Anarchist FAQ/What is Anarchism?/2.7

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A.2.7 Why do anarchists argue for self-liberation?[edit]

Liberty, by its very nature, cannot be given. An individual cannot be freed by another, but must break his or her own chains through their own effort. Of course, self-effort can also be part of collective action, and in many cases it has to be in order to attain its ends. As Emma Goldman points out:

"History tells us that every oppressed class [or group or individual] gained true liberation from its masters by its own efforts." [1] This is because anarchists recognise that hierarchical systems, like any social relationship, shapes those subject to them. As Bookchin argued, "class societies organise our psychic structures for command or obedience." This means that people internalise the values of hierarchical and class society and, as such, "the State is not merely a constellation of bureaucratic and coercive instituions. It is also a state of mind, an instilled mentality for ordering reality . . . Its capacity to rule by brute force has always been limited . . . Without a high degree of co-operation from even the most victimised classes of society such as chattel slaves and serfs, its authority would eventually dissipate. Awe and apathy in the face of State power are products of social conditioning that renders this very power possible." [2] Self-liberation is the means by which we break down both internal and external chains, freeing ourselves mentally as well as physically.

Anarchists have long argued that people can only free themselves by their own actions. The various methods anarchists suggest to aid this process will be discussed in section J ("What Do Anarchists Do?") and will not be discussed here. However, these methods all involve people organising themselves, setting their own agendas, and acting in ways that empower them and eliminate their dependence on leaders to do things for them. Anarchism is based on people "acting for themselves" (performing what anarchists call "direct action" -- see section J.2 for details).

Direct action has an empowering and liberating effect on those involved in it. Self-activity is the means by which the creativity, initiative, imagination and critical thought of those subjected to authority can be developed. It is the means by which society can be changed. As Errico Malatesta pointed out:

"Between man and his social environment there is a reciprocal action. Men make society what it is and society makes men what they are, and the result is therefore a kind of vicious circle. To transform society men [and women] must be changed, and to transform men, society must be changed . . . Fortunately existing society has not been created by the inspired will of a dominating class, which has succeeded in reducing all its subjects to passive and unconscious instruments of its interests. It is the result of a thousand internecine struggles, of a thousand human and natural factors . . . "From this the possibility of progress . . . We must take advantage of all the means, all the possibilities and the opportunities that the present environment allows us to act on our fellow men [and women] and to develop their consciences and their demands . . . to claim and to impose those major social transformations which are possible and which effectively serve to open the way to further advances later . . . We must seek to get all the people . . . to make demands, and impose itself and take for itself all the improvements and freedoms it desires as and when it reaches the state of wanting them, and the power to demand them . . . we must push the people to want always more and to increase its pressures [on the ruling elite], until it has achieved complete emancipation." [3]

Society, while shaping all individuals, is also created by them, through their actions, thoughts, and ideals. Challenging institutions that limit one's freedom is mentally liberating, as it sets in motion the process of questioning authoritarian relationships in general. This process gives us insight into how society works, changing our ideas and creating new ideals. To quote Emma Goldman again: "True emancipation begins. . . in woman's soul." And in a man's too, we might add. It is only here that we can "begin [our] inner regeneration, [cutting] loose from the weight of prejudices, traditions and customs." [4] But this process must be self-directed, for as Max Stirner notes, "the man who is set free is nothing but a freed man. . . a dog dragging a piece of chain with him." [5] By changing the world, even in a small way, we change ourselves.

In an interview during the Spanish Revolution, the Spanish anarchist militant Durutti said, "we have a new world in our hearts." Only self-activity and self-liberation allows us to create such a vision and gives us the confidence to try to actualise it in the real world.

Anarchists, however, do not think that self-liberation must wait for the future, after the "glorious revolution." The personal is political, and given the nature of society, how we act in the here and now will influence the future of our society and our lives. Therefore, even in pre-anarchist society anarchists try to create, as Bakunin puts it, "not only the ideas but also the facts of the future itself." We can do so by creating alternative social relationships and organisations, acting as free people in a non-free society. Only by our actions in the here and now can we lay the foundation for a free society. Moreover, this process of self-liberation goes on all the time:

