by Keith Preston
The conflicts between myself and the mainstream leftist-anarchist movement are well-known. When I am asked about the source of this conflict by outsiders to the anarchist milieu, my usual response is that what they are observing is a continuation of the historic battle between the anarchists and the Marxists. Fundamental to this conflict is a contending view of the concepts of state and class. For Marxists, the principal target of revolutionary conflict is capital. However, for anarchists it is the state that is the primary enemy. This difference was acknowledged by Friedrich Engels.
“The anarchists put the thing upside down. They declare that the proletariat revolution must begin by doing away with the political organization of the state. But after its victory the sole organization which the proletariat finds already in existence is precisely the state. This state may require very considerable alterations before it can fulfill its new functions. But to destroy it at such a moment would be to destroy the only organism by means of which the victorious proletariat can assert its newly conquered power, hold down its capitalist adversaries and carry out that economic revolution of society without which the whole victory must end in a new defeat and in a mass slaughter of the workers similar to those after the Paris Commune.”
– Frederick Engels, “Engels to Philipp Van Patten in New York,” London, April 18, 1883.
Similarly, the anarchists and Marxists disagreed fundamentally on the class basis of the revolutionary struggle. For the Marxists, the advanced industrial proletariat is the class vanguard, i.e. what amounts to the respectable working class. Marx was as virulent as any right-wing conservative in his opposition to the lumpenproletariat. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852), Marx described the lumpenproletariat in a way that makes him sound not unlike our modern “cultural conservatives”:
Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars—in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème.
Contrast this perspective with that of Bakunin:
To me the flower of the proletariat is not, as it is to the Marxists, the upper layer, the aristocracy of labor, those who are the most cultured, who earn more and live more comfortably than all the other workers. Precisely this semi-bourgeois layer of workers would, if the Marxists had their way, constitute their fourth governing class. This could indeed happen if the great mass of the proletariat does not guard against it. By virtue of its relative well-being and semi-bourgeois position, this upper layer of workers is unfortunately only too deeply saturated with all the political and social prejudices and all the narrow aspirations and pretensions of the bourgeoisie. Of all the proletariat, this upper layer is the least social and the most individualist.
By the flower of the proletariat, I mean above all that great mass, those millions of the uncultivated, the disinherited, the miserable, the illiterates, whom Messrs. Engels and Marx would subject to their paternal rule by a strong government – naturally for the people’s own salvation! All governments are supposedly established only to look after the welfare of the masses! By flower of the proletariat, I mean precisely that eternal “meat” (on which governments thrive), that great rabble of the people (underdogs, “dregs of society”) ordinarily designated by Marx and Engels in the picturesque and contemptuous phrase Lumpenproletariat. I have in mind the “riff-raff,” that “rabble” almost unpolluted by bourgeois civilization, which carries in its inner being and in its aspirations, in all the necessities and miseries of its collective life, all the seeds of the socialism of the future, and which alone is powerful enough today to inaugurate and bring to triumph the Social Revolution.— Mikhail Bakunin, On the International Workingmen’s Association and Karl Marx (1872)
It cannot be overemphasised how for the first 50 years of its existence as a proletarian mass movement since its origin in the First International, the anarchist movement often entrenched itself far more deeply in the colonies of the imperialist powers and in those parts of the world still shackled by post-colonial regimes than in its better-known Western heartlands like France or Spain. Until Lenin, Marxism had almost nothing to offer on the national question in the colonies, and until Mao, who had been an anarchist in his youth, neither did Marxism have anything to offer the peasantry in such regions – regions that Marx and Engels, speaking as de facto German supremacists from the high tower of German capitalism, dismissed in their Communist Manifesto (1848) as the “barbarian and semi-barbarian countries.”
