2. Individualist Anarchism and Reaction

Submitted by libcom on March 24, 2005

To be sure, ideological individualism did not fade away altogether during this period of sweeping social unrest. A sizable reservoir of individualist anarchists, especially in the Anglo-American world, were nourished by the ideas of John Locke and John Stuart Mill, as well as Stirner himself. Home-grown individualists with varying degrees of commitment to libertarian views littered the anarchist horizon. In practice, anarcho-individualism attracted precisely individuals, from Benjamin Tucker in the United States, an adherent of a quaint version of free competition, to Federica Montseny in Spain, who often honored her Stirnerite beliefs in the breach. Despite their avowals of an anarchocommunist ideology, Nietzscheans like Emma Goldman remained cheek to jowl in spirit with individualists.

Hardly any anarcho-individualists exercised an influence on the emerging working class. They expressed their opposition in uniquely personal forms, especially in fiery tracts, outrageous behavior, and aberrant lifestyles in the cultural ghettos of fin de si?cle New York, Paris, and London. As a credo, individualist anarchism remained largely a bohemian lifestyle, most conspicuous in its demands for sexual freedom ('free love') and enamored of innovations in art, behavior, and clothing.

It was in times of severe social repression and deadening social quiescence that individualist anarchists came to the foreground of libertarian activity -- and then primarily as terrorists. In France, Spain, and the United States, individualistic anarchists committed acts of terrorism that gave anarchism its reputation as a violently sinister conspiracy. Those who became terrorists were less often libertarian socialists or communists than desperate men and women who used weapons and explosives to protest the injustices and philistinism of their time, putatively in the name of 'propaganda of the deed.' Most often, however, individualist anarchism expressed itself in culturally defiant behavior. It came to prominence in anarchism precisely to the degree that anarchists lost their connection with a viable public sphere.

Today's reactionary social context greatly explains the emergence of a phenomenon in Euro-American anarchism that cannot be ignored: the spread of individualist anarchism. In a time when even respectable forms of socialism are in pell-mell retreat from principles that might in any way be construed as radical, issues of lifestyle are once again supplanting social action and revolutionary politics in anarchism. In the traditionally individualist-liberal United States and Britain, the 1990s are awash in self-styled anarchists who -- their flamboyant radical rhetoric aside -- are cultivating a latter-day anarcho-individualism that I will call lifestyle anarchism. Its preoccupations with the ego and its uniqueness and its polymorphous concepts of resistance are steadily eroding the socialistic character of the libertarian tradition. No less than Marxism and other socialisms, anarchism can be profoundly influenced by the bourgeois environment it professes to oppose, with the result that the growing 'inwardness' and narcissism of the yuppie generation have left their mark upon many avowed radicals. Ad hoc adventurism, personal bravura, an aversion to theory oddly akin to the antirational biases of postmodernism, celebrations of theoretical incoherence (pluralism), a basically apolitical and anti-organizational commitment to imagination, desire, and ecstasy, and an intensely self-oriented enchantment of everyday life, reflect the toll that social reaction has taken on Euro-American anarchism over the past two decades.

During the 1970s, writes Katinka Matson, the compiler of a compendium of techniques for personal psychological development, there occurred 'a remarkable change in the way we perceive ourselves in the world. The 1960s,' she continues, 'saw a preoccupation with political activism, Vietnam, ecology, be-ins, communes, drugs, etc. Today we are turning inward: we are looking for personal definition, personal improvement, personal achievement, and personal enlightenment.'[4] Matson's noxious little bestiary, compiled for Psychology Today magazine, covers every technique from acupuncture to the I Ching, from est to zone therapy. In retrospect, she might well have included lifestyle anarchism in her compendium of inward-looking soporifics, most of which foster ideas of individual autonomy rather than social freedom. Psychotherapy in all its mutations cultivates an inwardly directed 'self' that seeks autonomy in a quiescent psychological condition of emotional self-sufficiency -- not the socially involved self denoted by freedom. In lifestyle anarchism as in psychotherapy, the ego is counterposed to the collective; the self, to society; the personal, to the communal.

The ego -- more precisely, its incarnation in various lifestyles -- has become an id&eacuatae; fixe for many post-1960s anarchists, who are losing contact with the need for an organized, collectivistic, programmatic opposition to the existing social order. Invertebrate 'protests,' directionless escapades, self-assertions, and a very personal 'recolonization' of everyday life parallel the psychotherapeutic, New Age, self-oriented lifestyles of bored baby boomers and members of Generation X. Today, what passes for anarchism in America and increasingly in Europe is little more than an introspective personalism that denigrates responsible social commitment; an encounter group variously renamed a 'collective' or an 'affinity group'; a state of mind that arrogantly derides structure, organization, and public involvement; and a playground for juvenile antics.

