Anarchism as Individualism

Anarchist graffiti

I have long suspected that anarchism, if thought out to its logical conclusions and reasoned out from its most fundamental roots, is inherently a negative conception of liberty in its most abstract form. Indeed, if the wild mix of anarchists today and yesterday all share one thing in common, it is their rejection of state coercion of the individual.

If we take a closer look at anarchism as an ideology, it has followed a careening trajectory. It originated (apart from some precursors) in the 1830s and 1840s as a form of unfettered egoism, a radical demand for personal autonomy. Initially it meant little more than unrelenting resistance to attempts by society and particularly the state to restrict individual liberty. Later it flirted with various social movements of the oppressed, embracing the collectivism of the archaic peasant village, then the syndicalism of craft and industrial workers, and later still it was heavily influenced by Marxism and associated itself with a libertarian form of communism. The commitment to various forms of collective social organization, I believe, was a response primarily to the spread of socialism among the working classes of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

But by the turn of the twenty-first century, in the wake of social and cultural homogenization that has been produced by modern corporate capitalism and the mass media, anarchism has come full circle and has returned to its old individualistic, autonomist origins. Let me emphasize that recent developments are not anomalous to anarchism. The “left liberalism” found all over the place in anarchism, as well as the unsavory, even outright reactionary ideas in Anarchy, Fifth Estate, and the like (these are the largest circulation anarchist periodicals in the US), are built into some of the most fundamental premises of anarchism—notably, the individualism that forms the conceptual building block of the whole skewed edifice.

History can provide ample examples of how some self-professed anarchists explicitly denounced mass social action as futile and alien to their private concerns. (1) Yet, I am not primarily taking issue with full-frontal individualists or even the often explicitly anti-social elements that somehow have always been accepted within the folds of anarchism. What I would like to get at is the essence of this contradictory “ideology” and the social consequences it yields; even the most “social” forms of anarchism have been defined by a foundational individualism. In fact, the ideas of social and economic reconstruction that have in the past been offered in the name of “anarchy” have invariably been drawn to a great extent from Marxism and other forms of socialism. The fact that anarchism came wrapped in socialist concepts has often prevented anarchists from appearing as what they are: egoists.

The Individualistic Core of Anarchism

As far as I can judge, anarchists basically seek a future of “voluntary agreements” between individuals. Insofar as anarchists have called for a communal society, they have meant a form of association that was necessary for the individual’s achievement of autonomy in a non-oppressive or “anti-authoritarian” manner. They share the belief that enforceable, structured or institutionalized relations within and between communes are evil, threatening their highly treasured individual autonomy.

Absolutely canonical for all anarchists—yes, including those who call themselves “anarcho-collectivist,” “anarcho-communist,” and “anarcho-syndicalist”—is the belief that the individual ego must be autonomous, and a free society must be one in which individual autonomy has free rein, unrestricted by laws and constitutions.

Throughout the writings of the canonical theorists militant assertions of individual liberty abound. Proudhon hardly requires much elucidation on this score—some of his most basic “social” ideas are built around entirely bourgeois concepts of individualism. Bakunin and Kropotkin, to be sure, criticized “Individualists” at great length, but my view is that their own ideas were themselves essentially individualistic, often overlaid with socialist ideas—and that the “collectivist” or “communist” overlay stood in utter contradiction to their individualistic foundations. I myself once used anarchism as a political label for my views, but further thought has forced me to conclude that anarchism is not a social theory at all but rather a personal psychology; it is not a political movement but a subculture.

Some of the ideas of classical anarchism will certainly be useful for a future libertarian radicalism. I have consistently invoked confederalism as one of anarchism’s contributions to social theory. But I have also pointed out that the confederalist element in historical anarchism, heavily influenced by Proudhon, is so loosely constructed, and so charged with a belief in autonomy, that any component of the confederation could withdraw at any time. The form of confederalism that anarchists have advanced—“a federation of autonomous communes”—recapitulates the same self-contradiction between individual and society: if a commune is completely autonomous, it cannot be part of a federation. Proudhon, for example, declared that he would divide and subdivide “power” until he reached its most elementary components. But in such a situation, nothing remains in the end but the individual, the purely self-sufficient ego, secure in his own way of life and sufficiency. Followed to its logical conclusion, Proudhon’s “federalism” would render organized society untenable because of assertions of communal and individual “liberties.”

