Anarchist FAQ/What is Anarchism?/2.16

A.2.16 Does anarchism require "perfect" people to work?

No. Anarchy is not a utopia, a "perfect" society. It will be a human society, with all the problems, hopes, and fears associated with human beings. Anarchists do not think that human beings need to be "perfect" for anarchy to work. They only need to be free. Thus Christie and Meltzer:

   "[A] common fallacy [is] that revolutionary socialism [i.e. anarchism] is an 'idealisation' of the workers and [so] the mere recital of their present faults is a refutation of the class struggle . . . it seems morally unreasonable that a free society . . . could exist without moral or ethical perfection. But so far as the overthrow of [existing] society is concerned, we may ignore the fact of people's shortcomings and prejudices, so long as they do not become institutionalised. One may view without concern the fact . . . that the workers might achieve control of their places of work long before they had acquired the social graces of the 'intellectual' or shed all the prejudices of the present society from family discipline to xenophobia. What does it matter, so long as they can run industry without masters? Prejudices wither in freedom and only flourish while the social climate is favourable to them . . . What we say is . . . that once life can continue without imposed authority from above, and imposed authority cannot survive the withdrawal of labour from its service, the prejudices of authoritarianism will disappear. There is no cure for them other than the free process of education." [The Floodgates of Anarchy, pp. 36–7]

Obviously, though, we think that a free society will produce people who are more in tune with both their own and others individuality and needs, thus reducing individual conflict. Remaining disputes would be solved by reasonable methods, for example, the use of juries, mutual third parties, or community and workplace assemblies (see section I.5.8 for a discussion of how could be done for anti-social activities as well as disputes).

Like the "anarchism-is-against-human-nature" argument (see section A.2.15), opponents of anarchism usually assume "perfect" people—people who are not corrupted by power when placed in positions of authority, people who are strangely unaffected by the distorting effects of hierarchy, privilege, and so forth. However, anarchists make no such claims about human perfection. We simply recognise that vesting power in the hands of one person or an elite is never a good idea, as people are not perfect.

It should be noted that the idea that anarchism requires a "new" (perfect) man or woman is often raised by the opponents of anarchism to discredit it (and, usually, to justify the retention of hierarchical authority, particularly capitalist relations of production). After all, people are not perfect and are unlikely ever to be. As such, they pounce on every example of a government falling and the resulting chaos to dismiss anarchism as unrealistic. The media loves to proclaim a country to be falling into "anarchy" whenever there is a disruption in "law and order" and looting takes place.

Anarchists are not impressed by this argument. A moment's reflection shows why, for the detractors make the basic mistake of assuming an anarchist society without anarchists! (A variation of such claims is raised by the right-wing "anarcho"-capitalists to discredit real anarchism. However, their "objection" discredits their own claim to be anarchists for they implicitly assume an anarchist society without anarchists!). Needless to say, an "anarchy" made up of people who still saw the need for authority, property and statism would soon become authoritarian (i.e. non-anarchist) again. This is because even if the government disappeared tomorrow, the same system would soon grow up again, because "the strength of the government rests not with itself, but with the people. A great tyrant may be a fool, and not a superman. His strength lies not in himself, but in the superstition of the people who think that it is right to obey him. So long as that superstition exists it is useless for some liberator to cut off the head of tyranny; the people will create another, for they have grown accustomed to rely on something outside themselves." [George Barrett, Objections to Anarchism, p. 355]

Hence Alexander Berkman:

   "Our social institutions are founded on certain ideas; as long as the latter are generally believed, the institutions built on them are safe. Government remains strong because people think political authority and legal compulsion necessary. Capitalism will continue as long as such an economic system is considered adequate and just. The weakening of the ideas which support the evil and oppressive present day conditions means the ultimate breakdown of government and capitalism." [What is Anarchism?, p. xii]

In other words, anarchy needs anarchists in order to be created and survive. But these anarchists need not be perfect, just people who have freed themselves, by their own efforts, of the superstition that command-and-obedience relations and capitalist property rights are necessary. The implicit assumption in the idea that anarchy needs "perfect" people is that freedom will be given, not taken; hence the obvious conclusion follows that an anarchy requiring "perfect" people will fail. But this argument ignores the need for self-activity and self-liberation in order to create a free society. For anarchists, "history is nothing but a struggle between the rulers and the ruled, the oppressors and the oppressed." [Peter Kropotkin, Act for Yourselves, p. 85] Ideas change through struggle and, consequently, in the struggle against oppression and exploitation, we not only change the world, we change ourselves at the same time. So it is the struggle for freedom which creates people capable of taking the responsibility for their own lives, communities and planet. People capable of living as equals in a free society, so making anarchy possible.

