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+2 votes
I've spent most of my life believing that voting and reform could ultimately change the world. I spent many years supporting the two party system here in the United States. In recent years I've moved further left supporting the Green Party, the Socialist Party, etc. I them spent some time learning about and embracing anarcho-synd until I came to the realization that the concept had more in common with statism than anarchism, at least in my mind. I mean workers councils, representatives, assemblies all began to seem more in tune with the current system than with anarchism. I've since began learning and identifying with anarchism minus the suffixes. However, I often fall into the thinking that some reform and law changes would be better for the populace. For example marijuana legalization. Certainly the legalization and the subsequent end of incarcerating those that use marijuana must be a good thing. How does an anarchist resist the idea of reforms like this?
by (210 points)
retagged by
It helps me to resist by reminding myself of the results of previous "reforms".

i think everyone has their own thresholds, and their own reminders. ie, i don't think there's anything wrong with engaging in actions that have not caused significant change in the past, as long as we remember that that is the case. we meet interesting people that way, perhaps learn interesting skills, etc.

as far as i'm concerned the issue is thinking that we know what is going to save the world. (it's even possible that thinking we're going to save the world could save the world; i don't know!)

I don't even know what saving the world means!

3 Answers

+2 votes

I don't personally think that reforms are necessarily bad, but I do think they have a tendency towards recuperation, as BA@ implied. Often times it isn't black and white. You are correct - marijuana legalization would lead to lower levels of incarceration - and putting people in prison isn't something I am in favor of ever, so on that level this reform has a benefit. On the other hand, the state I live in has legal marijuana and is now using the sale as a new revenue source for projects which expand state control, including that it is bringing what was once a black market economy under state regulation. I don't smoke weed, so this impacts me in less direct ways than some, and since I don't vote, I played no role in that decision.

To be honest, I mostly avoid the sort of reformism you speak of be not engaging in a lot of struggles where that is the outcome, or if I do, (examples, engaging in street protests following cop murders, certain ecological issues), I attempt to bring an analysis that pushes beyond the proposed reforms of the leftists.

by (22.1k points)
+2 votes
typically, they don't.  :-)

reforms are the only way (or at least the primary way) one can work "within the system" for change. they (reforms) will almost certainly help someone, in some way, for some time. so if one's desire is to have some relief for some people in some specific area, then reforms probably seem like a good thing. and to some, no doubt they are.

unfortunately, they have proven to be 100% useless when it comes to creating the kinds of massive (revolutionary?) change i see as necessary for any world i would choose to live in.

women and black folks able to vote? gay folks able to marry? potheads able to indulge themselves (er... ourselves) legally? corporations able to legally buy elections? cops wearing cameras?

yeah, none of that really appeals to my own desires for liberation. but again, there are surely folks for whom those things really do matter, and whose lives they may see as improved as a result of those reforms.

there are a couple reasons i no longer have any interest myself in such lefty-like endeavors.

1. i really like the pressure-cooker analogy. reforms are a form of pressure release; de-escalating the intensity of (desire for) revolt by some group of people who might otherwise finally say "ya basta!" but instead are placated by some legal move that is usually largely symbolic. reforms are crumbs thrown to the masses by those with institutional power, while they eat their lavish meals at the expense of everyone else.

2. having tried to "change the world" for a good number of years, i saw the futility of that, alongside my frustration with everything around those efforts. that approach (reformism) requires a belief that it is possible to change the system from within, or at least through using the system itself. at some point i realized that not only did i no longer hold that belief, but also that i don't want to "change the system" - i want the system GONE. finally, i also realized that (like the cliche says) the only life i could really change was my own. and that became my focus. i am a much happier - and in some ways, more liberated - person as a result.
by (13.4k points)
i upvoted because the last one is true for me, being involved in reformist politics just made me into either a passive spectator of boring forward-progressives or an unhappy moralist prick who haranged those same people for "not doing enough", but being an anarchist at times is pretty cool
–2 votes
I kind of disagree with your association of reformism with leftism. I see reformism as a politically liberal view of the world, while I see leftism as making a challenge for the established order. Now, obviously this can end up being a total nightmare, but that's a topic for another day.
by (220 points)
how is it a topic for another day, when it's the explanation for why you disagree with other answers?
happinessisbunk: i would ask you to explain how, in your mind, leftism is NOT reformist; how does it truly "challenge the established order"?
Can you describe what you think "Leftism" means? The original poster of this topic mentioned the "Green Party" and the "Socialist Party (which one? there are hundreds, and most in Europe are socialist in name only." I would consider both of those examples as products of "liberalism," meaning they simply want to use the existing political system to enact a series of reforms. Now, I see "leftism" is representing a wide variety of things from the Bolsheviks (one has to admit they did "change the existing social order," but with horrifying results) to self-described ultra-leftists during the May '68 protests in Paris.Leftism could also be representative of militant strikes held by workers during the Great Depression. The list could go on, but my problem with anarchists today is that they want to divorce themselves from this history of struggle. This is problematic, because it erases the memories of anarchists who participated in these events.
first, let me clarify that i do not equate reformism with leftism, i merely acknowledge that most leftist stuff i hear/read about these days is clearly reformist. and whether or not they qualify as reformist (some historical acts of the left surely do not), none of your examples did anything to "change the social order" in any way that i find desirable. partly, that is because the only social order i find acceptable is one that does NOT include anything resembling mass society, nor any institutional authority (even one that will supposedly wither away).

also, the fact that some (post-left) anarchists distance themselves from the left does not in any way "erase the memories of anarchists who participated ...".  many pl@s would give props to some historical events, even if those events did esssentially nothing to destroy this pathetic excuse for a "social order" (or maybe did not even include anarchists).  

as i said in my answer, anarchism and leftism surely share some roots. but so does every human being that ever lived, and humanity does not all look/think/act alike, by a long shot. and thank the stars for that!
What FA said.

also HiB - your "answer" was not an answer, but a comment--since it only challenges the premise of the original question (which is a great thing to do, but doesn't constitute an answer).

edit: so if you go into "edit" and click "make this a comment", that would be great?
Can someone please tell me what they think the definition of leftism is then? The "post-left" anarchists seem to have pigeon holed it, but what does everyone here think?
that is a great question (definition of leftism).i would first search this site for that (example:, then, if you don't find it, ask it as a new question.

but here's a quick attempt:

i see leftism as the political tendency towards socialism/communism and away from both social/political hierarchy and individual autonomy. it supports social equality, and specifically seeks to politically "lift up/help out" those perceived as being disadvantaged. the ideas of unity, equality, mass movement, and democracy are key to a leftist perspective. identity politics is also - at least at this point in history - a key component of leftism.

aside from the fact that i have very different desires for my world, the left requires "masses", and without exception elevates the masses (which i see as primarily abstracted group identities - "society", "the underprivileged", etc) above the individual.

i'm sure others here will have far better answers to that question, and i hope you (hib) will post it as a new question (if it doesn't already exist).