Anarchism and Ideology

John Filiss

(This essay, begun as a contribution to an ongoing exchange in the publication Anarchy: A Journal Of Desire Armed (AJODA), attempts to outline some of the weak points of a new form of ideological constraint current within modern anarchism. While not well-known in itself, it is interesting insofar as it accurately reflects both the biases and failings of the anarchist milieu from which it arose, as well as for the justification of thought control by an ideology that purports to free the mind.)

Jason McQuinn's position in What is Ideology? is that "negative, critical" concepts are less prone to forming an ideology than are "positive" concepts, but I see no evidence in reality to support such a case. Ideological subservience as manifested in adoption of negative concepts (or what one is against) is as widespread as ideological subservience as manifested in the support of positive concepts (or what one is for), and this has been true throughout history. Manufactured evils to strive against can and do hold as much sway as manufactured virtues to strive for…the use of both is a commonplace in propaganda and as a motivator in warfare, to give but two examples. In fact, the entire panoply of authoritarianism is rationalized by both positive and negative concepts. And negative concepts likewise can form the "fundamental aim" and "organizing principle" that Jason attempts to argue as being the particular province of positive concepts. 1

Let's view this from another angle. Who would you say is a slave to ideas?

Is it the individual who explores ideas freely, both identifying problems and seeking out answers and solutions in the outside world?

Or is it someone who purposefully blocks any understanding of what might constitute a "positive" approach to theory for fear that it will consume him/her? Someone who consciously focuses on only particular aspects of ideas as the 'appropriate' way to view the world?

I think the answer to that question is pretty simple. But to make it even clearer, let's delve into a more consistent expression of the view that negative concepts tend to avoid or negate reification relative to positive concepts. One expositor of this approach to ideas is frequent AJODA contributor feral faun/Wolfi Landstreicher.

Landstreicher in fact has an article in that same issue of AJODA, where he addresses some of the same topics. In his Introductory note to "How Then Do We Go Wild?" Landstreicher writes

"Primitivism, particularly as expressed in the pages of Fifth Estate, seemed to carry within itself a tendency for providing models, for giving answers, and I saw that as the first step towards moving into politics, toward making our ideas into another ideology in contention with the myriad of other radical political systems."

This is especially lucid because Landstreicher openly criticizes primitivism (and presumably many other theoretical perspectives) for giving answers. This leads to the simple question of why we would be engaged in the discussion of theory to begin with if we weren't looking for answers. Wolfi continues

"A model was not what we needed to move our project forward, but rather a courageous willingness to face the unknown of real revolt, to raise the questions that truly challenged our current existence in its totality."

Again, what good is it to "raise the questions" if we are not seeking answers? And why should we raise them if we are under an injunction not to explore any positive concepts that those questions might lead to?

Instead of interacting with reality on the basis of potential solutions, here we see the natural impulse to creatively improve one's situation stymied past the level of problem identification. Thought is tied to a particular modality, from which it may not stray.

In fairness, this piece and Wolfi's approach in general may be an extreme case, as his writings tend to exemplify--in their emphasis on attitude and their devaluation of context beyond individual subjectivity--anarchism as a particular pose.

But while I suspect most people who in some way feel an empathy for anarchism are unaware of "the anarchist critique of ideology," as Jason labels his attack on positive concepts (and by implication the search for solutions themselves), and some of them may well condemn the real application of this particular bit of authoritarian self-conditioning, I don't doubt that a hazy perception of this approach would be greeted by most anarchists. The reason is that anarchism in modern history really is by and large a particular pose. It is a negative philosophy that, even apart from sophistical arguments, prefers to emphasize what it is against, and rarely what it is for. Its theory is too impoverished in the realm of realization to inform much in the way of original perspectives, so it takes as an unquestioned and generally unquestionable default the revolutionary stances of various radical tendencies in the 19th and 20th centuries. And a cultivation of negative concepts in our current social environment would seem to reinforce this particular approach. Why look for answers when anarchy puts forth the only solutions it wants you to consider? An artifact like "the anarchist critique of ideology" may not comport with reality, but it does coincide with what anarchists want to hear.

