How Does Anarchism Differ From Liberalism?

By John Wilkes Czolgosz

Anarchism and liberalism are two distinct political ideologies with different perspectives on the role of the state and the organization of society. While both share a commitment to individual freedom, they approach it from different angles and have contrasting views on the role of government.

  1. Role of the State:
  • Liberalism: Liberals generally believe in a limited but essential role for the state. They advocate for a government that safeguards individual rights, ensures rule of law, provides public goods, and intervenes when necessary to address market failures or social inequalities. Liberals emphasize the importance of a representative democracy with checks and balances.
  • Anarchism: Anarchists, on the other hand, reject the concept of a centralized state altogether. They argue that the state inherently infringes upon individual liberties and leads to hierarchical power structures. Anarchists advocate for the abolition of the state and envision a society based on voluntary cooperation, self-governance, and decentralized decision-making.
  1. Economic Organization:
  • Liberalism: Liberals support a mixed economy, combining elements of free markets and government intervention. They believe in the importance of private property rights, regulated markets, and a social safety net to protect vulnerable individuals. Liberals generally endorse a welfare state that ensures access to education, healthcare, and social services.
  • Anarchism: Anarchists have diverse perspectives on economic organization, but most lean towards forms of socialism or communism. They argue for the abolition of private property, advocating for common ownership of resources and the means of production. Anarchist visions of economic organization range from decentralized collectives and worker cooperatives to gift economies and mutual aid networks.
  1. Approach to Freedom and Individualism:
  • Liberalism: Liberals prioritize individual rights and freedoms, often expressed through concepts such as civil liberties, political participation, and personal autonomy. They view a well-functioning state as crucial for protecting these rights and creating an environment conducive to individual flourishing.
  • Anarchism: Anarchists also value individual freedom, but they emphasize collective liberation and view individualism within the context of social relationships. They argue that hierarchical institutions, including the state, limit individual freedom, and that true freedom can only be achieved through dismantling oppressive systems.

It’s important to note that both anarchism and liberalism have various subtypes and interpretations, resulting in a wide spectrum of views within each ideology. This overview provides a general understanding of the core differences between anarchism and liberalism, but it is always important to study specific branches and thinkers within each ideology for a more nuanced understanding.

Historically, several forms of anarchism predate modern reform liberalism. Here are a few notable examples:

  1. Mutualism: Developed by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in the mid-19th century, mutualism is considered one of the earliest forms of anarchism. It emphasizes voluntary cooperation, equal exchange, and the abolition of exploitative economic relationships. Mutualists advocate for a society based on worker cooperatives, mutual banks, and decentralized forms of governance.
  2. Collectivist Anarchism: Associated with Mikhail Bakunin and the First International (1864-1876), collectivist anarchism promotes the idea of collective ownership of the means of production. It advocates for workers’ self-management and the distribution of goods according to the principle of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their work.” Collectivist anarchists reject private property and wage labor.
  3. Anarcho-Communism: Developed by Peter Kropotkin and other anarchists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, anarcho-communism advocates for the complete abolition of both the state and private property. It envisions a society where resources are held in common and distributed according to the principle of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.” Anarcho-communists emphasize voluntary cooperation, communal living, and direct action.

It is worth noting that the development of classical liberalism predates the emergence of anarchism as a distinct ideology. Classical liberalism, associated with thinkers like John Locke and Adam Smith, emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries. Anarchism, in its various forms, emerged as a response and critique to liberal theories and practices, often rejecting the role of the state and advocating for more radical forms of social and economic organization.

However, while anarchism as a formal ideology emerged in the 19th century, there are historical examples of societies and movements that exhibited some characteristics resembling anarchistic principles. Here are a few examples from ancient, medieval, and early modern history:

  1. Ancient Greece (c. 8th to 4th centuries BCE): Ancient Greece witnessed the emergence of city-states, such as Athens and Sparta, which practiced direct democracy to varying degrees. In Athens, citizens participated directly in decision-making through assemblies and popular courts. While not anarchistic in the modern sense, these systems incorporated elements of decentralized decision-making and popular participation.
  2. Medieval Free Cities: In medieval Europe, certain cities known as Free Cities or Free Communes enjoyed a degree of self-governance and autonomy. These cities often had their own systems of local administration, independent from feudal lords or central authorities. While not explicitly anarchistic, they represented relatively decentralized forms of governance where citizens had a degree of control over their own affairs.
  3. Diggers in England (1649-1650): The Diggers were a group of agrarian communists who emerged during the English Civil War. Led by Gerrard Winstanley, they occupied and cultivated land that was previously commons or owned by wealthy landlords. They sought to establish a society based on communal ownership of land and the idea that all people should have equal access to its resources.

It’s important to note that these historical examples may not perfectly align with modern anarchism, as the formal ideology had not yet fully developed. However, they demonstrate instances where decentralized decision-making, collective ownership, and self-governance were practiced to varying degrees.

