Property is sacred: How Proudhon moulded anarchism

The Anarchist FAQ website, which is reasonably reflective of broad anarchist opinion, lists Max Stirner, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Michael Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin as the major anarchist thinkers.[1] In this article I intend to focus on Stirner and Proudhon, as they played a decisive role in establishing the anarchist world view and moulding the outlook of subsequent anarchists including Bakunin and Kropotkin. Indeed we can’t understand the outlook of the anarchist movement today without coming to grips with Stirner and Proudhon. So what did they stand for?

Let’s start with the German writer Max Stirner, most famous for his 1844 book The Ego and His Own. There is no doubt that Stirner still exercises a major influence on anarchist writers. According to An Anarchist FAQ “his ideas remain a cornerstone of anarchism”,[2] while the sympathetic historian of anarchism George Woodcock stated that Stirner had “a considerable influence in libertarian circles during the present [twentieth] century”.[3] The anarchist writer April Carter describes Stirner as “the next major anarchist theorist” after William Godwin,[4] and states that Stirner’s book “had an impact on Bakunin just when the latter was being radicalized for the first time in Young Hegelian circles”.[5]

In the words again of An Anarchist FAQ, Stirner argued for “an extreme form of individualism”,[6] which placed the individual above all else. Stirner believed that the concept of workers’ solidarity was “quite incomprehensible”.[7] Indeed for Stirner there was no common humanity or social morality other than the demands of the individual Ego. He proclaimed; “I, the egoist, have not at heart the welfare of this ‘human society’. I sacrifice nothing for it. I only utilize it”.[8] Stirner glorified crime and exalted murder, declaring:

I do not demand any right; therefore I need not recognize any either. What I can get by force I get by force and what I do not get by force I have no right to.[9]

As Woodcock puts it, Stirner

sets forth his ideal the egoist, the man who realizes himself in conflict with the collectivity and with other individuals, who does not shrink from the use of any means in the “war of each against all”, who judges everything ruthlessly from the viewpoint of his own well-being.[10]

There is nothing in any sense left-wing or progressive about such an approach. Stirner was a reactionary self-centred individualist. It is unsurprising that the reactionary philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had high regard for Stirner. As Woodcock writes:

There is no need to point out the resemblance between Stirner’s egoist and the superman of Nietzsche; Nietzsche himself regarded Stirner as one of the unrecognized seminal minds of the nineteenth century.[11]

Stirner was not in any serious sense anti-capitalist. Indeed he supported a market economy. He rejected political or social revolution in favour of individual ego rebellion, declaring:

[M]y object is not the overthrow of an established order but my elevation above it, my purpose and deed are not political and social, but egoistic. The revolution commands one to make arrangements; rebellion demands that one rise or exalt oneself.[12]

Reflecting this reactionary outlook Stirner abstained from any involvement in the revolutions that swept Germany and much of Europe in 1848 and 1849. However on the basis of his extreme individualism Stirner was anti-state, anti-authority and anti-hierarchy.

To be fair there are some anarchists, for example Lucien van der Walt and Michael Schmidt in their book Black Flame, who reject the view that figures such as Stirner and for that matter Proudhon are part of the anarchist tradition. They argue that “individualist anarchism” and “lifestyle anarchism” are not genuinely anarchist and that “class struggle anarchism” is the only true anarchism. It would undoubtedly be an important step forward if this was true as it would bring anarchism much closer to a Marxist approach. However as van der Walt and Schmidt concede, their standpoint is very much a minority view among anarchists. They acknowledge that the views of Stirner and other reactionary individualists like Nietzsche have had a significant impact on the anarchist movement.

This is clearly reflected in An Anarchist FAQ, which repeatedly quotes Stirner favourably and is obsessed with the individual and the need for “individual sovereignty”. It emphasises the individual much more than it does the collective struggle of the working class. An Anarchist FAQ states that “anarchists recognise that individuals are the basic unit of society and that only individuals have interests and feelings”. And it proclaims the need for individuals to free themselves.[13] This represents an abandonment of a class analysis of society. There is simply no way that individuals as individuals can in any meaningful way free themselves from capitalist rule. The only freedom possible is collective freedom. Freedom can only be obtained by mass collective working-class struggle that overthrows the rule of the capitalist class and smashes the capitalist state.

And it is totally wrong to believe that only individuals have interests. The working class very much has its own collective class interests – to improve its living standards, increase its democratic rights and to liberate itself as a class, not as a series of discrete individuals. Moreover a series of the interests and rights that workers have fought for – including the legalisation of trade unions, the right to assemble, the right to hold mass meetings, the right to vote, a public health system, free education, the ending of wars – are not individual rights but mass collective rights. The ruling class also has collective interests, to maintain their domination over workers and the poor, to expand their profits and market share, and so on.

An Anarchist FAQ argues: “For anarchists, the idea that individuals should sacrifice themselves for the ‘group’ or ‘greater good’ is nonsensical”.[14] But in any mass struggle or revolution that is precisely what workers and the oppressed have done time and time again – giving their lives in the hope that their sacrifice would help liberate their class. Just look at the recent protests in Myanmar, Kazakhstan or Hong Kong. Some brave people marched in the front rows knowing that they could well be tear-gassed, arrested, tortured or shot.

In virtually every strike individual workers make financial sacrifices for the good of the collective – both their own immediate workmates and often in the hope that any gains that they make will flow on to other workers they have never even met. They refuse to scab on a strike because they would be a traitor to their class. Similarly in the current COVID crisis, health workers and many other groups of essential workers risk their lives on a daily basis out of a broader collective responsibility. This collective approach is central to what makes us human – not individual egoism.

