Anarchism and Liberalism

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Anarchism and Liberalism


Click here for some more detailed information especially on the ideas of Henry Thoreau, Josiah Warren and Benjamin Tucker.


Liberals argue that because individuals are rational they should be free to manage their own affairs insofar as this is consistent with the liberty of others thus signifying that liberals distinguish clearly between liberty and licence. The individuals which liberals describe may be atomised individuals concerned solely with their own self-interest but there also within liberal ideology the possibility that these individuals might also increasingly concerned with the needs of their community as a whole rather than solely with their own self-interest. In both cases liberals see states as necessary to provide for the social order which is also seen as necessary if individuals are to be able to exercise their individual freedom to the fullest possible extent.


Liberals traditionally supported a limited state which would provide for social order without restricting individual liberty: i.e. they wished to protect the negative freedom of the individual from excessive state intervention. Liberals were also traditionally opposed to universal suffrage and to majority voting on the grounds that these would promote the tyranny of the majority which would reduce the individual liberty of the minority and especially perhaps the individual liberty of the wealthy and /or the individual liberty of those with more advanced, progressive opinions. However all major political parties in the UK have come to accept the basic framework of liberal democracy which does, however restrict the direct political participation of the citizens.


Classic liberals supported the limited  ”night watchman state” which was to guarantee social order while intervening to only a limited extent in economy and society thereby ensuring the negative freedom of the citizens and the operation of the economy according to the principles of laissez faire while by the late C19th so-called social liberals were arguing in support of a more interventionist state which would aim to reduce poverty and inequality to some extent thereby increasing the positive freedom of individuals to develop their capacities and take advantage of opportunities  more fully than would be possible under unregulated laissez faire. Social liberals hoped also to see the development of a more socially conscious individualism.


Both classic and social liberals tended to see the state as essentially neutral operating in the national interest or balancing the claims of competing pressure groups rather than as operating primarily in the interests of a dominant economic class as in Marxist theory and some variants of anarchist theory. That is liberals have accepted a theory of the state which by the 1950s had come to be known as the theory of democratic pluralism.


The Conservatives under Mrs Thatcher reasserted some of the beliefs of classic liberalism in the neo-liberalism associated with the New Right but the post-war Liberal and subsequently Liberal Democratic Party has broadly espoused social liberal principles although it, like the Labour Party, has been constrained to some extent by the still significant legacy of Thatcherism.


In order to analyse the differences and similarities between anarchism and liberalism I shall focus on the interrelated issues of individual freedom, the nature of the state and the organisation of the economy.


Anarchists and Individual Freedom


Anarchists oppose all forms of the state because they deny the liberal argument that the state is necessary in order to guarantee social order and thereby to protect individual liberty. Instead they argue that it is the state itself which is responsible for social disorder and that if states were abolished individuals would have even greater freedom to promote their own self-development and use their improved judgment to bring about social harmony and social order. Thus as the anarchist logo suggests, anarchy, [the absence of government], will result in maximum possible individual liberty and much more liberty than is on offer from liberals  which in turn will produce social order and harmony.


Liberals believe that individuals are rational and able to recognise their own self- interest and this is the main reason why liberals support high levels of individual freedom but constrained to some extent by the state. Liberal individualism especially in classical liberalism is taken to mean that individuals are rather atomistic and that they will act rationally in support of their own self-interest rather than in the interests of society as a whole although according to classical liberals the operation of laissez faire will result in maximum possible economic efficiency which means that self- interest turns out to be in accordance with the interests of society as a whole. Later liberals have espoused a more developmental kind of individualism where individuals are assumed to take more account of the interests of society as a whole as well as their own self- interest.


Anarchists also believe in high levels of individual rationality and in even higher levels of individual liberty than liberals because they deny the validity of liberal theories of the state. In order to analyse anarchist individualism the broad distinction between individualist anarchism and social anarchism is useful in emphasising the point that individualist anarchists fear that communal living will undermine individual freedom while social anarchists believe that the possible constraints of communal living can be overcome . Anarchist individualism may, therefore, take several forms.


In Stirner’s individualist theory individuals should act as egoists self-consciously pursuing their own individual interests irrespective of community needs but recognising that they may be confronted by other powerful self-interested egoists which may encourage all to moderate their behaviour for fear of encouraging opposition from other egoists. In the individualist theories of Warren and Tucker [and to a large extent of Proudhon who is usually described as a social anarchist but also has individualist tendencies]  individuals may own limited amounts of private property as a means of safeguarding their independence and although profits are abolished limited economic inequality is also justified as a means of providing incentives. Community rules are kept to a minimum but it is hoped that in pursuing their own self-interest individuals will also indirectly serve the interests of the community.


In the theories of the individualist anarchist Godwin and the social anarchists Bakunin and Kropotkin life is to be organised in small scale communes allowing for maximum possible individual liberty but in exercising their individual liberty individuals are assumed to give full consideration to the needs of their community: that is they are assumed to decide freely to act in accordance with the needs of their community. Note that although Godwin is described as an individualist anarchist his views are complex…they can be discussed in more detail in class.


In summary there are differences both within liberalism and anarchism and between anarchism and liberalism as to the precise nature of individualism. In particular the views of individualism of Godwin, Bakunin and Kropotkin are significantly different from the self- interested individualism of classical laissez- faire liberals.


Anarchist Criticisms of the State


Anarchists suggest several reasons why states promote social disorder.


