Perspectives on Anarchist Theory

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Vol. 5 - No. 2
Fall, 2001

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Anarchism and the Struggle to 
Move Forward 

By Kim Fyke & Gabriel Sayegh

The 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.

The 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.

All 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.

Activism 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://

We 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)

Over 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)

We 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.

Breakdown: 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)

By 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.

The 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.

In 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.

The 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 organized.

There’s 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.” (7)

When 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 others.

Critiques 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 themselves to.

If 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.

Rethinking 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)

What 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 others.

Organizers 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)

Baker 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)

As 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.

‘Group 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)

Organizations: 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.

Organizations 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.

Organizations 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 with.

Organizations 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)

Building 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 processes.  With organization, structures can be built and processes developed to prevent the creation of hierarchies and to develop accountable leadership.

Moving 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)

Without 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.

We 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  leadership  and 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.

As 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) ~ 

If you have any comments or would like discuss the article with 
the authors, contact at:


1.     LeGuin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed. New York: HarperPrism, 1974.

2.     Andrew X. Give up Activism. Available online at

3.     For more on the contradictions between activism and organizing, see Mumm, James. Active Revolution: New Directions in Revolutionary Social Change Chicago:  Active Resistance, 1998.

4.     National Organizers Alliance. “What is an Organizer?” Online. Internet. Available online at:

5.     For in-depth analysis of white supremacy in the anarchist trend and the anti-globalization movement, see Colours of Resistance. Available Online at

6.     For detailed analysis of the connections between white supremacy and capitalism, see the Challenging White Supremacy Workshop web page. Available online at

7.     Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation. After Winter Must Come Spring.  Oakland: self-published, 2000, p. 25

8.     Love and Rage, page 26

9.     Crass, Chris.  Looking to the Light of Freedom.  May 2001. Available at

10.     Crass, Looking to the Light of Freedom

11.     Mumm, Active Revolution

12.     Love and Rage, p. 28

13.     Frantz Fanon. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, 1963.  pg 136

14.     Dolgoff, Sam. The Relevance of Anarchism to Modern Society. 1970. Online. Available online at

15.     Mumm, Active Revolution

Perspectives on Anarchist Theory - Vol. 5, No. 2 - Fall 2001