The strong emphasis by anarchists on individualism is not simply some foible of An Anarchist FAQ. Woodcock states: “Democracy advocates the sovereignty of the people. Anarchism advocated the sovereignty of the person”.[15] The anarchist historian Alexandre Skirda champions Stirner’s individualism.[16] As has already been noted, Bakunin was strongly influenced by Stirner. Woodcock points out that among anarchists in the 1890s and the early twentieth century there was a significant revival of interest in Stirner and his book The Ego and His Own was widely read.[17] Proudhon saw freedom in individual terms, not in working-class collective terms as a product of mass class struggle. The prominent British anarchist Nicolas Walter declared: “Nearly all individuals live in society, but society is nothing more than a collection of individuals”.[18] Similarly Emma Goldman, one of the best known twentieth century anarchists, insisted:

Anarchism alone stresses the importance of the individual, his possibilities and needs in a free society… Anarchism insists that the center of gravity in society is the individual.[19]

She declared:

I, too, will accept anarchist organization on just one condition: that it be based on the absolute respect for all individual initiatives and not obstruct their development or evolution.

The essential principle of anarchy is individual autonomy. The International will not be anarchist unless it wholly respects this principle.[20]

And as van der Walt and Schmidt note, even many anarchists who distance themselves from the extreme individualism of Stirner and accept the need for some form of organisation do so hesitantly, and advocate a loose organisation. This reflects a common anarchist idea that it is somehow authoritarian for an organisation to prescribe specific views and actions as a basis for membership, and to insist on a political program based on clear positions.

The ongoing influence of individualism among anarchists is also reflected in the fact that today’s anarcho-syndicalists and anarcho-communists who claim to stand for class struggle politics generally refuse to make a sharp break politically from lifestyle anarchists and other individualist anarchists. And consequently by default they go along with various individualist ideas hostile to class politics. In particular identity politics, being currently the most common form of middle-class liberal individualism today, are dominant in anarchist circles.[21]

Proudhon: “The master of us all”

As An Anarchist FAQ puts it,

individualism by definition includes no concrete programme for shaping social conditions. This was attempted by Proudhon…who had a profound effect on the growth of anarchism.[22]

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, famous for coining the phrase “property is theft”, is widely recognised as the founder of anarchism. As Proudhon’s anarchist biographer Woodcock states: “All the fundamental anarchist ideas are there [in Proudhon’s writings]; it was only in matters of tactics that his successors have ever really differed from him”.[23] An Anarchist FAQ agrees, stating: “It would be no exaggeration to state that Proudhon’s work defined the fundamental nature of anarchism”.[24] Anarchist historian Alexandre Skirda credits Proudhon with providing “the inception of the notion of abstention from politics” which is a key pillar of anarchism.[25] Even left-wing anarchists like van der Walt and Schmidt, despite being very critical of Proudhon, acknowledge he influenced anarchism profoundly.

Both Kropotkin and Bakunin admired Proudhon. Kropotkin described him as “the father of anarchy”, while Bakunin famously proclaimed that in his “instinct” for freedom Proudhon was “the master of us all”[26] and that his own ideas were simply Proudhon’s ideas “widely developed and pushed right to these, its final consequences”.[27] EH Carr in his biography of Bakunin argues that “it was Proudhon more than any other man who was responsible for transforming Bakunin’s instinctive revolt against authority into a regular anarchist creed”.[28] Eugene Pyziur in his study of Bakunin writes:

[I]t must be stressed that it was due to the influence of Proudhon’s ideas that Bakunin’s instinctive rebellionism was transformed into a formulated, doctrinaire anarchist creed. It was Proudhon who provided Bakunin with the theorems and concepts which were essential to him in his later creation of a species of anarchist doctrine, when this became necessary for Bakunin in his duel with Marx.[29]

There is no doubt that Proudhon was one of the most influential radical figures in France in the 1840s and 1850s. He edited probably the most widely read paper in Paris around the time of the 1848 revolution, with a daily circulation of 40,000 copies at its peak.[30] This was quite an amazing achievement for the time. And this was no tabloid scandal sheet but a serious publication with lengthy articles. Proudhon’s mass support was reflected in his election to parliament, first at a by-election and then again with an increased majority at the May 1849 general elections. His influence continued well after his death in 1865. The Proudhonist current, which he inspired, was the major radical current in France for some decades, playing a substantial (if often quite negative) role in the 1871 Paris Commune.

Proudhon promoted a range of reactionary ideas that anarchists today would find highly embarrassing. I do not have the space to provide a full charge sheet, but here is a representative sample.

Proudhon was hostile to trade unions and to strikes, and at times called for them to be suppressed by the authorities. He condemned strikes for provoking hostility to employers and being contrary to the right of free competition. He viewed trade unions as an assault on individual freedom and denounced as outrageous trade union attempts to interfere with workshop management. As van der Walt and Schmidt comment: “From his Mutualist perspective, strikes were at best irrelevant and at worst a positive threat; they were not really a viable means of struggle for his constituency of petty commodity producers”.[31] In his election campaign he called on workers to “offer their erstwhile employers the hand of friendship”.[32] In his last complete work, The Political Capacity of the Working-Classes, he called on workers to form an alliance with the bourgeoisie and criticised them for having “been too busy with their own wrongs to understand the sorrows of the middle classes”.[33]

He opposed voting rights for workers, declaring that “universal suffrage is the counter-revolution”.[34] He supported the right of the slave-owning states of the United States to secede at the time of the US Civil War.[35] He opposed the abolition of capital punishment. He was stridently anti-Semitic, declaring:

