Commentary Magazine

The Return of Anarchism

In late 2010, several organizations with mysterious names made impressive claims on the world’s attention. During a two-day period in the first week of November, more than a dozen parcel bombs arrived at embassies in Athens and at the offices of leading politicians in three European cities. Only one exploded, burning a mail handler, but European capitals went on high alert, and international mail to and from Greece was halted for 48 hours. Police soon arrested two suspects who were identified as members of a terrorist group called the Conspiracy of Fire Nuclei, with more to follow in the ensuing weeks.

In early December, an organization calling itself Anonymous launched disabling attacks on the websites of corporations that had ceased facilitating donations to the whistleblower group WikiLeaks. For the second time in a year, Anonymous slowed down or took offline the likes of Visa, Bank of America, PayPal, and Amazon, and even the sites of some institutions and public figures, such as Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, who had come out strongly against WikiLeaks.

On December 23, two mail bombs exploded less than three hours apart, seriously injuring employees at the Swiss and Chilean embassies in Rome. The Informal Federation of Anarchists claimed responsibility and vowed future attacks to “destroy the systems of domination.” And on January 30 of this year, the Conspiracy of Fire Nuclei struck again, with an explosion at the Athens courthouse, where 13 of its members were scheduled to go on trial.

These real-world and cyberspace groups have more in common than names seemingly lifted from comic books. They are anarchists, and the headline-grabbing attacks at the end of last year are only part of a larger recent anarchist trend. According to the European police office, Europol, “Spain, Greece, and Italy reported a total of 40 attacks by left-wing and anarchist groups for 2009. This constitutes an increase of 43 percent compared to 2008; the number of attacks more than doubled since 2007.” The numbers didn’t include cyberattacks, and new numbers from 2010 aren’t in yet—but they are certain to show another spike.

Suddenly, then, an ideological philosophy and political movement that had been thought of as a dusty oddity, a relic of the late 19th century, has returned to the fore with enough consequence that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently denounced terrorism “whether it comes from the right, the left, from al-Qaeda, from anarchists, whoever it is.”

What accounts for the new appeal of anarchism? There is one explanation for those attempting to blow up buildings and kill people and another one for those trying to muck about with the Internet. For the bricks-and-mortar anarchists, the 2008 financial collapse gave surprising currency to the idea that their seemingly anachronistic philosophy was actually the only left-wing alternative to an overweening European corporate statism that had failed so spectacularly. The cyberanarchists, meanwhile, have found a dream home inside the Internet, which, as a medium for social and economic interaction, has inspired a degree of antinomian romanticism not known since the first wave of anarchists terrified Europe more than a century ago.

Originally a part of the socialist left in 19th-century Europe and Russia, anarchism arose in response to an undeniably unjust social, political, and imperial order. Anarchists railed against regimes in countries in which genuine monopolies were sanctioned and the poor were punished by all manner of law and taxation. The Industrial Revolution had taken hold, and modernization had created wealth among capitalists but had done little to distribute that wealth equitably. Working conditions were often unspeakable, and as farm workers made the uneasy transition to industrial labor, emperors, kings, and czars took one another’s measure and conspired to expand their empires.

In France, revolutions and coups shape-shifted the country repeatedly from a monarchy to a republic to a dictatorship and back again. When settled, at last, as a republic, France allied with Czarist Russia after 1870 to stave off the threat of a rising industrialist Germany. In Russia, where industrialization was lagging, social unrest following the liberation of the slave class in 1861 was greater than anywhere else in Europe.

Into this turbulent mix came socialists of various stripes, offering hope to peasants and laborers who found no regime worthy of their allegiance. It is among these socialists that anarchists first appeared. Strangely enough, anarchists do not believe in anarchy in the literal sense, a state of utter bedlam. Rather, they are proponents of “anarchism,” a political philosophy defined by seminal Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin in 1910 as “a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government.” In such a society, he said, harmony would be achieved “not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilized being.”

This pacific ideal notwithstanding, anarchism did not actually express itself in a peaceable manner. Indeed, anarchism was the source of a new kind of violent pandemonium without precedent in Western history. Dynamite-throwing, bombing, stabbing, and shooting—these were the tools with which anarchists sought to bring about their earthly paradise under a doctrine they called “propaganda of the deed.” Thus was the conduct we call “terrorism” born.