Contemporary anarchism is a relatively rich field, at least as far as political philosophies go. But it is limited, even severely limited, in its creative range, most notably in discussion concerning realization. That fact in itself is not a condemnation. When this limitation is acknowledged and understood, the individual can take its insights for what they're worth with a clearer idea of what this body of theory purports to answer and what it has so far been unable to address. Where a theory becomes dangerous as ideology is when it muddies the waters by, say, trying to deny access to material that would contradict its theses or at least put their limitations in full relief. In its attempt to impose thought structures, "the anarchist critique of ideology" does exactly that.

In summation, modern anarchism perhaps most convincingly structures itself as an ideology in a purported attempt to avoid being one. It sets as an imperative a method for self-conditioning--the avoidance of models, positive concepts, even answers--that reinforces the sought-after response of a negation of current society uninformed by any of the foregoing. Anarchists can have fixed ideas, they just have to be the right ideas that serve the ends of contemporary anarchism. Identity is opposition, or it is nothing.

Such is the approach of "the anarchist critique of ideology."

The problem of ideology does in fact exist, and is evident in the approach of both Jason and Wolfi as quoted above. Actually, the most obvious response to the problem of ideology is awareness of the limitations of a given theory; that is, real awareness of those limitations in everyday application and argument, and not just painfully academic qualifications half-hidden in texts somewhere so as to shelter the biases of theorists who don't want to get cornered. No theory will have all the answers that we need to face the days ahead. In fact, no theory qua theory can head off its utilization for ideological ends. But if it is duplicity for a theory to misrepresent its true value and range of application, what then of a theory that disparages even the search for answers that might lead one to question its particular precepts? Such an approach would indeed be fraudulent, and could exemplify some of the worst aspects of dogmatism. If anarchism were ever to attain real societal influence, this fallacy, if left unchecked, could help prefigure a society very different from the antiauthoritarian one that anarchists claim to seek.


By anarchism I refer to many of the authors and tendencies loosely associated with publications like Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, Fifth Estate, and some similar projects. The criticisms aren't meant to address other variants of anarchism, such as anarcho-syndicalism, anarcho-capitalism, libertarian socialism, etc..

The term "ideology" is here used as a somewhat looser synonym for the word "dogma," or theory that develops into a psychological control system for its adherents. While the purpose of this essay was not intended to address the problem of ideology directly, it can be said that probably no theory will ever be able to prevent its deterioration into some form of ideology. The tendency of "the anarchist critique of ideology" as outlined above to harden into a form of ideology that would have few precedents as a closed system is perhaps illustrative of the nature of the problem.

1. It may be interesting to map out the relative extent to which positive and negative concepts in their real-world use undergird ideology and authoritarianism, although I personally feel that the two are intertwined enough to limit the insights, and moreover that it is not a very telling distinction for those trying to circumvent limitations to our own freedom. But I can't help quoting the following from A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy (ed. Robert E Gooding & Philip Petit. 2000. Oxford, UK & Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers). Anthony Quinton, writing on modern authoritarian societies, observes that "In general, authoritarianism defends itself negatively, as a responsible alternative to the inefficiency and corruption of parliamentary democracy. In the countries where it has prevailed that charge has often been of considerable force." p. 264

The following are source materials for the above, along with my original response to Jason. Jason's piece Why I Am Not A Primitivist is on the AJODA website

What is Ideology?

Jason McQuinn

The major problem displayed by John Filiss in his Response to 'Why I Am Not a Primitivist' above is his misunderstanding of the anarchist critique of ideology. Since this is a highly important, yet often widespread problem for both anarchists and primitivists, let me explain again what ideology is and how it applies to primitivism.

There certainly can be genuine confusions over the meanings of ideology since the word has been used for purposes entailing quite different meanings. However, when I (and other anti-ideological anarchists) criticize ideology, it is always from a specifically critical, anarchist perspective rooted in both the skeptical, individualist-anarchist philosophy of Max Stirner (especially his master work, translated into English as The Ego and Its Own) and the Marxist conception of ideology, especially as it was developed by members of the Frankfurt school (Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno and others) in their version of critical theory.

