Part 1 of 2: The Rise of the New Anarchists

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) championed anarchism as the most rational and just means of creating order in society. Among other things, he advocated what he called “mutualism,” an economic practice that disincentivized profit — which, according to him, was a destabilizing force — and argued far ahead of his time for banks with free credit and unions to protect labor. He championed the equilibrium of economic forces. He envisioned mutualism as a system of self-employed workers and co-operatives honestly exchanging goods and services in a market without interest, rent, profit, landlords or capitalists. It aimed to change the state (government), not through social revolution, rather by means of reform – a combination of more just and more efficient economic institutions and pressuring the state from the outside to enact appropriate reforms in support of equality of the individual. The first anarchists were not trouble making, chaotic nilhilists.

Proudhon had endeavoured, in his first memoir on property, to demonstrate that the pursuit of equality of conditions is the true principle of right and of government. The difficulty with the version of social contract posited by Rousseau was that the contract ultimately bound the individual in one way or another to the state, claimed Proudhon, obligating him in various instances to lay aside his own particular will or desires to abide by the general rules of the sovereign power that regulates everyone. Proudhon declared, “We desire a peaceful revolution… you should make use of the very institutions which we charge you to abolish… in such a way that the new society may appear as the spontaneous, natural and necessary development of the old and that the revolution, while abrogating the old order, should nevertheless be derived from it.”1

Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876), a Russian revolutionary anarchist, is considered one of the principle founders of ‘social anarchism’ – society seeking political equality by economic equality.  Anarchism and Marxism have a history of antagonism. Bakunin, writing in the late 19th century, argued that the working class could not use state power to emancipate itself but must abolish the state. Marx (and also Lenin) had pointed out that constructing socialism would require a revolutionary transformation of the state (and ultimately a withering away of the state) based on class. Anarchists, however, criticized Marxists for tending in practice to treat the state as an instrument that could simply be taken over and used for other ends. Anarchists saw the state not as a tool, but as an instrument of oppression, no matter in whose hands.

Mikhail Bakunin’s ideas produced a coherent defense of individual freedom and its basis in a free society. Bakunin believed that political freedom without economic equality is a pretense – a fraud, a lie. He believed that real freedom was possible only when economic and social equality existed. Freedom is a product of connection, not isolation. Bakunin insisted it is society which creates individual freedom through social interaction. Equality for the 19th century anarchists means social equality such as quality of condition, or equal opportunity. An anarchists’ society recognizes the differences in ability and need of individuals but does not allow their differences to be turned into power. If there is a state then there is domination. Anarchism rejects the principles of authority. Thus you need abolition of the state to guarantee freedom.

Anarchism’s absolute hostility to the state, and its tendency to adapt a stance of moral purity, limit its usefulness as a basis for a broad movement for equalitarian social change (let alone transition to socialism). Telling the truth to power is or should be part of radical politics, but it is not a substitute for strategy and planning. In the 19th century anarchism occupied something like the position within the broader left that Communism later came to occupy. From 1920-1940 anarchism was supplanted by Marxism which became the leading form of left thinking – anti-authoritarian perspective and moral critique.

Bakunin warned, “man in isolation can have no awareness of his liberty… Liberty is therefore a feature not of isolation but interaction – not of exclusion but rather connection. As capitalist ideology glorifies the abstract individual, it proclaims free will, and on the ruins of every liberty founds authority. This was unsurprising, as every development “implies the negation of its point of departure. {Thus} you will always find the idealist in the very act of practical materialism, while you see the materialist pursuing and realizing the most grandly ideal aspirations and thought. This is obvious today when the libertarian’s rights to defend individual liberty never gets far from opposing taxation while defending “the management’s right to manage” to maximize profits. Abstract individualism cannot help but justify authority over liberty.2

Given his love of freedom and hostility to hierarchy, besides rejecting the state, Bakunin rejected capitalism and religion. He argued that the state is an instrument of class rule. It is the organization of authority, domination and power of the possessing classes over the masses and denotes force and predominance and presupposes inequality. This inequality in power is required to maintain a class society, and so the state has evolved a hierarchical and centralized structure. Bakunin stressed anarchists should take an active part in the labour movement, “to create a people’s force capable of crushing the military and civil force of the state – it is necessary to organise the proletariat.” The strike played a key role in his ideas as it was “the beginning of the social war of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie.”2

Bakunin believed “every human being should have the material and moral means to develop his humanity.” Bakunin’s anarchism was about changing society and abolishing all forms of authoritarian social relationship, putting life before the spirit-destroying nature of the state and capitalism. He recognized that the ruling classes blindly and stubbornly opposed even the slightest social reform and accordingly he saw the only salvation in an international social revolution – a federation of free worker’s associations to ensure the requirements of daily life.2

In common to all anarchists is the desire to free society of all political and social coerisive institutions which stand in the way of the development of freedom. The 19th century anarchist focused on the development of a free humanity, while the new anarchists of the 21st century focus on the freedom of the abstract individual. The agenda of the new anarchists, the proponents of small governments and minimal regulation, includes industrial and environmental deregulation, the privatization of government services, deep reductions in federal anti-poverty spending and the transfer of authority and responsibility for social welfare from the national government to the charitable sector and state or provincial and local government. This ideology creates a system of inequality of the individual in which the majority of the people are unable to reach their full potential.

  1. Gambone, L. (1996) Proudhon and Anarchism

2. The Revolutionary Ideas of Bakunin (07/24/2008)

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