Anarchists and Equality

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Anarchists and Equality


In order to analyse anarchist attitudes to equality we must distinguish between the ideas of equality of respect, economic equality of outcome, equality of opportunity and political equality. Supporters of all ideologies other than Fascism argue in favour of the view that all individuals are worthy of equal respect but there are variations both among other ideologies in their treatment of economic equality of outcome, equality of opportunity and political equality.


Within anarchism it is usual to distinguish between individualist anarchists [Godwin, Stirner, Warren, Tucker and the anarcho-capitalists] and social anarchists [Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin]. What distinguishes these broad groupings is that individualists fear that all forms of social organisation have the capacity to undermine individual autonomy and believe therefore that in any future anarchist society social rules must be kept to a minimum while social anarchists although they recognise the tension between individual autonomy and social existence are more optimistic that individuals will use their private judgement in the interests of the community so that community living can be organised so as to protect individual liberty. However as we shall see attitudes to economic equality of outcome and private property vary as among different anarchists and they also cut across the broad distinction between individual anarchism and social anarchism.


Anarchists and Economic Equality of Outcome


It is the individualist anarchist Godwin and the social anarchists Kropotkin and Bakunin who show the greatest commitment to economic equality of outcome. They argue that the abolition of the state will help individuals to develop their individuality to the full but that individual self –development for all also demands a high level of economic equality of outcome since only then will all individuals have access to the resources necessary to develop their individuality and hence their individual liberty.


This leads Kropotkin and Bakunin to argue in favour of the collective ownership of the means of production and for the distribution of goods and services in accordance with individual need [Kropotkin’s anarcho-communism or in accordance with work done [Bakunin’s collectivism]. These writers have therefore accepted arguments that a high level of economic equality is necessary for the achievement of positive liberty, negative liberty having been achieved via the abolition of the state.


Godwin’s overall stance is certainly individualist but his economic beliefs that the output of goods and services should be allocated according to individual need demonstrates his commitment to economic equality of outcome and in this respect places him close to the anarcho-communism of Bakunin.


The French anarchist Pierre Joseph Proudhon famously argued that “All property is theft” implying that the accumulation of property could derive only from the exploitation of the work force but he then went on to draw an important distinction between property and possessions. For Proudhon massive inequalities in the ownership of property could not be justified but, at the same time, it was desirable that individual workers should own a limited amount of land and working implements since this would provide them with a measure of independence and liberty which would not be available if all land and work implements were under common ownership.


Proudhon further believed that goods and services could be exchanged on the basis of their costs [primarily their labour costs] excluding any profit which therefore removed the possibility of the exploitation of labour although he also believed that some economic inequality was justified as a means of rewarding the more industrious workers. He therefore argued in support of a system of “Mutualism” which Heywood describes as “a cooperative productive system geared toward need rather than profit and organised within self-governing communities”.


Further useful information on Proudhon is provided by Ian Adams [Political Ideology Today 2002] who states that “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.”  Let us thank Ian Adams for that: we may note also that this implies also that Proudhon might be seen as an anarchist theorist who to some extent appears as a bridge between individualist and social anarchism.


The  American individualist anarchists  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 .We can see that  in their rejection of the profit motive and the exploitation of labour  that warren and Tucker had some commitment to economic equality of outcome.


However 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.


It might be argued that supporters of anarcho-capitalism such as Murray Rothbard and David Friedman are the anarchists which are closest to supporting an extreme version of free market liberalism. Thus whereas  classical liberals traditionally argued in support of laissez faire combined with a limited state which was necessary to provide courts, police and prisons to promote internal order and to provide armies for defence against aggressors  and neo-liberals  argue for the extension of free market liberal principles  to areas such as the provision of health, housing , education, and social security, anarcho-capitalists argue for the total abolition of the state and for the provision of all goods and services  including even legal services, the police, and the armed forces via the market mechanism in which  the profit motive would be retained and economic inequality would continue since anarcho-capitalists defend its importance as an incentive to encourage work, saving and investment.


