Alan Ritter, Anarchism: A Theoretical Analysis (1980)



Efforts to ascribe a distinctive strategy to anarchists, though often made, cannot succeed, because their strategies are too diverse to have a common character. Claims that all anarchists are reckless terrorists, or saintly pacifists, or messianic 'primitive rebels' widely miss the mark.1 These descriptions do fit some anarchists, at some stages of their careers, but as applied to anarchist strategy in general they are inaccurate. Even the most cautious and plausible description of anarchist strategy -- as eschewing 'political action' -- does not fit all cases, not even all of those under study here.2 Proudhon put his trust in the thoroughly political Louis Napoleon. Bakunin, who relied, as a means to anarchy, on the elimination of inheritance, thought it might be legally abolished through 'a series of gradual changes, amicably agreed to by the workers and the bourgeoisie'.3

Impressed by the differences in anarchist strategy, some commentators, instead of ignoring them, make them the basis for classifying anarchism into types. 'In examining the basic forms of anarchism', writes Irving Horowitz, 'what is at stake is not so much alternative models of the good society as distinctive strategies for getting there.'4 He goes on to distinguish eight types of anarchism, each supposedly marked off by strategic differences. The inadequacy of his classification is easy to see. Most of its types, such as utilitarian, peasant and collectivist anarchism, are marked off from the others not by their strategy but by their method, aspiration, or source of support. Only two of the types mentioned -- conspiratorial and pacifist anarchism -- are strategically distinct. It is possible to come closer than Horowitz to classifying anarchists by their strategies, but this project is no more likely to succeed than that of proving that their strategies are all basically the same. Anarchist strategy is too diverse to be called unified, but its diversities cannot be used to classify it because they are too unsystematic.

The thesis guiding this study of the anarchists, that communal individuality is their chief goal, provides a point of vantage from which the character of their strategy can be more accurately perceived. Seen from this vantage, the anarchists' strategy has no importance for the unity and classification of their thought. These are determined by the similarities and differences in their ideals of communal individuality. Strategy, as the means to these ideals, is subordinate to them and to empirical judgments about how, in the face of great adversity, they may most efficiently be reached. For the anarchists, therefore, strategy, being an attempt to achieve communal individuality in a hostile world, poses this grave dilemma: to find a path to communal individuality that eschews the fraud and physical coercion which, though effective means of social action, communal individuality forbids. The anarchists we are studying do not give this dilemma the same response. This chapter follows them in their unavailing search for a solution.


No anarchist is more resolved than Godwin to use reasoned argument among independent thinkers as the means to reach communal individuality. His commitment to intelligent, sincere conversation as the essence of a good society enjoins him to rely on argument, for unless the aspirants for his kind of anarchy become forthright and rational as they build it, the society they create, having unreasonable, dishonest members, will not be anarchic. Yet though Godwin sees that reasoned argument must be his strategy, he doubts whether, to reach his radical and fiercely resisted goal, it has sufficient strength. His work on strategy attempts to meet this doubt by showing the ineffectiveness as means to anarchy of non-rational tactics, and the power of rationality to direct history's course. But misgivings remain, which prompt him to endorse methods for reaching anarchy that are less than rational. Faced by the dilemma that all anarchists confront, even the scrupulous Godwin compromises his moral commitment for some hope of success.

The strategy Godwin most despises is the one most inimical to reason: the strategy of using physical force. Force inspires attitudes as detrimental to the process of attaining anarchy as to its maintenance. The imposers of force 'become obdurate, unrelenting and inhuman'. Its victims 'are filled with indignation and revenge'. 'Distrust is propagated from man to man, and the dearest ties of human society are dissolved."5 Using force as a means to anarchy only puts it further beyond reach.

Godwin also opposes strategies more compatible with reason than force of which the most significant is organization. Organization, he thinks, 'has a more powerful tendency than perhaps any other circumstance in human affairs, to render the mind quiescent'.7 The members of an organization are strongly disposed to follow the opinions of their group. By doing so, they may serve their group's purpose, but they also lose their mental independence. This loss, while irrelevant for many purposes, is disastrous for that of reaching anarchy, since anarchy is a condition of utmost mental independence. Anarchists cannot organize, because organizing takes from their objective one of its essential traits.

In order to vindicate a strategy of reason, Godwin must do more than prove that as means to anarchy non-rational measures fail. He must show, against serious objections, that reasoned arguments are effective. Godwin believes that reasoned arguments are a sure means to anarchy, because of their great power to convince. So firmly can they convince people of anarchy's supreme worth that all will work unstintingly for its assured achievement. This belief faces metaethical, psychological and socio-political objections, to all of which Godwin has responses.

The weak point in Godwin's belief, so far as concerns meta-ethics, is its contention that evidence and reasons are logically sufficient to establish anarchy's supreme worth. Ascriptions of supreme worth, being ultimate evaluations, depend for their validity not only on undeniable evidence and reasons, but on contestable choices. Thus even if I accept the case for anarchy as being in agreement with facts and logic, I need not regard anarchy as of highest worth, for I may still consistently choose to set supreme value on something else.

To Godwin this objection has no weight, because in metaethics he is a cognitivist. Ultimate evaluations for him, far from involving choices, depend on nothing but facts. To establish values we examine the structure of the world and 'declare that which the nature of things has already decreed'.8 There is no room from this metaethical perspective to doubt the possibility of rationally assured agreement on ultimate worth. Everyone can be convinced to accept the same value as supreme, because its identity depends solely on facts that everyone can know. As an account of how ultimate value is identified, Godwin's metaethic is too unqualifiedly cognitivist to be acceptable. But even if it were acceptable, this would do little to vindicate his strategy, whose heavy reliance on reason also faces non-metaethical objections.

