Interview: Ruth Kinna

Freedom spoke to Ruth Kinna, author of numerous books on anarchism about the origins and key concepts of anarchism.

What do you find most attractive about anarchism?

I like the starting point. Anarchists usually start with a critique of injustice and an assumption of social imperfection. I would say that the anarchist project is to identify the institutional barriers that inhibit groups and individuals from initiating change, knowing that any proposed remedy will throw up new injustices. That compares to conventional political philosophy which typically starts with an idea of justice and strives to discover the social arrangements or movements capable of delivering it.

I like the way that anarchists express themselves, the latitude anarchism has for expression and the faith anarchists place in each one of us to resolve our differences. I don’t think that faith is naïve: I think it’s often informed by an appreciation of human irrationality, bias, prejudice, self-interest and mistrust.

It’s an interesting part of anarchism’s “critique” that it doesn’t just focus on what’s wrong with society (capitalism, the institutions of government and the church, etc) but also looks to the shape of our movements and organisations. Do you think that critical understanding of “hierarchy” is the main dividing line between anarchists and others on the radical left, especially Marxists?

Anarchists objected to Marxism for at least three reasons.

(i) A whole host of anarchists rejected the theory of history because it seemed to point to a dystopian, industrialised future: capitalist modes of production under new ownership. Even before Murray Bookchin advanced the ecological argument, anarchists proposed wholesale social and economic reorganisation. This included the abandonment of industrial production and international trade divisions, but not the rejection of internationalism or global exchange.

(ii) Anarchists questioned Karl Marx’s class analysis. It didn’t make sense of actual shifts in capitalism, it wrongly prioritised labour struggles over other forms of domination and it assumed that the State could be understood narrowly as an instrument of class rule. Anarchists disagreed. Classlessness was not statelessness. It meant party monopoly of the means of violence, now neutralised because there could be no exploitation of workers by their representatives.

(iii) Dressed as ‘science’, Marxism also empowered elites to recommend revolutionary strategy and policy, militating against direct action. Lenin’s talk about smashing the state in 1917 seemed to some to signal a convergence between anarchism and Marxism, but the thesis relied on a revision of Marxism and the reassertion the primacy of the party as the organ of stateless proletarian democracy.

Organisation was one of the flashpoints in the First International (1864-1871), when Mikhail Bakunin and Marx spectacularly parted company. Bakunin and his followers rejected the proposal of the executive, under Marx’s influence, that sections organise political parties to take part in national elections, to advance socialist revolution by the seizure of government power. Anarchists typically interpreted the International’s commitment to self-emancipation as a rejection of political representation and that became the basis for the rejection of electoral participation and party organisation — one of the major fault lines dividing anarchists from most of the revolutionary left.

Anarchists also opposed Marx’s moves to centralise the executive’s control in the federation. The general rejection of top-down decision-making, hierarchy and traditional leadership subsequently developed as part of a broader anti-authoritarian package. Building decentralised federations ‘from the bottom up’ usually involves delegation. Even ‘horizontal’ associations and networks often set up detached working groups and councils. There are formal and informal power inequalities in anarchist organisations. But instead of accepting elite control (oligarchy) as a necessary feature of organisation or welcoming permanent concentrations of power, anarchists argued that it was possible to avoid this by preventing entrenchments of power. The break on the potential abuse of power is the refusal to cede authority permanently to any body or institution within the organisation, allowing permanent challenge.

The history helps contextualise recent discussions of prefigurative change, the idea that the shape of the future is determined by present actions. But the point is that the disagreement is not just about organisational forms or hierarchy. The anarchist conclusion that dictatorial methods vanguard parties and electioneering are the wrong tools for libertarian communism follows from a significant divergence in socialist theory.

Anarchism, in its modern explicit form, arose in the very specific circumstances of early capitalism. Can it still be relevant today when so much has changed?

Some early twentieth century American political scientists explained anarchism as an understandable, perhaps even legitimate response to autocracy. Noticing that a lot of leading anarchists were Russians (Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, Leo Tolstoy), they argued that anarchism was a response to Czarism and that liberal constitutionalism made it redundant. The fact that anarchism took root in America was not only perplexing from this point of view, it also helped fuel the criminalisation of anarchism. Anarchists were freedom fighters in the repressive East but terrorists in the land of the free.

It’s true that the label first gained currency in late nineteenth-century Europe, but I’d want to ask how ‘the circumstances of early capitalism’ should be understood and why this framing, rather than, say the liberal framing, is any more useful in assessing the enduring relevance of anarchist critique? I don’t want to dismiss materialist analysis entirely, but I’m cautious about the implied historical periodisation (and related conceptions of imperialism or fascism as the ‘final stage’ of capitalism).

