Gian Piero de Bellis

Beyond anarchy





This short paper is the result of readings and direct experiences over several years. The intention is to use it as an appendix to the anthology Libertaria I edited for the publisher d.

This thematic anthology collects, in five volumes, some essential texts by anarchist and anti-authoritarian thinkers and activists of the 19th and 20th centuries.




The history of anarchy (as theory and practice) has unfortunately been marked by a series of deplorable misdeeds and deformations.

In the initial phase of the anarchist conception (first half of the nineteenth century), there was just a strong and clear denunciation of any form of domination by an expanding external power, namely the state. In the words of Proudhon, the first to call himself an anarchist,

"Whoever lays his hand on me to rule me is a usurper and a tyrant, and I declare him my enemy." (Les Confessions d'un Révolutionnaire, 1849).

A few years later, in 1872, a small group of anarchists expelled from the International Workingmen’s Association dominated by Karl Marx met in Saint-Imier (Swiss Jura) to formulate their anti-authoritarian position in very clear terms.

The anti-authoritarian conception was, essentially, an invitation to promote a variety of personal lifestyles and social organisations, without imposing or being imposed anything. In this way, the lifestyles and social organisations congenial to each person would be adopted and practised by individuals and communities formed voluntarily. At the same time, everybody would have ignored and accepted as non-threatening realities, i.e. as non-authoritarian, the practice of other lifestyles and forms of community organisation. This variety would be not only desirable but also necessary in complex social systems, as William Ross Ashby pointed out in his text An Introduction to Cybernetics (1956) through the formulation of the 'law of requisite variety'.

Unfortunately, even within the anarchist movement, some individuals began to consider their own ideas and practices as the best and the only ones suitable for all. Thus, almost from the beginning, those who proclaimed themselves anarchists divided and subdivided themselves into anarcho-communists, anarcho-collectivists, anarcho-mutualists, anarcho-individualists, and new labels (anarcho-capitalists, anarcho-nationalists) emerged and were added to with the passing of time.

This has given rise to the emergence of factions and frictions, to impositions and excommunications, in the worst tradition of all power-hungry individuals and groups.


Anarchy without adjectives

In 1890 a Cuban-born anarchist, Fernando Tarrida del Mármol, proposed a solution to overcome sectarianism and presented it in a letter to his French comrades under the formula of 'Anarchy without adjectives' (1890). Over time, this position was accepted and promoted by many other anarchists, including Max Nettlau and Errico Malatesta.

However, the virus of sectarianism had infiltrated so much into the movement, which was now dominated by a few overbearing and vociferous individuals, that when the anarcho-communists refused the participation of the anarcho-individualists at a Congress, Max Nettlau, the famous historian of anarchist thought and practice, commented that this meant the end of anarchy as an anti-authoritarian movement.

During the Spanish civil war, in which anarchists played an important role, anarcho-collectivism was seen as the solution to be applied to all in the social and economic spheres. As a result, the civil war was not only a bloody struggle between political movements defined as right-wing and left-wing, but also a clash, often violent, within the various components of the left (anarchists, communists, Trotskyites, socialists), with many unpalatable if not atrocious acts of bloody repression. To impose their ideas, some anarchists went so far to formulate the idea of an anarchist dictatorship, modelled on the Bolshevik party dictatorship preached and practised by Lenin (see Vernon Richards' account, Teachings of the Spanish Revolution, 1957).

It is therefore not surprising that the anarchist conception and movement subsequently underwent a profound crisis. In 1985, Bob Black in an article that anarchists don't like to read or quote (Anarchism and Other Impediments to Anarchy) stated openly:

"My considered judgment, after years of scrutiny of, and sometimes harrowing activity in the anarchist milieu, is that anarchists are a main reason - I suspect, a sufficient reason - why anarchy remains an epithet without a prayer of a chance to be realized."

Since then, the situation has deteriorated further, and therefore an even more radical solution than that suggested by Tarrida del Mármol should be proposed, in line with what Bob Black pointed out.


Anarchy without anarchists

In 2000, David Graeber wrote an article (Are you an anarchist? The answer may surprise you!) in which he expressed the very plausible idea that

"human beings are, under ordinary circumstances, about as reasonable and decent as they are allowed to be, and can organize themselves and their communities without needing to be told how."

For Graeber, those who accept and practice this idea, and share the belief, so often confirmed by historical facts, that 'power corrupts' are, in reality, anarchists without realising it.

To promote and practise anarchism, therefore, there is no need for individuals parading the label of anarchists and loudly proclaiming that they are such. What we really need are decent individuals who do not want to live by exploiting and dominating others. And most individuals are like that. Graeber lists some cases of practical anarchy without the need for professional by profession:

"Every time you treat another human with consideration and respect, you are being an anarchist. Every time you work out your differences with others by coming to reasonable compromise, listening to what everyone has to say rather than letting one person decide for everyone else, you are being an anarchist. Every time you have the opportunity to force someone to do something, but decide to appeal to their sense of reason or justice instead, you are being an anarchist. The same goes for every time you share something with a friend, or decide who is going to do the dishes, or do anything at all with an eye to fairness."

However, there is a further step to be undertaken in the 21st century and it is the most radical and perhaps the definitive one.