Instead, Marxism stressed the virtues of capitalism (and even imperialism) as an onerous, yet necessary stepping stone to socialism. Engels summed up their devastating position in an article entitled Democratic Pan-Slavism in their Neue Rheinische Zeitung of 14 February 1849: the United States’ annexation of Texas in 1845 and invasion of Mexico in 1846 in which Mexico lost 40% of its territory were applauded as they had been “waged wholly and solely in the interest of civilisation,” as “splendid California has been taken away from the lazy Mexicans, who could not do anything with it” by “the energetic Yankees” who would “for the first time really open the Pacific Ocean to civilisation…” So, “the ‘independence’ of a few Spanish Californians and Texans may suffer because of it, in some places ‘justice’ and other moral principles may be violated; but what does that matter to such facts of world-historic significance?”
By this racial argument of the “iron reality” of inherent national virility giving rise to laudable capitalist overmastery, Engels said the failure of the Slavic nations during the 1848 Pan-European Revolt to throw off their Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Russian yokes, demonstrated not only their ethnic unfitness for independence, but that they were in fact “counter-revolutionary” nations deserving of “the most determined use of terror” to suppress them.
It reads chillingly like a foreshadowing of the Nazis’ racial nationalist arguments for the use of terror against the Slavs during their East European conquest. Engels’ abysmal article had been written in response to Mikhail Bakunin’s Appeal to the Slavs by a Russian Patriot in which he – at that stage not yet an anarchist – had by stark contrast argued that the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary camps were divided not by nationality or stage of capitalist development, but by class. In 1848, revolutionary class consciousness had expressed itself as a “cry of sympathy and love for all the oppressed nationalities”. Urging the Slavic popular classes to “extend your hand to the German people, but not to the… petit bourgeois Germans who rejoice at each misfortune that befalls the Slavs,” Bakunin concluded that there were “two grand questions spontaneously posed in the first days of the  spring… the social emancipation of the masses and the liberation of the oppressed nations.”
By 1873, when Bakunin, now unashamedly anarchist, threw down the gauntlet to imperialism, writing that “Two-thirds of humanity, 800 million Asiatics, asleep in their servitude, will necessarily awaken and begin to move,” the newly-minted anarchist movement was engaging directly and repeatedly with the challenges of imperialism, colonialism, national liberation movements, and post-colonial regimes. So it was that staunchly anti-imperialist anarchism and its emergent revolutionary unionist strategy, syndicalism – and not pro-imperialist Marxism – that rose to often hegemonic dominance of the union centres of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay in the early 1900s, almost every significant economy and population concentration in post-colonial Latin America. In six of these countries, anarchists mounted attempts at revolution; in Cuba and Mexico, they played a key role in the successful overthrow of reactionary regimes; while in Mexico and Nicaragua they deeply influenced significant experiments in large-scale revolutionary agrarian social construction.
The danger the corporate state faces does not come from the poor. The poor, those Karl Marx dismissed as the Lumpenproletariat, do not mount revolutions, although they join them and often become cannon fodder. The real danger to the elite comes from déclassé intellectuals, those educated middle-class men and women who are barred by a calcified system from advancement. Artists without studios or theaters, teachers without classrooms, lawyers without clients, doctors without patients and journalists without newspapers descend economically. They become, as they mingle with the underclass, a bridge between the worlds of the elite and the oppressed. And they are the dynamite that triggers revolt.