Anarchists brought their ideas into the physical world with high-profile attacks in Europe too numerous to name. These included the bombing of the French National Assembly in 1893 and the assassinations of French President François Sadi Carnot in 1894, two Spanish prime ministers in 1897 and 1912, King Umberto I of Italy in 1900, and King George I of Greece in 1913.

In its heyday, anarchism was divided into sub-sects. Kropotkin was an anarcho-communist, who foresaw an age of voluntary communal living in which no centralized power would be required to adjudicate disputes or apportion resources. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who declared in 1851 that “anarchy is order,” advocated anarcho-syndicalism, in which worker-owned factories constituted the social and economic anchors of agreeable and sustainable human association. The Russian Michael Bakunin (1814-1876) regarded revolution itself as an essential component of human existence and therefore intrinsically worthy. The German Max Stirner (1806-1856) argued that man’s authority over himself was absolute and that any effort to remove him from the state of nature was harmful and to be resisted.

These hair-splitting abstractions were of little moment next to the way most tended to celebrate violence as a majestic virtue in terms eerily similar to the bloodthirsty ravings of present-day jihadists. “Let us put our trust in the eternal spirit which destroys and annihilates,” said Bakunin, “only because it is the unsearchable and eternally creative source of all.” It was such theorizing that sent some of the age’s greatest writers into waging inspired polemical warfare against anarchism. Works like Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1861), Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Devils (1867), Henry James’s The Princess Cassamassima (1886), and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1903) offered up unvarnished portraits of an intellectualized evil—portraits that helped consign anarchism to the outmost fringe of enlightened opinion.

As the imperial order of European states gave way, moreover, to fairer and more just regimes, anarchism lost a good deal of its purpose. In his 1873 tract, Statism and Anarchy, Bakunin wrote, “A nation’s geniuses are highly aristocratic, and everything they have done until now has served only to educate, strengthen, and enrich the exploiting minority.” Bakunin was not wrong at the time, especially when it came to his own country. But as bourgeoning capitalist democracies allowed more of its citizens to participate in areas once reserved for the aristocracy alone, the nihilistic rage that fueled anarchism began to wither—or turned instead on the growing middle class, which was the key target not of anarchism but of communism.

Both Marxists and anarchists believe in the illegality and corrupting qualities of capital, profits, rent, and property. Incitement to class warfare is a constant in anarchist literature. Marxists and anarchists both seek the ultimate goal of a state-free society. But whereas Marxists believe that the state will dissolve on its own once it has overseen the establishment of a worker’s paradise, anarchists believe in skipping this intermediary period. Indeed, anarchism’s strongest critique of Marxism is that the centralized political institutions Marxism requires will necessarily lead to corruption and authoritarianism. Anarchist principles usually dictate that people live only on what their efforts earn them and take for themselves only what they need.

Anarchism had a run in the United States as well; Leon Czolgosz shot and killed President William McKinley in 1901. Other American anarchists sent out mail bombs, killed New Yorkers in a 1920 Wall Street bomb attack, and made various attempts on the lives of some politicians and prominent Americans. Despite that, the United States never saw the degree of anarchist violence that kept Europe on edge for more than a quarter of a century. And the national sensation caused in the 1920s by the arrest, conviction, and eventual execution of Sacco and Vanzetti on charges of bombing a Massachusetts shoe factory and murdering a businessman brought America’s anarchist period to a sharp close.

Still, when the newly minted radical leftists of the 1960s began to take up their positions on the ideological barricades, they plundered the old anarchist catalogue and picked up whatever was within easy reach and whatever was most dramatic. Anti-nuclear activists blocked the way to nuclear power plants and called it “propaganda of the deed”; flower children idealized man in a state of nature, and so on. The most important change in the appeal of anarchism during this period was captured by Marshall S. Shatz, who edited the 1971 volume The Essential Works of Anarchism and wrote in its introduction, “With the virtual disappearance of the ‘peasant’ and the assimilation by most industrial workers of what are deemed to be ‘bourgeois’ values and conventions, anarchism in the latter twentieth century has found a new constituency among the educative but restive middle-class young.”

