The Anarchic Ideal

"Anarchism is the name given to a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government--harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, and also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of civilized beings." --Peter Kropotkin (1842-1941),   Russian anarchist

In August of 1927, Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed for murder in Massachusetts. Sacco died shouting "Long- Live Anarchy!" but even before this, the American anarchist movement had already lost its momentum. Anarchism was inextricably linked with terrorism and foreigners in the minds of the American people, and foreign anarchists had been prohibited from entering the country in 1901. Other anarchists were deported, many were in prison, and some had been executed by the time Sacco and Vanzetti died in the electric chair.

But Sacco's last wish may not have been as hopeless as it seemed in the troubled '20s. Gov. Michael S. Dukakis declared in July 1977 that the prejudice against Italians and anarchists that prevailed during Sacco and Vanzetti's six-year prosecution raised considerable doubt as to the fairness of the trial. Meanwhile, small groups of anarchists and libertarians are emerging and are bringing their unique political perspective to bear on the problems of the '70s.

Anarchism's basic tenet is that no individual or institution has the right to initiate force against another individual. Since governments have the authority to enact and enforce laws that affect citizens' lives, anarchists call for the abolition of the state, or at least the reduction of the state's function to that of protecting individual rights. To replace the activities and services the state provides, anarchists envision individuals and groups entering into voluntary contractual agreements, on either a capitalist or socialist economic basis.

"We want these wonderful things the government provides, but we think they should be provided somehow other than through a monopoly government," Lee Nason, a member of the Massachusetts Libertarian Party (MLP), says. For example, Nason believes that government welfare programs should be replaced by a system of private charity. "I think most people want to help the poor. Welfare laws exist because people voted them in. But that method doesn't work. The truly needy are not getting welfare and citizens are getting frustrated and not contributing to charity anymore. The bureaucracy can't handle people as individual cases. How can you trust such important functions to government?"

Other anarchists echo Nason's criticism. "I think it's harmful to delegate authority to other people, like elected officials. It's much better to retain control over our own lives," Ann Kotell, a member of Black Rose, an organization which sponsors an anarchist lecture series at MIT, says. "The state has murdered more people and created more misery and horror than any of the problems it sought to alleviate ever did."

Although historically some anarchists have advocated terrorism to achieve their ends, many have rejected violent means. "I don't think anybody in their right minds advocates violence," Noam Chomsky, a renowned linguist and an anarchist himself, says. "I think what you achieve non-violently should be defended. Of course, some people feel that the redistribution of the country's wealth is a form of violence," he adds.

Although all anarchist groups agree that individuals have the right to manage their own affairs without government interference, they diverge into a bewildering complex of subgroups from there. Libertarians, who want to see the power of the central government reduced but not necessarily eliminated, and anarchists often adhere to an unlikely mixture of liberal and conservative opinions. Some groups, like Black Rose, have a strong socialist bent, which organizations like the MLP and the Harvard Libertarian Association (HLA) do not share.

HLA was formed in February and is the only organized libertarian group at the University. Leda Cosmides '79, HLA chairman and president of the association's newspaper, the Harvard Chronicle, describes HLA as a diverse group of about 50 students.

"We're not a highly ideological group. Most people come from the right of the political spectrum, and I think I'm the only anarchist--the others believe in some from of minimal state," Cosmides says.

HLA's primary activity is the publication of the Chronicle. Editorials have called for the legalization of all drugs, including heroin, on the grounds that the government does not have the right to prohibit their consumption by individuals. HLA also supports abortion and gay rights, while it opposes any form of taxation, a system under which the government deprives citizens of their private wealth.

Restrictions of the free market are anathema to the libertarians, who oppose anti-trust laws and regulatory agencies. However, Cosmides emphasized that she would support taking wealth away from corporations that have "made fortunes by sleeping with government."

The largest organized group of libertarians in the Boston area is the MLP. MLP, affiliated with the National Libertarian Party which was founded in 1972, has about 100 members. Nason, the editor of MLP's newsletter, estimates that about 100 more people are involved in the party without being official members. "A lot of people don't believe in political parties," Nason explained.

"There are all kinds of people in MLP: anarcho-capitalists, anarcho-socialists, minimal statists. We're not a standard political party," Nason said. The party sponsors libertarian candidates in elections throughout the country, and serves as a mechanism for libertarians to meet other people interested in working on specific political issues, like tax reform and local civil liberties issues.

Nason and other non-socialist libertarians criticize the specifically socialist groups for what they consider to be an overly restrictive set of values. "We're not opposed to worker-controlled factories. We just don't think people should be forced to participate in that kind of system. When it comes down to push and shove, some anarcho-socialists say that there are certain things that are 'wrong.' Though they never say there should be government sanctions, that's what they mean," Nason says.

The anarcho-socialists have equally strong criticism of their capitalist counterparts. "I think the anarcho-capitalist ideal is a repressive, savage system," Chomsky says. "It doesn't permit slavery but it allows people to fall into a position of virtual slavery. It allows arbitrary kinds of oppression, as long as these are mutually agreed upon." Chomsky adds that as cooperatively owned and operated institutions develop, they will be so successful that no coercion will be necessary to maintain the system.

Black Rose is one forum for the anarcho-socialists. The five-year-old organization consists of about a dozen working people and students and has a mailing list of 250 people. In addition to the lecture series, Black Rose has sponsored anarchist study groups and will begin publication of a magazine this year.

"We don't really have a 'group line', "Marty Blatt, a member of Black Rose, says. "We are not all socialist-anarchists. Some of us have been more influenced by the American individualist tradition. But I think we are all anti-authoritarian and critical of capitalism and communism. Marxist-Leninist communism is authoritarian, bureaucratic and hierarchical. Marxists don't reject domination and authority-they want to be authorities."

One of the main concerns of Black Rose is educating people in a "new sensibility." "The process of instituting a system of voluntary cooperation has to be two-pronged," Blatt said. "Institutional forms of power like monopolies and the state have to be over-thrown. But there's also the state within us. People believe in authority, and we have to overcome this."

Ann Kotell ran the entire libertarian course before joining Black Rose over a year ago. Starting with objectivism, which is a philosophical approach to libertarianism derived from Ayn Rand's theory of "rational egoism," she moved on to MLP and from there to Black Rose.

"In some fundamental ways, there's overlap in the goals of MLP and Black Rose," Kotell said. "But I felt uncomfortable with various right-wing priorities a lot of people had in the party. They just concentrated on money matters. They don't seem to see that they're saying it's wrong for the government to do certain things, but it's O.K. for General Motors. A hierarchical system of authority is just as bad in IBM as it is in government. They're not talking about how various attitudes are bad no matter who has them."

The split in the anarchist movement has left little common ground where anarcho-capitalists, who are very concerned with establishing a free market system, and Anarcho-socialists, who are more intent on abolishing all forms of hierarchy and domination, can meet. But all the anarchist groups share a belief in the sovereignty and dignity of the individual, and this belief is the source of their hope.

"The individualist ethos in the United States is very strong," Blatt says. "We'd like to expand upon that tradition. Respect for the individual has to be broadened to include respect for other individuals. A system of mutual aid is the best form of realizing our own individualism."

"There is going to be a second American revolution and a new constitution to limit government," Cosmides predicts. "That was the whole point of the first American revolution."

Indeed, anarchism echoes a common theme of American thinkers, from Thomas Jefferson, who said that the best government is the one which governs least, to Henry David Thoreau, who expanded Jefferson's statement to express an ideal remarkably similar to that of the anarchists: "That government is best which governs not at all; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have."