends, that anarchism is any more utopian than social democracy or Leninism?  A French anarchist song of the 19th century provides an ironic answer to many of our difficulties: after having proclaimed that capitalism has been abolished, a hardy question is placed in the mouth of one of its protagonists – who will now pay for the Saturday newspaper – to which the answer is simple, once capitalism and its rules has been thrown into the waste bin of history.




[i] See, in this respect, as an example of the singularity of libertarian literature, the book by Peter Lamborn Wilson: Pirate Utopias, Moorish Corsairs and European Renegades.  Autonomedia, Brroklyn, 2003

[ii] Tomaz Ibañez: Actualidad del anarquismo. Terramar/Anarres. La Plata/Buenos Aires, 2007, p. 172.

[iii] David Graeber: Rivoluzione: istruzioni per l’uso. Bur, Milán, 2012, p. 48

[iv] Josep Termes: Història del movement anarquista a Espanya (1870-1980). L’Avenç, Barcelona, 2011, p. 172.

[v] Ibidem, p. 20.

[vi] Jacinto Toryho, citado en ibidem.

[vii] Ibidem, p. 27

[viii] Ibidem, p. 17.

[ix] Paul Eltzbacher: Anarchismus. J. Guttentag, Berlin, 1900.  Other general works may be cited such as those by Jean Préposiet: Histoire de l’anarchisme. Pluriel, Paris, 2012, and George Woodcock: Anarchism, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1975.

[x] “Por una organización libertaria y global”, en www; (17 de enero de 2011).

[xi] Daniel Barret (Rafael Spósito): Los sediciosos despartares de la anarquía. Anarres/Terramar/Nordan, Breuenos Aires-Montevideo, 2011, p. 224. Many of the terms of the contemporary debate about anarchism are outlined in Alfredo M. Bonanno: El anarquismo entre la teoría y la prática. Bardo, s.l., 2013; Jonathan Purkis and James Bowen (eds.): Changing Anarchism: Anarchist Theory and Practice in the Global Age. Manchester University, Manchester, 2004, and Duanes Rousselle and Süreyyya Evren (eds.): Post-anarchism. A Reader. Pluto, New York, 2011.

[xii] Édouard Jourdain: L’anarchisme. La Découverte, Paris, 2013, p. 94.

[xiii] Peter Marshall: Demanding the Impossible. A History of Anarchism. Harper Perennial, London, 2008, p. 642.

[xiv] Quoted in Paul Avrich: Anarchist Portraits. Princeton University, Princeton, 1988, p. 252.

[xv] Édouard Waintrop: Les anarchists espagnols, 1968-1981. Denoël, s.d., 2012, pp. 93_94.

[xvi] Volin, in Daniel Guérin: L’anarchisme. Folio, Paris, 2012, p. 54.

[xvii] Marshal, op. cit. p. 705.

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