But what is leftism? During the first half of the 20th century leftism could have been practically identified with socialism. Today the movement is fragmented and it is not clear who can properly be called a leftist. When we speak of leftists in this article we have in mind mainly socialists, collectivists, “politically correct” types, feminists, gay and disability activists, animal rights activists and the like. But not everyone who is associated with one of these movements is a leftist. What we are trying to get at in discussing leftism is not so much a movement or an ideology as a psychological
type, or rather a collection of related types. Thus, what we mean by “leftism” will emerge more clearly in the course of our discussion of leftist psychology…When someone interprets as derogatory almost anything that is said about him (or about groups with whom he identifies) we conclude that he has inferiority feelings or low self-esteem. This tendency is pronounced among minority rights advocates, whether or not they belong to the minority groups whose rights they defend. They are hypersensitive about the words used to designate minorities. The terms “negro,” “oriental,” “handicapped” or “chick” for an African, an Asian, a disabled person or a woman originally had no derogatory connotation. “Broad” and “chick” were merely the feminine equivalents of “guy,” “dude” or “fellow.” The negative connotations have been attached to these terms by the activists themselves. Some animal rights advocates have gone so far as to reject the word “pet” and insist on its replacement by “animal companion.” Leftist anthropologists go to great lengths to avoid saying anything about primitive peoples that could conceivably be interpreted as negative.
They want to replace the word “primitive” by “nonliterate.” They seem almost paranoid about anything that might suggest that any primitive culture is inferior to our own. (We do not mean to imply that primitive cultures ARE inferior to ours. We merely point out the hypersensitivity of leftish anthropologists.)Those who are most sensitive about “politically incorrect” terminology are not the average black ghetto-dweller, Asian immigrant, abused woman or disabled person, but a minority of activists, many of whom do not even belong to any “oppressed” group but come from privileged strata of society. Political correctness has its stronghold among university professors, who have secure employment with comfortable salaries, and the majority of whom are heterosexual, white males from middle-class families.
Mr. Preston is a left-wing anarchist…By “left-wing” I mean a kind of family resemblance. When Mr. Preston is addressing the Alt-Right or libertarians, he does so as an outsider; when he is addressing left-wing organizations, he is doing so as one of them. This is because they emphasize the same things. He sees the U.S. government as a major threat to worldwide peace and freedom, and his focus is always on the underclass and those the Left identifies as victims of state repression.His heart, therefore, is with the Left, which in his many criticisms he is trying to rescue from its alliance with pro-state liberalism, which thinks government power is the key to solving social problems. In reading his critiques of liberals, I thought of an observation I once heard about the Christian instruction to love our neighbors and our enemies–possibly because they may be the same people.
Why is Mr. Preston of interest to us? As he explains on his website, he wants to forge a kind of pan-anarchist, pan-secessionist movement that includes virtually all of those who “fall prey to the repressive High apparatus of the state.” Of course, his coalition would include the usual groups favored by the Left (racial minorities, drug users, sex workers), but he also wants to bring in groups traditionally despised by the Left. His list is long, and includes racists (his term), gun enthusiasts, tax resisters, motorcycle clubs, neo-Confederates, home-schoolers, born-again Christians, racial nationalists (also his term), militia groups, and people he calls “refugees from middle America.”
In other words, what I have attempted to formulate is an anti-Marxist, revolutionary anarchism that is grounded in the vast array of lumpenproletarian and declasse sectors that can be found in North American society. This has in turn led to the emergence of conspiracy theories among the far-left alleging that my efforts constitute a fascist infiltration of the anarchist milieu. Ironically, these claims are often made by those who are completely oblivious or indifferent to the actually existing neo-Marxist and Marxist-Leninist infiltration of anarchism. Matthew Lyons and Alexander Reid Ross have been among the most articulate proponents of this viewpoint. Eion O’Connor offers one particular set of criticisms, which suggests that my own conception of anarchism is too broad:
There’s a number of different views on who’s deemed to be a real anarchist and what’s deemed to be legitimate schools of anarchist politics…Let’s imagine a spectrum of these views, measured in terms of “strictness” of who’s in vs out…
[On the right-hand side] we have the view that anyone who calls themself an anarchist is one, along with anybody from history who seems vaguely anarchistic. So everybody from voluntaryist capitalists to primitivists to pro-market transhumanist individualists to anarchist communists to national anarchists counts as “in”.
