Anarchism and Human Nature

Russell Haggar

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Anarchism and Human Nature

Ideologies have been described as interrelated sets of ideas providing frameworks of analysis of existing societies and proposals for their continuance, reform or transformation. All such proposals depend for their validity on differing interpretations of human nature and so it should come as no surprise that there are strong ideological disputes as to the characteristics of human nature which, it must be recognised, can nevertheless not be resolved empirically. In this essay I shall mention briefly some broad controversies surrounding the possible characteristics of human nature and then describe a range of anarchist views of human nature.


Human beings differ in important respects: in terms of their gender, ethnicity, age, social class membership, physical and mental qualities and so on but when we refer to the concept of human nature we mean “the essential and immutable [i.e. unchangeable] character of all human beings.” Andrew Heywood has suggested that there are three major disputes about human nature. What is the relative importance of heredity and the environment in the determination of human behaviour? Are human beings primarily rational or are they to a considerable extent guided by irrational emotions and passions? And are they naturally competitive and motivated by narrow individual self-interest or primarily cooperative, altruistic and motivated by community spirit?


As will be indicated below there are important differences within anarchism as to the characteristics of human nature but it is often argued that some anarchists [most notably perhaps Godwin, Kropotkin and their supporters] have a very optimistic view as to the innate goodness and sociability which can nevertheless be corrupted in societies based around competitive capitalist institutions and/or dominant states. However it has then been further argued that these anarchists are therefore illogical because if human beings are innately good we cannot explain why competitive capitalist institutions and dominant states arose in the first place.

Nevertheless this difficulty can be resolved by recognising the importance of David Miller’s conclusions [In Anarchism {1984} ] that it is necessary to dispel “two common errors: One that all anarchists have the same beliefs about human nature: the other that these beliefs are excessively optimistic, in the sense that they present human beings in far too favourable a light.” The above apparent logical flaw can be removed if we accept, along with Peter Marshall, that “we have innate tendencies for both types of behaviour [i.e. goodness and badness]; it is our circumstances which encourage or check them.” I rely heavily on these general points in what follows.


There are considerable similarities [as well as some important differences] in the beliefs about human nature accepted by Godwin, Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin. All would agree that human nature contains elements of both self-interest and altruism; that it provides the potential for the development of rational thought; and that  the development of human nature itself is heavily influenced by environmental factors such that” while our present authoritarian and hierarchical society encourages egoism, competition and aggression, there is good reason to think that a free society without authority and coercion would encourage our benevolent and sympathetic tendencies.”[Peter Marshall].

Thus these anarchists would explain the development of the state and of capitalism in terms of the dominance of our potential for selfishness over our potential for altruism and claim that our selfishness would be reinforced in capitalist, state-dominated societies. Anarchist analyses of the state may be seen as providing further evidence of their realism as shown in their arguments that even the most idealistic persons will be corrupted once they take over the powers of the state. Here is suggested a view of human nature similar to the Liberal Lord Acton’s in his statement that , “All power corrupts but absolute power corrupts absolutely” and different from Leninist and social democratic theories of the state in which it is assumed that states can be used to the benefit of societies as a whole.


There are, however, significant differences between the theories of Godwin, Kropotkin, Bakunin and Proudhon surrounding the precise nature of the anarchist societies to be introduced which point also to some differences in their assumptions about human nature. Godwin and Kropotkin both argue for communal political organisation, communal control of the means of production and allocation of goods and services according to social need all of which imply  an optimistic [but not illogical] view that communal ownership, non-hierarchical, non –authoritarian communal living will activate the cooperative, altruistic side of human nature. The abolition of private property will remove the major cause of crime and individuals, perhaps with a little occasional rational persuasion, will come to freely accept the limited communal regulations as reflecting their own best interests.

However  Bakunin’s arguments in support of collectivism rather than anarcho- communism, for allocation of goods and services according to work done rather than according to social need and for the necessity of some enforcement of community regulations and Proudhon’s  arguments in support of mutualism for mutualism, the continued existence of limited amounts of private property and economic inequality each suggest that it may not be possible to eradicate the egoistical side of human nature as easily as Godwin and Kropotkin imply. The overall views of Warren and Tucker are similar in some respects to those of Proudhon and so may also be said to reflect a view of human nature in which self-interest will never be entirely absent but is still far less significant than is believed by enthusiastic supporters of the capitalist system.


The assumptions about human nature made by Max Stirner and by anarcho-capitalists such as Murray Rothbard differ significantly from those made by Godwin, Kropotkin, Bakunin, Proudhon, Warren and Tucker. .In his study “The Ego and His Own [1843] Stirner argues 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 in which all individuals exercise a high degree of individual freedom but recognise that their self interest demands that they must not infringe the liberty of others for fear of reprisals. Implicit in his theory are the notions that human nature is essentially competitive and self- interested and that the individual can develop fully only by following her/his self- interest to the maximum extent possible consistent with the existence of other powerful, self- interested individuals. Altruism, sociability and cooperativeness are not natural qualities and any attempts to apply them inhibit rather promote human self-development.