Indigenous, traditional, and other historical societies have often exhibited forms of social organization and governance that align with certain principles of anarchism. While it is crucial to approach these examples with cultural sensitivity and acknowledge the diversity among different indigenous and traditional communities, here are a few historical prototypes that have been associated with anarchistic principles:

  1. Iroquois Confederacy: The Iroquois Confederacy, also known as the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, was a confederation of Native American tribes in what is now northeastern United States and southeastern Canada. The confederacy operated through a decentralized system of decision-making and consensus-based governance. Power was distributed among different levels of councils, and decisions were made through extensive deliberation and agreement.
  2. Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico: The Zapatistas, a revolutionary indigenous movement that emerged in 1994, advocate for indigenous autonomy, self-governance, and communal land ownership. They reject the authority of the Mexican state and seek to create alternative forms of social organization based on participatory democracy, mutual aid, and collective decision-making.
  3. Rojava in Northern Syria: In the midst of the Syrian civil war, the autonomous region of Rojava has emerged as an experiment in radical democratic governance. Inspired by the ideas of Murray Bookchin and influenced by anarchist principles, Rojava has implemented a system known as democratic confederalism. It emphasizes decentralized decision-making, gender equality, and grassroots democracy, with a focus on communal self-governance.
  4. Kibbutz Movement in Israel: The Kibbutz movement, which began in the early 20th century, aimed to create communal settlements in which members lived and worked collectively. The kibbutzim practiced common ownership of resources, participatory decision-making, and the rejection of hierarchical authority structures. While not strictly anarchistic, they reflected a commitment to cooperation, egalitarianism, and shared responsibility.

These examples demonstrate that various indigenous, traditional, and historic societies have embodied principles such as decentralization, communal ownership, and participatory decision-making. It is important to approach these examples with cultural sensitivity, acknowledging that indigenous and traditional practices are diverse and should not be romanticized or generalized.

When examining ancient societies, it is important to note that anarchism as a formal ideology did not exist during those times. However, certain aspects of ancient societies can be seen as aligning with principles that resonate with anarchistic ideas. Here are a few historical prototypes that have been associated with anarchistic principles in ancient societies:

  1. Cynicism in Ancient Greece: Cynicism was a philosophical school of thought in ancient Greece, particularly associated with figures such as Diogenes of Sinope. Cynics advocated for a rejection of societal conventions, material possessions, and social hierarchies. They sought to live in accordance with nature, emphasized self-sufficiency, and challenged the authority of political and social elites.
  2. Daoism in Ancient China: Daoism, or Taoism, is an ancient Chinese philosophy attributed to Laozi and Zhuangzi. It promotes a non-authoritarian approach to life, focusing on harmony with nature, simplicity, and spontaneity. Daoism advocates for a decentralized and natural order, emphasizing the concept of wu wei (effortless action) and the rejection of rigid social structures.
  3. Early Christianity: Some aspects of early Christian communities can be viewed as having anarchistic tendencies. In the early days of Christianity, before it became institutionalized, followers emphasized communal living, the sharing of resources, and a rejection of worldly authority. They sought to embody principles of love, equality, and mutual aid, reflecting a form of voluntary cooperation and decentralized decision-making.
  4. Ancient Celtic Societies: The ancient Celtic societies of pre-Roman Europe are often described as having a tribal, egalitarian structure with a focus on local autonomy and decision-making. Celtic societies operated through assemblies, where important decisions were made collectively. The emphasis on individual and collective freedoms, as well as the lack of a centralized state, aligns with some anarchistic principles.

It is important to approach these examples with caution, as the societies of the past were complex and diverse, and their structures may not neatly align with modern anarchist theory. Furthermore, our understanding of these ancient societies is limited, and interpretations may vary. Nevertheless, these examples provide historical prototypes that have been associated with certain principles or practices that resonate with anarchistic ideals.

Studying historical examples can offer modern anarchists valuable insights and lessons. First and foremost, these examples can inspire and shape their vision of what an anarchist society can look like. By examining how various societies and movements in the past organized themselves without centralized authority or oppressive hierarchies, anarchists can gain ideas and inspiration for alternative social structures and practices. Additionally, historical examples help identify shared principles and values that transcend time and cultural contexts. By recognizing the underlying principles of autonomy, cooperation, equality, and mutual aid that have resonated throughout history, modern anarchists can strengthen their understanding of the foundations of their ideology.

Moreover, historical examples provide valuable insights into strategies and tactics employed by past movements or communities. By studying the successes and challenges faced by these groups, modern anarchists can learn from their strategies of resistance, organization, and community-building. These historical experiences can inform contemporary approaches to activism, direct action, and alternative forms of organization. However, it is important to approach these examples with cultural sensitivity and avoid romanticizing or appropriating the experiences of past societies. Modern anarchists must strive to understand the specific historical, cultural, and social contexts in which these examples emerged, recognizing the limitations and complexities of historical knowledge.

While historical examples offer important lessons, it is crucial to adapt ideas to the challenges and complexities of the present. Modern anarchists need to critically assess and adapt historical principles and practices to contemporary contexts, considering factors such as globalization, technology, and environmental concerns. By engaging with historical examples, modern anarchists can gain a broader perspective, refine their theories and practices, and contribute to the ongoing development of anarchist thought and action. It is through this critical engagement that historical examples can serve as a source of inspiration, guidance, and reflection for modern anarchist movements.

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