Godwin's strategy is suspect psychologically for giving the motive of rational conviction decisive weight. Knowledge is not compelling: one need not do what one knows is right. To answer this objection, Godwin shows the weakness of non-rational motives. The fact that people successfully resist their sensual or short-sighted impulses shows how 'slight and inadequate' they are. That these impulses can be 'conquered or restrained. . . by the due exercise of understanding', is proved daily by experience.9 Yet after doing his best to show the psychological force of reason, Godwin still doubts it can always prevail. An adverse piece of evidence that must be faced is that of people who fail to follow their convictions. To save his psychology from being dismissed as empirically unfounded, Godwin makes this claim: If I fail to do an action which I believe is right, my failure proves that my belief lacks a rational foundation. 'When the understanding clearly perceives rectitude, propriety and eligibility to belong to a certain conduct,.. .that conduct will infallibly be adopted.'10 Hence what is shown by my failure to do something I believe right is not that my inclinations overpower my convictions, but either that my convictions do not enjoin the act, or else that they counsel against doing it.

This claim has the untenable implication that anyone who says he fails to follow his convictions mistakes their meaning or their source. Certainly, we sometimes make mistakes on these matters, but to say we always do is implausible. Some people have settled, systematically backed convictions, on which they usually act. It is more credible to believe such persons when they report failing to follow their convictions than to charge them with misunderstanding what their convictions say. And since belief in failure to follow rationally held convictions often is well founded, Godwin's claim that such convictions always determine conduct fails.

The final objection to Godwin's strategic use of reason points to his own analysis of how corrupt and hampering institutions 'poison our minds, before we can resist, or so much as suspect their malignity'. The 'disparity of ranks' in all existing societies inspires 'coldness, irresoluteness, timidity and caution'.11 The impersonality and coerciveness of existing legal governments make subjects devious, servile and unthinking. How can Godwin choose reason as his strategy, when he sees it as obstructed by the very institutions it is supposed to overthrow?

He answers with an account of the growth of natural science. 'Hitherto it seems as if every instrument of menace or influence has been employed to counteract [science].' But it has made progress nonetheless. For the mind of man cannot 'choose falsehood and reject truth, when evidence is fairly presented'.12 Since adversities have not kept reasoned argument from causing scientific progress, they cannot keep it from causing social progress either. 'Shall we become clear-sighted and penetrating in all other subjects, without increasing our penetration on the subject of man?'13

The analogy with natural science gives hope that for reaching anarchy reasoned argument will soon be effective, despite its past and continuing impotence. 'How imperfect were the lispings of . . . science, before it attained the precision of the present century ?' 'Political knowledge is [now] in its infancy.' Hence its advances are bound to be slow. But since progress in natural science accelerated, as its growing number of findings became better established and more widely known, we can expect progress toward anarchy to be faster, as stronger reasons in its favor are adduced.14 No matter that anarchy now has few partisans, whose arguments are usually dismissed; the early partisans of science met a similar fate. 'If the system of independence and equality be the truth, it may be expected hourly to gain converts. The more it is discussed, the more will it be understood, and its value cherished and felt.'15

So doubtful is Godwin of reaching anarchy through argument that he draws on his shaky analogy with science for evidence of more than reason's persuasive force. This analogy, he thinks, shows the obstacles to the growth of reason as being not impediments to anarchy, but preconditions, and even helps. Progress in natural science meets obstacles in the form of 'extravagant sallies of mind' which 'an uninformed and timid spectator' might think would lead to 'nothing but destruction'. 'But he would be disappointed.' These extravagances 'are the prelude of the highest wisdom.. .The dreams of Ptolemy were destined to precede the discoveries of Newton.'16 Social progress meets analogous obstacles, the most serious being legal government and unequal wealth. The former, though utterly expunged from a mature anarchy, prepares for it by assuring the peaceful setting in which a still nascent reason can grow.17 As for unequal wealth, it too, while no part of future anarchist society, is a needed preparation. 'It was the spectacle of inequality that first excited the grossness of barbarians to [the] persevering exertion' on which an advanced economy like that of anarchy rests.18 The obstacles to anarchy thus need cause no dismay, for even the most serious are objective pre-conditions, which must develop before the arguments for anarchy can take effect.

To clinch his case for reason, which he properly sees cannot be vindicated by reference to the analogy with science alone, Godwin describes the process through which he expects arguments for anarchy to prevail. The thesis informing his account of this process is that the main determinant of practice is belief. 'Wherever the political opinions of a community, or any portion of a community, are changed, the institutions are affected also.'19 Guided by this thesis, Godwin aims to show that everyone can be convinced to work for anarchy through the force of arguments known at first only to very few.

What he envisages is that the few individuals who happen to be convinced anarchists will serve as 'guides and instructors' to everyone else.20 Through the same 'candid and unreserved conversation' that is the organizing principle of an established anarchy, they will 'extensively communicate the truths with which they are acquainted'. These truths, being forthrightly transmitted in an intimate setting, will be so cogent to their hearers that they 'will be instigated to impart their acquisitions to still other hearers'. Thus the 'circle of instruction will perpetually increase'.21