Jews. Write an article against this race that poisons everything by sticking its nose into everything without ever mixing with any other people. Demand its expulsion from France with the exception of those individuals married to French women. Abolish synagogues and not admit them to any employment… Finally, pursue the abolition of this religion… The Jew is the enemy of humankind. They must be sent back to Asia or be exterminated… The Jew must disappear by steel or by fusion or by expulsion… The hatred of the Jew like the hatred of the English should be our first article of political faith.[36]

Proudhon idealised the nuclear family as a core unit of society that had to be protected at all costs. For that reason he opposed divorce and sexual freedom, especially for women. As Carter comments: “Proudhon, unlike most anarchists, sees a positive value in a marriage ceremony”.[37] He was an extreme sexist, notoriously declaring that a “woman knows enough if she knows enough to mend our shirts and cook us a steak”. According to Proudhon men must be the master in the house. Women should be denied all rights in money and business. As he put it: “Men must always be superior to the women, as three is to two”.[38] Despite being hostile to the church, he thought religion a good thing for women given that they were supposedly incapable “of taking a place in the life of society in their own right”.[39]

When it came to political strategy Proudhon was a reformist, making it clear in a letter to Karl Marx in 1844 that he opposed “violent revolution”.[40]

Yet despite all this, Proudhon was upheld for decades by anarchists as a champion of human freedom against the supposedly authoritarian Marx. Such arguments ignore Marx’s polemics in favour of democratic working-class organisation and the vital role of strikes against Proudhon’s reactionary views.[41] Right up until the present day the litany of Proudhon’s backward positions has been covered up or apologised for or brushed aside by numerous anarchist writers.[42] There are a few honourable exceptions among anarchists, such as van der Walt and Schmidt, who denounce and disown Proudhon. Murray Bookchin is also highly critical of him. However they are very much in a minority, with book after book by anarchists championing Proudhon. Most anarchists simply ignore Proudhon’s hostility to strikes and tend to brush aside his sexism and anti-Semitism as unfortunate side issues. But to just take one example, championing the nuclear family was not some side issue for Proudhon. It was a central element of his whole world view, a cornerstone of his “small is beautiful” federalist standpoint. The great bulk of anarchists refuse to acknowledge that Proudhon’s hostility to strikes and his sexism and anti-Semitism are integral to his overall petty-bourgeois populist politics and social base. The anarchist unwillingness to sharply disown Proudhon is but a reflection of the fact that many of Proudhon’s core ideas remain central to anarchism right down to the present day.

Abstract and classless anti-authoritarianism

At the centre of Proudhon’s world view is a hostility to all forms of authority as an infringement of individual freedom, which, like Stirner, Proudhon upheld as an absolute principle. Proudhon declared that he was for the “complete freedom of every man for himself and his family, and to the association of fellow workers into which he enters under the terms of a contract”.[43] As he wrote in The General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century:

The idea of contract excludes that of government… What characterises the contract, the mutual convention, is that in virtue of this convention man’s liberty and wellbeing increase, whilst by the institution of an authority, both necessarily diminish.[44]

Proudhon saw all forms of authority, whether it be God or, above all, the state, as the fundamental problem in society. He viewed the state as hostile to the natural order of society. All that was needed to achieve human freedom was for the state to simply disappear or be abolished. But this was simply utopian nonsense. As the Marxist theorist Hal Draper notes:

[T]he state performed a necessary function for society, and was not a mere excrescence or cancer, and that therefore it could not be “abolished” until society was able to perform this function with different institutions. This is the stumbling block over which anarchism breaks its neck theoretically.[45]

Proudhon opposed all forms of representative democracy as hierarchical and authoritarian. He believed that democracy would usher in a period of retrogression that would bring the nation and the state to ruin. He also opposed the mass of workers exercising direct democracy as he argued it would lead to just another form of authoritarian rule.[46] This reflected his contempt for the masses who he believed would always support authoritarian leaders.

The people…by reason of their ignorance, the primitiveness of their instincts, the urgency of their needs and the impatience of their wishes, they incline to summary forms of authority… They seek a leader whose word they trust, whose intentions are known to them, and whom they believe devoted to their interests; to him they give unlimited authority and irresistible power…all they have faith in is the will of a man.[47]

As Carter comments: “Proudhon argued in The Federative Principle that historically the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie have tended to protect liberty and federalism, whilst the masses have supported a despotic and unitary state”. Consequently democracy, universal suffrage and the referendum must be opposed, as “the people as a whole must be protected from their own folly by a federal structure which limits the effects of their mistakes”.[48]

Proudhon’s classless opposition to authority and the state also led him to oppose inheritance taxes on the rich; indeed he saw any form of taxation on the rich as oppressive.[49] Wealth taxes would just concentrate the control of wealth in the state; much better just to leave it decentralised in the arms of the bosses. Similarly he opposed nationalisation of the banks and of giant corporations, even if it occurred under workers’ control.

Following the same abstract anti-statism, Proudhon opposed making any demands on the state for reforms that would benefit workers. He opposed all government welfare payments for workers and the poor, including age pensions and free healthcare. Most controversially in terms of practical politics at the time of the 1848 revolution in France, Proudhon opposed the most popular demand of the workers of Paris that the government create jobs for them.

Proudhon’s second core principle was opposition to all forms of centralism, which he spuriously claimed was innately authoritarian. He was for a completely decentralised, small-scale society which he believed was inherently progressive. He declared that “all of my political views can be stripped down to a similar formula: political federation or decentralization”.[50] This fetish for decentralisation led Proudhon, as mentioned previously, to back the southern US slave states breaking away from Abraham Lincoln’s centralised republic – the epitome of his classless world view. He praised the Austrian monarchy as it was moving towards a decentralised empire. His “small is beautiful” approach also led him to favour small reactionary monarchies over unified republics. He claimed: “In a little state, there is nothing for the bourgeoisie to profit from”.[51] Consequently he opposed Italian unification, defended the Papal States and lamented the defeat of the armies of the ultra-reactionary King Francis of Naples by Garibaldi’s rebel forces.

