Friday, 5 November 2010
ANARCHISM, HUMAN NATURE AND HISTORY Lessons for the future (Dave Morland)
Human nature is one of the most important concepts employed in political argument. Whether
in everyday conversation or academic discourse, it is used as an evaluative tool to embrace or
reject political ideologies. Traditionally, anarchism has been attacked on the basis that its
conception of human nature is excessively optimistic. Anarchism, reputedly, will simply not
work because human nature is not as good as anarchists like to think it is. This chapter aims to
correct this erroneous apprehension, and it intends to illustrate that anarchism offers a very
realistic assessment of human nature that constitutes one of the greatest strengths of anarchist
thinking. At the same time it highlights the dangers of adopting the philosophy of the New
Right and cautions against a marriage with existentialism.
Generally speaking, anarchism is dismissed in the public's imagination as being either too
violent or simply unworkable. The former perception has
much to do with the image anarchism inherited at the end of the nineteenth century, with
which it remains associated. An anarchist, it would seem, is someone who operates incognito,
armed with a dagger or a pocketful of semtex. This vision of the anarchist as a clandestine
terrorist was cemented in novels like Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, set in the 1890s and
published in 1907. Yet more recently Peter Marshall has commented, 'the very word
"anarchist" continues to evoke a shiver of anxiety among the respectable and well-off.’(1) A
detailed investigation of what it is to be an anarchist, or, more precisely, what anarchism
means is beyond the remit of this chapter. However, in so far as it is concerned with the
second assumption, that anarchism is unworkable, some elaboration on the nature of
anarchism itself will undoubtedly emerge.
At the heart of political argument lies the concept of human nature. Particularly in popular
discourse, but also in academic analysis, the concept of human nature is the benchmark by
which political ideologies are either embraced or eschewed. Human nature is invoked time
and again in everyday conversation as testimony to the success or feasibility, or conversely
the naivety or utopianism, of social and political ideals. A conservative, for example, might
comment that socialism will never work because human nature is not good enough.
Humankind is burdened by original sin, and socialists would do well not to forget it when
drawing up plans for future society. As Christopher Berry has remarked:
'human nature' has a prominent place in the repertoire of explanations and justifications that is embedded in popular consciousness. It is this consciousness that is largely responsible for the perceptions people have of their society and it is these perceptions that directly affect their political beliefs and actions.(2)
Inasmuch as political ideologies are instrumental in shaping the popular consciousness, then they are responsible for constructing a political programme that is partly underpinned by a set of assumptions about human nature.
It has often been said that people turn to ideologies to make sense of the world. By and large
this appears to be true. But for ideologies to afford meaning and understanding they have to
provide an account of the world in which their followers live. The more convincing their
explanation of events, the more converts they can hope to attract. Ideologies do this by
enunciating an argument that transcends all three dimensions of time: past, present and future.
Not only do they pronounce on the past and the present, but they offer a view of how humanity might live in a future society. Political ideologies are both descriptive and
prescriptive. Judgment is, however, largely predicated on a concept of human nature.
Ideological portraits are dependent upon human nature not only to describe what is wrong
with society now (as the concept of alienation is employed in Marxism), but how those
wrongs should be put right. Human nature, then, is an evaluative tool by which rival
ideologies are either welcomed or spurned.
The dimensions of human nature
The concept of human nature is simply one piece in the jigsaw that helps to establish the
overall pattern of an ideology. Concepts of history or some wider metaphysic also play a
fundamental role in constructing this ideological matrix. The centrality of the concept of
human nature to this process, though, is incontestable. But human nature itself is what is
commonly referred to as an essentially contested concept. What is at stake here is the
authenticity of the epistemology through which human nature is defined. In other words, there
is often basic disagreement about what constitutes human nature - and such is the stuff of
politics. Are human beings essentially sinful, as the Bible tells us or are they basically
innocent, as someone like Rousseau would have us believe? Whatever the answer, there
appear to be two procedures for laying claim to what amounts to a supposedly truthful
account of human nature. Either human nature is taken to be a construct of one's social
context, or it is held to possess certain transcendent, universal qualities. That is, either human
nature is regarded as a product of the environment of which it is a part, or it is seen as
something which is given about humanity. It is either contextual or universal.