Though Godwin relies on reasoned argument as the impetus for the first steps toward anarchy, he does not contend that everyone, or even a majority, must embrace anarchism before social reconstruction begins. Rational beliefs are certainly the main shapers of practice for Godwin, but he is not blind to the effects of practice on these beliefs. He would therefore accompany the later diffusion of anarchist convictions with a gradual, voluntary decentralization of power and equalization of ranks, designed to inspire belief in anarchy to spread further. National governments would first give way to a loose confederation of small 'parishes' governed by democratically elected 'juries'. At later stages these juries would lose first their right to punish physically and then their right to legislate. Finally, they would be 'laid aside as unnecessary'. Thus would convictions and practices advance reciprocally and by degrees to their final culmination: 'one of the most memorable stages of human improvement,.. .the dissolution of political government, of that brute engine, which has been the only perennial cause of the vices of mankind'.22

Because he gives such great responsibility for reaching anarchy to a few enlightened individuals, Godwin has been accused of 'elitist disdain'. 'Convinced of his superiority of intellect', he and his few partisans allegedly place themselves 'above the mediocre, the petty, the base, the dull and the deceived'.23 This charge, which makes Godwin sound like a contemptuous manipulator of the masses, misrepresents his view of their intellectual capacities and of how their allegiance should be won. While Godwin does think most people lack rational, independent judgment, he also thinks that they will someday have it.24 Ignorance and irrationality are temporary conditions, which reasoned argument, aided by the gradual reform of institutions, can overcome. Elitist manipulation is therefore no part of Godwin's strategy. His partisans are not to create an anarchist society behind the masses' backs, but are to start the process through which rational individuals choose anarchy as the regime they create. Godwin's anarchy, as he carefully points out, does not result from 'the over-earnest persuasion of a few enlightened thinkers, but is produced by the serious and deliberate conviction of the public at large'.25

Though Godwin does not compromise the rationality of his strategy with manipulative fraud, he does compromise it with force and organization. While believing fervently in the effectiveness of argument, he still acknowledges situations where it might fail. What of a crisis, such as a war or revolution, which turns the anarchists and their critics into hostile foes? To argue independently 'in the moment of convulsion' might be suicidal; the anarchists may have to organize 'something in the nature of association' in order to survive.26 And what of a situation where the anarchists, now a vast majority, face a few incorrigible opponents? In this circumstance, says Godwin, they may use physical coercion, partly because a complete anarchy might otherwise never be established, but mainly because coercion will not actually have to be imposed. Since their 'adversaries will be too few and too feeble to be able to entertain a serious thought of resistance', they will be compelled to accept anarchy by the mere threat of force.27

By endorsing force and organization as strategies, albeit in unlikely situations, Godwin shows his failure to solve the dilemma of anarchist strategy by trusting to reason alone. It would be presumptuous, however, to conclude from his failure that the dilemma is insoluble. Perhaps anarchy could be reached without fraud or coercion through a different path than Godwinian reason. The attempts of his successors to solve the dilemma need to be examined as preparation for deciding if a solution can be found.


Because Proudhon's conception of communal individuality gives more stress to cooperative work and less to rational independence than Godwin's, it admits a wider range of strategies. Proudhon is able, without inconsistency, to endorse organization, and can in good conscience advocate forms of persuasion not purely rational. But though his conception of communal individuality gives him more strategic leeway than Godwin, he succeeds no better in solving their shared dilemma. His untainted strategies are no more effective than Godwin's reason; his effective ones are no purer than the physical coercion Godwin chose.

Proudhon does not think, any more than Godwin, that anarchy can be established at any time. Rather, he too believes, though for somewhat different reasons than Godwin, that government and inequality must first prepare the way for anarchy through their effects. Inequality serves to stimulate exertion. 'If the property owner had tired of appropriating, the proletarian would have tired of producing.'28 Government engenders self-restraint. It was 'by means of its tribunals and armies', that government 'gave to the sense of right, so weak among the first men, the only sanctions intelligible to fierce characters'.29 Only when government and inequality complete their preparatory work (a time which Proudhon thought had occurred just recently) can the search for a strategy to achieve anarchy profitably begin.

At the start of his career Proudhon was as committed as Godwin to a strategy of reasoned argument. He explicitly rejected not only coercive tactics, but imperfectly rational ones. 'Stimulate, warn, inform, instruct, but do not inculcate', he prescribed.30 Inculcation had to be avoided not only because anarchist ideals forbade it, but because reasoned argument was certain to succeed. Once his principles had been disseminated, Proudhon then believed, they would surely be applied. 'Wherever this discourse is read or made known', he wrote in his first important book, 'there privilege and servitude will sooner or later disappear.'31 But whereas Godwin espoused a strategy of reason for his entire life, Proudhon quickly saw its inadequacies. Readier to admit the strength of anarchy's opponents, less sanguine about the compelling force of rational conviction, and more doubtful, owing to intervening failures, of history's progressive course, he soon despaired of reasoned argument and began to seek an equally pure but more effective substitute.

His search led first to a scheme for free credit, a 'People's Bank', lending without interest to anyone who could put money to a productive use. Such a bank, Proudhon believed, would pave the way for anarchy by enabling producers who lacked capital to start their own enterprises. These enterprises, being independent of the established social order, would form an ever growing network of alternative institutions for the nascent anarchist society.

As a strategy for anarchists, the People's Bank has no advantage over reasoned argument. To be sure, it is as morally legitimate, because it makes no use of force or fraud. Only 'holders of government bonds, usurers, . . . and big property owners' would find the Bank unprofitable, and they would be too weak to stop its growth. As it developed, they would be convinced, 'by a sense of the inevitable and concern for their interests to voluntarily change the employment of their capital, unless they preferred to run the risk of consuming it unproductively and enduring swift and total ruin'.32 It would thus be through their uncoerced and unmanipulated decisions that their resistance would be overcome.

