Possibly, it depends what is meant by an anarchist society.
If it is meant a fully classless society (what some people, inaccurately, would call a “utopia”) then the answer is a clear “no, that would be impossible.” Anarchists are well aware that “class difference do not vanish at the stroke of a pen whether that pen belongs to the theoreticians or to the pen-pushers who set out laws or decrees. Only action, that is to say direct action (not through government) expropriation by the proletarians, directed against the privileged class, can wipe out class difference.” [Luigi Fabbri, “Anarchy and ‘Scientific’ Communism”, pp. 13–49, The Poverty of Statism, pp. 13–49, Albert Meltzer (ed.), p. 30]
As we discussed in section H.2.5, few anarchists consider it likely that a perfectly functioning libertarian communist society would be the immediate effect of a social revolution. For anarchists a social revolution is a process and not an event (although, of course, a process marked by such events as general strikes, uprisings, insurrections and so on). As Kropotkin argued:
“It is a whole insurrectionary period of three, four, perhaps five years that we must traverse to accomplish our revolution in the property system and in social organisation.” [Words of a Rebel, p. 72]
His famous work The Conquest of Bread aimed, to use his words, at “prov[ing] that communism — at least partial — has more chance of being established than collectivism, especially in communes taking the lead” and tried “to indicate how, during a revolutionary period, a large city — if its inhabitants have accepted the idea — could organise itself on the lines of free communism.” [Anarchism, p. 298] The revolution, in other words, would progress towards communism after the initial revolt:
“we know that an uprising can overthrow and change a government in one day, while a revolution needs three or four years of revolutionary convulsion to arrive at tangible results … if we should expect the revolution, from its earliest insurrections, to have a communist character, we would have to relinquish the possibility of a revolution, since in that case there would be need of a strong majority to agree on carrying through a change in the direction of communism.” [Kropotkin, quoted by Max Nettlau, A Short History of Anarchism, pp. 282–3]
In addition, different areas will develop in different speeds and in different ways, depending on the influences dominant in the area. “Side by side with the revolutionised communes,” argued Kropotkin, other areas “would remain in an expectant attitude, and would go on living on the Individualist system … revolution would break out everywhere, but revolution under different aspects; in one country State Socialism, in another Federation; everywhere more or less Socialism, not conforming to any particular rule.” Thus “the Revolution will take a different character in each of the different European nations; the point attained in the socialisation of wealth will not be everywhere the same.” [The Conquest of Bread, pp. 81–2 and p. 81]
Kropotkin was also aware that a revolution would face many problems, including the disruption of economic activity, civil war and isolation. He argued that it was “certain that the coming Revolution … will burst upon us in the middle of a great industrial crisis … There are millions of unemployed workers in Europe at this moment. It will be worse when Revolution has burst upon us … The number of the out-of-works will be doubled as soon as barricades are erected in Europe and the United States … we know that in time of Revolution exchange and industry suffer most from the general upheaval … A Revolution in Europe means, then, the unavoidable stoppage of at least half the factories and workshops.” He stressed that there would be “the complete disorganisation” of the capitalist economy and that during a revolution “[i]nternational commerce will come to a standstill” and “the circulation of commodities and of provisions will be paralysed.” This would, of course, have an impact on the development of a revolution and so the “circumstances will dictate the measures.” [Op. Cit., pp. 69–70, p. 191 and p. 79]
Thus we have anarcho-communism being introduced “during a revolutionary period” rather than instantly and the possibility that it will be “partial” in many, if not all areas, depending on the “circumstances” encountered. Therefore the (Marxist inspired) claim that anarchists think a fully communist society is possible overnight is simply false — we recognise that a social revolution takes time to develop after it starts. As Malatesta put it, “after the revolution, that is after the defeat of the existing powers and the overwhelming victory of the forces of insurrection” then “gradualism really comes into operation. We shall have to study all the practical problems of life: production, exchange, the means of communication, relations between anarchist groupings and those living under some kind of authority, between communist collectives and those living in an individualistic way; relations between town and country … and so on.” [Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, p. 173] In other words, “each community will decide for itself during the transition period the method they deem best for the distribution of the products of associated labour.” [James Guillaume, “On Building the New Social Order”, pp. 356–79, Bakunin on Anarchism, p. 362]