[On the left-hand side] we have the view that the only legitimate school of anarchism is social anarchism. Meaning anarchist communism (and its descendants), as it existed from its formation within the St. Imier International in the 1870s. Also including the collectivists of Spain, the anarcho-syndicalists, and anarchist social ecologists. This may seem extreme, after all, wouldn’t this exclude the first person to call themselves an anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and even Mikhail Bakunin? Yes it would. And supporters of this view cite the fact that while both men used the words anarchist as an adjective, and anarchy as a noun, neither ever used the term anarchism (as an -ism) and probably would’ve been against doing so. They are therefore seen as foundational to movement anarchism, but not part of it themselves. Much like how Rousseau was foundational to Romanticism, while being dead before it became a current in European thought.
To dismiss, at the beginning, the view that absolutely anyone who calls themself an anarchist is an anarchist, I think pretty much the only person who takes this view seriously is Keith Preston and his “pan-secessionism” clique. He proposes that we have privatised cities next to fascist racial separatist nations next to anarcho-communist confederations. Not something that’s going to happen.
But even if you exclude the fascists and the capitalists from anarchism, is there not still tension between those who favour a stateless “free market” (even a socialist one) and those who favour a stateless confederation of free communes?
This is why I’ve become more sympathetic to the “consistency” view on the other side of the spectrum. It may seem strict, but I think we need that in order to ground ourselves intellectually and make our theory coherent.
That’s not to say we can’t still describe things outside social anarchism as “anarchistic”, or as part of the wider “family of anarchy”, but we should only use the term anarchism to identify tendencies who cohere with a common sense of ideas and practices.
A similar but even more virulent criticism is offered by William Gillis:
“If you see Keith Preston or any of his national-“anarchist” cronies making inroads into your communities, do something about it. If people cite or share his articles without realizing what he stands for, take the time to inform them. Repost this text aggressively. He is going hard out to make his crypto-fascist ideas seem palatable to the more decentralist strands of the left. It’s a lot easier to head off fascist entryism than to uproot it after it has already taken hold and shaped the narrative.
With the election that “national anarchist” scum Keith Preston has once again emerged and gone into overdrive trying to make inroads into anarchist communities and gain respectability he can leverage. Preston tried to gain acceptance among left market anarchists a decade ago and we ran his ass out in no uncertain terms. It’s infuriating to see him trying to slither back, at least on the outreaches, with all his pretenses of intellectual dissent, and so I thought I’d write a post retelling why his project is so intolerable. Preston is of course personally rife with reactionary perspectives on race, gender, and sexuality as any number of exposes of him easily attest.
And he feels most comfortable palling around with his various outright neonazi friends. He’s also openly grounded his shitty politics in sociopathic narratives about being part of a natural elite and all the normal fascistic might makes-right-nihilism. And we should not ignore that much of “national anarchism” emerged out of explicit attempts by fascists to appropriate anarchist aesthetics and culture, both for recruiting purposes and entryism (even if Preston himself came from the left).
But all this is largely epiphenomenal. They are symptoms of his central and most critical break with anarchism: Preston is not a globalist. He’s not seeking to build a teeming hyperconnected world where each individual can choose to form myriad different social relations from billions of possible friends. His “anarchism” has nothing to do with actually abolishing power dynamics and maximizing freedom. All that comprises his “anarchism” is merely a thin veneer of political decentralization.
But decentralization alone hardly constitutes anarchism, after all the genocide in Rwanda was decentralized. You can certainly have oppressive power dynamics — even *more* oppressive power dynamics (by being more responsive and immediate) in a politically decentralized society. Indeed the decentralization fetish of modern fascists (particularly in the Evola lineage) is quite coherent. A giant state bureaucracy is far less efficient at say killing all the jews and keeping women living in fear than would be an array of hyper-closed small town communities or compounds.
If we had any remote reason to take seriously Preston’s occasional pretense of being distinct from such “national anarchists” one would of course wonder where the fuck his plan is for avoiding and combating such widespread domination in a politically hyper-fractured world. Of course the answer is that Preston doesn’t care, or even actually desires such a state of affairs. The better for his personal reactionary aspirations to flourish.
