The Morality of Anarchism

Submitted by Reddebrek on March 21, 2019

THE MORAL IDEA BEHIND ANARCHISM has always been somewhat elusive. There have probably been almost as many anarchist moralities as there have been anarchists, but for analysis they can be broadly divided into two categories: the socially positive and the socially negative. The positive anarchist moralities have derived from many sources from William Godwin onwards, but the negative aspects can chiefly be traced to the influence of Max Stirner.

In his theoretical attempt to escape from bourgeois hypocritical morals Stirner went to remarkable lengths in glorifying crime and denying all that was considered good by the respectable middle-class of his day. This total amorality was quite rational if one began with his premises, since one could owe no allegiances to a society to which one had no responsibilities. Stirner’s disbelief in altruistic actions, and his virtual deification of the individual, was quite consistent with his belief that others were to be regarded as little more than means to the end of personal self-realisation. But this justification of theft, dishonesty, rape and murder is in a sense the very opposite of anarchistic. When we complain that people are being exploited by the ruling-classes we are not only complaining that the people continue to endure it. We are also complaining about exploitation per se; and it is this very act of regarding a person as a means rather than an end that underlies Stirner’s philosophy. The Stirnerite attempt to escape this problem is to postulate a union of egoists, in which “enlightened” self-interest is best served by co-operation, although he prefers to call it competition! It is interesting to imagine an application of this. When two egoists make love each one tries presumably to please the other solely because such reciprocation of pleasure facilitates his or her own enjoyment of the act. This may sound unreasonable, but such introspective evidence is not enough to prove that it might not represent our true motives. I do not believe that we can take the easy path of dismissing Egoism out of hand, tempting thought it may be to some temperaments.

Godwin, in contrast to Stirner, was a humanitarian, and believed that Justice—the general good—was above individual interest, although be realised that a person’s conception of exactly what was the general good could only be a matter for conscience. He was important in that he denied the Catholic doctrine of Original Sin, and asserted that we are born neither good nor bad. He was a moral man, and proclaimed that we have “no right to act anything but virtue and to utter anything but truth”. We can see here the complete disagreement between his idea of the moral anarchist, and Stirner’s affirmation that morality is rubbish. Both of these men made distinct contribution to anarchist thought however, although I think neither of them held views which were completely or distinctively anarchist in the moral sphere. It would be inconsistent with the spirit of anarchism to say that either one had, or could have had, the sole and absolute truth, for it is unlikely that anarchists will ever be absolutely unanimous on anything, especially with respect to morality. In mild criticism of Stirner I would say that to assert that we can never act altruistically is tantamount to denying freewill, and I think that Godwin’s dogma that we must follow truth and virtue in all circumstances is somewhat authoritarian. But I think that any anarchist morality must borrow points from each of them.

Although the Stirnerite and Godwinian trends in anarchist morality have been supplemented by others, I do not regard these as very radical alterations of principle, and so I intend to turn now to a man who is not regarded as a member of the anarchist ranks, yet who to me is one of the foremost anarchist moralists—Jean-Paul Sartre. In his article on the Ethics of Anarchism (ANARCHY 16) Bob Green did not mention Sartre once. I find this rather remarkable in the light of Sartre’s views. The fact that he calls himself a communist should not allow us to dismiss him, since he is repudiated by the French CP, and must be the most un-Marxist communist since Kropotkin. Sartre, probably without having read them, achieves the feat of bringing together the anarchistic elements in the moralities of both Godwin and Stirner while omitting the unanarchistic elements of each.

Sartre agrees emphatically with Godwin’s rejection of the notion of original sin, yet still recognises that men are born into a society which presents them with a “common predicament”. Man is totally free inasmuch as his values and decisions are in no way laid down beforehand by determinism or his genetic and environmental inheritance, although the conditions which delineate his choices may be influenced from without. Thus man is no more destined to “sin” than he is to do good—in every moral situation there are at least two possible courses of action, and it is entirely up to him which he chooses to follow. What is more, since we are totally free there can be no external authority or guide for our actions. We cannot escape our total responsibility for whatever acts we do, and having denied an external source of moral law or moral judgment we must build our own moral codes as free individuals. Consequently there is not, as Godwin seemed to be saying, any inherent moral sense to tell us what is right and wrong. “Right” and “wrong” have no absolute meaning; having destroyed God we are in an arbitrary world of our own where we must choose as individuals what is right and wrong for ourselves. Sartre is in fact saying, with Stirner, that in any absolute sense there is no morality.

This doctrine of total freedom and independence is one which should appeal to any strong-minded and confident anarchist, since it fundamentally counters dogmas of revealed truth which have been the pernicious inspiration of so many tyrannical systems. To me the anarchist must not only reject political authority, but also moral authority.

