A Brief History of Anarchism

The struggle for the common good has a long past.

Noam Chomsky January 9, 2014

An early 20th-century IWW poster depicts the plight of the working class.The industrial worker toils to hold up the edifices of capitalism, government and religion, which do nothing but crush her. (1911 IWW newspaper/WikiMedia Commons).

Humans are social beings, and the kind of crea­ture that a per­son becomes depends cru­cial­ly on the social, cul­tur­al and insti­tu­tion­al cir­cum­stances of his life.

This broad tendency in human development seeks to identify structures of hierarchy, authority and domination that constrain human development, and then subject them to a very reasonable challenge: Justify yourself.

We are there­fore led to inquire into the social arrange­ments that are con­ducive to peo­ple’s rights and wel­fare, and to ful­fill­ing their just aspi­ra­tions — in brief, the com­mon good.

For per­spec­tive I’d like to invoke what seem to me vir­tu­al tru­isms. They relate to an inter­est­ing cat­e­go­ry of eth­i­cal prin­ci­ples: those that are not only uni­ver­sal, in that they are vir­tu­al­ly always pro­fessed, but also dou­bly uni­ver­sal, in that at the same time they are almost uni­ver­sal­ly reject­ed in practice.

These range from very gen­er­al prin­ci­ples, such as the tru­ism that we should apply to our­selves the same stan­dards we do to oth­ers (if not harsh­er ones), to more spe­cif­ic doc­trines, such as a ded­i­ca­tion to pro­mot­ing democ­ra­cy and human rights, which is pro­claimed almost uni­ver­sal­ly, even by the worst mon­sters — though the actu­al record is grim, across the spectrum.

A good place to start is with John Stu­art Mil­l’s clas­sic On Lib­er­ty. Its epi­graph for­mu­lates The grand, lead­ing prin­ci­ple, towards which every argu­ment unfold­ed in these pages direct­ly con­verges: the absolute and essen­tial impor­tance of human devel­op­ment in its rich­est diversity.”

The words are quot­ed from Wil­helm von Hum­boldt, a founder of clas­si­cal lib­er­al­ism. It fol­lows that insti­tu­tions that con­strain such devel­op­ment are ille­git­i­mate, unless they can some­how jus­ti­fy themselves.

Con­cern for the com­mon good should impel us to find ways to cul­ti­vate human devel­op­ment in its rich­est diversity.

Adam Smith, anoth­er Enlight­en­ment thinker with sim­i­lar views, felt that it should­n’t be too dif­fi­cult to insti­tute humane poli­cies. In his The­o­ry of Moral Sen­ti­ments he observed that, How self­ish so ever man may be sup­posed, there are evi­dent­ly some prin­ci­ples in his nature, which inter­est him in the for­tune of oth­ers, and ren­der their hap­pi­ness nec­es­sary to him, though he derives noth­ing from it except the plea­sure of see­ing it.”

Smith acknowl­edges the pow­er of what he calls the vile max­im of the mas­ters of mankind”: All for our­selves, and noth­ing for oth­er peo­ple.” But the more benign orig­i­nal pas­sions of human nature” might com­pen­sate for that pathology.

Clas­si­cal lib­er­al­ism ship­wrecked on the shoals of cap­i­tal­ism, but its human­is­tic com­mit­ments and aspi­ra­tions did­n’t die. Rudolf Rock­er, a 20th-cen­tu­ry anar­chist thinker and activist, reit­er­at­ed sim­i­lar ideas.

Rock­er described what he calls a def­i­nite trend in the his­toric devel­op­ment of mankind” that strives for the free unhin­dered unfold­ing of all the indi­vid­ual and social forces in life.”

Rock­er was out­lin­ing an anar­chist tra­di­tion cul­mi­nat­ing in anar­cho-syn­di­cal­ism — in Euro­pean terms, a vari­ety of lib­er­tar­i­an socialism.”

This brand of social­ism, he held, does­n’t depict a fixed, self-enclosed social sys­tem” with a def­i­nite answer to all the mul­ti­far­i­ous ques­tions and prob­lems of human life, but rather a trend in human devel­op­ment that strives to attain Enlight­en­ment ideals.

So under­stood, anar­chism is part of a broad­er range of lib­er­tar­i­an social­ist thought and action that includes the prac­ti­cal achieve­ments of rev­o­lu­tion­ary Spain in 1936; reach­es fur­ther to work­er-owned enter­pris­es spread­ing today in the Amer­i­can rust belt, in north­ern Mex­i­co, in Egypt, and many oth­er coun­tries, most exten­sive­ly in the Basque coun­try in Spain; and encom­pass­es the many coop­er­a­tive move­ments around the world and a good part of fem­i­nist and civ­il and human rights initiatives.

