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The Two Main Trends in Anarchism

category international | anarchist movement | feature author Thursday June 25, 2009 19:16author by Wayne Price - Personal opinionauthor email drwdprice at aol dot com Report this post to the editors

Alternate Tendencies of Anarchism

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There are two main trends in anarchism, which agree on antistatism and anticapitalism and opposition to all oppression, but disagree on revolution, democracy, prefigurative politics, and class struggle.

It has been stated by various theorists that there are two main trends in modern anarchism. How they are conceptualized varies with the writer. I will state how I see the two broad tendencies in the anarchist movement, using the books Anarchy Alive! (Uri Gordon) and Black Flame (Micahel Schmidt & Lucien Van der Walt) to illustrate the two trends. I will describe them as differing on the issues of revolution or reformism, of democracy, of what “prefigurative politics” mean, and of attitudes toward the working class.

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The Two Main Trends in Anarchism

Alternate Tendencies of Anarchism

by Wayne Price

Uri Gordon (2008). Anarchy Alive!
Michael Schmidt & Lucien van der Walt (2009). Black Flame.

It has been stated by various theorists that there are two main trends in modern anarchism. How they are conceptualized varies with the writer. I will state how I see the two broad tendencies in the anarchist movement, using the above two books to illustrate the two trends (this is particularly not a review of Black Flame). I will describe them as differing on the issues of revolution or reformism, of democracy, of what “prefigurative politics” mean, and of attitudes toward the working class.

Near the beginning of a recent book on anarchism by Uri Gordon (2008), an Israeli anarchist, the author discusses the “most prominent division” among anarchists. He starts with the way this was framed by David Graeber (2002) of the U.S. as between “a minority tendency of ‘sectarian’ or ‘capital-A anarchist groups,’” which have developed, dogmatic, political programs, and “a majority tendency of ‘small-a anarchists’…who ‘are the real locus of historical dynamism right now’” and who are much looser programmatically (Gordon 2008; p.23-24; for my views on Graeber’s anarchism, see Price 2007). The only group Graeber referred to as sectarian, dogmatic, big-A, anarchist, was the Northeastern Federation of Anarchist-Communists (I am a member of NEFAC, but not an official spokesperson).

Gordon thinks there is “something” to Graeber’s distinction, but that it should be more “subtly” interpreted. First of all, “capital-A groups are hardly a minority tendency …[having] many thousands of members” (p. 24). This is especially true if we include the memberships of the anarchist-syndicalist unions in Europe and elsewhere. Contrary to charges of “sectarianism” and “dogmatism,” Gordon notes that most “platformists” do not regard Makhno’s Organizational Platform of 1926 as a sacred text but treat it as a beginning for discussion. (Often, calling someone “dogmatic” is a writer’s way of saying that someone disagrees with the writer and is stubbornly refusing to accept the writer’s opinion.)

Instead, Gordon sees the distinction between the two tendencies as over “political culture” (this is a non-ideological way of discussing differences). One trend (the capital-A anarchists) identifies with “the traditional political culture of the anarchist movement established before the Second World War” (p.25). He says that they have formal structures with elected officials, and that decisions are often made through votes. They emphasize workplace organizing, anti-war actions, and publishing their ideas. The other (small-a) trend does not care much about anarchist traditions, has only informal groups, makes decisions by consensus, and, he writes, focuses on ecology, identity politics, experimental community, and Eastern spirituality.

“The difference between the two anarchisms is generational—an ‘Old School’ and a ‘New School’” (same). Without wanting to denounce the Old School anarchists, Gordon (like Graeber) is plainly on the side of the New School of anarchism. (He is not always so nonsectarian; later in his book, he angrily denounces my views on Israel/ Palestine—which is not directly related to my topic here; see pp. 149—151; responded to in Price 2009).

While I think that Gordon has accurately distinguished the two main trends in current anarchism, I do not think that Old versus New is a useful way to understand the division. Many of the so-called New School views he cites can be found way back in anarchist history, starting with Proudhon and Stirner and others. Gordon specifically cites Gustav Landauer’s concepts from 1911, to illustrate his own views. Many of these ideas were raised by Paul Goodman and Colin Ward, among other anarchists, in the 60s and 70s. Few of the New School’s ideas are all that new.

