Monday, September 20, 2010

“I am an Anarchist”: 170 Years of Anarchism

“I am an Anarchist”: 170 years of anarchism
by Anarcho
Anarchist Writers

In 1840, two short expressions, a mere seven words, transformed socialist politics forever. One put a name to a tendency within the working class movement: “I am an Anarchist.” The other presented a critique and a protest against inequality which still rings: “Property is Theft!”

With “What is Property?” Pierre-Joseph Proudhon became one of the leading socialist thinkers of the nineteenth century and the libertarian movement was born, that form of socialism based on “the denial of Government and of Property” and which did “not want the government of man by man any more than the exploitation of man by man.”

Proudhon’s ideas played a key role in the development of revolutionary anarchism in the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA). Their application in the Paris Commune of 1871 was praised by Marx (although he did not mention the obvious source). Michael Bakunin proclaimed that “Proudhon is the master of us all” while for Peter Kropotkin he laid “the foundations of Anarchism.” It is easy to see why, for Proudhon was the first to discuss most of the ideas we associate with anarchism: the critique of property and capitalism; critique of the state; socio-economic federalism; free association; socialisation of the means of life; decentralisation; the abolition of wage-labour by self-management; and so on.
Critique of the State

Proudhon subjected the state to withering criticism. While recognising that the state had exploitative and oppressive interests of its own, he clearly saw its role as an instrument of class rule: “Laws! We know what they are, and what they are worth! Spider webs for the rich and powerful, steel chains for the weak and poor, fishing nets in the hands of the Government.” The state protected the class system:

“In a society based on . . . inequality of conditions, government, whatever it is, feudal, theocratic, bourgeois, imperial, is . . . a system of insurance for the class which exploits and owns against that which is exploited and owns nothing.”

For Proudhon, the state was “the EXTERNAL constitution of the social power” by which the people delegate “its power and sovereignty” and so “does not govern itself.” Others “are charged with governing it, with managing its affairs.” Anarchists “deny government and the State, because we affirm that which the founders of States have never believed in, the personality and autonomy of the masses.” Ultimately, “the only way to organise democratic government is to abolish government.”

For Proudhon democracy could not be limited to a nation as one unit periodically picking its rulers. Its real meaning was much deeper: “politicians, whatever their colours, are insurmountably repelled by anarchy which they construe as disorder: as if democracy could be achieved other than by distribution of authority and as if the true meaning of the word ‘democracy’ was not dismissal of government.”

Given this, Proudhon did not think seizing political power could transform society. This was confirmed when he was elected to the French National Assembly in 1848: “As soon as I set foot in the parliamentary Sinai, I ceased to be in touch with the masses; because I was absorbed by my legislative work, I entirely lost sight of the current events . . . One must have lived in that isolator which is called a National Assembly to realise how the men who are most completely ignorant of the state of the country are almost always those who represent it.” There was “ignorance of daily facts” and “fear of the people” (“the sickness of all those who belong to authority”) for “the people, for those in power, are the enemy.”

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