However, if by “anarchist society” it is meant a society that has abolished the state and started the process of transforming society from below then anarchists argue that such a society is not only possible after a successful revolution, it is essential. Thus the anarchist social revolution would be political (abolition of the state), economic (abolition of capitalism) and social (abolition of hierarchical social relationships). Or, more positively, the introduction of self-management into every aspect of life. In other words, “political transformation” and “economic transformation” must be “accomplished together and simultaneously.” [Bakunin, The Basic Bakunin, p. 106] This transformation would be based upon the organisations created by working class people in their struggle against capitalism and the state (see next section). Thus the framework of a free society would be created by the struggle for freedom itself, by the class struggle within but against hierarchical society. This revolution would come “from below” and would expropriate capital as well as smash the state (see section H.2.4). Such a society, as Bakunin argued, will not be “perfect” by any means:
“I do not say that the peasants [and workers], freely organised from the bottom up, will miraculously create an ideal organisation, confirming in all respects to our dreams. But I am convinced that what they construct will be living and vibrant, a thousands times better and more just than any existing organisation. Moreover, this … organisation, being on the one hand open to revolutionary propaganda … , and on the other, not petrified by the intervention of the State … will develop and perfect itself through free experimentation as fully as one can reasonably expect in our times.
“With the abolition of the State, the spontaneous self-organisation of popular life … will revert to the communes. The development of each commune will take its point of departure the actual condition of its civilisation.” [Bakunin on Anarchism, p. 207]
How far such a new social organisation will meet the all the ideals and hopes of communist-anarchists will vary according to objective circumstances and the influence of libertarian theory. As people start to liberate themselves they will under go an ethical and psychological transformation as they act to the end specific hierarchical social structures and relationships. It does not imply that people need to be “perfect” nor that a perfect anarchist society will come about “overnight. Rather, it means that while an anarchist society (i.e., one without a state or private property) would be created by revolution, it will be one initially marked by the society it came from and would require a period of self-activity by which individuals reshape and change themselves as they are reshaping and changing the world about them. Thus Malatesta:
“And even after a successful insurrection, could we overnight realise all desires and pass from a governmental and capitalist hell to a libertarian-communist heaven which is the complete freedom of man within the wished-for community of interests with all men?
“These are illusions which can take root among authoritarians who look upon the masses as the raw material which those who have power can, by decrees, supported by bullets and handcuffs, mould to their will. But these illusions have not taken among anarchists. We need the people’s consensus, and therefore we must persuade by means of propaganda and example … to win over to our ideas an ever greater number of people.” [Op. Cit., pp. 82–3]
So, clearly, the idea of a “one-day revolution” is one rejected as a harmful fallacy by anarchists. We are aware that revolutions are a process and not an event (or series of events). However, one thing that anarchists do agree on is that it is essential for both the state and capitalism to be undermined as quickly as possible. It is true that, in the course of social revolution, we anarchists may not be able to stop a new state being created or the old one from surviving. It all depends on the balance of support for anarchist ideas in the population and how willing people are to introduce them. There is no doubt, though, that for a social revolt to be fully anarchist, the state and capitalism must be destroyed and new forms of oppression and exploitation not put in their place. How quickly after such a destruction we move to a fully communist-anarchist society is a moot point, dependent on the conditions the revolution is facing and the ideas and wants of the people making it.
So the degree which a society which has abolished the state can progress towards free communism depends on objective conditions and what a free people want. Bakunin and other collectivists doubted the possibility of introducing a communistic system instantly after a revolution. For Kropotkin and many other anarcho-communists, communistic anarchy can, and must, be introduced as far as possible and as soon as possible in order to ensure a successful revolution. We should mention here that some anarchists, like the individualists and mutualists, do not support the idea of revolution and instead see anarchist alternatives growing within capitalism and slowly replacing it.