If individuals must be free of constraint, anarchists have argued, so must the communes in a future society. (How communes could even exist when their members were all individually autonomous is an unresolved question.) Although Kropotkin called himself an anarcho-communist, he essentially agreed with Proudhon on his point: “the social revolution must be achieved by the liberation of the communes,” he wrote, “and ... it is the communes, absolutely independent, liberated from the tutelage of the state, that alone can give us the necessary setting for a revolution and the means of accomplishing it.” (2) To bolster this notion, Kropotkin also rejects majority rule: he’s against people “submitting themselves to the majority-rule, which always is a mediocrity-rule.” (3)

By the same logic, anarchists claim that the future society must be one bereft of laws and constitutions, because they necessarily restrict the sovereign autonomy of the individual. When Proudhon was a member of the French Chamber of Deputies, he once declared that he refused to vote for a particular constitution, not because he opposed the content of it, but simply because it was a constitution. I fail to see how any free society can be constituted rationally without a constitution—and for that matter, laws, ordinances, rules, and the like. This condemnation of all constitutions, laws, and institutions—claiming they are all equivalent to a state—as all “great” anarchist thinkers did and others today continually do, is to appeal to wanton chaos, indeed to a sociality that essentially depends on good instincts and, hopefully, education (to which Bakunin added custom and others, habit). Such thinking reveals not only the basic socio-biologism that underpins most anarchist theory (if one can use the word theory at all), but also the tendency of anarchists to refer back to primordial levels for their moral philosophy—genes, custom, habit, tradition, and the like.

The Essence of Anarchy

The tension between individualism and collectivism or communism would not exist if the interests of individuals could somehow be conceived to be the same as or at least compatible with the interests of the larger society. Bakunin and Kropotkin tried to do just that. Bakunin asserted that individual and social interests were indeed compatible, blaming the idea that individual and social interests did not always harmoniously converge on, variously, the state or the religious doctrine of original sin. Kropotkin went further, maintaining that individual morality was in the end identical to social morality: he gave a socio-biological basis to the instinct for mutual aid, saying that most creatures, from the simplest to the most complex, are driven by an urge to cooperate. This being the case, he believed, the individual—freed from the trammels of the state—would make choices in behavior and thinking that were in harmony with the needs of his or her society. Thus Kropotkin could write:

Humanity is trying now to free itself from the bonds of any government whatever, and to respond to its needs of organization by the free understanding between individuals pursuing the same common aims. ... Free agreement is becoming a substitute for law. And free cooperation a substitute for governmental guardianship. ... We already foresee a state of society where the liberty of the individual will be limited by no laws, no bonds—by nothing else but his own social habits and the necessity, which everyone feels, of finding cooperation, support, and sympathy among his neighbors. (4)

But this socio-biologically based cooperation rests, of course, on a fallacy. In fact, individuals have often placed their own personal interest above those of their community. Since Kropotkin, moreover, was always prone to highlight the steady advance of mutual aid in the world in which he lived, he would have had a hard time to explain the brutalities that occurred from 1914 onward, which opened one of the bloodiest periods in history. Alas, cooperation is not embedded in our genes. But it is on such genetically based cooperation that Kropotkin’s “anarcho-communism” rests; and when it collapses, so does the whole edifice. What remains, again, is the individual ego.

Martin A. Miller, a Kropotkin biographer, wrote that “Kropotkin argued for the full and complete liberty of the individual‚ as the ethical basis of anarchism. He stopped short of falling into the trap of having to accept egoism and extreme individualism only because he believed in the innate sociability and passivity of man, when allowed to be free without constraint from above.” (5) This belief too was mistaken. Lacking the linchpin that unites individualism and socialism, “anarcho-communism” and “anarcho-collectivism” become oxymoronic words, bereft of meaning.

Furthermore, anarchism, grounded in the egoistic individual, tends to reject anything about Western society with a flat “No!” and to demand its opposite instead, as if a libertarian society was simply the mere negation of bourgeois society. Radical as this posturing may seem at first, it implies the disbanding of society as such. Hence the fascination of so many anarchist writers with primitivism, their technophobic outlook, their aversion to regulation of any kind, and indeed their indifference to the realm of necessity, as though its compulsions—possibly including death itself—could be abolished.

In its world outlook, anarchism has consistently opposed dialectics and favored either positivism or mysticism instead. In the absence of any dialectical theory of history—unless one wants to believe that humanity is currently progressing toward mutual aid in the form of one sort of collective or other—anarchism hardly rises beyond a “vision.” Its most appropriate “philosophy,” in my view, is actually postmodernism, with its radical fragmentation of reality, its chaos, its vacuous spontaneity, and as Feyerabend put it, the notion that “anything goes.”

Anarchists have always shown little regard for the place of reason in history, and they have not cared for a serious appreciation of historical development with an endeavor to distinguish the preconditional in key social developments (where Marx often excelled) from the conditional. Here, I completely agree with Marx’s statement in the Eighteenth Brumaire that “men” make history but not under conditions of their own choosing.

