A Democratic Socialist Appeal to Anarchists

By Daraka Larimore Hall

(While this article does not signify our turn toward democratic socialism and though we do not agree with everything in this piece, we feel the author raises many important points deserving serious consideration by the anarchist movement. We should listen to criticism and challenges from those outside of our movement if we hope to grow — eds.)

The struggle for a democratic alternative to capitalism has seen many conflicting traditions. Communism, Anarchism, Socialism and countless variations and combinations have emerged. Today, when the call for a new world has been revived by the explosive protest movements surrounding corporate globalization, most of these differences seem to be archaic and almost theological. Such divisions, many argue, are grist merely for café debates. Who cares which revolutionary messiah we wear on our T-shirts? There is work to be done.

But if this movement is about more than reform of policy – if, as many hope, it can serve as a battery for a new anti-capitalism – at some point we are going to have to talk about more than what we are against. We are going to have to talk more specifically and analytically about the system we are up against, and, of course, about what we want to replace it with. In this way, talking about ideology is an important thing. Working in different areas of the student, anti-corporate and solidarity movements, I have made many friends and allies who identify themselves with the wide range of anarchist thought. As a democratic socialist, I was often struck by both the similarities and the differences between our approaches to political activism and analysis. This essay is an attempt to foster more debate and discussion between our two currents, to perhaps challenge some of the strategic choices that many anarchists have made and to lay the groundwork for a common approach to anti-capitalist activism. It is meant to raise more questions than it answers.

Fighting for the Commons

Anarchism and democratic socialism share a common heritage. Both traditions were born out of workers’ movements. In the heady days before Marx’s contributions stratified the labor movement, anarchists, socialists and communists inhabited the same political space. While different currents and conflicts certainly existed from the very start, a quick read through radical history shows that, like monkeys and people, we are closely related even though we look pretty different now.

Our ideal is also largely the same and has remained unchanged over the century. As anti-globalization activist Kevin Danaher often remarks, our cause revolves around “the commons.” That is, we are interested in that part of society which, like the center of the traditional village, belongs to everyone, is accessible to everyone and benefits everyone. This is in contrast to those who wish to distribute all social wealth into private hands, more or less equally, depending on which side of the liberal-conservative spectrum of capitalism they adhere to.

I would take this analogy one step further, however, and say that the fight for the commons has three distinct and equally important features: It must be expanded, it must be democratized and it must be defended. It is through an investigation of these three facets of the struggle, I would argue, that the differences and similarities between anarchism and democratic socialism emerge.

Expansion

Both of our movements agree that the commons must be expanded, that more aspects of society must be brought under public control and access. We share a critique of the traditional Communist (Marxist-Leninist) politics which demand that the only way to effect this change is through giving the state complete or nearly complete control over all spheres of social, political and economic life. We have seen the results of such a strategy. Anarchists and democratic socialists share an openness to decentralization, to direct industrial democracy (workers’ control), to co-operatives, to social creativity and to dynamism of ideas.

Where we begin to differ, perhaps, is how we wish to expand the commons. Many anarchists believe that the commons must be expanded completely, almost instantaneously, through one or many forms of revolutionary change. Democratic socialists (and, of course, some anarchists as well), believe that this expansion can, and should, be a long process of social change.

They key difference here, however, is that democratic socialists believe that society is never neither fully capitalist nor fully public. Institutions such as public education, public health care, public transportation, public libraries, consumer co-operatives and neighborhood policing are all common goods established through struggle. They expand the control that we have over our lives. Strong trade unions bring decisions over wages and working conditions more closely into the hands of workers, and take such human needs out of the free market. The democratic socialist emphasis on these kinds of changes, changes which alter the balance of power within society and bring things under more democratic control, differentiates us from liberals who wish only to use the state to make mitigate, or lessen, the negative effects of capitalism. For us, such reforms are not enough. We are anti-capitalists, if gradualist ones.

The good thing about such a gradualist strategy is that it affects the lives of many, many people. Millions of people are affected positively by fighting for access to education, or providing public spaces for recreation. The anarchist tendency to prefer expansion only through revolutionary means – for example, fighting against homelessness by squatting apartment buildings rather than working for public housing – only solves the problem for a few people at a time. Neither anarchists nor democratic socialists are going to abolish capitalism in the next few years, and so it is important to push it back, chip away at it and help people take control over their lives here and now.

Sometimes, of course, it is necessary to utilize direct action. If it is not politically possible to build public housing, for example, something has to be done: take a house. But follow it up with a sustained, broad effort to change housing policy. Many anarchist squatting activists have done this, of course. This difference is a question of emphasis, of overall strategy.

Democratization

One of the reasons that many anarchists prefer actions such as squatting to lobbying or voting for public housing is that a squat is directly controlled by its residents. It is, in other words, more democratic. This emphasis is something that democratic socialists should learn from the anarchist movement. Too often, we forget about the need for the commons to be internally democratic, fighting for a formalized, bureaucratic expansion, without also arguing for and working for the democratization of existing public institutions and the creation of new, highly democratized ones.

As this is something we need to learn, anarchists should also reflect on the importance of access as well as involvement. It is great that there are institutions fundamentally and radically democratic. However, if nobody has access to it, or, more pointedly, if people are essentially expected to drop out of mainstream society in order to partake in these institutions, as is the case with many anarchist-inspired projects, its impact is severely restricted. Often, because a public project is not perfect – take, for example, national health insurance – it is not interesting to anarchists. This is unfortunate, as truly strong radical movements in other countries, and in U.S. history, were ones that took up everyday fights and offered both analysis and leadership within those struggles. (Leadership, here, doesn’t have to mean manipulation or coercion.) Recall that the international worker’s holiday, MayDay, commemorates events at an anarchist-organized demonstration for the eight-hour day, a reform, and not even a particularly radical one at that.