Anarcho-capitalists such as Murray Rothbard and David Friedman make assumptions about human nature which are very similar to those made by classical liberals and neo-liberals. Anarcho-capitalists believe that individuals are rational and therefore should be allowed the liberty to organise their own affairs subject to the proviso that they do not harm the interests of others. They see human beings as essentially self- interested but believe that the invisible hand of the laissez-faire market mechanism ensures that if individuals follow their own self-interest they nevertheless promote the economic interests of society as a whole.  Laissez faire promotes competition which increases economic efficiency and enables producers to respond flexibly and dynamically to changes in consumers’ tastes and preferences there by improving overall living standards.


Anarcho-capitalists argue that all goods and services currently produced by the state can be produced more effectively via the free market mechanism because in their view departments of state are all organised inefficiently mainly in the interests of the producers rather than the consumers of these services. Thus it is argued that professionals working in theses state services are reasonably well paid but that they do not necessarily provide a good service for their clients because they know that their clients have “nowhere else to go.” According to anarch0-capitalists services would be far better in a more competitive privately organised system and so all would gain if the state were abolished in its entirety. Not only that economic production should be based entirely on private enterprise and laissez faire but that social order also can best be achieved by privately organised courts, private security firms and private armies and that the state should involve itself far less in foreign affairs which would mean that the state armed forces could be replaced by much smaller private militia.


Anarcho-capitalists recognise that the combination of individual freedom and laissez- faire is certain to result in economic inequality of outcome. However they believe that individuals differ in their talents and abilities primarily for genetic reasons so that in anarcho-capitalist societies with no governments economic inequality is inevitable. This economic inequality is also desirable because it will provide the financial incentives necessary to generate economic growth, the advantages of which will also trickle down to the poor so that everyone gains from economic inequality of outcome. Anarcho-capitalists reject arguments that economic inequalities will restrict the liberties and opportunities of the poor claiming rather that the poor have more to gain in unequal societies which promote faster economic growth than from equal societies which stifle economic growth and result in a levelling down of living standards.


Thus anarcho-capitalists believe that human nature is such that individuals are rational, competitive and self-interested; that differences in talent and ability and in income and wealth are determined mainly by genetic rather than environmental factors; and that individuals can exercise their freedoms best in  competitive free market economies  which are  best able to promote higher living standards. These competitive market economies would be hierarchical, authoritarian and economically unequal but according to anarcho-capitalists they would be organised in accordance with human nature itself which they see as narrowly rational, self-interested, competitive and ready to accept the hierarchies which are fair because they are meritocratic in that they derive from mainly genetically determined differences in talent and ability. Of course the anarcho-capitalist view of human nature would certainly be rejected entirely by Godwin, Kropotkin and Bakunin and also to a considerable extent by Proudhon, Warren and Tucker and it should come as no surprise to discover that many anarchists deny that anarcho-capitalism is a form of anarchism at all.


It is clear that anarchist assumptions about human nature vary considerably. At one extreme Godwin and Kropotkin argue that human beings are potentially rational and that they have innate capacities for both good and bad behaviour which are heavily influenced by environmental factors leading Peter Marshall to argue that “while our present authoritarian and hierarchical society encourages egoism, competition and aggression, there is good reason to think that a free society without coercion would encourage our benevolent and sympathetic tendencies.” Such views are optimistic but not illogically so because they do recognise the negative side of human nature which helps to explain the formation and continued existence of competitive economies and authoritarian states which also represent an ongoing corrupting influence even for otherwise idealistic people.


Godwin and Kropotkin both believe that individuals would work hard, live harmoniously and freely accept some regulations in communally based societies where the means of production are communally owned and goods and services are allocated according to social need. However as we travel ideologically from Bakunin to Proudhon to Warren and Tucker we see that all of these theorists support limited levels of economic inequality; that Proudhon, Warren and Tucker also support the limited ownership of private property ; that Bakunin sees a need for enforced community regulations and that and Warren and Tucker  wish to minimise community regulation as a means of protecting individual freedom all of which implies for these theorists that human nature would continue to  show its self-interested side even in future anarchist societies.


Of course Max Stirner makes entirely different assumptions For him individuals are naturally self-interested and competitive and should seek to further their own self-interest and competitiveness as a means of developing their individuality to the full recognising only the limits to freedom which might arise as a result of the existence of other highly developed and self- interested egoists.

Anarcho-capitalist views also differ significantly from those of Godwin, Kropotkin and Bakunin and to a considerable extent from those of Proudhon, Warren and Tucker. They see no danger whatsoever that competitive but stateless market economies via their competitive, hierarchical and authoritarian structures will promoter individuals’ natural selfishness at the expense of their natural benevolence and solidarity. Instead they believe that it is self-interested competitiveness that promotes economic growth and economic growth which promotes liberty and opportunity. Their rejection of the state but nothing else would be accepted by the more radical social anarchists.


It is well to remember both that anarchist perspectives on human nature may be criticised from other ideological perspectives but that all perspectives on human nature are a matter of opinion: nobody knows what the actual characteristics of human nature really are.