Among anarchists, I find, such views are heinous. As Colin Ward puts it, “anarchy” is the wonderful society that, like soil, lies beneath the snow (of capitalism, the state, religion, and oppressive institutions generally); the snow only has to melt away, and then we will have our Wonderland. Kropotkin seems to have had no greater appreciation than other anarchist theorists for the mutual interaction between the legacy of domination and the legacy of freedom in history. Ward’s “snow” metaphor is moreover very much in tune with Bakunin’s continual reliance on an alleged instinct for revolution that lies latent in workers and peasants, and Kropotkin’s tendency to fall back on an instinct for mutual aid.

While I would argue that the rejection of any limitation on behavior is symptomatic of anarchism’s individualistic basis, the way anarchists are invoking “instinct” as an alternative social foundation not only makes a mockery of reason but also reduces us to a quasi-animalistic existence. The absence of any real historical sense—which makes anarchy possible anytime, even in the “affluent” societies of the Paleolithic and Neolithic—easily leads anarchists into primitivism and technophobia. Of course, the disregard for dialectical reason, indeed the antagonism toward it, fits in with the anti-rationalism that pervades much of anarchism; it is precisely the hypostatization of instinct, habit, and tradition, that leads anarchists into mysticism and anti-rationalism, and reinforces their proclivity for primitivism. (6)

Hence anarchism does not pay any attention to the “forms of freedom,” nor to the imperative material, technological, and cultural preconditions for a free and rational society. Few if any of the major anarchist theorists clearly faced the problem of such institutions, and certainly none of them today propose to deal with it. Dozens of questions and issues, ranging from philosophy to the interpretation of history, to the evaluation of politics, capitalism, organization, programs, and so on, simply remain beyond the purview of anarchism.

In my mind, these notions taken together form a complete fit, on a level more basic than the differences between one form of anarchism and another. That anarchism’s commitment to the ego outweighs its variously colored socialistic veneers is evident in its history. It is highly symptomatic that anarchists have been notoriously unable to develop beyond a small group level or to form organizations. Why not? we ask ourselves. What stands in the way, I assure you, is not the “communistic” dimension of anarchism—it is its foundational individualism.

Between 1917 and 1921, in Europe’s climactic revolutionary years, anarchism played no major role (although various syndicalists often temporarily thought of themselves as anarchists). In 1917, for example, Russian anarchism, much to its discredit, did not embrace syndicalism but yielded to the Moscow “house expropriators.”

What gave anarchism a semblance of a mass following was syndicalism, a form of libertarian socialism. It was syndicalists, not anarchists, who built the CNT, and hence the CNT is an example not of anarchism but of syndicalism. The anarchists formed a volatile but very small fraction within the CNT, consisting of small loosely structured affinity groups inside very highly structured trade unions that quarreled endlessly with the syndicalists. (7) The continuing demand of the anarchist grupistas, in the 1920s, was to reject the need for democratic decision-making and demand ever more decentralization within what was already a loose and unstable confederation—to the point where the individual group should be able to function on its own, autonomously, as it saw fit. Here the anarchists held true to the ideas of Proudhon and Kropotkin, quoted above. Throughout the 1930s the faístas were in endless conflicts with the cenetistas. Tragically, in 1933 the grupistas dragged the movement into the disastrous “cycle of insurrections” that contributed significantly to the outbreak of the civil war, for which the CNT–FAI was totally unprepared.

Anarchy or Libertarian Municipalism?

Apart from the syndicalists, many of whom were decidedly not anarchists, anarchism has shown little regard for institutions of direct democracy. In fact, the total identification of politics with the state leads anarchists to pit purely social actions and phenomena against the state, leading to incidents, “direct actions” such as “reclaiming the streets,” cooperatives, squats, and mere forms of merriment or theater that I can no longer take seriously as political work. Some of these actions are useful gymnastics or training on cooperation, but they exhibit no concern for or interest in power.

Libertarian municipalism, by contrast, is concerned with power—and who will have it. How can power be acquired and communally managed by the oppressed? In what libertarian institutions should it be collected? How does one move toward creating those institutions?

Popular assemblies, in my view, are the means by which direct democracy can be institutionalized. While anarchism has no politics, libertarian municipalism is intensely political. It is my hope that a libertarian municipalist program will resonate among responsible and thinking people who are concerned with where power will repose in a free and rational society.

Libertarian municipalism is not only the end—the political infrastructure for the future society—but the means; a rare confluence of means and ends that has not been worked out in either Marxism or anarchism. Hence it is a matter of vital importance that when we run candidates to municipal elections, in order to achieve popular assemblies and confederal structures, they are as a matter of civic and political responsibility obliged to take office, or else there is no point in advocating a libertarian municipalist program. Thus to run candidates who will not occupy seats on city councils or similar institutions is to turn libertarian municipalism into a theater or propaganda for other ends. It does not show any true concern for how power will be institutionalized; indeed it makes a mockery of the potentialities of the municipality for creating an empowered people’s assembly.

