Is Anarchism closer to Liberalism or to Socialism?
Is Anarchism closer to Liberalism or to Socialism?
Within the overall ideology of anarchism there are important differences both between
individualist and social anarchism and within these broad theoretical categories while
some anarchist theorists such as William Godwin cannot be easily categorised at all. The
similarities and differences between anarchism, liberalism and socialism may be analysed
terms of the main inter-related core elements of each ideology: analyses of human nature,
individual liberty, the state and the capitalist system.
Liberals, socialists and anarchists share the optimistic view that individuals are
potentially rational and to a considerable extent the best judges of their own best
interests. However in classical and neo-liberal ideologies individuals are seen as
primarily egoistic and atomistic following their own narrow self-interest rather than
attempting to recognise the broad interests of the community while the invisible hand of
the market mechanism is assumed to ensure that the pursuit of self interest secures the
economic interests of society as a whole. Contrastingly social liberals argued for a more
communitarian form of rational self-interest and this is extended in socialist thought
where individuals are seen as potentially rational but also potentially cooperative and
community spirited once their apparent selfish competitiveness has been eroded via the
reform or abolition of capitalism.
Anarchist attitudes to human nature vary very considerably. At one extreme Max Stirner
argues that individual self-development demands that individuals follow their own narrow,
egoistic self- interest as fully as possible recognising only the constraints that they
face other powerful self-interested egoists attempting to do the same thing and thereby
creating the potential for serious conflict. Anarcho-capitalists argue for the abolition
of the state and for the organisation of the entire economy in accordance with the
principles of laissez faire thereby implying a view of human nature similar to that of
classical and neo-liberals. The individualist anarchists Warren and Tucker proposed
economic arrangements involving the abolition of the profit motive but the continuation of
some economic inequality to sustain economic incentives thereby suggesting attitudes to
human nature intermediate between liberalism and moderate socialism.
The views of human nature of the social anarchists Bakunin [the collectivist anarchist]
and Kropotkin [the anarcho- communists] overlap considerably with those of radical
socialists. For them individual competitiveness is not inborn but the result of living in
a competitive capitalist society; the communal ownership of the means of production will
encourage community spirit; according to Kropotkin the allocation of goods and services
according to need will not destroy incentives because individuals will be prepared to work
for the good of the community while Bakunin, although he supports the allocation of goods
and services according to work done rejects the massive economic inequalities which are
inevitably generated in capitalist societies.
According to liberals because individuals are potentially rational they must be allowed
the liberty to act in their own best interests except if they are likely to harm others.
Minimum night watchman states are seen as necessary to guarantee the social order which is
itself a pre-requisite for individual liberty but individuals must also be free [in the
negative sense] from excessive state interference. Classical and neo-liberals argue
further that economic inequality is inevitable and desirable in a capitalist economy and
that it is also indicative of the freedom of talented individuals to make the best of
However social liberals added the notion that the social welfare functions of the state
should be extended to provide the positive freedoms for all individuals to develop their
talents to the full. Socialists in turn have argued that far greater economic equality is
necessary if all individuals are to enjoy liberty and that a much extended state will be
essential if both equality and individual liberty are to be achieved although in the
Marxist theory the state should wither away once pure communism has been achieved.
Anarchists support maximum possible levels of individual liberty and claim that states,
far from protecting individual liberty via the safeguarding of the social order as
liberals claim actually destroy the capacities of individuals to create their own social
order. Neither can extended socialist states be relied upon to promote greater equality
and thereby to promote greater liberty. In relation to the USSR the anarchists predicted
that the statist version of socialism introduced by Lenin and the Bolsheviks would
actually restrict individual liberty without significantly increasing economic equality
and so it has turned out to be.
Assuming that the state is to be abolished there are also important disputes among
anarchists as to what types of organisations should replace the state. For example the
individualist anarchists Warren and Tucker argue for small scale communities of individual
producers whose independence is protected by their ownership of their own means of
production and where community regulations are strictly limited so as to maximise
individual liberty. Against this the social anarchists Bakunin and Kropotkin argue for the