Anarchism in Practice
As an ideology, anarchism has been more successful as an ideal principle seen in books and pamphlets rather than being put into practice. Anarchists reject active politics, concentrating instead on writing or on experiments in communal and cooperative living. Anarchists are not only apolitical, by rejecting political life, but are also antipolitical, believing the machinery and convention of politics to be corrupt and corrupting.
Anarchism is constantly confronted by the problem that if the state is evil and oppressive by nature, any attempt to win power or influence government is corrupting and unhealthy. For example representative democracy is firmly rejected by anarchists; political power is always oppressive, whether acquired by ballot or by war. Similarly, anarchists reject political parties as being bureaucratic and heirarchic organisations (even those that claim to be anarchist). The concept of an anarchist party, government or politician is therefore a contradiction.
There are three unorthodox methods of political activism endorsed by anarchists: Revolutionary Violence, Direct Action and Non-Violent Protest.
In the 19th Century, anarchist leaders tried to rouse the 'oppressed masses' into insurrection and revolt, e.g. Michael Bakunin. However, these ultimately failed due to a lack of organisation and an overemphasis on spontaneous revolt. By the end of the 19th Century, many anarchists had seen the revolutionary potential of syndicalist movements, and by the 20th Century many moved to the better organised communist movements. Nevertheless, some anarchists continue to place faith in the revolutionary potential of terrorism and violence. These concepts saw their peaks in the 1890s and the 1970s. They used terrorist tactics (or 'clandestine violence') such as bombings or assassinations to create an atmosphere of terror and apprehension, for example President Carnot of France and President McKinley of the USA. Typical anarchist terrorists worked alone, such as Emile Henry in France, but some such as the Angry Brigade in the UK worked as a group.
According to anarchists, violence is a legitimate form of revenge, as well as a way of exerting political influence. Their violence merely mirrors that which occurs already within society, and is therefore 'revolutionary justice'. Violence also demoralises the ruling classes, demonstrating their weaknesses.
Direct action may range from passive resistance to terrorism. Anarcho-syndicalists, for example, refused to engage in conventional politics, preferring to exert pressure directly on employers through boycotting products, sabotaging machinery and mass strikes. The modern anti-globalisation and anti-capitalist movements, which have been influenced by anarchism, also employ tactics such as mass protest and direct political engagement.
- Direct action is uncontaminated by the processes of politics and the state. Discontent can therefore be expressed freely and openly, opposition is not diverted in a constitutional direction and cannot be 'managed' by professional politicians.
- Direct action is also a form of popular activism that can be organised decentrally and relies on participatory decision making. This is sometimes called 'new politics', representing a move towards a more innovative form of protest and mobilisation.
The impact of anarchism can be seen through other movements' use of direct action, such as feminist and ecological protests, through 'anti-political politics'. However, direct action may damage public support (similarly to revolutionary violence) as it implies extremism. Although it may attract mass media attention, it positions the group as a political 'outsider', which makes it difficult to influence public policy making.
In practice, most anarchists realise that violence is tactically flawed. Some, however, have gone as far as to regard it abhorrent on principle. Anarchists such as Godwin and Proudhon followed in the footsteps of philosophers such as Leo Tolstoy, who suggested that salvation could be achieved by living according to religious moral principles and returning to a simpler existence.
- Non-violent protest appeals to anarchists as it reflects a respect for humans as moral and autonomous creatures. This is in line with the anarchist optimistic view of human nature, dictating that all should be treated with compassion and respect.
- It also is an attractive political strategy. To many anarchists, showing restraint from violence when faced with provocation is a demonstration of strength and moral purity. Anarchists who are attracted to this form of pacifism tend to advocate the building of model cooperative communities, hoping to spread anarchist ideas through the stark contrast between their peaceful existences and conventional society.