We are faced with a real dilemma. It is very difficult to govern or manage society from the “ground up” in an immensely populous and global world. I envision confederations within confederations, essentially structured around local, citywide, countywide, provincial, regional, and national confederal councils based on directly democratic procedures. The logic of anarchist thought and its endless demands for autonomy precludes that this vision can be realized within its framework. When Kropotkin and other anarchists extol “free agreements” they express a voluntarism by which individuals and communities not only confederate together but may withdraw from these confederations at will, making collective social and political life impossible. Popular assemblies, which would ultimately validate laws and constitutions, must operate with a deep sense of responsibility for one another by majority votes and within a framework that limits their right to walk out of a confederation without the consent of the majority of the entire confederation’s members.

We must work to make left libertarian thought relevant today, and focus on how we can remake society by serious libertarian organization. To this end, I suggest that we must work to create a democratic form of government, one that is libertarian and municipalist. I prefer the word government here to self-management or even self-government for several reasons, most importantly because concepts of self-management and self-government seem to me to contain the implication—reinforced by this business-oriented and narcissistic society—that social life is basically an agglomeration of autonomous egos, or “selves,” and that communal life can be reduced to them. Indeed, many anarchists often refer to “self-government” when describing their dismissal of any kind of obligations of any sort as authoritarian or coercive or worse, since they are demanding unrestricted rights for every “sovereign” individual without requiring of them any duties.

I have come to the conclusion that these concerns merely float on the surface of a deeply flawed view of social reality. We must therefore clearly distinguish between anarchy and my ideas of libertarian municipalism. After 40 exhausting years in the anarchist scene, I’ve been forced to conclude that “anarchism” is more symptomatic of the decadence that marks the present era than a force in opposition to it.

It is my desire, in the time that I have left, to get out of the anarchist “loop” (as this generation likes to put it) before it turns into a noose and strangles me. I’ve tried to rescue a social anarchism, with social ecology and libertarian municipalism, from the rest of anarchism; but the response to these efforts have led me to conclude that this has been a failure among anarchists. With a few notable exceptions, they simply don’t want these ideas—and that is that. I would like to put all the distance I can between this scene and myself. Yet I would also like to believe that we can develop a synthesis of the best in Marx’s writings and in the anarchist tradition—a communalism that will be meaningful and relevant to serious, responsible people in the years ahead. This is the project that is now dearest to my heart, not an attempt to rescue movements and traditions that have been outlived by history.



1. A striking example is found in Victor Serge’s quarrel with his French “pure” anarchist compatriots over the historical importance of the outbreak of revolution in Russia. In response to Serge’s excitement, these café anarchists or “Individualists,” as he chooses to call them, “mocked [Serge] with their store of cynical stock phrases: ‘Revolutions are useless. They will not change human nature. Afterwards reaction sets in and everything starts all over again. I’ve only got my own skin; I’m not marching for wars or revolutions, thank you.’” Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, translated and abridged by Peter Sedgewick (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), p. 53.

2. Peter Kropotkin, “The Commune,” in Words of a Rebel (Montréal: Black Rose Books, 1992), p. 81; emphasis added.

3. See Peter Kropotkin, “Anarchist Communism: Its Basis and Principles,” in R. Baldwin, ed., Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets (New York: Dover Press, 1970), pp. 51–2.

4. Peter Kropotkin, “Anarchist Communism,” p. 63; also Conquest of Bread, ed. P. Avrich (New York: New York University Press, 1972), pp. 66–7.

5. Martin A. Miller, “Introduction” to Peter Kropotkin’s Selected Writings on Anarchism and Revolution, ed. M.A. Miller (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1970), p. 31.

6. These basic assumptions can also go a long way in explaining why anarchism has been so fascinated by mystifications of the peasantry, bioregionalism, not to speak of deep ecology, Buddhism, Tolstoyism, Gandhi-ism, and the like.

7. It should be mentioned, though, that despite their basic differences, syndicalism has also been burdened by its expressly anti-intellectual stance, and it shares with authentic anarchism a disdain for rationalism and theory. Despite its commitment to mass organization and social transformation, syndicalism has no strategy for fundamental change beyond the general strike. Invaluable as general strikes may be in revolutionary situations, they do not have the essentially mystical capacity that syndicalists assigned to them, as the vast general strike initiated in Germany in 1921 during the Kapp Putsch demonstrated. Such failures are, in fact, evidence that militant direct actions in themselves are not equatable with revolutions nor even with profound social changes. For a critique of syndicalism, see my “The Ghost of Anarcho-Syndicalism,” in Anarchist Studies, vol. 1, no. 1 (Spring 1993).


Editorial Comment

Anarchism as Individualism was one of the essays prepared for Murray Bookchin's Free Cities: Communalism and the Left.