This broad ten­den­cy in human devel­op­ment seeks to iden­ti­fy struc­tures of hier­ar­chy, author­i­ty and dom­i­na­tion that con­strain human devel­op­ment, and then sub­ject them to a very rea­son­able chal­lenge: Jus­ti­fy yourself.

If these struc­tures can’t meet that chal­lenge, they should be dis­man­tled — and, anar­chists believe, refash­ioned from below,” as com­men­ta­tor Nathan Schnei­der observes.

In part this sounds like tru­ism: Why should any­one defend ille­git­i­mate struc­tures and insti­tu­tions? But tru­isms at least have the mer­it of being true, which dis­tin­guish­es them from a good deal of polit­i­cal dis­course. And I think they pro­vide use­ful step­ping stones to find­ing the com­mon good.

For Rock­er, the prob­lem that is set for our time is that of free­ing man from the curse of eco­nom­ic exploita­tion and polit­i­cal and social enslavement.”

It should be not­ed that the Amer­i­can brand of lib­er­tar­i­an­ism dif­fers sharply from the lib­er­tar­i­an tra­di­tion, accept­ing and indeed advo­cat­ing the sub­or­di­na­tion of work­ing peo­ple to the mas­ters of the econ­o­my, and the sub­jec­tion of every­one to the restric­tive dis­ci­pline and destruc­tive fea­tures of markets.

Anar­chism is, famous­ly, opposed to the state, while advo­cat­ing planned admin­is­tra­tion of things in the inter­est of the com­mu­ni­ty,” in Rock­er’s words; and beyond that, wide-rang­ing fed­er­a­tions of self-gov­ern­ing com­mu­ni­ties and workplaces.

Today, anar­chists ded­i­cat­ed to these goals often sup­port state pow­er to pro­tect peo­ple, soci­ety and the earth itself from the rav­ages of con­cen­trat­ed pri­vate cap­i­tal. That’s no con­tra­dic­tion. Peo­ple live and suf­fer and endure in the exist­ing soci­ety. Avail­able means should be used to safe­guard and ben­e­fit them, even if a long-term goal is to con­struct prefer­able alternatives.

In the Brazil­ian rur­al work­ers move­ment, they speak of widen­ing the floors of the cage” — the cage of exist­ing coer­cive insti­tu­tions that can be widened by pop­u­lar strug­gle — as has hap­pened effec­tive­ly over many years.

We can extend the image to think of the cage of state insti­tu­tions as a pro­tec­tion from the sav­age beasts roam­ing out­side: the preda­to­ry, state-sup­port­ed cap­i­tal­ist insti­tu­tions ded­i­cat­ed in prin­ci­ple to pri­vate gain, pow­er and dom­i­na­tion, with com­mu­ni­ty and peo­ple’s inter­est at most a foot­note, revered in rhetoric but dis­missed in prac­tice as a mat­ter of prin­ci­ple and even law.

Much of the most respect­ed work in aca­d­e­m­ic polit­i­cal sci­ence com­pares pub­lic atti­tudes and gov­ern­ment pol­i­cy. In Afflu­ence and Influ­ence: Eco­nom­ic Inequal­i­ty and Polit­i­cal Pow­er in Amer­i­ca,” the Prince­ton schol­ar Mar­tin Gilens reveals that the major­i­ty of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion is effec­tive­ly disenfranchised.

About 70 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, at the low­er end of the wealth/​income scale, has no influ­ence on pol­i­cy, Gilens con­cludes. Mov­ing up the scale, influ­ence slow­ly increas­es. At the very top are those who pret­ty much deter­mine pol­i­cy, by means that aren’t obscure. The result­ing sys­tem is not democ­ra­cy but plutocracy.

Or per­haps, a lit­tle more kind­ly, it’s what legal schol­ar Conor Gearty calls neo-democ­ra­cy,” a part­ner to neolib­er­al­ism – a sys­tem in which lib­er­ty is enjoyed by the few, and secu­ri­ty in its fullest sense is avail­able only to the elite, but with­in a sys­tem of more gen­er­al for­mal rights.

In con­trast, as Rock­er writes, a tru­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic sys­tem would achieve the char­ac­ter of an alliance of free groups of men and women based on coop­er­a­tive labor and a planned admin­is­tra­tion of things in the inter­est of the community.”

No one took the Amer­i­can philoso­pher John Dewey to be an anar­chist. But con­sid­er his ideas. He rec­og­nized that Pow­er today resides in con­trol of the means of pro­duc­tion, exchange, pub­lic­i­ty, trans­porta­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Who­ev­er owns them rules the life of the coun­try,” even if demo­c­ra­t­ic forms remain. Until those insti­tu­tions are in the hands of the pub­lic, pol­i­tics will remain the shad­ow cast on soci­ety by big busi­ness,” much as is seen today.