Locating the essence of human nature is an immensely difficult if not impossible task. And
even if it is possible to identify the transcendent component(s) of human nature (i.e., that
which is sometimes referred to as the essence of human nature), it does not automatically
follow that human nature can yield a prescription about how society ought to be organized. As
Raymond Plant has argued, 'in so far as the theory of human nature is factual in content it
cannot yield any conclusion about the morally desirable form of human organization’.(3) The
dilemma is created by the is/ought or fact/value distinction, and to say that 'facts' about human
nature prescribe moral outcomes is to commit what is known in philosophical jargon as the
'naturalistic fallacy'. Conversely, in so far as a conception of human nature is not factual but
evaluative then it may be said to be capable of sustaining moral arguments about social and
political reform. But that still leaves the unanswered question: in what will that conception of
human nature be grounded?
The dilemma, however, may not be as absolute as it first appears, since the dichotomy of
contextual and universal elements of human nature is seldom hard and fast in political
ideology. Conservatism, for example, is commonly held to be indebted to a contextualist
conception of human nature, with its emphasis on the individual's gradual acquisition of
culture and language as a major element that forges personal identity. Despite this perception that an individual's context is vital to an understanding of what goes to compose that person, the conservative may equally accentuate the influence of a universal component like original sin or the cogency of emotions over the limited capacity of humankind's power of reason.(4) Likewise, liberalism is often considered to exhibit a universalist conception of human nature. Reason or rationality is the hallmark of humanity, according to the liberal; but even here due credit is given to the character forming basis of circumstance.(5) Indeed, if it were not for the ability of the environment to impress all identity oil individuals' minds then the whole liberal impulse of the Enlightenment would have been an irrelevant exercise in the triumph of reason over faith and superstition.
Conceptions of human nature, then, often combine both contextualist and universalist
arguments, and anarchism (as will be demonstrated below) is no exception. Unfortunately,
this fact is not always recognized by those who reflect upon the nature of anarchism. The
discipline of political ideology is central to the study of politics and has spawned a growing
number of commentaries in recent years. But most of these texts rest on a fundamental error
concerning the anarchist conception of human nature. They point, quite rightly, to the fact that
anarchists operate a contextualist conception of human nature, but fail to detect the givenness
or universality that anarchists ascribe to human nature. This leads some commentators to
suggest that anarchism has little to say about human nature that has not already been said by
the black sheep of the Enlightenment, Rousseau. Barbara Goodwill, for instance, argues that
along with Rousseau some anarchists picture 'the individual as a tabla rasa (blank sheet) at
birth, innocent of evil and only corrupted later, by invidious social institutions'.(6) An almost
identical argument emerges in the work of Ian Adams. In his book, Political Ideology Today,
Adams argues that anarchism rests 'upon certain basic assumptions about human nature and
its relation to society', one of which is: 'Humanity is essentially good, but is corrupted by
government'.(7) Alternatively, anarchists are said to espouse an overly optimistic assessment of
human nature. Thus Andrew Heywood contends that the core of anarchism is founded on
an unashamed optimism, a belief in the natural goodness, or at least potential goodness, of
humankind. Social order arises naturally and spontaneously; it does not require the
machinery of 'law and order'. This is why anarchist conclusions have been reached by
political thinkers who possess an essentially optimistic view of human nature.(8)
The prominence that is attributed to an optimistic account of human nature, allegedly
espoused by anarchism, is not only, as April Carter has noted, 'an over-simplification’,(9) but 'a
perennial half-truth that deserves to be critically examined'.(10) Sadly, this confusion is
perpetuated by sympathetic and more knowledgeable analysts of the ideology. George
Woodcock has sometimes concluded, erroneously in my opinion, that certain anarchists, such
as Proudhon and Kropotkin, propound an optimistic conception of human nature.(11) Elsewhere,
however, Woodcock appears to be cognizant of the general caution that anarchists tend to
adopt when discussing human nature .(12) Clarity is still found wanting in Marshall's
mammoth-sized successor to Woodcock's erstwhile standard reference to the movement and
its ideas. In his Demanding the Impossible, Peter Marshall vacillates between two
contradictory positions. On the one hand, he states that anarchists: 'are unashamedly
optimistic. Many base their optimism on the existence of self-regulation in nature, on the
spontaneous harmony of interests in society, and on the potential goodwill of humanity'.(13) On
the other, he contends that few 'anarchists believe in natural goodness'. On the contrary, 'it
could be argued that the anarchists have not only a realistic, but even a pessimistic view of human nature'.(14) While implying that the conception of human nature that anarchists employ contains an assumption that there is something given or innate about human nature, Marshall simultaneously argues that whatever it is that is innate in human nature, most anarchists do not think that it is natural goodness.
