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Critique and Renewal: The Institute for Anarchist Studies at Twenty, by Chuck Morse

I played a pivotal role in the early history of the Institute for Anarchist Studies (IAS). I conceived of it, drafted all the founding documents, selected the initial Board of Directors, led early fundraising campaigns, and anchored it as a whole. Although I have had little to do with the IAS since leaving it in 2005, my years with the organization were an important—and positive—experience for me. I appreciate that Perspectives editors asked me to share my reflections on the occasion of the group’s twentieth anniversary.

When we were first getting started, I often thought about the IAS’s future. I assumed that the years ahead would be riven by crisis but also contain opportunities for radical social change; the challenge was to create an organization that could navigate those fissures while pushing toward substantive revolutionary alternatives. Although it should have been obvious to me, I never realized that one day I would wrestle with the IAS’s past. However, after two decades, those of us linked to the project now have the obligation to make sense of its history.


“Beauty is in the Streets,” Paris, 1968.

Anarchists tend to construe anarchist history as a story of victories and defeats in the service of what militants once called “The Idea.”[1] Every year we put out books, pamphlets, and websites celebrating the conquests and agonies of the Haymarket anarchists (1886–1887), the Kronstadt sailors (1921), and the workers’ collectives in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939). When I was still with the IAS, I helped build the Latin American Archives Project, an online archive commemorating the legacy of mostly Argentine anarchists; after leaving, I translated Abel Paz’s massive eulogy to Buenaventura Durruti, Spain’s legendary anarchist leader.[2] Celebrating the anarchist past disrupts official historical narratives, which are typically organized around political and religious figures, and gestures toward a new formulation of history built upon rebellion. This is one reason why anarchists have created a global network of archives, publishers, and associations focused mainly on preserving anarchism’s legacy.

It is tempting to mark the IAS’s twentieth year by telling a story of triumphant achievement. This would be the customary thing for a middle-aged organizational founder (myself) to do in these circumstances, and certainly it would flatter everyone involved. However, this approach to anarchist history has significant costs. Simply lauding our militants and organizations reduces them to caricatures—they become too valiant and virtuous—and it is impossible to put successes in context when we avoid failings as a matter of principle. It can also lead to political withdrawal: energies invested in lionizing the feats or lamenting the wounds of yesteryear are not invested in building a revolution today. This is why I pursue a more critical approach here.

I argue that the IAS’s foundational assumptions about academia and anarchism now require revision but affirm the IAS’s deep creativity on the whole. This sharp departure from the congratulatory approach to the anarchist past runs the risk of raising difficult questions, but allows relevant insights into the IAS and a richer appreciation of its accomplishments.

Academia: Trap or Battleground?

The need to build an alternative to academia was a crucial precept for the IAS. We believed that universities tended to make scholars conservative and conformist, and that a radical alternative—what we called a counter-institution—would foster more oppositional, socially committed scholarship.[3] We never considered linking the IAS to a college or university, even though that is common among specialty institutes and might have yielded significant perks (like free office space, for instance). Our autonomy was integral to our mission.

Our opposition to academia had multiple sources, some of which were personal. Many early board members were or had been graduate students and we abhorred the pompous, corporate culture that we found in universities. It seemed to be a place for posturing and building careers—indeed, a place where posturing helped build careers—not for fighting the good fight. I had been a student in the philosophy department at the New School for Social Research and my heart sank every time I walked past the uniformed guards at the school’s entrance. Figuratively and literally, their presence indicated that the New School’s academic culture relied upon keeping New York City’s social conflicts at bay. Being an academic and being engaged in the world felt like entirely different things.

Our views also had roots in debates that had simmered on the Left since the 1960s, when the university system exploded in size and became a mass concern. Some argued that radicals should mobilize within the university: in the words of Rudi Dutschke, a martyred German student activist, they should undertake a “long march through the institutions” and transform them from within. The proliferation of lefty departments, journals, and symposia in the 1980s and 1990s suggested the allure of this strategy. Others—like the IAS—asserted that entering the university was a trap that would lead scholars to moderate their aims. We believed that the comforts of the Ivory Tower—middle-class salaries, leisurely working conditions, and long summers—would turn intellectuals away from public concerns and instead focus them on specialized questions in their respective fields as well as low-risk campus politics. Murray Bookchin inspired us—an anarchist intellectual who railed against academics while producing volumes of his own scholarly work.[4] We also passed around Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, an impassioned though nostalgic defense of “public intellectuals.”[5]


The first issue of Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, published Spring, 1997.

