I became politically active when I was in high school. Granted, my political views were still quite liberal: I would have considered myself a social democrat. During my senior year of high school I became more radicalized. I read Howard Zinn and books on the Israel-Palestine conflict and watched several youtube videos on US imperialism.
It was when I started college at Cal State Northridge that I became attracted to marxism as an ideology. Since I already had the knowledge of how fucked up the world was, I was desperate for answers, and I truly believed I had found them. Within this, I became an unofficial member of several marxist-leninist organizations (most notably the ANSWER Coalition, the Party for Socialism and Liberation, and the Boston branch of the International Socialist Organization). At the time, those groups represented everything I believed in and wanted to work towards: internationalism, anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, anti-zionism, a strong central government that would provide the needs to survive for everyone, and the like. During the time, I was studying international relations and world history, and I believed I could learn everything about the global political system by reading the works of marxist-leninist writers. One topic we would frequently bring up within all of these groups - whether stalinist or trotskyist - was how there is not a single marxist-leninist state around today (even North Korea calls itself "jucheist", not marxist-leninist), and that we could build a new one if we recruited enough people into a future vanguard party. A huge portion of what these groups talked about was recruitment. Their members were always seeking out ways to recruit others into their groups, and with finding ways of having their organization members get into positions of power within the current political system. Even during that time I felt a bit disconnected; I completely understood that capitalism was a destructive and immoral system, but I wanted to do far more than just recruit and vote for members of particular political parties (and parties that had very little clout in the mainstream at that).
Early in 2009, I became exposed to anarchism through a handful of anarchists. At the time, I didn't know much about anarchism, and what I did know of it was quite negative. I'm embarrassed to admit this, but during the time I thought most anarchists were idiots who rejected all forms of organizing and who thought we could achieve utopia through vegan dumpster diving and other lifestyle politics (basically, I had stereotyped all anarchists in the image of the worst of post-leftists). Their views on the state were also alien to me. Since my mind had been flooded with the words of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky, I couldn't understand the notion of workers self-managing or a need-based economy by worker-controlled institutions without a governing state. It didn't help that the first people who introduced me to anarchism were incredibly dogmatic types who, in the same manner that ANSWER Coalition members repeated verbatim from Lenin, repeated verbatim from Noam Chomsky and Michael Albert (rather than the "classical" anarchist thinkers). I was lead to believe that anarchists were inconsistent, unmotivated critics of marxism.
Things changed in the summer of 2009 when I came into contact with a graduate student from the Midwest, who happened to be a good friend of Chomsky's. I was very much familiar with Chomsky's work at the time and even met him earlier in the year. This person suggested I check out the infoshop in Boston and read classical anarchist texts, such as those from Bakunin and Kropotkin. He also suggested that I ask to volunteer at the infoshop so I could "learn more" about anarchist thought. Even though I was still skeptical, I decided, why not? I should add that this was the time when I was becoming increasingly skepical of marxism-leninism as well, since I found that many of the explanations the ideology was giving left more questions than answers. For example, I questioned why all the marxist-leninist states which had existed in the past ended up falling back into capitalism. The thing is, marxists are very clear that capitalism is an inherently flawed system that cannot be reformed, and that all of its problems are internal rather than the fault of some external force (take the libertarians and "an"-caps who insist that the capitalism which exists today isn't the "real capitalism" and that capitalism only becomes corrupted when an "alien" like government regulations or central bank comes into the mix). Now, why is it that they refuse to apply this same logic to the governing state? I saw the same pattern in history where newly-created states appeared to "go bad" the day they were established and began to ask whether or not the governing state itself possesses flaws inherent to its structure.
A short time later I was all set working at the infoshop, where I was surrounded by anarchist literature. Early on I read Kropotkin's memoirs and Mutual Aid. I read Bakunin's God and the State. I read literature on the Spanish Revolution and how the CNT-FAI was able to establish workers' self-management, only to be betrayed by the marxists and republicans who wanted to further their own goals, thus destroying the free society the anarchists had created. I read about the massacre at Kronstadt and how Trotsky wanted to kill every anarchist in Russia, all in the name of preserving the so-called "workers' state". It was rather tear-jerking and disturbing, especially since I had once believed that these authoritarian socialist states were there to enhance the power of working people rather than repress attempts at workers' autonomy. That was indeed the hardest part: understanding how state control is perfectly akin to capitalist control (wage slavery, after all, existed in "socialist" states as well). The more I wanted to keep my belief in some form of marxism, the more philosophy and history pushed me to anarchism. Later on I read Proudhon and very early anarchist texts. General Idea of the Revolution became my favorite political text since it both critiqued the current system and offered a new one. I will say that reading anarchist literature was like putting on glasses after a lifetime of bad eyesight: I finally found answers. Everything I read made perfect sense to me. I understood that the root issue of politics is not who is on top of the hierarchy but the fact that the hierarchy exists at all. You can paint the governmental state any color you'd want, christen it with any ideology you'd desire, but it is still a force that rules over you and others.
