Individualist Anarchism vs. Social Anarchism
This piece is the fifteenth essay in the June C4SS Mutual Exchange Symposium: “Anarchy and Democracy.” It is written in reply to this contribution by Grayson English.

This C4SS discussion about anarchism and democracy has been intriguing—even though I am one of only two writers who have regarded them as compatible concepts. The brief essay by Grayson, “Demolish the Demos,” is especially useful. It clarifies what is at the root of the disagreement among anarchists about democracy. The basic issue, I believe, is not what we mean by “democracy” but what we mean by “anarchism.” It is the commitment to an “individualist” interpretation of anarchism which lead to a rejection of radical democracy. I believe that this leads, contrary to anyone’s intentions, in an authoritarian direction.

Social Philosophy

Grayson writes:

“…All should be equal in having…absolute authority over themselves….We…wish for a world…in which all are kings….The demos is the original enemy for an anarchist….It presupposes the annihilation of the individual in the collective….This antagonism [is] between individual sovereignty and democracy….The social should make room for the individual and not vice versa….Individuals act…Collectives do not act….The society we want is one that continually dissolves itself into individuals and only exists as a springboard for unique individuals to interface with each other…”  

Of course, Grayson does not deny the existence of society or societies, large or small. But he regards them as secondary to individuals: something to be tolerated and used as little as possible, until they can be (periodically?) dissolved. (I do not know whether Grayson is a disciple of Stirner or other individualist anarchists, but he clearly fits this category.)

As a description of reality, this is false. There are and can be no individuals without society. Grayson could not think without using language—a social product. A child’s sense of self is developed through his or her interaction with others, from infancy onwards. Grayson’s vision is like saying that a waterfall does not really exist because it is composed of water drops: the drops do the falling, but supposedly not the river’s water. He says that only individuals act, but not collectives. But take the famous example of a group of men moving a piano. Who is moving the piano? If each one acts completely autonomously, will the piano be moved? This is a model for any sort of productive activity from hunter-gathering on to today, no matter how decentralized or crafts-like an anarchist technology would be.  

Compare Grayson’s views with those of Bakunin (passages quoted in Brian Morris, Bakunin: The Philosophy of Freedom, 1993):

 “…Natural society [is] the real starting point of all human civilization and the only medium in which the personality and liberty of man can really be born and grow….Man…only realizes his individual liberty or personality by integration with all the individuals around him and virtue of the collective power of society….Man in isolation can have no awareness of his liberty.  Being free for man means being acknowledged, considered and treated as such by another man and by all the men around him.  Liberty is therefore a feature not of isolation but of interaction, not of exclusion but rather of connection…”
(pp. 88—89; note use of “man” to mean “humanity”)  

I will not quote from Kropotkin on mutual aid/cooperation as the foundation of his vision of anarchism. You get the idea. This is the basis of social anarchism, of anarchist-socialism. It is quite distinct from individualist anarchism. 

Actual Politics

Grayson agrees that the collective does exist, even under anarchism, in between its dissolving into isolated individuals, when serving as a “springboard” for human atoms. Therefore it is reasonable to ask him, how will the collective be organized during these periods? How will individuals control how these (unfortunately necessary if temporary) collectives function?  Down through the millennia, hunter-gatherer groups, villages, clans, and other associations have often used communal discussions, consensus, voting, choosing specialists by lot or group decision, or similar methods—democracy. But Grayson rejects democracy. What then?

He does not tell us what he would do.  He does say he rejects democracy and wants “kings” and that he regards the “demos” (the collective people) as “the enemy.” Of course he does not advocate dictatorship. But what then? If no one can tell me what to do, not even the most radically-democratic socialist people, then I must be the king. It is the logical conclusion of rejecting democracy, even if it contradicts the very goals which Grayson wants to achieve.    

In brief, Grayson comes up against the same problem that all the other anarchists who reject democracy (leaving aside the many who advocate democratic procedures but do not use the term “democracy”) encounter. Given that people do live in society, that cooperation is a necessary part of living, that production and consumption of necessary goods requires group activities—then there has to be some way of organizing these procedures that provides the maximum of individual freedom and control from below. Those anarchists who reject democracy generally remain on a high and abstract level of philosophy. They do not say what they would actually do! What could this be but some sort of radical democracy?


Mutual Exchange is C4SS’s goal in two senses: We favor a society rooted in peaceful, voluntary cooperation, and we seek to foster understanding through ongoing dialogue. Mutual Exchange will provide opportunities for conversation about issues that matter to C4SS’s audience.

Online symposiums will include essays by a diverse range of writers presenting and debating their views on a variety of interrelated and overlapping topics, tied together by the overarching monthly theme. C4SS is extremely interested in feedback from our readers. Suggestions and comments are enthusiastically encouraged. If you’re interested in proposing topics and/or authors for our program to pursue, or if you’re interested in participating yourself, please email C4SS’s Mutual Exchange Coordinator, Cory Massimino, at cory.massimino@c4ss.org.

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