The Broad Anarchist Tradition

However the distinction as such is valid. What Gordon calls the Old School and Graeber calls capital-A anarchism is called “the broad anarchist tradition” by Schmidt & van der Walt (2009) of the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front in South Africa. This is the tradition of anarchism from Michael Bakunin to Peter Kropotkin to Emma Goldman to Nestor Makhno, including those who called themselves anarchist-communists and anarchist-syndicalists. Most people who called themselves anarchists historically were in this tradition.

Almost the only thing in Black Flame with which I disagree is that it regards anyone outside the broad anarchist tradition as not being “anarchist,” although they may be “libertarian.” “’Class struggle’ anarchism, sometimes called revolutionary or communist anarchism, is not a TYPE of anarchism; in our view, it is the ONLY anarchism” (Schmidt & van der Walt 2009; p. 19). Since Proudhon was neither for class struggle, nor revolution, nor communism, even he does not make the cut; he only “influenced” anarchism, similar to Marx. This approach is pointless. There are, and have been, a great many people who call themselves “anarchists” who do not fit in the mainstream of anarchism. However they are anti-statist and anticapitalist, while often regarding themselves as “revolutionaries.” It is indeed worth pointing out that they are not part of the main tradition, but is it useful to argue about whether or not they are really “anarchists?” That does make us look like sectarians and dogmatists. We should argue about the content of their beliefs (that they are mistaken in their politics) rather than their label.

As noted, Gordon does not deny that his so-called New School does not follow “the traditional political culture of the anarchist movement.” He just does not care, and may even find this a virtue.

Political Differences between the Two Trends: On Revolution

To get to the real differences between the two trends of anarchism, it is necessary to look at the serious political differences between them—not at an nonideological “culture,” but at actual politics.

The broad anarchist tradition (class struggle anarchist-communism or Old School anarchism or whatever) has always been revolutionary. That is, its members have believed that the ruling class is extremely unlikely to give up power without resistance, a resistance which will center on its state. A vast movement of the oppressed and exploited must rise up and smash the state and dismantle the capitalist economy and all other forms of oppression. These must be replaced by new forms of popular self-organization and self-management. This does not contradict the struggle for present-day reforms and improvements, but sets a strategic end-goal.

Gordon is typical of the New School anarchists (or whatever) in that he rejects such a revolutionary approach. Traditional anarchists, he writes, used to argue about a how to organize society after a revolution. “Today, in contrast, anarchist discourse lacks both the expectation of eventual revolutionary closure…” or interest in visions of a post-revolutionary society (Gordon 2008; p. 40). Further, “anarchists today do not tend to think of revolution—if they even use the term—as a future event but rather as a present-day process…” (p. 41). Instead of changing all society, which may or may not be possible, he writes, anarchists should promote “anarchy as culture” which may include large events but also “fleeting moments of nonconformism and carefree egalitarianism” (same). Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zones are cited, which, he says, might include a “quilting bee” or “dinner party”.

Not that nonconformism and dinner parties are bad; quite the contrary. But they are not a strategy for popularly overturning the capitalist state. Nor does Gordon worry about this. “The development of non-heirarchical structures…is, for most anarchists, an end in itself” (p. 35). Gordon never says right out loud that his tendency has given up on revolution, but I cannot read this any other way.

To sound radical, Gordon and other anarchists insist that it is un-anarchist to make demands on the state, to try to win benefits by threatening the state or the capitalist class. “…A ‘politics of demand’…extends undue recognition and legitimation to state power…a strategy far removed from anarchism” (p. 151). Instead, anarchists are supposed to create a better world by directly acting differently toward each other.

But anarchists have always made demands on the state, such as to stop waging specific wars or to release prisoners or to provide social benefits. It is one way to demonstrate to nonanarchists that the state cannot be relied on but must be threatened to win gains. And we have made demands on capitalists, as in fighting for union recognition or better working conditions. Refusing to make demands on the state or on the capitalists may sound very radical (as if they care whether anarchists give them “recognition and legitimation”!) but it is a reformist cop-out, an abdication of the struggle.