The initial reception of the IAS seemed to ratify the wisdom of launching an independent space for anarchist intellectual work. The project’s novelty excited longtime observers of the anarchist scene—there had been many publishers and propagandists through the years, but the IAS was the first anarchist organization to focus on scholarly ventures as such and the first to award grants. It also resonated with dissident-but-non-anarchist thinkers who were then talking about the need to encourage “public intellectuals” (ironically, some even created an academic program to produce them).[6] Most dramatically, our efforts struck a chord with talented but non-academic radical scholars scattered around the globe, who immediately started sending us torrents of enthusiastic letters and emails. Many simply wanted a grant—i.e. money—but many also sought the validation and sense of community that association with the IAS provided. Our attempt to rally and nurture radical intellectuals outside of academia felt timely, viable, and exciting.

However, the university has changed dramatically during the last twenty years, and so has its impact on intellectuals. Long gone are the days when being a professor implied a laid-back, comfortable lifestyle: low wages, brutal working hours, and job insecurity are now far more common. Advocates of the “long march through the institutions” failed to resist the neoliberal assault on academia, not to mention transform it from within. But we were wrong about academia’s pacifying effect. Instead of drawing academics away from social struggle, these transformations are pushing them into protest movements and have raised the profile of systemic change as a topic of concern among them. For instance, bitter labor struggles and battles over debt now divide the university and drive faculty, staff, and students toward movements like Occupy Wall Street, and anarchist professors such as David Graeber, with his deep ties to activist movements, are by no means completely aberrant.

The IAS has not responded to this evolving landscape in any organized way—no campaigns, special issues of Perspectives, or conferences, etc. Obviously, it cannot do everything, but this is more than an oversight. While the IAS’s independence from the university spurred palpable excitement, its wholesale dismissal of academia makes it difficult to grasp how the university might generate radical opposition and to formulate strategies for strengthening it when this occurs. Prevailing trends suggest that the IAS should be more—not less—engaged with academia, but doing so will require a reappraisal of some of the its underlying assumptions.


Anarchism as Project

The IAS embraced a highly dialectical conception of anarchism. We believed that it could serve be a foundation for a broad revolutionary project and that it was urgent to encourage scholarly work about it. However, the renaissance of interest in anarchism over the last twenty years, which the IAS has helped foster, compromises the IAS’s assumptions about it. To an extent, the IAS is a victim of its own success.

Prior to World War II, anarchists typically imagined anarchism as a doctrine like positivism, Marxism, or Darwinism. Although they often differed strenuously over the details, they saw it as a coherent and fundamentally complete body of ideas that activists needed to popularize and apply. This changed in the 1960s when anarchists, inspired by the counterculture, tended to envisage anarchism as a license for spontaneity—sanction for what some called “the flipout.”[7] The first position was doctrinaire and somber, the second was spontaneous and emotive; both reflected the cultural trends of their times.

The IAS took a distinct stance. In all our founding documents, we framed anarchism as a project—a growing, dynamic body of theory and practice that was necessarily transcendent and liberatory. Relying on a quasi-Hegelian vocabulary, we thought of it as sort of a black seed sown in the nineteenth century that bore within it the potential for a comprehensive critique of domination. It needed to evolve and develop but, once fully matured, it would point us beyond the political and economic framework of our era and toward utopia. Its trajectory was sweeping, and it was destined to serve as a bridge from the current epoch to another.

