Individualist Anarchy

Individualist anarchy refers to several traditions of thought within the anarchist movement that emphasize the needs and the will of the individual over external determinants such as groups, society, traditions and ideology.

Individualist anarchists assert that "individual conscience and the pursuit of self-interest should not be constrained by any collective body or public authority" and that the state, decreed and legislated law, and "the system of democracy, of majority decision, is held null and void."

Among the early influences on individualist anarchy were William Godwin, Josiah Warren ("sovereignty of the individual"), Max Stirner (egoism), Lysander Spooner ("natural law"), Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (mutualism), Henry David Thoreau (transcendentalism), Herbert Spencer ("law of equal liberty") and Anselme Bellegarrigue.

Benjamin Tucker, a famous 19th century individualist anarchist, held that:

"If the individual has the right to govern himself, all external government is tyranny".

Tucker was the first to publish an English translation of Max Stirner's The Ego and Its Own – which Tucker claimed as his proudest accomplishment. Today, the egoist current of individualist anarchism is perhaps the most dominant, with Max Stirner's writings increasingly influencing social anarchists with egoist communism. Stirner wrote:

“Whoever will be free must make himself free. Freedom is no fairy gift to fall into a man's lap. What is freedom? To have the will to be responsible for one's self.”

“The state calls its own violence law, but that of the individual, crime.”

“We do not aspire to communal life but to a life apart.”

Various individualist forms of Green anarchism also have a big impact today, initially inspired by Henry David Thoreau and his book Walden, as well as by Leo Tolstoy and Elisee Reclus in their writings.

Different forms of individualist anarchy have a few things in common:

  1. A focus on the individual and their unique will over any external constructions such as morality, ideology, social custom, religion, metaphysics, ideas or the will of others.

  2. Rejecting, or at least having reservations about the idea of revolution, seeing it as a time of unstable mass uprising which could just as easily bring about new hierarchies and rulers. Instead, individualists favor more evolutionary methods of bringing about anarchy through alternative experiences, experimentation and education. Individualists don't see it as desirable to wait for a violent revolution that may never come to start experimenting with anarchy and having experiences outside of the current 'legitimate' social system. They don't think it feasible to anticipate an anarchist utopia that may never come. Instead, they delve head first into anarchist praxis in the here and now regardless of whatever constructed systems are currently in place around them.

  3. Rejecting democracy, or the will of the majority group to assert their will on the individual and minority groups. From Democracy to Freedom and Against Democracy explain this in more detail.

  4. Individualist anarchists usually reject the notion of sacrifice altogether. Collectivist's ideas of the individual having to give up their personal happiness in service of the 'greater good' is something individualists vehemently reject as being counter to anarchy.

  5. Freedom of Association and loose, informal organizations. To Stirner, the problem with the state and bodies like it was that the state was held up as sacred; an artificial structure that gets placed above the individual and collectively forced upon everyone. Instead, he examined how individuals interact with each other when they don't have the constraints of a sacred state imposed upon them and built his theory "The Union of Egoists" from that.

    This union is understood as a non-systematic association, which Stirner proposed in contradistinction to the state. The Union is understood as a relation between egoists which is continually renewed by all parties' support through an act of will. The Union requires that all parties participate out of a conscious egoism. If one party silently finds themselves to be suffering, but puts up with it without protest, the Union has degenerated and failed. This Union is not an authority above a person's own will, and ceases to function when this happens. This idea has received interpretations for politics, economics, romance and sexual relations.

    As such, he sees the tearing down of the state, both practically and ideologically, as leaving these informal structures where people associate with each other because they mutually benefit from each other. Rather than the imposed ties of society or the state, he turns to voluntary ties of friendships and play.

    Social anarchists tend to conceive of anarchistic organizations as being formal in nature, with federated structures and methods of recourse for individuals to resolve their problems in large, often monolithic organizations. Unions of egoists, by contrast, would be small, personal affairs which evolve fluidly and without much structure to them. People would be involved in many unions of egoists, some long term, like friendships, and some short term, like getting together to fix specific problems that are affecting multiple people.

    In practical terms for tactical purposes, this means Individualist anarchists call for small anarchist "cells" which are able to act independently from each other, lacking formal ties with each other, but which would still communicate and work together on a short term basis where the members would know each other personally, thus trusting each other enough to cooperate to achieve common goals.

Some forms of individualist anarchy:

Criticisms of Individualist Anarchy

US American anarcho-syndicalist Sam Dolgoff often spoke out against non-organizational forms of anarchy. "Speaking of life at the Stelton Colony of New York in the 1930s, he noted with disdain that "like other colonies, (it) was infested by vegetarians, naturists, nudists, and other cultists, who sidetracked true anarchist goals." One resident "always went barefoot, ate raw food, mostly nuts and raisins, and refused to use a tractor, being opposed to machinery, and he didn't want to abuse horses, so he dug the earth himself." Such self-proclaimed anarchists were in reality "ox-cart anarchists," Dolgoff said, "who opposed organization and wanted to return to a simpler life." In an interview with Paul Avrich before his death, Dolgoff also complained, "I am sick and tired of these half-assed artists and poets who object to organization and want only to play with their belly buttons".

