1 Why have anarchists viewed the state as evil and oppressive?
Anarchism is distinguished by a principled rejection of the state, in all its forms, as evil and oppressive.
Anarchists emphasise that state authority is sovereign, compulsory, coercive, oppressive and destructive; the state is nothing less than legalised oppression operating in the interests of the powerful, propertied and privileged.
The basis for this view of the state is the idea that political authority in any shape or form is absolutely corrupting.
Although, in other respects, anarchists are highly optimistic about human nature, they warn that people become tyrants when raised above others by power, privilege and wealth.
This view amounts to a more extreme version of the liberal fear of power, and state power is, by definition, untameable.
2 How do the anarchist and Marxist views of the state differ?
Anarchists view the state as a form of concentrated evil. Such a view is rooted in their theory of human nature and the belief that any form of political power is absolutely corrupting.
The oppressive character of the state is heightened by the type of authority it exercises. Its authority is compulsory in the sense that citizens do not choose to become members of the state; it is coercive in that the state punishes those who challenge its authority; it is all-encompassing in that (potentially) the state’s authority knows no limits; it is exploitative in that the state extracts wealth from its citizens through taxation; and it is destructive in the sense that the state wages war for its own aggrandisement, calling on its own citizens to either kill or be killed.
The Marxist theory of the state is different in that the state’s oppressive character derives from the class system and not from human nature. For Marxists, the state is an instrument of class oppression, wielded by the economically dominant class to suppress subordinate classes.
Although Marxists have sought to overthrow the capitalist state, they have not rejected all states as evil and oppressive. In particular, they have called for the establishment of a temporary socialist state, through the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. The role of this proletarian dictatorship is to protect the gains of the revolution and smooth the transition to full communism through the suppression of the dispossessed bourgeoisie. Counter-revolution must therefore be countered.
Moreover, as the state arises from the class system, the proletarian state will ‘wither away’ once classes are abolished and full communism is constructed. This state, therefore, does not need to be overthrown, and nor can it be destroyed while the class system continues to survive.
3 Explain the link between anarchism and individualism.
Individualism is the belief in the primacy of the individual over any social group or collective body. It can take the form of either methodological individualism, implying that the individual is central to any political theory or social explanation; or ethical individualism, which implies that society should be constructed so as to benefit the individual, giving moral priority to individual rights, needs and interests.
Anarchism is linked to individualism through the idea of the sovereign individual. When individualism is taken to its logical conclusion, it implies that absolute and unlimited autonomy resides within each human being. From this perspective, any constraint on the individual is evil, especially when it is imposed by the state, a sovereign, compulsory and coercive body. Extreme individualism therefore logically implies anarchism.
This is reflected in the individualist anarchist tradition and its main sub-strands, anarcho-capitalism and egoism.
B Essay questions
4 To what extent is anarchism a utopian creed?
Utopianism can either refer to a style of political theorising that develops a critique of the existing order by constructing a positive model of a perfect alternative, or to deluded or fanciful thinking. Anarchism is linked to a positive model of utopianism in that anarchists have a highly optimistic view of human nature and so believe that the future anarchist society will be perfect in a number of basic respects: it will be characterised by unrestricted freedom, absolute equality, peace and social harmony. A stateless society is therefore an ideal society.
Critics such as conservatives and liberals, however, argue that anarchism is linked to utopianism in the negative sense because its view of human nature is unrealistic and its goal of a stateless yet harmonious society is unachievable.
However, anarchists argue that their vision of the future stateless society is achievable on the grounds of their theories of human nature and of social institutions.
At the heart of anarchism lies a belief in the unlimited possibilities of human and social development. Human beings are not perfect, but they are perfectible: in appropriate social conditions, spontaneous harmony and natural order are realisable, either because of people’s propensity for sociability and cooperation or for principled and rational conduct.
For collectivist anarchists, such propensities are fostered by conditions of statelessness and common ownership, while for individualist anarchists they are achieved through unregulated capitalism.
5 Is anarchism closer to socialism or to liberalism?
Anarchism is close to both socialism and liberalism. It can be viewed as either ultra-liberalism, an extreme form of liberal individualism; or as ultra-socialism, an extreme form of socialist collectivism.
Individualist anarchism strongly overlaps with classical liberalism through, for example, a common commitment to egoistical individualism, negative freedom and the market. However, whereas anarchists endorse unlimited freedom and reject all forms of political authority, liberals endorse freedom under the law and view the state as at least a necessary evil.
Collectivist anarchism overlaps in particular with Marxism, the two doctrines sharing a preference for cooperation and collective action, common ownership and an ultimate belief in a stateless society. However, Marxist socialists believe in a temporary socialist state that will ‘wither away’, and reject the anarchist call for the state to be abolished and not replaced. Social democrats differ from anarchists in that they view the state in positive terms, as a means of constraining social injustice, taming capitalism and promoting redistribution and welfare.
6 ‘Anarchism is strong on moral principles but weak on political practice.’ Discuss.
Anarchism is strong on moral principles in the sense that it is quick to make moral judgements: freedom is good, power is bad; human nature is good, states are bad.
It is weak on political practice in the sense that it cannot logically participate in mainstream ballot-box and party politics due to its rejection of the state, which substantially weakens its political impact.
On the other hand, anarchism may be weak on moral principles in that its optimistic view of human nature is perceived by critics as utopian in the negative sense, and its rejection of the state is perceived as naive or deluded.
Anarchism may be perceived as strong on political practice in its advocacy of direct action and participatory democracy, which are widely perceived as more effective and less corrupt strategies than party politics.