In this installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss anarchist approaches to morality and ethics. Contrary to popular misconceptions, most self-identified anarchists were not nihilistic egoists or amoralists, like Max Stirner, but instead were critics of the parsimonious and hypocritical morality found in existing society, which is designed to encourage subservience and obedience. Anarchists argued that people can only be “moral,” in a positive sense, in a society of equals without hierarchy and domination.
“Official morality,” wrote Elisée Reclus in 1894, “consists in bowing humbly to one’s superiors and in proudly holding up one’s head before one’s subordinates” (Volume One, Selection 38). True morality can only exist between equals. “It is not only against the abstract trinity of law, religion, and authority” that anarchists declare war, according to Kropotkin, but the inequality that gives rise to “deceit, cunning, exploitation, depravity, vice… It is in the name of equality that we are determined to have no more prostituted, exploited, deceived and governed men and women.”
This sense of justice and solidarity, “which brings the individual to consider the rights of every other individual as equal to his own,” has been successively widened, from the clan, to the tribe, to the nation, to the whole of humankind, until it is transcended by a “higher conception of ‘no revenge for wrongs,’ and of freely giving more than one expects to receive from his neighbours” (Volume One, Selection 54). For Kropotkin, acting morally is not only natural, but a means of self-fulfillment.
What anarchists sought to achieve was a world in which everyone is free to develop his or her talents and abilities to their fullest. This is impossible as long as workers are required to engage in labour merely to eke out an existence, taking whatever jobs they can get, women must work at home and in the factory or office, subject to their husbands and fathers at home, to their bosses at work, and to conventional morality always, and children must be trained to accept their lot in life and to obey their “betters.”
It is for these reasons that anarchism, Kropotkin wrote, “refuses all hierarchical organization” (Volume One, Selection 41). As Charlotte Wilson (1854-1944), who helped found the English language anarchist newspaper, Freedom, with Kropotkin in 1886, explained, “all coercive organization” with its “machine-like regularity is fatal to the realization” of the anarchist ideal of self-fulfillment for all, not just the privileged few (Volume One, Selection 37).