Anarchy after Leftism

Anarchy after leftism? With the rise of the anti-capitalist movement and the death of authoritarian Left project in the former Soviet Union, anarchists face a future where the traditional Left is no longer a player on the chessboard of politics. With the freedom to articulate our vision and its practice in everyday resistance, anarchists need to figure out what is next.

What are post-Left anarchists? In the words of Jason McQuinn: "Post-left anarchists want to see anarchists define their own autonomous movement, theory and activities free from the deadweight of overidentification with the left."

Important Texts

Jason McQuinn: Anarchy after Leftism
There remain large numbers of anarchists who continue to identify closely with the political left in one form or another. But there are increasing numbers ready to abandon much of the dead weight associated with the left tradition. Many pages of this issue are devoted to beginning a new exploration of what is at stake in considering whether or not identification with the political left has outworn any benefits for anarchists.

Lawrence Jarach: Leftism 101
Liberalism, Humanism, and Republicanism are political and philosophical schools of thought deriving from the modern European tradition (roughly beginning during the Renaissance). Without going into details, adherents of the three (especially Liberalism) presume the existence of an ideal property-owning male individual who is a fully rational (or at least a potentially rational) agent. This idealized individual stands opposed to the arbitrary authority of the economic and political systems of monarchism and feudalism, as well as the spiritual authority of the Catholic Church. All three (LH&R) presume the capacity of anyone (male), through education and hard work, to succeed in a free market (of commodities and ideas). Competition is the overall ethos of all three.

Jason McQuinn: Post-Left Anarchy: Leaving the Left Behind
One of the most troubling problems of the contemporary anarchist milieu has been the frequent fixation on attempts to recreate the struggles of the past as though nothing significant has changed since 1919, 1936, or at best 1968. Partly this is a function of the long-prevalent anti-intellectualism amongst many anarchists. Partly it's a result of the historical eclipse of the anarchist movement following the victory of Bolshevik state communism and the (self-) defeat of the Spanish Revolution. And partly it is because the vast majority of the most important anarchist theorists—like Godwin, Stirner, Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Malatesta—come from the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. The void in the development of anarchist theory since the rebirth of the milieu in the 1960s has yet to be filled by any adequate new formulation of theory and practice powerful enough to end the impasse and catch the imaginations of the majority of contemporary anarchists in a similar manner to Bakunin's or Kropotkin's formulations in the nineteenth century.

An Anarchist FAQ
This important text explains what anarchism is and what it isn't. Large portion of this text is devoted to explaining why anarchism is different from leftism and why leftism is wrong on many political questions.

Wolfi Landstreicher: From Politics to Life: Ridding Anarchy of the Leftist Millstone
From the time anarchism was first defined as a distinct radical movement it has been associated with the left, but the association has always been uneasy. Leftists who were in a position of authority (including those who called themselves anarchists, like the leaders of the CNT and the FAI in Spain in 1936-37) found the anarchist aim of the total transformation of life and the consequent principle that the ends should already exist in the means of struggle to be a hindrance to their political programs. Real insurgence always burst far beyond any political program, and the most coherent anarchists saw the realization of their dreams precisely in this unknown place beyond. Yet, time after time, when the fires of insurrection cooled (and even occasionally, as in Spain in 1936-37, while they still burnt brightly), leading anarchists would take their place again as "the conscience of the left". But if the expansiveness of anarchist dreams and the principles that it implies have been a hindrance to the political schemes of the left, these schemes have been a far greater millstone around the neck of the anarchist movement, weighing it down with the "realism" that cannot dream.

Lawrence Jarach: Instead of a Meeting
There is a great deal of confusion among anarchists in terms of what anarchism is and, more importantly, what anarchism is not. It is all too common for anarchists to mistake tactics for principles. Even worse, some mistake opponents for allies. Many anarchists need to be reminded that we are against the State and government, and that this fundamental stance is the main characteristic that differentiates us from others who promote social change. It is my hope to begin a process of analysis and discussion about this unfortunate condition by providing a sort of primer on anarchism. My use of the term "we" refers to anarchists.

As the smoke clears, Britain's organised/liberal left expose themselves as the fad-rebel whip crackers we always knew they were by Flaco

A New Syndicalism? by Flint Jones
Anarcho-syndicalism has changed a lot from it's origin in workers' movements of the late 19th century. It saw many of its practices adopted by reformist institutions, and other practices rendered illegal by the repressive hand of the state. Criticisms have grown outside of workplace related issues, and failures have been revisited time and again. I'd like to constructively address some of those criticisms to develop a revolutionary strategy for tactical intervention with the economic struggles of our class.

Postscript to the article "Give up Activism"
Many of the articles in the Reflections on June 18th pamphlet repeated almost to the onset of tedium that capitalism is a social relation and isn't just to do with big banks, corporations or international financial institutions. It's an important point and worth making, but "Give up Activism" had other fish to fry.

Some Misconceptions about Post-leftism

Aren't post-leftists denying the long association that anarchism has had with the left?

No, we point out that anarchism has had a long relationships with leftism, often to the detriment of anarchism. The leftists have never liked having us around. There are plenty of examples of instances where governments run by leftists have repressed, imprisoned, and killed anarchists. Anarchists have frequently found common cause with leftists on different issues. And post-leftism is about being POST-leftism, not post-rightism or something else.

Isn't post-leftism connected with primitivism?

No. There is no connection.

Are you trying to turn anarchists into post-leftists?

No. Post-leftism is not a movement, network or organization. It doesn't need more members or recruits because it is more a tool of critical thinking about politics than it is about identifying as a "post-leftist." To the extent that some of us accept the label "post-leftist" is a convenient way to identify those who are advancing post-left critiques. If you want to help advance and promote the ideas of post-leftism, then perhaps you can become a post leftist.

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?


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