and the Struggle to
By Kim Fyke & Gabriel Sayegh
Dispossessed, a well-known novel by Ursula LeGuin, details a
functioning society built upon anarchist principles.(1)
Anarchists are often adept at imagining a new and different world,
and, inevitably, we must ask ourselves: how are we going to achieve
this? Visions such as LeGuin’s are often borne from rigorous
anti-authoritarian, multi-dimensional critiques of current society-
its problems, failures, and contradictions. Yet within the current
U.S. anarchist trend, there is a painful absence of articulate
strategy to help move us towards such a world.
question of how to move forward forces us to examine a number of
weaknesses and contradictions within contemporary anarchism: U.S.
anarchism is predominantly white, upper/middle class, and led by
men; consistently avoids leadership issues; and has an unhealthy
aversion to building or participating in organizations. These
weaknesses contribute to anarchism’s incredibly isolated position
on the Left, its perceived irrelevance to many people who might
otherwise identify with anarchist principles, and has yielded an
anarchism rooted in activism.
too often, we assume that simply being anarchists means we are
against oppression, and thereby we willfully overlook the complex
problems of white supremacy, patriarchy, and classism. We often
mistake activism for building a free society. And we create informal
hierarchies by failing to deal with issues of leadership and power.
To move forward we must address these- our greater
weaknesses- in order to develop the intermediary structures
necessary to bring about an anti-authoritarian world.
and Organizing - Where Anarchists Stand
Throughout this article, we use the terms activism and organizing in
opposition to each other, as a way to illustrate the necessity of
organizing, not to create strict dichotomies between the two.
We can think of activism this way: Activism: a doctrine or
practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in
support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.
(emphasis ours) (Definition from Merriam-Webster Dictionary, http://
can also learn about activism from June 18 organizer Andrew X:
Defining ourselves as activists means defining *our* actions
as the ones which will bring about social change, thus disregarding
the activity of thousands upon thousands of other non-activists.
Activism is based on this misconception that it is only activists
who do social change-whereas of course class struggle is happening
all the time. (2)
the last three decades, anarchist activism has taken form through
many dynamic projects and issue-based campaigns. By definition,
though, activism has not- and can not- be the way through which the
revolutionary project is built, because activism elevates issues
over relationships with human beings. (3)
While the politic of anarchism emphasizes relationships, our
commitment to activism has been developed with an almost
oppositional stance towards organizing, which is, at its root, about
building relationships: Organizing: An organizer is a person who is
responsible to a defined constituency and who helps build that
constituency through leadership development collective action, and
the development of democratic structures. (definition by National
Organizers Alliance) (4)
need to reexamine what it means to be an ‘activist’, and what we
tend to think of as an ‘organizer’.
Many anarchists who utilize organizing methods may identify
themselves as activists simply because they do not know about the
idea of organizing. It is important to examine how we practice our
politics and who we are working with, because to achieve collective
liberation we will need to work with the mass of society. Doing this
will require us to prioritize relationships with others, i.e.
organizing, rather than prioritizing issues, i.e. activism.
racism, sexism, and classism in the U.S. anarchist movement The U.S.
anarchist ‘movement’ is dominated by white people, and its
politics and practice are currently rooted in white privilege. (5)
As a result, anarchism in the U.S. has become defined by white
privilege and white supremacy. As a group, white anarchists are
largely without an anti-racist analysis of, and practice against,
white supremacy and white privilege. Critiques of capitalism put
forth from the anarchist movement are largely void of any analysis
of white supremacy. This is particularly problematic, as the two
cannot be separated. (6)
internalizing sexism, men often silence and marginalize women’s
voices. The history and current work of anarchist women has been
largely relegated to obscurity by a patriarchal political practice
wherein women are both undervalued and made invisible.
Anarchist men do not come together enough (or at all) to
discuss how male power and privilege shapes the anarchist trend.
