Making Aspirations into Realities
|Book: Anarchism and Its Aspirations|
ZNet Book Page
Publisher: AK Press
In recent years, the deaths of prominent anarchist thinkers – first Paul Avrich, then Murray Bookchin and Colin Ward – have left us with few seasoned veterans to look to for guidance. While there is a group of new anarchist writers coming into their own, Cindy Milstein has, for the last fifteen years, been an indefatigable voice in the wilderness for left libertarians in North America. Through published essays and public lectures delivered in her inimitable rapid-fire style, and her deep involvement in the Institute for Social Ecology and the Institute for Anarchist Studies, she has spread the good word of anarchism far and wide. Why she waited this long to write a book is probably directly related to the fact that she is so damn busy organizing and working, fighting and lecturing, and helping the rest of us. For these reasons and others, the occasion of her recently published Anarchism and Its Aspirations calls for both celebration and serious critical engagement.
Milstein has crafted a well-written, short and punchy book that will be useful to newcomers and longtime anarchists alike. It will also be invaluable to all those lefties out there in search of a new paradigm, anarchist or not. What defines this book, true to its title, is its focus on the aspirations – the ideas, principles, and values – that motivate contemporary anarchism. This is the theme that links the four essays that make up Aspirations. The heart of this collection, hands down, is the first and longest essay, which takes the same title as the book. The other three shorter essays are all significantly revised versions of material that Milstein wrote and circulated in the early 2000s at the height of what she calls “the anticapitalist movement of movements.” While there are probably many ways to read this collection, we see it as a combination of three constituent parts: a primer, an anatomy, and a call.
As a primer, Aspirations offers a solid schematic to anarchism’s intellectual history. Despite some strange omissions – such as the utopianism of Fourier and Saint Simon, Emma Goldman’s anarchist and feminist politics, and the syndicalism of the Industrial Workers of the World – the main essay makes for a good introduction. This also carries over into the second chapter, which fleshes out the history in the postwar period through the Situationist International, the emergence of the Zapatistas, and the Battle of Seattle, all of which have importantly shaped the character of contemporary anarchism.
On this count, Aspirations is a welcome contribution. Both of us remember wading through Peter Kropotkin’s anarchist classic The Conquest of Bread in high school and eventually setting it aside in confusion. Had Milstein’s book been available at the time, we would have been much better prepared to delve deeper into anarchist theory. For this purpose, her endnotes also offer an excellent reading list for those interested in the history of anarchist ideas and movements.
As an anatomy, Aspirations breaks down anarchist thought into its basic elements. Anarchism is, quoting some key formulations from Milstein, a “radical political philosophy,” “a synthesis of the best of liberalism and the best of communism,” that seeks “a free society of free individuals” and that “aspires to new understandings of happiness,” thereby traversing “the mists of time and space…to give body to the most lofty ideals.” We reconstruct this somewhat whimsical definition to underscore Milstein’s sense of the anarchist spirit.
Although her account emphasizes a rejection of the state, capitalism, and all other forms of domination, Milstein’s main focus is on the “ethical content” of anarchism. This discussion – a review but also, in a sense, a reassessment of core values of anarchism – is very strong. And throughout, she asserts the importance of anarchism itself as an ethical guide. As she writes, “Upending coercive relations is a journey of remaking oneself, as part of the project of remaking the world. But becoming an anarchist is also a process – without end – of applying an ethical compass to the whole of what one (and everyone) is and could be individually and socially.” While perhaps overly focused on individual choices, this gets at something quite central.
As a call, finally, Aspirations urges us to embrace anarchism as a revolutionary praxis, another “‘American Revolution,’ but this time one that breaks with the bonds of nation-states, one that knows no borders or masters, and one that draws the potentiality of self-governance to its limits….” It is difficult to write a dispassionate account of such a fiery idea – though it did not stop Daniel Guerin from trying in his Anarchism: From Theory to Practice – and Milstein’s own deep affection for anarchists comes forth in the book. She is committed to building an anarchist movement, which, as she has argued at several public lectures, means creating more anarchists. To that end, this book is clearly aimed at popularizing anarchism’s aspirations. In her view, no other political philosophy is as worthy of our time and energy. “A variety of antiauthoritarian movements have sprung up worldwide over the past two decades,” she contends, “but anarchism appears to be the only form of libertarian socialism that speaks to the times and people’s dreams.”
Milstein’s book, taken as a whole, largely succeeds in outlining the contours of an anarchist sensibility. She taps into the values and visions that motivate those of us who have been compelled by “the Idea,” as nineteenth-century labor radicals sometimes called it. But this intentional focus on aspirations, it seems to us, also limits the book in some significant ways.
For one, Aspirations frequently disconnects ideas from the flesh-and-blood circumstances of struggle that bore them. Although Milstein likely doesn’t intend this, it’s easy to understand her account to suggest that anarchist values fell from the sky like a priori truths, outside systems of domination but within an almost mythic lineage of anarchist thinkers. Another recent book, Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism by Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt, demonstrates quite thoroughly the ways in which anarchist ideas have consistently grown out of movements, not the heads of isolated individuals. This is crucial, and Milstein knows it. At one point, she insightfully notes a danger in the openness of anarchism as a political philosophy: “when people are introduced to anarchism today, that openness, combined with a cultural propensity to forget the past, can make it seem a recent invention – without an elastic tradition, filled with debates, lessons, and experiments, to build on.” We can only get a sense of this tradition, however, if we understand it as rooted in movement histories.