Proudhon’s solution to society’s ills was that workers and small producers should set up their own companies to compete on the capitalist market. They would then ruin the big capitalists by out-competing them on the market, and by denuding them of a labour force. At the centre of this fantasy was a People’s Bank to which ordinary people would loan their money and which in turn would provide cheap credit to finance the producer-owned companies. This schema, known as Mutualism, would succeed according to Proudhon by simply ignoring the state. Definitely there should be no recourse to violence by the oppressed, or expropriation of those with existing wealth. At most all that would be needed was a campaign of civil disobedience and passive resistance.

The producer-owned companies would be federated together by mutual agreement. The state would become redundant. Freedom of trade and the market would, however, continue to exist and money would still circulate. Indeed Proudhon stridently opposed communal equality and collective working class ownership of industry, and “defended the rights of private property as a necessary bulwark of personal liberty”.[52]

Proudhon’s schema was a typical petty-bourgeois utopia reflecting the social class from which he came and sought support. As the anarchist writer April Carter puts it: “The type of anarchism developed by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon…idealized the sturdy independence of the small peasant proprietor or skilled craftsman”.[53] Similarly Woodcock notes: “The ideal of the free peasant life was to become a shaping element in Proudhon’s social and political thought”.[54] Proudhon had owned a small printing business that went broke. And this libertarian very much saw the paper he edited as his own individual property, subject to his dictatorial control.[55]

As Marx wrote:

From head to foot M. Proudhon is the philosopher and economist of the petty-bourgeoisie…he is dazed by the magnificence of the big bourgeoisie and has sympathy for the sufferings of the people. He is at once both bourgeois and man of the people. Deep down in his heart he flatters himself that he is impartial and has found the right equilibrium… A petty-bourgeois of this type glorifies contradiction [in his theorising] because contradiction is the basis of his existence. He is himself nothing but social contradiction in action. He must justify in theory what he is in practice.[56]

Proudhon decreed that under his schema, “Retail trade should be left to the small shopkeeper”.[57] Indeed he championed the right to be a shopkeeper, the rights of other small business owners and he opposed consumers’ cooperatives that were being set up to compete with them. Similarly Proudhon proclaimed that peasants would own their own patch of land and compete in a market economy. Property would be bought and sold but large landowners would not be permitted. So ironically, despite being famous for the phrase “property is theft” Proudhon, as one of his biographers DW Brogan notes, “explained, for twenty years, that he was a defender, not an enemy of property”.[58] According to Proudhon it was only large-scale industry, which he did not view favourably, that would be run as producer-owned companies. However he opposed workers forcibly seizing capitalist companies as a violation of property rights, and also opposed workers’ co-operatives.[59] As Fredrick Engels put it, Proudhon “wants existing society, but without its abuses”.[60]

Large income differentials of up to three to one were to be allowed under Proudhon’s Mutualist utopia. No welfare payments would be available to the poor. As Hyams, who is very sympathetic to Proudhon, puts it: “Mutualism, excluding welfarism, has to tolerate poverty; but not degrading poverty”.[61] Proudhon supported piece work and fee for service, and saw competition on the market by individuals as very important to ensure that they worked hard. He argued:

The most deplorable error of socialism is to have considered it [competition] as the disorder of society. There can…be…no question of destroying competition… It is a matter of finding an equilibrium, one could say a policing agent.[62]

Unsurprisingly the Mutualist schema was an abject failure when put to the test of practice. Reflecting his own naivety, and in contradiction to his proclaimed anti-state principles, Proudhon called on the French government to fund his People’s Bank.[63] When the government refused his request, he tried to establish a People’s Bank on the basis of private financial subscriptions. It quickly collapsed – though it should be noted that this proclaimed libertarian appointed himself “the sole responsible manager” of the bank, registering it as “PJ Proudhon and Company”.[64] Indeed he attempted to impose dictatorial control over the entire Mutualist system.[65] The whole project was of course an utter fantasy. As though the capitalist class and its state were ever going to allow themselves to be peacefully forced out of existence by competition from producer-owned enterprises. If Proudhon’s Mutualist enterprises had started to pose any serious threat to big business the police and army would have been unleashed to crush them.

The final core element of Proudhon’s philosophy was hostility to political organisation and parties, and to politics in a more general sense. For Proudhon, the masses should not look to political solutions to their problems. They should rely instead solely on their own economic strength. It was by economic competition from producer-owned enterprises that the existing order would be undermined. In the 1848 revolution in France no revolutionary working-class party existed to organise the ranks of the rebellious workers of Paris or to provide a socialist political alternative to the bourgeois Republicans. Proudhon’s influential anti-party current opposed any such attempt, which helped contribute to the terrible defeat and mass repression that workers suffered.

Proudhon’s ongoing legacy

Later anarchists like Bakunin and Kropotkin ditched some of the more outlandish and utterly reactionary elements of Proudhon’s politics. Anarchists today don’t campaign against strikes or oppose divorce or taxes on the rich or want to abolish age pensions. Anarchists, with rare exceptions, no longer champion the idea of a People’s Bank as the way forward to freedom. Nonetheless as An Anarchist FAQ acknowledges, Proudhon’s core principles still profoundly influence anarchism.

