Anarchist FAQ/What is Anarchism?/2.13

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A.2.13 Are anarchists individualists or collectivists?

The short answer is: neither. This can be seen from the fact that liberal scholars denounce anarchists like Bakunin for being "collectivists" while Marxists attack Bakunin and anarchists in general for being "individualists."

This is hardly surprising, as anarchists reject both ideologies as nonsense. Whether they like it or not, non-anarchist individualists and collectivists are two sides of the same capitalist coin. This can best shown be by considering modern capitalism, in which "individualist" and "collectivist" tendencies continually interact, often with the political and economic structure swinging from one pole to the other. Capitalist collectivism and individualism are both one-sided aspects of human existence, and like all manifestations of imbalance, deeply flawed.

For anarchists, the idea that individuals should sacrifice themselves for the "group" or "greater good" is nonsensical. Groups are made up of individuals, and if people think only of what's best for the group, the group will be a lifeless shell. It is only the dynamics of human interaction within groups which give them life. "Groups" cannot think, only individuals can. This fact, ironically, leads authoritarian "collectivists" to a most particular kind of "individualism," namely the "cult of the personality" and leader worship. This is to be expected, since such collectivism lumps individuals into abstract groups, denies their individuality, and ends up with the need for someone with enough individuality to make decisions -- a problem that is "solved" by the leader principle. Stalinism and Nazism are excellent examples of this phenomenon.

Therefore, anarchists recognise that individuals are the basic unit of society and that only individuals have interests and feelings. This means they oppose "collectivism" and the glorification of the group. In anarchist theory the group exists only to aid and develop the individuals involved in them. This is why we place so much stress on groups structured in a libertarian manner -- only a libertarian organisation allows the individuals within a group to fully express themselves, manage their own interests directly and to create social relationships which encourage individuality and individual freedom. So while society and the groups they join shapes the individual, the individual is the true basis of society. Hence Malatesta:

   "Much has been said about the respective roles of individual initiative and social action in the life and progress of human societies . . . [E]verything is maintained and kept going in the human world thanks to individual initiative . . . The real being is man, the individual. Society or the collectivity - and the State or government which claims to represent it - if it is not a hollow abstraction, must be made up of individuals. And it is in the organism of every individual that all thoughts and human actions inevitably have their origin, and from being individual they become collective thoughts and acts when they are or become accepted by many individuals. Social action, therefore, is neither the negation nor the complement of individual initiatives, but is the resultant of initiatives, thoughts and actions of all individuals who make up society . . . [T]he question is not really changing the relationship between society and the individual . . . [I]t is a question of preventing some individuals from oppressing others; of giving all individuals the same rights and the same means of action; and of replacing the initiative to the few [which Malatesta defines as a key aspect of government/hierarchy], which inevitably results in the oppression of everyone else . . . " [Anarchy, pp. 38-38] 

These considerations do not mean that "individualism" finds favour with anarchists. As Emma Goldman pointed out, "'rugged individualism'. . . is only a masked attempt to repress and defeat the individual and his individuality. So-called Individualism is the social and economic laissez-faire: the exploitation of the masses by the [ruling] classes by means of legal trickery, spiritual debasement and systematic indoctrination of the servile spirit . . . That corrupt and perverse 'individualism' is the straitjacket of individuality . . [It] has inevitably resulted in the greatest modern slavery, the crassest class distinctions driving millions to the breadline. 'Rugged individualism' has meant all the 'individualism' for the masters, while the people are regimented into a slave caste to serve a handful of self-seeking 'supermen.'" [Red Emma Speaks, p. 112]

While groups cannot think, individuals cannot live or discuss by themselves. Groups and associations are an essential aspect of individual life. Indeed, as groups generate social relationships by their very nature, they help shape individuals. In other words, groups structured in an authoritarian way will have a negative impact on the freedom and individuality of those within them. However, due to the abstract nature of their "individualism," capitalist individualists fail to see any difference between groups structured in a libertarian manner rather than in an authoritarian one -- they are both "groups". Because of their one-sided perspective on this issue, "individualists" ironically end up supporting some of the most "collectivist" institutions in existence -- capitalist companies -- and, moreover, always find a need for the state despite their frequent denunciations of it. These contradictions stem from capitalist individualism's dependence on individual contracts in an unequal society, i.e. abstract individualism.

