An Analysis of Anarchism

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

An Analysis of Anarchism




Anarchism literally means “without rule” or “without government”. It has traditionally been associated with chaos, social disorder, destruction, violence and even terrorism. For example in the latter stages of the French Revolution the so-called Enrages who were critical of the Jacobin government for their failure to do more to help the poor and the disadvantaged were described by the government as “anarchists” in this pejorative sense and since then the word “anarchist” has often been used, particularly by moderates as a term of political abuse. However increasingly from the late C18th political theorists building on long standing political criticisms of authority developed an altogether more positive interpretation of the term anarchism.


The case for Anarchism has come to rest essentially on the idea that political arguments in support of political authority and particularly arguments in support of the state are flawed. In the anarchist view the state does not guarantee social order, nor protect individual liberty, nor create the economic conditions for the improvement of working class life as conservatives, liberals and non-anarchist socialists would argue: rather the state constrains the individual and creates social disorder. Conversely the anarchists claim it is only individual freedom and the abolition of the state which will result in real human self-development and social harmony.  To see this let us discuss the Anarchist logo.


We must recognise that although the ideology of Anarchism contains important core elements there are also major divergences within this ideology. Anarchists are committed to the cause of individual liberty. They believe that individuals are the best judges of their own best interests and that they should therefore possess the high degree of liberty necessary to enable them to think and act as they see fit. The exercise of individual liberty will result also in social order and social harmony whereas if individuals are constrained by other individuals and organisations and especially if they are constrained by the State the result will be social disorder and social disharmony.


All anarchists of all types are united in their opposition to authority and in particular to the authority of the State. Whereas Liberals, Conservatives and non-Anarchist Socialists advance various justifications for the existence of the State Anarchists argue that States destroy individual liberty and in doing so undermine social order and harmony. However there are also disputes within Anarchism surrounding the nature of human nature itself, the nature of individual liberty, the nature of the State, the nature of capitalism, the methods by which the transition to anarchist society is to be achieved and the desired characteristics of future anarchist societies.


We may to some extent analyse some of the controversies within Anarchism via the consideration of the broad distinction between individualist and social anarchism according to which Godwin, Stirner, Warren, Tucker and the anarcho-capitalists are usually described as individualist anarchists and Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin are usually described as social anarchists. It will be necessary to outline the possible differences between these two broad types of anarchism while at the same time recognising the limitations of this broad distinction. In this respect you may be interested in the following email communication from Peter Marshall…perhaps the major UK expert on Anarchism.



Anarchists and Human Nature


It is useful to begin our analysis of Anarchism with a consideration of anarchist views of human nature for such views help also to explain several other elements of anarchist thought. Although William Godwin is usually described as an individualist anarchist and Pierre Joseph Proudhon, Michael Bakunin, and Peter Kropotkin are described as social anarchists all of these writers provide a similar optimistic view of human nature. Thus they all argue that human beings are born with the capacity for selfish and altruistic behaviour but that societies can be organised so as to promote the development of altruistic behaviour. There is nothing inherently self-interested in human nature and Kropotkin indeed argues that it is social cooperation rather than competition which is likely to foster the survival of animal species and of human beings all of which leads him to oppose the social Darwinist ideas of liberals such as Herbert Spencer. Whereas Godwin and Kropotkin argued for the allocation of goods and services according to social need, both Proudhon and Bakunin supported a measure of inequality according to work done which perhaps hints at some differences their attitude to human nature.


The views of Godwin, Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin differ very substantially from those of the individualist Max Stirner who rejects all concepts such as equality and social justice as essentially meaningless and argues instead that individuals should vigorously develop their own individuality and pursue their own self-interest even when this individual self-interest runs counter to the interests of others all of which suggests that Stirner has a positive view of the human capacity for self-development but also that individuals have it in their nature to be extremely selfish. Notice that Godwin’s view of human nature is much closer to those of the social anarchists Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin than to the individualist Stirner.


Finally we may consider the views of American individualist anarchists such as Josiah Warren and Benjamin Tucker and of the anarcho-capitalists such as Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, Robert Nozick and David Friedman. Josiah Warren and Benjamin Tucker are described by David Miller [Anarchism 1984] as “ market socialists “in the sense that they envisaged and economic system in which prices were determined by their costs of production [mainly by their labour costs] with zero profit and hence zero exploitation of labour. This of itself would suggest an optimistic view of human nature but both Warren and Tucker feared that communal living could result in the denial of individuality and both also supported the ownership of a limited amount of property as a means of protecting individual independence and liberty while Tucker believed also in the value of economic competition and some economic inequality which would generate incentives and allow individuals to enjoy the benefits of their own hard work. Anarchism was “consistent Manchesterism”, he said which pointed to his support for a modified form of laissez faire which could result in some economic inequality. Anarcho-capitalists support an extreme version of neo-liberal ideology in which the state will be abolished and the entire economy is organised in accordance with the principles of unregulated laissez faire. This implies that human beings are able rationally to assess their own self- interest and that if they act in accordance with it the market mechanism will provide good living standards for all: individuals are self-interested but their self-interest results in the common good because of the efficiency of the market mechanism. More on laissez faire later.