"Lifestylist" is a deragatory term coined by Murray Bookchin to describe anarchists that reject organizational theory and other socialist ideology and choose to pursue anarchy in the here and now regardless of whatever systems are imposed on them from above.

Today’s reactionary social context greatly explains the emergence of a phenomenon in Euro-American anarchism that cannot be ignored: the spread of individualist anarchism. In a time when even respectable forms of socialism are in pell-mell retreat from principles that might in any way be construed as radical, issues of lifestyle are once again supplanting social action and revolutionary politics in anarchism. In the traditionally individualist-liberal United States and Britain, the 1990s are awash in self-styled anarchists who — their flamboyant radical rhetoric aside — are cultivating a latter-day anarcho-individualism that I will call lifestyle anarchism. Its preoccupations with the ego and its uniqueness and its polymorphous concepts of resistance are steadily eroding the socialistic character of the libertarian tradition. No less than Marxism and other socialisms, anarchism can be profoundly influenced by the bourgeois environment it professes to oppose, with the result that the growing ‘inwardness’ and narcissism of the yuppie generation have left their mark upon many avowed radicals. Ad hoc adventurism, personal bravura, an aversion to theory oddly akin to the antirational biases of postmodernism, celebrations of theoretical incoherence (pluralism), a basically apolitical and anti-organizational commitment to imagination, desire, and ecstasy, and an intensely self-oriented enchantment of everyday life, reflect the toll that social reaction has taken on Euro-American anarchism over the past two decades. —Murray Bookchin

Bookchin preferred that anarchists focus all their efforts on inciting a homogeneous revolution to replace the capitalist system with a socialist system. He was especially critical of lifestyle choices adopted by individualist anarchists. These 'lifestylist' practices can include veganism, dumpster diving, refusing to work, squatting, sexual freedom, DIY, naturism, hacking, piracy, graffiti, self-sufficiency, shoplifting and other illegalism, disrupting fascist organizing, private property damage and other 'terrorism' (violent direct action against the system). He often framed 'lifestylism' as an anti-social distraction:

In France, Spain, and the United States, individualistic anarchists committed acts of terrorism that gave anarchism its reputation as a violently sinister conspiracy. Those who became terrorists were less often libertarian socialists or communists than desperate men and women who used weapons and explosives to protest the injustices and philistinism of their time, putatively in the name of ‘propaganda of the deed.’ Most often, however, individualist anarchism expressed itself in culturally defiant behavior. It came to prominence in anarchism precisely to the degree that anarchists lost their connection with a viable public sphere. —Murray Bookchin

Indeed, lifestyle anarchism today is finding its principal expression in spray-can graffiti, post-modernist nihilism, antirationalism, neoprimitivism, anti-technologism, neo-Situationist ‘cultural terrorism,’ mysticism, and a ‘practice’ of staging Foucauldian ‘personal insurrections.’ These trendy posturings, nearly all of which follow current yuppie fashions, are individualistic in the important sense that they are antithetical to the development of serious organizations, a radical politics, a committed social movement, theoretical coherence, and programmatic relevance. (Individualist anarchism is) more oriented toward achieving one’s own ‘self-realization’ than achieving basic social change. —Murray Bookchin

He even criticized prominent social anarchists that sometimes engaged in thought that didn't meet with his desire for a pure organizational ideology:

Despite their avowals of an anarcho-communist ideology, Nietzscheans like Emma Goldman remained cheek to jowl in spirit with individualists.
—Murray Bookchin

He was perhaps referring to Emma Goldman's famous quote:

A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having. —Emma Goldman

He extended his criticisms to the individualist anarchist focus on autonomy:

The confusion between autonomy and freedom is all too evident in L. Susan Brown’s The Politics of Individualism (POI), a recent attempt to articulate and elaborate a basically individualist anarchism, yet retain some filiations with anarcho’communism. If lifestyle anarchism needs an academic pedigree, it will find it in her attempt to meld Bakunin and Kropotkin with John Stuart Mill. Alas, herein lies a problem that is more than academic. Brown’s work exhibits the extent to which concepts of personal autonomy stand at odds with concepts of social freedom. In essence, like Goodman she interprets anarchism as a philosophy not of social freedom but of personal autonomy. She then offers a notion of ‘existential individualism’ that she contrasts sharply both with ‘instrumental individualism’ (or C. B. Macpherson’s ‘possessive [bourgeois] individualism’) and with ‘collectivism’ — leavened with extensive quotations from Emma Goldman, who was by no means the ablest thinker in the libertarian pantheon. —Murray Bookchin

Bookchin eventually abandoned anarchism altogether and instead created Communalism as a response to what he saw as anarchism's shortcomings.