Here I'll explore the anarchist left ideologies, debunk strawmen of them, offer legitimate criticisms, and hopefully have some insight on the psychology behind them. I'm making this in the interest of promoting understanding between the different part-good factions.
My background with the anarchist left started during the height of my time in anarcho-capitalist communities. All the Ancaps said anarcho-communists were just evil authoritarians, but I wasn't willing to believe people that called themselves anarchists weren't and didn't have any redeeming qualities, at least not until I saw it. So I went to r/DebateAnarchism, a communist subreddit.
Most of the people there hate Ancaps with seemingly as much passion as they hate republicans. Their sub seems to be mostly for debating other leftists; few are interested in a good-faith debate with someone calling himself an Ancap (even if he tries damn hard to be sympathetic). And like most factions, the average adherent understands their own philosophy about as well as they understand quantum physics, let alone someone else's. So it took a lot of arguments before I started to really understand what's up with them.
Knowing when to give up on people saved me probably a full day and my sanity; almost all my debates ended with that from one of us. But I had a few really good ones. One communist caused me to notice an inconsistency in my idea of property, leading me to stop seeing natural resources as property.
In and between my debates I also discovered the variety of "inbetween" ideologies and factions like mutualism and the 'left market' anarchists of C4SS. It's been years since I started seeking understanding, and I think I'm now qualified to explain, defend, critique and psychologize the anarchist left.
Not all left-anarchists are communists, but I think Ancoms are the most interesting faction to discuss.
Surprisingly, most Ancoms say they want all human interaction to be voluntary, including associating with their commune. According to them, it's capitalism that's involuntary, even the Ancap idea of capitalism. The cause of this is that they use a different definition of voluntary... and one that actually matches the popular usage more accurately.
An Ancap considers an arrangement voluntary regardless of the consequences one party would've paid for not agreeing, as long as the other party isn't responsible for them. This isn't how anyone else uses the word. Any non-Ancap will occasionally say that they "didn't have a choice" about something even in the absence of threats; they don't call something voluntary if they would've suffered massive consequences for refusing. Ancoms just follow this definition to its logical conclusion.
If natural consequences can really make something involuntary, then capitalism is involuntary. Capitalists argue you're not forced to work for any boss because you can quit and find a job somewhere else, but if being 'forced' to work for a specific boss is oppression, then there's no difference between "choose your boss" and "choose your tyrant" - an ultimatum Ancaps are quick to rightly criticize. The only way there can be a difference is if natural consequences cannot make something involuntary; if 'work or die' counts as voluntary work as long as the death wouldn't be inflicted by someone else.
So their core demand in order to see markets as voluntary is for a commune to be a present option, available to real people instead of just an idea that we all agree is ethical but can't be practiced because no one's willing.
This gives me hope that we can have peace after we overthrow the state, since it seems like their objection would go away if living in an anarchist commune was available to them.
You can get many Ancoms to see the case for private property in a vacuum - when you remove inheritance, wage labor and rent from the picture. They get more repulsed once you explain how those things follow, because they start filling in preconceptions of how they look. Inheritance means someone having everything despite never working a day in their life. Wage labor means working 10 hours a day to survive. Rent means evicting a starving person and letting them die. They want a stronger conclusion than "it's okay to steal in a sufficiently dire situation" - that sounds like a statist saying, "X is a sufficiently oppressive law that it's okay to break it, but the law still creates obligations in general".
I can't overstate how much more sympathetic they seem once you put on their glasses and realize Ancaps look like statists do to us. There is a striking resemblance between "someone shouldn't do peaceful wrong actions with their property, but we still have to respect their property rights if they do" and "the government shouldn't make this law, but we still have to follow it if they do". You know how it feels when you realize someone overheard you out of context and thinks you said something horrifying, and you scramble to explain yourself?
(Interestingly, the rejection of that "they shouldn't, but we have to allow it" space is Chaos Anarchism.)
They do make other arguments. The less charitable caricatures of them aren't without basis. Most of the other talking points I've heard from them - "the employees do all the work", "all human labor builds on the labor of others so no one can claim exclusive ownership of anything" - seem to be post-justifications, invented because the valid critiques of capitalism don't go far enough. They don't collapse the notion of property entirely. Understandably, they see that existing "capitalism" allows bad things and so want to believe the whole idea of property is wrong. If you're used to fantasizing about a world without property, it can be upsetting to see someone paint a convincing picture of how property doesn't have to be like that. They never stand by the implications of those arguments.
Personal property versus private property¶
This is a common distinction they make - one of the post-justifications. I think a fair explanation is that private property is things the owner doesn't personally use, such as most means of production. Even Ancoms will usually happily accept personal property. Whether that leaves any difference between them and mutualists is not clear and depends on the individuals, but when you make a solid argument for the legitimacy of property, Ancoms are likely to bring up this distinction as an answer even if your argument actually applied to "private" property more so than personal. I think it's a habitual response, so they'll need that pointed out to them.