Preston’s world of secessionism never actually gets all the way down to individual liberation — because what would distinguish it then from standard individualist anarchist or humanistic analyses? No, it terminates on the scale of “communities” — largely discrete and closed, and valued in-and-of-themselves. Preston is a cultural essentialist, or maybe better parsed: a *group essentialist*, thoroughly infected and haunted by visions of social structures outside of individuals with their own physics, agency, or narratives. The family, the tribe, etc. It’s embarrassing intellectual sloth. Albeit a form of self-assured brain rot prone to mass-murdering temper tantrums when challenged.
Preston loves to make a big show of brushing off the neonazi cobwebs that so clearly cover him from every angle by protesting that despite his endless horror show of associations (and reactionary outbursts), he’s actually a leftist. But what on earth could constitute his “leftism” once you slice away all the feminism, queer liberation, and anti-racism he despises? Well, most prominently a focus on the suffering of the white working class. In other words Preston’s argument against being called a fascist is that he’s actually *more* of a classic nazi than Hans Hermann Hoppe.
The rest of what Preston gets from the left are the very worst aspects of it. The slimy pluralism of modern liberalism that is simultaneously nihilistically relativist and righteously opposed to any sort of universalism. The cultural essentialism of “stay in your lane” separatism dialed up to 11. That there are leftists that treat for example black nationalism as totally cool because structural oppression and being the underdog somehow makes nationalism okay is an argument that performative hyper-simplistic identity politics have corrupted a lot of leftists with fascistic tendencies. When Preston crows that he’s totally cool with racially exclusive latino or black gangs, as if that somehow makes him *less* racist, what he’s doing isn’t demonstrating a good faith grounding in our shared values, but demonstrating how badly reactionaries have made further inroads to the left on all fronts.
It’s true that we in the counter-globalization movement of the 90s and early 00s in part opened the door to this kind of localism through our own shitty and lazy rhetoric — cutting corners when challenging the complex oppression and violence of the neoliberal order. Similar corner-cutting has continued within the tumblr era of social justice. Despite immense value to the critiques leveled by both movements, the modern left is rife with reactionary tribalism and localism. But this is cause for all true anarchists to say, “Fuck the Left!” Not to give a pass to the menagerie of fascists trying to get their feet even further in the door.
While personally I’m too deeply in the vein of what some might call the enlightenment to not have many bones with the Frankfurt school, contrary to the hysterics of the Alex Jones crowd that blame them for all the horrors of our modern “pc” world (where kids sometimes try to encourage new codes of etiquette that aren’t quite as shitty as older ones, the little monsters), they actually had quite a bit of useful critiques when it came to oppressive cultural and social environments. I happen to think Adorno put it quite well: “Auschwitz confirmed the philosophy of pure identity as death.” Preston’s world of fractured rather than abolished power relations, of dramatically curtailed social possibility, where group belonging and cultural detritus holds any value against individual human agency, would be a world of fractal death. A systematic slicing away of human freedom rather than a blossoming of it.
That he can point to any commonalities within today’s radical left and even the mainstream anarchist movement should be an indictment of us, not a license for him.”
A related criticism is offered by a Facebook commentator:
Much of the rhetorical centre of “National-Anarchism” in the U.S. is around “Attack the System,” a website run by former anarchist Keith Preston. It advocates “Pan-Secession,” a neo-Confederate idea that different ideological groups should revolt against the “Empire” and go their own way: be that religious fundamentalist theocracy, ultra-conservative social repression, enforced racial separatism, or a murderously violent anti-Semitism. A kind of multi cultural de-centralized totalitarianism.
