Alan Ritter, Anarchism: A Theoretical Analysis (1980)


Preliminary versions of material in Chapters 5 and 6 appeared originally in 'Anarchism and Liberal Theory in the Nineteenth Century', Bucknell Review, 19 (Fall 1971); in 'Godwin, Proudhon and the Anarchist Justification of Punishment', Political Theory, vol. 3, no. 1 (February 1975), pp. 69-87 (Sage Publications, Inc.); and in 'The Anarchist Justification of Authority', Anarchism: Nomos XIX, edited by J. Roland Pennock and JohnW. Chapman (© 1978 by New York University, by permission of New York University Press). Portions of these articles are here reprinted by permission of their publishers.

A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities helped me to get started on this book. Colleagues and students helped me to complete it. I would like particularly to thank Alfred Diamant, Milton Fisk, Norman Furniss, Richard Hiskes, Eileen Janzen, Jerome Mintz, Bernard Morris, Timothy Tilton and George Wright for their suggestions and support.


The main purpose of this book is to establish the right of anarchists to a leading voice in the debate among political theorists over how a good society should be created, organized and run. That anarchists deserve such a voice would have seemed ludicrous as recently as ten years ago, when they were still generally regarded as muddled preachers of chaos or naive projectors of dreams. In the late sixties, however, commentators began to find the anarchists more intellectually respectable. Their arguments for a society free of law and government were then revealed as credible enough to render political theory service, if only as a challenge to its deeply ingrained habit of taking the need for government for granted.1 This book carries forward the work of claiming a place in political theory for anarchists by showing that their arguments, besides being plausible enough to serve as a foil or corrective to uncritically statist views, are also inherently convincing. If the analysis that follows is acceptable, anarchists must be accorded no less a voice than partisans of theories such as democracy or socialism in debate concerning the nature of a good society.

Although anarchists are no longer excluded from political theory altogether, they have not received the place this book claims for them, partly because their thought is still believed to suffer from a seriously discrediting contradiction. Anarchists favor untrammelled freedom. Yet to control behavior in their good society they use the constraint of public censure, whose strictures interfere with the freedom they endorse. The conflict between their espousal of freedom and their resort to censure not only opens anarchists to being disparaged as inconsistent, it exposes them to the more onerous charge of supporting freedom as a pretence. The denigration of their support for freedom as masking a deep antipathy to it began in 1798, in a pamphlet attacking the first anarchist, William Godwin. The author of the pamphlet, William Proby, decried Godwin's commitment to freedom as deceptive on the ground that his good society, though it eschewed physical coercion, used the 'tyranny of public opinion' as a fetter. 'There is no tyranny more forcible, for the mind, wearied by repeated systematic attacks, at last becomes a convert, or quits the field in despair, feeling a slavery in its utmost recesses, the more degrading because exercised by chains emanating from its own substance.'2 Proby's view of the anarchists as not just confused, but downright devious in their espousal of freedom, has never lacked defenders. Commentators are still busy unmasking anarchists as 'proselytising aristocrats' with a yen for 'puritanical constraint', determined to exercise 'enlightened tutelage' over the people, if not against them.3 Unless the anarchists' praise of freedom and resort to censure are proved logically compatible, their claim to a full place in political theory must fail. For arguments which include contentions that are patently inconsistent disqualify as theory, even if they are not intended to deceive.

The view of anarchists as inconsistent for praising freedom while imposing censure rests on two premises: that freedom is their chief political value, and that it is curtailed severely by the censure they impose. This book argues for the consistency of the anarchists in praising freedom while imposing censure by refuting these premises. Freedom is exhibited in the following analysis as having subordinate worth for anarchists; their censure is shown to be a complex practice, whose effects on freedom are ambivalent. Once the censure of the anarchists is recognized as having ambivalent effects on a freedom that lacks supreme value in their eyes, their consistency in espousing it becomes obvious. Though their censure curtails freedom, they are warranted logically to espouse it, since it also supports freedom, and since they do not value freedom above all.

In establishing the right of anarchists to a leading voice in political theory, clearing them of inconsistency is a preliminary step. The main task is to show the power of their argument as social criticism and as a guide to action. This book takes a novel thesis about the goal of anarchism as the point of departure for accomplishing this task. Anarchists are portrayed in the following analysis as seeking to combine the greatest individual development with the greatest communal unity. Their goal is a society of strongly separate persons who are strongly bound together in a group. In a full-fledged anarchy, individual and communal tendencies, now often contradictory, become mutually reinforcing and coalesce. By serving the anarchists as a goal and inspiration, this ideal of communal individuality, as it will here be called, does much to control the structure of their argument. It helps define the targets of their social criticism; it gives their strategy limits and direction; and it guides their description of an anarchist social order. It is by tracing out the implications for their theory of their commitment to communal individuality that the following analysis exhibits the strength of the anarchists' thought. Once the leading role played in their theory by communal individuality is appreciated, their argument is revealed as having altogether unsuspected coherence, originality and political appeal.

