Saturday, December 29, 2018

The Anarchists

I lack their smiles and their diamonds; I lack their happiness and love
I envy them for all those things, I never got my fair share of

What I know, I’ve never shown; what I feel, I’ve always known
I plan my vengeance on my own – and I was always alone

-        Rush, The Anarchist

Yeah, yeah, I know.  This isn’t what you mean by anarchism.  Well, who says that you get to define the term?

…anarchy, as it is conceived by those who have thought and written about it seriously, isn’t the absence order just as such but the absence of a certain kind of order, order produced by a top-down command and control structure, typically, but not exclusively, state government.

Anarchism is predominantly understood as a left-wing doctrine, as it is against some or all traditional hierarchies.  Not surprisingly, many of the anarchist thinkers had strong leftist leanings.  I have covered this connection to left-libertarian thinking in the past.

It is also commonly believed that anarchism and capitalism cannot go together – due to the view that capitalism requires a state, or something approaching it.  Murray Rothbard, of course, has challenged this notion, as have others who have followed him to include Walter Block; Rothbard will not be covered here, but in a later section of the book. 

Casey introduces several anarchist thinkers over the course of three chapters.  I will cover each of these briefly. This post is a little long, but I felt it best to cover these thinkers as a group.

The Anarchist Prophets

William Godwin (1756 – 1836)

Godwin offers that education and a total faith in the power reason are sufficient to rid mankind of force and hence rid mankind of any need of government.  His ethics are universalist.  Not limited to family or close acquaintances, if anyone applies to him for relief, he is obligated to provide it: “It is my duty to grant it, and I commit a breach of duty in refusing.”  And how much is he bound to do?  “Everything in my power.”  This will tell you all you need to know about Godwin’s views on property.

Where is his anarchism?  Government is a source of evil.  People should come together only voluntarily and if they believe it will be to their mutual advantage; this would occur, and governance will be best served, in small communes – parishes as Godwin calls them.  Force can be used only to repel aggression; it is not to be used for punishment.  Instead, given these small communities, social pressure will suffice.

Max Stirner (1806 – 1856)

Where Godwin placed his faith in the power of reason, Stirner “violently and passionately rejects reason and all its works and pomps.”  He denies natural law, any idea of common humanity, anything that stands in the way of the atomistic individual.  Each ego a law unto himself: no rights, no duties, no immutable moral laws.  He rejects all absolutes; he rejects not only the state, but all hierarchies.

He demands no rights, so he respects no rights – what he can get by force is his, what he loses due to force is not.  He does not recognize any concept of property, therefore he does not see this use of force as theft.

The Classical Anarchists

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809 – 1865)

Casey describes him as one of the most important social and political thinkers of the nineteenth century; he was the first person to coin the term “anarchist.”  While he is well-known for his statement that property is theft, Casey suggests that Proudhon’s meaning behind this is somewhat nuanced.  Property is property only by use, not by title.  The theft occurs when someone uses property to exploit another’s labor without any effort on the property owner’s part.  In other words, the investor / capitalist / entrepreneur is using property to steal the value of the laborer’s labor. 

Proudhon offers a middle ground between communism and capitalism – the means of production are held in common by the workers, the ends belong to those who produced the goods.  Society would, therefore, organize in these self-governing producer units.  This he describes as mutualism.

Man’s individuality should not be submerged in any social entity – not even in family.  Yet he is not atomistic as is Godwin; he does see man as social, with society providing the matrix within which man can develop his freedom.

He advocates for decentralization everywhere – in laws (replaced by contract and arbitration), in education (to be done by parents), in nation-states.

Mikhail Bakunin (1814 – 1876)

Casey describes him as perhaps the least original, but not least inspiring, anarchist thinker; even his greatest admirer would not describe him as a systematic thinker.  He put his trust in the spirit which destroys, as the urge to destroy is also the creative urge.  He does not come out against all authority, as he respects the authority of genuine experts.

Bakunin would spend much time either running from prison or being held in prison due to both his writing and his actions – joining revolts and the like; he was considered criminal in his native Russia, in Germany, and in Austria.

Heavily influenced by Proudhon, Bakunin went further – though not completely – toward communism; groups of workers would constitute the fundamental social unit.  The individual was out.  He is contrasted with Marx: Bakunin was libertarian, a federalist, sought to destroy the state, and espoused worker control of the means of production; Marx was authoritarian, a centralist, sought to take over the state, and nationalization of the means of production.

His relationship with communists was…complicated, eventually expelled from the International due to his struggles with the Marxist wing: Bakunin advocated the elimination of the state, while the Marxists advocated taking over the state apparatus in order to bring their revolution to fruition.

Bakunin would ask: “If the proletariat is to be the ruling class, it may be asked, then, whom will it rule? …this minority [of rulers] the Marxists say, will consist of workers.  Yes, perhaps of former workers, who, as soon as they become rulers or representatives of the people will cease to be workers…”  They will then represent themselves.  “Anyone who doubts this is not at all familiar with human nature.”  Very wise, at least on this point.