As such, the chaos which often results when a government disappears is not anarchy nor, in fact, a case against anarchism. It simple means that the necessary preconditions for creating an anarchist society do not exist. Anarchy would be the product of collective struggle at the heart of society, not the product of external shocks. Nor, we should note, do anarchists think that such a society will appear "overnight." Rather, we see the creation of an anarchist system as a process, not an event. The ins-and-outs of how it would function will evolve over time in the light of experience and objective circumstances, not appear in a perfect form immediately (see section H.2.5 for a discussion of Marxist claims otherwise).

Therefore, anarchists do not conclude that "perfect" people are necessary anarchism to work because the anarchist is "no liberator with a divine mission to free humanity, but he is a part of that humanity struggling onwards towards liberty." As such, "[i]f, then, by some external means an Anarchist Revolution could be, so to speak, supplied ready-made and thrust upon the people, it is true that they would reject it and rebuild the old society. If, on the other hand, the people develop their ideas of freedom, and they themselves get rid of the last stronghold of tyranny --- the government -- then indeed the revolution will be permanently accomplished." [George Barrett, Op. Cit., p. 355]

This is not to suggest that an anarchist society must wait until everyone is an anarchist. Far from it. It is highly unlikely, for example, that the rich and powerful will suddenly see the errors of their ways and voluntarily renounce their privileges. Faced with a large and growing anarchist movement, the ruling elite has always used repression to defend its position in society. The use of fascism in Spain (see section A.5.6) and Italy (see section A.5.5) show the depths the capitalist class can sink to. Anarchism will be created in the face of opposition by the ruling minorities and, consequently, will need to defend itself against attempts to recreate authority (see section H.2.1 for a refutation of Marxist claims anarchists reject the need to defend an anarchist society against counter-revolution).

Instead anarchists argue that we should focus our activity on convincing those subject to oppression and exploitation that they have the power to resist both and, ultimately, can end both by destroying the social institutions that cause them. As Malatesta argued, "we need the support of the masses to build a force of sufficient strength to achieve our specific task of radical change in the social organism by the direct action of the masses, we must get closer to them, accept them as they are, and from within their ranks seek to 'push' them forward as much as possible." [Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, pp. 155–6] This would create the conditions that make possible a rapid evolution towards anarchism as what was initially accepted by a minority "but increasingly finding popular expression, will make its way among the mass of the people" and "the minority will become the People, the great mass, and that mass rising up against property and the State, will march forward towards anarchist communism." [Kropotkin, Words of a Rebel, p. 75] Hence the importance anarchists attach to spreading our ideas and arguing the case for anarchism. This creates conscious anarchists from those questioning the injustices of capitalism and the state.

This process is helped by the nature of hierarchical society and the resistance it naturally developed in those subject to it. Anarchist ideas develop spontaneously through struggle. As we discuss in section I.2.3, anarchistic organisations are often created as part of the resistance against oppression and exploitation which marks every hierarchical system and can., potentially, be the framework of a few society. As such, the creation of libertarian institutions is, therefore, always a possibility in any situation. A peoples' experiences may push them towards anarchist conclusions, namely the awareness that the state exists to protect the wealthy and powerful few and to disempower the many. That while it is needed to maintain class and hierarchical society, it is not needed to organise society nor can it do so in a just and fair way for all. This is possible. However, without a conscious anarchist presence any libertarian tendencies are likely to be used, abused and finally destroyed by parties or religious groups seeking political power over the masses (the Russian Revolution is the most famous example of this process). It is for that reason anarchists organise to influence the struggle and spread our ideas (see section J.3 for details). For it is the case that only when anarchist ideas "acquire a predominating influence" and are "accepted by a sufficiently large section of the population" will we "have achieved anarchy, or taken a step towards anarchy." For anarchy "cannot be imposed against the wishes of the people." [Malatesta, Op. Cit., p. 159 and p. 163]

So, to conclude, the creation of an anarchist society is not dependent on people being perfect but it is dependent on a large majority being anarchists and wanting to reorganise society in a libertarian manner. This will not eliminate conflict between individuals nor create a fully formed anarchist humanity overnight but it will lay the ground for the gradual elimination of whatever prejudices and anti-social behaviour that remain after the struggle to change society has revolutionised those doing it.