In Defence Of Anarchism: Tearing Down The Links To The Butchers Of ISIL


Late last month, ABC’s Radio National (RN) attempted to place the Islamic State (ISIL) in historical perspective with an expert arguing that ISIL is similar to 19th century anarchists.

The claim is highly questionable, not only because it misconstrues ISIL and anarchism in the 19th century, but also because it occurs precisely at the moment contemporary anarchists are supporting Kurdish forces opposed to ISIL; forces which, moreover, [arguably]embody a libertarian approach to social change, one which draws direct ideological inspiration from 19th century anarchism through the writing of US anarchist Murray Bookchin.

According to RN presenter Geraldine Doogue, the ‘really big’ story of that week was the impact of ISIL on the lives of Australians: on the same day the Australian government committed troops to the fight against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, police conducted raids on properties belonging to suspected ISIL terrorists in Brisbane and Sydney amid revelations of an alleged plot to behead a randomly-chosen individual in Martin Place, Sydney.

However unlikely its occurrence, the prospect of ISIL exporting its shock and awe tactics to Australian shores demands explanation. For Doogue, the key questions to be asked in this context are ‘What is the nature of the confrontation Australia is involved in?’ and ‘What is the psychology of terrorist movements and why do they appeal to disenfranchised young men?’

In seeking to answer these questions, Doogue first (incorrectly) cites a recent (sic) article by Johann Hari in The Times (Blood, rage & history: The world's first terrorists actually appeared in The Independent in October, 2009). Hari’s article also locates ISIL within an anarchist context. Happily, it contains the following positive note: “For decades, anarchist radicals seemed like an ineradicable force that would bleed Western societies forever. Within a generation, they were gone.”

Leaving aside the fact that neither anarchism nor anarchist violence disappeared at the turn of the century, the title ‘Islamic State similar to 19th century anarchists, says expert’ is misleading.

The two experts interviewed by Doogue – John Merriman, Professor of History at Yale University and Major General (retired) Michael Smith, Visiting Fellow at the Asia Pacific College of Diplomacy at the ANU – note that there are some similarities between ‘the anarchists’ and ISIL, but are also at pains to highlight their differences; crucially, the fact that the anarchists wanted to dismantle the state, whereas ISIL want to construct one (Doogue creates further confusion by lumping 19th century anarchists and nihilists together, with the latter group described as being ‘even less ordered’ than the anarchists).

This is not the first time that anarchism has been compared to some species of terrorism. Indeed, assertions regarding the intrinsically violent nature of anarchism are probably rivalled in frequency only by allegations of its theoretical incoherence.

One trivial example of the former occurred in December 2001, when the Melbourne May Day committee promoted May Day by denouncing the "individualist or anarchist actions” that took place on September 11, 2001; ironic given the anarchist origins of May Day.

On a more serious note, in ‘Al-Qaeda and Anarchism: A Historian’s Reply to Terrorology’ (Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol.20, No.4, 2008), US historian James L. Gelvin argues that “al-Qaeda does not represent a new or sui generis phenomenon, but rather fits squarely into the anarchist mold”.

How useful or relevant are such comparisons? I would suggest that they are not at all helpful in understanding either anarchism or ISIL. Where similarities occur they are generally superficial – and the critical differences are numerous.

ISIL is a state-building exercise; anarchists wish to dismantle the state. Émile Henry, the anarchist terrorist upon whom Merriman based his book The Dynamite Club, was an isolated figure; similar acts targeting ‘innocent civilians’ were committed by range of other political actors; the anarchists, whether 19th, 20th or 21st century engaged in mass struggle… the list goes on.

Apart from the bloodthirstiness with which they prosecute their struggle to establish an Islamic state in Iraq and the Levant, the real horror which ISIL engenders in Western commentators especially is the acute disruption to world and regional order it threatens.

As Andrew Phillips has observed (‘The Islamic State's challenge to international order’, Australian Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 68, No. 5, 2014), “In attempting to consolidate a jihadist statelet spanning parts of Syria and Iraq, IS challenges the territorial dispensation that has prevailed since the 1916 Sykes–Picot Agreement first split the region into British and French spheres of influence. Sykes–Picot stands as an enduring symbol of betrayal and humiliation for the Arab world.”

The actions of 19th century anarchists also elicited alarm, not because of their occasional success in permanently eliminating one ruler or another, but because, as William M. Phillips sets forth in his book Nightmares of Anarchy: Language and Cultural Change, 1870-1914, they drew attention to the inherent contradictions of capitalist society and culture and the new world it was forming.

Thus while the grotesque caricatures of anarchists that the bourgeois press produced during this period may have inadvertently revealed something about anarchism to its readers, they can also be read, more accurately, as expressing the rational fears of the bourgeoisie in the challenge to the social order that the anarchists represented.

As Jeff Sparrow among others has noted, the Australian intervention in Iraq and Syria risks arming a group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Australian government has officially designated a terrorist organisation.

David Graeber has argued that there are parallels between the situations in the autonomous region of Rojava (west Syria) – in which Kurdish forces, including the PKK, are battling ISIL – and that facing anarchists in Spain during the Spanish Civil War.

Despite repression by the Turkish state, anarchists in Turkey have been actively seeking to support the resistance to ISIL in Kobane, while anarchists in Denver have established an appeal to support the Turkish anarchists in doing so.

From an historical perspective, such expressions of international solidarity do much more to illuminate anarchism than does lumping them in with the butchers of ISIL.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.