So I saw something that never ceases to drive me up the wall when I hear anarchists talking about it, despite how much more sympathetic I have grown to anarchism over the past few years. This rant, which I’ve managed to suppress for many years, was provoked by a Youtube video by an anarchist whose identity I will conceal because I like a lot of their other work. In fact, I like their work more than most of the other Youtube anarchists because unlike them, this individual doesn’t seem to think citing Homage to Catalonia is such a great source to “prove” that anarcho-syndicalism can work. But they touched on a topic that anarchists have often expounded on with zero practical knowledge or expertise, and it’s one of those core issues that any revolution is going to have to solve if its advocates want to get beyond bike co-ops and squatting.
First, a little context. The individual in question was explaining one of the basic concepts of anarchism, the idea of abolishing unjustified hierarchy. For those who aren’t aware, this concept means that if some form of authority can’t be justified by providing some social benefit, it should be abolished or at least severely curtailed. Now the author brings up a common objection, namely how such a community would defend itself without a disciplined, standing army. And here, dear readers, is where we find ourselves face to face with one of anarchism’s biggest flaws.
In the past, when I would ask anarchists about this topic, their answer was simply “guerrilla warfare!” This they would back up by pointing out examples such as the Vietnamese National Liberation Front, the Afghan-Soviet War, and the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. In this case, the author brings up Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, pointing out that while they are obviously horrible from an ideological point of view, their ongoing existence proves the efficacy of decentralized irregular forces holding off highly advanced military forces. Okay, now that I’ve articulated that I need to take a pause…
This is a very, very bad idea that anarchism must do away with if it is ever to have any practical success in the modern world. Where do I even begin? Well if we start with pretty much every example anarchists give of successful guerrilla warfare, and contrary to common belief there are more failed insurgencies than successful ones even in the heyday of the guerrilla in the post-WWII 20th century, none of them were won by forces emulating anything remotely resembling anarchist principles. Vietnam is a really obvious example, and I should also point out that the idea of Vietnam as an insurgency is somewhat mistaken. As one author more accurately described it, it was more like a “low-intensity conventional conflict.” The popular notion of the war was that it was fought mainly by peasants in “black pyjamas” who tended the rice paddies during the day and took up arms at night. This, to anyone with a cursory knowledge of the conflict, is totally wrong. The core of the Vietcong were the so-called “main force” units, which had uniforms. Then you had regional forces, and finally those villagers taking potshots after work or setting punji traps were local militias with limited combat value. And of course as the war went on, the Communist side increasingly resorted to using North Vietnamese Army regulars. Lastly, this whole war was controlled by a state with a rigid hierarchical system.
The Afghan Mujaheddin were far more decentralized, by contrast, but they were largely supported and given shelter by authoritarian states like Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China, not to mention the liberal democratic US. Besides that, decentralization didn’t necessarily work out better; even before the toppling of the Najibullah government in 1992, the various factions, most notably those of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Ahmad Shah Massoud, were already fighting amongst each other. After that, civil war broke out between various warlords until a certain enterprising young religious student named Omar decided to put a stop to that shit and kicked off a holy war by hanging some corrupt officials in Kandahar from the barrel of a tank gun. You probably know this movement as the Taliban, but what many Westerners don’t know is that one reason why the Taliban were so successful in the civil war apart from Pakistani support was that they were often embraced by the local population (especially Pashtuns), because they brought order and stability to a populace that was weary of years of chaotic civil war.
And what about Al Qaeda and the Islamic State? Well this comparison is terrible because while yes, Al Qaeda has shown remarkable resilience, they have rarely if ever controlled any geographical territory apart from tenuous control in some locales in Syria at times. The Islamic State, on the other hand, improved on this by trying to establish some kind of territorial state, but at the same time this doomed it to destruction because it brought its fighters, infrastructure, and existence into the open to be bombed mercilessly by the coalition. Also when it comes to ISIS, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban, it’s also important to keep in mind that suicide tactics are a regular part of their doctrine. This has made ISIS particularly difficult to fight on the ground, as we saw with the battles for Mosul and Raqqa. Apart from sowing countless improvised mines and boobytraps, imagine having to deal with this on a daily basis:
The point I want to make here is that ISIS, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban all recruit people who are willing to die intentionally, which incidentally is one factor that enables them to carry out an ongoing insurgency against a far more advanced adversary. It’s a lot easier to carry out a successful attack on a much better-equipped adversary if you remove the part about surviving from your mission planning. Somehow I don’t see the folks at punk shows or co-ops signing up to drive VBIEDs, so differences in ideology alone aren’t the reason why this isn’t a viable option for anarchist defense. And before moving on I should point out that even in those other cases of successful unconventional warfare, the guerrillas typically took far more casualties than their enemies, to the point of sometimes losing every engagement above the tactical level. As a result these conflicts spanned many years, if not decades in the case of Vietnam’s struggle for unification and independence. Obviously it takes iron will and discipline to carry out such a conflict, and while I would not say that you must have a rigid hierarchical political/military to achieve that level of discipline, any successful revolutionary movement banking on a decentralized guerrilla warfare strategy has to achieve it somehow.