Cultivating the development of anarchism required building upon the tradition’s emancipatory core, integrating insights from non-anarchist (but sympathetic) sources, and elevating the level of discussion as a whole. Our grant awards were a way to enlist scholars in this task while making it easier for working class authors to participate in the undertaking. We hoped to bring the black seed to fruition so that it could effect what Hegelian’s call a “negation of the negation.” Thus, for the IAS, anarchism wasn’t complete, but it wasn’t just anything; it needed to grow, but its growth had direction.

This perspective imbued the IAS’s efforts with a gravitas and flexibility that made its circles extremely productive. By casting anarchism in such transcendent historical terms, we made it clear that our endeavor was not an end in itself; we were fighting to open the doors to a new era! Likewise, our confidence in anarchism’s broad arc made it easier to tolerate differences of opinion than it would have been otherwise—why worry about sectarian disagreements when we had faith in anarchism’s redemptive fate generally? These things helped the IAS accomplish a great deal since 1996: it has funded dozens of works, released an enormous number of publications, and functioned as a hub for a vibrant international network of authors and activists. This is only to mention its most salient contributions.

Intellectual trends in the 1990s reinforced our optimism about the anarchist project. For instance, neo-Marxists associated with Germany’s Institute for Social Research (or “Frankfurt School”), were still influential, despite being mostly mid-century thinkers. They articulated a dialectical sensibility and sweeping critique of domination that resonated with our vision of anarchism, and the history of their embattled institute helped us envision ours.[8] The IAS was also a response to debates about identity politics that were raging through the Left. Whereas most Marxists argued that identity politics undermined the possibility for collective action, and proponents of identity politics claimed that Marxism unduly reduced everything to class, we asserted that anarchism was a third option that could take on all forms of domination without minimizing their complex differences. Finally, the quantity of scholarship on anarchism available to us was minuscule compared to what we have today. This made it easier to imagine that anarchism was what we wanted and needed it to be.

However, the IAS’s formulation of anarchism has not withstood the test of time. When it defined anarchism as an emancipatory project destined to link one era to another, it freed itself from the burdens of older views of the tradition, which were either too static or too flexible. It did so by framing anarchism as something emergent and in the process of becoming. But this formulation is only defensible if the movement has in fact played the role that the IAS ascribed to it—if anarchists were at the center of emancipatory movements and more and more engaged in a self-conscious pursuit of anarchism’s transcendent mission. In 1996, it seemed plausible to suppose that historical research would verify our position by doing things like documenting unwritten chapters in the movement’s history, clarifying the ties between apparently disparate figures and groups, and expanding our sense of what constitutes opposition generally. Yet the eruption of scholarship on anarchism since then, supported and encouraged by the IAS, reveals an ambiguous panorama. It shows that anarchism is richer and more variegated than most had surmised, but it does not disclose a black seed progressing toward a world-historical bloom—the movement’s actual course is far more ambivalent than we had asserted. This fact suggests that the IAS should revisit its founding claims about anarchism. These claims helped it generate scholarly explorations of anarchism that, paradoxically, undermined some of their premises.

The Resistance in the Resistance

Some readers may feel uneasy about this article. Isn’t it discouraging, and even a little mean, to use the IAS’s twentieth anniversary as a platform for spotlighting problems with two of its core premises?

When we recount an organization’s history, like a person’s history, we do more than simply identify things that have happened in the past. By defining how a group has changed over time, we communicate something decisive about what it is—its nature or essence—and, implicitly, what it can be in the future. This is why the challenge of the past is so important. Big anniversaries remind us of it, but it is always with us and always pressing.

My reflections emphasize the IAS’s agency. I have noted its practical and theoretical novelty, but there is more. While the IAS needs to rethink its relationship to academia and anarchism, these tasks emerge directly out of its own contributions. That is, its efforts over the last two decades not only make it necessary to pose new questions about the institutional preconditions of revolutionary theory and anarchism’s meaning, but they also make this possible. The significance and contours of these matters would be obscure if the IAS had not labored away for all of these years. This is the nature of good activism—it does not so much solve problems as clarify their content and importance. The IAS has done exactly that.