Redressing the balance: anarchism and human nature
It is one of the tasks of this chapter to clarify these clouded assessments by offering a detailed
analysis of the anarchist conception of human nature. Anarchism is neither inspired by 'an
unashamed utopianism', at least not in the manner that Heywood believes, nor is it the
ideological narrative of those working with 'an essentially optimistic view of human nature'.(15)
Although anarchists certainly rely on environmental factors to establish the groundwork for
their belief that human nature is capable of providing a strong enough basis for anarchy to be
a realistic alternative to State-led exploitation and oppression, this is only one side of the coin.
Concomitant to the contextual element of the anarchists' conception of human nature there is a
given or inherent constituent that is incontrovertibly characterized as badness. Anarchists are
proprietors of a double-barreled conception of human nature. Human nature is composed of
both sociability and egoism (which corresponds rather loosely to what Heywood and others
term goodness and badness). The point that these interpreters seem to miss is that in
elucidating a vision of the good life (a process at the heart of all ideologies), anarchists have
advanced a series of proposals that are tinged with an air of realism and prudence that is
fuelled by what is, at times, a particularly honest if not pessimistic account of the darker
aspects of human nature.
Judgments that point to excessive optimism about human nature are not without warranty, but
are grossly exaggerated. Kropotkin is rightly
identified as the most optimistic of the classical anarchists. As George Woodcock has
remarked, one is struck by 'the particular benignity of Kropotkin's view of human nature',
especially when compared alongside Bakunin who exhibits a measure of realism that
Kropotkin's stricter scientific basis seems unwilling to yield.(16) Kropotkin's concept of mutual
aid may have fuelled his undoubted optimism, but this has to be taken in context. The other
leading anarchists of the nineteenth century, Proudhon and Bakunin, both highlight the baser
elements of human nature. Proudhon in particular does not recoil from admitting that
humankind knows how to do 'evil with all the characteristics of a nature deliberately
maleficent, and all the more wicked because, when it so wishes, it knows how to do good
gratuitously also and is capable of self-sacrifice'.(17) Indeed, it is this recognition of humanity's
capacity for evil that constitutes one of the points of division between anarchists and Marxists.
The rationale behind the anarchist objection to Marxism is, to put it very simply, that
Marxist-Leninists have misunderstood human nature. There is, anarchists caution, a lust for
power in humankind that will jeopardize the very outcome of the revolutionary process itself
As Bakunin advised: 'No one should be entrusted with power, inasmuch as anyone invested
with authority must, through the force of an immutable social law, become an oppressor and
exploiter of society'.(18) History seems to have vindicated the anarchists' account. Anarchists,
as Miller has observed, are cognizant 'of the imperfections of human nature'.(19) As Bakunin
commented, with the best will in the world, one simply has to recognize the corrupting effects
of power on all human beings. 'Take', Bakunin suggests, 'the most sincere democrat and put
him on the throne; if he does not step down promptly, he will surely become a scoundrel.’(20)
Likewise, Proudhon contends: 'Give power to a Saint Vincent de Paul and he will be a Guizot
or a Talleyrand' .(21) Once incumbent, the occupier of power will simply abuse the privilege
bestowed by that position. The notion of a will to power establishes itself as a central plank in the anarchist conception of human nature, with even Kropotkin acknowledging its existence,
despite Woodcock's judgment, in order to explain the rise of the modern State .(22)
Anarchism and history
The true nature of this insistence on an innate capacity for wrongdoing or a lust for power in
human nature cannot be properly appreciated unless it is balanced against the contextualist
understanding of human nature that permeates many anarchist writings on the subject.
Anarchists draw attention to the inherent will to power in human nature, of that there is no
doubt; but they do so in conjunction with the belief that this is simply one potentiality of
human nature. Egoism is counterbalanced by sociability. It is this which helps explain, for
instance, the anarchist philosophy of history, expounded principally by Proudhon but followed
by Bakunin and Kropotkin.(23) According to Proudhon, history is characterized by two
competing, permanent tendencies: authority and liberty. Each and every society is governed
by the relationship of authority and liberty.
Authority and liberty are as old as the human race; they are born with us, and live on in each
of us. Let its note but one thing, which few readers would notice otherwise: these two
principles form a couple, so to speak, whose two terms, though indissolubly linked together,
are nevertheless irreducible one to the other, and remain, despite all our efforts, perpetually
History, then, is to be seen as a series of developments in either direction, towards a
burgeoning of authority or a flowering of liberty. As history unfurls its consequences upon the
human race, this is, for anarchists, confirmation of their understanding that human nature may
be subject to the influences of either egoism or sociability.
