What is an anarchist? What practices are libertarian? Which kinds of social arrangements are compatible, and which incompatible, with freedom? These are the kinds of questions that have been debated and written about by anarchists for well over a hundred years. During this time some anarchists have defined libertarian thought and practice so narrowly that they consider those who don’t share their vision of anarchist economics, or their methods for achieving a libertarian society, to be outside the anarchist fold. Most anarchists, however, have had a fairly open, tolerant, and inclusive approach towards anarchists with whom they differ.
While there have always been as many different approaches to finding the road to freedom as there have been anarchists, the primary divide in the traditional anarchist movement has long been that between those of an individualist persuasion and those with a more social or collectivist outlook. In general, anarchists on either side tended to view those with whom they disagreed as genuine anarchists despite their differences. In fact, simply calling oneself an anarchist was often enough for one to be considered a “real” libertarian by other anarchists. Even when anarchists joined the government in spain in the 1930s, those who were critical of this decidedly unlibertarian action still generally considered those who took political office to still be anarchists of some sort.
Left and Right
Things began to change in the 1960s, however. Just as libertarian thought started to make a comeback in the radical student and antiwar movements, a new strain of anarchist thinking appeared among conservative activists as well. Writers such as Murray Rothbard, Karl Hess, and Linda and Morris Tannehill took explicitly anarchist positions and the libertarians in Young Americans for Freedom formed an anarchist caucus, which split form YAF in 1969.
The evolution of these “right-wingers” into anarchists was largely sparked by the same issue that pushed “left-wingers” in a libertarian direction: the hypocrisy of both liberal and conservative politicians in invoking liberty to justify the slaughter in southeast asia. The analysis of the war (and much else) in pieces such as The Death of Politics, The Tranquil Statement, or Confessions of a Right-Wing Liberal was just as radical and libertarian as anything produced by the 60s anarchist left. But the clearly libertarian views expressed by these thinkers and activists was not sufficient to make them anarchists in the eyes of most of their left libertarian contemporaries.
Although there was brief attempt at a left-right libertarian coalition in 1969-1970, nothing much came of it. Carl Oglesby—almost alone—on the left, and Rothbard, Hess and others on the right strove to convince their fellow thinkers that the essential anti-statism of both camps made them natural allies. They agreed on most everything, except economics, but that was enough to prevent the formation of a broad, inclusive anarchist movement encompassing both left and right varieties. This inability to join forces, however, was not for want of trying on the part of the anarchist right. Most left libertarians just could not bring themselves to view the former conservatives as anarchists. And differences between them about economic and social arrangements in a stateless society remain a barrier to the inclusion of pro-capitalist libertarians in the anarchist movement in the eyes of most present-day social/ collectivist libertarians.
This is unfortunate. There are insights concerning the importance of fighting for individual freedom which are commonplace among the pro-capitalist libertarians but are often lacking in the outlook of anti-capitalist anarchists. The pro-capitalists base their entire critique of authoritarian and statist society on its denial of individuals’ liberty to choose for themselves in all areas of life: economic, social, sexual, (ir)religious, whatever. They believe in the primacy of the wants and needs of the individual over those of the group. This is an outlook that, among anti-capitalists, frequently gets lost in their focus on groups: classes, sexes, those who share a skin color or ethnicity, “indigenous” groups, folks with similar sexual tastes, and so on.
On a personal level, pro-capitalist anarchist (and minarchist, for that matter) writers, as well as classical anarchists like Goldman, were quite influential in my evolution into an anarchist. Goldman’s anti-statist, anti-hierarchical point of view was refreshing for one coming out of the statist left, and convinced me that the state in any form cannot promote or defend personal liberty, that authoritarian means cannot produce libertarian ends. But it was not until I read the american individualists, including the modern pro-capitalist anarchists, that I arrived at my current understanding of just how crucial and fundamental a focus on individual freedom is to the creation of a just and humane society.
Economic and social freedom of choice
Despite this, I am not pro-capitalist. I reject, in the spirit of the 19th and early 20th century individualists, profit, rent, interest, and intellectual property as forms of theft. I believe people should be free to retain the entire product of their labor, I support use and occupancy land tenure, I oppose monopoly forms of money and any form of intellectual property. So I am no fan of capitalism. But neither am I pro-socialist, pro-syndicalist, pro-communist.
I do, however, believe that any and all of these economic and social systems can be part of a libertarian society. None of them requires a state, but only needs a set of shared rules (or customs) and understandings, in order to function in an anarchist fashion. There can be libertarian communes, libertarian syndicalist federations, libertarian socialist enclaves, but there can also be libertarian capitalist societies that are no less anarchist than these other set-ups. This is a point missed by most of the anarchist left.
This is, at least in part, due to the fact that anti-capitalist anarchists often believe that “actually existing capitalism” is the only form of capitalism possible. But if any of them were to take the time to read what the libertarian pro-capitalists have written, they would see that these folks are not advocating Wal-Mart and Bank of America without the state. In fact the social and economic arrangements they promote would make it impossible for such monstrosities to come into being.
Unfortunately, the existence of a “libertarian” party and “libertarian” think tanks like the Cato institute that do, at least at times, pimp for the corporations, provides a convenient straw man for the anti-capitalist anarchists. They conflate these (at best) minarchist apologists for the state and corporate capitalism with the pro-capitalist anarchists, and then condemn the anarchists for positions they do not in fact take. This is as unfair as it would be for the pro-capitalist anarchists to accuse communist anarchists of support for “actually existing socialism” just because those who really do support such tyrannies call themselves communists as well. If left libertarians believe there can be a libertarian version of communism despite the historical record of what passes for a communist movement, why then is an anarchist capitalism so far-fetched?
Let a hundred schools of thought contend
What distinguishes, or should distinguish, anarchists from other critics of the world as it is is that we all reject the state and other involuntary organizations, oppose the initiation of force, and believe in the freedom of individuals to choose how they conduct their lives and their relationships with others. Human beings, in their infinite diversity of needs and wants, will, in a free society, create numberless different ways of interacting with each other to fulfill these desires. There will likely be communist, capitalist, catholic worker-style personalist, and mutualist anarchies, as well as strange cross-breeds of the various social and economic systems that we anarchists currently write and talk about. And many of us would have it no other way.