Though free credit and reasoned argument are equally pure, they are also equally ineffective. The opposition to anarchy is much too strong to quell by the enticements of free credit. But even if Proudhon was right to think his Bank could sway all opponents, he would still have been wrong to expect it to achieve anarchy. The Bank, even with everyone's support, would still be a mere monetary device, no 'solvent of all authority' destined to 'shift the axis of civilization'.33 It is because he expected such remarkable results from a rather trivial institution that Proudhon has rightly acquired the reputation of a money crank.

He did not remain committed to free credit for long. The failure, during the revolution of 1848, of his effort to operate a People's Bank prompted him to reassess his strategy. Impressed by the militance of his opponents, and appalled by the futility of the tactics he had just espoused, Proudhon turned to Louis Napoleon, the emerging dictator who, on 2 December 1851, had overthrown the Second Republic in a coup d'etat. 'The Second of December is the signal for a forward march on the road to revolution', proclaimed Proudhon, and 'Louis Napoleon is its general.'34 Though Bonaparte was no anarchist, anarchists must work with him, because his plans for social renovation, whatever their intended purpose, would have the effect of bringing anarchy closer.

It is hard to imagine a strategy more repugnant to anarchist principles than collaboration with Bonaparte. Even if Bonaparte had been a scrupulous official, Proudhon should have abhorred him. But he was corrupt and arbitrary, a wielder of naked force. Nor can Proudhon's collaborationism be pardoned as effective, since Bonaparte, whose leftist sympathies were nominal, did not and could not have been expected to advance the cause of anarchy. Collaboration with Bonaparte, being both forbidden by anarchist ideals and useless for realizing them, was for Proudhon the worst possible tactic.

Having found the paths of reason, free credit and collaboration to be dead ends, Proudhon for a while gave up the search for a legitimate, effective strategy. Consoling himself with confidence that history in the long run was on his side, he took up a stance of what he aptly called 'attente revolutionnaire'.35 There was no way for anarchists to make the 'ignorant, impulsive majority... recognize the truth, sense its depth, its necessity, its supremacy, and freely accept it'. Yet anarchy would still some day be achieved. 'The conversion of societies is never sudden. . . It is assured, but one must know how to wait for it.'36 Waiting did not mean complete passivity; Proudhon worked hard on 'serious long-term studies addressed to the future and another generation'.37 But for about ten years he set the dilemma of anarchist strategy aside.

At the end of his life, in 1863, he returned to this dilemma and tried a new solution. He now proposed that his partisans withdraw from the established social order and found new embryonic anarchist institutions. 'Since the old world rejects us', there is nothing to do but 'separate ourselves from it radically'.38 United in their own organizations, the anarchists would demonstrate the merits of their theory and gradually win the vast majority to their cause.

Just why Proudhon thought withdrawal an appropriate strategy we will never know, because he died without working out its details. Certainly, it is morally legitimate, but that it is effective is less clear. Even if a majority were moved by a tactic of withdrawal to become anarchists, the problem would remain of dealing with the unconvinced minority. Proudhon suggests two methods. Occasionally he reverts to the bankrupt reliance on reasoned argument.39 More often he urges the use of force. First anarchists must 'instill their ideas in the majority; having done this, they must capture political power by demanding control of its sovereign authority'.40

Proudhon's tactic of withdrawal may well come closer than any other he recommended to solving the anarchists' strategic dilemma, since it probably can go furthest toward reaching anarchy without coercion or fraud. But it is incapable, by itself, of achieving anarchy, as Proudhon, by recognizing that it could not sway everyone, admits. Hence an anarchist strategy both pure and effective had still not been discovered, even after Proudhon's extensive search.


Though Bakunin and Proudhon agree so much in their concepts of communal individuality that their visions of anarchy have here been considered to be essentially the same, on matters of strategy they are far apart. Bakunin, in fact, is more like Kropotkin than like Proudhon in his strategy, and Proudhon is more like Godwin than like Bakunin. For whereas Proudhon started out trusting to reason and only during temporary lapses or with agonized reluctance backed force or deception, Bakunin never relied exclusively on reason and in his strategy gave force and deception a substantial, permanent place.41

The paradoxical differences between the strategies of Bakunin and Proudhon can be partially explained as a response to disillusion and despair. As inventive and determined attempts to progress towards anarchy met repeated failure, even in revolutionary situations when prospects were best, anarchists became doubtful of ever achieving success. It is thus hardly surprising that Bakunin, who did not begin writing on anarchism until 1864, should have been less repelled than his more innocent predecessors by moral compromise. But there is a deeper reason, in his strategic premises, for Bakunin's greater reliance on coercion and deceit. Godwin and Proudhon had supposed that for the most part coercion and deceit were illegitimate and ineffective. Anarchists, they thought, must eschew these practices not only because they were impermissible, but also because they could not reach the end being sought. Bakunin's strategy is based on a contrary supposition. He believes that force and fraud, though illegitimate when viewed apart from their results, are still required in the many cases where they are needed to win victory. Bakunin's strategic thinking is largely an attempt to show how and when intrinsically immoral tactics are the ones anarchists must choose.

Most of the impure tactics Bakunin recommended were for revolutionary action, but one, the abolition of the right to inherit income-producing property, could be enacted by the state. There is, of course, no conflict between anarchist morality and the abolition of inheritance, provided the abolition is voluntary. But since Bakunin envisaged it as compelled by legal government, it is a tactic that anarchist ideals forbid.