'Your ancestors owned slaves'¶
A common claim among the anarchist left is that existing property titles are unjust because they are inherited from a history of aggression. This is an issue that many people talk about but few go anywhere other than "huh that does seem unjust but I don't like the implications so I'm not going to think about this anymore". After all, if I steal something and give it to you and then die, you certainly owe it back to the victim despite not being culpable. Matt Zwolinski made this point well at Bleeding Heart Libertarians. One of the wisest communists I spoke to, the same one who led me to reject natural resources as property, had a proverbial way of putting it: "All money is dirty if you follow it far back enough". My attempted explanation is that it can't pass through generations because you can't pass on something you never had, but to someone who doesn't believe that (and I don't have any super convincing argument for it), this position makes sense.
Labor theory of value¶
The "labor theory of value" is a popular thing for libertarians to make fun of, under the assumption that it means the value of something is determined by the amount of labor required to create it. Indeed, if Ancoms thought that, they'd be retards. But I don't think that's what it means to most of them. I asked a couple of them on a few occasions and was given other interpretations, such as that it's actually not a statement about what determines value, but who deserves it: the people who do the labor.
But to be fair, that interpretation seems like a stretch, and I haven't asked that many of them about it. It might be that it used to and largely still does mean the idiocy libertarians think it does, but the better Ancoms, realizing how stupid that is but wanting harmony with other Ancoms, have reinterpreted the phrase.
The left-market anarchists usually bill themselves as "pro-market, anti-capitalist", a statement that seems to be said with a leftist definition of capitalism.
A lot of what I believe about them comes from studying rechelon (he runs humaniterations.net). Their position seems to be that they basically support Ancap notions of property, but not NAP purism (yay!) and mostly subscribe to the 'Your ancestors owned slaves'. I think there's some extent to which this reasoning is motivated by their desire for harmony with Ancoms, which would naturally be even stronger than my own since they have more interaction with them.
I know the least about mutualists; they're very hard to find. Like some Ancoms, they're hip on property in a vacuum, but recoil at the introduction of things like rent and wage labor. Points I've heard from them include rejecting absentee ownership (so taking the libertarian stance on intellectual property to its logical conclusion), and that the right to lease out property shouldn't extend to collecting more payment than the cost of acquiring it (when apparently not rejecting absentee ownership altogether).
There's also "libertarian socialism", which at least to some people means mutualism.
"Tankie" is a pejorative in left anarchist circles for authoritarian socialists such as Stalin, as a reference to Tienanmen Square. They recognize tankies as bad. Also, many Ancoms, and probably all left-market anarchists, consider Marx a tankie.
COVID-19 lockdown support¶
This needs discussion. In 2020, especially early in the year, republicans and libertarians protested the tyrannical lockdowns enforced by governments. Most leftists, including the otherwise best of the anarchist left, demonized the anti-lockdown protesters.
Whatever you think of this article overall, don't take what I say next as excusing their support for this violent insanity.
There are a few things that deserve pointing out in their defense:
Few or none of them ever directly stanned violence against the protesters. They claimed the protesters were risking others' lives, but when the police actually assaulted and kidnapped protesters, the leftists were silent rather than openly supportive. Compare this to the libertarian right's reaction later in the year to BLM protesters being brutalized left and right (pun): "Haha lol communists getting what they asked for, good riddance cause everyone who says BLM loses all their rights in my eyes".
I heard some of the better ones - Rechelon in particular - say that their demonization of the protesters was never to be understood as an endorsement of violence against them, but a form of peaceful social punishment. Of course they must have been in cognitive dissonance to say that when most of the protesters were specifically protesting the violent enforcement of COVID overreactions rather than the idea that staying at home was a good idea for most people, but it's at least a little redeeming.
Leftists genuinely believed that COVID was a lot more dangerous than rightists and libertarians did. There are no reliable sources on something that new, and it was eagerly exploited by both parties as a political weapon, so the information you got about how dangerous it actually was depended heavily on which of left or right media you generally subscribed to.
When you err on the side of seeing capital and the state as more linked than they are, and COVID lockdowns mean not going to your job, it feels like liberation. This couldn't be completely separated from the axiological anti-capitalist arguments. If we were (entirely) slaves and COVID lockdowns meant we didn't have to work, we would've all seen them more favorably, even when they plunged us deeper into poverty.
The violence against anti-lockdown protesters, as much as I hate to say it, was mostly not that severe. People were brutally assaulted and kidnapped, but most weren't held for long and I don't clearly remember any stories of them being murdered.
Again, for all of this defending, I don't forgive them at all. No matter how good some of them are in every other way. I won't fully forgive anyone who demonized the anti-lockdown protesters until they admit they were wrong and apologize.