1. The Basic Ideas of Anarchism

Submitted by libcom on October 29, 2005

1 The Basic Ideas of Anarchism


The word anarchy is as old as the world. It is derived from two ancient Greek words, av (an), apxn (arkhe), and means something like the absence of authority or government. However, for millennia the presumption has been accepted that man cannot dispense with one or the other, and anarchy has been understood in a pejorative sense, as a synonym for disorder, chaos, and disorganization.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was famous for his quips (such as "property is theft") and took to himself the word anarchy. As if his purpose were to shock as much as possible, in 1840 he engaged in the following dialogue with the "Philistine."

"You are a republican."
"Republican, yes; but that means nothing. Res publica is 'the State.' Kings, too, are republicans."
"Ah well! You are a democrat?"
"What! Perhaps you are a monarchist?"
"Constitutionalist then?"
"God forbid."
"Then you are an aristocrat?"
"Not at all!"
"You want a mixed form of government?"
"Even less."
"Then what are you?"
"An anarchist."

He sometimes made the concession of spelling anarchy "an-archy" to put the packs of adversaries off the scent. By this term he understood anything but disorder. Appearances notwithstanding, he was more constructive than destructive, as we shall see. He held government responsible for disorder and believed that only a society without government could restore the natural order and re-create social harmony. He argued that the language could furnish no other term and chose to restore to the old word anarchy its strict etymological meaning. In the heat of his polemics, however, he obstinately and paradoxically also used the word anarchy in its pejorative sense of disorder, thus making confusion worse confounded. His disciple Mikhail Bakunin followed him in this respect.

Proudhon and Bakunin carried this even further, taking malicious pleasure in playing with the confusion created by the use of the two opposite meanings of the word: for them, anarchy was both the most colossal disorder, the most complete disorganization of society and, beyond this gigantic revolutionary change, the construction of a new, stable, and rational order based on freedom and solidarity.

The immediate followers of the two fathers of anarchy hesitated to use a word so deplorably elastic, conveying only a negative idea to the uninitiated, and lending itself to ambiguities which could be annoying to say the least. Even Proudhon became more cautious toward the end of his brief career and was happy to call himself a "federalist." His petty-bourgeois descendants preferred the term mutuellisme to anarchisme and the socialist line adopted collectivisme, soon to be displaced by communisme. At the end of the century in France, Sebastien Faure took up a word originated in 1858 by one Joseph Dejacque to make it the title of a journal, Le Libertaire. Today the terms "anarchist" and "libertarian" have become interchangeable.

Most of these terms have a major disadvantage: they fail to express the basic characteristics of the doctrines they are supposed to describe. Anarchism is really a synonym for socialism. The anarchist is primarily a socialist whose aim is to abolish the exploitation of man by man. Anarchism is only one of the streams of socialist thought, that stream whose main components are concern for liberty and haste to abolish the State. Adolph Fischer, one of the Chicago martyrs [5], claimed that "every anarchist is a socialist, but every socialist is not necessarily an anarchist."

Some anarchists consider themselves to be the best and most logical socialists, but they have adopted a label also attached to the terrorists, or have allowed others to hang it around their necks. This has often caused them to be mistaken for a sort of "foreign body" in the socialist family and has led to a long string of misunderstandings and verbal battles - usually quite purposeless. Some contemporary anarchists have tried to clear up the misunderstanding by adopting a more explicit term: they align themselves with libertarian socialism or communism.


Anarchism can be described first and foremost as a visceral revolt. The anarchist is above all a man in revolt. He reieets c~ri~t~ ~c a whole along with its guardians. Max Stirner declared that the anarchist frees himself of all that is sacred, and carries out a vast operation of deconsecration. These "vagabonds of the intellect," these "bad characters," "refuse to treat as intangible truths things that give respite and consolation to thousands and instead leap over the barriers of tradition to indulge without restraint the fantasies of their impudent critique." [6]

Proudhon rejected all and any "official persons" - philosophers, priests, magistrates, academicians, journalists, parliamentarians, etc. - for whom "the people is always a monster to be fought, muzzled, and chained down; which must be led by trickery like the elephant or the rhinoceros; or cowed by famine; and which is bled by colonization and war." Elisee Reclus [7] explained why society seems, to these well-heeled gentlemen, worth preserving: "Since there are rich and poor, rulers and subjects, masters and servants, Caesars who give orders for combat and gladiators who go and die, the prudent need only place themselves on the side of the rich and the masters, and make themselves into courtiers to the emperors."

His permanent state of revolt makes the anarchist sympathetic to nonconformists and outlaws, and leads him to embrace the cause of the convict and the outcast. Bakunin thought that Marx and Engels spoke most unfairly of the lumpenproletariat, of the "proletariat in rags": "For the spirit and force of the future social revolution is with it and it alone, and not with the stratum of the working class which has become like the bourgeoisie."

Explosive statements which an anarchist would not disavow were voiced by Balzac through the character of Vautrin, a powerful incarnation of social protest - half rebel, half criminal.


The anarchist regards the State as the most deadly of the preconceptions which have blinded men through the ages. Stirner denounced him who "throughout eternity. . is obsessed by the State."

Proudhon was especially fierce against "this fantasy of our minds that the first duty of a free and rational being is to refer to museums and libraries," and he laid bare the mechanism whereby "this mental predisposition has been maintained and its fascination made to seem invincible: government has always presented itself to men's minds as the natural organ of justice and the protector of the weak." He mocked the inveterate authoritarians who "bow before power like church wardens before the sacrament" and reproached "all parties without exception" for turning their gaze "unceasingly toward authority as if to the polestar." He longed for the day when "renunciation of authority shall have replaced faith in authority and the political catechism."