  • Liberal democratic states, like all states, interfere with individual freedom which is essential to promote human self-development and social order.
  • This general point refers to that even limited liberal “night watchman” states and social liberal states which both restrict individual freedom and undermine opportunities for personal self-development through the use of individual judgement.
  • 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
  • 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 are based on universal suffrage 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.”
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Whereas modern liberals see liberal democratic states as essentially neutral, 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. This point may apply to liberal democratic states as much as other types of state.
  • Liberals have recognised the dangers of the tyranny of the majority but have nevertheless been prepared to work within liberal democratic parliaments based upon majority voting. Anarchists argue in favour of participatory democracy rather than representative democracy and for consensus based decision-making rather than majority voting.
  • 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 showing similarities with but going beyond classical liberalism. That is whereas classical liberals require laissez fire and a minimal state anarcho-capitalists require laissez faire and no state at all.
  • Conservative and non –anarchist socialist defences of the state are also invalid.


Anarchists, Liberty, the State and Human Nature


As a result of the above criticisms anarchists reject both the classic liberal state and the social liberal state and argue instead in favour of stateless societies. These stateless societies can result in social order and social harmony according to anarchists partly because most [but not all] anarchists have a very optimistic view of human nature. This is true particularly of the individualist anarchist Godwin and the social anarchists Kropotkin and Bakunin, all of whom argue that individuals have the capacity for good and evil but that their potential altruism can develop best in small-scale, relatively economically equal, commune based societies using participatory consensus-based decision making in which minority interests are protected. Proudhon, Warren and Tucker, although they argue in favour of limited property ownership and a measure of economic inequality nevertheless also have a relatively optimistic view of human nature although we cannot describe anarcho-capitalist and Stirnerite views of human nature as particularly optimistic.


In the classical liberal view of human nature individuals are seen as rational but motivated by self- interest and particularly by financial self-interest in economic affairs while social liberals may adopt a more “developmental” view of individualism. Contrastingly most anarchist views of human nature and particularly those of Godwin, Kropotkin and Bakunin are more optimistic than liberal views and these different views of human nature also help to explain differences between liberals and anarchists as to the ideal organisation of economic systems.


Liberals, Anarchists, and the Economy.


Classic liberals argue in support of economic laissez faire combined with a limited night watchman state claiming that laissez faire promotes both economic liberty and maximum possible economic efficiency. They recognise that laissez `faire will result in economic inequality of outcome but see this as natural, inevitable and desirable in a free society and they claim also that even in an economically unequal society equality of opportunity and meritocracy can still be achieved which in line with their view of social justice.


Social liberals also accept laissez faire to a considerable extent but argue that it should be regulated by government and that welfare state provision should be increased in order to promote the positive freedom for individuals to develop their talents to the full although social liberals still recognise what they see as the need for economic inequality of outcome.


It is the individualist anarchist Godwin and the social anarchists Kropotkin and Bakunin who reject most strongly both unregulated and regulated laissez faire arguing that the liberal goal of individual liberty can be achieved only if societies are based on a high degree 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 to the full.


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 and in both respects they views depart very considerably from liberalism.


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.


We can see some limited similarity between the economic views of Proudhon, Warren and Tucker and the economic views associated with liberalism. 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.


The individualist anarchists Warren and Tucker both 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.


However Proudhon, Warren and Tucker parted company with economic liberalism in their desire to organise economic systems in which profit and the exploitation of labour would be abolished and good and services would be exchanged on the basis of their costs of production [primarily their labour costs] which obviously challenged the core principles of liberal laissez faire.


Proudhon 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” and in Political Ideology Today [2002]  Ian Adams  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.” It may be argued that his comments apply equally to the ideas of Warren and Tucker.


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. Their arguments are s that human beings are economically rational but also motivated by self-interest, that economic inequality of outcome is natural, inevitable and justifiable because the resultant financial incentives promote harder work, faster economic growth and rising living standards for al and that liberty can best be achieved via the abolition of the state.


Summary Conclusions.


  1. All liberals believe in individual rationality and individual freedom.
  2. Classic liberals argue that a limited night watchman state is necessary to safeguard social order and hence individual liberty. Individuals should be free from excessive state intervention =negative freedom. Social liberals argue for greater state intervention in order to promote individual freedom for self –development = positive freedom.
  3. All anarchists believe in individual rationality and individual freedom but many anarchists may define individual rationality to include concern for society as a whole rather than simply self-interested rationality.
  4. This relates to the more positive view of human nature accepted by many but not all anarchists.
  5. All anarchists believe that states undermine individual liberty and that individual liberty can be achieved only via the abolition of the state. They make many , many criticisms of the state
  6. Liberals argue that either unregulated or regulated laissez faire can protect economic freedom and promote high living standards for all. They are prepared to accept economic inequality but also support equality of opportunity.
  7. Godwin, Kropotkin and Bakunin call for the abolition of private property and much greater economic equality as a means of improving living standards for all and increasing individual liberty for all. They believe individual liberty is impossible in a grossly unequal society. Communally organised living, not state socialism is to promote economic equality and liberty. It would be fair to say that these theorists are closer to socialism [libertarian not state socialism] than to liberalism
  8. Proudhon, Warren and Tucker might be seen as combining elements of socialism and liberalism. How?
  9. What to say about anarcho-capitalism?
  10. What to say about Stirner?