Such thinking again isolates the anarchists from the Marxists, for history becomes a matter of
human will. This divergence in understanding on the nature of history was most famously
expressed in the attack launched by Marx on Bakunin. Marx wrote, in his Conspectusof
Bakunin's 'Statism and Anarchy', that Bakunin 'understands absolutely nothing about the
social revolution, only its political phrases. Its economic conditions do not exist for him ...
The will, and not the economic conditions, is the foundation of his social revolution' .(25) Of
course, the essence of Marx's critique is correct but misplaced. Anarchists do not subscribe to
the materialist conception of history for the very reason that their conception of human nature
forbids it. The course of history cannot be mapped out according to the development of the
relations and forces of production. As Proudhon wrote in his Confessionsof a Revolutionary,
in 1849, the philosophical method of studying history reveals 'that there is no inevitability in
particular events and that these may vary infinitely according to the individual wills that cause
them to happen' .(26) Following in the footsteps of his predecessors, Kropotkin announces that
two opposed recurrent traditions have vied with each other for supremacy throughout the
history of civilization: 'the Roman and the Popular; the imperial and the federalist; the
authoritarian and the libertarian' .(27) Within anarchism there is an implicit relationship between
human nature and historical progress, with the rise of the State corresponding to the rise of
self-assertion or egoism, and the development of free communes, or medieval city-states in
Kropotkin's historical analysis, corresponding to a growth in sociability. The struggle of
historical forces, the battle between libertarianism and authoritarianism, is occasioned by a
comparable contest within human nature.
Human nature and its environment
It is at this juncture that the interconnection of history and human nature becomes all
important, for the anarchist analysis points to the significance of environmental factors in
curtailing the expansion of egoism. Humankind has the capacity for both egoism and
sociability, but these potentialities exist in what may be best described as a symbiotic
relationship with the environment. Social, economic and political institutions, together with
the evolution of social and political ideals, act in the manner of a gardener's trestle, shaping
and bending human nature in one particular direction. There are innate components of human
nature, the development of which is encouraged by the environmental context within which
individuals find themselves. Human nature is malleable, but not completely so. Just as the
evolution of the modern State facilitated the intensification of egoism, so sociability continues
to persist in the form of mutual aid. Human nature provides the sustenance for the
development of history just as history releases the possibility of its own fulfillment. In other
words, social circumstances may inaugurate the consummation of a historical trend. Human
nature acts as a catalyst establishing a basis for the victory of one trend over another. In this
sense a political or social movement may act as an environmental trigger liberating both the
forces of history and the potentialities of human nature. The one feeds off the other as they
chart their progress through the course of social evolution.
Anarchists can never be accused of historical determinism. At the same time, however, the
interplay between their conceptions of human nature and history illustrates why it is
imperative to ensure the right kind of environmental context for the flourishing of mutual aid
and sociability. Ideas alone are insufficient to bring about historical change or insure against
an outbreak of egoism in human nature. Anarchism is very definitely a philosophy of praxis;
and one of the best ways to stimulate the ascent of sociability over egoism is through
appropriate social praxis. This reflects the fact that anarchists are much beholden to
materialism, because it is this which inspires the contextualist dimension of their conception
of human nature.(28) Adopting this contextualist line of reasoning, Bakunin argues that humans
are what their environment makes of them. No one, he opines, 'will seriously dispute this
opinion, that every child, youth, adult, and even the most mature man [sic], is wholly the
product of the environment that nourished and raised him - an inevitable, involuntary, and
consequently irresponsible product'.(29) 'Bakunin's writings are notorious for their in-
consistencies and Bakunin's contextualism, which reads like materialistic determinism, rubs
hard against his submission that power is attractive to people. As Bakunin himself admits,
every person 'carries within himself the germs of this lust for power'.(30) Moreover, as he wrote
in his A Circular Letter to My Friends in Italy, humankind's 'nature is so constituted that,
given the possibility of doing evil, that is, of feeding his vanity, his ambition, and his cupidity
at the expense of someone else, he surely will make full use of such an opportunity'.(31)
Despite Bakunin's inconsistencies, both materialism and contextualism remain a fundamental
part of anarchist ideological thinking. Indeed, one may say that anarchists have to adhere to
these concepts if only because the feasibility of anarchism demands it. Without the accent on
contextualism, the anarchist tale of a better society to come would have to be dismissed as
complete nonsense or utopian. Contextualism is imperative not only in the anarchists' critique
of Marxist-Leninist revolutionary strategy, but in the belief that a fresh social environment is
capable of fostering a new social morality and consolidating the victory of mutual aid. Given
the right circumstances, human nature can be transformed from that which corresponds to the
climate of economic liberalism to that which maintains the establishment of an anarchist-
The anarchist conception of human nature, then, reflects that of other ideological conceptions.