That was the other big thing I remember when the topic of anarchists came up in the marxist-leninist circles I was a part of (usually online): the notion that anarchists were weak philosophically and that they depended on Marx and marxist thinkers for most of their "good" theories. However, the historical reality is that a lot of marxist ideas came from early anarchism, and if one takes a look at it they'll see how a lot of these arguments that Marx had come up with were arguments Proudhon came up with years before. For example, in Marx's early manuscripts from 1844 he talks about abolishing private property through its universalization. Of course, this was a political communism, since the state would still exist (not to mention, Marx would desire a socialist republic where the governmental principle would be present, though that's really not all that surprising when one considers the political situation of his home country Germany that existed at the time). What's striking is how this was essentially identical to Proudhon's early idea on revolution. Two years before, Proudhon had called for property to be universalized as a means to its abolition. It should be noted that Proudhon later changed his definition of "state" from a monopoly on force to a collectivity, so instead of a transition from a governmental "workers' state" to an era of "statelessness", he called for a transition from the governmental state to the "state" as a collective force.When reciprocal property relations are put into place, and new institutions based on these principles are formed, the oppressive hierarchies dissolve. With this comes the dissolution of the managerial class as workers appropriate the means of production. Credit is re-organized, so the money class dissolves as well. But all of that is besides the point; the real point here is that one can see a lot of instances where Proudhon's ideas are repeated in Marx. Theories of property (at least, early on) and theories of exploitation are very similar. It's all very weird. To sum it all up, what drove me away from marxism and towards anarchism wasn't just the re-evaluating this whole concept of what would be called the governmental principle, or what's called the state in modern lexicon, but the history of these ideas as well.
With that, there were a few reasons why I was drawn to mutualist anarchism in particular, even though I was much more an anarchist communist when I first embraced anarchist thought. First, there were issues concerning practicality and what would have to happen in order to make that system a reality. Even some anarcho-communists claimed that their goals couldn't be realized until some extreme changes outside of politics, economics, or people's consciousnesses happen (such as a reduction in population sizes, dismantling of the cities, or the development of some extremely advanced technology). That was why many of them advocated state-based methods of reformism, rather than anarchist ones, for solving social issues in the short-term. In this case, mutualist goals and tactics seemed much more tangible - as in something we can do now amidst the state-capitalist culture - and more applicable to both simple and complex structures. Above all, means have to match ends, and thus any counter-power to authoritarian structures must be consistently anti-authoritarian. It was reading texts like The Philosophy of Progress that helped shake me from my dogmas (you can find a link to a PDF of the text here). Very often, anarchists and other radical leftists will demand a giant tidal wave to wipe out all the forms of oppression in society, and if that tidal wave doesn't come they default to more authoritarian attempts at reform, all while disregarding the fact that many attempts at autonomy are part of a movement in progress (the cooperative movement - if it radicalizes - for example). There is no "after the revolution" since anarchist revolution is forever ongoing. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the notion of "full communism", like the notion of a "free market", implies a very motionless idea of freedom, that we no longer have to progress once we reach a certain point in history.
I should mention that the other big reason why I moved from libertarian communism to mutualism was - ironically - due to anthropology. A book like Graeber's Debt seems to make a much better case for a mutualist economy, since it shows that credit-debt relations have always been with us, and have formed the bulk of human relations from the beginning. Instead of taking on almost utopian notions of abolishing all debt and all market relations, we should seek to apply mutuality to them, as we apply it to all other aspects of our lives. What was even more intriguing was seeing how some of the more negative aspects of markets are also found in communist or gift cultures. There's a large assumption that most competition between persons will ultimately create a lack of solidarity, but in gift cultures we see cases of extreme competition for cultural capital by means of giving the most or highest regarded objects away, and yet there is no break down of togetherness within those cultures.
In order to truly embrace a new paradigm, you have to break down preconceived notions that you've held before. It's very odd to say now, but back when I was a marxist I used to believe that freedom and equality could never coexist, and that freedom must be sacrificed for a society that is materially better off. Now I realize that neither freedom nor equality can exist alone. Though there is something I'd like to reiterate: I hesitate in calling myself a "former marxist" and there's a very good reason for that. I know Castoriadis and Baudrillard never really snapped out of it either.
Anyway, I am much happier now, and I'm looking forwards to May Day tomorrow.