Kropotkin jeered at the bourgeois who "regarded the people as a horde of savages who would be useless as soon as government ceased to function." Malatesta anticipated psychoanalysis when he uncovered the fear of freedom in the subconscious of authoritarians.

What is wrong with the State in the eyes of the anarchists?

Stirner expressed it thus: "We two are enemies, the State and I." "Every State is a tyranny, be it the tyranny of a single man or a group." Every State is necessarily what we now call totalitarian: "The State has always one purpose: to limit, control, subordinate the individual and subject him to the general purpose.... Through its censorship, its supervision, and its police the State tries to obstruct all free activity and sees this repression as its duty, because the instinct of self-preservation demands it." "The State does not permit me to use my thoughts to their full value and communicate them to other men . . . unless they are its own.... Otherwise it shuts me up."

Proudhon wrote in the same vein: "The government of man by man is servitude." "Whoever lays a hand on me to govern me is a usurper and a tyrant. I declare him to be my enemy." He launched into a tirade worthy of a Moliere or a Beaumarchais:

"To be governed is to be watched over, inspected, spied on, directed, legislated, regimented, closed in, indoctrinated, preached at, con- trolled, assessed, evaluated, censored, commanded; all by creatures that have neither the right, nor wisdom, nor virtue.... To be governed means that at every move, operation, or transaction one is noted, registered, entered in a census, taxed, stamped, priced, assessed, patented, licensed, authorized, recommended, admonished, prevented, reformed, set right, corrected. Government means to be subjected to tribute, trained, ransomed, exploited, monopolized, extorted, pressured, mystified, robbed; all in the name of public utility and the general good. Then, at the first sign of resistance or word of complaint, one is repressed, fined, despised, vexed, pursued, hustled, beaten up, garroted, imprisoned, shot, machine-gunned, judged, sentenced, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed, and to cap it all, ridiculed, mocked, outraged, and dishonored. That is government, that is its justice and its morality! . . . O human personality! How can it be that you have cowered in such subjection for sixty centuries?"

Bakunin sees the State as an "abstraction devouring the life of the people," an "immense cemetery where all the real aspirations and living forces of a country generously and blissfully allow themselves to be buried in the name of that abstraction."

According to Malatesta, "far from creating energy, government by its methods wastes, paralyzes, and destroys enormous potential." As the powers of the State and its bureaucracy widen, the danger grows more acute. Proudhon foresaw the greatest evil of the twentieth century: "Fonctionnairisme [legalistic rule by civil servants] . . . leads toward state communism, the absorption of all local and individual life into the administrative machinery, and the destruction of all free thought. Everyone wants to take refuge under the wing of power, to live in common." It is high time to call a halt: "Centralization has grown stronger and stronger . . ., things have reached . . . the point where society and government can no longer coexist." "From the top of the hierarchy to the bottom there is nothing in the State which is not an abuse to be reformed, a form of parasitism to be suppressed, or an instrument of tyranny to be destroyed. And you speak to us of preserving the State, and increasing the power of the State! Away with you - you are no revolutionary!"

Bakunin had an equally clear and painful vision of an increasingly totalitarian State. He saw the forces of world counter-revolution, "based on enormous budgets, permanent armies, and a formidable bureaucracy" and endowed "with all the terrible means of action given to them by modern centralization," as becoming "an immense, crushing, threatening reality."


The anarchist denounces the deception of bourgeois democracy even more bitterly than does the authoritarian socialist. The bourgeois democratic State, christened "the nation," does not seem to Stirner any less to be feared than the old absolutist State. "The monarch . . . was a very poor man compared with the new one, the 'sovereign nation.' In liberalism we have only the continuation of the ancient contempt for the Self." "Certainly many privileges have been eliminated through time but only for the benefit of the State . . . and not at all to strengthen my Self."

In Proudhon's view "democracy is nothing but a constitutional tyrant." The people were declared sovereign by a "trick" of our forefathers. In reality they are a monkey king which has kept only the title of sovereign without the magnificence and grandeur. The people rule but do not govern, and delegate their sovereignty through the periodic exercise of universal suffrage, abdicating their power anew every three or five years. The dynasts have been driven from the throne but the royal prerogative has been preserved intact. In the hands of a people whose education has been willfully neglected the ballot is a cunning swindle benefiting only the united barons of industry, trade, and property.

The very theory of the sovereignty of the people contains its own negation. If the entire people were truly sovereign there would no longer be either government or governed; the sovereign would be reduced to nothing; the State would have no raison d'etre, would be identical with society and disappear into industrial organization.

Bakunin saw that the "representative system, far from being a guarantee for the people, on the contrary, creates and safeguards the continued existence of a governmental aristocracy against the people." Universal suffrage is a sleight of hand, a bait, a safety valve, and a mask behind which "hides the really despotic power of the State based on the police, the banks, and the army," "an excellent way of oppressing and ruining a people in the name of the so-called popular will which serves to camouflage it."

The anarchist does not believe in emancipation by the ballot. Proudhon was an abstentionist, at least in theory, thinking that "the social revolution is seriously compromised if it comes about through the political revolution." To vote would be a contradiction, an act of weakness and complicity with the corrupt regime: "We must make war on all the old parties together, using parliament as a legal battlefield, but staying outside it." "Universal suffrage is the counter-revolution," and to constitute itself a class the proletariat must first "secede from" bourgeois democracy.