When we look at anarchist military history, it’s not too promising. Nestor Makhno was said to wage a guerrilla struggle, which is true to an extent, but one problem is that sources on Makhno are hard to come by, often either written by his partisans or detractors. Southeast Ukraine doesn’t lend itself well to guerrilla warfare, which is why Makhno’s hit and run tactics were more likely a matter of mobility as opposed to using restrictive terrain the way the Vietcong used the jungle or the Afghan Mujaheddin used mountains. Cavalry allowed Makhno’s forces to show up were they were not expected, and mounting machine guns on horse-drawn carts, the famous “tachanka,” made it possible to rapidly strike an enemy and retreat before they could adequately react, particularly if they were foot infantry. Still, Makhno lost. Now here most anarchists would say that this is because the Bolsheviks stabbed him in the back, and because they refused to send adequate arms and supplies to his Revolutionary Insurgent Army of Ukraine. This argument, however, is irrelevant. In order to abolish the state and then defend the society with which you replace it, you will inevitably have to resort to force. If you cannot supply your revolution with the necessary arms, that’s on you. The Bolsheviks found a way to do it. The Poles did it. “The Bolsheviks wouldn’t give them arms” is really saying “they failed to properly organize their revolution.” As Omar Bradley put it: “Amateurs- strategy. Professionals talk logistics.” I could go on to Catalonia as well, but that’s just another Dolchstoßlegende (stab-in-the-back-legend) related to the “May Days of 1937.”
I’m not saying you can’t build an effective military force without resorting to traditional authoritarian hierarchies like we see in existing military forces. Yes, the system we see in the world’s best military (AMERICUH!!!) is hierarchical and disciplined, especially in the Marine Corps, arguably one of the finest fighting forces in history (crayon eating notwithstanding). However, the conventional military culture, even among the best of organizations, can often be extremely arbitrary and stifling, leading to things like stagnation, failure to adapt to new forms of warfare, and even nepotism and corruption. Nobody spends any amount of time in the military without acquiring dozens of examples of ineffective leadership and idiocy that is often impossible to convey to civilians who have never experienced it. Moreover, it’s not hard to make the case that military forces that encourage individual initiative and creative, mission-oriented tactics historically do better than rigid, authoritarian armies. So what I’m basically saying here is that your revolutionary forces need strong discipline and will, but this does not at all mean that this must be achieved via rigid hierarchy and authoritarian culture. That being said, it’s important to note that hierarchies of some sort tend to be inevitable in military organizations, but at least they need not be “unjustified.”
There is a wider lesson anarchists must learn as well from history. Remember that anecdote about the Taliban’s early successes in Afghanistan? There was a similar situation with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, whereby ordinary Sunnis who might have had zero interest in building a Salafi-jihadist Caliphate accepted and even embraced the IS fighters due to instability and persecution. See whether it’s the Taliban or the Islamic State, while the rules they bring are Draconian with out a doubt, they often applied these rules in a very regular, predictable way, while often putting an end to all kinds of criminal activity and corruption wherever they took over. Consider this horrible dilemma countless people have had to make at certain points in history:
-Live your life without any assurance that your person or property will be respected. You are fair game for authorities who may be of another faith and/or tribe, or just random bandits who know there will be no repercussion for any malicious actions they take against you.
-Accept the authority of a strict authoritarian movement which, while imposing new rules on you, also will impose order and predictability protecting your property and person.
Humans do not naturally crave authoritarian systems or rigid hierarchy, nor do they inherently require them. But one thing we do naturally prefer is stability in favor of chaos. Therefore, any anti-authoritarian revolutionary movement, if it is to be successful, must one way or another establish relative stability and predictability. If your movement insists on deciding every issue with consensus-based councils, for example, it had better make sure people’s basic rights are well-protected and basic needs are met, otherwise people will inevitably seek out whomever can provide these things or convincingly promise them, even if those alternatives are also more authoritarian.
These facts are well-established by history, but they are not death-blows to anarchism or anti-authoritarian socialism, which incidentally is the only socialism really worth fighting for. It’s much better to look at them as challenges that need to be overcome by any movement that truly seeks to liberate people, regardless of what it calls itself. The Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria has given us a wealth of information to study in this regards. Unfortunately, many idealists overstate the extent to which politics in “Rojava” as it was once internationally known, were bottom-up and “stateless.” In reality, the PYD is quite hierarchical and the territory under their control isn’t exactly run by direct democracy. That being said, no objective observer can deny that they have made some stunning progress in some fields, most notably women’s rights.
Furthermore, many of the examples where the PYD has failed in terms of realizing the stateless, direct democracy it preaches can be reasonably explained by the exigencies of a bitter war and the precarious situation they face between Turkey, the Assad regime, Russia, Iran, and the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq. The PYD have been described as being extreme pragmatists. Perhaps some, and perhaps even myself, might say they’ve been a bit too pragmatic. But whatever the case, any revolution will have to face the conditions PYD faces, if not worse. I suggest planning accordingly, because in the last thing socialism needs is yet another romanticized lost cause that was drowned in blood because those who fought for it put theoretical principle over practical reality. The freest society on Earth is no use to humanity if it remains nothing but a besieged enclave or worse, if it is wiped out in a matter of weeks.