Gordon emphasizes “prefigurative politics.” Both “schools” of anarchism would agree on the importance of building non-heirarchical institutions in the here-and-now. But to Gordon and his tendency what matters is the interpersonal dynamics of informal networks of anarchists, whether or not they are effective for further purposes.

For the broad anarchist tradition, what matters is building a democratic, popular, counterculture of resistance. Referring to “rent strikes and community organizing,” Schmidt & van der Walt (2009) say, “as part of the project of building counterpower, mass anarchists built dense and overlapping networks of popular, associational life. These included threater troupes, neighborhood committees, workers’ night-schools, and even popular …” (p. 181).

Gordon does not accept this conception, partly because he does not believe in democracy, even the most radical, participatory, version of direct democracy . Few anarchists of his trend are as outspoken in rejecting democracy. (Graeber [2002], for example, is for democracy, which he identifies with consensus.) “Anarchism…represents not the most radical form of democracy…” but something else (p. 70). By this Gordon first seems to mean consensus, but soon explains that he means leadership by a hidden elite when organizing the movement. “Anarchists are bound to acknowledge that this invisible, subterranean, indeed unaccountable use of power is not only inevitable…but also needs to be embraced, since it coheres with their worldview in important respects” (p.75). This is consistent with the worst, most undemocratic aspects of Proudhons’s and Bakunin’s thought, which most of anarchism had long abandoned.

In contrast, the view of revolutionary class struggle anarchists is, “anarchism would be nothing less than the most complete realization of democracy—democracy in the fields, factories, and neighborhoods, coordinated through federal structures and councils from below upward…” (Schmidt & van der Walt 2009; p. 70). It tends to regard use of consensus or voting as a practical issue, not a matter of principle.

Political Differences: On Class

To the broad anarchist tradition, the center of its politics is class based: supporting and rooting itself in the working class and also in the peasantry. This has also included support for nonclass based struggles around gender, race, nationality, sexual orientation, war, and ecology—all issues which overlap with and interact with class. But it has seen the working class as having a particular power, at least potentially, for stopping the machinery of the system and for starting it up differently. (An excellent defense of a working class perspective may be found in Meiksins Wood 1998.) For this reason, the broad anarchist tradition of class struggle anarchism overlaps with libertarian interpretations of Marx.

At no point does Gordon make a class analysis of the anarchist trend he is describing, nor of any other topic. As he described the movement, “animal liberation,” among other issues, is “as prominent as workers’ struggles. In the latter area, the industrial sector and traditional syndicalism are being replaced by McJobs and self-organized unions of precarious workers” (p. 5). This bit of ignorance is almost all his version of anarchism has to offer millions of working people around the globe.

Bookchin and Other Differences

Some readers may wonder how my conception of the two trends of anarchism relates to the distinction made by Murray Bookchin (1995) between “social anarchism” and “lifestyle anarchism.” Leaving aside Bookchin’s vitriolic style of argument, there are some similarities. Bookchin’s social anarchism is also rooted in anarchist communism and is also for radical democracy. Many of his criticisms of what he calls lifestyle anarchism are appropriate for what Gordon calls New School anarchism.

But there are problems. It would be unfair to summarize Gordon’s views as merely “lifestylism.” He, like others, believes in being part of popular movements against capital and the state. He begins his book begins with his participation in the 2005 anti-G5 demonstrations. Bookchin, on the other hand, shared all too many of the views of the reformist anarchists. “Bookchin…sought to erect a new ‘anarchist’ strategy—freed of class struggle and hostile to the organized working class…” (Schmidt & van der Walt 2009; p. 79). He his strategy (“libertarian municipalism”) was based on getting elected to local governments. This is even more reformist than that of the “little a-anarchists.” Eventually, Bookchin stopped calling himself an anarchist.

There is, then, one trend, of revolutionary anarchism, which builds on the broad historical anarchist movement, which is revolutionary in its methods and its goals, which is radically democratic in its means and its prefigured ends, which is centered in the working class but which also supports every other struggle against oppression, and which aims for a libertarian socialist (communist) society.

By contrast, Gordon supports a large trend in modern anarchism which I would call “reformist anarchism,” since it is nonrevolutionary in its methods and strategy (however much it might like to eventually, somehow, see a new society). It does not build on the major insights of traditional anarchism. It is often undemocratic, in theory at least. It downplays class issues or ignores them in practice. It is overtly anticapitalist and presumably socialist or communist, but, without a strategy for revolution to create such a society, this does not mean much in practice.