It is this fact that makes the position of christian anarchists so precarious. Sartre seems to say that God is dead simply because we have killed him by asserting our own freedom and authority over ourselves. It is immensely tempting to accept Sartre’s denial of God and determinism, since it removes the theoretical barrier of “human nature” which is supposed by our opponents to be incompatible with anarchism. Sartre says that we make our own natures by our choices and actions, that a man’s morality is what he does. Also, since one’s choices are really one’s own, it doesn’t matter tuppence if one happens to find one’s morality coinciding with the bourgeois morality Stirner hated on certain points. In other words, if it is “bourgeois” to refrain from murder, arson, and rape then I can be proud of being “bourgeois” if I refrain from these things from choice rather than fear of punishment or from social conditioning. Every moral situation must be considered on its merits. To reject a moral axiom just because it is bourgeois would be for Sartre just as much mauvais foi (bad faith) as to try to avoid moral decisions altogether. I knew anarchists, who reject truthfulness and responsibility with the phrase: “they’re just bourgeois values”. If one takes the view of Sartre this defence is inadequate. As we have seen Sartre is the advocate and philosopher of responsibility. The popular view of existentialism as being aimlessness and amorality could not be farther from the truth. Sartre says that there is no way of knowing what is “right”, yet we can never make excuses for our actions, since we have freely chosen to perform them.

So let us realise this: all our moral decisions stand alone as choices for which we bear entire personal responsibility. We often recognise this when criticising an obedient thug like Eichman, but we seem to forget it when we talk about fighting the system with its own weapons. We may choose to do this because we feel it justified in a particularly bad situation, but we must be under no illusions about such a choice, it is a free one, and we cannot validly assuage our consciences by saying that the State forces us to do it. Unfortunately one tends to choose reasonably consistently, and however tempting it may be to use State methods (e.g. violence, trickery, theft) in our attempts to destroy all that is rotten in our sick society, we have to realise that by doing so we are perpetuating the very values we seek ultimately to destroy. Perhaps if we realise how responsible we are as individuals for this perpetuation we may in future think twice before employing or advocating such methods. On the question of responsibility in practical affairs, such as keeping appointments, doing what one says one will do, and generally being loyal to other comrades, it seems to me that anarchists are no better (and sometimes worse) than other people. Yet anarchists should, as Jack Stevenson said recently, be the most responsible of people, in fact reliability and self-responsibility are essential conditions for calling oneself an anarchist. It must be obvious to all shades of anarchist thought that the Free Society would require more self-control, more self-consciousness, than any other social system that has been devised. I believe then that Sartre, in providing the philosophical background to such a view and rejecting the notion that man is nothing more than a product of his environment and heredity, has made a vital contribution to anarchist thought.

In propounding Sartre’s views I have not attributed to him any specific moral code, merely pointed out a few of the consequences of accepting particular codes. This is because Sartre does not in fact advocate a moral code. Sartre believes that one’s life is the exposition of one’s own moral values, and in his case these have been distinct and consistent. That they can be loosely defined as humanitarian brings us back to Godwin. In fact Sartre, although defining no rules of actual conduct does make one point about conduct in general. The philosopher Kant had postulated the categorical imperative—that one should act as though one’s moral maxims were a universal law—and Sartre takes this one stage further, saying that necessarily one acts as though one would wish others to act in the same situation. This increases still further the burden of moral decisions, and gives some degree of objectivity to them. Yet at first sight it may appear that universalisability is an un-anarchistic concept. Why as anarchists should we not act as we wish without wishing other people to act likewise? This is in fact the extreme individualist position, but it seems to me that such extreme individuality is at variance with anarchism as a movement, for it denies society. Any society is built on universalisability, what I would call a social contract entered into voluntarily by every individual in it. It is the force which restored the social cohesion threatened by the destruction of authority. It is the basis of mutual aid. When I offer my hand in friendship I do not expect to get stabbed with a knife—yet were the arbitrariness of values and modes of behaviour universal this would be quite consistent. So clearly, whether or not one wants to go quite as far as Sartre, it is important to realise that universalisability is implicit in any morality to some degree. The situation is made less ominous than may appear by the fact that Sartre realises the individuality of situations—as a result one may feel compelled to take a particular action in a particularly desperate situation, and will that another person should do the same, without willing the same action in far less desperate circumstances that would normally occur.

Having said all this I hope to have shown that Sartre can provide us with some useful starting points for developing our moral codes. Clearly the implicit social contract which I have postulated derives from his ideas, and clearly if it exists it must be honoured by the vast majority of people if the society is not to break down. I am not saying there must be no exceptions. The curious thing about human nature (or rather, human choices) is that we tend to hate people who are really and consistently moral, and most of us lesser mortals would find a completely moral society rather intolerable. However, we must realise that those who advocate a new society have a special responsibility in this respect, since we are supposedly its vanguard and are to apt to be regarded very critically by those we seek to influence. Viewed in this light many of us need to question the adequacy of our anarchist ethic, and think again every time we feel like acting irresponsibly.