David Ivison

Why I Am Not An Anarchist





A beautiful analysis of the limits of the anarchist conception seen as an ideology that,in ultimate instance, everybody should or must accept. That is why Max Nettlau, the historian of anarchy, found Panarchy a very intriguing and fascinating proposal.



Why am I not an anarchist? Not for the same reasons as a police commissioner, churchman, a politician, or any authoritarian might give, but because I am anti-authoritarian. The quick answer to the question posed by my title is that I am not an anarchist because I am on the side of freedom, that is, just because I am an anti-authoritarian, a libertarian.

I do not want to attack any specific group of anarchists as such, but rather I want to discuss traditional anarchist thought, the tradition to which people such as Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin belong. First, I want to sketch briefly what I take to be the classical anarchist position. Second, I want to discuss what I take to be weaknesses or inconsistencies in this position and to point out how these might lead to anarchist authoritarianism. And, finally, I want to indicate how I think an anti-authoritarian or libertarian position differs from classical anarchism.

The anarchist position. As against state socialists, anarchists have always emphasized a social rather than political revolution. The dictatorship of the proletariat is seen, in Bakunin’s words, as saying “to free the masses it is first necessary to enslave them,” and he pointed out cogently that the State is not an instrument to be used in whatever way one likes but an institution with its own ways of working which will nullify any attempt to destroy it from within. As Kropotkin said, you cannot make an historical institution go in any direction you would have it, it must go its own way. Even those who sincerely want to capture power for the sake of bringing about freedom never get past the first objective. In many ways, then, the anarchists, in their critique of State socialism, foreshadow the political sociology of Robert Michels whose book, Political Parties first appeared in English in 1915.

So far, so good. In denying the possibility of bringing about the free society by working within the State apparatus, the anarchists emphasized the need for the destruction of the State machinery and its associated power relationships. But it is here that the theory becomes rather vague. The most usual notion is that convinced anarchists, as a revolutionary vanguard, will educate the people to come to see their “real” interests. Man, it is said, is a rational animal and, once he sees the light, he will join in a general strike which will destroy the power of the State and usher in a free society in which various groups will “ organize and combine into federations, in accordance with their natural tendencies and their real interests” (Bakunin.) If it seems a bit risky to rely so heavily on the innate anarchism of human nature, then Kropotkin tried to show, that by nature, man is cooperative and altruistic.

PROBLEMS: But if everyone is so good and “really” wants an anarchist society, then why have we not got one by now? Why do we have politicians and a State apparatus after well over a century of anarchist propaganda? If everyone’s real interest is in free, cooperative living, then why do we have people who staff institutions like jails, prisons, courts and parliament?

In their more realistic moments, even the anarchists see some flaws in their argument, which boils down to saying if you want a thing strongly enough, all you have to do is to convince everyone else and it will come about – as if there were no conflicts between people’s interests.

Some anarchists, for example, have attempted to set up anarchistic communes within the present society without waiting for the social revolution. But Fourier, who tried setting up what he called phalansteries was criticized by Bakunin who claimed that it was an error to believe that peaceful persuasion and propaganda will touch the hearts of the rich to such an extent that they would come themselves and lay down the surpluses of their riches at the doors of the phalansteries. That is, like the State socialists, the anarchists so have some notion of class conflict – at the very least, some sections of society, such as politicians and bosses, are not in favor of anarchism; that is to say, their real interests lie in maintaining their privileged status quo.

However, once you make a break in the notion of social solidarity, the whole theory of social revolution gives way. If you admit that some people are not interested in freedom but rather in maintaining authoritarian power structures, then you cannot assert that EVERYONE’s real interest is in anarchism and that all is needed is education by a revolutionary vanguard for rational men to realize their own interests.

