This is the next installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterward to Volume Three of my anthology of anarchist writings, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Here, I discuss some of the revolutionary ideas that were emerging in Europe prior to the European revolutions of 1848-1849.
Revolutionary Ideas in Europe
In the 1840s there was an explosion of radical ideas and movements in Europe, culminating in a wave of revolutions that swept the continent in 1848-49. In Germany, radical intellectuals inspired by and reacting against the philosophy of Hegel, sometimes referred to as the “Young” or “Left Hegelians,” began developing a “ruthless criticism of everything existing,” as Marx put it in 1843. The previous year, Bakunin had published his essay, “The Reaction in Germany,” in which he described the revolutionary program as “the negation of the existing conditions of the State” and “ the destruction of whatever order prevails at the time,” concluding with the now notorious phrase, the “passion for destruction is a creative passion, too!” (Volume One, Selection 10). Max Stirner’s masterpiece of nihilistic egoism, The Ego and Its Own, came out in 1844 (Volume One, Selection 11). Arnold Ruge, one of the most prominent of the “Young Hegelians,” called for “the abolition of all government” in favour of “an ordered anarchy… the free community… of men who make their own decisions and who are in all respects equal comrades” (Nettlau: 53-59).
Three aspects of the Young Hegelian critique had a lasting impact on Bakunin, and through him on the development of anarchist ideas. The first was the Young Hegelian critique of religion. The second was the development of a materialist worldview, from which all “divine phantoms” were banished. The third, which followed from the first two, was atheism. Bakunin and later anarchists were to denounce the alliance of Church and State, particularly the role of religion in pacifying the masses and in rationalizing their domination and exploitation, advocating a materialist atheism that emphasizes human agency because there are no divine or supernatural forces to protect or deliver the people from their earthly misery. The people can only liberate themselves through their own direct action.
Max Stirner (1806-1856) took the Young Hegelian critique of “divine phantoms” to its furthest extreme, attacking all ideal conceptions, whether of God, humanity, or good and evil, as “spooks” or “wheels in the head” which dominate the very consciousness of the unique individual, preventing him or her from acting freely.
In The Ego and Its Own, Stirner argued that through upbringing, education and indoctrination, people internalize abstract social norms and values, putting the individual “in the position of a country governed by secret police. The spy and eavesdropper, ‘conscience,’ watch over every motion of the mind,” with “all thought and action” becoming “a matter of conscience, i.e. police business.” Anticipating radical Freudians like the anarchist psychoanalyst, Otto Gross (Volume One, Selection 78), Stirner observed that everyone “carries his gendarme within his breast.”
Stirner advocated freedom “from the State, from religion, from conscience,” and from any other power or end to which the individual can be subjected. He rejected any concept of justice or rights, arguing that the unique individual is free to take whatever is in his or her power. Whenever the egoist’s “advantage runs against the State’s,” he “can satisfy himself only by crime.” After Stirner’s writings were rediscovered in the late 1890s, this aspect of his critique was developed by individualist anarchists, such as Albert Joseph (“Libertad”), into the doctrine of “illegalism,” which was used by the Bonnot Gang as an ideological cloak for their bank robberies in the early 1900s in France (Perry, 1987).
Stirner denounced socialism for seeking to replace the individual capitalist with a collective owner, “society,” to which the individual will be equally subject, but nevertheless argued that the workers need only stop labouring for the benefit of their employers and “regard the product of their labour” as their own in order to bring down the State, the power of which rests on their slavery.
Another aspect of Stirner’s thought that was to have some influence on later anarchists is his distinction between insurrection and revolution. Revolutions seek to rearrange society into a new order. Insurrection or rebellion, by contrast, is “a rising of individuals… without regard to the arrangements that spring from it” (Volume One, Selection 11). In light of the defeats of the anarchists in the Russian and Spanish Revolutions, Herbert Read (1893-1968) sought to revive Stirner’s distinction, arguing that anarchists must avoid creating “the kind of machinery which, at the successful end of a revolution, would merely be taken over by the leaders of the revolution, who then assume the functions of government” (Volume Two, Selection 1). During the 1960s, many of the younger anarchists endorsed the notion of “spontaneous insurrection” (Volume Two, Selection 51). More recently, Hakim Bey has argued in favour of the creation of “temporary autonomous zones,” which can be seen as “an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it” (Volume Three, Selection 11).
Proudhon: Machinery and Worker Self-Management
In one passage in The Ego and Its Own, Stirner described individuals as mere cogs in the “State machine.” In Proudhon’s 1846 publication, The System of Economic Contradictions, he argued that the first and “most powerful of machines is the workshop” The workshop degrades “the worker by giving him a master.” The “concentration of forces in the workshop” and the introduction of machinery “engender at the same time overproduction and destitution,” rendering more and more workers redundant, such that in a capitalist economy it is continually necessary to “create new machines, open other markets, and consequently multiply services and displace other” workers. Industry and wealth, population and misery, “advance, so to speak, in procession, one always dragging the other after it” (Volume One, Selection 9).
This focus on and opposition to relationships of subordination in both the economic and political spheres sharply distinguished Proudhon and the anarchists from many of their socialist contemporaries. In his sarcastic attempt to demolish Proudhon, The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), Marx dismissed Proudhon’s critique of factory organization and machinery as a reactionary demand for a return to a pre-industrial utopia of skilled craft production. In the Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), co-written with Friedrich Engels, Marx called for the centralization of “all instruments of production in the hands of the State… to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible.” This would require the establishment of “industrial armies, especially for agriculture.”
Proudhon’s solution to this problem was neither to advocate a return to a pre-industrial craft economy nor the creation of industrial armies, “for it is with a machine as with a piece of artillery: the captain excepted, those whom it occupies are servants, slaves” (Volume One, Selection 9). While Proudhon argued that free credit should be made available so that everyone would have the opportunity to engage in whatever productive activity they chose, he recognized from the outset the advantages of combining one’s labour with the labour of others, creating a “collective force” that in existing society was being exploited by the capitalists who reaped the benefit of the resulting increase in productive power. “Two hundred grenadiers stood the obelisk of Luxor upon its base in a few hours,” Proudhon wrote in What Is Property, “do you suppose that one man could have accomplished the same task in two hundred days?” (Volume One, Selection 8).
Proudhon therefore advocated workers’ control or worker self-management of industry, later referred to in France as “autogestion,” an idea that became a major tenet of subsequent anarchist movements (Guérin, Volume Two, Selection 49). In Proudhon’s proposals, all positions in each enterprise would be elected by the workers themselves, who would approve all by-laws, each worker would have the right to fill any position, “unpleasant and disagreeable tasks” would be shared, and each worker would be given a “variety of work and knowledge” so as to avoid a stultifying division of labour. Everyone would “participate in the gains and in the losses” of the enterprise “in proportion to his services,” with pay being “proportional to the nature of the position, the importance of the talents, and the extent of responsibility” (Volume One, Selection 12).
Nettlau, Max. A Short History of Anarchism. London: Freedom Press, 1996.
Perry, Richard. The Bonnot Gang. London: Rebel Press, 1987.