However, the militant Proudhon frequently departed from this position of principle. In June 1848 he let himself be elected to parliament and was briefly stuck in the parliamentary glue. On two occasions, during the partial elections of September 1848 and the presidential elections of December 10 of the same year, he supported the candidacy of Raspail, a spokesman of the extreme Left. He even went so far as to allow himself to be blinded by the tactic of the "the lesser evil," expressing a preference for General Cavaignac, persecutor of the Paris proletariat, over the apprentice dictator Louis Napoleon. Much later, in 1863 and 1864, he did advocate returning blank ballot papers, but as a demonstration against the imperial dictatorship, not in opposition to universal suffrage, which he now christened "the democratic principle par excellence."

Bakunin and his supporters in the First International objected to the epithet "abstentionist" hurled at them by the Marxists. For them, boycotting the ballot box was a simple tactical question and not an article of faith. Although they gave priority to the class struggle in the economic field, they would not agree that they ignored "politics." They were not rejecting "politics," but only bourgeois politics. They did not disapprove of a political revolution unless it was to come before the social revolution. They steered clear of other movements only if these were not directed to the immediate and complete emancipation of the workers. What they feared and denounced were ambiguous electoral alliances with radical bourgeois parties of the 1848 type, or "popular fronts," as they would be called today. They also feared that when workers were elected to parliament and translated into bourgeois living conditions, they would cease to be workers and turn into Statesmen, becoming bourgeois, perhaps even more bourgeois than the bourgeoisie itself.

However, the anarchist attitude toward universal suffrage is far from logical or consistent. Some considered the ballot as a last expedient. Others, more uncompromising, regarded its use as damnable in any circumstances and made it a matter of doctrinal purity. Thus, at the time of the Cartel des Gauches (Alliance of the Left) elections in May 1924, Malatesta refused to make any concession. He admitted that in certain circumstances the outcome of an election might have "good" or "bad" consequences and that the result would sometimes depend on anarchist votes, especially if the forces of the opposing political groupings were fairly evenly balanced. "But no matter! Even if some minimal progress were to be the direct result of an electoral victory, the anarchist should not rush to the polling stations." He concluded: "Anarchists have always kept themselves pure, and remain the revolutionary party par excellence, the party of the future, because they have been able to resist the siren song of elections."

The inconsistency of anarchist doctrine on this matter was to be especially well illustrated in Spain. In 1930 the anarchists joined in a common front with bourgeois democrats to overthrow the dictator, Primo de Rivera. The following year, despite their official abstention, many went to the polls in the municipal elections which led to the overthrow of the monarchy. In the general election of November 1933 they strongly recommended abstention from voting, and this returned a violently anti-labor Right to power for more than two years. The anarchists had taken care to announce in advance that if their abstention led to a victory for reaction they would launch the social revolution. They soon attempted to do so but in vain and at the cost of heavy losses (dead, wounded, and imprisoned).

When the parties of the Left came together in the Popular Front in 1936, the central anarcho-syndicalist organization was hard pressed to know what attitude to adopt. Finally it declared itself, very halfheartedly, for abstention, but its campaign was so tepid as to go unheard by the masses who were in any case already committed to participation in the elections. By going to the polls the mass of voters insured the triumph of the Popular Front (263 left-wing deputies, as against 181 others).

It should be noted that in spite of their savage attacks on bourgeois democracy, the anarchists admitted that it is relatively progressive. Even Stirner, the most intransigent, occasionally let slip the word "progress." Proudhon conceded: "When a people passes from the monarchical to the democratic State, some progress is made." And Bakunin said: "It should not be thought that we want . . . to criticize the bourgeois government in favor of monarchy.... The most imperfect republic is a thousand times better than the most enlightened monarchy.... The democratic system gradually educates the masses to public life." This disproves Lenin's view that "some anarchists" proclaim "that the form of oppression is a matter of indifference to the proletariat." This also dispels the fear expressed by Henri Arvon in his little book L'Anarchisme that anarchist opposition to democracy could be confused with counter-revolutionary opposition.


The anarchists were unanimous in subjecting authoritarian socialism to a barrage of severe criticism. At the time when they made violent and satirical attacks these were not entirely well founded, for those to whom they were addressed were either primitive or "vulgar" communists, whose thought had not yet been fertilized by Marxist humanism, or else, in the case of Marx and Engels themselves, were not as set on authority and state control as the anarchists made out.

Although in the nineteenth century authoritarian tendencies in socialist thought were still embryonic and undeveloped, they have proliferated in our time. In the face of these excrescences, the anarchist critique seems less tendentious, less unjust; sometimes it even seems to have a prophetic ring.

Stirner accepted many of the premises of communism but with the following qualification: the profession of communist faith is a first step toward total emancipation of the victims of our society, but they will become completely "disalienated," and truly able to develop their individuality, only by advancing beyond communism.

As Stirner saw it, in a communist system the worker remains subject to the rule of a society of workers. His work is imposed on him by society, and remains for him a task. Did not the communist Weitling [8] write: "Faculties can only be developed in so far as they do not disrupt the harmony of society"? To which Stirner replied: "Whether I were to be 'loyal' to a tyrant or to Weitling's 'society' I would suffer the same absence of rights."

According to Stirner, the communist does not think of the man behind the worker. He overlooks the most important issue: to give man the opportunity to enjoy himself as an individual after he has fulfilled his task as a producer. Above all, Stirner glimpsed the danger that in a communist society the collective appropriation of the means of production would give the State more exorbitant powers than it has at present:

"By abolishing all private property communism makes me even more dependent on others, on the generality or totality [of society], and, in spite of its attacks on the State, it intends to establish its own State, . . . a state of affairs which paralyzes my freedom to act and exerts sovereign authority over me. Communism is rightly indignant about the wrongs which I suffer at the hands of individual proprietors, but the power which it will put into the hands of the total society is even more terrible."