"Subordinates of all kinds exercise their capacity for critical self-reflection every day -- that is why masters are thwarted, frustrated and, sometimes, overthrown. But unless masters are overthrown, unless subordinates engage in political activity, no amount of critical reflection will end their subjection and bring them freedom." [6] Anarchists aim to encourage these tendencies in everyday life to reject, resist and thwart authority and bring them to their logical conclusion -- a society of free individuals, co-operating as equals in free, self-managed associations. Without this process of critical self-reflection, resistance and self-liberation a free society is impossible. Thus, for anarchists, anarchism comes from the natural resistance of subordinated people striving to act as free individuals within a hierarchical world. This process of resistance is called by many anarchists the "class struggle" (as it is working class people who are generally the most subordinated group within society) or, more generally, "social struggle." It is this everyday resistance to authority (in all its forms) and the desire for freedom which is the key to the anarchist revolution. It is for this reason that "anarchists emphasise over and over that the class struggle provides the only means for the workers [and other oppressed groups] to achieve control over their destiny." [7]

Revolution is a process, not an event, and every "spontaneous revolutionary action" usually results from and is based upon the patient work of many years of organisation and education by people with "utopian" ideas. The process of "creating the new world in the shell of the old" (to use another I.W.W. expression), by building alternative institutions and relationships, is but one component of what must be a long tradition of revolutionary commitment and militancy.

As Malatesta made clear, "to encourage popular organisations of all kinds is the logical consequence of our basic ideas, and should therefore be an integral part of our programme. . . anarchists do not want to emancipate the people; we want the people to emancipate themselves. . . , we want the new way of life to emerge from the body of the people and correspond to the state of their development and advance as they advance." [8]

Unless a process of self-emancipation occurs, a free society is impossible. Only when individuals free themselves, both materially (by abolishing the state and capitalism) and intellectually (by freeing themselves of submissive attitudes towards authority), can a free society be possible. We should not forget that capitalist and state power, to a great extent, is power over the minds of those subject to them (backed up, of course, with sizeable force if the mental domination fails and people start rebelling and resisting). In effect, a spiritual power as the ideas of the ruling class dominate society and permeate the minds of the oppressed. As long as this holds, the working class will acquiesce to authority, oppression and exploitation as the normal condition of life. Minds submissive to the doctrines and positions of their masters cannot hope to win freedom, to revolt and fight. Thus the oppressed must overcome the mental domination of the existing system before they can throw off its yoke (and, anarchists argue, direct action is the means of doing both -- see sections J.2 and J.4). Capitalism and statism must be beaten spiritually and theoretically before it is beaten materially (many anarchists call this mental liberation "class consciousness" -- see section B.7.4). And self-liberation through struggle against oppression is the only way this can be done. Thus anarchists encourage (to use Kropotkin's term) "the spirit of revolt."

Self-liberation is a product of struggle, of self-organisation, solidarity and direct action. Direct action is the means of creating anarchists, free people, and so "Anarchists have always advised taking an active part in those workers' organisations which carry on the direct struggle of Labour against Capital and its protector, -- the State." This is because "[9]uch a struggle . . . better than any indirect means, permits the worker to obtain some temporary improvements in the present conditions of work, while it opens his [or her] eyes to the evil that is done by Capitalism and the State that supports it, and wakes up his [or her] thoughts concerning the possibility of organising consumption, production and exchange without the intervention of the capitalist and the state," that is, see the possibility of a free society. Kropotkin, like many anarchists, pointed to the Syndicalist and Trade Union movements as a means of developing libertarian ideas within existing society (although he, like most anarchists, did not limit anarchist activity exclusively to them). Indeed, any movement which "permit[s] the working men [and women] to realise their solidarity and to feel the community of their interests . . . prepare[s] the way for these conceptions" of communist-anarchism, i.e. the overcoming the spiritual domination of existing society within the minds of the oppressed. [10]

For anarchists, in the words of a Scottish Anarchist militant, the "history of human progress [is] seen as the history of rebellion and disobedience, with the individual debased by subservience to authority in its many forms and able to retain his/her dignity only through rebellion and disobedience." [11] This is why anarchists stress self-liberation (and self-organisation, self-management and self-activity). Little wonder Bakunin considered "rebellion" as one of the "three fundamental principles [12] constitute the essential conditions of all human development, collective or individual, in history." [13] This is simply because individuals and groups cannot be freed by others, only by themselves. Such rebellion (self-liberation) is the only means by which existing society becomes more libertarian and an anarchist society a possibility.


  1. Red Emma Speaks, p. 167
  2. The Ecology of Freedom, p. 159 and pp. 164-5
  3. Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, pp. 188-9
  4. Op. Cit., p. 167
  5. The Ego and Its Own, p. 168
  6. Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract, p. 205
  7. Marie-Louise Berneri, Neither East Nor West, p. 32
  8. Op. Cit., p. 90
  9. s
  10. Evolution and Environment, p. 83 and p. 85
  11. Robert Lynn, Not a Life Story, Just a Leaf from It, p. 77
  12. which
  13. God and the State, p. 12