To what extent is anarchism a single ideology?
The principle influence upon anarchist political philosophy dates back to the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries, when the menace of social revolution threatened to unstable the existing social order, and create a stateless, classless society which would pave the way for a better and more harmonious future for all. During the nineteenth century, anarchism was a significant component of the growing socialist movement: anarchist political thinkers and activists such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin held great influence in the First International of 1868, and a great deal of Marx’s followers turned to anarchism after the International’s collapse in 1871.
The defining feature of anarchist political philosophy is its aversion to the state and the accompanying institutions of government and law. Anarchists advocate a stateless society in which free individuals may manage their own affairs through voluntary agreement with others, without the need for the corrupting influences of compulsion and coercion. However, it has been argued that anarchism is not a unified and coherent ideology in its own right; more so a point of overlap between two rival ideologies, socialism and liberalism, at the point which both schools of thought reach an anti-statist conclusion. Others have stated that the opposing strands within anarchism, collective and individualist, create an ideology which is not simply a single school of thought, but rather an ideology which, like many others, has been influenced by various other ideological trends. This essay intends to analyse both sides of the debate; thereby reaching a comprehensive and logical conclusion which reinstates anarchism’s position as a single and coherent ideology.
Anarchism is united by a singular belief that ‘that government which governs the best, governs not at all’ (Thoreau): indeed, any form of authority, which robs the individual of his or her autonomy, is to be shunned and abolished immediately. In his “Encyclopédie anarchiste”, Sebastian Faure described the ideology as ‘the negation of the principle of authority’; for anarchists, authority is an offence against the principles of freedom and equality. In turn, anarchism endorses the principles of absolute freedom and unrestrained political equality – to be subjugated to authority means to have one’s true, benevolent nature suppressed and thereby succumb to the debilitating effects of ‘democracy’. Such a system of government is absolute: indeed, anarchists see social contract theories as authoritarian; their only interest being to form a government symbolized by ‘the club, the gun, the handcuff or the prison’ (Goldman). As a result, anarchists readily advocate Proudhon’s famous maxim: “To be governed is to be watched over, inspected, spied on, directed…all by creatures who have neither the right, nor the wisdom, nor the virtue” and see the only route to social amelioration, equality and justice being through social revolution and the abolition of the state.
The basis of such a critique of the state lies in the anarchist view of human nature. Anarchists subscribe to a wholly optimistic, not utopian, view of human potential; but also are deeply pessimistic about the corruption influences of political authority and economic inequality. Ergo, people are either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, dependent upon the circumstances in which they live: people who would otherwise be benevolent and co-operative become nothing less than oppressive tyrants when raised up upon power, wealth or social status. It is the malign influence of the state and authority which causes such malevolence, and it is this factor which creates its position as no less than a concentrated form of evil.
While all anarchist traditions share contempt for the state and the authority which coerces the individual and strips him of his autonomy, there are various factors which cause conflict within the ideology. Issues such as economic freedom and the individual’s role within an anarchic society divide anarchists into two, distinct camps: collectivists and individualists. The two strands of thought within anarchism reflect the differing influences upon them: collectivists share a kinship with socialists; individualists share a common ideological ground with classical liberals. This has led some to comment that anarchism has a dual character: insofar as it can be interpreted as either a form of ‘ultraliberalism’, i.e. a form of extreme liberal individualism, or ‘ultrasocialism’, since collectivist anarchism resembles a form of extreme socialism.
Collectivist anarchists preach a doctrine of social solidarity, believing that humans have an innate capacity for ‘mutual aid’ (Kropotkin), and as a result, when people are linked together by the recognition of a common humanity, they have no need to be regulated or controlled by government - as Bakunin asserted when he wrote: ‘Social solidarity is the first human law; freedom is the second…’. Collectivist anarchists share a common ideological grounding to Marxists: both fundamentally reject capitalism, regarding it as a system of oppression and exploitation; both see revolution as the preferred means of achieving political change, and see private property as a corrupting influence on the individual. Consequently, collectivist anarchists readily propound Proudhon’s statement: ‘Property is theft’, and seek the abolition of private property in exchange for mutual cooperation and common ownership of the means of production.