Proudhon was just as dissatisfied with the "governmental, dictatorial, authoritarian, doctrinaire communist system" which "starts from the principle that the individual is entirely subordinate to the collectivity." The communist idea of the State is exactly the same as that of the former masters and much less liberal: "Like an army that has captured the enemy's guns, communism has simply turned property's artillery against the army of property. The slave always apes his master." And Proudhon describes in the following terms the political system which he attributes to the communists:

"A compact democracy - apparently based on the dictatorship of the masses, but in which the masses have only power enough to insure universal servitude, according to the following prescription borrowed from the old absolutism:

The indivisibility of power;

All-absorbing centralism;

The systematic destruction of all individual, corporate, or local thought believed to be subversive;

An inquisitorial police force."

The authoritarian socialists call for a "revolution from above." They "believe that the State must continue after the Revolution. They preserve the State, power, authority, and government, increasing their scope still further. All they do is to change the titles . . . as though changing the names were enough to transform things!" And Proudhon concludes by saying: "Government is by its nature counter-revolutionary . . . give power to a Saint Vincent de Paul and he will be a Guizot [9] or a Talleyrand." Bakunin extended this criticism of authoritarian socialism:

I detest communism because it is the negation of liberty and I cannot conceive anything human without liberty. I am not a communist because communism concentrates all the powers of society and absorbs them into the State, because it leads inevitably to the centralization of property in the hands of the State, while I want to see the State abolished. I want the complete elimination of the authoritarian principle of state tutelage which has always subjected, oppressed, exploited, and depraved men while claiming to moralize and civilize them. I want society, and collective or social property, to be organized from the bottom up through free association and not from the top down by authority of any kind.... In that sense I am a collectivist and not at all a communist.

Soon after making the above speech Bakunin joined the First International And there he and his supporters came into conflict not only with Marx and Engels but with others far more vulnerable to his attacks than the two founders of scientific socialism: on the one hand, the German social democrats for whom the State was a fetish and who proposed the use of the ballot and electoral alliances to introduce an ambiguous "People's State" (Volkstaat); on the other hand, the Blanquists [10] who sang the virtues of a transitional dictatorship by a revolutionary minority. Bakunin fought these divergent but equally authoritarian concepts tooth and nail, while Marx and Engels oscillated between them for tactical reasons but finally decided to disavow both under the harassment of anarchist criticism.

However, the friction between Bakunin and Marx arose mainly from the sectarian and personal way in which the latter tried to control the International, especially after 1870. There is no doubt that there were wrongs on both sides in this quarrel, in which the stake was the control of the organization and thus of the whole movement of the international working class. Bakunin was not without fault and his case against Marx often lacked fairness and even good faith. What is important for the modern reader, however, is that as early as 1870 Bakunin had the merit of raising the alarm against certain ideas of organization of the working-class movement and of proletarian power which were much later to distort the Russian Revolution. Sometimes unjustly, and sometimes with reason, Bakunin claimed to see in Marxism the embryo of what was to become Leninism and then the malignant growth of Stalinism.

Bakunin maliciously attributed to Marx and Engels ideas which these two men never expressed openly, if indeed they harbored them at all:

"But, it will be said all the workers . . . cannot become scholars; and is it not enough that with this organization [International] there is a group of men who have mastered the science, philosophy, and politics of socialism as completely as is possible in our day, so that the majority . . . can be certain of remaining on the right road to the final emancipation of the proletariat . . . simply by faithfully obeying their directions? . . . Vie have heard this line of reasoning developed by innuendo with all sorts of subtle and skillful qualifications but never openly expressed - they are not brave enough or frank enough for that. "

Bakunin continued his diatribe:

"Beginning from the basic principle . . . that thought takes precedence over life, and abstract theory over social practice, and inferring that sociological science must became the starting point of social upheaval and reconstruction, they were forced to the conclusion that since thought, theory, and science are, for the present at any rate, the exclusive possessions of a very small number of persons, that minority must direct social life.

The supposed Popular State would be nothing but the despotic government of the popular masses by a new and very narrow aristocracy of knowledge, real or pretended. "

Bakunin translated Marx's major work, Das Kapital, into Russian, had a lively admiration for his intellectual capacity, fully accepted the materialist conception of history, and appreciated better than anyone Marx's theoretical contribution to the emancipation of the working class. What he would not concede was that intellectual superiority can confer upon anyone the right to lead the working-class movement:

"One asks oneself how a man as intelligent as Marx could conceive of such a heresy against common sense and historical experience as the notion that a group of individuals, however intelligent and well-intentioned, could become the soul and the unifying and directing will of a revolutionary movement and of the economic organization of the proletariat of all countries.... The creation of a universal dictatorship . . ., a dictatorship which would somehow perform the task of chief engineer of the world revolution, regulating and steering the insurrectionary movements of the masses of all nations as one steers a machine . . ., the creation of such a dictatorship would in itself suffice to kill the revolution and paralyze and distort all popular movements.... And what is one to think of an international congress which, in the supposed interest of this revolution, imposes on the proletariat of the civilized world a government invested with dictatorial powers?"

No doubt Bakunin was distorting the thoughts of Marx quite severely in attributing to him such a universally authoritarian concept, but the experience of the Third International has since shown that the danger of which he warned did eventually materialize.

