The reason anarchists keep their heads covered

David Horsey / Los Angeles Times

The small gangs of destructive knuckleheads who style themselves as anarchists have been the bane of Occupy Wall Street protests this spring. On May Day, the brats in black smashed store windows, bashed cars and fought with police on the streets of Seattle, Oakland, Montreal and other cities. Their antics stole attention from the thousands of peaceful protesters who may have had serious things to say about the expanding divide between rich and poor. 

The same thing happened in Chicago over the last few days as a somewhat disjointed but largely peaceful protest outside the NATO summit meeting was upstaged by the arrests of five would-be anarchists on charges of domestic terrorism. Allegedly, the five planned to toss Molotov cocktails at Mayor Rahm Emanuel's house, President Obama's campaign offices and police and corporate targets. 

In the traditional parlance of anarchists, destroying property or attacking the homes and headquarters of authority figures is "propaganda of the deed," meant to inspire revolt and instigate change. These modern-day anarchists are such a ridiculous bunch, however, that their smashing and trashing inspires nothing but annoyance and derision. 

Anarchism already has a bad name; these clowns only degrade the term further. In fact, there is an interesting, if hopelessly utopian, philosophical base to real anarchism. In many ways, a genuine anarchist simply takes Ron Paul libertarianism to its logical extreme: Big central government should not just be limited, it should be eliminated -- as should big corporations and church hierarchies. According to the classic anarchist, there should be no power inhibiting any human from the full expression of his or her identity and aspirations. 

One hundred years ago, the radical agitator Emma Goldman exemplified anarchism. She went to jail several times and was finally deported for encouraging workers to resist the depredations of the robber barons of her day. But, as fervently as she opposed capitalism and militarism, she had the intellectual integrity to challenge her political compatriots as well. When one fellow anarchist criticized her for dancing and appearing too carefree, she told him to mind his own business. If she were not allowed to dance, she wanted no part of his revolution.

"I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand denial of life and joy," Goldman later wrote of the incident.

Traveling to Russia soon after the Bolshevik revolution, she quickly saw that communism was simply replacing one kind of violent authoritarianism with another. Western apologists for Lenin and Stalin were shocked by her apostasy, and they criticized her for questioning the glories of the Soviet system. But Goldman did not back down. 

One of Goldman's most significant philosophical reassessments was her shift away from justifying violent action. In her younger days, she fully supported "propaganda of the deed" -- even political assassination. But witnessing ideologically driven violence in the Soviet Union changed her mind. 

"There is no greater fallacy than the belief that aims and purposes are one thing, while methods and tactics are another," she wrote. "The means employed become, through individual habit and social practice, part and parcel of the final purpose. ..."

Our current anarchists would do well to ponder Goldman’s words. They do not seem like pondering types, however. Dressed up in their groovy black costumes with big sticks in their hands, these guys are all about the game of revolution. "Methods and tactics" seem to be their only real purpose.

After all, who wants to think too much? It’s more fun just to break things.