We may argue that social anarchism is the most significant current within anarchism and that supporters of social anarchism do indeed have an optimistic view of human nature. However once we investigate other forms of anarchism we see more variation in anarchist attitudes to human nature.


Anarchists and Individual Liberty


Anarchist views of individual liberty derive partly from their views concerning human nature and partly from their views of the possible relationships between individual liberty and the social institutions with which individuals interact.


  • William Godwin, although he did not describe himself as an anarchist, certainly addressed many of he key issues subsequently analysed by later anarchists. [Peter Marshall calls him “the grandfather of anarchism.”] He may be described as an individualist anarchist in the sense that he feared that all forms of social organisation could in principle restrict individual freedom and thereby restrict the opportunities for individuals to develop their capacities for individual judgment. However he also distinguished between liberty and licence arguing that individuals, although born neither good nor bad, could in favourable anarchist circumstances learn to take independent decisions which would nevertheless be in the interests of their fellow human beings. Thus according to Peter Marshall “one of Godwin’s greatest strengths is the way in which he reconciles the claims of personal autonomy and the demands of social life.”
  • The views of Michael Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin are rather similar in that they to argue that a high degree of individual freedom can be reconciled with taking decisions in accordance with social justice and the needs of the community as a whole. They may be seen as closer to social anarchism than Godwin, however, because they had greater confidence that social communal living could be organised without the reduction in individual autonomy while Godwin was more sceptical of this. [see also Peter Marshall’s Email!]
  • Anarchist views surrounding individual liberty are related also to their views about private property. Whereas Godwin and Kropotkin supported allocation of goods and services according to need and Bakunin supported collective ownership but allocation of goods and services according to work done other anarchists have been more sympathetic to the ownership of private property. Proudhon famously stated that property is theft but he did in fact support individual ownership of limited amounts of land and working implements as a means of protecting workers’ individual freedom and in this respect his views are similar to the views of Warren and Tucker. Anarcho-capitalists also see ownership of private property as essential for the maintenance of individual freedom.
  • It would be fair to say that Max Stirner’s approach to individual freedom differs very significantly to that of other anarchists. Stirner mounts an extremely powerful critique of the state but also rejects concepts of equality and social justice as essentially meaningless and argues instead for a stateless society of individualist “egoists” following their own self- interest but recognising that they face other highly developed individual egoists well able to defend their own interests so that a state of social balance could prevail although his critics have argued that this is far from certain. If the egoist Hitler faced the egoist Stalin there could be trouble ahead…. but what would happen if Jeremy Paxman, Jose Mourinho, Madonna and Lady Thatcher met up? Do not refer to this hypothetical example in your examination!


  • We shall be considering the relationships between anarchism and other ideologies later in these notes but you might at this point consider how anarchist analyses of individual liberty differ from liberal analyses of individual liberty.


Anarchists and the State


According to Andrew Heywood, “the state can most simply be described as a political association that establishes sovereign jurisdiction within defined territorial borders and exercises authority through asset of permanent institutions". All anarchists oppose all forms of the State. They obviously reject dictatorships as tyrannical but they also reject liberal democratic states and the theories which seek to justify them and they are perhaps particularly critical of so-called state socialist states which according to anarchists have perverted the aims of anarchist libertarian socialism.

Anarchists criticise liberal democratic states on the following grounds.