Anarchists are not the only theorists who take individuality and community, seen as mutually dependent values, as their chief political objective. Noteworthy others who have done so are their contemporaries Hegel and Marx. Since the credentials of these thinkers are so much stronger than the anarchists', it is natural to presume that to learn how the search for communal individuality affects and enlivens political theory they and not the anarchists should be consulted. Yet, though Hegel and Marx are on most points the more penetrating thinkers, as theorists of communal individuality the anarchists can teach more.

In what Hegel calls a rational state, each subject achieves complete development' of 'personal individuality' and also recognizes the community as his substantial groundwork and end'. These aspects of a rational state are intimately connected for Hegel. There can be no intense community unless individuality reaches 'its culmination in the extreme of self-subsistent personal particularity', while individuality needs the context of community for its development. People who live 'as private persons for their own ends alone' cannot be individuals. It is only as members of a community that they have 'objectivity, genuine individuality, and an ethical life'.4 Marx has a quite different view from Hegel of the path to individuality and community, but he agrees that they are mutually reinforcing. Everyone at the final stage of socialism engages in productive activities 'which confirm and realize his individuality', while also being 'an expression of social life'. Community both 'produces man as man' and 'is produced by him', because individuality and community are reciprocally dependent.5 Thus for Marx, as for Hegel and the anarchists, a nourishing interplay must draw individuality and community together, if they are to be complete.

Marx and Hegel, being in the first rank of political theorists, might be expected to explain more plausibly than the anarchists just how individuality and community, which tend to clash, can be made so mutually reinforcing that both are maximized. Yet what they say about this matter is so deficient that the anarchists' views are more convincing.

Hegel makes legal government the seedbed in which communal individuality grows. Now one point which will become clear in the course of this book, and which has much immediate credibility, is that legal government, being remote, punitive, and inflexible, is not very congenial to communal individuality. It is true that Hegel tries to purge his rational state of the attributes that normally encumber legal government, but this attempt is futile, since these attributes mark every state.8 Marx, who ably criticizes Hegel for thinking that communal individuality can reach completion under the aegis of legal government, relies on it in his good society much less. Community and individuality, in communist society, are therefore better able to develop. Yet even Marx stops short of the anarchist exclusion of legal government from the stage when individuality and community, now fully reinforcing, completely merge. The elements of legal government which communist society retains prevent it from being as hospitable as anarchy to communal individuality's full growth.

Though the comparative paucity of legal government in Marx's good society, and its correlatively greater reliance on non- legal institutions, give it an advantage over Hegel's as the setting in which communal individuality develops, this advantage is offset by the vagueness with which it is portrayed. Marx limits himself to sketchy hints about the structure of the good society, while Hegel gives a detailed description. Since it is anything but obvious how a society must be organized so that individuality and community culminate in a reinforcing merger, Marx, by failing to work out in concrete detail the conditions for this outcome, marred his theory with a disconcerting gap.

The anarchists' theory is free of the faults that blemish Marx's and Hegel's. By banning legal government entirely from their good society, they rid it altogether of the impediments which in the Hegelian state hamper communal individuality severely and which continue to interfere with it under Marx's communism. And by describing their good society concretely, they protect it from the indeterminacy which, for achieving communal individuality, is communism's special defect. Because the anarchists work out in detail, and with no resort to legal government, how to create, organize and maintain a regime in which communal individuality flourishes, it is they who have the most to teach about the value of this project for the debate in political theory over the nature of the best regime.

The arguments treated in this book as representing the gist of anarchism are drawn from the four authors - Godwin, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Michael Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin -whose contributions to anarchist theory are universally regarded as most seminal. These writers, who succeeded each other within the discretely bounded period between the French and Russian Revolutions, worked out a coherent set of original arguments, which, while continuing to be influential, have not developed much since Kropotkin's time. Hence, to comprehend anarchism as a political theory, the writings of more recent anarchists need not be considered. There is, however, one nineteenth-century writer besides the four founders who, because his arguments have affinities with theirs, and because of his influence on later anarchists, may be thought unfairly excluded from the following analysis. This writer is Max Stimer.