The Russian exile showed himself equally clear-sighted about the danger of state control under a communist regime. According to him, the aspirations of "doctrinaire" socialists would "put the people into a new harness." They doubtless profess, as do the libertarians, to see any State as oppressive, but maintain that only dictatorship - their own, of course - can create freedom for the people; to which the reply is that every dictatorship must seek to last as long as possible. Instead of leaving it to the people to destroy the State, they want to "transfer it . . . into the hands of the benefactors, guardians, and teachers, the leaders of the Communist Party." They see quite well that such a government, "however democratic its forms, will be a real dictatorship," and "console themselves with the idea that it will be temporary and short-lived." But no! Bakunin retorted. This supposedly interim dictatorship will inevitably lead to "the reconstruction of the State, its privileges, its inequalities, and all its oppressions," to the formation of a governmental aristocracy "which again begins to exploit and rule in the name of common happiness or to save the State." And this State will be "the more absolute because its despotism is carefully concealed under obsequious respect... for the will of the people."

Bakunin, always particularly lucid, believed in the Russian Revolution: "If the workers of the West wait too long, Russian peasants will set them an example." In Russia, the revolution will be basically "anarchistic." But he was fearful of the outcome: the revolutionaries might well simply carry on the State of Peter the Great which was "based on . . . suspension of all expressions of the life of the people," for "one can change the label of a State and its form . . . but the foundation will remain unchanged." Either the State must be destroyed or one must "reconcile oneself to the vilest and most dangerous lie of our century . . .: Red Bureaucracy." Bakunin summed it up as follows: "Take the most radical of revolutionaries and place him on the throne of all the Russias or give him dictatorial powers . . . and before the year is out he will be worse than the Czar himself."

In Russia Voline was participant, witness, and historian of the Revolution, and afterward recorded that events had taught the same lesson as the masters. Yes, indeed, socialist power and social revolution "are contradictory factors"; they cannot be reconciled:

"A revolution which is inspired by state socialism and adopts this form, even 'provisionally' and 'temporarily,' is lost: it takes a wrong road down an ever steeper slope.... All political power inevitably creates a privileged position for those who exercise it.... Having taken over the Revolution, mastered it, and harnessed it, those in power are obliged to create the bureaucratic and repressive apparatus which is indispensable for any authority that wants to maintain itself, to command, to give orders, in a word. to govern. . . . All authority seeks to some extent to control social life. Its existence predisposes the masses to passivity, its very presence suffocates any spirit of initiative.... 'Communist' power is ... a real bludgeon. Swollen with 'authority' . . . it fears every independent action. Any autonomous action is immediately seen as suspect, threatening, . . . for such authority wants sole control of the tiller. Initiative from any other source is seen as an intrusion upon its domain and an infringement of its prerogatives and, therefore, unacceptable. "

Further, anarchists categorically deny the need for "provisional" and "temporary" stages. In 1936, on the eve of the Spanish Revolution, Diego Abad de Santillan placed authoritarian socialism on the horns of a dilemma: "Either the revolution gives social wealth to the producers, or it does not. If it does, the producers organize themselves for collective production and distribution and there is nothing left for the State to do. If it does not give social wealth to the producers, the revolution is nothing but a deception and the State goes on." One can say that the dilemma is oversimplified here; it would be less so if it were translated into terms of intent: the anarchists are not so naive as to dream that all the remnants of the State would disappear overnight, but they have the will to make them wither away as quickly as possible; while the authoritarians, on the other hand, are satisfied with the perspective of the indefinite survival of a "temporary" State, arbitrarily termed a "Workers' State."


The anarchist sets two sources of revolutionary energy against the constraints and hierarchies of authoritarian socialism: the individual, and the spontaneity of the masses. Some anarchists are more individualistic than social, some more social than individualistic. However, one cannot conceive of a libertarian who is not an individualist. The observations made by Augustin Hamon from the survey mentioned earlier confirm this analysis.

Max Stirner [11] rehabilitated the individual at a time when the philosophical field was dominated by Hegelian anti-individualism and most reformers in the social field had been led by the misdeeds of bourgeois egotism to stress its opposite: was not the very word "socialism" created as antonym to "individualism"?

Stirner exalted the intrinsic value of the unique individual, that is to say, one cast in a single unrepeatable mold (an idea which has been confirmed by recent biological research). For a long time this thinker remained isolated in anarchist circles, an eccentric followed by only a tiny sect of intelligent individualists. Today, the boldness and scope of his thought appear in a new light. The contemporary world seems to have set itself the task of rescuing the individual from all the forms of alienation which crush him' those of individual slavery and those of totalitarian conformism. In a famous article written in 1933, Simone Weil complained of not finding in Marxist writings any answer to questions arising from the need to defend the individual against the new forms of oppression coming after classical capitalist oppression. Stirner set out to fill this serious gap as early as the mid-nineteenth century.

He wrote in a lively style, crackling with aphorisms: "Do not seek in self-renunciation a freedom which denies your very selves, but seek your own selves.... Let each of you be an all-powerful I." There is no freedom but that which the individual conquers for himself. Freedom given or conceded is not freedom but "stolen goods." "There is no judge but myself who can decide whether I am right or wrong." "The only things I have no right to do are those I do not do with a free mind." "You have the right to be whatever you have the strength to be." Whatever you accomplish you accomplish as a unique individual: "Neither the State, society, nor humanity can master this devil."

In order to emancipate himself, the individual must begin by putting under the microscope the intellectual baggage with which his parents and teachers have saddled him. He must undertake a vast operation of "desanctification," beginning with the so-called morality of the bourgeoisie: "Like the bourgeoisie itself, its native soil, it is still far too close to the heaven of religion, is still not free enough, and uncritically borrows bourgeois laws to transplant them to its own ground instead of working out new and independent doctrines."

Stirner was especially incensed by sexual morality. The "machinations" of Christianity "against passion" have simply been taken over by the secularists. They refused to listen to the appeal of the flesh and display their zeal against it. They "spit in the face of immorality." The moral prejudices inculcated by Christianity have an especially strong hold on the masses of the people. "The people furiously urge the police on against anything which seems to them immoral or even improper, and this public passion for morality protects the police as an institution far more effectively than a government could ever do."