No anti-capitalist project can succeed or grow or become majoritarian if it does not address every day concerns. Not everyone has the time or the mental space to sit around and get excited by radically changing the world. For most people, the small struggles of daily life are paramount, and our politics must be seen as complimentary and helpful to these struggles, not irrelevant, esoteric and unrealistic.

It’s not just about system reform, though. We can and should be radical. At different points in the history of progressive/radical movements, we have emphasized the creation of accessible, mass democratic institutions. This idea can be found among anarchists, Christian socialists, even social democrats. In Sweden, the labor movement created schools, banks, sports leagues, music centers, hospitals, restaurants, insurance companies, affordable housing, retirement homes, libraries, even clothing stores and hamburger joints, all under the control of the worker’s organizations, open and accessible to everyone. In the 1960s, in the U.S., the Black Panther Party attempted a somewhat similar project, with soup kitchens and free food, schools and clinical programs. Creating counter-institutions is a good strategy, so long as it is rooted in an attempt to truly reach out to ordinary people and help them transform their lives. Otherwise, it is simply elitist.

Thus, the fight to democratize the commons should not be seen narrowly. Access is just as important to democracy as equal participation is. We should not fetishize process (it’s not the end of the world if our public libraries do not gather books based on consensus), nor should we be afraid to be radical in creating new institutions. We also should not let either zeal for creation or reformist complacency sway us from the fight to democratize public institutions which already exist. For example, there are scores of oversight committees, local school and library boards, block associations, zoning bodies and other institutions that are potential arenas for us to fight for more openness, democracy and participation. Hey, anarchist: run for the school board!

Defense

Similarly, the radical left, including anarchists and many revolutionary socialists, is sometimes uninterested in the importance of defending what has already been won, albeit imperfectly, in the fight to expand the commons. This lack of interest is certainly not universal among anarchists, and is the kind of fight in which our movements most often interact. But all too often, anarchists are nowhere to be seen on the front lines of struggles that are of incredible importance to millions of people. One major reason for this is that the work of defending what we have won often requires defending things we don’t completely like. This can feel like a major compromise for a revolutionary. This question was one of the underlying issues in the conflicts within the left in the 2000 Presidential Elections. For most unionists, feminists, lesbian and gay organizations, and mass people of color groups, the damage promised by a Bush presidency made it worth beating. Worth it enough to work for a candidate who was not radically better.

The State

Underlying all of these points, of course, is a difference in attitude towards the state. Part of a gradualist approach is a comfort with utilizing a democratic state as a mechanism for creating common goods. Anarchists and socialists have been arguing about the nature of the state for over a century, and I will not attempt to add anything new to the theoretical debate here. Instead, I wish to make a fairly U.S.-specific argument on the dangers of over-prioritizing a critique of the state, particularly the federal government. Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr, (D-Chicago), often speaks about what he sees as the underlying conflict in the U.S. political system. According to Jackson, it is not fundamentally a liberal-conservative fight, nor is it always a struggle between Democrats and Republicans. It is a war, he says, that has lingered, unresolved, for more than one hundred years: the war between State’s Rights and Unionism.

I believe there is truth in this analysis. Many of the most reactionary and dangerous elements within the U.S. polity are aligned behind an anti-Federal agenda. It was the federal government that imposed important civil rights reforms – including the abolition of slavery – on states in the South and the West. It was federal reform that legalized abortion, gave women the right to vote and outlawed many forms of employment discrimination. Many important environmental regulations were enacted at the federal level. All of these gains were made because social movements forced them, but without the legal tool of an active federal government, many of these battles would surely have been lost.

The right wing strategy of disempowering the federal government is absolutely linked to these facts. State and local authorities are often easier to corrupt and to keep white and/or male dominated than the federal government is. While it is certainly healthy for anarchists, and the left in general, to be critical of centralized power, it is important to understand that just because someone is not progressive just because they advocate for local control. Of course, many on the right wish to give more power to the most repressive elements of the federal government, while at the same time de-funding and destroying its democratic and progressive capacities. This needs to be fiercely opposed by the entire Left – not just the repression, but the destruction of welfare, education and civil rights as well. The point here is not to deny that the state can be used against our goals, but rather to broaden the anarchist analysis to understand that sometimes its programs and policies are worth defending.

The old adage that one’s enemy’s enemy is one’s friend is bad advice. Racist movements such as the Freemen or the Militias should not be romanticized or justified because they attack the government. The often creepy overlap between reactionary localist counter-culture and anarchism is very dangerous. Anarchist thinkers who have flirted with white supremacy, such as Earth First! hero Edward Abbey, strike a devil’s bargain. Living in the woods and distrusting the feds does not a freedom fighter make. There are a lot of fascists who fit that description.

Less dramatically, a dogmatic mistrust of the state, particularly the federal government, hampers our ability to effectively champion the cause of the commons. The state has been an important tool for creating common space, for democratizing and expanding it, and therefore must be part of the equation when it comes time to defend it.

The world must be changed, and changed radically. Along the way, however, we must have the bravery to get our hands dirty in the not-always-radical business of building a majoritarian, democratic movement capable of changing it. No utopian or anti-capitalist movement can claim to have all the answers about how to build such a movement. Historically speaking, so far, we have all failed. My hope is that as we take advantage of the new consciousness raised by the growing call for global justice, we are able to look both critically and constructively at the ideas underlying our strategies and analyses. Let us begin in our small corner of the world-wide march for justice and equality.

Daraka Larimore-Hall is a freelance writer and activist. He has been active for many years in the Young Democratic Socialists and its international network the International Union of Socialist Youth. Daraka has worked in labor support, prison justice and anti-racist activism in the U.S. and Europe. He currently lives and works in Hamar, Norway.

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