Anarchy after Leftism

Is post-leftism about trying to move anarchists to the right?

Of course not, because post-leftism is a critique of anarchism’s relationship to the left. Post-leftists are as anti-fascist as all anarchist are.

Are you trying to purge anarchists from anarchism?

Of course not! Not only are post-leftists not trying to that, it is impossible to purge people from the “anarchist movement” or “anarchism.”

Post-leftism is incoherent!

Only when our prrofreaders go on stike.

Can’t I still work with leftists and be a good anarchist?

Of course! Post-leftism is not a code of morality or purity. We understand that politics often involves alliances and work with people who we don’t see eye to eye with on everything. But post-leftism is a critique about anarchism and its relationship to the left in the 21st century. Post-leftism seeks to criticize bad politics, uncritical thinking, and misconceptions about anarchism. Post-leftism is critical of anarchists who consciously or unconsciously argue that anti-anarchist ideas are anarchist. Post-leftism is about criticizing leftist ideas that still seep into our work, such as calls by leftists for anarchists and leftists to work together in a “united front.” Post-leftism is about those anarchists who practice more leftist tactics than anarchist ones.

“Anarchists, with their emphasis on the principles of mutual aid, voluntary cooperation, and direct action, cannot share a common agenda with contemporary leftists any more than they could 150 years ago.”
— Lawrence Jarach, Don’t let the Left(overs) ruin your appetite

“Leftism, as the reification and mediation of social rebellion, is always ideological because it always demands that people conceive of themselves first of all in terms of their roles within and relationships to leftist organizations and oppressed groups, which are in turn considered more real than the individuals who combine to create them. For leftists history is never made by individuals, but rather by organizations, social groups, and—above all, for Marxists—social classes. Each major leftist organization usually molds its own ideological legitimation whose major points all members are expected to learn and defend, if not proselytize. To seriously criticize or question this ideology is always to risk expulsion from the organization.”
— Jason McQuinn, Prologue to Post-Left Anarchy

“For most of their existence over roughly the last couple centuries, consciously anarchist activists, theorists, groups and movements have consistently inhabited a minority position within the eclectic world of would-be revolutionaries on the left. In most of the world-defining insurrections and revolutions during that time-those which had any significant permanence in their victories-authoritarian rebels were usually an obvious majority among active revolutionaries. And even when they weren’t, they often gained the upper hand through other means. Whether they were liberals, social-democrats, nationalists, socialists, or communists, they remained part of a majority current within the political left explicitly committed to a whole constellation of authoritarian positions. Along with an admirable dedication to ideals like justice and equality, this majority current favors hierarchical organization, professional (and, too often, cults of) leadership, dogmatic ideologies (especially notable in its many Marxian variants), a self-righteous moralism, and a widespread abhorrence for social freedom and authentic, non-hierarchical community.
— Jason McQuinn, Post-Left Anarchy?

Debates

Peter Staudenmaier: Challenge Accepted: Post-Leftism’s Rejection of the Left as a Whole
Following up on Mcquinn’s response, Staudenmaier asserts that debate on Post-Leftism would be much more fruitful if “post-left adherents could bring themselves to engage with the criticisms put forward by other anarchists” instead of avoiding debate. Staudenmaier then goes on to restate one of his primary criticisms of post-leftism: Why would the sordid record of some parts of the left require an undifferentiated rejection of the left as a whole?

Jason McQuinn: The Incredible Lameness of Left-Anarchism
When I was asked to contribute an updated essay on the post-left anarchist critique to the Institute for Anarchist Studies monthly web column, “Theory & Politics,” I gladly accepted, even though the time I have available for writing is short these days. I accepted because I was surprised, but pleased, to learn that the heretofore rather ideologically narrow Institute for Anarchist Studies seemed to be opening itself up a bit more to the broader anarchist milieu by making such an invitation. I accepted because I have always been genuinely interested in communicating with a diverse audience, and welcomed the opportunity to present a quick critique of left-anarchism through the web publication of an organization which often seems to identify quite closely with the subject of my critique. And, finally, I accepted because I was told that immediately following my contribution Peter Staudenmaier would be writing in response “against post-left anarchism and for an anarchism that does not shed the left,” and I have always been a partisan of intelligent, rational debate within the anarchist milieu. Anarchists are desperately in need of such debate-since intelligent and rational discussion has been incredibly short in supply-and I looked forward to having some of the important points in my essay carefully evaluated and rationally criticized.

Lawrence Jarach: Another Reply to Staudenmaier on Post-Leftism
The first thing a critic does who can’t deal with the content of what s/he is criticizing is to try to show that it isn’t original. Like the argument that worker’s self-management is more efficient at production than private ownership, this argument relies exclusively on capitalist criteria (innovation being seen as the sure road to success). So like most critics who show little desire to understand their targets, Peter Staudenmaier (PS) first attacks post-left anarchy (PLA) by asserting that it isn’t original—even though nobody says it is. In fact, like anarchism itself, it can be seen as an attempt to provide a (more or less) coherent theoretical framework for, and a description of, a tendency already being expressed.

Peter Staudenmaier: Anarchists in Wonderland: The Topsy-Turvy World
Throughout this thoroughly muddled dispute, the most consistently reasonable theorist for the post-left tendency has been Jason McQuinn, founding editor of Anarchy Magazine. McQuinn’s take on the post-left idea is essentially a recapitulation of the themes that have preoccupied him since the 1970s: the critique of ideology, the rejection of moralism, suspicion toward formal organization, and the liberatory power of individual desire. These are familiar topics for many anarchists today, and have also found significant resonance among non-anarchist sectors of various radical movements.

“The rapid slide of the political left from the stage of history has increasingly left the international anarchist milieu as the only revolutionary anti-capitalist game in town. As the anarchist milieu as mushroomed in the last decade, most of its growth has come from disaffected youth attracted to its increasingly visible, lively and iconoclastic activities and media. But a significant minority of that growth has also come from former leftists who have – sometimes slowly and sometimes suspiciously swiftly – decided that anarchists might have been right in their critiques of political authority and the state all along. Unfortunately, not all leftists just fade away – or change their spots – overnight. Most of the former leftist entering the anarchist milieu inevitably bring with them many of the conscious and unconscious leftist attitudes, prejudices, habits and assumptions that structured their old political milieu. Certainly, not all of these attitudes, habits and assumptions are necessarily authoritarian or anti-anarchist, but just as clearly many are. Part of the problem is that many former leftists tend to misunderstand anarchism only as a form of anti-statist leftism, ignoring or downplaying its indelibly individualist foundation as irrelevant to social struggles. Many simply don’t understand the huge divide between a self-organizing movement seeking to abolish every form of social alienation and a merely political movement seeking to reorganize production in a more egalitarian form, while others do understand the divide quite well, but seek to re-form the anarchist milieu into a political movement anyway, for various reasons. Some former leftists do this because they consider the abolition of social alienation unlikely or impossible; some because they remain fundamentally opposed to any individualist (or sexual, or cultural, etc.) component of social theory and practice. Some cynically realize that they will never achieve any position of power in a genuinely anarchist movement, and opt for building more narrowly political organizations with more room for manipulation. Still others, unused to autonomous thinking and practice, simply feel anxious and uncomfortable with many aspects of the anarchist tradition and wish to push those aspects of leftism within the anarchist milieu that help them feel less threatened and more secure – so that they can continue to play their former roles of cadre or militant, just without an explicitly authoritarian ideology to guide them.”
— Jason McQuinn, Rejecting the Reification of Revolt

Further reading

Articles