Stirner foreshadowed modern psychoanalysis by observing and denouncing the internalization of parental moral values. From childhood we are consumed with moral prejudices. Morality has become "an internal force from which I cannot free myself," "its despotism is ten times worse than before, because it now scolds away from within my conscience." "The young are sent to school in herds to learn the old saws and when they know the verbiage of the old by heart they are said to have come of age." Stirner declared himself an iconoclast: "God, conscience, duties, and laws are all errors which have been stuffed into our minds and hearts." The real seducers and corrupters of youth are the priests and parents who "muddy young hearts and stupefy young minds." If there is anything that "comes from the devil" it is surely this false divine voice which has been interpolated into the conscience.

In the process of rehabilitating the individual, Stirner also discovered the Freudian subconscious. The Self cannot be apprehended. Against it "the empire of thought, mind, and ratiocination crumbles"; it is inexpressible, inconceivable, incomprehensible, and through Stirner's lively aphorisms one seems to hear the first echoes of existentialist philosophy: "I start from a hypothesis by taking myself as hypothesis.... I use it solely for my enjoyment and satisfaction.... I exist only because I nourish my Self.... The fact that I am of absorbing interest to myself means that I exist."

Of course the white heat of imagination in which Stirner wrote sometimes misled him into paradoxical statements. He let slip some antisocial aphorisms and arrived at the position that life in society is impossible: "We do not aspire to communal life but to a life apart." "The people is dead! Good-day, Self!" "The people's good fortune is my misfortune!" "If it is right for me, it is right. It is possible that it is wrong for others: let them take care of themselves!"

However, these occasional outbursts are probably not a fundamental part of his thinking and, in spite of his hermit's bluster, he aspired to communal life. Like most people who are introverted, isolated, shut in, he suffered acute nostalgia for it. To those who asked how he could live in society with his exclusiveness he replied that only the man who has comprehended his own "oneness" can have relations with his fellows. The individual needs help and friends; for example, if he writes books he needs readers. He joins with his fellow man in order to increase his strength and fulfill himself more completely through their combined strength than either could in isolation. "If you have several million others behind you to protect you, together you will become a great force and will easily be victorious" - but on one condition: these relations with others must be free and voluntary and always subject to repudiation. Stirner distinguishes a society already established, which is a constraint, from association, which is a voluntary act. "Society uses you, but you use association." Admittedly, association implies a sacrifice, a restriction upon freedom, but this sacrifice is not made for the common good: "It is my own personal interest that brings me to it."

Stirner was dealing with very contemporary problems, especially when he treated the question of political parties with special reference to the communists. He was severely critical of the conformism of parties: "One must follow one's party everywhere and anywhere, absolutely approving and defending its basic principles." "Members . . . bow to the slightest wishes of the party." The party's program must "be for them certain, above question.... One must belong to the party body and soul.... Anyone who goes from one party to another is immediately treated as a renegade." In Stirner's view, a monolithic party ceases to be an association and only a corpse remains. He rejected such a party but did not give up hope of joining a political association: "I shall always find enough people who want to associate with me without having to swear allegiance to my flag." He felt he could only rejoin the party if there was "nothing compulsory about it," and his sole condition was that he could be sure "of not letting himself be taken over by the party." "The party is nothing other than a party in which he takes part." "He associates freely and takes back his freedom in the same way."

There is only one weakness in Stirner's argument, though it more or less underlies all his writings: his concept of the unity of the individual is not only "egotistical," profitable for the "Self" but is also valid for the collectivity. The human association is only fruitful if it does not crush the individual but, on the contrary, develops initiative and creative energy. Is not the strength of a party the sum of all the strengths of the individuals who compose it? This lacuna in his argument is due to the fact that Stirner's synthesis of the individual and society remained halting and incomplete. In the thought of this rebel the social and the antisocial clash and are not always resolved. The social anarchists were to reproach him for this, quite rightly.

These reproaches were the more bitter because Stirner, presumably through ignorance, made the mistake of including Proudhon among the authoritarian communists who condemn individualist aspirations in the name of "social duty." It is true that Proudhon had mocked Stirner-like "adoration" of the individual, [12] but his entire work was a search for a synthesis, or rather an "equilibrium" between concern for the individual and the interests of society, between individual power and collective power. "Just as individualism is a primordial human trait, so association is its complement."

"Some think that man has value only through society . . . and tend to absorb the individual into the collectivity. Thus . . . the communist system is a devaluation of the personality in the name of society.... That is tyranny, a mystical and anonymous tyranny, it is not association.... When the human personality is divested of its prerogatives, society is found to be without its vital principle."

On the other hand, Proudhon rejected the individualistic utopianism that agglomerates unrelated individualities with no organic connection, no collective power, and thus betrays its inability to resolve the problem of common interests. In conclusion: neither communism nor unlimited freedom. "We have too many joint interests, too many things in common."

Bakunin, also, was both an individualist and a socialist. He kept reiterating that a society could only reach a higher level by starting from the free individual. Whenever he enunciated rights which must be guaranteed to groups, such as the right to self-determination or secession, he was careful to state that the individual should be the first to benefit from them. The individual owes duties to society only in so far as he has freely consented to become part of it. Everyone is free to associate or not to associate, and, if he so desires, "to go and live in the deserts or the forests among the wild beasts." "Freedom is the absolute right of every human being to seek no other sanction for his actions but his own conscience, to determine these actions solely by his own will, and consequently to owe his first responsibility to himself alone." The society which the individual has freely chosen to join as a member appears only as a secondary factor in the above list of responsibilities. It has more duties to the individual than rights over him, and, provided he has reached his majority, should exercise "neither surveillance nor authority" over him, but owe him "the protection of his liberty."