Collectivists differ from Marxists over one major ideological point: namely, their rival conceptions of the transition from capitalism to communism. Marxists advocate a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ which will protect the working classes from counter-revolution by the newly dispossessed bourgeoisie. Such a ‘dictatorship’ will ‘wither away’ once the threat has been immunized and communism has been realised. Anarchists see no distinction between bourgeois and proletarian states: both are oppressive forces which can only bring corruption and authoritarianism. Genuine revolution requires not only the overthrow of capitalism, but also the immediate and final overthrow of state power. For collective anarchists, the state cannot be allowed to ‘wither away’; it must be abolished.
Individualist anarchists, on the other hand, reach many of their ideological conclusions by pushing liberal individualism to its logical extreme: indeed, William Godwin’s anarchism could be seen as merely a form of extreme classical liberalism. Both stress the primacy of the individual, and the central importance of individual freedom. For both classical liberals and individual anarchists, freedom is negative: it consists of the absence of external constraints upon the individual. No free individual is to be coerced or forced into doing anything which is against his/her will and absolute and unlimited authority resides within each human being. For individual anarchists, then, the state is seen as merely a mode of oppression: a sovereign, compulsory and coercive body which robs the individual of his/her natural rights and autonomy.
Individualist anarchists therefore differ greatly regarding their conception of the human condition, and the potential of human beings within society. Max Stirner’s “The Ego and His Own” (1845) expresses the boldest statement of anarchist individualism, suggesting that the individual self is at the centre of the moral universe, and as a result he/she should simply act as he/she chooses, without any consideration for laws, social conventions, religious or moral principles. Such a position amounts to a nihilistic standpoint: the belief in nothing and rejection of all political, social and moral principles. Stirner’s individualism was more fully developed by American libertarian thinkers, such as Thoreau, who believed that the individual has to be faithful to his/her conscience above the demands of political obligation, and Benjamin Tucker, who devised solutions to the reproaches made by collectivists as to the problems such an individualistic standpoint would create in society. Godwin’s theory of ‘natural order’ was thus echoed: individuals could resolve all issues through their natural sense of rationality; ending disagreements through reasoned discussion over violence. The classical liberal ‘invisible hand’ (Smith) was also seen as capable of ordering all social interaction, relieving the need for political organization through the establishment of a state.
The revival of free-market economics during the second half of the twentieth century led to individualist, anarchic conclusions. Wishes to ‘get the government off the back of business’ by new right conservatives, and right-wing libertarians such as Robert Nozick, revived the idea of a minimal state, whose principle function is to protect individual rights and interests. Thus, a form of ‘anarcho-capitalism’ was developed: advocating that government should be abolished and replaced by unregulated market competition. Property should be owned by sovereign individuals, who may wish to enter into voluntary agreements with other individuals, in the pursuit of self-interest. Thus, the individual remains free and the market regulates all social interaction.
The opposition between collectivists and individualists is not the only conflict of interests present within anarchism. The ‘means’ through which anarchism should be achieved has also divided anarchists: some preaching a road through revolutionary violence; some seeing direct action as the best possible route; some preferring to use non-violent, pacifist methods to achieve an anarchic society. It is, then, certain that the very nature of such means will directly influence the resulting anarchic society: a pacifist movement would probably preach more collectivist doctrine than a movement which advocates revolutionary violence.
While it may appear as though anarchism is a deeply divided political ideology, it is imperative to consider the fact that all anarchic traditions are united by a common founding: the desire to abolish authority and coercion and create a fully stateless and free society. Both individualists and collectivists agree on fundamental principles: those of anti-statism, natural order, anti-clericalism and economic freedom. The fact that both schisms disagree on the nature of the economy and the nature of the human condition does not separate them absolutely; for all other ideologies have similar conflicts: socialists are split into Marxists, democratic socialists and social democrats; conservatives into traditionalists, one-nationists, authoritarians and new rightists; liberals into classical liberals, new liberals and modern liberals; nationalists into liberal, conservative, anti-colonial and socialist nationals. Furthermore, the various roads though which anarchism is seen to be achieved does not mean it is fragmented: socialists have grave reservations about the nature of the ‘means’ needed to achieve a socialist society. It is wholly inevitable that any coherent political ideology will have conflicting principles within its ranks: for it could be argued that it is indeed this conflict which leads to ideological amelioration – thus forming a more coherent system of thought. In essence, then, while anarchism is divided between numerous factors, its doctrine of non-conformism and its challenge to the powers that be, creates an ideological position which is imperative to modern, twenty-first century democracy. In an age of ‘dull conformism’, anarchism sheds light on the path to increased political activism and interest among the people of liberal democracies: thus creating a healthier democratic system, and encouraging pluralism throughout the modern democratic world.