And while anarchist men sometimes prioritize the voices and
histories of women, this becomes quickly tokenistic when such
prioritization is not coupled with active work to change the
underlying social and institutional structures, which afford men
both privileges and a sense of entitlement.
majority of self-declared anarchists come from upper/middle class
backgrounds, but are largely without a complex-analysis of class. By
complex-analysis, we mean an analysis which digs further than that
of ‘owning class/working class’—an analysis which stems from,
and engages in, the voices and experiences of working class/poor
people. One brief example of this lack of class analysis can be seen
within some anarchist cultural practices: perhaps in attempt to find
autonomy from wealth and privilege, many anarchists from
upper/middle class backgrounds take on roles of voluntary
‘poverty’, creating entire subcultures wherein ‘poverty’ is
an aesthetic of value. While
ostensibly rooted in a desire for simplicity, this so-called
poverty, taken on as a cultural attribute, often itself becomes the
expression of class analysis. This volunteer ‘poverty’ quickly
mocks the struggles facing many working class/poor people, and can
be terribly alienating to anyone whose been forced to live in
poverty. We must develop a radical, complex class analysis if we are
to work with working class/working poor people in constructing
viable, class-conscious economic alternatives.
this self-imposed isolation, we have chosen to build activist
projects, which are severely limited in that they have been largely
thought of, designed, built, and implemented by white upper/middle
class people to attract, draw in, and politicize other white, middle
class people, most of whom already sympathize or identify explicitly
with anarchist politics. Rather than build an anti-authoritarian
revolutionary project in the U.S., this strategy has instead served
to build an isolated sub-movement of white activists who join forces
around a common adherence to anarchist politics and perpetuate the
very structures instigated by capitalist society.
anarchist movement is in dire need of an anti-racist, anti-sexist,
anti-classist analysis and a commitment to bring that theory into
action. This commitment must be to challenge oppression by
transforming the institutions and structural mechanisms that give
oppression power. We must also address how, as individuals, we
perpetuate male supremacy, white supremacy, and classist ideas and
behaviors. These are expressions of both institutional realities and
psychological socializations, under which every person in the U.S.
is subjected to and often benefits from or is targeted by (or both).
Devising plans to address these problems can be found by examining
anarchist leadership and the complexities of becoming more
No Anarchist Leadership or Let’s Ignore that Big Pink Elephant in
the Room The question of leadership in anarchist circles brings up a
host of contradictions, which anarchists too often avoid by denying
that leadership exists. This
is complete hogwash. As Love and Rage points out: “Anarchism tends
to assume a theoretical posture of total hostility towards
leadership. But every anarchist group or project that lasts any
length of time has clearly identifiable, if informal, leadership.”
we deny that leadership exists, we allow for informal hierarchies
rooted in racism, classism, and sexism to form. These hierarchies
are built on power, and in their construction, people with privilege
take on leadership roles. In these ‘invisible’ hierarchies, some
people exercise power over others, rather than exercising power with
of power may be at the heart of anarchist theory but there is a
disturbing trend to deny that power exists in anarchist spaces, and
to utilize anarchist rhetoric to deny the existence of leaders and
power. Furthermore, many anarchists define their politics by the
destruction of power- a view that is flawed and rooted in privilege.
Power can be given away, take away, reclaimed, and exercised-
but it cannot be destroyed. It is the way in which power can be
reclaimed and exercised collectively that anarchists should devote
we deny the existence of leaders in our work, we create a perfect
environment for the creation of internal hierarchies while at the
same time limiting our capacity to challenge those who abuse power.
This question of how power is used- power over people or power with
people- is crucial to address when thinking about leadership.
“A position of leadership is in some sense unavoidably a position
of authority. As Anti-authoritarians, we need to create systems that
make leaders accountable to the broader body of people who make up a
movement or organization. We must also develop a practice of
leadership that consciously subverts those authoritarian tendencies,
and assists in generalizing leadership skills among the people.” (8)
anarchists are missing is a conception of leadership that we find
relevant; one that defines leadership by the processes, activities,
and relationships in which people engage, rather than as the
individual in a specific role, having authoritarian power over
throughout history have struggled with this question of
non-hierarchical leadership. Civil rights/ SNCC organizer Ella Baker
demonstrated one different form of leadership.