These ideas lead very nat­u­ral­ly to a vision of soci­ety based on work­ers’ con­trol of pro­duc­tive insti­tu­tions, as envi­sioned by 19th cen­tu­ry thinkers, notably Karl Marx but also — less famil­iar — John Stu­art Mill.

Mill wrote, The form of asso­ci­a­tion, how­ev­er, which if mankind con­tin­ue to improve, must be expect­ed to pre­dom­i­nate, is the asso­ci­a­tion of the labour­ers them­selves on terms of equal­i­ty, col­lec­tive­ly own­ing the cap­i­tal with which they car­ry on their oper­a­tions, and work­ing under man­agers elec­table and remov­able by themselves.”

The Found­ing Fathers of the Unit­ed States were well aware of the haz­ards of democ­ra­cy. In the Con­sti­tu­tion­al Con­ven­tion debates, the main framer, James Madi­son, warned of these hazards.

Nat­u­ral­ly tak­ing Eng­land as his mod­el, Madi­son observed that In Eng­land, at this day, if elec­tions were open to all class­es of peo­ple, the prop­er­ty of land­ed pro­pri­etors would be inse­cure. An agrar­i­an law would soon take place,” under­min­ing the right to property.

The basic prob­lem that Madi­son fore­saw in fram­ing a sys­tem which we wish to last for ages” was to ensure that the actu­al rulers will be the wealthy minor­i­ty so as to secure the rights of prop­er­ty agst. the dan­ger from an equal­i­ty & uni­ver­sal­i­ty of suf­frage, vest­ing com­pleat pow­er over prop­er­ty in hands with­out a share in it.”

Schol­ar­ship gen­er­al­ly agrees with the Brown Uni­ver­si­ty schol­ar Gor­don S. Wood’s assess­ment that The Con­sti­tu­tion was intrin­si­cal­ly an aris­to­crat­ic doc­u­ment designed to check the demo­c­ra­t­ic ten­den­cies of the period.”

Long before Madi­son, Artis­to­tle, in his Pol­i­tics, rec­og­nized the same prob­lem with democracy.

Review­ing a vari­ety of polit­i­cal sys­tems, Aris­to­tle con­clud­ed that this sys­tem was the best — or per­haps the least bad — form of gov­ern­ment. But he rec­og­nized a flaw: The great mass of the poor could use their vot­ing pow­er to take the prop­er­ty of the rich, which would be unfair.

Madi­son and Aris­to­tle arrived at oppo­site solu­tions: Aris­to­tle advised reduc­ing inequal­i­ty, by what we would regard as wel­fare state mea­sures. Madi­son felt that the answer was to reduce democracy.

In his last years, Thomas Jef­fer­son, the man who draft­ed the Unit­ed States’ Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence, cap­tured the essen­tial nature of the con­flict, which has far from end­ed. Jef­fer­son had seri­ous con­cerns about the qual­i­ty and fate of the demo­c­ra­t­ic exper­i­ment. He dis­tin­guished between aris­to­crats and democrats.”

The aris­to­crats are those who fear and dis­trust the peo­ple, and wish to draw all pow­ers from them into the hands of the high­er classes.”

The democ­rats, in con­trast, iden­ti­fy with the peo­ple, have con­fi­dence in them, cher­ish and con­sid­er them as the most hon­est and safe, although not the most wise depos­i­to­ry of the pub­lic interest.”

Today the suc­ces­sors to Jef­fer­son­’s aris­to­crats” might argue about who should play the guid­ing role: tech­no­crat­ic and pol­i­cy-ori­ent­ed intel­lec­tu­als, or bankers and cor­po­rate executives.

It is this polit­i­cal guardian­ship that the gen­uine lib­er­tar­i­an tra­di­tion seeks to dis­man­tle and recon­struct from below, while also chang­ing indus­try, as Dewey put it, from a feu­dal­is­tic to a demo­c­ra­t­ic social order” based on work­ers’ con­trol, respect­ing the dig­ni­ty of the pro­duc­er as a gen­uine per­son, not a tool in the hands of others.

Like Karl Marx’s Old Mole — our old friend, our old mole, who knows so well how to work under­ground, then sud­den­ly to emerge” — the lib­er­tar­i­an tra­di­tion is always bur­row­ing close to the sur­face, always ready to peek through, some­times in sur­pris­ing and unex­pect­ed ways, seek­ing to bring about what seems to me to be a rea­son­able approx­i­ma­tion to the com­mon good.

Noam Chom­sky is Insti­tute Pro­fes­sor and Pro­fes­sor of Lin­guis­tics (Emer­i­tus) at the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy, and the author of dozens of books on U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy. His most recent book is Who Rules the World? from Met­ro­pol­i­tan Books.
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