Is Anarchism closer to Liberalism or to Socialism?

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Anarchism question2





Is Anarchism closer to Liberalism or to Socialism?


Within the overall ideology of anarchism there are important differences both between individualist and social anarchism and within these broad theoretical categories while some anarchist theorists such as William Godwin cannot be easily categorised at all. The similarities and differences between anarchism, liberalism and socialism may be analysed terms of the main inter-related core elements of each ideology: analyses of human nature, individual liberty, the state and the capitalist system.


Liberals, socialists and anarchists share the optimistic view that individuals are potentially rational and to a considerable extent the best judges of their own best interests. However in classical and neo-liberal ideologies individuals are seen as primarily egoistic and atomistic following their own narrow self-interest rather than attempting to recognise the broad interests of the community while the invisible hand of the market mechanism is assumed to ensure that the pursuit of self interest secures the economic interests of society as a whole. Contrastingly social liberals argued for a more communitarian form of rational self-interest and this is extended in socialist thought where individuals are seen as potentially rational but also potentially cooperative and community spirited once their apparent selfish competitiveness has been eroded via the reform or abolition of capitalism.


Anarchist attitudes to human nature vary very considerably. At one extreme Max Stirner argues that individual self-development demands that individuals follow their own narrow, egoistic self- interest as fully as possible recognising only the constraints that they face other powerful self-interested egoists attempting to do the same thing and thereby creating the potential for serious conflict. Anarcho-capitalists argue for the abolition of the state and for the organisation of the entire economy in accordance with the principles of laissez faire thereby implying a view of human nature similar to that of classical and neo-liberals. The individualist anarchists Warren and Tucker proposed economic arrangements involving the abolition of the profit motive but the continuation of some economic inequality to sustain economic incentives thereby suggesting attitudes to human nature intermediate between liberalism and moderate socialism.


The views of human nature of the social anarchists Bakunin [the collectivist anarchist] and Kropotkin [the anarcho- communists] overlap considerably with those of radical socialists. For them individual competitiveness is not inborn but the result of living in a competitive capitalist society; the communal ownership of the means of production will encourage community spirit; according to Kropotkin the allocation of goods and services according to need will not destroy incentives because individuals will be prepared to work for the good of the community while Bakunin, although he supports the allocation of goods and services according to work done rejects the massive economic inequalities which are inevitably generated in capitalist societies.


According to liberals because individuals are potentially rational they must be allowed the liberty to act in their own best interests except if they are likely to harm others. Minimum night watchman states are seen as necessary to guarantee the social order which is itself a pre-requisite for individual liberty  but individuals must also be free [in the negative sense] from excessive state interference. Classical and neo-liberals argue further that economic inequality is inevitable and desirable in a capitalist economy and that it is also indicative of the freedom of talented individuals to make the best of their talents.


However social liberals added the notion that the social welfare functions of the state should be extended to provide the positive freedoms for all individuals to develop their talents to the full. Socialists in turn have argued that far greater economic equality is necessary if all individuals are to enjoy liberty and that a much extended state will be essential if both equality and individual liberty are to be achieved although in the Marxist theory the state should wither away once pure communism has been achieved.


Anarchists support maximum possible levels of individual liberty and claim that states, far from protecting individual liberty via the safeguarding of the social order as liberals claim actually destroy the capacities of individuals to create their own social order. Neither can extended socialist states be relied upon to promote greater equality and thereby to promote greater liberty. In relation to the USSR the anarchists predicted that the statist version of socialism introduced by Lenin and the Bolsheviks would actually restrict individual liberty without significantly increasing economic equality and so it has turned out to be.


Assuming that the state is to be abolished there are also important disputes among anarchists as to what types of organisations should replace the state. For example the individualist anarchists Warren and Tucker argue for small scale communities of individual producers whose independence is protected by their ownership of their own means of production and where community regulations are strictly limited so as to maximise individual liberty. Against this the social anarchists Bakunin and Kropotkin argue for the communal ownership of the means of production and hope that individuals will come to experience higher levels of liberty in their decisions freely to cooperate with others. Here is illustrated the anarchist support for individual liberty combined with divisions within anarchism as to the actual nature of liberty and the best means of achieving it.