As Chris Crass writes, “Ms. Baker had an innovative
understanding of leadership, an idea which she thought of in
multiple ways: as facilitator, creating processes and methods for
others to express themselves and make decisions; as coordinator,
creating events, situations and dynamics that build and strengthen
collective efforts; and as teacher/educator, working with others to
develop their own sense of power, capacity to organize and analyze,
visions of liberation and ability to act in the world for justice.
Ella believed that good leadership created opportunities for others
to realize and expand their own talents, skills and potential to be
leaders themselves. This did not mean that she didn't challenge
people or struggle with people over political questions and
strategies. Rather, this meant that she struggled with people over
these questions to help develop principled and strategic leadership
capable of organizing for social transformation.” (9)
did not believe in the ‘single’ leader, which anarchists rightly
criticize. Instead she sought to develop new types of leadership.
Baker described good leadership as group-centered leadership,
meaning that leaders form in groups and are committed to building
collective power and struggling for collective goals. This is
different than leader-centered groups, in which the group is
dedicated to the goals and power of that leader. (10)
Crass deftly notes in his article, Baker’s practice as an
organizer was infused with principles and ethics that could be
considered anarchist, though Baker herself probably never identified
as such. Such models of
leadership are crucial points of study for anarchists.
Leadership’ can only be realized through building relationships.
Building relationships and taking collective action is the root of
what it means to organize people.
But to consider building relationships, we must consider the
material, social, and psychological reality of power. To build
libratory relationships with people, it is crucial to have an
analysis of power as it relates to our social status, material
access, and psychological development. As James Mumm writes, “Relationships are always political,
and as such are the foundation of all conceptions of power.” (11)
a historical necessity in the struggle for social transformation We
would not be wrong to assert that in today’s anarchist trend, most
anarchists hold a strong reservation to any formally organized
structure. We would argue, however, that it is precisely this lack
of structure that has weakened Anarchism and caused many anarchists,
like the now-defunct Love and Rage, to doubt “the viability of
anarchism as a theoretical framework for revolutionary politics in
the 21st century, in some cases to the point of saying they were no
longer anarchists.” (12)
Many anarchists incorrectly equate organizations with
authoritarianism, but structured organization does not necessarily
contradict anarchism. The
authoritarianism of some organizations is due to the politics,
principles, and people that make up the organization, not in the
idea of organization itself.
have been central to liberation movements throughout U.S. history.
Interestingly, when examining these movements, we find that many of
them were influenced or driven by concepts familiar to anarchists.
Self-determination was a central element to the struggles of Black,
Native American, Puerto Rican, et al nationalist struggles.
Movements like the Civil Rights and student movements of the 60’s
were committed to direct action. The labor movements of the teens
and thirties, the queer liberation movement of the 60’s and
70’s, and the women’s’ liberation movement all incorporated
ideas and practices which anarchists call mutual aid.
are necessary because they serve as the structure within which
radical or revolutionary ideas can unfold. The direction and fuel
for these ideas comes from the people who make up the organization-
the base, the constituency of the group. The role of the
organization should be to bring about improvements in the lives of
people, and to develop leadership of all members.
Organizers- many of whom are radicals participating in the
revolutionary project through the structure of an organization-
organize people and develop leadership in the people they organize
can also be useful in developing both a person’s political
analysis and long-term political goals.