There are other issues between the two trends as well as within each trend, which I have not covered. Gordon, for example, is sympathetic to anarchist-primitivism and to anarchist-pacifism, but does not fully agree with either one. And, as Schmidt & van der Walt point out, the broad anarchist tradition includes a split between insurrectional anarchists and mass struggle anarchists (see chapter 3), as well as among people with all sorts of views on whether anarchists should organize separately (chapter 8 on “platformism”), whether to join unions (chapters 6 and 7), whether to defend oppressed nations’ self-determination (chapter 10), etc. This is why it is called the BROAD anarchist tradition! But the basic ideas are clear.


Bookchin, Murray (1995). Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm. San Francisco: AK Press.

Gordon, Uri (2008). Anarchy Alive! Anti-authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory. London/Anne Arbor MI: Pluto Press.

Graeber, David (2002). “The New Anarchists,” New Left Review 13. http://

Meiksins Wood, Ellen (1998). The Retreat from Class: A New “True” Socialism. London/NY: Verso.

Price, Wayne (2009). “The Palestinian Struggle and the Anarchist Dilemma; Comments on Gordon’s Anarchy Alive!”

Price, Wayne (2007). “Fragments of a Reformist Anarchism: A Review of David Graeber’s (2004) Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology.”

Schmidt, Michael, & van der Walt, Lucien (2009). Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism. Vol. 1. Oakland CA: AK Press.

* written for

author by nestor - 1 of Anarkismo Editorial Grouppublication date Thu Jun 25, 2009 19:35Report this post to the editors

There is a discussion of this article on the Anarchist Black Cat forums at the following link:

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author by Anarchopublication date Fri Jun 26, 2009 06:50Report this post to the editors

I blogged on this recently:

My major objection was the excluding of Proudhon from anarchism...

after all, except for the federalism, the communes, the workers self-management,
the decentralisation, the critique of property, the critique of the state, the analysis
of exploitation as being rooted in production, what has Proudhon ever done for

What about the name anarchist?


(yes, watching too much Monty Python as can be seen from the blog post)

Still, Black Flame is a very good book -- bar a couple of flaws. I would recommend

author by Wayne Pricepublication date Fri Jun 26, 2009 07:15Report this post to the editors

I too think that Black Flame is a very good, even excellent, book, despite some minor disagreements. My essay was meant to agree with its authors in identifying with the "broad anarchist tradition" and opposing the reformist, non-working class, trend. Perhaps my agreement would be even clearer if, instead of referring to "the two trends in the anarchist movement," I had written of "the two trends among those who call themselves anarchists." But the idea is the same.

author by Anarchopublication date Fri Jun 26, 2009 16:48Report this post to the editors

"This is consistent with the worst, most undemocratic aspects of Proudhons’s and Bakunin’s thought, which most of anarchism had long abandoned."

As I've been reading A LOT of Proudhon recently, I have to say that the notion of "undemocratic aspects" of his thought is exaggerated. Which, of course, is unsurprising as this flows from Hal Draper and his diatribe against anarchism from the 1966s.

What Draper fails to mention is that many of Proudhon's comments he quotes are from his private notebooks and unpublished in his lifetime. Equally, he fails to mention that the "undemocratic" comments against "The People" were the product of said people democratically confirming the coup of Napoleon III and failing to act to resist the coup in the first place...

is it "undemocratic" to rant about the people being idiots when they democratically vote for dictatorship? Is the democratic thing to do accept the will of the people in this case?

Oh, but when Proudhon did that, accepted (not supporting!) the fait accompli of the coup and lack of resistance, made the worse of a bad situation and urged Napoleon III to reform society, Draper denounced him as supporting dictatorship! Obviously, he could not win...

As for Bakunin, most of his "undemocratic" aspects pre-date his anarchism, with his much misunderstood notion of "invisible dictatorship" being in his anarchist period. And talking of which, "natural influence" would be a much better term, and Bakunin used it as well to describe what he meant --see this review and follow the links:

I'm not suggesting that either Bakunin or Proudhon were perfect, far from it, but the notion that they were "undemocratic" is just not correct. -- it is selective in the extreme, as I'm sure Wayne would agree.