That anarchism soon evolved into a youth-focused pop-culture brand seems to have been inevitable. Within five years of Shatz’s observation, the English punk-rock band the Sex Pistols scored a top-40 hit single with their “Anarchy in the U.K.” The circle-A and black-flag symbols traditionally associated with anarchism became fashionable logos in and around the punk set, worn on the sleeves (and bare arms) not of dynamite throwers but of ordinary high-school kids. With its stark good vs. evil ethos, its anthology of lurid violence, and its intellectual foundations thinned down to a marketable sound-bite wavelength, anarchism was a natural fit for those whose politics arose in part from comic books. Successful graphic-novel franchises preaching the cleansing virtues of destructive violence (like Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta) sprang up. Anarchist language and imagery remain staples of a safe and commercialized Western dropout culture.

Its message suddenly achieved new currency in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse. Anarchism began to seem less like theatrical window dressing on an otherwise blurry and lazy left-liberalism and more like a coherent ideological answer for European leftists let down and disappointed by the failures of the statism they once supported.

The financial meltdown and the global recession exposed, in addition to other things, the unfeasibility of the modern European entitlement state. Among the first casualties of the crisis were the Continent’s extensive social-welfare programs. Countries such as Italy, Spain, Greece, and Portugal found themselves on the brink of insolvency, while other countries recognized they were not far behind. Led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who drew up a plan to save her country 80 billion euros over four years, so-called austerity measures were put in place across Europe.


Riots and protests of European citizens began at once and have not yet ceased. But what exactly are they protesting? The best way to think of today’s Euro-anarchists is as a small contingent of rioters who have broken away from the crowd and recognized that asking a failed statist system for more statism is nonsensical. Action aimed at bringing down a failed system at least has a certain logic to it, however dark and unrealistic. Anarchism is the only place for the left to go when statism fails. It is no coincidence that Greece has seen the most anti-austerity rioting and also functions as the center of new anarcho-terrorism.

To be sure, one need not be or become a Euro-anarchist to be suspicious of one’s government in the wake of the financial crisis. Indeed, the American political landscape has recently been transformed by that very suspicion. But the United States was founded on a distrust of government, and its political system is designed to allow citizens a form of redress. When the Tea Party mobilized in 2009 as a response to governmental overreach, it didn’t advocate the destruction of the government. Rather, it demanded a return to a more faithful execution of the principles of the Founders. In Europe, no similarly embedded understanding of the rights of citizens to seek the redress of their grievances against the state exists in the political consciousness. On the Continent, the formation of countries was predicated on tribal ties and geography. A single nation can go from being a benign aristocracy to a military state to a theocracy to a fascist dictatorship and lose little of its identity in the process. It is understandable why Proudhon wrote of his ideal anarchist vision:

As for those who, after the departure of kings, still dream of consulates, of presidencies, of dictatorships, of marshalships, of admiralties, and of ambassadorships, they also will do well to retire. . . . The people no longer want this coin of monarchy; they understand that whatever phraseology is used, feudal system, governmental system, military system, parliamentary system, system of police, laws and tribunals, and system of exploitation, corruption, lying and poverty, are all synonymous.

All forms of government have failed Europeans at one time or another, and the ongoing financial crisis indicates that systemic failure is not beyond the bounds of possibility now. Thus the newfound attractiveness of anarchism, which at least promises its adherents that they will play a role in bringing about that failure rather than simply being passive victims of it.

While the global financial crisis has opened up a new space for anarchism on the political spectrum, the Internet offers cyberanarchists both an exquisitely effective means of attack and a paradisiacal anarchist habitat in itself.

In a November article on cyberwar in the New Yorker, the Obama administration’s “cyber czar” Howard Schmidt is quoted as saying,  “The key point is that cyber war benefits no one.” He is wrong. Not only is this not a key point; it is not a point at all. It is perfectly true that no country would benefit from an all-out cyberwar, because the Internet is too thoroughly transnational. An attack on the private or public sector of any nation would result in great losses for other countries monetarily invested in that nation. But cyberanarchists stand to gain a great deal from cyberwarfare. It is a simple and devastating means of attacking governments and profit-making corporations around the world, all without the use of bombs or guns. It is “propaganda of the deed” achieved from the comfort of one’s home.  Cyberanarchists are Shatz’s “educative but restive middle-class young” with laptops and wireless modems.