What Bakunin recommended was that the state gradually limit and eventually repeal laws protecting inheritance, transfer the property accumulated by deceased owners to anarchist productive enterprises, and take the financial responsibility which had rested on parents for the education and upbringing of children. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the right to inherit property was not needed as an incentive to work. Aversion to work arose from its being 'excessive, brutalizing and compulsory'; in an anarchist society it would be a basic need. Besides being a safe strategy, the legal abolition of inheritance was sure. Inherited wealth 'perpetuated inequality, the privileges of the few and the slavery of the many'. It therefore 'sufficed to abolish the right of inheritance in order to abolish the juridical family and the state'.42

This project for leading the state to suicide through its own legal enactments has a certain dramatic appeal, but its success is not to be expected. Marx put his finger on its foolishness. 'The whole thing rests on a superannuated idealism, which considers the actual jurisprudence as the basis of our economical state, instead of seeing that our economical state is the basis and source of our jurisprudence!'43 Fortunately, though Bakunin never stopped riding his jurisprudential hobby horse, he worked out more serious strategies for revolutionary action. Following Godwin and Proudhon, he deemed most people irrational and ignorant. He followed them further in finding the source of this ignorance and irrationality in the inequality, legality and coercion of the established regime. And he also agreed that anarchy must be founded on nothing less than the majority's enlightened choice.44 Yet though he agreed with his predecessors on all these points, he went much further than Proudhon toward recommending force and deceit as methods for enlightening the masses.

The premise on which his support for force and deceit rests is a belief in enlightenment through action. Proudhon, and especially Godwin, had sought enlightenment mainly through reasoned argument. For Bakunin, who believed that 'doctrine kills life', enlightenment could be found only through practical experience.45 A majority would never be convinced by reasons to become anarchists, but their allegiance could be won by immersing them in a concerted, and perhaps violent, struggle against the state. Bakunin's schemes for this immersion were tied closely to the fluctuating political situation; they included the incitement by convinced anarchists of industrial strikes, peasant jacqueries and even full scale civil wars. But underlying his varied projects was the same strategic claim. Struggle against the state 'is always favorable to the awakening of the people's initiative and to their mental, moral and even their material development. The reason is simple: It shakes their sheepish disposition, so valuable to governments. . . It disrupts the brutalizing monotony of their daily life. . . and, by forcing them to consider the various pretensions of the princes or parties which compete for the right to oppress and exploit them, leads them to awareness, if not reflective, at least instinctive, of this profound truth: the rights of any government are as void as those of all the others, and their intentions are equally bad.'46

It is obvious that the strategy Bakunin here espouses often involves what is for anarchists the illegitimate use of force. Not all of the anarchists' struggles would require physical coercion, and Bakunin was anxious to limit its scope. He flatly rejected systematic terror and, perhaps wistfully, promised that 'there will be no need to destroy men'.47 But his avowal of the need 'to be ruthless with positions and things' and the unavoidable coercion of his called-for civil war leave no doubt that anarchists, in their Bakuninist struggles, would sometimes combat opponents with physical force.48

Whether Bakunin's strategy also involves fraud is a more vexed question, whose answer depends on what he envisages as happening when anarchists immerse the masses in struggle. If the anarchists disclosed the full aim of this immersion, they could not be at all guilty of fraud. If they lied to the masses about the aim they were seeking, they would be blatant practitioners of deceit. But Bakunin avoids both of these clear alternatives by recommending a veiled, limited disclosure. The anarchists, though united in an active organization, are to conceal their membership from those they are trying to immerse. While explaining the short-range purpose of their effort, which is to satisfy particular, immediate grievances, their long-range purpose, to change society radically, is not to be revealed.49 Since the masses, though not entirely fooled about the intended purpose of their struggle, would be deliberately misled about its chief aim, one must conclude that despite Bakunin's attempts at honesty he is still an espouser of fraud.

Though Bakunin's strategy is quite markedly imperfect, it might still more adequately solve the anarchists' dilemma than the purer strategies of his predecessors. A sacrifice of perfection is not the same as a betrayal of anarchist ideals. If imperfect means could beget anarchy without causing too much suffering or loss of life, they would be a more faithful expression of its principles than pure but ineffective measures. The central issue in evaluating Bakunin's strategy is thus whether, by giving up perfection, his strategy gains enough effectiveness to justify its impurity.

In making this evaluation it is important to recognize that Bakunin gives up moral purity with caution. He is especially careful to protect relations within anarchist organizations from corruption. These organizations, being the nuclei for the good society, must be free of existing society's coercion, deceit and associated depravities. 'Otherwise, one would wind up with a political dictatorship, that is to say, with a reconstituted state, together with its privileges, its inequalities and all of its oppressions.'50 To escape this fate, Bakunin insists on organizing an open anarchist movement, in small, autonomous units, without central leadership. He thus incorporates in his theory what is perhaps Godwin's crucial strategic insight: the members of an anarchy must grow apt for their new life, not after it is instituted, but while they build it.

It is in defining the relations between anarchists and the unswayed masses that Bakunin's resistance to moral compromise deserts him, as we have seen, and it is the value of the limited though significant impurities he admits to these relations that now must be assessed. If Godwin was right that force and fraud invariably 'confound the process of reason',51 Bakunin's reliance on them could be dismissed summarily. But Godwin goes too far in his objection to force and fraud by claiming that they always damage reason. Occasionally they support it, as when used by careful educators to stimulate the minds of the unthinking. If force or deception has a modest scope, aims at the immediate growth of rationality, and has secured it in the past, it may be an appropriate strategy for anarchists. But Bakunin's coercive, deceptively incited struggle lacks all of these attributes. Its scope is a whole society; it aims to increase rationality indirectly, through a precarious chain of causes; it is untested by experience. There is thus no reason to expect that it would lead to anarchy. Since the success of the struggle Bakunin envisaged is not to be expected, he sacrificed perfection to no avail.