There are actually two weaknesses here – first, a factual error, and second, a covert authoritarianism or moralism. The actual fact of class and other conflicts in society, the social fact that not all persons share the same interests, points up the utopianism of the classical anarchist tradition with its blind faith that reason will carry the day. The fallacy of Godwin. And this fact also points up the utopianism of the social revolution, of the notion that a state of affairs (the “free society”) could ever occur when all lived in harmony. It is just not true that there is one “real” interest which everyone shares, let alone that this interest is in freedom. Not only there is no way of determining that one interest is more real than another – one could never tell a real interest from a so-called unreal interest, if the interest exists it is real and only special pleading can make out that one interest is somehow more real than another – but also, apart from this problem of what one might mean by a “real” interest, it is a brute fact, admitted by the anarchists, that there is social conflict, that not all persons want the same thing. Then the notion of a social revolution ushering in a free society is impossible, it is a wish fulfilling fantasy which is factually incorrect because people do have conflicting interests – even the workers seem more concerned with job conditions and wages than with freedom.

If one accepts that not everyone wants freedom, then the anarchist position involves not only telling disbelieving souls that they ought to want freedom, it also involves imposing freedom on people who do not want it – surely a contradiction in terms – if you impose something on someone, then they are not free. This sort of attempt to impose your policy on others in the guise of knowing what is best for them better than they themselves is unmistakably authoritarian, a typical moralistic trick.

The hallmark of moralism is the claim that something ought to be done for its own sake, that it is self-obviously obligatory, is our duty or our real interest – without ever explaining why one ought to do one’s duty, what is obligatory, what is in one’s free interest, This technique is used in an attempt to overcome the problem of people having different interests and wishes. If the moralist were straightforward, he would say something like, “If you do don’t want to go to jail (or be shot or whatever the hidden sanction is), you ought to do as I tell you,” and then it would be one for someone to say that he would rather go to jail (or rather be dead than red, or whatever), just as if the anarchist said, “if you are interested in freedom, you should do as I tell you,” and the person addressed said that he was not interested in freedom (or pointed out the inconsistency of a person interested in freedom doing as he was told). So, like any politician, the anarchist falls back on what has been called the notion of the common good, the kind of appeal made in the name of the welfare of the community. Mr. Chipp tells us that smoking cannabis will ruin the moral fiber of the nation, anarchists say that coming out in a general strike against the State will improve the moral fiber of the nation. But there is not such thing as the common good, as something which is in everyone’s “real” interest, and even if there were, nothing is said about why we should do what the common good requires.

As anarchists admit in their more realistic moments, a glance at history or anthropology or at our own contemporary society shows that there are and always have been in any society various, different, and opposed groups – opposed, for example, over the Vietnam war, marijuana and censorship, to name but a few of the recent issues – each claiming to speak in the name of the common good. In fact, appeals to the common good are usually made precisely in these cases where there is manifest diversity and opposition as with Chipp on cannabis, or Nixon in Indochina. The function of appeals to the whole of society is to conceal both the fact of disagreement and the attempt to advance the special interests of some particular group such as the breweries or the military-industrial complex.

But as well as the factual error and the moralistic weakness, there is a further problem. Not only do anarchists attempt to coerce others into becoming free, but they have argued that no one can be free until the State and its attendant power relationships are destroyed. There is no freedom except total freedom and so the utopia of the free society is placed firmly in the distant future. Two further points can be made here. Firstly, as no one can be free here and now, the utopia of the future justifies all kinds of authoritarian practices in the present, as long as they are held to promote freedom “after the revolution.” So that anarchists may be authoritarian, moralistic, and coercive if they consider that their activities may promote the conditions of freedom in the future – and there certainly have been professed anarchist groups which operated along almost military lines.

Secondly, even if anarchists are not overtly authoritarian, it does seem to be a mark of servility, of being un-free, to work for the freedom of future generations rather than for one’s own freedom. Although here the servility may be toward unborn generations rather than to one’s contemporaries, it is still self-denying and self-frustrating, the marks of an un-free personality. It is of the same order as the self-denying Christians exhorted to avoid sin in the hopes of entering a glorious like hereafter. For anarchists, liberty is not something to be found at present but rather something that will really come only in the future. So, because they cannot be free here and now, they enslave themselves in the hope of the future utopia.