Similarly, Aspirations often relates to ideas outside of the messy and complicated situations in which we currently struggle. While Milstein emphasizes that anarchists are generally no more ethically consistent than most people, she gives us a litany of values and principles that supposedly determine anarchist practice. In this way, we get a treatment of what anarchism is in a near vacuum, inadvertently lending credence to the mistaken perception of anarchists as purists. The problem here is that anarchism is evoked rather than investigated. Anarchists, in this picture, are like residents of a sublime gated community, where our principles govern our lives and determine our political praxis, like Roman elites: agere sequitur credere, action follows belief. But values and principles coexist with the complicated choices and realities we face every day. Milstein’s insistence that anarchists have near-universal aspirations would thus benefit from grappling with the contradictions and necessary compromises that come with holding a radical stance in a world infused with exploitation, oppression, and domination.
The focus in Aspirations also, in effect, avoids important questions that anarchists urgently need to hash out. Although Milstein wrote this in the midst of expanding social, ecological, and economic crises and a disappointing Obama administration, she includes almost no discussion of anarchist approaches to economics, work, justice, sustainability, or electoral politics. And perhaps most crucially, this book largely lacks an analysis of power, which, to our minds, contributes to a wishy-washy understanding about the way anarchists make revolution, as we strive to replace this world with another.
In the lead-up to the 2007 G8 summit protests, the Turbulence collective took up this issue in a broadsheet they produced. They asked the question, “What would it mean to win?” In response, they claim that people are “uncomfortable” with the notion of winning because it requires that there be losers. But this is not true. Winning, in the sense radicals generally mean it, does not necessarily imply losers, though even if it did, we could easily name more than a few people we’d be happy to see lose. We’re actually uncomfortable with winning because it implies so much that is currently unknown. It implies knowing, at least vaguely, what we want and how to get it. It implies a transition strategy, an endgame, a process of democratic governance, perhaps even a series of non-reformist reforms. And it absolutely requires building and exercising power through organizations and institutions that, at this point, do not exist.
If the anarchist spirit, as Milstein describes it, comes to animate a larger political tendency, it will not slip willy nilly through the walls of power. Rather, it will exploit the fissures until a full confrontation takes place over ideology, territory, and control. And to sustain itself, it will need to exercise many forms of power at different levels and intensities, some of which will inevitably raise difficult questions. We don’t pretend to have the answers about how exactly to carry this out, but we are convinced that, as a modest starting-point, anarchists have to start talking about the p-word.
Milstein’s focus on aspirations limits her book in at least one other important way: it sidesteps a discussion about the significant problems of actually existing anarchism and anarchists in North America today. To be clear, Milstein definitely deserves credit for highlighting the kernels of transformation in widespread but often small-scale anarchist projects such as Food Not Bombs and infoshops. The two of us writing this review readily admit that we all too often overlook such kernels of possibility. Still, this doesn’t erase the very real problems that are so pervasive in contemporary anarchist groups and scenes. We’re thinking here specifically of the subcultural insularity with which so many of us struggle, as well as the difficulties we face in strategically orienting our organizing efforts, effectively contending with power and privilege in our movements, and building resilient organizations and institutions.
In naming these sorts of problems, we don’t think that we’re saying anything particularly new or original. Anarchists and our comrades have been talking about them for years, and Milstein herself alludes to some of them at various points throughout Aspirations. For us, though, these are precisely the kinds of issues that we have to be discussing collectively and rigorously if our aspirations are to be anything other than beautiful dreams.
The final chapter of Aspirations offers us some guidance in moving forward. Milstein is at her best when in direct dialogue with the movements which have animated her writing and which, in turn, have also been inspired by her work. In this case, she turns her critical attention to the forces that breathed life into anarchism in North America for a third time, during the late 1990s. This essay should be required reading for anyone headed to a lock-down or blockade, to disabuse us of any illusion that protests are equivalent to social movements or that anarchism’s strength lies only in mass confrontation. In order to actually live our politics, argues Milstein, we’ll need to build and exercise “popular or horizontal power” within cities, regions, and nations, not just in the streets.
In the concluding paragraphs she takes issue with the alter-globalization movement’s dependence on serial protest, calling instead for a transition “from protest to politics.” As a parting note on the “next steps” for anarchism in North America, there are few finer words: “It is time to push beyond the oppositional character of the direct action movement by infusing it with a reconstructed vision. That means beginning, right now, to translate movement structures into institutions that embody the good society; in short, cultivating direct democracy in the places we call home.”
Ultimately, Milstein succeeds in bringing a new kind of anarchist sensibility to the foreground, one that has been brewing for some time in the streets, squats, and infoshops of the world. We hope that Aspirations will jumpstart the conversation that it deserves – and we so desperately need – about the limits and possibilities of anarchism in North America today.
Chris Dixon is a longtime anarchist organizer, writer, and educator who recently received his PhD from the University of California at Santa Cruz. He serves on the advisory board for the activist journal Upping the Anti, and currently lives in Sudbury, Ontario, where he is involved with anti-war and Indigenous solidarity organizing.
Jamie K. McCallum is a PhD candidate in the Sociology department at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He’s an activist on various fronts, mostly around the labor movement, and helps to organize the annual Left Forum conference in New York City.