Bakunin and other anarchists such as Errico Malatesta saw themselves as revolutionaries and rejected Proudhon’s reformist perspective that capitalism and the state could gradually be abolished or fade away in the face of economic competition from producer-owned enterprises. But Proudhon’s reformist orientation is embodied in the approach of lifestyle and individualist anarchists, who form easily the largest anarchist current today. Lifestyle anarchists believe that by disavowing the norms of mainstream society and living an alternative lifestyle in communes or squats, by eating ethically, growing their own food, dumpster diving or running soup kitchens they can escape the state, or make it irrelevant and thus lay the basis for freedom. Just like Proudhon they don’t see the collective struggle of the working class as the key to liberating humanity.

But it is not just the lifestyle anarchists who don’t recognise that it is only the collective power of the working class that can liberate humanity. Various anarchists who would see themselves as revolutionaries look to classes or social layers other than the working class as a revolutionary liberating force. Indeed Bakunin viewed the Russian peasant commune as a basis for socialism.[66] He looked to a whole variety of non-proletarian social layers – peasants, criminal elements, students, petty-bourgeois intellectuals – to tear down bourgeois society. Bakunin considered the “world of tramps, thieves, and brigands” to be among “the best and truest conductors of a people’s revolution” as they were gifted with “evil passions” and the “devil in the flesh”.[67]

Similarly the Narodniks in Russia saw the peasantry as the revolutionary force and dismissed the workers. Right down to this very day many anarchists, including An Anarchist FAQ, hold up Nestor Makhno’s peasant army in Russia as a force that could have established an anarchist society. But it is not just An Anarchist FAQ that looks to the peasantry as an anarchist force. Even some of the most left-wing anarchists like van der Walt and Schmidt champion Makhno – a reflection of the fact that like Proudhon they don’t have a thoroughgoing class analysis of society.[68] They argue that the property-owning peasantry can, by a voluntaristic act of will, create socialism even in a poverty-stricken pre-capitalist society. Material conditions do not matter to them. “It was not necessary to wait for capitalism to create the material basis for freedom, freedom would create its own material basis.”[69]

The continuing influence of Proudhon’s petty-bourgeois utopian outlook is also reflected in anarchist circles in their opposition to centralised working-class power and support for decentralised, small-scale local communities or collectives linked up only by loose and voluntary federation. It is not simply lifestyle anarchists who adhere to this Proudhon-derived orientation. Bakunin was a strident supporter of federalism, as was Peter Kropotkin, who savaged the 1871 Paris Commune for setting up a system of representative democracy.[70] In their virulent opposition to centralisation An Anarchist FAQ and van der Walt and Schmidt are definitely representative of current anarchist opinion.

An Anarchist FAQ opposes “any form of organisation based on the delegation of power”[71] and argues that only on the basis of decentralisation “both structurally and territorially can individual liberty be fostered and encouraged”.[72] Some modern day anarchists go even further, arguing for an almost total decentralisation of production and the creation of self-sufficient autonomous local economies. This is an absolute impossibility for any modern society. You can’t confine the operations of the internet or the phone system or the roads, railways, airlines or shipping industry or the health system to one local village or even to one large city.

In Proudhon’s case, support for decentralisation reflected the hostility of peasants, small shopkeepers and other small business owners to the growth of large-scale industry employing masses of workers. But there is nothing inherently progressive about decentralisation and small scale industry. It is simply looking back to a highly idealised image of an earlier form of class society (and a very brutal one at that) which is long gone. Such a society could only be re-established following some cataclysmic collapse of human civilisation brought on by nuclear war or climate change.

Against this reactionary utopianism, Marxists argue that it is precisely the bringing together of workers on a mass scale in large-scale industry and huge cities that laid the basis for working class power and for genuine democratic control over society. Workers in, for example, large hospitals, supermarkets, schools or warehouses have much greater potential power than the tiny number of staff at your local GP clinic, cafe or corner store. And consequently they have a much greater capacity to establish democratic forms of organisation. It is no accident that workers in large workplaces have been, for well over a hundred years, the key driving force of all the major workers’ uprisings and were the initiators of mass democratic organisations such as workers’ councils.

Centralism is inherently more democratic than federalism and decentralised localised decision-making. It is impossible to hold governments, party leaders or trade union officials to account simply by passing motions or taking action at the local level. Moreover, centralised decision-making is vital for resolving the key challenges facing working-class people, whether it be climate change, the COVID crisis, living standards, food distribution, the refugee question or imperialist war.

In contrast, federalism, as Proudhon was very explicit about, was aimed at frustrating the popular will and democratic rights of the great mass of workers and the oppressed. Subsequent generations of anarchists endorsed Proudhon’s anti-democratic approach. As An Anarchist FAQ puts it, “Malatesta speaks for all anarchists when he argued that ‘anarchists deny the right of the majority to govern human society in general’”.[73]

Consensus decision-making, a fad which most autonomists and anarchists have embraced, can play a similar role in frustrating the democratic rights of the majority. And as for the idea that decentralisation is a means to prevent top-down bureaucratic control and reformist degeneration of working-class organisations, experience has shown that decentralised anarcho-syndicalist trade unions have proven to be just as prone to such degeneration as more centralised unions.

Furthermore, when it comes to the central question for revolutionaries of how to successfully challenge the power of the capitalist class, small decentralised federated groups are simply not fit for the task. The capitalist class and its state are organised centrally; if they are to be defeated they need to be challenged by democratically organised and centralised working-class power.