I just wondered what he considered as being the worse "undemocratic" aspects of the two? Are they related to the issues of secret societies and rants in personal notebooks?

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author by Waynepublication date Tue Jun 30, 2009 10:58Report this post to the editors

I agree with Anarcho that it seems rather peculiar to deny that Proudhon was an anarchist. But historically, Black Flame is right that the anarchist movement, as a movement, began with Bakunin. The followers of Proudhon had called themselves mutualists and mostly did not support the Bakunist anarchists. Bakunin may be said to have been influenced by Proudhon, to have learned from him, and then to have gone beyond him (the same might be said about Proudhon's influence on Marx, in different ways).

As to politics: when I was a Marxist, my friends and I would read Marx (and Lenin and Trotsky) and always give them "the benefit of the doubt." If they said or did something which could be interpreted in an authoritarian way, but which might also be interpreted in a more-or-less libertarian-democratic way, we would chose the libertarian-democratic interpretation. Part of becoming an anarchist, for me anyway, was no longer giving Marx et al. "the benefit of the doubt." But I have rejected that method altogether, not just for Marxists. I also do not give Proudhon or Bakunin or the FAI the "benefit of the doubt," which seems to be the method being used for Proudhon by Anarcho.

For example, is it somehow okay for Proudhon to have anti-Semitic ideas or to want to be the dictator of his proposed mutualist bank...if he only said so in his private notebooks? Because he said good things, should we ignore his extreme mysogyny, his support for the South in the US Civil War, or his opposition to unions and strikes? Was it okay for him to denounce democracy if the people voted for Napoleon III and did the Bonapartist coup somehow justify his "urg[ing] Napoleon III to reform society,"in Anarcho's words???

No. While anarchism is predominantly libertarian-democratic, there is also an authoritarian, elitist, and undemocratic trend within anarchism, going way back, and we will not be able to root it out if we do not confront it fully.

author by Anarchopublication date Wed Jul 01, 2009 00:01Report this post to the editors

"For example, is it somehow okay for Proudhon to have anti-Semitic ideas or to want to be the dictator of his proposed mutualist bank...if he only said so in his private notebooks?"

Given that his anti-Semitic rants played no part in his political ideas and political programme, they are as important as Marx's various bigotries. It does not make them right, but to base a critique of a thinker on them (whether Proudhon or Marx) would be silly.

As for the "dictator" charge, have you read the rules for the mutual bank? It is very clearly democratic, with general assemblies, elections and so forth. Are Proudhon's comments in his notebooks more important? i doubt it....

"Because he said good things, should we ignore his extreme mysogyny, his support for the South in the US Civil War, or his opposition to unions and strikes?"

Er, no. But it is a far cry from disagreeing with him, pointing out his contradictions and when he was wrong, with dismissing his whole body of work (as, say, Draper did)...

"Was it okay for him to denounce democracy if the people voted for Napoleon III and did the Bonapartist coup somehow justify his "urg[ing] Napoleon III to reform society,"in Anarcho's words???"

So what should Proudhon have done? Support democracy and consider Napoleon III as the legitimate ruler of France? After all, the People did democratically vote for him. And because the People did support and vote for a dictator, Proudhon became disillusioned and penned some words which, if taken out of context, makes him sound un-libertarian.

As for Bonapartist coup, that was ratified by two elections (in 1851 and 1852). Now, should Proudhon have written wonderful words praising the masses and praising democracy in such circumstances? Given that you do not wish to "justify" Proudhon's attempt to make the best of a bad situation and appeal to Napolean to use his popular mandate for reform, I can only assume that you do not think he should have...

Seems that Proudhon is in a no win situation. Express disgust at the stupidity of those who democratically voted for a despot, and he is anti-democratic; accept (but do not support) the situation that the dictator has a democratic mandate and urge him to pursue reform, and he is also anti-democratic!

So, what is it to be? We have a situation where the vast majority voted for a despot. Apparently to oppose that vote and have a rant against those who voted makes you undemocratic. Does that mean the "democratic" thing would be to accept the majority decision and so the Bonapartist regime?