According to anarcho-capitalists all government services are 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.” In a more competitive privately organised system services would be far better the anarcho-capitalists claim and so all would gain if the state were abolished in its entirety.


In summary anarcho-capitalists are therefore strong supporters of the abolition of the state and of the extension of private enterprise based upon the profit motive, atomistic sef-interest and economic inequality and it can be argued that it is this variant of anarchist theorising which comes closest to the acceptance of an extreme version of free market liberalism although it could also be argued that in its support for the actual abolition of the state it also departs from an important element of free market liberal ideology in which the state does have an important role to play.[We may note also that anarcho-capitalism is subject to the entire range of socialist criticisms of capitalism so that many socialist-supporting anarchists actually deny that anarcho-capitalism is a form of anarchism at all…  a view which anarcho-capitalists would themselves reject.] .


Anarchists and Political Equality


For Godwin the combination of the abolition of the state, the introduction of small scale communal living and the allocation of the output of goods and services according to need would combine to provide for individual liberty, economic equality of outcome and equal opportunities including equal opportunities for political participation.


Some communal decision making bodies would initially be necessary and Godwin hoped that they would come to their decisions of the basis of discussions in which all citizens could participate fully and also that such decisions would be arrived at on the basis of a rational consensus rather than on the basis of majority voting which Godwin opposed as an infringement of individual liberty. He did recognise that some individuals might reject decisions reached by a consensus of the vast majority but hoped that they could be encouraged by friendly persuasion to accept the consensus in a way that did not threaten their individuality. He hoped also that since individuals were to favour their private judgement based upon a highly developed social conscience that communal decision making would be come decreasingly necessary. You might wish to argue that his view that all decisions could be taken via the rational arrival at a consensus is too optimistic and that in practice an illiberal tyranny of majority opinion would be unavoidable.


The overall views of Kropotkin and Bakunin in relation to political equality were not dissimilar to those of Kropotkin. Their views are less strongly individualist and so they believe that because people would be more community spirited in anarchist communities that tensions between the community and the individual could be managed  although Bakunin proposed penalties if individuals stepped too far out of line.


Thus Peter Marshall states “ Everyone shall work and everyone shall be educated” whether they like it or not and ….the pressure of public opinion should make “parasites” impossible but exceptional cases of idleness would be regarded as “ special maladies to be subjected to clinical treatment”. Such authoritarian statements open up a potential world of tyranny and oppression in Bakunin’s so-called free society.” We shall have more to say about Bakunin.


It was the recognition of the possible tensions between individual liberty and the demands of the community encouraged Proudhon, Warren and Tucker to support the individual ownership of limited amounts of private property and economic inequality which were to provide for individual independence in a way which they believed would not be possible under any scheme of collective ownership and extreme economic equality. Greater independence would mean that individual liberty was rarely restricted by the demands of the community but over a period of years it was possible that economic inequality could increase considerable under these systems.


How would anarcho-capitalists analyse the issue of political liberty? This can be discussed in class using the information on Anarcho-capitalism which has been provided earlier in these notes .


Conclusions and subsequent work.


This discussion of anarchism and equality will help us to begin to clarify relationships between anarchism and socialism. We can see the clearest overlap between anarchism and radical forms of socialism in the views of Kropotkin and Bakunin and in the specifically economic views of Godwin.

Proudhon, Warren and Tucker might be identified with more moderate forms of socialism given their rejection of the common ownership of the means of production.


However anarchists claiming to be socialists would describe themselves as libertarian socialists aiming for high levels of both economic equality and individual liberty. This leads them to aim for socialism without the state for in their view even if the state can promote greater economic equality it does so only via the destruction of liberty and the resultant creation of social disorder.


Anarcho-capitalists of course reject equality of outcome and socialism in all its forms.


And what about Max Stirner whom I have omitted? A little task for you.