It is indebted to a contextualistand a universalist reading. More importantly, it comprises both
egoism and sociability. A simple enough thesis one might admit, but it has largely gone
unnoticed in academic analysis. However, the double-barreled character of the anarchists'
conception of human nature may seem confusing and somewhat paradoxical. The paradox is
overcome by simply accepting that anarchism is ambivalent or indeed inconsistent about -the
issue of human nature. Anarchists do concede that human nature has intrinsic properties and
these include both sociability and egoism, propensities which may be said to lead to good and
evil. The former (contextualist and sociable) reading reflects their shared heritage with
socialism and accounts for their belief in the ultimate attainability of a peaceful, harmonious
society that is devoid of the oppressive structures that demarcate capitalist society. The latter
(universalist and egoist) reading is indicative of what they have in common with liberalism. It
explains why anarchists observe with a measure of accuracy the corrupting effects of power
and why they counsel against the Marxist concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat or a
It is this broader understanding of the anarchist conception of human nature that reveals one of the greatest strengths of anarchism.(32) The duality of their thinking on human nature may illuminate a central tension within the ideology (but then most, if not all, political ideologies are subject to similar tensions), but most importantly it signals, as John Clark has perceived, one of the anarchists' towering strengths:
It is the belief that power corrupts, and that people become irresponsible in their exercise of it, that forms the basis for much of their criticism of political authority and centralized power. Power must be dispersed they say, not so much because everyone is always good, In it because when power is concentrated some people tend to become extremely evil.(33)
Lessons for the future: 1. Against the New Right
As the second millennium draws to a close there are encouraging signs for anarchism ahead.
There are many opportunities to be gained from strengthening already existing bonds with
new social movements like ecologism and feminism. Both ideologies have done much to
break through barriers, once regarded as insurmountable, in human relationships within
human society and with the natural world. Feminism's evaluation of the personal as political
has done much to illustrate the nature of women's oppression and has encouraged a
fundamental rethink on what it is to be male and female. Equally important, though, are the
consequences of the feminist analysis of 'patriarchy' for everyday life. Politics is no longer
confined to the public arena of States, governments and political parties. Feminism's great
achievement has been to redraw the boundaries of the public imagination in terms of the
pervasiveness of political relationships, which cross the threshold and extend into many areas
of family and personal life. Arguably the first and most fundamental form of human
oppression, feminism's dissection of female oppression has done much by way of illustrating
how a superficial dependence upon class politics and a utopian faith in the magical powers of
Marxist revolution are not in themselves sufficient to guarantee the liberation of all
humankind. Similarly, ecologism has not only revealed the arrogance of the anthropocentrism
of mainstream ideologies, but has forced many people to reconsider the nature of their own
being in light of an increasingly relevant and persuasive philosophy of ecocentrism that
highlights the interrelatedness and interdependence of all organisms that inhabit the Earth.
Relationships between human beings and between humanity and the planet are now being
reconsidered in imaginative and auspicious ways. The possibilities for a cross-fertilization of ideas between anarchism and these new social movements are both fascinating and extensive.
However, this is not my area of concern here; rather, I seek to draw attention to some recent
developments, both in practice and theory, that anarchism would do well to avoid. Two that
will be examined here, albeit very briefly, are the rise of the New Right in Britain and a
proffered courtship with existentialism.
History has vindicated the anarchist assessment of human nature on more than one occasion.
Anarchists like to think that the history of the
Soviet Union justified their concern about establishing a dictatorship of the proletariat.
Investing power in a revolutionary elite or vanguard party not only flouted the principle of
commensurability between means and ends (authoritarian vs. libertarian), but also confirmed
their suspicions that power is an addictive drug which if not checked will jeopardize the
smooth functioning of any society. The ' argument has been most cogently expressed by
Bakunin. There is no real difference, he believes, between a revolutionary dictatorship and the
State. Both govern by a minority in the name of the majority. And both consolidate 'the
political and economic privileges of the governing minority and the political and economic
slavery of the masses'.(34) Dictatorship, he notes, has only one objective: to perpetuate itself.
