Chapter 3 What is Anarchism?

Submitted by Reddebrek on August 10, 2018

ANARCHISM IS NOT a creed of terror and destruction, of social chaos and turmoil, of perpetual war between the individuals within society. On the contrary, it is the opposite of all these, a way of life and organic growth, of natural order within society, and of peace between individuals who respect their mutual freedom and integrity. It is the faith of the complete man, growing to fulfilment through social, economic and mental freedom. It is a social philosophy, but it is also a philosophy of individual aspirations.

Anarchism is the only true doctrine of freedom, because it denies all external authority, all domination of man by man. It proclaims the sufficiency of the individual human mind and spirit, and the inborn tendency of men towards peace and co-operation when their natural feelings have not been twisted and frustrated by the oppression of authority.

Socially, anarchism is the doctrine of society without government. It teaches that the major economic and social injustices are intimately associated with the principle of government, which inevitably, in whatever form it takes, creates privilege, and a class hierarchy, and, however much it may call itself democratic, must base itself on the coercion of the individual, at best to the will of the majority, most often to that of the governing minority. An authoritarian society - and every kind of society that bases itself on government is, in virtue of that fact, authoritarian - cannot survive if it does not create a governing class and a series of gradations of responsibility in its hierarchy which must inevitably destroy all forms of equality, whether of wealth, status or opportunity. The governing class, once created, will tend to harden into a caste and to gather to itself privileges that give its members substantial advantages over the other members of society. These privileges will first be granted in the name of expediency, but will be continued as a usurped right. Though rulers may set out with the most sincere intentions, the very necessities of maintaining the power they hold will force them to injustice, and the privileges they obtain will accomplish their inevitable corruption. The evidence of history is unvaried on these points.

True democracy cannot exist outside the imagination in a society based on coercion. Yet, even were democracy possible, the anarchist would still not support it, for democracy puts forward the will of the majority as the supreme law, and declares that society must be governed, and the individual, whether he agrees or not, be coerced by that will. Democracy then, is not based on freedom and differs only in degree from despotism in its negation of the individual. To the individual whose life is frustrated by the law of the State, it does not matter whether that law is the will of one man or the will of a million. What matters to him is that through its existence he is not free and therefore cannot become complete.

Anarchists seek neither the good of a minority, nor the good of the majority, but the good of all. They believe that a society based on the great super-individual myth of the State will inevitably in the end enslave all men in the interests not even of the majority but of the privileged few who form its ruling class. The anarchists have often been upbraided as impractical visionaries for their denial of the institution of government. But impracticality belongs, surely, to those who, in the face of the irrefutable historical verdict, still believe that some day a form of government will appear which will not involve the exploitation of the ruled and the corruption of the rulers. These attributes are as natural to government as venom to the viper.
Anarchists believe that the institutions of government and the state and all other coercive instruments of administration should be overthrown. This destructive side of anarchism has received undue prominence among its enemies and among some of its more irresponsible friends, and has given rise to certain misconceptions, some frivolous and some serious, which have been deliberately fostered by those in authority.

Of the more frivolous is the idea, still prevalent among the majority of Englishmen, that the Anarchist is a man who throws bombs and wishes to wreck society by violence and terror. That this charge should be brought against anarchists now, at a time when they are among the few people who are not throwing bombs or assisting bomb throwers, shows a curious blindness among its champions. It is true that Anarchists have in the past, and particularly during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, used the weapon of terrorist assassination as a means of carrying on the social revolution. Some Anarchists, therefore, certainly have thrown bombs.’ But so, also, have governments. And the difference in responsibility lies in this, that while the bombs thrown by anarchists have been very few and have always been directed against those who were guilty of the oppression and murder of their subjects, the bombs thrown by governments during this war alone can be numbered in their millions and have slain hundreds of thousands of men and women quite innocent of any crime against their fellows. And it must be remembered that the practice of individual terrorism was virtually abandoned by the anarchists some forty years ago, when the advent of anarchist syndicalism opened up the possibility of the more satisfactory tactic of revolutionary mass economic action.

Anarchists believe that a political or governmental organisation of society is incompatible with justice and liberty. They contend that society should be based on the free co-operation of individual men and women in fulfilment of their common functional and economic needs.

Here we reach a second and more serious misconception concerning anarchism, which has arisen among many people with a superficial knowledge of the movement; that anarchism is individualism carried to its extreme conclusion, and therefore admits of no organisation of society. A certain support would appear to be given to this notion by the fact that a few anarchist intellectuals have preached this extreme form of individualism by which a man would live independent of all ties with his fellows and concern himself solely with the development of his own personality and his own happiness.

Where, however, anarchism has existed as a social movement, its exponents have always envisaged the necessity for organisation, but a free organisation rising organically from the needs of man. Anarchism preaches freedom of the individual, but freedom cannot be isolated in society. A man’s freedom is reciprocal, depending on the freedom of others, and therefore anarchism preaches that the concept of justice is as necessary as the concept of freedom, for without justice there can be no true freedom, just as without freedom there can be no real justice.

Work in common achieves more in a shorter time than solitary work, and a sane division of labour provides both plenty and leisure where a man dependent on his own two hands to provide the necessities of life would have to toil all his hours for a miserable standard of life. But the benefits of common work and common life cannot be enjoyed in full measure if the vital functions of production are not organised by the people who perform them.

