A FEW WORDS:
On the Aims and Methods of Critique
The development of a coherent anarchist practice based on our desire to take back our lives requires the ongoing use of critical analysis on all levels. But, as with the totality of anarchist practice, critique is only useful when one is clear about the aims of the practice and develops methods consistent with those aims. Here as in all other areas of practice, our means need to embody our ends.
For the sake of simplicity and clarity, we can speak of three general areas in which critical analysis is necessary: 1) the critique of the present society, of the institutions, systems and relationships that produce and maintain domination and exploitation; 2) historical critique, the critical examination of struggles, insurrections and revolutionary theory and practice of the past; and 3) the critique of the ideas and practices of the contemporary anarchist movement.
The critique of the present society, of the institutions and relationships of domination, has a very simple aim, that of achieving an understanding of our enemy that is sufficient for the project of destroying it and opening the possibility for free and self-determined living. The method best suited to this aim is one of incisive, iconoclastic attack. Slogans and simplistic proclamations are not enough. It is necessary to examine the practices of the state, capital and all the other institutions of domination deeply. This examination needs to start from our desire to take back our lives as individuals and develop relationships based on free association, and the consequent necessity to reappropriate life on the social level as well. This means examining the ways in which the ruling institutions penetrate into and come to define our daily lives. In fact, the examination of daily life is of primary importance, because this is where one can develop an ongoing practice of conflict with the forces of domination, discovering the weak points that one can attack as an aspect of living one’s life. This is also where one could meet those individuals who may not call themselves anarchists or revolutionaries, but who consistently live in defiance against this ruled existence and so may prove to be the most trustworthy of accomplices in revolt. Of course, in the development of this critique, we can make use of a myriad of tools, including those which we steal from such academic and scientific pursuits as anthropology and philosophy. But these should never become models for a future society or the center of our critique. If they do, they become ideological chains rather than critical tools of our desire to reappropriate our lives and transform existence in terms of our needs desires and aspirations.
The aim of an anarchist historical critique is to reappropriate the history of the struggle against domination as an unfinished task, to examine the insurrections and revolutions of the past as part of our ongoing struggle so that what can grasp what is useful from them. The appropriate method for carrying this aim out is the demystification of history. I do not mean by this the replacement of “objectively” false visions of the past with “objectively” true ones. Rather I mean the transformation of our conception of history. The “History” that we were taught in school is a string of events (often perceived as a progression) placed on display like exhibits in a museum. Whether “accurate” or not, this represents a mystification in the fullest sense of the word, because it defines History as a thing above us that cannot be touched. The most common radical response to this view is that developed by certain Marxists and Hegelians in which the hand of History is not the dead past, but a determined and inevitable future. Since this also places history above us in a sacred, untouchable realm, it is still a mystification. The demystification of history is the recognition that it is nothing more nor less than the activity of human beings doing what is necessary to create their lives and world. Because this activity is mostly unconscious, the rulers are able to control it in their own interests and create the mystified history that supports their continued control. Insurrections are moments when the apparatus of historical mystification breaks down and people begin to see themselves as the protagonists of their own existence, raising the fundamental question of how to go about creating our lives consciously for ourselves. In this light, all past insurrections are part of an ongoing struggle. Their faults and failures are not tales of tragic heroism and defeat, but rather lessons to be drawn on in the continuing struggle for the reappropriation of our lives. So historical critique in an anarchist and revolutionary sense is the examination of those moments when historical mystifications break down and the fundamental questions of how to create our lives for ourselves begin to be raised, with the explicit aim of reopening these questions now in our own lives in order to be better prepared when the next insurrectional rupture occurs. Of course, without any illusions that there can be any guaranteed solutions when we step into the unknown of insurrection and the creation of free existence.
Our critical interaction with each other, dealing with current ideas and practices, would ideally be aimed at sharpening our theory and practice and clarifying affinities and real differences so that each of us can advance our projects of revolt in association with others with whom we share real affinity. Thus the aim is most certainly not to achieve theoretical and tactical unity as some anarchists proclaim, but rather to maintain the vitality that comes from immersion in the struggle against this social order, a vitality capable of fierce argument and a real conflict of ideas without the necessity of rancor or defensiveness of an entrenched position. The appropriate method for this critique is deep, passionate, intelligent debate of actual ideas and practices carried out with transparency. In order to do this, we must keep our debate in the realm of actual ideas and practices. Thus, in our debates, we want to avoid stylistic judgments and characterizations – describing an idea as “academic”, “arrogant”, “dogmatic” or the like is not a critique of the idea, but only of its style. We want to avoid creating monoliths where they do not exist, because such constructions cause the actual question under debate to get lost behind the non-existent sect one has constructed. This also occurs when one brings an extraneous person or group into the debate and attributes their ideas to one’s opponent. The original matter under debate disappears again behind a fictitious construction. I could go into more methods used to avoid real debate: personal insults and accusations, the leftist doctrine of collective guilt and responsibility, arguing against someone’s form to discredit their ideas, “critique” of what someone did not do rather than of anything they did, etc., etc. All of these practices take the debate out of the realm of real ideas and practices and move them into the realm of the fictitious and often the ideological. In so doing the aims of this sort of critique get lost. When the real ideas and practices of individuals get lost behind the battles of the ideological giants, theory and practice are blunted, worn down to fit into the various ideological constructs that represent the sides of this battle. Real affinities and differences are overshadowed by the necessity to adhere to a side in these false debates. And, indeed, we are all called upon to take sides, even when we find none of the options appealing and would rather simply go our own way creating our projects of revolt on our own terms. And, indeed, only by walking away from the false debates can we enter back into real critical interaction with those willing to consciously refuse the methods for avoiding real debate.
Of course, this division of critical activity into three areas was simply done for simplicity’s sake. In fact, these aspects of critique are intimately united each flowing into the other as part of the transformative activity of the struggle against this society. To maintain the vitality of our critical activity, of our analyses, our debates and our creation of theory, we must carefully avoid every tendency toward the reification of these activities. We must avoid the idea that we have found the answer, that we need no longer explore or question, but need only convince others that we are right and that they should follow our perspective (how far off is this from being leaders and authorities?). I am not suggesting that we should lack confidence in our ideas, but rather that we should continue to explore and question everything – including our own ideas and practice – with a cruel and incisive eye. Because it is our life and our freedom that is at stake.