In other words anarchists agree that an anarchist society cannot be created overnight, for to assume so would be to imagine that anarchists could enforce their ideas on a pliable population. Libertarian socialism can only be created from below, by people who want it and understand it, organising and liberating themselves. “Communist organisations,” argued Kropotkin, “must be the work of all, a natural growth, a product of the constructive genius of the great mass. Communism cannot be imposed from above; it could not live even for a few months if the constant and daily co-operation of all did not uphold it. It must be free.” [Anarchism, p. 140] The results of the Russian Revolution should have cleared away long ago any contrary illusions about how to create “socialist” societies. The lesson from every revolution is that the mistakes made by people in liberating themselves and transforming society are always minor compared to the results of creating authorities, who eliminate such “ideological errors” by destroying the freedom to make mistakes (and so freedom as such). Freedom is the only real basis on which socialism can be built (“Experience through freedom is the only means to arrive at the truth and the best solutions; and there is no freedom if there is not the freedom to be wrong.” [Malatesta, Op. Cit., p. 72]). Therefore, most anarchists would agree with Malatesta:
“To organise a [libertarian] communist society on a large scale it would be necessary to transform all economic life radically, such as methods of production, of exchange and consumption; and all this could not be achieved other than gradually, as the objective circumstances permitted and to the extent that the masses understood what advantages could be gained and were able to act for themselves.” [Op. Cit., p. 36]
This means that while the conditions necessary of a free society would be created in a broad way by a social revolution, it would be utopian to imagine everything will be perfect immediately. Few anarchists have argued that such a jump would be possible — rather they have argued that revolutions create the conditions for the evolution towards an anarchist society by abolishing state and capitalism. “Besides,” argued Alexander Berkman, “you must not confuse the social revolution with anarchy. Revolution, in some of its stages, is a violent upheaval; anarchy is a social condition of freedom and peace. The revolution is the means of bringing anarchy about but it is not anarchy itself. It is to pave the road to anarchy, to establish conditions which will make a life of liberty possible.” However, “to achieve its purpose the revolution must be imbued with and directed by the anarchist spirit and ideas. The end shapes the means … the social revolution must be anarchist in method as in aim.” [What is Anarchism?, p. 231]
This means that while acknowledging the possibility of a transitional society, anarchists reject the notion of a transitional state as confused in the extreme (and, as can be seen from the experience of Marxism, dangerous as well). An anarchist society can only be achieved by anarchist means. Hence French Syndicalist Fernand Pelloutier’s comments:
“Nobody believes or expects that the coming revolution … will realise unadulterated anarchist-communism… it will erupt, no doubt, before the work of anarchist education has been completed … [and as] a result … , while we do preach perfect communism, it is not in the certainty or expectation of [libertarian] communism’s being the social form of the future: it is in order to further men’s [and women’s] education … so that, by the time of the day of conflagration comes, they will have attained maximum emancipation. But must the transitional state to be endured necessarily or inevitability be the collectivist [i.e. state socialist/capitalist] jail? Might it not consist of libertarian organisation confined to the needs of production and consumption alone, with all political institutions having been done away with?” [No Gods, No Masters, vol. 2, p. 55]
One thing is certain: an anarchist social revolution or mass movement will need to defend itself against attempts by statists and capitalists to defeat it. Every popular movement, revolt, or revolution has had to face a backlash from the supporters of the status quo. An anarchist revolution or mass movement will face (and indeed has faced) such counter-revolutionary movements. However, this does not mean that the destruction of the state and capitalism need be put off until after the forces of reaction are defeated. For anarchists, a social revolution and free society can only be defended by anti-statist means (for more discussion of this important subject see section J.7.6).
So, given an anarchist revolution which destroys the state, the type and nature of the economic system created by it will depend on local circumstances and the level of awareness in society. The individualists are correct in the sense that what we do now will determine how the future develops. Obviously, any “transition period” starts in the here and now, as this helps determine the future. Thus, while social anarchists usually reject the idea that capitalism can be reformed away, we agree with the individualist and mutualist anarchists that it is essential for anarchists to be active today in constructing the ideas, ideals and new liberatory institutions of the future society within the current one. The notion of waiting for the “glorious day” of total revolution is not one held by anarchists — just like the notion that we expect a perfect communist-anarchist society to emerge the day after a successful revolution. Neither position reflects anarchist ideas on social change.