The Spirit of Anarchism? Book Review: Cindy Milstein, 2010, Anarchism and its Aspirations. Edinburgh: AK Press.


‘By anarchist spirit I mean that deeply human sentiment, which aims at the good of all, freedom and justice for all, solidarity and love among the people; which is not an exclusive characteristic only of self-declared anarchists, but inspires all people who have a generous heart and an open mind’.

  • Errico Malatesta, Umanita Nova, April 13, 1922.

Writing in early 2015, after the most recent wave of social movements in the world’s city squares, after a series of broadly unsuccessful general strikes across Europe, and after the limited albeit ongoing collective response to austerity measures in Ireland, now is, among other things, a period of reflection for activists in circumstances of ongoing struggle yet continued capitalist hegemony. In the WSM as elsewhere, we have spent the last number of years discussing what we can learn from our struggles so as to do better in future. These discussions have included how to better acknowledge in our theory and practice more complex forms of domination and resistance, such as arise in the age of capitalism with derivatives or such as involve multiple forms of oppression and exploitation. This period of reflection-in-action is the context in which I want to revisit a book on the role of ethics within anarchism, examining why ethics are important to anarchism and how we might usefully engage with and develop ethics in our struggles, theory and practice.

Cindy Milstein’s Anarchism and its Aspirations is a collection of essays produced for (and handed out to) the anti-capitalist movement of movements, written in the ten year period after the Battle for Seattle in 1999. It is, as the author puts it, a book written both in despair and hope. On the one hand, anarchists won a series of minor, potentially embryonic victories in this period. After anarchists’ prominent role in shutting down the WTO in Seattle, ‘a flowering of anarchist infrastructure’ occurred in North America and beyond, ranging from social centres to global networks of information exchange. The new radical imagination evident in contemporary horizontalist movements owes something to these developments (p.5). On the other hand, and perhaps more strongly, the present era is also a period of profound despair for anarchists. If anarchism is understood as a philosophy and practice of freedom then the gap between the ideals we aim to advance and actual social reality appears greater than ever. Meanwhile, newcomers seem to enter and leave anarchist circles all too quickly in a ‘revolving door’ motion (pp. 3-4). Our reconnecting with anarchism’s ethical aspirations, Milstein argues, is crucial to our challenging these circumstances and finding ‘embers of possibility’ in an otherwise dark night.

Why Anarchists Care about Ethics

In general, ethics concern ‘the values pertaining to how humans conduct themselves’ (p.12). There are good reasons for taking ethics seriously. Anarchist thought and practice has generally sought to question rigorously how to create a free society of free individuals. Its approach to ethics is to struggle against and beyond dogmatisms, or values imposed or blindly followed because of tradition, or indeed any viewpoint arrived at without carefully examined premises. (The American social ecologist, Murray Bookchin, a key influence on Milstein, distinguished ethics from traditional forms of morality on a similar basis). Within the left, for example, the dominant tendency has been to consider the ethical relationship between the one and the many as something to be concerned about in the distant future (after the revolution), not as something that might be a basis for our politics here and now. This allows all manner of instrumentalist reasoning (the end justifies the means) and practices (the vanguard or the party) in pursuit of the revolution. Anarchism, in contrast, consistently foregrounds the question ‘What is the right thing to do?’ ahead of ‘What’s pragmatic?’ This is not a question of ethics versus pragmatism: it’s a question of which informs the other (p. 48). For anarchists, it makes sense to begin by asking what people want to do and why, from an ethical standpoint, and then get to the pragmatic how-to questions. The goal then is not to turn everyone into anarchists: it is to encourage people to think and to act for themselves, on the basis of emancipatory values (p. 49).

Stated positively then, anarchism’s ‘ethics’ is not a fixed entity but rather ‘the continual questioning of what it means to be a good person in a good society’ (p. 50). According to Milstein, anarchism advocates ‘a thought-filled ethics, where people voluntarily come to a shared set of overarching values, which they also continually (re)evaluate in relation to human practices and behaviours’ (n. 4, p. 128). This approach is a vital source of strength. It has facilitated anarchism’s openness to development through experience, to expanding its vision of hierarchy and freedom in response to new struggles and to the discovery of blindspots (p.24). Anarchism’s idea of an expansive freedom, the idea of freedom as a process of development, unfolding, and organic growth, is particularly important. Sometimes ‘the Idea’ is enough for people, whether anarchist or not, to push the envelope on how to constitute freedom in practice (p. 77). Historically, this ethical orientation, Milstein argues, has been central to ensuring anarchism’s ongoing relevance to all those who would break out of the cages of capitalism, states, and other forms of social domination. Today, in a time when the world appears to letting out ‘a dispirited sigh of collective depression’, the spirit of anarchism is that we can imagine and implement a wholly wonderful and abundant society, ‘that our lives and communities really can be appreciably better. And better, and then better still’ (p. 77).