Some anarchists, most notably Kropotkin, have acknowledged Stirner as a forebear. But this acknowledgment does not mean that he must be included in this book, because it proves nothing about the standing of his argument as systematic thought. Stirner's argument is anarchist in its political conclusions. He rejects law and government at least as unconditionally as do the four anarchists being studied here, and his projected 'union of egoists' is in its statelessness as much an anarchist society as those envisaged by the founding four. But Stimer's argument differs from theirs in a way that debases it as a theory: its backing for these anarchist conclusions is anything but cogent. Stirner opposes government and supports an anarchist society on the moral basis of ethical egoism, a principle which enjoins each agent to strive for nothing but his selfish advantage or amusement, and hence for that of others only so far as it conduces to his own. The Stirnerian egoist cares not a jot whether others do what is in their interest: their service to his interest is his sole concern. 'No one is a person to be respected.. .but solely. . .an object in which I take an interest or else do not, an interesting or uninteresting object, a usable or unusable person.'7 The state is denounced by Stirner for interfering with ethical egoism; the union of egoists, his anarchist society, is recommended for allowing it free reign. Yet both of these claims about the political implications of ethical egoism, which must be true if Stirner's defense of anarchism is to be cogent, are surely false. A state is admirably suited to a seeker of personal advantage, in situations where he controls it, for it is then a means for making others serve his ends. As for an anarchist society, since the voluntary cooperation on which it rests requires each to strive for others' advantage at least somewhat, it is hardly the arrangement that ethical egoists should create. Nor could they create it. For a stateless society of ethical egoists, each regarding the others as objects to be manipulated and exploited, would be impossibly discordant. Since Stirner's anarchism is probably undermined and is certainly not supported by the moral premise which is supposed to serve as its foundation, his argument lacks the cogency it needs to be included in this analytic study of anarchist thought.8

The plan of this book is suggested by its overall approach. The first chapter tackles the problem of proving the anarchists consistent in their espousal of both liberty and censure. Chapter 2 argues for regarding communal individuality as their chief political objective. Having made the case for anarchists as seeking communal individuality, the book moves on, in Chapter 3, to trace out the implications of this objective for their somewhat varied yet basically similar models of the good society. Chapters 4 and 5 complete the project of analyzing the import for anarchists of their search for communal individuality by examining how it affects their social criticism and their strategy. The plausible, coherent anarchist theory, established as authentic in the first five chapters of the book, is subjected in the final chapters to comparison and evaluation. Chapter 6 compares anarchism with liberalism and socialism, the political positions with which it is most frequently identified, and finds that, despite its similarities to these close neighbors, it is nevertheless distinctive. In the seventh, concluding chapter, anarchism is judged as a political ideal and as a guide to action against standards of humane morality. No such evaluation can be conclusive. The point of this one is. to acquit anarchists of unjust charges and to highlight the appealing features of their argument so as to vindicate it as more than intellectually respectable. If this chapter is successful, the criticisms which anarchists level against the modern state and their recommendations for how it should be replaced or altered will be revealed as worthy of more wholehearted endorsement than has generally been allowed.

Although the main purpose of this study is to vindicate anarchism as a theory, success in this purpose will spur readers to follow anarchism as a practice. Those who are convinced by the arguments in this book that anarchist theory is coherent, plausible and appealing need not of course join communes or found free schools, let alone attempt a revolution. But they cannot abstain entirely from anarchist endeavors without defending their inaction at least inwardly. To readers who find anarchist activity congenial, this book, if it succeeds, will be more welcome. For !t will help them act by giving them theoretically grounded arguments to justify what might otherwise seem quixotic gestures. Anarchism, though studied here as theory, is a theory that asks constantly what to do. Hence the more fully it is accepted as theoretically convincing, the stronger will be its pressure as a goad.


1 High points in this reassessment of anarchism as a theory are Robert Paul Wolff, In Defense of Anarchism (New York, 1976) and April Carter, The Political Theory of Anarchism (London, 1971).

2 William Proby, Philosophy and Barbarism (London, 1798), p. 22.

3 Benjamin Barber, Superman and Common Men (New York, 1972), pp. 25, 22; Isaac Kramnick, 'On Anarchism and the Real World: William Godwin and Radical England', American Political Science Review, 66 (March 1972), p. 116.

4 G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of Right (Oxford, 1958), pp. 160-1, 164, 156.

5 Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (Moscow, 1961), pp. 108, 105. Ellen Wood has convincingly worked out Marx's views on the reciprocal relations between individuality and community: Mind and Politics (Berkeley, 1972), pp. 123, 141-52.

6 Patrick Riley, 'Hegel on Consent and Social-Contract Theory: Does he "Cancel and Preserve" the Will?', Western Political Quarterly, 26 (March 1973), especially pp. 156-61.

7 Max Stirner, The Ego and His Own, trans. Steven T. Byington (New York, 1963), p. 311.

8 The most recent and convincing discussions of Stirner's relationship to anarchism are to be found in R. W. K. Paterson, The Nihilistic Egoist: Max Stirner (Oxford, 1971), ch. VI, and John Clark, Max Stirner's Egoism (London, 1976), ch. VI. Both Paterson and Clark find a logical gap between Stirner's egoistic moral premise and his anarchist conclusions. Their dispute is over the issue whether his egoism or his anarchism is more characteristic of his thought and hence whether he should be called an anarchist. It should be added that though as a theorist of anarchism Stirner is a disaster, he may still deserve his recognized place in the history of anarchist ideas.