Although Stirner did not use the word "ideology," he developed a fundamentally important critique of alienation which crucially encompassed a critique of alienated and alienating theory. For Stirner theory can either be employed to express the subjective aims of its creator or it can be allowed to subordinate and control the person employing it. In the first instance theory facilitates the fulfillment of one's most important desires, assisting people in analyzing and clarifying their aims, the relative importance of particular aims and desires, and the best means for achieving the overall configuration of projects that is one's life in the world. The alternative (what has now most often come to be called "ideological") use of theory involves the adoption of theories constructed around abstract, externally-conceived subjectivities (god, state, capital, anarchism, primitivism, etc.) to which one feels in some ways obliged to subordinate her or his own aims, desires and life.

I won't go into the complexities of the development of the critical Marxist conceptions of ideology. Suffice it to say that they emphasize an important, but incomplete conception of ideology in the service of institutional social formations, which programmatically forgets the central importance of individual subjectivity to any unalienated theory. The most important aspect of this critical theory of ideology is that the ideas of an alienated populace will tend to both explicitly and implicitly reflect in theory their actual subordination to alienating institutions-especially capital, state and religion-in practice. In other words, when one is enslaved one is forced to view the world to some degree from the perspective of the slaveholder (whether the slaveholder is a person or an institution or a set of institutions) in order to avoid punishment and accomplish any tasks demanded. And the more complex and pervasive the slaveholder's demands, the more it becomes necessary to look at one's world from the slaveholder's perspective, until most people can and have lost sight of the very possibility of maintaining their own unalienated perspectives in opposition to their enslavement.

It should already be clear from the outline of Stirner's critique above that when I criticize primitivism for its very real tendencies to be employed in ideological ways, I am not singling out primitivism for criticism while ignoring the susceptibilities of anarchist theory. In fact, I have often criticized the many ideological variants of anarchist theory and as far as I'm concerned this criticism has been a fundamental theme of this magazine from its inception. Any and all general theoretical positions will always remain susceptible to ideological deformation. And the more explicitly they are aimed at defining and encouraging particular forms of social activity the more obvious their susceptibility will be. The point I made in Why I Am Not A Primitivist is that primitivism as a socio-political theory (not conceived as an art movement or lifestyle, neither of which has much relevance to my critique except in evading it) by definition will always tend to place some conception of primitive society (or societies) as its fundamental aim. This conception of a particular form (or a particular range of forms) of society as the central aim of and organizing principle of primitivist theory means that the ideological tendencies of primitivism will tend to produce theories demanding the reconstruction of contemporary society in terms of hypostatized ideas of the primitive. And, unfortunately, in the actually-existing primitivist milieu these ideological tendencies are pervasive.

It is certainly possible to develop non-ideological primitivist theories. It's just less likely than developing non-ideological anarchist theories because the central principle of primitivism allows it to be more easily transformed into an ideological conception. This is primarily because anarchy is a profoundly negative, critical concept (absence of rule) that must be bent a lot further (than positive concepts of the primitive) in order to be transformed into an ideology. I did not claim that primitivism is atavism, nor that primitivism is necessarily always ideological, only that primitivism is too easily turned into an ideology to be worthwhile as a defining term for anarchist social revolutionaries. Implicit in this judgment is the assumption that the anarchists I am speaking to have an ultimate goal of abolishing social alienation and domination, and that they are already not completely under the thrall of ideological influences which have left them so confused that they want to subordinate their lives to abstract ideals of the primitive, nature, wilderness, etc. at the expense of developing a critical self-understanding of the social and natural world.

It might have clarified things more if I had been able to finish my essay as I originally intended with a concluding section detailing the importance for anarchists of adopting critiques of civilization and technology. Unfortunately, there was no space for me to do this in the last issue, though I will see if I can make room in an upcoming issue to run a second essay completing my thoughts. To be critical of civilization and technology simply leaves less room for ideology to develop in our theory than does too close an identification with a positive concept like the primitive. And in my opinion, this is an important enough advantage to keep me from ever calling myself a primitivist.

