The first suicide bomber in English literature is a crazed anarchist professor in Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent who stalks around London wired up with explosives. Entranced by a vision of pure nothingness, he has only to squeeze a rubber ball in his pocket to annihilate the present and clear a space for a utopian future. His political comrades are a bunch of sinister continental freaks who succeed in blowing up a young boy with learning difficulties.
Anarchism, in short, has something of an image problem. Even Ruth Kinna, in this sympathetic, impressively well-informed history of the movement, has to admit that it has had its fair share of bombers and assassins. Yet she also illustrates its extraordinary creativity. Born in the 19th century, a brainchild of the Unholy Trinity of French libertarian socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Russian revolutionaries Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin, anarchism rejected what it saw as Karl Marx’s narrow economic and proletarian viewpoint. Nevertheless, the two creeds have a lot in common. Both believe in class struggle, the abolition of private property and the overthrow of the state. Both see the role of the state as defending private property, a view that you can also find in Cicero. Marx thinks that the state will eventually wither away, while anarchists believe in helping it on its way as soon as they can.
Where the two camps really collide is on the question of power. Power for Marxists is in the service of material interests. It isn’t the last word. Anarchists agree about the material interests, but see power as more primary than that. Domination of any kind is to be rejected. Anarchism isn’t opposed to government as such, just to any form of it that isn’t self-government. For many, this includes democracy, which involves the tyranny of the majority over the individual. Marxists will work with liberal democracy, whereas anarchists won’t. For them, it is just a more kid-gloved kind of coercion.
Yet no society can survive without coercion. There is nothing despotic about being made to drive on the left, or stopping your flatmate from playing the bagpipes all night. Rules can facilitate freedom as well as obstruct it: if everyone drives on the same side of the road, I’m less likely to end up in a wheelchair. The political state is indeed a source of lethal violence, but it also arranges for children to learn how to tie their shoelaces. Not all power is repressive, nor all authority obnoxious. There is the authority of those who are seasoned in the struggle against patriarchy, which one would do well to respect. Telling someone something they need to know isn’t always “hierarchical”. Nor is knowledge, as some slightly wackier libertarians have maintained. Some anti-hierarchical anarchists believe that all opinions hold equal weight, in which case the view that all opinions don’t hold equal weight is also true. When the young Noam Chomsky (an anarchist, no less) came to Europe in the late 1960s with vital information on the political turmoil in the United States, some students refused to listen to him on the grounds that lecturing is a form of violence.