Consider the perspective of Frantz Fanon, who argued that a
defined organization is absolutely crucial to aid in the
transformation of the consciousness of human beings, where genuine
revolution arises. He writes, “The success of the struggle
presupposes clear objectives, a definite methodology and above all
the need for the mass of the people to realize that their
unorganized efforts can only be a temporary dynamic. You can hold
out for three days- maybe even for three months- on the strength of
the ad-mixture of sheer resentment contained in the mass of the
people; but you’ll... never overthrow the terrible enemy machine,
and you won’t change human beings if you forget to raise the
consciousness of the rank-and-file. Neither stubborn courage nor
fine slogans are enough.” (13)
organization does more than just give a place for people to practice
politics. It establishes structures that shape the relationships
people have with each other- as in power with others or power over
others. Within these structures, accountability- an element
anarchists have much to learn about- can be built into the
organization, structures can be built and processes developed to
prevent the creation of hierarchies and to develop accountable
Forward- Where to begin?
“There is no "pure" Anarchism. There is only the
application of Anarchist principles to the realities of social
living. The aim of Anarchism is to stimulate forces that propel
society in a libertarian direction.” ---Sam Dolgoff (14)
ideas and strategies to get us ‘from here to there’, we fall
back on an often unspoken, but readily existent, assumption that if
everybody became anarchists, or believed in anarchism, we’d all of
a sudden reach our goals. This is both dangerous and naive. When we
talk about transforming society, we’re talking about transforming
people’s lives, and about this we must be serious, respectful, and
fully aware of our impacts.
are poised at a potentially revolutionary moment. We must consider
how we will harvest the building libratory energy and contribute
anarchist ideas and principles to its formation. We do not need to
create explicitly anarchist organizations to do this.
In fact, we would argue against such. We need to work with
existing groups, or work with others outside of our anarchist
sub-group to create new organizations.
We have to confront the fact of
to work on developing different forms of leadership which are
anti-authoritarian and ‘group centered’. We need to engage in
vigorous educational campaigns, build relationships with the people
we are organizing with, and support the development of individuals
that they might begin to act on their own behalf and become
organizers (leaders) in their own right.
The politics of anarchism are in many ways rooted in building
relationships. It is
our task to develop these politics in such a way that we are engaged
in organizing people, and not just committed to issues.
anarchists, we understand that transforming society will require a
means that reflect the ends we wish to achieve: breaking down
hierarchy, consensus building, and personal transformation- the very
processes that spoke to us and brought many of us to anarchism in
the first place. It is
our task now to develop strategic methods to move us closer to
liberation. Moving forward means first being clear about where we
stand- having a grasp of our weaknesses, our strengths, and our
politics. In this way, we can make clear decisions about how to
proceed. In the words of James Mumm, we would do better to “stop
trying to build a movement of anarchists, and instead build an
anarchistic movement.” (15) ~
you have any comments or would like discuss the article with
the authors, contact at: firstname.lastname@example.org
LeGuin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed. New York: HarperPrism,
Andrew X. Give up Activism. Available online at
For more on the contradictions between activism and organizing, see
Mumm, James. Active Revolution: New Directions in Revolutionary
Social Change Chicago: Active
National Organizers Alliance. “What is an Organizer?” Online.
Internet. Available online at: www.noacentral.org
For in-depth analysis of white supremacy in the anarchist trend and
the anti-globalization movement, see Colours of Resistance.
Available Online at www.tao.ca/~colours.
For detailed analysis of the connections between white supremacy and
capitalism, see the Challenging White Supremacy Workshop web page.
Available online at www.cwsworkshop.org/.
Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation. After Winter Must Come Spring.
Oakland: self-published, 2000, p. 25
Love and Rage, page 26
Crass, Chris. Looking
to the Light of Freedom. May
2001. Available at www.tao.ca/~colours/crass8.htm
Crass, Looking to the Light of Freedom
Mumm, Active Revolution
Love and Rage, p. 28
Frantz Fanon. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove
Press, 1963. pg 136
Dolgoff, Sam. The Relevance of Anarchism to Modern Society.
1970. Online. Available online at
Mumm, Active Revolution
on Anarchist Theory -
Vol. 5, No. 2 - Fall 2001