Introductory Note to "How Do We Then Go Wild"

Wolfi Landstreicher

When I wrote the essay " Feral Revolution" in late 1980s, part of my intent was to separate myself from a primitivist tendency that I thought was coming to have too much influence within the anarchist milieu that was developing a critique of civilization. Primitivism, particularly as expressed in the pages of Fifth Estate, seemed to carry within itself a tendency for providing models, for giving answers, and I saw that as the first step towards moving into politics, toward making our ideas into another ideology in contention with the myriad of other radical political systems. A model was not what we needed to move our project forward, but rather a courageous willingness to face the unknown of real revolt, to raise the questions that truly challenged our current existence in its totality. I felt that the concept of wildness was adequately undefined to inspire just such questioning, particularly when its object was to be the whole of civilized existence. But "Feral Revolution" was ambiguous enough to allow primitivism to swallow it up-this may explain why it is the most reprinted of the pieces I have written. One need only equate the (idealized) primitive with the wild, and then the wild is no longer an unknown to be discovered and explored, but a known model to return to. I won't go into the reification of non-civilized cultures such a construction involves. A few years ago, I wrote "How Then Do We Go Wild?" to bring back the most important aspect of my idea of wildness as an unknown into the discussion. As may be clear from the piece, my critique of civilization did not originate either in primitivist thought or in environmentalism, but in an examination of the alienation, domination and exploitation imposed on most human beings within the present society. Thus, my interest has never been the return of the earth to some imagined pristine, edenic state-which would be just a political program among all the others, contending for adherents-but the creation of a project aimed at an insurrectional break with the present world and the opening of a myriad of possibilities to be explored and experimented with. For me, the critique of civilization is above all a theoretical tool for the development of such a project, a project intended to lead to the sort of revolution that can rightly be called "a collective movement for individual realization."

A Response to "Why I Am Not A Primitivist"

John Filiss

I want to sincerely thank Jason McQuinn for opening a dialogue on primitivism and related in recent issues of AJODA. The following is my response to his Why I Am Not a Primitivist appearing in Anarchy #51.

While I'll limit my criticisms to two particular areas, I can't help noting how easily the word "anarchism" and "anarchist" could be substituted for "primitivism" and "primitivist" in the essay. Here are just a few examples:

"In a vitally important sense there are no contemporary 'anarchist' societies and there is not even any single, identifiable, archetypal 'anarchist' society."

"I don't consider myself an anarchist because of what I see as the inherently ideological thrust of any theory which idealizes a particular form of life (whether or not it has ever actually existed)."

"Unfortunately, for most anarchists an idealized, hypostatized vision of anarchist societies tends to irresistibly displace the essential centrality of critical self-theory, whatever their occasional protestations to the contrary."

The exchange of terms is possible even apart from the fact that the only stable, long-term anarchist societies were among hunter-gatherers. The point here isn't to excuse primitivism by the failings of anarchism, but given Jason's status as an anarchist, it shows in many cases how generalized and often groundless are the statements made against it in his essay.

Primitivism, not Atavism

Perhaps the most fundamental error of "Why I Am Not A Primitivist" is the conflation of primitivism with atavism, or reversion to a prior state. Even by the limits of a dictionary definition, primitivism is not tied to the concept of direct throwback. From Webster's New Third International Dictionary, we have a number of definitions including

"A belief in the superiority of a simple, unsophisticated way of life esp. close to nature"

"A belief in the superiority of early esp. nonindustrial society to that of the present"

And to give some idea of the breadth of the term, I should note that for many decades it was more frequently used to describe certain styles of art noted for their simplicity and directness than it was to explain any particular philosophical viewpoint.

While an evolving body of thought is hardly bound to the letter of a dictionary definition, the point is that there is nothing inherent in the term that binds it to the idea of throwback. Considering that part of the WIANAP critique is one of terms (e.g., "And that primitivism, shorn of all its ideological proclivities, is better off with a better name,"), this is a point worth making. Going further, I can't recall any primitivist writing that explicitly demands we revert to a prior state in all its particulars, while authors like John Zerzan have stated the question of whether we should literally attempt to emulate a hunter-gatherer way of life as an open one.

Primitivism As Ideology?

McQuinn writes

"Unfortunately, for most primitivists an idealized, hypostatized vision of primal societies tends to irresistibly displace the essential centrality of critical self-theory, whatever their occasional protestations to the contrary. The locus of critique quickly moves from the critical self-understanding of the social and natural world to the adoption of a preconceived ideal against which that world (and one's own life) is measured, an archetypically ideological stance. This nearly irresistible susceptibility to idealization is primitivism's greatest weakness."