Destination Utopia? Anarchism’s ‘Ethical Compass’

Milstein usefully outlines a constellation of comparatively enduring ethical sensibilities within anarchism. First and foremost, anarchism is a revolutionary political philosophy of freedom, arguing for people’s self-determination of their own lives and happiness. In doing so, it advocates eradicating capitalism and the state, understood as the twin roots of social control and immiseration, and insists that power in society be horizontal, or held in common (p. 32). A second shared sensibility within anarchism is the further striving to dismantle all forms of hierarchy, from sexist discrimination through racism to homophobia, often revealing new forms of domination and freedom in the process (p. 38). Thirdly, anarchism is an attempt to consider and alter the whole of life. This involves seeing the work of anarchism as taking place both in society and in oneself. This is not to say that anarchists live pure and ethical lives; we all make bad choices under present conditions. It is to say that anarchists make attempts to be open and self-reflective about the damage that hierarchical and commodified relations do to people, and from there to find humane ways of addressing that damage (p. 42). At stake here is a shift away from the instrumental worldview characteristic of capitalist society – seeing people as things  - towards one based on each person’s intrinsic worth (p. 44).

When it comes to the application of these sensibilities, the specific content of anarchism’s aspirations may be roughly sketched. Firstly, they involve an understanding of freedom as requiring more than just non-interference but also necessitating a much deeper commitment to ensuring our capacity to fulfil our needs and desires, our freedom to self-develop. Revolutionary politics, as Hannah Arendt argued, centres on the foundation of freedom in this latter sense. Bound up with this notion is the principle of the equality of unequals, the idea that people are not the same and that’s a good thing. Whereas capitalism fosters the belief that everything, including each human person, is exchangeable (and thus without inherent worth),  anarchism values difference and is clear-eyed about people’s particular situations, making it possible to negotiate personal and social relations, including conflicts, in ways that are substantively fair (p. 52).

For Milstein, all social contributions have value yet capitalism makes a great many of these, from child rearing to community theatre, invisible. Anarchism overturns this process by insisting on people doing what they want to do throughcooperative social organisation, thereby giving the communistic principle a twist: ‘from each according to their abilities and passions, to each according to their needs and desires’ (p. 53). The principle of mutual aid reaffirms these ideas, and further implies the expansive notion that people can evolve through such co-operation. New relations of sharing, helping, and giving back communalise compassion, thereby translating into greater ‘social security’ for everyone, without the need for top-down institutions (p. 57).  Going a step farther, mutual aid affirms an ecological orientation in which humans see themselves as part of non-human nature and recognise that humans, animals and plants are most likely to thrive together through non-hierarchical ecosystems, or holistic cooperation. (These sections owe a great deal to Murray Bookchin, Milstein’s key intellectual reference point, though with greater emphasis on negotiating differences among anarchists than drawing sharp distinctions between ‘deep ecologists’ and ‘life-stylists’).

Freedom in Common

Such forms of social organisation will not magically appear overnight, but will require collective organisation, effort and learning. Another shared anarchist ethic is that of voluntary association, the practice of joining together with others and testing out free agreements, principles of unity and standards of accountability to achieve collectively agreed upon goals. For anarchists, this ‘work’ is not a dreary obligation to get done. Part of the revolutionary project is to create joy and spontaneity, beauty and happiness, not as luxuries separate to people’s material needs but as part and parcel of a full, individuated and genuinely social life (p. 62). This does not mean pretending everything is okay; it means engaging in hopeful behaviours that point toward new social relations. Another anarchist ethic is that of unity in diversity, a commitment to balance the seemingly incompatible. Much of what anarchists do in practice is negotiate, honestly and transparently, the differences between people such as, for example, over whether to prioritise local, national or global struggles, or independence or interdependence in campaigns. The goal is to find a unity in action that does not deny differences (p. 64).