'Anyone who doubts this is not at all familiar with human nature.’(35) Thus Bakunin enunciates
a conviction that lies at the heart of anarchist thinking:
the only way to render any political power harmless, to Pacify it and subdue it, is to destroy
it. The philosophers did not understand that there can be no guarantee against political
power except its complete abolition. Words, promises, and vows mean nothing in politics, as
an arena of mutually contending forces and facts, for the simple reason that any political
power, as long as it remains a real power, by its very nature and tinder the threat of self-
destruction must inexorably and at all costs strive for the realization of its objectives,
regardless of or even against the will of the authorities and princes wielding it.(36)
Just as anarchists have been persuaded against supporting Marxist-Leninist revolutionary
strategy because of its lack of understanding of human nature, then so they should not be
deluded by the rhetoric of the New Right.(37) One of the leading proponents of the New Right in
Britain was the long-serving Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. During the 1980s her
commitment to rolling back the frontiers of the State, which at first glance may appear to
share some common ground with anarchist objectives, simply disguised the now well-known
strategy that a minimal or free market economic State demands and depends upon a highly
centralized and exceedingly powerful political State to support it. Notions of maximum
individual liberty within a minimal State have to be tempered upon realization that the
minimal State is only minimal in certain areas: notably, economic regulation of the free
market. As local democracy degenerates under an increasingly powerful stranglehold exerted
by central government, it would appear that the New Right is oblivious to its own teachings
on human nature.
It has become customary now for the New Right to describe itself as having more in common
with nineteenth-century Liberalism or the Manchester school of economics than traditional
Conservatism.(38) This is generally true, and as such the New Right operates with a conception
of human nature that is underpinned by assumptions about humanity's selfishness,
competitiveness, acquisitiveness and hedonistic nature. This view of the bourgeois individual
dovetailed perfectly into the demands of capitalist society, and proved fundamental to the
Thatcherite school of the New Right. Hence their libertarian guru, Keith Joseph, argued that
human nature is so constituted that it is natural to pursue private rather than public ends. This is a simple matter of observation. The duty of
government is to accommodate themselves [sic] to this immutable fact about human nature . .
. Men [sic] have a natural right to their ambitions because it was not for the purpose of
abolishing competitiveness that they submitted to government; it was for the purpose of
regulating competitiveness and preventing it from taking violent, fraudulent or anti- social
forms.(39) By its own admission, humankind is ambitious and competitive: it is power hungry, and will
swallow up any opportunity for power that presents itself This may make sound sense, in their
eyes, for a minimal State, but for anarchists it is a recipe for no State at all. The New Right
has proved more than capable of putting its philosophy into practice in terms of free-market
policies, but it has chosen to ignore the consequences of the power-seeking and ambitious
disposition of humankind. It is not that the New Right is incognizant of this dimension of
human nature; rather, such thinking serves to corroborate their belief that society is a
hierarchical command structure in which those most able to assume positions of power and
responsibility will do so. The complicating factor is that not all of human life is subsumed
under private activities. As a programme for political rule, the inherent danger in all this is
that once incumbent in positions of power, the office holder will use that office for private
rather than public ends. In other words, the New Right philosophy engenders the very real
possibility of an abuse of power and office. Having created an ethos of selfish egoism
throughout the 1980s, the erosion of political accountability in the creation of a culture of
government-appointed quangos and deregulated industries has suddenly come home to roost
with a vengeance in the mid-1990s.(40) Anarchists can learn from this experience. Suppositions
about power, ambition and egoism in human nature teach that power should be decentralized
and devolved wherever it cannot be eliminated altogether. Anarchists have noted and should
continue to take note of Acton's caveat that 'Power tends to corrupt and absolute power
corrupts absolutely'.(41) The experience of the New Right has been a painful one, but if nothing
else it has taught us the dangers of unaccountability and the centralization of power. Human
nature has much to say about political practice.