I would like to see a better explanation of what is meant by ideology to warrant this and other statements. At first my take on it was that Jason saw primitivism as being ideological since it rarely brings up issues of primitive societies being less than utopia, i.e., primitivism exercised too little criticism of the real world models it drew so much of its insight from. But that is beginning to make less sense to me, as anarchists aren't particularly critical of the limitations of anarchist insight. You can't demand in the real world that a tendency emerge fully formed with all of its weak points already stated by those who are interested in that body of theory. Or that every time we mention the positives of hunter-gatherer life, we try to balance it with something else. That isn't being self-critical, that is being a milquetoast who asks not to be taken seriously.

So is the point that we have a rich body of human experience on which to draw for insights, whereas anarchism sans primitive societies and circumstances has relatively little? That makes no sense. Is it that we uncritically embrace all primitive societies? That makes no sense either, given the range of literature that could be described as primitivist. Zerzan's originary essays went as far as they did because they see problems even within hunter-gatherer life.

Any viewpoint will be marked by a normal tendency of those who find insight in it to make a strong case for its perspective. If this constitutes ideology, then I know of hardly any tendency that is immune from such a charge. Take anarchism, for example. How many essays have you seen in the anarchist milieu critiquing the possibility of anarchy itself? Or that bring the failings of anarchist theory into sharpest relief? Despite primitivism being a smaller and more marginalized tendency than anarchism, the writings concerning it show at least as much restraint and self-critique as anarchist writing. Actually more. In fact, primitivism easily surpasses anarchism in the circumspection with which various individuals qualify the label itself.

While primitivism has its weaknesses, they revolve largely around issues of error, incompleteness, and rhetorical flourish from which maybe no particular body of theory that excites interest will ever be free. None of this constitutes reification to the point of making theory ideology. Unless, again, every single viewpoint with any human interest is therefore ideology. But that would render the critique of ideology meaningless.

I would regard it largely as an area of incompleteness that writings with a primitivist perspective don't show a greater awareness of findings that contradict an absolute utopia at some particular juncture in human history or pre-history. But it's telling that hardly any of our critics know much along these lines either. In one exchange I had with an individual attempting to show the weakness of some common primitivist perspectives, a pretty labored comparison was made between the lives of our human ancestors and that of the Pan troglodytes chimpanzee. Eventually, I suggested he would find more valid evidence in some findings related to human pre-history rather than the behavior of an ape in another genus, and gave him the following quote:

"One of the earliest and most tantalizingly relevant sites is Grosse Ofnet, Bavaria, a cave having an unbroken sequence from the lower Aurignacian (early upper Old Stone Age) continuously through Iron Ages into historical medieval times, such that there can be no question of serial position in time. Here in the Azilian-Tardenosian layer, were found two concentric circles, three feet apart, made up of six and twenty-seven human skulls respectively, with all the faces turned toward the west. Some of the skulls had upper vertebrae still attached, but with marks of forcible decapitation. The find was not a simple burial of the dead (for only the thirty-three skulls were present) but rather a ritual sacrifice, having a seemingly intentional reference to the direction of the setting sun. In 1937, another such nest was found in the Hohlenstein cave near Wurtemburg, both male and female skulls showing fractures as from a heavy blow, and marks of heavy decapitation."

Muelos Weston La Barre

While I find information like the above intriguing, the question as to why primitivists themselves have not exhaustively catalogued this literature just isn't relevant in the context of an inchoate tendency that still has so much to accomplish, including the collection and critical evaluation of even a minor portion of the evidence supporting a general primitivist thesis itself, as well as the same for evidence that demands the continual refining of this perspective. And I don't feel it is out of place to mention that among the anthropologists who have had a major impact on primitivist thought there has been an open recognition of the shortcomings of these societies. Pierre Clastres in his Society Against The State devotes a whole chapter to torture in primitive societies. Marshall Sahlins, author of The Original Affluent Society wrote at length on cannibalism in Fiji. In The New York Review of Books, he even debated William Arens, author of The Man Eating Myth, where he disproved the latter's thesis that cannibalism has never existed.