Class-blind anti-statism

The continuing influence of Proudhon’s ideas, even on anarchists who proclaim themselves to be class-struggle anarchists, is most pronounced around the question of the state. Like Proudhon their theoretical starting point is hostility to all forms of authority and hierarchy. For them the central problem is not the class nature of society and the exploitation of the working class by the capitalist ruling class, but states in general. This leads anarchists to oppose the working class imposing its own rule on society via a workers’ state, even the most democratic one imaginable. Their thoroughly abstract anti-statism leads anarchists to make no distinction between the capitalist state and a democratic workers’ state. Both are equally bad as far as anarchists are concerned and must be resolutely opposed. This means that in a revolutionary struggle, when the working class is striving for power, anarchists end up either being paralysed politically and hence irrelevant, or it leads them to argue to workers that they should not take power. But as Trotsky famously argued: “To renounce the conquest of power is voluntarily to leave the power with those who wield it, the exploiters”.[74]

This is precisely what happened in the course of the 1936 revolution in Spain, when the Spanish anarcho-syndicalists of the CNT (National Confederation of Labour) refused to take power, even though they were the overwhelmingly dominant force in Catalonia and the surrounding region. The Spanish anarchists argued that taking power was corrupting, and against their libertarian principles. But this just strengthened the hand of the counter-revolutionary Stalinist and reformist forces, enabling them to rebuild the crippled bourgeois state and eventually crush the revolution. Even worse, the anarcho-syndicalists, while refusing to support the establishment of a workers’ state, then took positions as cabinet ministers in the capitalist republican government. Their refusal to make a distinction between a workers’ state and a capitalist state in the context of a revolutionary upheaval ended up leading the anarchist leaders to act simply as reformist politicians propping up the bourgeois state.

A few genuinely revolutionary-inclined anarchists have recognised some of the problems with the whole anarchist approach to the question of workers taking state power. They have seriously tried to confront the question of how society is to be organised in the immediate aftermath of a revolution, and in particular how to defend the revolution from a pro-capitalist counter-revolution. While they still say they are not for a workers’ state, proposals from the more honest and level-headed of them look very similar to what Marxists would consider to be a democratic workers’ state. But the failure of even these more left-wing anarchists to fully clarify their approach to working-class political power severely limits their ability to play a positive leading role in any revolutionary upheaval.

An inability to politically challenge reformism

Well short of a revolutionary situation, the anarchist shibboleth of opposition to all authority undermines their ability to advance working-class interests in immediate day-to-day struggles and to combat the influence of reformism. As Anthony Arblaster wrote: “It is absurdly ahistorical to suggest that at all times and in all places it is the state which is ‘the main enemy of the free individual.’”[75] We have seen this very clearly in the COVID crisis. The left could not abstain from placing political demands on governments to provide better state health services; to roll out an effective vaccination program, to safely quarantine infected people, to use control measures to help prevent the spread of the disease, and so on. It was important to demand more state intervention into the economy: to provide support for workers unable to work and stricter state regulation of employers to ensure workplaces were safe.

The same general approach applies on issue after issue. On climate change, the left needs to be campaigning for governments to shut down polluting industries. Socialists should vigorously oppose the privatisation of state-run services that are vital for working-class people. We need state provision of free and safe public transport, public education, major increases in pensions and unemployment benefits, and so on. But the placing of such demands on the state goes very much against the grain of anarchism and autonomism.

Proudhon’s abstract anti-statism has had a long-lasting influence on the approach of anarchists. Anarchists opposed to or were at least extremely sceptical about reforms for workers delivered by the state, whether it be legislation for the eight-hour working day, the nationalisation of core public services, a government-run health service or even age pensions or unemployment benefits. Peter Kropotkin argued that all “legislation made within the state has to be repudiated because it has always been made with regard to the interests of the privileged classes”.[76] Anarchist opposition to the nationalising of the banks contributed to the defeat of the 1871 Paris Commune and the 1936 Spanish revolution. In their heyday prior to World War I, many syndicalists opposed state welfare measures which they believed “inculcated loyalty to the state machinery, sapped the fighting spirit of workers, and were reforms provided from above, rather than won from below”.[77] In the 1920s some anarchist unions went as far as organising strikes against the introduction of welfare measures. Even modern day anarchists such as van der Walt and Schmidt argue the absurd proposition that: “Only laws forced on the state from without, by the direct action of the popular masses, could benefit the masses”.[78] So a regular pension rise or the building of a new hospital or free child care does not benefit the masses?

Similarly, as noted previously, Proudhon opposed campaigns for the right to vote. This approach was maintained by considerable sections of the anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist movement for many decades after Proudhon’s death. Prominent US Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) leaders like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn opposed the campaign for the right for women to vote, arguing that it was absolutely irrelevant for working-class women and a setback to the cause of working class liberation.[79] This approach simply abandoned the leadership of the US women’s suffrage movement to bourgeois and middle-class forces who opposed militant working-class action and who sought to limit the campaign to demanding a restricted franchise – banning African Americans and poorer working-class women from voting.

Similarly, anarchist opposition to demanding the expansion of state health and welfare services only served to isolate them from the mass of workers who were vitally dependent on such reforms. This approach severely limited the ability of anarchists to challenge the hold of the reformist parties, which by way of contrast appeared to be delivering for workers.

In practice anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists had no serious operational strategy for undermining the hold of reformism politically. They had no transitional approach. They essentially just stood on the sidelines denouncing the reformist leaders and were ignored by the bulk of working-class militants. Most anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists, for example, rejected as a point of principle the tactic of placing demands on reformists to deliver major reforms for workers, whereas for Marxists this was an important tactic for putting reformists to the test and exposing their shortcomings, if and when they fail to deliver.

The abstract anarchist shibboleth of opposition to every form of authority and hierarchy and all states ties in with a broader anti-politicism in anarchism. It leads to political abstentionism that abandons the field of struggle on vital political terrains to the liberals, populists and reformists. It just means that the reformist leaders go unchallenged by revolutionaries.