Bakunin pushed the practice of "absolute and complete liberty" very far: I am entitled to dispose of my person as I please, to be idle or active, to live either honestly by my own labor or even by shamefully exploiting charity or private confidence. All this on one condition only: that this charity or confidence is voluntary and given to me only by individuals who have attained their majority. I even have the right to enter into associations whose objects make them "immoral" or apparently so. In his concern for liberty Bakunin went so far as to allow one to join associations designed to corrupt and destroy individual or public liberty: "Liberty can and must defend itself only through liberty; to try to restrict it on the specious pretext of defending it is a dangerous contradiction."

As for ethical problems, Bakunin was sure "immorality" was a consequence of a viciously organized society. This latter must, therefore, be destroyed from top to bottom. Liberty alone can bring moral improvement. Restrictions imposed on the pretext of improving morals have always proved detrimental to them. Far from checking the spread of immorality, repression has always extended and deepened it. Thus it is futile to oppose it by rigorous legislation which trespasses on individual liberty. Bakunin allowed only one sanction against the idle, parasitic, or wicked: the loss of political rights, that is, of the safeguards accorded the individual by society. It follows that each individual has the right to alienate his own freedom by his own acts but, in this case, is denied the enjoyment of his political rights for the duration of his voluntary servitude.

If crimes are committed they must be seen as a disease, and punishment as treatment rather than as social vengeance. Moreover, the convicted individual must retain the right not to submit to the sentence imposed if he declares that he no longer wishes to be a member of the society concerned. The latter, in return, has the right to expel such an individual and declare him to be outside its protection.

Bakunin, however, was far from being a nihilist. His proclamation of absolute individual freedom did not lead him to repudiate all social obligations. I become free only through the freedom of others: "Man can fulfill his free individuality only by complementing it through all the individuals around him, and only through work and the collective force of society." Membership in the society is voluntary but Bakunin had no doubt that because of its enormous advantages "membership will be chosen by all." Man is both "the most individual and the most social of the animals."

Bakunin showed no softness for egoism in its vulgar sense - for bourgeois individualism "which drives the individual to conquest and the establishment of his own well-being . . . in spite of everyone, on the backs of others, to their detriment." "Such a solitary and abstract human being is as much a fiction as God." "Total isolation is intellectual, moral, and material death."

A broad and synthesizing intellect, Bakunin attempts to create a bridge between individuals and mass movements: "All social life is simply this continual mutual dependence of individuals and the masses. Even the strongest and most intelligent individuals . . . are at every moment of their lives both promoters and products of the desires and actions of the masses." The anarchist sees the revolutionary movement as the product of this interaction; thus he regards individual action and autonomous collective action by the masses as equally fruitful and militant.

The Spanish anarchists were the intellectual heirs of Bakunin. Although enamored of socialization, on the very eve of the 1936 Revolution they did not fail to make a solemn pledge to protect the sacred autonomy of the individual: "The eternal aspiration to be unique," wrote Diego Abad de Santillan, "will be expressed in a thousand ways: the individual will not be suffocated by levering down .... Individualism, personal taste, and originality will have adequate scope to express themselves."


From the Revolution of 1848 Proudhon learned that the masses are the source of power of revolutions. At the end of 1849 he wrote: "Revolutions have no instigators; they come when fate beckons, and end with the exhaustion of the mysterious power that makes them flourish." "All revolutions have been carried through by the spontaneous action of the people; if occasionally governments have responded to the initiative of the people it was only because they were forced or constrained to do so. Almost always they blocked, repressed, struck." "When left to their own instincts the people almost always see better than when guided by the policy of leaders." "A social revolution . . . does not occur at the behest of a master with a ready-made theory, or at the dictate of a prophet. A truly organic revolution is a product of universal life, and although it has its messengers and executors it is really not the work of any one person." The revolution must be conducted from below and not from above. Once the revolutionary crisis is over social reconstruction should be the task of the popular masses themselves. Proudhon affirmed the "personality and autonomy of the masses."

Bakunin also repeated tirelessly that a social revolution can be neither decreed nor organized from above and can only be made and fully developed by spontaneous and continuous mass action. Revolutions come "like a thief in the night." They are "produced by the force of events." "They are long in preparation in the depths of the instinctive consciousness of the masses - then they explode, often precipitated by apparently trivial causes." "One can foresee them, have presentiments of their approach . . .. but one can never accelerate their outbreak." "The anarchist social revolution . . . arises spontaneously in the hearts of the people, destroying all that hinders the generous upsurge of the life of the people in order thereafter to create new forms of free social life which will arise from the very depths of the soul of the people." Bakunin saw in the Commune of 1871 striking confirmation of his views. The Communards believed that "the action of individuals was almost nothing" in the social revolution and the "spontaneous action of the masses should be everything."

Like his predecessors, Kropotkin praised "this admirable sense of spontaneous organization which the people . . . has in such a high degree, but is so rarely permitted to apply." He added, playfully, that "only he who has always lived with his nose buried in official papers and red tape could doubt it."

Having made all these generous and optimistic affirmations, both the anarchist and his brother and enemy the Marxist confront a grave contradiction. The spontaneity of the masses is essential, an absolute priority, but not sufficient in itself. The assistance of a revolutionary minority capable of thinking out the revolution has proved to be necessary to raise mass consciousness. How is this elite to be prevented from exploiting its intellectual superiority to usurp the role of the masses, paralyze their initiative, and even impose a new domination upon them?

