On Anarchism (and Libertarianism)

Anarchism is the vision of the world socialism can one day create, a libertarian society free of not just the ruling class and the exploitation of the common people, but the State itself.

Anarchism is not a philosophy of chaos and violence. True, in the same way some capitalists were violent, so were some anarchists, such as Leon Czolgosz, who took out his anger over the exploitation of the poor by assassinating President William McKinley in Buffalo in 1901. But many others, like musician Josiah Warren (called the first American anarchist), English author H.G. Wells (The War of the Worlds), or Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace), were not terrorists.

Rather, anarchism is order in its most democratic form. It is the complete rejection of authoritarianism, the argument that the State, and other forms of authority, such as capitalism, will always abuse those with less power, the common people. It is the denunciation of force and oppression. Anarchists argue we can live in peace and prosperity without nonlocal government or capitalism. Instead, men and women could organize themselves, participating in local direct democracy (citizen’s assemblies) to determine what is best for their communities, and take on the responsibility of a worker-owner (in worker councils) to help determine what is best for any business or organization they choose to join (see “Worker Control of Businesses” in What is Socialism?). They envision a world with no congressmen, presidents, or CEOs to put innocent people at risk in the pursuit of profit or power. With an emphasis on free association between people, individual liberty, and a democratic sharing of wealth and power, this is hardly an image of destruction and madness. It is order without oppression, democracy without the State.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon wrote (see Anarchism, Guerin):

To be governed is to be watched over, inspected, spied on, directed, legislated, regimented, closed in, indoctrinated, preach at, controlled, 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, 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?

Anarchist thought is ancient. It is imagined to have arisen alongside the earliest civilizations, such as 6th century B.C. China (the philosopher Lao Tzu and Taoism have been embraced by many anarchists). Wherever there is authoritarianism, there is surely anti-authoritarian sentiment. Of course, one could say anarchism has been around for 100,000 years, as long as humanity itself. Is it simply a modern yearning to return to how humans lived for 95% of our existence, under primitive communism, when humans lived in kin-based groups free of government?

Socialists and anarchists disagree over whether class oppression, exploitation, poverty, and war can be abolished only after the State is dismantled, or if the State has a role to play in ending these things. H.G. Wells, among many, thought only socialism could make anarchism possible (see New Worlds For Old, Wells):

Socialism is the preparation for that higher Anarchism; painfully, laboriously we mean to destroy false ideas of property and self, eliminate unjust laws and poisonous and hateful suggestions and prejudices, create a system of social right-dealing and a tradition of right-feeling and action. Socialism is the schoolroom of true and noble Anarchism, wherein by training and restraint we shall make free men.

Frederick Engels wrote that socialism would cause the State to “wither away,” meaning that after political power was given to the people the State would disappear as we know it. Socialist George Orwell (whose 1984 and Animal Farm condemned the totalitarian socialism of the U.S.S.R.) wrote, “I worked out an anarchistic theory that all government is evil, that the punishment always does more harm than the crime and the people can be trusted to behave decently if you will only let them alone.” But he concluded, “It is always necessary to protect peaceful people from violence. In any state of society where crime can be profitable you have got to have a harsh criminal law and administer it ruthlessly” (Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell).

To this writer, the State is necessary to protect ordinary people from the worst ravages of capitalism, whether miserable wages or the poisoning of the biosphere. The State cannot be eliminated until capitalism is eliminated.

Anarchism may sound similar to American libertarianism. Libertarians in the United States emphasize individual liberty, voluntary associations, and diminished government, but are staunchly pro-capitalism. Modern anarchist Noam Chomsky summed up the difference:

What’s called libertarian in the United States, which is a special U.S. phenomenon, it doesn’t really exist anywhere else—a little bit in England—permits a very high level of authority and domination but in the hands of private power: so private power should be unleashed to do whatever it likes. The assumption is that by some kind of magic, concentrated private power will lead to a more free and just society.

Libertarians fail to address the authoritarianism, abuse, theft, and exploitation wrought on innocent people by capitalist owners, at times graver than anything government could concoct. “What’s called libertarian” today doesn’t extend much farther than the U.S. because elsewhere there is already a name for it: anarcho-capitalism. This “free market anarchism” is considered blasphemous and contradictory by many anarchists, since capitalism involves hierarchy and authoritarianism. The anarchism that socialists desire will be free of capitalism; the people will democratically own their workplaces, industries, and communities.

Anarchism, in its rejection of the State, rejects nationalism, the false divisions between people. Marx wrote, “The workingmen have no country.” When workers control the workplace and hold decision-making power in their communities, there will be no need for a State controlled by upper class rulers, and if the State does not exist, neither will nations, and neither will senseless wars between nations. Socialism and anarchism emphasize the brotherhood of all men. John Lennon, a self-described socialist (see the Playboy interviews of 1981), captured the anarchist philosophy in his song “Imagine”:

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

Thomas Paine said, “Independence is my happiness, and I view things as they are, without regard to place or person; my country is the world, and my religion is to do good” (Rights of Man). Jack London wrote that people should care “more for men and women and little children than for imaginary geographical lines” (How I Became a Socialist). Prominent American anarchist Emma Goldman, writing in 1908, had harsh words for “patriotism” (Declarations of Independence, Zinn):

Conceit, arrogance and egotism are the essentials of patriotism. Let me illustrate. Patriotism assumes that our globe is divided into little spots, each one surrounded by an iron gate. Those who have had the fortune of being born on some particular spot consider themselves nobler, better, grander, more intelligent than those living beings inhabiting any other spot. It is, therefore, the duty of everyone living on that chosen spot to fight, kill and die in the attempt to impose his superiority upon all the others.

Indeed, patriotism and nationalism have killed more people than any force in human history, even more than religion. 60 million people died in two world wars alone, in just a quarter-century. The Central and Axis Powers used the glorification of the State to encourage soldiers and civilians to participate in war and unimaginable atrocities, or look the other way, and the Allied Powers did the same in response. Blind patriotism leads to moral blindness.

Goldman inspired Howard Zinn, who wrote in 2005 (Declarations):

There was something horrifying in the realization that, in this twenty-first century of what we call ‘civilization,’ we have carved up what we claim is one world into 200 artificially created entities we call ‘nations’ and armed to apprehend or kill anyone who crosses a boundary.

Is not nationalism–that devotion to a flag, an anthem, a boundary so fierce it engenders mass murder–one of the great evils of our time, along with racism, along with religious hatred? These ways of thinking–cultivated, nurtured, indoctrinated from childhood on–have been useful to those in power, and deadly for those out of power.