Anarchist FAQ/What is Anarchism?/3.8

A.3.8 What is "anarchism without adjectives"?

In the words of historian George Richard Esenwein, "anarchism without adjectives" in its broadest sense "referred to an unhyphenated form of anarchism, that is, a doctrine without any qualifying labels such as communist, collectivist, mutualist, or individualist. For others, . . . [it] was simply understood as an attitude that tolerated the coexistence of different anarchist schools." [Anarchist Ideology and the Working Class Movement in Spain, 1868–1898, p. 135]

The originator of the expression was Cuban born Fernando Tarrida del Marmol who used it in November, 1889, in Barcelona. He directed his comments towards the communist and collectivist anarchists in Spain who at the time were having an intense debate over the merits of their two theories. "Anarchism without adjectives" was an attempt to show greater tolerance between anarchist tendencies and to be clear that anarchists should not impose a preconceived economic plan on anyone—even in theory. Thus the economic preferences of anarchists should be of "secondary importance" to abolishing capitalism and the state, with free experimentation the one rule of a free society.

Thus the theoretical perspective known as "anarquismo sin adjetives" ("anarchism without adjectives") was one of the by-products of a intense debate within the movement itself. The roots of the argument can be found in the development of Communist Anarchism after Bakunin's death in 1876. While not entirely dissimilar to Collectivist Anarchism (as can be seen from James Guillaume's famous work "On Building the New Social Order" within Bakunin on Anarchism, the collectivists did see their economic system evolving into free communism), Communist Anarchists developed, deepened and enriched Bakunin's work just as Bakunin had developed, deepened and enriched Proudhon's. Communist Anarchism was associated with such anarchists as Elisee Reclus, Carlo Cafiero, Errico Malatesta and (most famously) Peter Kropotkin.

Quickly Communist-Anarchist ideas replaced Collectivist Anarchism as the main anarchist tendency in Europe, except in Spain. Here the major issue was not the question of communism (although for Ricardo Mella this played a part) but a question of the modification of strategy and tactics implied by Communist Anarchism. At this time (the 1880s), the Communist Anarchists stressed local (pure) cells of anarchist militants, generally opposed trade unionism (although Kropotkin was not one of these as he saw the importance of militant workers organisations) as well as being somewhat anti-organisation as well. Unsurprisingly, such a change in strategy and tactics came in for a lot of discussion from the Spanish Collectivists who strongly supported working class organisation and struggle.

This conflict soon spread outside of Spain and the discussion found its way into the pages of La Revolte in Paris. This provoked many anarchists to agree with Malatesta's argument that "[i]t is not right for us, to say the least, to fall into strife over mere hypotheses." [quoted by Max Nettlau, A Short History of Anarchism, pp. 198–9] Over time, most anarchists agreed (to use Nettlau's words) that "we cannot foresee the economic development of the future" [Op. Cit., p. 201] and so started to stress what they had in common (opposition to capitalism and the state) rather than the different visions of how a free society would operate. As time progressed, most Communist-Anarchists saw that ignoring the labour movement ensured that their ideas did not reach the working class while most Collectivist-Anarchists stressed their commitment to communist ideals and their arrival sooner, rather than later, after a revolution. Thus both groups of anarchists could work together as there was "no reason for splitting up into small schools, in our eagerness to overemphasise certain features, subject to variation in time and place, of the society of the future, which is too remote from us to permit us to envision all its adjustments and possible combinations." Moreover, in a free society "the methods and the individual forms of association and agreements, or the organisation of labour and of social life, will not be uniform and we cannot, at this moment, make and forecasts or determinations concerning them." [Malatesta, quoted by Nettlau, Op. Cit., p. 173]