Perhaps, it is in the insistence on total freedom, on the possibility of a utopian society with no authoritarian power relationships, which leads anarchists to be authoritarian and moralistic in the present ; but certainly a supporter of freedom-in-the-future can find much to oppose in the utopianism, millenarianism, and false solidarist social theory of anarchism.

A LIBERTARIAN POSITION. By freedom, by libertarianism, I do not mean a doctrine of free will. I am a determinist and I believe that all our actions are completely determined by necessary and sufficient antecedent conditions. If nature were not completely deterministic, one could never delimit the area of free will, just because it is not determined, and no science or knowledge would be possible – what happened one day might not happen again and who knows, States might promote freedom!

No. I take it that a libertarian position has something in common with what anarchists, in some of their more realistic moments, seem to recognize. Kropotkin once wrote, “Throughout the history of our civilization, two traditions, two opposed tendencies, have been in conflict: the Roman tradition and the popular tradition, the imperial tradition and the federalist tradition, the authoritarian tradition and the libertarian position.”

If we free ourselves of anarchist moralism, we can see that freedom is not a question of a future society and a total (and impossible) change in social relationships. Rather freedom is not a characteristic of whole societies at all but of certain sub-groups or ways of life within any society – and even then probably no one person or group is entirely free all the time. Supporters of freedom will always meet with opposition, will always be opposed by authoritarians, and will have to fight for freedom here and now, not in some nebulous future utopia, with no illusion that we can somehow make the world safe for freedom – such seeking for security is a hallmark of servility, not of freedom just as trying to force others to be free is authoritarian.

The libertarian or freedom-lover recognizes that there is a constant conflict between freedom and authority. But libertarianism itself has no special claims, no moralistic notion that the path of freedom must or should be followed. Libertarians are on the side of freedom, but those who see their interests to lie in the maintenance or promotion of power relationships, such as securing their position with the aid of authority, will obviously and rightfully reject libertarian values. Unlike the anarchists, the libertarian does not seek to coerce others into supporting him in the name of real interests or a common good or of a future utopia. He does not seek to force freedom onto a whole society. Rather, the libertarian is an anarchist without ends, his is a role of permanent opposition to authority, what Max Nomad called permanent protest, with no illusion that freedom can ever be secured once and for all by a social revolution or by any other means. He displays his freedom here and now and others who have similar interests may assist him in the struggle. He engages in free activities because he likes them, not for what he or unborn generations may get out of them.

Being free involves the rejection of ultimates of all kinds – the rejection of any single ultimate on which all things depend for their existence (such as a God), the rejection of any ultimate reality (so that nothing is more real than any other) in favor of ordinary, everyday existence, the rejection of any ultimately simple things as opposed to complex historical things. The libertarian is a realist, an empiricist and a pluralist – for him, occurrences are good enough.

It may be that it is this fact which makes one free, that the hallmark of freedom is freedom from moralist, from deluded notions about things which ought to be done, so that one is not dependent, obedient and servile, not self-denying, self-frustrating and self-deluded about the interests of those who manipulate him, just because one has a realistic awareness of what is being done to one, of what the actual motives of the authoritarians are and of what one’s own interests are. If seeing through moralism is a condition of freedom, then we will have to fight for freedom within ourselves, against the illusions ingrained in us through the moralistic upbringing which we have all received in this culture. Then there is a permanent mental struggle within ourselves as well as a permanent social struggle against the authoritarians without.

However we define freedom, the lover of freedom, the libertarian, will not, as long as he is being free, retreat into moralism, utopianism, or millenarianism, into the errors of anarchism. Rather he will fight for freedom in the present, distrusting both his bosses and his would be saviors, prepared for a never ending struggle against authoritarianism, engaging in free activities for their own sake, because he is the kind of person who is interested in freedom, not because of what he or future generations can get out of them ; and remaining as objective and realistic as possible with no illusion that everyone ought to agree with him.


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