In arguing for the abolition for the state as a means of securing individual liberty anarchists are closer to the liberalistic acceptance of the minimum state than to the socialist theory of the extended state but once we have considered anarchist attitudes to capitalism we shall see that some social anarchists still define themselves as socialists despite their desire to abolish the state.


Both classical and neo-liberals are strong supporters of laissez faire combined with a limited night-watchman state to secure the social order. Liberal support for laissez faire was under-pinned by the economic theories outlined by Adam Smith in his study “The Wealth of Nations” [1776] in which he argued that the competitive capitalist economy based upon private profit and individual self-interest could via the so-called “invisible hand” of the market mechanism secure the best possible living standards for all members of society. The economic inequalities produced by capitalism are justified since they provide the incentives necessary to promote economic growth and are not seen as restricting either individual liberty or equality of opportunity.


These arguments are rejected totally by radical socialists for whom unregulated free market capitalism results in a serious misallocation of resources because it is based on production for profit rather than production for need. Furthermore capitalism is seen as unjust, exploitative and dehumanizing and its inevitable economic inequality and poverty completely obliterate any possibility of individual liberty and equality of opportunity.


Once again anarchist attitudes to capitalism vary considerably. At one end of the anarchist spectrum anarcho-capitalists sympathise with the free market liberal defence of laissez faire and wish even to extend laissez faire principles into the production of services such as legal institutions, the police and the military which are currently produced by the state. At the other extreme social anarchists such as Bakunin and especially Kropotkin would accept in its entirety the radical socialist critique of free market capitalism without of course accepting the socialist remedy of extended state activity.  The individualist anarchists Warren and Tucker and the mutualist social anarchist Proudhon might be seen as located at intermediate positions on this political spectrum.


In summary it might be argued that anarcho-capitalists in their support for free market principles and the abolition of the state are far closer to liberals who in the interests of both economic efficiency and liberty support free market principles combined with a limited state than to socialists who are critical of the unregulated capitalist free market and support substantial and possibly total government control of the economy. By contrast although the desired abolition of the state by the social anarchists Bakunin and Kropotkin [and by Godwin] links them to some extent with the liberal support for the limited state, their rejection of free market capitalism combined with their beliefs that true liberty can be achieved only in communally based equal societies identifies them not with liberalism but with a radical but stateless and libertarian form of socialism..


The individualist anarchists Warren and Tucker and the mutualist social anarchist Proudhon occupy intermediate positions between liberalism and socialism. Their support for limited amounts of private property and limited inequality as well as their fears that communal living could undermine individual liberty links them to liberalism whereas their rejection of the profit motive and of extreme inequality helps to explain David Miller’s description of Warren and Tucker as “market socialists” while Ian Adams has pointed to the intermediate position occupied by Proudhon as follows,” “Proudhon’s ideal world was a world of small independent producers- peasant farmers and craftsmen who associated and made contracts with each other freely for their mutual benefit and for whom a centralised coercive state was an unnecessary evil. We can certainly see elements of socialism in Proudhon’s rejection of large inequalities of wealth and income and of the profit motive but in his rejection of the central state and his support for self-governing communities, individual ownership of possessions and acceptance of a measure of economic inequality we can also see important links to liberal ideology.


It is perhaps fair to say that the contemporary anarchist movement is influenced more strongly nowadays by social anarchists who in their support for the anti-globalisation and anti-capitalist movements are also rejecting the economic principles of neo-liberalism. Yet in their belief that social and economic equality and individual liberty can only be achieved via the abolition of the state the influence of liberalism is still apparent. Meanwhile so-called life style anarchists may be focusing on exercising their own personal liberties in small non-hierarchical, non-authoritarian groups and in their own personal lifestyle choices. This is not to say that individuals cannot be both life style and social anarchists.