Thus, Malatesta continued, "[e]ven the question as between anarchist-collectivism and anarchist-communism is a matter of qualification, of method and agreement" as the key is that, no matter the system, "a new moral conscience will come into being, which will make the wage system repugnant to men [and women] just as legal slavery and compulsion are now repugnant to them." If this happens then, "whatever the specific forms of society may turn out to be, the basis of social organisation will be communist." As long as we "hold to fundamental principles and . . . do our utmost to instil them in the masses" we need not "quarrel over mere words or trifles but give post-revolutionary society a direction towards justice, equality and liberty." [quoted by Nettlau, Op. Cit., p. 173 and p. 174]

Similarly, in the United States there was also an intense debate at the same time between Individualist and Communist anarchists. There Benjamin Tucker was arguing that Communist-Anarchists were not anarchists while John Most was saying similar things about Tucker's ideas. Just as people like Mella and Tarrida put forward the idea of tolerance between anarchist groups, so anarchists like Voltairine de Cleyre "came to label herself simply 'Anarchist,' and called like Malatesta for an 'Anarchism without Adjectives,' since in the absence of government many different experiments would probably be tried in various localities in order to determine the most appropriate form." [Peter Marshall, Demanding the Impossible, p. 393] In her own words, a whole range of economic systems would be "advantageously tried in different localities. I would see the instincts and habits of the people express themselves in a free choice in every community; and I am sure that distinct environments would call out distinct adaptations." ["Anarchism", Exquisite Rebel, p. 79] Consequently, individualist and communist anarchist "forms of society, as well as many intermediations, would, in the absence of government, be tried in various localities, according to the instincts and material condition of the people . . . Liberty and experiment alone can determine the best forms of society. Therefore I no longer label myself otherwise than 'Anarchist' simply." ["The Making of An Anarchist", The Voltairine de Cleyre Reader, pp. 107–8]

These debates had a lasting impact on the anarchist movement, with such noted anarchists as de Cleyre, Malatesta, Nettlau and Reclus adopting the tolerant perspective embodied in the expression "anarchism without adjectives" (see Nettlau's A Short History of Anarchism, pages 195 to 201 for an excellent summary of this). It is also, we add, the dominant position within the anarchist movement today with most anarchists recognising the right of other tendencies to the name "anarchist" while, obviously, having their own preferences for specific types of anarchist theory and their own arguments why other types are flawed. However, we must stress that the different forms of anarchism (communism, syndicalism, religious etc.) are not mutually exclusive and you do not have to support one and hate the others. This tolerance is reflected in the expression "anarchism without adjectives."

One last point, some "anarcho"-capitalists have attempted to use the tolerance associated with "anarchism without adjectives" to argue that their ideology should be accepted as part of the anarchist movement. After all, they argue, anarchism is just about getting rid of the state, economics is of secondary importance. However, such a use of "anarchism without adjectives" is bogus as it was commonly agreed at the time that the types of economics that were being discussed were anti-capitalist (i.e. socialistic). For Malatesta, for example, there were "anarchists who foresee and propose other solution, other future forms of social organisation" than communist anarchism, but they "desire, just as we do, to destroy political power and private property." "Let us do away," he argued, "with all exclusivism of schools of thinking" and let us "come to an understanding on ways and means, and go forwards." [quoted by Nettlau, Op. Cit., p. 175] In other words, it was agreed that capitalism had to be abolished along with the state and once this was the case free experimentation would develop. Thus the struggle against the state was just one part of a wider struggle to end oppression and exploitation and could not be isolated from these wider aims. As "anarcho"-capitalists do not seek the abolition of capitalism along with the state they are not anarchists and so "anarchism without adjectives" does not apply to the so-called "anarchist" capitalists (see section F on why "anarcho"-capitalism is not anarchist).

This is not to say that after a revolution "anarcho"-capitalist communities would not exist. Far from it. If a group of people wanted to form such a system then they could, just as we would expect a community which supported state socialism or theocracy to live under that regime. Such enclaves of hierarchy would exist simply because it is unlikely that everyone on the planet, or even in a given geographical area, will become anarchists all at the same time. The key thing to remember is that no such system would be anarchist and, consequently, is not "anarchism without adjectives."