"No. While anarchism is predominantly libertarian-democratic, there is also an authoritarian, elitist, and undemocratic trend within anarchism, going way back, and we will not be able to root it out if we do not confront it fully."

And, as I've said, I've read A LOT of Proudhon recently and his arguments are for a decentralised, self-managed society. Apparently, a few comments, re-printed without any context, from his private notebooks outweight hundreds of pages of pubished material...

And I'm all for confronting the non-libertarian aspects of libertarian thinkers (such as Proudhon's sexism). Just as I'm all for confronting fetishing democracy -- so, just to check, if the majority vote for a despot (as in 1851 and 1852) does that mean that the democratic thing to do is to accept the will of the people?

Or can the majority be wrong? Spectularly wrong? And if so, can we suggest that the People were fools for voting as they did? Or would that be elitist? And what would the anti-elitist thing to do be?

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author by Wayne Pricepublication date Tue Jul 07, 2009 05:32Report this post to the editors

This essay was copied onto Anarchist News, which appears to attract primitivists and anti-civilizationists and "post-leftists/insurrectionists," as one poster writes. Comments may be read at:

Here are my responses to their comments (I am not a member of their list):

An anonymous poster writes, "The two main trends are anarcho-primitivists and pseudo-anarchists, whom I've dubbed "anarcho-domesticates." The latter is a form of minarchism.... these pseudo-anarchists are hypocrites..... As soon as you force your children to stop defecating on the floor, the domestication process has begun and you've become an authoritarian ruler."

It is nice that this anonymous poster agrees with me that those who regard themselves as anarchists can be roughly divided into two broad trends (with conflicts within each trend and overlapping between them). It is not so nice that he or she insists not only on his or her correct view, but that other anarchists are not really anarchists at all. Apparently, Bakunin and Kropotkin, the anarcho-syndicalists and the anarcho-communists, were all pseudo-anarchists, really minimalists, domesticates, and hypocrites, and so are those of us who continue their trend today. Since primitivism (and anti-civilizationism) is historically recent, there really was not any anarchism until about a generation ago (when some Marxists like Zerzan invented primitivism). As for the concept which equates shitting on the floor with true anarchism, I will let that one go.

But I love it when someone writes, "i dont even understand why people still pay attention to wayne price. he seldom says anything worth hearing." And someone else writes that it was "a boring article." Yet these two obviously have just read my essay and comments and are making their own comments! They are entitled to their opinions, but this is a strange thing to do with a boring essay by an irrelevant writer.

author by nestor - 1 of Anarkismo Editorial Grouppublication date Wed Sep 16, 2009 19:00Report this post to the editors

A Turkish translation of this article has now been published:

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author by Dave Bpublication date Thu Sep 17, 2009 03:09Report this post to the editors

‘As for the concept which equates shitting on the floor with true anarchism, I will let that one go.’

Well it was in fact Stirner who throw that gauntlet down against Marx on that, with his more sensational, at the time, copulating with your sister kind of thing.

author by Ben Moseleypublication date Fri Dec 25, 2009 19:42author email moseley.ben at gmail dot comReport this post to the editors

I have also been reading a lot of Proudhon lately (although not as much Anarcho undoubtably has) and was going to make much of the same argument that he has (although not as eloquently).

While I find truth in this: "few of the New School’s ideas are all that new", I can't seem to find the truth in the following: "Since Proudhon was neither for class struggle, nor revolution, nor communism,..." Maybe we're reading different works by Proudhon, but his "Peoples' Election Manifesto" published in excerpt form in "No Gods, No Masters", illustrates quite the opposite, wherein he lays out not only the problem with current capitalist economics, that being the separation of labor and capital, but also the solution, which unless I'm misunderstanding, describes the basic tenets of democratic socialism with class struggle held at the crux of his argument.

With that said, I do completely agree with this: "...but is it useful to argue about whether or not they are really “anarchists?” That does make us look like sectarians and dogmatists. We should argue about the content of their beliefs (that they are mistaken in their politics) rather than their label."

Besides that minor quibble, I think this was a great article and that the premise is very true. In my limited experience, it seems that a lot of the young anarchists are more of the "reformist" type than the "revolutionary" and I find this to be quite unfortunate.

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