Amster pushes for nonviolent tactics in anarchist activism
The driving argument in Georgetown professor Randall Amster’s piece "Anarchism and Nonviolence: Time for a 'Complementarity of Tactics'" is that anarchists should practice nonviolence, “publicly and demonstrably” and “especially in the context of mass demonstrations”. He suggests a fundamental interrelatedness between anarchism and nonviolence as the main reason supporting his recommendation. To demonstrate this reason, Amster first defines anarchism and nonviolence in relation to one another. He then uses quotes from two historical figures who famously shaped, in the case of Emma Goldman, anarchism, and in the case of Mahatma Gandhi, nonviolence, showing that both Goldman and Gandhi oppose the State because of its violence. Amster then frames the two movements as acting in disjunct tandem in recent mass demonstrations, and advises anarchists to adopt “mutually-reinforcing” nonviolent tactics.
Defining anarchism and nonviolence in relation to one another
As a tool to argue for their inextricable relatedness, Amster defines anarchy and nonviolence only in relation to one another. Though we never receive outright definition, he discusses the definition of anarchism and the definition of nonviolence (albeit in a roundabout way) before offering a kind of conglomerate definition of both terms.
He brings up some of the difficulty in defining anarchism as well as some existing definitions before he offers his own combined definition of anarchism and nonviolence. First, Amster admits to contradictions between anarchist actions in the present day and historical definitions of anarchism. Amster writes that it is even harder to define anarchism because anarchists generally reject definitions of anarchy. He brings up one group’s definition of “fundamentalist anarchism” that “‘smash[es] the state’ by striking at its symbolic targets”, a definition he seems to link to his earlier mention of looting and breaking windows during protests.
Though Amster does not explicitly define nonviolence, the article is framed as a response to the “self-described anarchists” looting and breaking windows during mass demonstrations, meaning he most likely sees looting and breaking windows as acts of violence.
In the ambiguity resulting from his discussion of the difficulty of defining anarchism, Amster offers a dual definition of anarchism and nonviolence. He cites a workshop he held in which the participants created working definitions for both anarchism and nonviolence. He does not outline either definition in their separate entireties, but chooses rather to list only the commonalities between the two definitions reached in the workshop. He presents a list of “overlapping values” between anarchism and nonviolence: self-governance, rejection of domination, respect and mutual aid, antiwar and anti-oppression practices, solidarity, radical egalitarianism, and a politics of prefiguring future society. Amster later adds autonomy, self-governance, decentralization, self-sufficiency, and horizontal communities to the definition of anarchism informed by the nonviolent belief systems of Mahatma Gandhi. Amster uses the overlap between the two definitions as evidence of the interrelated nature of anarchism and nonviolence.
Ethos: citing the “bigwigs” of nonviolence and anarchism
In order to further tie together anarchism and nonviolence Amster calls in two of the most famous shapers of each movement. In this segment of the essay, Amster demonstrates that Emma Goldman and Mahatma Gandhi both saw the State as violent, and opposed it on those terms. Part of Goldman’s anarchism was opposition to the State because she believed authority leads to violence, and from the perspective of nonviolence, Gandhi opposed the State because he believed it to be a “concentrated and organized form” of violence.
Emma Goldman used violent revolutionary tactics in her early life, but denounced violence as a revolutionary tactic in her later life. Amster shows that Goldman’s opposition of the State stemmed partly from a rejection of its violence. He writes that she opposed the State because if people have authority over one another, they are coercing others and because of that coercion, they are bound to do violence. On the subject of revolutionary tactics, Goldman said that “violence in whatever form never has and probably never will bring constructive results”. Amster uses further quotes from Goldman to show that she believed that if anarchists use violence as a central part of their revolutionary work, they are only ensuring that violence will remain part of the future world they are building. Since, for Goldman, part of her opposition to the State was a rejection of its violence, she as a revolutionary was working towards a less violent world. Thus, by Goldman’s reasoning, using violent methods was antithetical to her end goal.
Adding to Goldman’s words, Amster gives advice that it is necessary to “[change] the methods of the revolution”. Because Goldman’s words are explicitly denouncing violent tactics of revolution, it follows that the “methods of the revolution” that Amster wants to change are violent methods. Since the looting and breaking of windows by anarchists during mass demonstration are the actions to which Amster’s article is in response, it seems that the violent “methods” that Amster wants to change are the protest tactics of looting and breaking windows.
Amster demonstrates that Gandhi opposed the State because he saw the State as “violence in a concentrated and organized form.” Amster chooses quotes and paraphrases to show that Gandhi believed that the State exists because of violence, and that centralized power leads to violence. He advocated for a world in which each village is self-sustaining. Gandhi suggested a vision of a nonhierarchical society with “ever-widening, never ascending circles” with the individual at the center. Further adding to the conglomerate definition of anarchism and nonviolence, Amster argues that Gandhi’s viewpoints center around values Amster identifies as anarchist: autonomy, self-governance, decentralization, self-sufficiency, and a network of horizontal communities.
From disjunct tandem to a “complementarity of tactics”
Amster writes that nonviolence and anarchism are coming into greater contact with one another in activist organizing, and it is for this reason he puts forth his argument for anarchism to embrace nonviolence especially in the sphere of direct action. Amster admits that there are examples that contradict his claim that nonviolence and anarchism are interrelated, and that his view is not necessarily correct. However, he believes that the violent tactics of anarchism in recent mass demonstrations compete with those within the activist movement that are proponents of nonviolence. Amster argues that the violent tactics of anarchist activists are used as a reason to increase the force of the police state and justify mass arrests and “bloated police budgets”. Beyond the spirit of “working together” with nonviolent activists, Amster sends a message to the “self-described anarchists” looting and breaking windows: since the State is violent, and since anarchists reject the State first and foremost, anarchists should reject violence to highlight the “fundamental contrast” between themselves and the State.