Anarchy without anarchy

The term anarchy, due to state propaganda and the violent actions of some self-proclaimed anarchists, has, over time, taken on very negative connotations. Thieves, robbers, murderers, have sometimes justified their actions by qualifying them as act of anarchist rebellion. Many of these acts were committed by impulsive and delusional individuals who took on the role of avengers, such as Émile Henry who, on 12 February 1894, threw a bomb at the Café Terminus at the Gare Saint Lazare in Paris, killing one person and injuring twenty others.

Commenting on this tragic episode, the novelist and journalist Octave Mirebau wrote:

"A mortal enemy of anarchy could not have acted better than this Émile Henry, when he threw his inexplicable bomb in the midst of a quiet, anonymous group of people who had come to the café to have a mug before going to bed [...].
Émile Henry says, affirms and proclaims that he is an anarchist. It is possible. [...] These days it is fashionable for criminals to declare themselves anarchists [...] Every party has its criminals and its madmen, because every party has its men' (Le Journal, 19 February 1894).

Because of these tragic acts artfully exploited by state propaganda, the term 'anarchy' has taken on misleading and unpalatable connotations. Hence, over time, some have proposed different names to qualify the same conception and aspiration, namely the end, for all and everywhere, of domination and exploitation.

In Spain, Rafael Farga i Pellicer, a printer and activist, seems to have been the one who invented the term 'acracia' (from the Greek ἀ-κρατία, 'absence of' 'power'). In January 1886, the first issue of a magazine entitled Acracia was published in Barcelona. In addition to Rafael Farga i Pellicer, the editorial team consisted of Anselmo Lorenzo, Ricardo Mella and Fernando Tarrida del Mármol. Indeed, the absence of Kratos (power) rather than Arké (authority) more appropriately qualifies the end of a dominant entity (the state) and the aspiration to freedom for all.

Another term introduced by some anarchists is 'Libertaire'. It appears for the first time in a letter written in 1857 by Joseph Déjacque and addressed to Proudhon. In that letter, the anarchist Déjacque condemned the attitude of arrogant superiority that Proudhon had shown towards a woman, Jenny d'Héricourt, who had 'dared' to criticise him in an article published in December 1856 in the Revue Philosophique and entitled Monsieur Proudhon et la question des femmes (Mr. Proudhon and the Question of Women). In his letter-pamphlet (De l'Être-Humain mâle et femelle), Joseph Déjacque rebuked Proudhon's misogynistic attitude and qualified him as a liberal and not a libertarian.

The term Libertaire was used by Déjacque himself for a publication that appeared in New York in June 1858 and was published until February 1861 (Le Libertaire. Journal du Mouvement Social). The same title was used by Sébastien Faure for a newspaper distributed in France in the mid 1890s.

Unfortunately, none of these terms has managed to replace the word anarchy, which survives perhaps also because of its ambivalent function. For the state as a propaganda tool that instils fear and contempt; for the self-proclaimed anarchists as a sign of their superiority as exponents of the most radical and most terrifying ideology in the political arena.

However, subterraneously, there is a deep need to move beyond the term anarchy, which is often an expression of infantilism and exhibitionism, and to recover the true meaning behind the word. This could be done by abandoning, once and for all, that ambiguous and misleading qualifier.

- Ambiguous. The term 'anarchy' can be and has been interpreted by some as a lack of principles (arké in Greek also means principle, origin, first cause). Some, therefore, postulate the aberrant concept of the superego, i.e. the individual who does not feel bound by any moral rules, ready to satisfy only his will and whims. This is what Camillo Berneri called 'anarchic cretinism'.
- Misleading. Many interpret the term 'anarchy' as a force for the destruction of the current 'order'. As for the positive proposition of new social models, too many anarchists associate the term anarchy with other 'isms' (e.g. communism, collectivism). In so doing they fail to realise that anarchism then has nothing new to propose other than the old conventional ideological soups fed, or rather imposed, on everyone.

We should therefore move from a negative term (an) to a positive term, while clarifying the fact that the positive proposition represented by the new term is intended to be nothing more than a method to promote variety (to each his/her own). This was the intention of several classical exponents of the idea who thought that, after the cancellation of domination and privileges, every human being would fill the space of his/her life with personal desires, aspirations, projects, achievements, without the need for a unique form of social organisation.

A possible substitute for the term anarchy could be panarchy, a concept that the anarchist Max Nettlau rediscovered, appreciated and presented in his 1909 seminal article (Panarchy. A Forgotten Idea of 1860). The idea behind panarchy is that people should be free to form voluntary non-territorial communities wherever they live and whenever they wish. Thus, many voluntary communities, with their own rules and forms of organisation, could arise on the same territory, just as there are many religious denominations, many service providers, trade organisations, associations, clubs and so on, which do not hinder each other, and which are all more or less respectful of each other.

That said, it is more likely, and would be even better, that all these terms (anarchy, panarchy) would disappear and only the expressions that portray the concrete aspirations and desirable realities of individuals, i.e. voluntary communities and autonomous human beings, would remain. Indeed, just as there is no specific term qualifying religious tolerance, but we take it for granted, the same should be true of political tolerance.

And then, a truly universal civilisation could finally emerge and be promoted by each and everyone.


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