Lessons for the future: 2. Against existentialism
Another important development that has occurred recently is the suggestion that anarchism should discard any dependency on human nature in favour of a marriage with existentialism. This is the position adopted by Marshall in his essay, 'Human nature and anarchism' .(42) In purporting to reject human nature, he writes
that we should abandon the use of the term 'human nature since it implies that there is a fixed
essence within its which requires certain conditions to express itself, or some inherent force
which directs us outside the influence of history or culture.(43)
At face value this may seem like an apostasy of nineteenth-century conceptions of human
nature in favour of twentieth-century existentialism. However, Marshall stops short of
migrating into a fully-fledged existentialism. Instead, he opts for what he terms a 'soft
determinism'. Whilst Marshall acknowledges that 'there are causes which influence us', he
qualifies this admission by suggesting that 'all causes [are] incomplete and open-ended. Such
causes dispose but do not determine.’(44) Furthermore, as for the search for an unmistakable
identity or essence of human nature, whether it be goodness or badness, we should leave well
alone. 'We have', he acknowledges, innate tendencies for both types of behavior; it is our circumstances which encourage or
check them. While our present authoritarian and hierarchical society encourages egoism,
competition and aggression, there is good reason to think that a free society without authority
and coercion would encourage our benevolent and sympathetic tendencies.(45) Seemingly, Marshall wants to divorce himself from any dependence upon a concept of human
nature but is forced to concede that human nature does exist and that its identity is largely
(because the environment can only dispose and not determine) a matter of environmental
factors. It is patently obvious that, existentialist overtones aside, Marshall remains securely
rooted in the nineteenth-century anarchist tradition. His own personal views bear a
remarkably striking resemblance to those of the social anarchists in general and Kropotkin in
particular. For whatever reason though, Marshall is unable to recognize the similarity of his
own views and the assumptions that underpin the social anarchists' conception of human
nature in his voluminous tome on the history of anarchism.
One contemporary anarchist writer who is more consistent in her belief that anarchism should
abandon human nature is L. Susan Brown. In her article 'Anarchism, existentialism and
human nature: a critique', Brown argues that anarchists should jettison the outdated
nineteenth-century model of human nature in favour of modern existentialist considerations .(46)
Brown's intention is to 'argue against any inherent nature to humanity at all, and propose that
we are that which we make of ourselves'.(47) The evidence of her article indicates that it is
perfectly possible to tender the argument that we are what we make ourselves to be, whilst
maintaining a conception of human nature in which there is something given or innate.
Initially, Brown's idea might sound like an attractive proposition. But the problem is that, in
rejecting the concept of human nature, existentialism discards not only that which embodies
an essence or innateness that is common to all humankind, it also jettisons the argument that
political circumstances or the social environment have to be altered if anarchy is to flourish.
Existentialism is opposed to both dimensions of the anarchist conception of human nature: the
universal and the contextual; and it is the latter which demands social change for the better of
humanity. Of course, it is important to stress that to repudiate any notion of human nature is in
itself a theory or conception of human nature; however, the point is that existentialism seems
entirely at odds with the activist nature of anarchism. As Mark Leier has noted, if we believe
with existentialism that individuals can always choose to be free, why should we bother to try
to change anything except our own minds?’(48) Anarchists stand to gain little if anything from
entering into a partnership with existentialism. With its notion of metaphysical freedom,
existentialism is in no better position than anarchism to conclude that history will evolve in
the direction of greater freedom rather than increased authoritarianism. As Brown admits,
there is nothing to prevent individuals from choosing fascism over anarchy.(49)
Even if anarchists refrain from embracing existentialism, they may find themselves in a similar position in that they cannot predict with any certainty the outcome of social or historical evolution or revolution. As Peter Marshall has highlighted, [there] is no pre- ordained pattern to history, no iron law of capitalist development, no
straight railroad which we have to follow. Although it is always made on prior circumstances,
history is what we make it; and the future, as the past, can be either authoritarian or
libertarian depending on our choices and actions.(50) History is autonomous; it may move in either direction - such is the consequence of accepting
the twin basis of egoism and sociability in human nature, and such is the consequence of
importing the existentialist belief that humans are what they make of themselves. Revolution
is a matter of will rather than economic or social circumstances. But the advantage of
possessing a conception of human nature is that the morality that accompanies forms of social
organization resides in something more solid than anything existentialism has to offer.
Whether we like it or not, human nature is vitally important as a critical tool in expressing a
judgment about society and its dispensation of justice. In this respect, human nature emulates
the capacities of human rights. Anarchism's belief that freedom and sociability are
fundamental to human nature helps it to undermine the dehumanizing and authoritarian
consequences of State power. At the same time, anarchism's cognizance of the effects of
egoism engenders a permanent vigilance against new forms of oppression and abuses of
power. History has taught anarchists that they should be prepared to grasp any opportunity
that presents itself for moving in the direction of a freer society, whilst paying attention to
human nature and avoiding any repetition of past mistakes in the twenty-first century. To that
effect, anarchists will have to suffer a while longer the individualist ethos that looks set to
close the door on the twentieth century, whilst working hard to bring about the success of a
society inspired by communalist, participationist and non-hierarchical goals.