With the lessons of decades of failure to instruct him, and a synthetic ideal of communal individuality for guidance, Kropotkin is better situated to solve the dilemma of anarchist strategy than his predecessors. He does indeed avoid several of their most damaging pitfalls and bring a fresh perspective to his search. He even comes closer than the other anarchists to finding tactics both legitimate and sure. His failure to find them calls less for explanation than for answering the question to which the analysis in this chapter points of why a solution to the anarchists' dilemma is so difficult.

Kropotkin's strategy, like Bakunin's, calls for enlightenment through action, but owing mainly to a different supposition about the extent of rationality, it is less morally impure. He is at one with Bakunin in rejecting anarchism's early confidence in the potential capacity of the masses to reason. It is naive, he agrees, to expect the enormous growth of mental powers that Godwin, especially, had foreseen. But he differs from Bakunin on a point crucial for strategy by his greater confidence in popular reason's actuality. Progress in science has not, as Godwin thought, depended solely on the glorious discoveries of a few geniuses like Newton. It rests as well on the modest innovations of numerous obscure workers. History thus shows that ordinary people, far from being ignorant, are as great a source of progress as the intellectual elite.52

Believing in the present capacity of most people for clear thinking, Kropotkin proposes to treat them more forthrightly than had Bakunin. 'It offends the human spirit to immerse it in a destructive struggle unless it has a conception -- if only rudimentary -- of what will replace the world it is trying to destroy.'

Hence, instead of hiding the purpose of their effort, the anarchists must 'immediately lay out and discuss all aspects of [their] goal'. To do less would be to manipulate, and history shows that 'manipulators invariably betray the people'.53 Unity of action comes not through guile, 'but through the unity of aims and the mutual confidence which never fail to develop when a great number of persons have consciously embraced a common ideal'.54

Kropotkin is also more wary than Bakunin of force. No anarchist, not even Godwin, entirely rejected physical coercion, and in his early years Kropotkin sometimes even advanced a limited defense of terror.55 But his mature strategy has no place for the Bakuninist hope of achieving anarchy through coercion applied by persons blind to its point. Once again confidence in the present existence of rationality leads Kropotkin to strategic circumspection. Since most people are already tolerably apt thinkers, disclosing the real reasons why they should use force only makes its exercise more effective. Violent struggle is acceptable, but the stragglers must never be 'cast into the unknown without the support of a definite, clearly formulated idea to serve them as a springboard'.56

Kropotkin agrees with his predecessors in considering the historical development of government and inequality as a necessary preparation for achieving anarchy. Representative government, for example, 'has rendered service in the struggle against autocracy'. 'By its debates it has awakened public interest in public questions.' But now it is at best 'an anachronism, a nuisance'.57 Since government and inequality have now completed their preparative service, the time has come for anarchists to replace them.

Since Kropotkin sees enlightenment as arising from both practice and theory, he proposes to reach anarchy through both action and thought. Following the early anarchists, he opts for reasoned argument, but he also takes from the later anarchists a preference for active struggle. Once the requisite historical conditions have been reached, there must be 'implacable criticism' of 'the accepted ideas of the constitution of the state'. This criticism must go on everywhere -- not just among the learned -- 'in drawing room as in cabaret, in the writing of philosophers as in daily conversation'.58 But discussion among intimates, which for Godwin was a sufficient tactic, Kropotkin finds inadequate. And he adds significantly to anarchist strategy by showing a new way to stimulate subversive acts.

'Courage, devotion, the spirit of sacrifice, are as contagious as cowardice, submission and panic.' Armed with this conviction, which the emphasis on emotion in his ideal of communal individuality suggests, Kropotkin urges anarchists on to acts 'of illegal protest, of revolt, of vengeance'. What matter that these heroic deeds will not succeed at once. The anarchists are 'lonely sentinels, who enter the battle long before the masses are sufficiently roused'. 'The people secretly applaud their courage'; 'the revolutionary whirlwind. . . revives sluggish hearts'. Emotional contagion, though it passes through periods of incubation, is unstoppable; soon many will be seized by 'the spirit of revolt'.59

Will they form a majority? Kropotkin thought so at first. Later, he thought they would be 'a respectably numerous minority of cities and villages scattered over the country'.60 But neither the morality nor the effectiveness of his strategy is much affected by whether, as a proportion of the population, the anarchists number fifty-one percent. When they predominate significantly, Kropotkin would have them carry out a thorough expropriation. By describing it in detail, he works out an aspect of anarchist strategy previously neglected: the steps to take after struggles have begun.

Kropotkin is not precise about how far anarchists should go toward abolishing legal government during the period of preliminary expropriation. Collective rule-making, perhaps resting on the preferences of majorities, would apparently be allowed, provided it was carried out in local workplaces and districts. But any rules enacted by these agencies, rather than being enforced physically, would from the start be enforced by means of censure. Kropotkin thus carries forward a theme introduced into the anarchist tradition by Godwin: though in a mature anarchy legal government must be totally abolished, it may continue to exist, in an attenuated form, during anarchy's preparatory phases.

Though Kropotkin is somewhat vague about the process for carrying out anarchist expropriation, he is specific about the changes it involves. He warns against confusing expropriation with confiscation, with impoverishing the rich by dividing up their wealth. No one would be deprived of articles of personal consumption, nor would capital be affected - except so far as it enabled 'any man. . . to appropriate the product of another's toil'.61 The seizure of property would nevertheless be extensive. The insurgent anarchists must, through a rapid and complete takeover making no use of the nation state, assure everyone a reliable supply of life's necessities. Warehouses, factories, dwellings and farms all must be seized, inventoried and redistributed so as to satisfy needs and eliminate exploiters.62 Expropriation would thus be eminently constructive. In seizing property the anarchists would at the same time reorganize the social infrastructure. Here the abstract call of Proudhon and Bakunin to build the new society by demolishing the state receives a plausible, concrete meaning.63 In Kropotkin's expropriation destruction and creation appear reconciled.