After his idyllic exaltation of spontaneity, Proudhon came to admit the inertia of the masses, to deplore the prejudice in favor of governments, the deferential instinct and the inferiority complex which inhibit an upsurge of the people. Thus the collective action of the people must be stimulated, and if no revelation were to come to them from outside, the servitude of the lower classes might go on indefinitely. And he admitted that "in every epoch the ideas which stirred the masses had first been germinated in the minds of a few thinkers.... The multitude never took the initiative.... Individuality has priority in every movement of the human spirit." It would be ideal if these conscious minorities were to pass on to the people their science, the science of revolution. But in practice Proudhon seemed to be skeptical about such a synthesis: to expect it would be to underestimate the intrusive nature of authority. At best, it might be possible to "balance" the two elements.

Before his conversion to anarchism in 1864, Bakunin was involved in conspiracies and secret societies and became familiar with the typically Blanquist idea that minority action must precede the awakening of the broad masses and combine with their most advanced elements after dragging them out of their lethargy. The problem appeared different in the workers' International, when that vast movement was at last established. Although he had become an anarchist, Bakunin remained convinced of the need for a conscious vanguard: "For revolution to triumph over reaction the unity of revolutionary thought and action must have an organ in the midst of the popular anarchy which will be the very life and the source of all the energy of the revolution." A group, small or large, of individuals inspired by the same idea, and sharing a common purpose, will produce "a natural effect on the masses." "Ten, twenty, or thirty men with a clear understanding and good organization, knowing what they want and where they are going, can easily carry with them a hundred, two hundred, three hundred or even more." "We must create the well-organized and rightly inspired general staffs of the leaders of the mass movement."

The methods advocated by Bakunin are very similar to what is nowadays termed "infiltration." It consists of working clandestinely upon the most intelligent and influential individuals in each locality "so that [each] organization should conform to our ideas as far as possible. That is the whole secret of our influence." The anarchists must be like "invisible pilots" in the midst of the stormy masses. They must direct them not by "ostensible power," but by "a dictatorship without insignia, title, or official rights, all the more powerful because it will have none of the marks of power." Bakunin was quite aware how little his terminology ("leaders," "dictatorship," etc.) differed from that of the opponents of anarchism, and replied in advance "to anyone who alleges that action organized in this way is yet another assault upon the liberty of the masses, an attempt to create a new authoritarian power": No! the vanguard must be neither the benefactor nor the dictatorial leader of the people but simply the midwife to its self-liberation. It can achieve nothing more than to spread among the masses ideas which correspond with their instincts. The rest can and must be done by the people themselves. The "revolutionary authorities" (Bakunin did not draw back from using this term but excused it by expressing the hope that they would be "as few as possible") were not to impose the revolution on the masses but arouse it in their midst; were not to subject them to any form of organization, but stimulate their autonomous organization from below to the top.

Much later, Rosa Luxemburg was to elucidate what Bakunin had surmised: that the contradiction between libertarian spontaneity and the need for action by conscious vanguards would only be fully resolved when science and the working class became fused, and the masses became fully conscious, needing no more "leaders," but only "executive organs" of their "conscious action." After emphasizing that the proletariat still lacked science and organization, the Russian anarchist reached the conclusion that the International could only become an instrument of emancipation "when it had caused the science, philosophy, and politics of socialism to penetrate the reflective consciousness of each of its members."

However theoretically satisfying this synthesis might be, it was a draft drawn on a very distant future. Until historical evolution made it possible to accomplish it, the anarchists remained, like the Marxists, more or less imprisoned by contradiction. It was to rend the Russian Revolution, torn between the spontaneous power of the soviets and the claim of the Bolshevik Party to a "directing role." It was to show itself in the Spanish Revolution, where the libertarians were to swing from one extreme to the other, from the mass movement to the conscious anarchist elite.

Two historical examples will suffice to illustrate this contradiction.

The anarchists were to draw one categorical conclusion from the experience of the Russian Revolution: a condemnation of the "leading role" of the Party. Voline formulated it in this way:

"The key idea of anarchism is simple: no party, or political or ideological group, even if it sincerely desires to do so, will ever succeed in emancipating the working masses by placing itself above or outside them in order to 'govern' or 'guide' them. True emancipation can only be brought about by the direct action . . . of those concerned, the workers themselves, through their own class organizations (production syndicates, factory committees, cooperatives, etc.) and not under the banner of any political party or ideological body. Their emancipation must be based on concrete action and 'self-administration,' aided but not controlled by revolutionaries working from within the masses and not from above them.... The anarchist idea and the true emancipatory revolution can never be brought to fruition by anarchists as such but only by the vast masses . . ., anarchists, or other revolutionaries in general, are required only to enlighten or aid them in certain situations. If anarchists maintained that they could bring about a social revolution by "guiding" the masses, such a pretension would be as illusory as that of the Bolsheviks and for the same reasons."

However, the Spanish anarchists, in their turn, were to experience the need to organize an ideologically conscious minority, the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI), within their vast trade union organization, the National Confederation of Labor (CNT). This was to combat the reformist tendencies of some "pure" syndicalists and the maneuvers of the agents of the "dictatorship of the proletariat." The FAI drew its inspiration from the ideas of Bakunin, and so tried to enlighten rather than to direct. The relatively high libertarian consciousness of many of the rank-and file members of the CNT also helped it to avoid the excesses of the authoritarian revolutionary parties. It did not, however, perform its part as guide very well, being clumsy and hesitant about its tutelage over the trade unions, irresolute in its strategy, and more richly endowed with activists and demagogues than with revolutionaries as clear-thinking on the level of theory as on that of practice.

Relations between the masses and the conscious minority constitute a problem to which no full solution has been found by the Marxists or even by the anarchists, and one on which it seems that the last word has not yet been said.