While these criticisms are frequently a collection of wild claims not supported by evidence, it is is true that the potential spectacle of the breakdown of the state resulting in various kinds of sectarian or ethnic violence is certainly a danger that is worth considering. But whatever the merits of this argument on a sufficiently abstract level, it is clear that the critics rarely take it seriously. For example, the possibility of ethnic cleansing being carried out by ethnic groups other than those of European ancestry, actual theocracy imposed by Islamists, or the many varied renditions of leftist authoritarianism are rarely, if ever, discussed or even acknowledged by many of these people.
A particular sticking point with these critics is my acknowledgement of national-anarchists (some of whom are also racial separatists) as a legitimate branch of anarchism, and my acknowledgement that the anarchist principle of free association certainly includes the right to engage in exclusive forms of association along ethnic, racial, cultural, or religious lines (including those of a white or Christian nature). Yet at the same time the critics virulently demand their own rights of free association in the form of such practices as “deplatforming” and the creation of “safe spaces.” The normal response that is offered when this contradiction is pointed out is to engage in special pleading by labeling various social groups as “privileged” or “oppressed” along dubious and narrowly contrived ideological lines.
Of course, a more reasonable interpretation of my views is that offered by John Zube at Panarchy.Org, who describes me as an “anarchist, who as an intermediate stage advocates territorial secessionism but also exterritorial secessionism.” For example, Zube explains how such a viewpoint might work in practice pertaining to controversial issues such as abortion or crime:
Panarchy means consentism, voluntarism, sovereign individuals doing their things, instead of imposing their ideas, laws and practices upon others. The anti-abortionists would simply not practice it among themselves and try to persuade others to follow their example. The pro-abortionists would practice abortions among their members but would not impose them upon non-members. Is that so difficult to understand? Those liking the present democracy could go on practicing it within the network of their volunteers. They would no longer be tolerated if they tried to impose it upon the whole population. Experimental freedom, including consumer sovereignty and enterprise sovereignty works already extensively and well in whichever sphere it is already legal and realised. Indeed, panarchies, too, would establish international courts or arbitration systems and decide in advance whose personal law system is to be applied in case of criminal actions between members of different personal law systems. E.g., either the law of the victim or that of the victimiser. I think that, mostly, they would agree that the law of the victim of such crimes should be applied...But it would also have competing statist, communist etc. systems, all only for their voluntary victims.
Such an approach is eminently practical given that anarchism contains within itself many rival sects, often with polar opposite views. Likewise, the lumpenproletariat class, overlapping declasse elements, and enemies of the state generally contain within their own ranks an immense variety of cultural, socioeconomic, and demographic sectors some of whom are polar opposite to one another as well.
Many years ago I came to the conclusion, after having studied the uninterrupted history of anarchists having their movements subverted by leftists, that anarchists must necessarily identify the pro-state Left in all of its forms as the primary enemy, and commence the struggle by attacking the Left from the left. The majority of contemporary anarchists would appear to take the opposite approach and begin by attacking the far-right as a matter of priority. This might make sense in a society such as Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, or Pinochet’s Chile where the far-right is dominant. However, it makes no sense in contemporary Western liberal societies where the far-right exists only on the margins, where the ruling class is comprised of an unchallenged centrist oligarchy, and where the Left represents rising social forces that are increasingly becoming embedded in institutions.
Applying these principles in retrospect, it would have been first necessary for the anarchists to defeat the Marxists in the First International before commencing the class struggle. It would have been necessary to first defeat the Bolsheviks in Russia before overthrowing the tsar, and to effectively purge the Communists from the Spanish Republic before engaging with Franco’s forces. Our friends in Greece have shown us how it’s done. While the actions of the Greek anarchists were directed towards the old guard Stalinists, such an approach is also warranted and necessary with regards to the totalitarian humanists, neo-Marxists, antifa, and “tankies,” while at the same time building a revolutionary center that attacks the entrenched centrist oligarchy, and continuing to push the right-wing to the margins by bringing its constituency under the umbrella of the revolutionary center.