Pyotr Kropotkin (1842 – 1921)

Where Bakunin was a man of action, Kropotkin was a thinker – although he also spent some time in prison.  After traveling west, he returned an anarchist.  His anarchism was one of mutual aid, as being freed from the state did not mean there would be a free society.  His freedom was a freedom from want – distribution was to be based on need.  It was communism, but communism without government or the state.  It was also communism without wages, money, or markets.


Anarcho-syndicalism is opposed to capitalism and the capitalist state; it sees organization in the form of trade unions.  The means of production within an industry would belong to the workers of that industry.

The Anglophone Anarchists

Josiah Warren (1798 – 1874)

Considered “both a genius and a crank of nearly the first order,” Warren was an extreme individualist.  This was something more than the individual as sovereign.

He holds that ultimately only individuals are real. …Warren’s individualism is radical and extends not only to politics but also to metaphysics and epistemology.

His extremism is extended even to language.  Every piece of writing – constitutions and otherwise – can be understood only by individuals, and by each individual in his own way.  This is certainly a problem for laws, as laws can therefore be interpreted in many ways.  But it also limits all interactions to the most simple. 

Lysander Spooner (1808 – 1887)

Justice is negative for Spooner – don’t steal, rob, or interfere with another’s property; such obligations – derived from natural law – are easily known, even to children.  Vices are not to be considered crimes.  For these reasons, what need have we for legislated laws?  Such laws cause no obligation.  Positive obligations exist only depending on prior commitments.   Any obligations to relieve distress are moral obligations, therefore not subject to physical compulsion.

Spooner may be best known for his idea that government, if it is to exist at all, is only legitimate if granted authority by consent – and the consent is inherently limited to the actual individuals who gave it.  Who is the “We” in “We the people…”?  Such men bound themselves and no others.

Benjamin Tucker (1854 – 1939)

Tucker was one who had no reservation about describing himself as an anarchist.  He founded what he describes as the first anarchist newspaper in English, Liberty, described by Casey as the most important publication of its kind in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The paper’s editorial line was the rejection of authority – all authority, whether religion, politics, or public opinion. 

Tucker places no foundation on the idea natural rights.  The idea of prohibiting invasion is not based on a moral foundation, but social.  Tucker further solves any issues about the status of a child, noting that he has violated the property rights of the mother if he prevents her from throwing the child into a fire. 

Regarding property in land, Tucker viewed that only land that was occupied and used could be owned – and only for so long as it was occupied and used.  The concept of land for rent, or for other recreational uses was not possible.  He brushed off questions regarding the owner perhaps taking a vacation or some such as matters of administrative detail.

The English Individualists

Casey introduces Auberon Herbert, whose position Herbert describes as voluntaryism, an anti-state libertarianism.  No coercion in matters of social conduct, religion, education, or trade.  Private property and free trade are central to his concept.  Government’s only role is defense of property and person.

Casey finds Herbert to be the staunchest and least compromised of nineteenth century defenders of liberty.  Given what has been presented of the others in this survey, I would wholeheartedly agree.


My intent with this post was merely to provide an overview of these many anarchist thinkers in order to offer a glimpse of the wide-ranging views of this philosophy.  Living in the Age of Reason, as anarchists with little to bind them other than being opposed to some, most, or all forms of hierarchy, this should be no surprise. 

For the largest number, their views are, or at least approach, communist.  Private property in any meaningful sense (as described by a Rothbard or Block, for example) is defended by only a couple of these thinkers.

Most also reject intermediating institutions of any sort, most certainly religion (which, for these thinkers, meant Christianity) – leaving either the state or a void above each individual.  While this idea is of no concern to the communist-leaning anarchists, it is the death blow to any possibility of liberty for anarchists or libertarians of all stripes, in my opinion.


  1. Before reading your conclusion, my thought was "these guys are just a bunch of communists." There didn't seem to be any distinction between them of any substance. The differences of viewpoint disappear when you apply a little logic.

    Whether the workers collectives owned the means of production outside of the state or within a state is of no real meaning. If there is a system where all the means of production have to be owned by the workers, then there must be an organization to enforce it. Call it a posse, call it an international union, call Antifa, call it the State. All those ducks quack.

    Spooner and Herbert seem okay. I have read about their ideas in other locations too.

    Most disturbing thing to me is their rejection of Jesus Christ almost to a man. It is really one of the only differences I have with Mises. At least in my reading of Human Action so far, he rejects Jesus and Natural Law. But the one comes from the other so it makes sense.

    Your article helps explain why I have never been able to fully embrace anarchism even anarcho-capitalism.

  2. I’ve always wondered how the workers collectives deal with the future(or the past) meaning the moment when a worker decides he wants to leave the business, or the moment a young adult comes of age to join the workforce. How does ownership come into being or how is it abdicated? If there is value (profit/dividends) to pay to the workers, how does one buy into or sell out of this arrangement without devolving (is it really de-volving? I digress) immediately into capitalism and private ownership? if there isn’t, who regulates the controlled absence of profits?