The ability to attack easily on a large scale through the Internet is unprecedented in human history. In 1873, Michael Bakunin lamented that, in Russia, all the various peasant communes were self-contained and self-governed and therefore could not join forces for an effective insurrection against the czar. He noted that “one of the chief duties of the revolutionary youth must be the establishment of a living insurrectionary bond between the separate communes, by all possible means and whatever the cost.” In 2010, Anonymous got upward of 30,000 individual computers to overwhelm targets with data at a moment’s notice.

But it is the way in which the Internet resembles the early anarchists’ utopian visions that is most arresting. Proudhon describes “a solidarity which is based upon general reason, and of which we may say, as Pascal said of the universe, that its center is everywhere, its circumference is nowhere.” And here is Bakunin again: “The natural revolutionaries of the Russian peasant world must be linked together, and wherever possible the same link must be created between the factory workers and the peasantry.” He spoke of a “personal link” through which “the best or most advanced peasants of each village, each county, and each district must get to know their counterparts in every other village, county, and district.” The Internet is Bakunin’s endless personal link, only it is global.

No less chilling is Proudhon’s contention that “beneath the governmental machinery, in the shadow of political institutions, out of the sight of statesmen and priests, society is producing its own organism, slowly and silently; and constructing a new order, the expression of its vitality and autonomy, and the denial of the old politics, as well as the old religion.”

Keep that “organism” in mind while taking in this excerpt from a statement issued by Anonymous and addressing “Governments of the Industrial world”:

[W]e are from the Internet. The new home of social consciousness. . . . We have no elected government, nor are we ever likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks; anonymity. I declare the global social space we are building together to be naturally independent of the tyrannies and injustices you seek to impose on us. . . . You have not engaged in our great and gathering conversation, nor did you create the wealth of our marketplaces. . . . Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions.

This is almost too full of adolescent sci-fi bluster to take seriously. But in some sense, that’s the most worrying aspect of cyberanarchists. The danger isn’t in their seriousness but rather in the lack of seriousness with which they go about gumming up serious things. Consider that during its attack, Anonymous employed an application known as LOIC. This stands for Low Orbit Ion Cannon, which is a name taken from a fictional weapon in a video game. Comfortable, technology-savvy, Western youths are now able to turn our dominant means of communication and exchange into a kind of global video game and call it a meaningful political act. And consider this: there is a 27-year-old California native named Jacob Appelbaum. He is a self-proclaimed anarchist who wears shirts bearing messages such as “F—k politics—I just want to burn shit down.” Appelbaum was a troubled teenager who frequented the local mall in drag and picked fights. It was around that time of his life that he discovered computer programming and hacking, which, according to an interview he gave to Rolling Stone, made him “feel like the world was not a lost place. The Internet is the only reason I’m alive today.” Jacob Appelbaum is the only American member of WikiLeaks. What was stumbled upon as an escape route for an emotionally distraught kid was turned into a conduit for divulged global secrets. Only the modern age could facilitate such a consequential marriage of pubescent neurosis and international  catastrophe.

Of the two types of present-day anarchism, the cyber variety is clearly the greater threat. Cyberanarchists are a well-adapted parasitic complication of modern times, whereas the European bomb throwers, for their rising numbers, are almost symbolically retro. Some among the latter have even taken to warning their targets in advance. Moreover, as the world economy finds its footing, disgruntled leftists of all stripes are sure to fade away. But the cyberanarchists, in addition to having the effective means, will also have their cause so long as their “new home of social consciousness” needs defending.

“That we are Utopians is well known,” wrote Peter Kropotkin of his ideological tribe. Whether they are indulging in a violent retro pastime or disruptive futuristic one, today’s anarchists remain utopians, believing, like yesterday’s, that they own the future. And the delusional claim on the world to come will always foster nihilism in the here and now. “We are not the least afraid of ruin,” said the Spanish anarchist Buenaventura Durutti. Why? “We are going to inherit the earth. There is not the slightest doubt about that. . . . The bourgeoisie may blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history.” That indifference to the destructive acts of others functions as a dispensation they grant themselves. In this, the anarchists are like the jihadists, who value only the eventuality of the global caliphate and care not at all for the world that actually exists.

Paradoxically, the nihilism that this sense of destiny inspires guarantees that the anarchists, like the jihadists, will be with us only temporarily. For all their sentimentality about man in his natural state, they fail to see that it is in the true nature of humankind to look upon their program of ennobled annihilation, and recoil.

About the Author

Abe Greenwald is the senior editor of COMMENTARY and writes regularly for our blog.

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