How anarchy and activism can be a positive force for change

Anarchism often gets a bad press. But from Extinction Rebellion protesting the climate crisis to the Stonewall uprising against institutionalised homophobia, activism has a long history of successfully driving change. Ruth Kinna, author of The Government of No One, argues the case for ‘do it yourself’ uprisings.

Ruth Kinna
How anarchy and activism can be a positive force for change

You wouldn’t expect an anarchist to tell you what to do, would you? The anarchist credo is do-it-yourself or, do-it-ourselves. If DIY sparks unhappy memories of flat-packs, incomprehensible instructions and the promise of a perfect lifestyle, put these to one side. Anarchist DIY is all about creating alternatives by co-operating with others. There’s no grand plan. The results are achieved by acting collaboratively.

Protest has an important place in the anarchist tool kit. The anarchist movement boasts a fine history of dissent. In the 1880s and 90s, anarchists spearheaded campaigns for the eight-hour day and, in the 1900s, fought for access to contraception and against conscription, militarism and colonialism. In August 1897, anarchists helped mobilise the vast crowd that thronged around Nelson’s Column to demonstrate against the torture and executions of activists in Barcelona. In 1903, East End anarchists fronted the 25,000-strong march from Mile End Waste to Hyde Park to voice their outrage at the state-sponsored massacre of Jews in Tsarist Russia. At the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, anarchists turned out in to fight the police who were deployed to defend Oswald Moseley’s right to promote fascism without disruption. More recently, anarchists have mobilised against ‘poor doors’, gentrification and corporate tax avoidance.

This tradition of productive protest is masked by the association of anarchism with the conspiratorial violence often depicted in fiction. In reality, many ‘anarchist’ plots bear the suspicious prints of the state. For instance, Auguste Coulon – the outstanding figure in the nineteenth-century London anarchist scene – was actually a paid police informant believed by many to be an agent provocateur. His involvement in three bomb-plots, including one that shut down Louise Michel’s International School in Fitzroy Square (where Coulon just happened to be living), lends weight to these suspicions. But the established narrative is hard to dispel. When anarchism re-emerged as the dynamic force after the collapse of Soviet communism, its repertoires of action were quite new. Yet its reputation for mayhem and destruction had survived. And it’s proven to be remarkably resilient. Now that the dark-clad bomb thrower has given way to the black bloc hoodie, tabloid editors delight in labelling virtually any mass action that results in property damage ‘anarchist’. Today’s symbol of anarchy is a shattered plate-glass window. It fosters public outrage, while conveniently sidelining discussion of legitimate grievances. 

'This tradition of productive protest is masked by the association of anarchism with the conspiratorial violence often depicted in fiction'

The Stop the City demonstrations of 1983 and 1984 are a better guide to modern anarchist protest, and a taster for subsequent leaderless protests and occupations. Disrupting London trading for a day, The Times reported the actions as an ‘unprecedented alliance of punks, anarchists, anti-nuclear protestors and cyclists, and animal liberation, anti-apartheid and gay rights groups’ united against war, oppression and exploitation. The 1999 Carnival Against Capital, the Occupy movement, and Extinction Rebellion have all experimented with variations of this model.

In the early 2000s, Tony Blair – as he mocked campaigner’s carnivalesque demonstrations – oversaw a repressive government response. Hundreds of arrests were made after Stop the City and the Public Order Act that followed introduced tighter restrictions on the right of assembly. A similar pattern of arrests was repeated after Extinction Rebellion impressively burst into life in April 2019. It seems entirely predictable that the involvement of professed anarchists in this movement has already prompted calls to further increase police powers and curb actions that inconvenience other members of the public.

So what can protest achieve? Intense waves of activity and headline-grabbing actions can bring instant results. Mass protests against the Poll Tax hastened the fall of Margaret Thatcher and led to the withdrawal of the proposal – while radicalising a generation of activists to boot. Protest can also alter prevailing political discourse. Not all of those involved in the Occupy movement were anti-capitalist, but their camps put capitalist exploitation back on the public agenda, shedding a bright light on the inequalities of liberal democracy.

'Anarchy involves contesting systems built on alienation, domination and greed, while promoting solidarity and sympathy instead.'

Direct action is an essential element in anarchist protest. Unlike most other socialist groups, anarchists have always been sceptical about parliamentary institutions. Anarchism is about devolving power, not seizing it. The last thing an anarchist wants to do is take control of government in order to ram through a suite of policy proposals. Anarchists think that it’s naïve to hope that political parties will initiate any reforming programmes that are likely to undermine their own electoral prospects. Politicians will generally resist any demands for social change that overturn accepted conventions or existing balances of power. History teaches that real change is generated ‘from below’. Women’s disobedience drove suffrage reform and the Stonewall uprising kick-started resistance to institutionalised homophobia. Taking the argument to its logical conclusion, anarchists argue that direct action is a method of organising, not merely a tactical response to entrenched conservatism. Anarchist direct action is distinctive because it calls on protestors to use those complex extra-parliamentary networks, associations and grass-roots movements created for campaigning as a springboard for an alternative community.

Anarchists are sometimes cautious about protest, seeing change as a slow, continuous process. Anarchy involves contesting systems built on alienation, domination and greed, while promoting solidarity and sympathy instead. DIY means building open, inclusive and participatory relationships. It’s much more difficult and time-consuming than electing a leader. Is it utopian? The notion that another world is possible is far less utopian than the saviour-model of leadership currently being peddled as ‘turbo-charged’ optimism by our new Prime Minister. Anarchists warn us to be suspicious of snake-oil politicians who offer cures for all our ills. Their advice: if we want something doing, we should do it ourselves.


Discover it for yourself! Go and explore the legacy that anarchists – both past and present – have left all over London with this downloadable map from The Government of No One.



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