There is a general hostility by anarchists to standing in parliamentary elections, whereas Marxists see this as a vital arena for a mass socialist party to engage in political agitation, recruit to its ranks, gauge the level of support it has among workers and pose an alternative to the reformists. Then there is the anarchist hostility to anything approaching a united front, ie revolutionaries making demands on reformist leaders to engage in joint day-to-day struggle in defence of working-class living standards and democratic rights. For Marxists the united front is a vital means to advance working-class struggle and to show in practice the difference between a reformist and revolutionary approach to the defence of working-class interests and democratic rights. Then there is the example of Occupy Wall Street where the autonomist/anarchist leaders opposed the idea of raising any demands at all, which just let the ruling class off the hook, and led participants instead towards utopian ideas about building prefigurative communes.

Finally there is the hostility of anarchists to the whole idea of workers having their own political party, which for Marxists of course is a central question. The anarchist approach in reality involves a massive historical fudge. The fact that Bakunin formed his own political organisation/party – the Alliance – is conveniently denied by most anarchists. The Alliance was a secret conspiratorial and highly authoritarian organisation subject to Bakunin’s personal dictatorial control.[80] As Bakunin put it, the Alliance was a “powerful but always invisible revolutionary association” that will “prepare and direct the revolution”, “the invisible pilots guiding the Revolution…the collective dictatorship of all our allies”.[81] Bakunin glorified the “secret organisation” that his friend and collaborator, the appalling murderer Nechaev supposedly led in Russia, as “a kind of general staff of the revolutionary army”, “strong in the discipline, the passionate dedication, and the self-sacrifice of its members and unconditionally obedient to all the orders and directives of a single Committee that knew everyone, but was known to no one”.[82] This is precisely the opposite of the sort of democratic mass working-class revolutionary party that Marxists aspire to build.

So what is the Marxist alternative?

The starting point for Marxists is a concrete class analysis of society. Marxists recognise that the only force that has the power to overthrow capitalist rule and establish a genuinely democratic collective society is the working class. Marxists, unlike anarchists, do not start from some abstract principle of “individual autonomy”. Human beings are not isolated discrete individuals but “social individuals” that engage in collective social labour and collective struggle. As Paul Blackledge writes:

Marx does not deny the concept of human freedom… Indeed, the concept of human freedom is a major theme of both his early and mature work. Thus in the Grundrisse he defined freedom as a process through which “social individuals” come to realise themselves through their labours.[83]

Similarly, in Capital Marx argued:

Freedom…can consist only in this, that socialised man, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their common control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power.[84]

To move down that road the working class must utilise its organised collective power to establish its own class rule. So socialists don’t aim to “abolish authority” but rather to win the battle for democracy. Socialists fight to smash the undemocratic form of authority that currently exists under capitalism and replace it with a democratic alternative. As Marx and Engels put it:

The abolition of the state has only one meaning for the Communists: it is the necessary result of the abolition of classes, whereupon of itself the need for the organised power of one class to suppress another ceases to exist.[85]

Socialists recognise that there is no reformist road to genuine democracy and human liberation. A working-class revolution is necessary both to break the power of the capitalist class and its state but also because it is in the course of collective revolutionary struggle that mass consciousness is fundamentally transformed and workers make themselves fit to rule a new socialist society.

Workers need to smash the existing state apparatus and establish their own state power based on their democratic organs of power – workers’ councils. To lead that struggle and to have any hope of victory, the most politically advanced and class-conscious workers need to be organised in a disciplined, democratic revolutionary socialist party: a party that argues for a clear political direction, strategy and tactics to take the revolution forward; and that combats the reformist forces that will relentlessly attempt to derail mass revolts that challenge capitalism.


An Anarchist FAQ.

Arblaster, Anthony 1971, “The Relevance of Anarchism”, Socialist Register 1971, Merlin.

Armstrong, Mick 2016, “Nestor Makhno: the failure of anarchism”, Marxist Left Review, 12, Winter.

Blackledge, Paul 2008, “Marxism and ethics”, International Socialism, 120, Autumn.

Blackledge, Paul 2010, “Marxism and anarchism”, International Socialism, 125, Winter.

Brogan, DW 1934, Proudhon, Hamish Hamilton.

Carr, EH 1961, Michael Bakunin, Vintage.

Carter, April 1971, The Political Theory of Anarchism, Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Draper, Hal 1969, “A Note on the Father of Anarchism”, New Politics, Vol. 8, No. 1, Winter.

Draper, Hal 1978, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Vol. II. The politics of social classes, Monthly Review Press.

Draper, Hal 1990, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Vol. IV. Critique of other socialisms, Monthly Review Press.

Garnham, Sarah 2021, “The failure of identity politics: A Marxist analysis”, Marxist Left Review, 22, Winter.

Goldman, Emma et al 1907, “Anarchy and Organization: The Debate at the 1907 International Anarchist Congress”.

Goldman, Emma 2017, A Nearly Complete Collection of Emma Goldman’s Writings, compiled by DH Lewis.

Graham, Robert n.d., The General Idea of Proudhon’s Revolution.

Guerin, Daniel 1970, Anarchism, Monthly Review Press.

Hyams, Edward 1979, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. His Revolutionary Life, Mind and Works, Taplinger Publishing Company.

Kropotkin, Peter 1970, “Modern Science and Anarchism”, Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets: A Collection of Writings by Peter Kropotkin, Roger Baldwin (ed.), Dover.

Marx, Karl 1976, “The Poverty of Philosophy. An Answer to the Philosophy of Poverty by M. Proudhon”, Collected Works, Vol. 6, Lawrence and Wishart.

Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels 1978, Collected Works, Vol. 10, International Publishers.