In contrast, anarchists stress social "individualism" (another, perhaps better, term for this concept could be "communal individuality"). Anarchism "insists that the centre of gravity in society is the individual -- that he [sic] must think for himself, act freely, and live fully. . . . If he is to develop freely and fully, he must be relieved from the interference and oppression of others. . . . [T]his has nothing in common with. . . 'rugged individualism.' Such predatory individualism is really flabby, not rugged. At the least danger to its safety, it runs to cover of the state and wails for protection. . . .Their 'rugged individualism' is simply one of the many pretences the ruling class makes to mask unbridled business and political extortion." [Emma Goldman, Op. Cit., pp. 442-3]

Anarchism rejects the abstract individualism of capitalism, with its ideas of "absolute" freedom of the individual which is constrained by others. This theory ignores the social context in which freedom exists and grows. "The freedom we want," Malatesta argued, "for ourselves and for others, is not an absolute metaphysical, abstract freedom which in practice is inevitably translated into the oppression of the weak; but it is a real freedom, possible freedom, which is the conscious community of interests, voluntary solidarity." [Anarchy, p. 43]

A society based on abstract individualism results in an inequality of power between the contracting individuals and so entails the need for an authority based on laws above them and organised coercion to enforce the contracts between them. This consequence is evident from capitalism and, most notably, in the "social contract" theory of how the state developed. In this theory it is assumed that individuals are "free" when they are isolated from each other, as they allegedly were originally in the "state of nature." Once they join society, they supposedly create a "contract" and a state to administer it. However, besides being a fantasy with no basis in reality (human beings have always been social animals), this "theory" is actually a justification for the state's having extensive powers over society; and this in turn is a justification of the capitalist system, which requires a strong state. It also mimics the results of the capitalist economic relations upon which this theory is built. Within capitalism, individuals "freely" contract together, but in practice the owner rules the worker for as long as the contract is in place. (See sections A.2.14 and B.4 for further details).

Thus anarchists reject capitalist "individualism" as being, to quote Kropotkin, "a narrow and selfish individualism" which, moreover, is "a foolish egoism which belittles the individual" and is "not individualism at all. It will not lead to what was established as a goal; that is the complete broad and most perfectly attainable development of individuality." The hierarchy of capitalism results in "the impoverishment of individuality" rather than its development. To this anarchists contrast "the individuality which attains the greatest individual development possible through the highest communist sociability in what concerns both its primordial needs and its relationships with others in general." [Selected Writings on Anarchism and Revolution, p. 295, p. 296 and p. 297] For anarchists, our freedom is enriched by those around us when we work with them as equals and not as master and servant.

In practice, both individualism and collectivism lead to a denial of both individual liberty and group autonomy and dynamics. In addition, each implies the other, with collectivism leading to a particular form of individualism and individualism leading to a particular form of collectivism.

Collectivism, with its implicit suppression of the individual, ultimately impoverishes the community, as groups are only given life by the individuals who comprise them. Individualism, with its explicit suppression of community (i.e. the people with whom you live), ultimately impoverishes the individual, since individuals do not exist apart from society but can only exist within it. In addition, individualism ends up denying the "select few" the insights and abilities of the individuals who make up the rest of society, and so is a source of self-denial. This is Individualism's fatal flaw (and contradiction), namely "the impossibility for the individual to attain a really full development in the conditions of oppression of the mass by the 'beautiful aristocracies'. His [or her] development would remain uni-lateral." [Peter Kropotkin, Anarchism, p. 293]

True liberty and community exist elsewhere.