More than a social conscience or vision, anarchism involves throwing ourselves into the work of creating new and better forms of social organisation, here and now. For Milstein, these reconstructive visions retain a critical utopian element, a curious faith that humanity can not only demand the impossible but also achieve it (p. 67). This boils down to an insistence on prefigurative politics: the idea that there should be an ethically consistent relationship between means and ends, that we build the road as we travel. The crucial element in this politics is self-organisation, mostly notably through direct action. Whether it’s a student occupation or a general strike, when people increasingly take charge, instituting and participating in non-hierarchical organisations, they begin to acquire the freedom to re-shape society, and to make self-determination a living reality, even in embryonic form. These moments become running explorations of what freedom might look like in relation to gender, sexuality, class, race and all manner of oppressions. Moreover, self-organisation is the key to ensuring the non-exclusive ownership – or ownership in common – of freedom (p. 73).  

Changing Tactics? From Protest to Popular Power

However, Milstein incorporates her understanding of anarchism’s ethics into her concluding argument for a shift in anarchists’ tactics away from street protests towards building community infrastructure such as child-care cooperatives or social centres. This argument, outlined in the final chapter of the book, ‘Reclaim the Cities: from protest to popular power’, is not so much based on a critique of ‘reclaim the streets’ manifestations – they embody many of the prefigurative forms of politics that anarchism aspires to – so much as an acknowledgement of their fleeting, temporary nature. What happens the day after our moment of ‘street democracy’? While far more radical than interest group lobbying, direct action protests still remain shut out of the decision-making process itself. Without the ability to self-govern, we remain trapped (pp. 112-3).

Milstein’s response is to shift the strategy, structures and values of direct action into institutions that embody the good society; ‘in short, cultivating direct democracy in the places we call home’ (p. 122). This means reinvigorating or initiating civic gatherings, town meetings, neighbourhood assemblies and any and all forums where we can come together to decide our lives directly. In these sites, she argues, we can develop practices of popular self-organisation that are both revolutionary in themselves (‘freedom to’), but can also help to sustain us and our struggles against capital and the state (‘freedom from’) over the long haul. Experiments in self-organisation allow people to feel what life would be like if it was of their own making. Expanding them, Milstein suggests, could be the key to capitalism’s demise, ‘because no matter how much capitalism tries to recuperate all that makes people human, its quantitative outlook will always feel sterile when contrasted to a sense of what it might mean to be truly alive’  (p. 43). While contemporary arguments about the necessity of deepening communal practices in everyday life, or creating ‘the commons’, appear new, the left has, in fact, always been involved in the creation of spaces of cultural and material self-organisation. Arguments for community or worker infrastructure would be familiar, for example, to all manner of organisations, from Proudhon’s mutualism of the mid-1800s through the German Social Democrats of the early 1900s or to the Black Panther movement of the 1960s (Ashanti Alston, Anarchist Panther, is cited as a key source of inspiration).

While reviews of ‘Anarchism and its Aspirations’ have generally been favourable, citing it as a good introduction to anarchism, anarchist readers have most frequently directed their criticism at what they see as a slighting of the so-called ‘classical’ anarchist revolutionary strategy of creating a popular, thoroughly democratic movement among the exploited and oppressed to fight the bosses (See Joe Maguire, 2012; Wayne Price, 2011). It is a valid criticism. In Milstein’s vision, the building of sub-culture infrastructure features more prominently than, say, workplace struggles. Yet if we know that labour is the source of value in capitalist society, then figuring out how to withdraw that labour collectively will pose problems for those who would exploit us. Potentially, this offers a stronger basis for revolutionary transformation. Milstein chooses not to deal with this ‘classical’ tradition as a contemporary possibility or something in which anarchism’s ethical questioning could make an important contribution.

This absence owes something, perhaps, to the transformed nature of 21st century capitalism, to the associated decline of working class counter-power and to the current state of the anarchist milieu in North America, which remains the book’s central reference point for what anarchism looks like. For all that, Milstein’s work deserves reading. The book is an upbeat, interesting introduction to anarchism. Importantly, there is no necessary connection between recognising a space for ethics within anarchism and any particular strategy. Milstein’s contribution, however, is to set out clearly the ethical questioning that accompanies anarchist projects and to show how the kinds of questions anarchism poses can help make these experiments in self-organisation self-sustaining, hopeful guides to freedom and revolution. Today, in Ireland, we find ourselves asking once again ‘what’s the right thing to do?’ We could do worse than return to anarchism and its aspirations.


Wayne Price, 2011, The Ethical Anarchism of Cindy Milstein; available at

Joe Maguire, 2012, First things first… Review of Milestein's Anarchism and Its Aspirations; available at

Like what you're reading?
Find out when we publish more via the
WSM Facebook
& WSM Twitter