Second, when I foreground issues that arise from the IAS’s relationship to the university system and the varied meanings of anarchism, I am making claims about the IAS’s capacities. When anarchist historians assess anarchist endeavors by measuring their fidelity to “The Idea,” they implicitly make the conservative assertion that their purpose is to replicate the past. They use the dead to define the living. By contrast, the outlook pursued in this piece judges the IAS in relation to changing social conditions and evolving ideas. This attests to potentialities for engagement that are much more robust and wide-ranging.

And it is in this sense that my comments are hopeful. I show that the IAS’s experience to date validates activists’ ability to disclose new horizons, when they are innovative and willing to risk failure. I also indicate that these efforts unfold on a dynamic historical landscape. These two things—the IAS’s creativity and its engagement with history—point in the direction of great potentials. While radicals may advance ideas or initiatives that later need to be revised or abandoned, they may also pursue undertakings that enter the heart of contemporary crises and expand the boundaries of human possibility. That has always been the IAS’s goal and sits at the center of its identity.


The Next Two Decades

The IAS is in an excellent position to enroll activists and scholars in a comprehensive re-examination of anarchism and the landscapes of intellectual work. No other project or network is better suited to pursue this task. These are vital matters for the IAS and for all of us who want to think beyond the present.

Although the IAS’s anarchist project may not be the bridge to a free society in the way that we hoped in 1996, and dismissing academia may not be as radical as we had expected, our reflections on the IAS and anarchism can provide crucial material for emancipatory social struggles. Abandoning a celebratory approach to the past allows us to accept a vocabulary of contradiction and change. This can lead to pivotal insights into the IAS—helping it uncover antiquated ideas that no longer serve it—as well as anarchism generally. It can also give us a way to explore our position in human history as a whole. This is why it is so important to cultivate a culture of critical self-reflection on and within our ventures.

The IAS has been a valuable part of my life and I am grateful to have the chance to offer my thoughts about it. I hope that marking milestones in its history will always be an occasion not only to revisit the past, but also to affirm a commitment to critique and utopian aspirations.

Chuck Morse founded the Institute for Anarchist Studies in 1996 and taught at the Institute for Social Ecology. Morse translated the classic biography of the revolutionary Buenaventura Durruti by Abel Paz entitled Durruti in the Spanish Revolution (AK Press).  In 2010, he completed a translation of Juan Suriano’s Paradoxes of Utopia: Anarchist Culture and Politics in Buenos Aires, 1890–1910 (AK Press). He is presently writing a book about Oakland, California, where he lives with his dog, Izzy.  

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[1] For a discussion of anarchism as “The Idea,” see Murray Bookchin, The Spanish Anarchists: The Heroic Years, 1868-1936 (New York, NY: Free Life Editions, 1977), 12.

[2] Abel Paz, Durruti in the Spanish Revolution, trans. Chuck Morse (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2007).

[3] Although deployed less frequently today, the notion of counter-institutions was important to American anarchists in the 1990s—the idea was to build an institution that ran counter to prevailing forms of social organization. Anarchist typically paired this with claims about “dual power” and “prefigurative” politics.

[4] For an account of Bookchin’s approach to intellectual work, see Chuck Morse, “Being a Bookchinite.” Perspectives on Anarchist Theory Vol 12, No 1 [2008].

[5] Russel Jacoby, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1987).

[6] John Classie, “Blackboard: Punditry; Have Doctorate, Will Comment,” The New York Times, August 1, 1999. Accessed October 11, 2016.

[7] Murray Bookchin captured this sensibility in a 1969 discussion of “the anarchist flipout.” He wrote: “The anarchist flipout attempts to shatter the internal values inherited from hierarchical society, to explode the rigidities Instilled by the bourgeois socialization process. In short, it is an attempt to break down the superego that exercises such a paralyzing effect upon spontaneity, imagination and sensibility and to restore a sense of desire, possibility and themarvelous—of revolution as a liberating, joyous festival.” Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2004), Note, 141.

[8] Many of us read this text: Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923–1950 (Boston, MA; Little, Brown and Company, 1973).

The views expressed herein solely belong to the author(s) and are not necessarily representative of Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, the Institute for Anarchist Studies, or members of its Board of Directors.

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