Yet the possibility of conflict remains. How can one be sure that even Kropotkin's anarchists, though hard to tempt, would have the discipline, while expropriating, to resist taking personal possession of their seized wealth? Or, even if they resisted greed, would they be wise enough immediately to create a working anarchy? These are among the more embarrassing of the evaluative questions Kropotkin's strategy must face.

The truth is that despite his intrepid efforts to avoid both unnecessarily immoral tactics of Bakunin's sort and insufficiently vigorous tactics such as Godwin's, Kropotkin still fails to find a strategy both sure and legitimate. His strategy, stripped to essentials, rejects deception altogether and accepts coercion for just two purposes: to inspire the contagion of insurrectionary feeling and to carry out the seizure of accumulated productive wealth. The defects in this strategy are by now almost too familiar. Its avoidance of deception makes it ineffective; its acceptance of coercion makes it illegitimate, without giving it the means of success.

The spectacle of Godwin stumbling on the path to anarchy through reason is sufficient to discredit Kropotkin's utter rejection of fraud. Surely anarchists, to be successful, must follow Bakunin part way in sometimes, like ordinary politicians, being less than fully candid. By utterly rejecting deceptive tactics, Kropotkin greatly burdens his coercive ones. Feelings of daring would have to be farfetchedly contagious to spread as much in response to displays of force as Kropotkin needs them to. (And what of the destructive feelings that displays of force might spread?) The mass of expropriators would have to be improbably skilled and selfless to reorder society without leaders, without a unitary legal system and with no preconceived plan. Kropotkin, to be sure, tries to answer these objections, and not always by invoking popular, rationality and good sense. Sometimes he uses an argument borrowed from radical democrats about the educative effects of direct local participation.64 Sometimes he defends the 'discomfort and confusion' that would follow expropriation as being, 'for the mass of the people', still 'an improvement on their former condition. Besides, in times of Revolution one can dine contentedly enough on a bit of bread and cheese while eagerly discussing events.'65 Is it unfair to see in this recourse to asceticism an admission by Kropotkin of strategic failure? Appearing as it does in the most confident of his mature works, it surely betrays uncertainty about the chance of his strategy's success. Kropotkin did come closer than any of his predecessors to finding an effective, legitimate strategy. But the soundness of the doubts he harbored about whether he had found one would be foolish to contest.


Daniel Guerin ends his sympathetic account of the anarchists' 'main constructive themes' with a confession. 'Relations between the masses and the conscious minority constitute a problem to which no full solution has been found by the Marxists or even by the anarchists, and one on which it seems that the last word has not yet been said.'66 Guerin's partial acknowledgment of the anarchists' strategic failure is well supported by the evidence presented in this chapter. But this evidence indicates the need for a considerably more drastic portrayal of the anarchists' strategic plight. It is not only the problem of their relations to unconvinced outsiders that they fail to solve: the problems of how to organize internally and how, united with the masses, to proceed from old to new also baffle them. Nor are these problems whose solutions will, as Guerin implies, be found in the future. If the last word about them has not been said yet, this must be because there is none.

Part of the reason why anarchist strategy fails lies in the radicalism of its objective. Any theorist whose objective is as sweeping, abstractly defined and strongly opposed as the anarchists' will find his choice of means treacherous and unreliable. To reach a vast, vague end in the teeth of opposition calls for energetic, wide-ranging measures. Such measures are sure to have numerous unexpected consequences and may have none of the intended ones. Hence the goal sought will not be reached, or, if it is, it will be undermined by destructive side effects.67 Rapid, wholesale change can certainly be warranted in situations where it is the alternative to great misery. But as a means of achieving radical aspirations it is very nearly doomed to fail.

If the vastness of the change needed to reach anarchy makes its achievement difficult, the special character of the needed change makes achieving it virtually impossible. The communal individuality that must flourish under anarchy involves personal traits, such as honesty and sympathy, and social traits, such as trust and cooperation, which, needing a stable peaceful climate, are put in special jeopardy by energetic measures. Yet anarchists must use such measures, unless they are willing to abandon hope. The genial humaneness of their aspirations thus burdens anarchists with an especially intractable version of the dilemma in which all radicals are caught.

That anarchist strategy is a failure cannot be proved beyond all doubt. Though no anarchist has yet found an auspicious strategy, and though the obstacles to finding one are immense, the bare possibility of success -- for even the least promising -- still must be acknowledged to exist. But judgments about the success of tactics, being dependent on contingencies, can never be fully certain. Anarchist strategy must be judged a failure, according to the appropriate measure of its probable success.


1 Many writers have equated anarchist strategy with terrorism, e.g. George Plekhanov, Anarchism and Socialism; a balanced discussion of this matter is Derry Novak, 'Anarchism and Individual Terrorism', Canadian Journal of Political Science, 20 (May 1954), pp. 176-84. For a 'gallery of outlandish stereotypes' see Leonard Krimmerman and Lewis Perry (eds.), Patterns of Anarchy (New York, 1966), pp. xvi-xvii. In a single paragraph David Apter manages to ascribe all these strategies and more to the anarchists: 'The Old Anarchism and the New -- Some Comments', Government and Opposition, 5 (Autumn 1970), p. 397. E. J. Hobsbawm calls anarchists revolutionary voluntarists both in Primitive Rebels (New York, 1959), p. 83, and in Revolutionaries (New York, 1973), p. 86.