  • Liberal democratic states, like all states, interfere with individual freedom which is essential to promote human self-development and social order.
  • Constitutional governments have evolved over several generations but there is no logical reason why members of the present generation should have their political freedoms restricted by the decisions of past generations. The liberal claim that limited states protect our freedom is a myth which helps to legitimise governments and hide the fact that they govern in their own interests and not in the interests of the citizens. Liberals such as John Locke argued in the C17th that states were necessary to maintain the social order without which individual liberty would be impossible but also that individuals should be free [in a negative sense] from excessive state intervention and that they also had the right to rebel against the state and to remove tyrannical governments. Anarchists reject such theories on the grounds that even limited liberal “night watchman” restrict individual freedom and undermine opportunities for personal self-development through the use of individual judgement.
  • C17th Century liberals were not especially committed to liberal democracy based upon universal suffrage but Anarchists are critical also of the liberal democratic state which is also seen as restricting individual freedoms in various ways such that as Pierre Joseph Proudhon expressed it, “Universal suffrage is the counter–revolution” or as we hear sometimes in everyday conversation, “Don’t vote: it only encourages them.” Anarchists criticise liberal democratic states on the following grounds.
  • Conservative and non-anarchist socialist arguments in support of the state are also invalid
  • We cannot rely on parliamentary representatives to govern in our interests since they will be corrupted quickly by their proximity to state power and in any case we can develop our individuality to the full only by participating personally in politics and relying on our own judgement, not by relying on the judgement of others.
  • Political parties cannot be trusted: they over-simplify issues and rely on misleading political slogans and demagoguery thereby misleading people and preventing them from thinking for themselves.
  • Even in a highly participatory democracy if decisions are taken on the basis of majority voting there are dangers involved in the possibility of the tyranny of the majority as some early liberal theorists also recognised. Decisions taken on the basis of majority voting are not necessarily correct decisions and anarchists argue that it is entirely justifiable for individuals to rely upon their own individual judgement and to disobey laws with which they disagree. [In anarchist societies to be discussed below it is hoped that communal decisions can be made on the basis of a social consensus constructed through rational discussion rather than on the basis of majority voting.]
  • Anarchists may also use arguments influenced by radical socialism [and possibly Marxism] to claim that even apparently democratically elected governments govern in the interests of the rich and powerful. Thus not only is our own freedom restricted when governments pass laws which we are forced either to obey or to risk punishment for non-compliance but these laws also defend the interests of the rich via the perpetuation of exploitation, economic inequality and poverty.
  • Exactly similar arguments apply to government taxation and spending: taxation takes away our freedom to spend our own money while the government spends money in accordance with the interests of the rich and /or in accordance with its own interests.
  • States are involved in economic competition with other states which may lead to wars in which citizens are misled by spurious appeals to nationalism into killing and maiming in the interests of the state.
  • Whereas social anarchists argue that the state is to be abolished partly because it is an instrument of capitalist oppression, anarcho-capitalists argue that the state is to be abolished because it inhibits the operation of laissez-faire capitalism which alone can protect individual freedom and generate rising living standards for all. In this respect anarcho-capitalism may be regarded as an extreme variant of neo-liberalism but its defence of economic inequality leads some social anarchists to deny that it is to be regarded as a form of anarchism. Again, more on anarcho-capitalism later.



Anarchism and Other Forms of Authority


Anarchists are likely to oppose other forms of authority as well as the authority of the state. Thus for example patriarchal family structures may inhibit individual freedom of women and children; schools may encourage an unthinking respect for authority among children which encourages them to accept monotonous and poorly paid work in later life without complaint; religion may encourage a fatalistic acceptance of economic inequality rather than a readiness to rebel against it and all forms of authority prevent individuals from developing their own individual judgement which alone can provide a basis for social harmony in anarchy.


As we shall see in more detail later the issue of authority does present some problems for anarchists.

  • Should they accept the authority of experts?
  • If they set up communes will it be necessary to choose representatives who, in some ways use their authority to undermine the individual freedom of the rest of the members?
  • Is there a danger that within anarchist communities the majority opinion will restrict the freedom of individuals opposed to the majority opinion?


These issues and more are considered in subsequent documents on Anarchism.




It is no simple matter to categorise anarchist thinkers. In this respect you may be interested in the following communication which I received from Peter Marshall [the author of a major study of Anarchism] in 2008. His book is comprehensive, interesting and essential reading for students requiring detailed information on all aspects of anarchism.


Dear Russell Haggar,

Good to hear from you. I think your problem defining Godwin's position comes
from the complexity of Godwin's thought and from the rather artificial
categories historians (including myself) use  to describe different
anarchist thinkers.

I think the value of Godwin's work - like Kropotkin's - is that he values
individuality without denying the social sphere. So is Godwin an
individualist or a social anarchist? I think he is both. He starts out from
an individual stance but recognizes the importance of society to bring out
the best in the individual.  His ethics of universal benevolence and his
economics of giving to the most needy both recognize the importance of
others.  At the same time, I would say that Bakunin  is a greater social
anarchist than Godwin and Kropotkin even greater.

I call Godwin the father of anarchism but in many ways he is the
grandfather. Proudhon a half century later was the first to call himself an
anarchist, a term which both Bakunin and Kropotkin took up.

I hope this helps.. I wouldn't get too bogged down in the classification of
the different anarchists. A great thinker transcends categories!

Are you preparing 'A'  level lessons on anarchism as part of an 'A' level in
politics or philosohy?  I'm pleased to know that young people are learning
about it in the sixth form as well as university.

By the way Harper Perennial have just brought out an updated  paperback
edition of Demanding the Impossible, with a new epilogue on recent

Best wishes,

Peter Marshall