Consciously or not, many lifestyle anarchists articulate Michel Foucault's approach of 'personal insurrection' rather than social revolution, premised as it is on an ambiguous and cosmic critique of power as such rather than on a demand for the institutionalized empowerment of the oppressed in popular assemblies, councils, and/or confederations. To the extent that this trend rules out the real possibility of social revolution -- either as an 'impossibility' or as an 'imaginary' -- it vitiates socialistic or communistic anarchism in a fundamental sense. Indeed, Foucault fosters a perspective that 'resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power. . . . Hence there is no single [read: universal] locus of great Refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions, or pure law of the revolutionary.' Caught as we all are in the ubiquitous embrace of a power so cosmic that, Foucault's overstatements and equivocations aside, resistance becomes entirely polymorphous, we drift futilely between the 'solitary' and the 'rampant.'[5] His meandering ideas come down to the notion that resistance must necessarily be a guerrilla war that is always present -- and that is inevitably defeated.

Lifestyle, like individualist, anarchism bears a disdain for theory, with mystical, and primitivistic filiations that are generally too vague, intuitional, and even antirational to analyze directly. They are more properly symptoms than causes of the general drift toward a sanctification of the self as a refuge from the existing social malaise. Nonetheless, largely personalistic anarchisms still have certain muddy theoretical premises that lend themselves to critical examination.

Their ideological pedigree is basically liberal, grounded in the myth of the fully autonomous individual whose claims to self-sovereignty are validated by axiomatic 'natural rights,' 'intrinsic worth,' or, on a more sophisticated level, an intuited Kantian transcendental ego that is generative of all knowable reality. These traditional views surface in Max Stirner's 'I' or ego, which shares with existentialism a tendency to absorb all of reality into itself, as if the universe turned on the choices of the self-oriented individual.

More recent works on lifestyle anarchism generally sidestep Stirner's sovereign, all-encompassing 'I,' albeit retaining its egocentric emphasis, and tend toward existentialism, recycled Situationism, Buddhism, Taoism, antirationalism, and primitivism -- or, quite ecumenically, all of them in various permutations. Their commonalities, as we shall see, are redolent of a prelapsarian return to an original, often diffuse, and even petulantly infantile ego that ostensibly precedes history, civilization, and a sophisticated technology -- possibly language itself -- and they have nourished more than one reactionary political ideology over the past century.



14 years 1 month ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by AIW on January 6, 2010

I was surprised to read:

Despite their avowals of an anarchocommunist ideology, Nietzscheans like Emma Goldman remained cheek to jowl in spirit with individualists.

Because Goldman wrote:

There is no conflict between the individual and the social instincts, any more than there is between the heart and the lungs: the one the receptacle of a precious life essence, the other the repository of the element that keeps the essence pure and strong. The individual is the heart of society, conserving the essence of social life; society is the lungs which are distributing the element to keep the life essence--that is, the individual--pure and strong.

Submitted by echeneida on July 1, 2010

Bookchin called her an avowed anarchocommunist, and you quoted one such avowal. I'm not sure what your point is.


12 years 1 month ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by adicalra on January 14, 2012

In agreement with Bookchin's description of tendencies towards an introspective personalism within the lifestyle or individualist anarchist circles, and others too. But even on an existentialist level, they would be incorrect if they were to look for a 'self' in authentic Buddhism since there isn't one to find anyway. It's a fitting riposte to those who believe there is no such thing as society,


12 years 1 month ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by freemind on January 14, 2012

I feel Individualism is something that should be jettisoned as Anarchism matures and becomes more cogent and resolute.To fetichise individualism culminates in an atavistic Stirnerism and the falsehood of anti collectivism.
It is a balance between individual consciousness and collective responsibility that gives Anarchism it's strength but as history and the present shows an over emphasis on the individual is regressive and pseudo Anarchism dominates resulting in lifestylism and impotence.
Anarchism is irrelevant to many people today because it has not clearly defined itself in a class context hence the hangers on who adopt the term but have nothing to do with the origins of Anarchism as taught by advocates of class struggle.
This has stymied the growth of Libertarianism and the fact we have to emphasise the term "class struggle Anarchism" says it all because Anarchism without class analysis is not Anarchism at all.


11 years 12 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by DesecrateConformity on February 29, 2012

It seems to me that Bookchin is being unnecessarily scathing towards individualists. And Bookchin's and the rest of the traditional social anarchists' "arguments" are all far too contingent on emotional appeals for me. Mutualists, Individualist Anarchists, and Green Anarchists (not Social Ecologists) know where the real problems are. Social Anarchists all pretty much baldy assert that the current industrialist paradigm is a result of free markets, which is certainly not true. The fact of the matter is that industrialists and capitalists are often state-backed, and without the state, a more decentralized mode of production would emerge, where each man owns the product of his/her labor (because mutualists embrace the Classical LTV), and the abhorrent industrial-age capitalists would be eradicated.


11 years 12 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by flaneur on February 29, 2012

And yet even in the wee anarchist ghetto, you'd struggle to name an individualist group going. What are they doing with all these answers to the real problems, keeping them to themselves?