This is the first in a series of short posts explaining concepts and debates in anarchist theory. It’s meant for readers who grasp the basics of anarchism as a political philosophy, but wish to understand some of the nuances of the tradition and its internal debates.
This one’s on perhaps the major recurring theoretical debate in anarchism- the issue of insurrectionist versus mass anarchist views. I personally am very much aligned to the mass camp, so my apologies for any bias.
Roughly, the insurrectionist believes in action which is:
2. Of a high intensity (i.e. quite illegal)
3. Planned informally and through secret groups.
Particularly because of criteria 2, but in part due to 1 & 3, Insurrectionists tend to work in small groups. These are the folks that created the concept of propaganda of the deed.
Meanwhile Mass Anarchists believe in actions which are:
1. Judiciously targeted
2. Of a relatively ‘safe’ level of intensity, usually either legal or quasi-legal.
3. Planned through open and relatively formal groups
Additionally, but not always, Mass Anarchists often see the workplace as an especially important site for struggle, anarcho-syndicalism is the most famous form of Mass Anarchism.
Common insurrectionist tactics include property destruction, black blocs, sabotage, etc etc. Common mass anarchist tactics include protests, strikes, blockades and distributing propaganda. Note though that both sides of this debate will typically be willing to use the other sides tactics under the right circumstances.
Mass anarchists say that insurrectionists are vain-glorious wannabe heroes who do not understand that at this stage of the struggle their actions are counterproductive since the priority is to build strength, not show off. Further they allege that insurrectionists’ rejection of permanent and formal organisation would condemn anarchism to the status of an impotent minority within the revolutionary left.
Insurrectionist anarchists say that Mass Anarchists are little better than Leninist’s who like the colour black, and that their formal organisations are really hotbeds of authoritarianism. Further they claim that the mass anarchist’s aversion to high intensity tactics belies a secret liberalism and reformism.
There’s a lot of quite interesting dynamics to the debate. For example, in their theoretical writings mass anarchists generally claim that insurrectionists are silly but nonetheless genuine anarchists, whereas insurrectionists often claim that mass anarchists are not really anarchists at all, because of their embrace of organising techniques involving permanent and structured groups. In response to such complaints Mass Anarchists often say that it is informal political groups which carry the real danger of authoritarianism, as invisible leadership cliques based on charisma and connections tend to form.
Mass anarchists usually write about their ideas in quite a straightforward and unassuming way, while Insurrectionists have become notorious for their difficult to read (but admittedly often quite interesting and provocative) dense texts such as “The Coming Insurrection”.
In reality, this stuff matters a lot less than you might think. Most anarchists aren’t too bothered to pick one side or the other in this debate, and even partisans for a side find it relatively easy to work with the other, despite their posturing.
So why the division? What makes this such a fundamental debate within anarchism? Everyone on the revolutionary left (even non-anarchists) would most like high intensity actions involving millions of people- after all, that’s what a revolution is. In a non-revolutionary setting though we can only have one or the other, and our tactics will determine which we get. Poetically, the struggle between mass and insurrectionary anarchism represents two halves of a dream, the totality of which cannot yet be realised at once.