This necessity for social organisation has been realised by all the leading anarchist propagandists, who have refuted on many occasions the contentions of the “pure” individualist anarchists. In 1872 Michael Bakunin, the founder of the international anarchist movement, wrote defending participation in the First International:

“To whoever might pretend that action so organised would be an outrage on the liberty of the masses, or an attempt to create a new authoritative power, we would reply that he is a sophist and a fool. So much the worse for those who ignore the natural, social law of human solidarity, to the extent of imagining that an absolute mutual independence of individuals and of masses is a possible or even desirable thing. To desire it would be to wish for the destruction of society, for all social life is nothing else than this mutual and incessant dependence among individuals and masses. All individuals, even the most gifted and strongest, indeed most of all the most gifted and strongest; are at every moment of their lives, at the same time, producers and products. Equal liberty for every individual is only the resultant, continually reproduced, of this mass of material, intellectual and moral influence exercised on him by all the individuals around him, belonging to the society in which he was born, has developed and dies. To wish to escape this influence in the name of a transcendental liberty, divine, absolutely egoistic and sufficient to itself is the tendency to annihilation. To refrain from influencing others would mean to refrain from all social action, indeed to abstain from all expressions of one’s thoughts and sentiments and simply become non-existent. This independence, so much extolled by idealists and metaphysicians, individual liberty conceived in this sense would amount to self-annihilation. “In nature, as in human society, which is also part of the same nature, all that exists lives only by complying with the supreme conditions of interaction, which is more or less positive and potent with regard to the lives of other beings, according to the nature of the individual. And when we vindicate the liberty of the masses, we do not pretend to abolish anything of the natural influences that individuals or groups of individuals exert upon one another. What we wish for is the abolition of artificial influences, which are privileges, legal and official.”

This extract represents the attitude of anarchist militants. Anarchists accept the voluntary limitations necessary for reciprocal freedom. What they do not accept are the limitations imposed from above by coercive bodies such as the state.

Instead of the government of men, anarchists base society on the administration of things. It is on the economic plane alone, in the necessary production of goods consumed by men and in the provision of necessary social service, that they see the need for organisation, not from above but on a voluntary and co-operative basis, among the individuals whose work actually produces the necessities of a civilised life.
The functions of the modern state, represented by its paraphernalia of legal codes, bureaucracy, army and police, would be unnecessary in a society where common ownership had ended privilege and social economic inequalities. All these appendages of the modern state are intended ultimately not for the protection of men and women, but for the protection of the ruling class and the property by whose virtue it rules. In a society where there is no inequality of property, and where every man’s needs are satisfied, there will be no incentive to crime, except among the pathological, who are not subjects for prison or law courts. Where property rights have vanished there will be no need for codified laws. Customs and not regulations are the natural manifestations of men’s ideas of justice, and in a free society customs will adapt themselves to the growth of the ideas of that society. Under anarchism every man, once he has fulfilled his economic functions, will be free to live as he likes, provided he does not interfere with the lives of his fellows, and a free people can be relied on to see that the peace is maintained under such circumstances without the need of police or magistrates.

The economic ideas of the anarchist have found a concrete expression in anarcho-syndicalism. Anarcho-syndicalism, with which I will deal more fully in a later chapter, is both a technique of revolution and a means of organisation of a free society after the revolution. It advocates the organisation of the workers under capitalism in voluntary economic organisations, the syndicates, which differ from the trades unions in being controlled directly by the workers themselves and in having as their purpose, not the winning of reforms under capitalism, but the achievement of the social revolution by economic means. The withdrawal of economic co-operation, in the form of the general strike, is the basis of the anarchist conception of the revolution, and in this economic struggle the syndicates will play the vital role of uniting the efforts of the workers. After the revolution the syndicates will be the basic units of the network of economic and functional bodies, which will administer the satisfaction of the common needs of men and replace the system of authority and coercion.
Anarchism, it must be emphasised, is not a static and unchangeable social system. It is rather a dynamic philosophy that recognises the importance of evolution in human society, and the consequent futility of any attempt to plan social advancement on rigid lines.

Anarchists, therefore, deprecate the idea that the revolution can be planned and carried out through the seizure of -power by a disciplined party organisation. Instead they contend that the revolution will arise only out of the spontaneous movement of the people against their rulers, and that in the ensuing struggle the role of the revolutionary will be to maintain in the minds of men the nature of the goal for which they strive. The revolutionary may preach freedom, but the people must take it for themselves.

In the same way, although anarchists consider syndicalism to be a practical means of the organisation of society after the revolution, they recognise that it may not be a perfect social pattern. Indeed, they envisage no static blueprint of a future world. For, when men have been freed from social and economic oppressions, the evolution of human institutions will undoubtedly attain forms we cannot conceive. Thus, though we can make proposals for organisation immediately after the revolution, these must not be regarded as something permanent and therefore dead, but as the bases of further social evolution.

The anarchist does not expect to achieve a society without flaw. But anarchism does offer the only possibility of a society based on freedom and justice, which will function efficiently and produce a degree of spiritual and material comfort far higher than men enjoy today. Anarchism may seem Utopian to those who are embittered by the corruption and injustice of modern society. But, as Wilde said, “Progress is the realisation of Utopias”. And, for the very fact that it is based on qualities and aspirations towards freedom and peace that are fundamental in human nature, the Utopia of anarchism is literally realisable.