1 Marshall (1992), p.630.
2 Berry (1986), p.x.
3 Plant (1991), p.70.
4 A point made by Burke (1982), p.183.
5 See, for example, Smart (1983), pp.36-52.
6 Goodwin (1992), p.10. Rousseau's argument is developed in A Discourse on Inequality,
commonly referred to as his Second Discourse.
7 Adams (1993), p.172.
8 Heywood (1992), p.198. Andrew Gamble is another who misjudges the anarchists'
conception of human nature. See Gamble (198 1), pp. 109-10.
9 Carter (1971), p.16.
10 Clark (1984), p.121.
I I Woodcock (1972), p. 172.
12 Woodcock (1975), p.19,
13 Marshall (1992), p.664.
14 Ibid, p.643.
15 Heywood (1992).
16 Woodcock (1975), p.206. Concurring with the tenor of Woodcock's judgement, Marshall
talks of Kropotkin's _'optimistic frame of mind which at times could be almost fatalistic in its
confidence in progress'. See Marshall (1992), p.309.
17 Proudhon (1972), p.410.
18 Maximoff(1964), p.249.
19 Miller (1984), p.93.
20 Dolgoff(1973), p.91.
21 Quoted in Gu6rin (1970), p.22. Saint Vincent de Paul was the founder of many Roman
Catholic women's congregations in seventeenth-century France to aid the poor and needy.
Guizot was the leader of the conservative constitutional monarchists during the July
Monarchy of 1830-48 in France. Talleyrand was a senior French statesman renowned in
political circles for his ability to survive. He held high office during the French Revolution,
22 Napoleon, at the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, and under King Louis-Philippe.
22 A point that is recognized by Marshall (1992), p.324; and Crowder (199 1), p. 140.
23 A point acknowledged by Kelly (1982), p. 12 1.
24 Proudhon (1979), p.6,
25 This essay is contained in Marx (1974), pp.334-5
26 Proudhon's remarks can be found in Edwards (1970), p.237.
27 Kropotkin (1987), p.59.
28 See, for example, Bakunin's The Knouto- Germanic Empire and the Social Revolution, in
29 Ibid., p.153.
30 Protestation of the Alliance, in ibid., p.248.
31 Ibid., p.249.
32 A fact perceived by Kropotkin (1995), P.110.
33 Clark (1984), p.129. Emphasis in the original.
34 Bakunin (1990), p.137.
35 Ibid., p.178. Cf. also ibid., p.179.
36 Ibid., p.150.
37 The author is aware of the divisions within the New Right and that there may be
fundamental differences between them. For the purposes of this chapter, the New Right is referred to as that movement which took control of the British Conservative Party in the second half of the 1970s,
38 The Manchester school refer-, to an economic school of thought in England from 1820 to
1850. It was inspired by the political-economic philosophy of laissezfiaire, and used
arguments centred on free trade to reform measures such as the Corn Laws.
39 Joseph and Sumption (1979), pp.10G-L
40 The word quango refers to quasi-autonomous non-governmental organizations. Figures
released by the UK government in 1993 gave a total number of quangos; of 1389. Research
by the University of Essex in the first half of 1994 concluded that a more accurate figure is
close to 7000. Despite differences of categorization, quangos cause widespread resentment
because of their unaccountable and unelected nature. Consequently, many critics from all
political lines have condemned the use of quangos by recent UK governments to subvert and
undermine the processes of local democracy.
41 This familiar quotation is drawn from a letter which Acton wrote to Bishop Mandell
Creighton, 5 April 1887. Acton was a Liberal historian and moralist who espoused a
philosophy of resistance against the evils of the State. He was elected to Parliament in 1859,
became a close associate of the Liberal Prime Minister Gladstone, and was raised to the
peerage in 1869.
42 See Marshall (1989), pp.127-49.
43 Ibid., p.138.
44 Ibid., p. 141.
45 Ibid., p.142.
46 Brown (1988), pp.49-60.
47 Ibid., p.54
48 Lcier (1993), p.37.
49 Brown (1988), p.54.
50 Marshall (1989) p.144.