2 Good examples of the interpretation of anarchist strategy as non-political may be found in George Woodcock, Anarchism (New York, 1962), p. 31, and Isaac Kramnick, 'On Anarchism and the Real World: William Godwin and Radical England', American Political Science Review, 66 (March 1972), p. 128.

3 Bakunin, OEuvres (Paris, 1895-1913), V, 208.

4 Irving L. Horowitz (ed.), The Anarchists (New York, 1964), p. 29.

5 Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (Toronto, 1946), I, 279.

6 Ibid., I, 272.

7 Ibid., I, 289.

8 Ibid., I, 221.

9 Ibid., I, 78, 83.

10 Ibid., I, 69.

11 Ibid., I, 49.

12 Ibid., II, 225.

13 Ibid., II, 243-4.

14 Ibid., I, 273.

15 Ibid., I, 256.

16 Ibid., II, 243.

17 Ibid., II, 372.

18 Ibid., II, 491-2.

19 Ibid., I, 278, cf. II, 549.

20 Ibid., I, 104.

21 Ibid., I, 296.

22 Ibid., II, 209-12; for more detail on these steps toward Godwinian anarchy see John P. Clark, The Philosophical Anarchism of William Godwin (Princeton, 1977), pp. 191-4.

23 Kramnick, 'Anarchism and the Real World', pp.1126, 114.

24 'The true reason why the mass of mankind has so often been the dupe of knaves, has been the mysterious and complicated nature of the social system. Once annihilate the quackery of government, and the most homebred understanding might be strong enough to detect the artifices of the state juggler that would mislead him.' Godwin, Political Justice, II, 208, cf. II, 136-7.

25 Ibid., II, 477.

26 Ibid., I, 298.

27 Ibid., I, 274.

28 Proudhon, Systeme de contradictions economiques (Paris, 1923), II, 403.

29 Proudhon, Idee generate de la revolution au dix-neuvieme siecle (Paris, 1923) p. 374,

30 Proudhon, Les carnets, 4 vols. (Paris, 1960-74), III, 45. For the more detailed analysis of Proudhon's strategy on which this account is based see Ritter, The Political Thought of Proudhon, ch. VI.

31 Proudhon, Qu'est-ce que la propriete? (Paris, 1926), p. 345.

32 Proudhon, Melanges, 3 vols. (Paris, 1868-70), III, 123; Proudhon, La revolution sociale demontree par le coup d'etat du deux decembre (Paris, 1936), p. 206.

33 Proudhon, Carnets, III, 248; Proudhon, Melanges, II, 1.

34 Proudhon, La revolution sociale, p. 177.

35 Proudhon, De la Justice dans la Revolution et dans l'Eglise (Paris, 1930-5), IV, 468.

36 Ibid., IV, 489.

37 Proudhon, Correspondance (Paris, 1874-5), IX, 71.

38 Proudhon, De la capacite politique des classes ouvrieres (Paris, 1924), p. 236.

39 Ibid., p. 74.

40 Ibid., p. 240; cf. p. 101.

41 'Has there ever been a single example, at any time in any place, of a privileged, dominant class making concessions freely, spontaneously, without being forced to by coercion and fear?' Bakunin, OEuvres, VI, 359-6o.

42 'Rapport de la commission sur la question de l'heritage', Bakunin, OEuvres, V, 199-210.

43 Marx, Engels and Lenin, Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism (New York, 1972), pp. 45-6.

44 Bakunin, OEuvres, I, 173, 296, II, 46, 335.

45 Ibid., Ill, 64 note.

46 Ibid., II, 423.

47 Ibid., II, 101; Arthur Lehning (ed.), Michael Bakunin, Selected Writings (New York, 1973), p. 168. Cf. Daniel Guerin (ed.), Ni Dieu ni maitre (Lausanne, n.d.), p. 202.

48 Lehning, Selected Writings, p. 169.

49 Bakunin, OEuvres, VI, 70-2.

50 Ibid., IV, 260.

51 Godwin, Political Justice, I, 274.

52 Kropotkin, Fields, Factories and Workshops (New York, 1913), pp. 394-402.

53 Kropotkin, Paroles d'un revoke (Paris, 1885), pp. 308-9, 310; cf. Kropotkin, Revolutionary Pamphlets (New York, 1968), p. 156.

54 Kropotkin, Pamphlets, p. 185. Cf. Martin A. Miller, Kropotkin (Chicago, 1976), p. 191. Kropotkin rejected 'a vanguard elite which would operate either before or after the revolution'.

55 For a good account of Kropotkin's early anarchism, see Miller, Kropotkin, pp. 146, 174-5.

56 Kropotkin, Paroles, p. 122.

57 Kropotkin, Pamphlets, pp. 51, 68.

58 Ibid., p. 35.

59 Ibid., pp. 35-43. Quotation from this essay fails to capture its force. It should be read in its entirety.

60 Ibid., p. 188.

61 Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread (New York, 1969), p. 57.

62 For a detailed scenario see Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread, chs. 4-7.

63 Proudhon's epigraph for his Systeme de contradictions economiques was 'Destruam et Aedificabo'. Bakunin insisted throughout his life that 'the passion for destruction is a creative passion, too'. Lehning, Selected Writings, p. 58.

64 Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread, pp. 109-10.

65 Ibid., p. 80.

66 Daniel Guerin, Anarchism (New York, 1970), p. 38.

67 For a fine elaboration of these points see George Kateb, Utopia and its Enemies (Glencoe, III., 1963), pp. 44-6.