What Is the Essence of Anarchism?

Source: The Anarchist Library
Republished with permission.


As we have seen, “an-archy” implies “without rulers” or “without (hierarchical) authority.” Anarchists are not against “authorities” in the sense of experts who are particularly knowledgeable, skilful, or wise, though they believe that such authorities should have no power to force others to follow their recommendations. In a nutshell, then, anarchism is anti-authoritarianism.

Anarchists are anti-authoritarians because they believe that no human being should dominate another. Anarchists, in L. Susan Brown’s words, “believe in the inherent dignity and worth of the human individual.” [The Politics of Individualism, p. 107] Domination is inherently degrading and demeaning, since it submerges the will and judgement of the dominated to the will and judgement of the dominators, thus destroying the dignity and self-respect that comes only from personal autonomy. Moreover, domination makes possible and generally leads to exploitation, which is the root of inequality, poverty, and social breakdown.

In other words, then, the essence of anarchism (to express it positively) is free co-operation between equals to maximise their liberty and individuality.

Co-operation between equals is the key to anti-authoritarianism. By co-operation we can develop and protect our own intrinsic value as unique individuals as well as enriching our lives and liberty for “[n]o individual can recognise his own humanity, and consequently realise it in his lifetime, if not by recognising it in others and co-operating in its realisation for others ... My freedom is the freedom of all since I am not truly free in thought and in fact, except when my freedom and my rights are confirmed and approved in the freedom and rights of all men [and women] who are my equals.” [Michael Bakunin, quoted by Errico Malatesta, Anarchy, p. 30]

While being anti-authoritarians, anarchists recognise that human beings have a social nature and that they mutually influence each other. We cannot escape the “authority” of this mutual influence, because, as Bakunin reminds us:

“The abolition of this mutual influence would be death. And when we advocate the freedom of the masses, we are by no means suggesting the abolition of any of the natural influences that individuals or groups of individuals exert on them. What we want is the abolition of influences which are artificial, privileged, legal, official.” [quoted by Malatesta, Anarchy, p. 51]

In other words, those influences which stem from hierarchical authority.

This is because hierarchical systems like capitalism deny liberty and, as a result, people’s “mental, moral, intellectual and physical qualities are dwarfed, stunted and crushed” (see section B.1 for more details). Thus one of “the grand truths of Anarchism” is that “to be really free is to allow each one to live their lives in their own way as long as each allows all to do the same.” This is why anarchists fight for a better society, for a society which respects individuals and their freedom. Under capitalism, “[e]verything is upon the market for sale: all is merchandise and commerce” but there are “certain things that are priceless. Among these are life, liberty and happiness, and these are things which the society of the future, the free society, will guarantee to all.” Anarchists, as a result, seek to make people aware of their dignity, individuality and liberty and to encourage the spirit of revolt, resistance and solidarity in those subject to authority. This gets us denounced by the powerful as being breakers of the peace, but anarchists consider the struggle for freedom as infinitely better than the peace of slavery. Anarchists, as a result of our ideals, “believe in peace at any price — except at the price of liberty. But this precious gift the wealth-producers already seem to have lost. Life ... they have; but what is life worth when it lacks those elements which make for enjoyment?” [Lucy Parsons, Liberty, Equality & Solidarity, p. 103, p. 131, p. 103 and p. 134]

So, in a nutshell, Anarchists seek a society in which people interact in ways which enhance the liberty of all rather than crush the liberty (and so potential) of the many for the benefit of a few. Anarchists do not want to give others power over themselves, the power to tell them what to do under the threat of punishment if they do not obey. Perhaps non-anarchists, rather than be puzzled why anarchists are anarchists, would be better off asking what it says about themselves that they feel this attitude needs any sort of explanation.


Freedom – Equality – Solidarity

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