A lot has changed since 1840, when Pierre-Joseph Proudhon published What is Property? But the ‘prejudice’ for government which Proudhon slammed is alive and kicking. Anarchist analysis of the state as a colonising process, of militarism, patriotism, what used to be called ‘sex slavery’ — domination in the round — is still potent. Anarchism has also evolved — so there’s plenty of material out there for people interested in ecology, education, crime, social policy, religion, consumer cultures, democracy, work.

I guess part of what inspired the question is the series of excellent essays you’ve produced with Dog Section Press on various “Great Anarchists” which, understandably, focus on 19th and early 20th century figures. I’m interested in why you were keen to ensure the contribution these individuals made was kept alive in the present day.

It’s a good question. Why does history matter? The series is pure selfishness on my part. I like history, I like trying to work out how previous generations saw the world and what they were trying to say. And I get to publish with Clifford Harper and Dog Section Press. More broadly, I find it very odd to think that a movement that celebrates prefigurative change would not be interested in its past. If you accept that the future is shaped by what you do today, then surely you must also accept that your present has a past and that it may be enriched by your understanding of it?

It’s interesting, I think, that the student movements in the mid to late 1960s rekindled interest in anarchist pasts. Pro-feminist anarchists, especially, started to recover lost histories. For example, Marian Leighton published work on Louise Michel and Voltairine de Cleyre. The anarchistic trends emerging from of the social justice movement in the late 1990s tended to pull in the opposite direction. Anarchist histories were viewed far less sympathetically. The past was about ‘big A’ anarchists, and it was often read through an anti-canonical or Marxist lens. Historical anarchists emerged as bearded white men, anti-authoritarian class strugglers who endorsed deterministic science, relished the prospect of violent revolution and held fantastically rosy views of human nature and rigidly utopian ideas of anarchy. It’s a wildly distorting caricature.

I don’t try to find ‘lessons’ in the work of any of the anarchists in the series. I try to highlight concepts or issues which, to my mind, continue to resonate or which have been wrongly overlooked: free agreement, ‘science’, propaganda, democracy, obedience and so forth. I think it’s helpful to discuss how earlier anarchists approached these ideas or problems, particularly since their approaches often fly in the face of established conventions. If we want to build alternatives, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel or rely on frameworks that are antipathetic to anarchist ways of thinking. We can use the history.

Mutual Aid is often seen as one of the key pillars of anarchism. How would you summarise that concept?

My understanding comes from Kropotkin and I read his idea as an ethics of giving without expectation of return or reward. Mutual aid is different to contract where parties strike bargains that reflect their relative power advantages. And it’s not an obligation because acts of mutual aid are driven by impulse not duty. Kropotkin’s second idea is that mutual aid can be encouraged or inhibited by the kinds of social organisation we adopt. Mutual aid relies on co-operation. This is ‘natural’ in the sense that we are social creatures and interdependent: our well-being depends on our ability to co-operate with each other. But co-operation is ‘cultivated’, too, in the sense that our interdependence can be more or less coerced or enjoyed. Kropotkin’s argument is that we can realise the ethics of mutual aid and establish convivial relationships if we organise to build trust. Command undermines mutual aid because co-operation relies on fear of punishment. Inequality undermines it as well, because it creates social divisions, rivalry and competition. Mutual aid operates best where there is free agreement. This means that individuals are able to decide on the social or collective projects they want to enter into and that they can depend on others, knowing that these arrangements are not enforceable by law.

One of the phrases you used in your recent book The Government of No One that I really liked was the idea of anarchising existing relationships and structures rather than seeing anarchism as a zero sum game where you either overthrow everything or its all pointless. I wonder if you could expand on that a little?

The idea of anarchising is borrowed from Émile Armand — an individualist anarchist and noted advocate of free love. It appeals to me because I think it sidesteps the familiar dichotomy between ‘revolution’ and ‘reform’. It rejects the idea of zero-sum and leaves the determination of the means of change open.

Armand’s idea was that all institutions and relationships could be anarchised, in the same way that they could be liberalised. The difference would be that liberalising would typically result in an extension or recognition of rights, leaving both mainframes and micro-expressions of power intact, whereas anarchising involves challenging prevailing principles of authority, systems of domination and entrenchments of power. I like it because I think it helps make huge problems seem more manageable or imaginable. For example, I find it difficult to contemplate what the abolition of capitalism or the state involves. I can begin to think about the anarchisation of consumption or transport or health or education. Mutual aid is a big part of it, in that it asserts some basic principles for rebuilding social relationships. But anarchising helpfully emphasises how the environmental dimensions of Kropotkin’s concept may be aligned to constructive dismantling of exploitative institutions and practices.

Interview by Jim Jepps


Pic: Screenshot from Ruth Kinna book talk at Freedom, See here for the full discussion.