Marx, Karl 1981, Capital, Vol. 3, Penguin.

McKay, Iain 2009, Review: Proudhon’s General Idea of the Revolution.

Mendel, Arthur P 1981, Michael Bakunin. Roots of Apocalypse, Praeger.

Proudhon, Pierre Joseph 1847, On the Jews.

Pyziur, Eugene 1955, The Doctrine of Anarchism of Michael A. Bakunin, Gateway.

Skirda, Alexandre 2002, Facing the Enemy. A History of Anarchist Organization from Proudhon to May 1968, AK Press.

Stirner, Max 1844, The Ego and His Own.

Tax, Meredith 1980, The Rising of the Women, Monthly Review Press.

Trotsky, Leon, 1973, The Spanish Revolution, Pathfinder.

Van der Walt, Lucien and Michael Schmidt 2009, Black Flame – The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism, AK Press.

Walter, Nicolas 1969, “About Anarchism”, Anarchy, Vol. 9, No. 6.

Woodcock, George 1962, Anarchism, Penguin Books.

Woodcock, George 1987, Proudhon, Black Rose Books.

[1] “Who are the major anarchist thinkers?”, An Anarchist FAQ.

[2] “Who are the major anarchist thinkers?”, An Anarchist FAQ.

[3] Woodcock 1962, p.88.

[4] Carter 1971, p.1.

[5] Draper 1990, p.114.

[6] “Who are the major anarchist thinkers?”, An Anarchist FAQ.

[7] Blackledge 2008, p.134.

[8] Stirner 1844.

[9] Stirner 1844.

[10] Woodcock 1962, pp.88-9.

[11] Woodcock 1962, p.88.

[12] Stirner 1844.

[13] “Are anarchists individualists or collectivists?”, An Anarchist FAQ.

[14] “Are anarchists individualists or collectivists?”, An Anarchist FAQ.

[15] Woodcock 1962, p.30.

[16] Skirda 2002, pp.5-6.

[17] Woodcock 1962, p.91.

[18] Walter 1969.

[19] Goldman 2017, p.1134.

[20] Goldman et al 1907.

[21] For a critique of identity politics see Garnham 2021.

[22] “Who are the major anarchist thinkers?”, An Anarchist FAQ.

[23] Woodcock 1987, p.xix.

[24] “Who are the major anarchist thinkers?”, An Anarchist FAQ.

[25] Skirda 2002, p.7.

[26] van der Walt and Schmidt 2009, p.84.

[27] McKay 2009.

[28] Carr 1961, p.137.

[29] Pyziur 1955, p.32.

[30] Hyams 1979, p.97.

[31] van der Walt and Schmidt 2009, p.84.

[32] Hyams 1979, p.126.

[33] Quoted in Brogan 1934, p.82.

[34] Blackledge 2010, p.144.

[35] Hyams 1979, p.286.

[36] Proudhon 1847. Bakunin was arguably a more vile racist and anti-Semite than Proudhon. See Mendel 1981, pp.330-31, 354, 381-87.

[37] Carter 1971, p.48.

[38] Quoted in Hyams 1979, p.271.

[39] Brogan 1934, p.75.

[40] Hyams 1979, p.58.

[41] Marx 1976, pp.206-12.

[42] A classic case being George Woodcock’s 1969 Encounter article celebrating Proudhon’s Notebooks, quoted in Draper 1969.

[43] Quoted in Hyams 1979, p.122.

[44] Quoted in Brogan 1934, p.60.

[45] Draper 1990, p.120.

[46] Hyams 1979, p.183.

[47] Quoted in Hyams 1979, pp.252-53.

[48] Carter 1971, p.72.

[49] Hyams 1979, p.6. For the classic demolition of Proudhon’s economic theories see Marx 1976.

[50] Quoted in Skirda 2002, p.7.

[51] Quoted in Woodcock 1987, p.246.

[52] Carter 1971, p.73.

[53] Carter 1971, p.2.

[54] Woodcock 1962, p.102.

[55] Hyams 1979, p.176.

[56] Quoted in Draper 1978, pp.293-94.

[57] Hyams 1979, p.281.

[58] Brogan 1934, p.27.

[59] Hyams pp.281-85.

[60] Quoted in Draper 1978, p.295.

[61] Hyams 1979, p.280.

[62] Guerin, pp.52-3.

[63] Graham, n.d.

[64] Woodcock 1987, p.143.

[65] Draper 1969.

[66] van der Walt and Schmidt 2009, p.97.

[67] Mendel 1981, p.346.

[68] For a Marxist critique of Makhno see Armstrong 2016.

[69] van der Walt and Schmidt 2009, pp.97-8.

[70] Blackledge 2010, p.148.

[71] “Why do anarchists emphasise liberty?”, An Anarchist FAQ.

[72] “What sort of society do anarchists want?”, An Anarchist FAQ.

[73] “Why are most anarchists in favour of direct democracy?”, An Anarchist FAQ.

[74] Trotsky 1973, p.316.

[75] Arblaster 1971.

[76] Kropotkin 1970, p.165.

[77] van der Walt and Schmidt 2009, p.223.

[78] van der Walt and Schmidt 2009, p.53.

[79] Tax, pp.181-82.

[80] Mendel 1981.

[81] van der Walt and Schmidt 2009, p.249.

[82] Mendel 1981, p.335.

[83] Blackledge 2008, p.135.

[84] Marx 1981, p.959.

[85] Marx and Engels 1978, p.333.

You have successfully subscribed to the newsletter

There was an error while trying to send your request. Please try again.

Marxist Left Review will use the information you provide on this form to be in touch with you and to provide updates and marketing.