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Study notes

Anarchism and Human Nature

  • Levels: A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel, IB

Anarchists, generally speaking, have an optimistic view of human nature.

They maintain that, throughout history, people have been corrupted by the nature of the prevailing state, government and society, and, if these negative features are removed, then the positive potential or essential ‘goodness’ of human nature will be revealed.

Consequently, anarchists argue that humans have the capacity to organise their own lives peacefully and productively without being subjected to imposed authority and coercion. In addition, most anarchists emphasise humankind’s potential for solidarity and believe that, in a stateless society based on natural order, the values of mutual aid, cooperation and community would thrive. Finally, the majority of anarchists argue that humans are products of their environment but also that they are capable of changing their social conditions.

It is important though not to oversimplify anarchist views on human nature since there are three basic positions:

SELF-INTERESTED POSITION ON HUMAN NATURE

Anarchists such as Max Stirner contend that human nature is self-interested because the human ego, part of the fundamental core of every person, drives an individual to do, or take, anything they want. Stirner maintains that ‘When the world comes my way … I consume it to quiet the hunger of my egoism. For me you are nothing but my food even as I too am fed upon and turned to use by you.’ He does not see humans as irrational, however, since individuals will cooperate with each other (in unions of egoism) when such action is necessary in order to achieve their personal aims. This interpretation of human nature is associated with individualist anarchism.

"BLANK STATE" POSITION ON HUMAN NATURE

Another anarchist approach argues that an individual starts life as a ‘blank slate’ – innocent, morally neutral and lacking innate characteristics – but thereafter the negative impact of the state and society turns that person into a flawed human being. In short, human nature is socially determined. Such a view supports the anarchist idea that the creation of a stateless ‘perfect’ society will lead to more moral and altruistic people and natural order. The collectivist anarchist Mikhail Bakunin endorses this idea, asserting ‘From his birth not a single human being is either bad or good … ‘good’ can be developed in men only through upbringing and education.’

SOCIABLE, RATIONAL AND ALTRUISTIC POSITION ON HUMAN NATURE

The third anarchist perspective regards humans as naturally ‘good’ because they are sociable, rational and altruistic. According to this assessment, people prefer to live and work cooperatively in natural communities or groups rather than exist as self-interested, competitive individuals. This standpoint implies that the establishment of a stateless society based on natural order is realistic. The chief exponent of this view is anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin who argues that humans naturally opt for social solidarity and mutual aid: ‘The mutual-aid tendency in man has so remote an origin, and is so deeply interwoven with all the past evolution of the human race, that is has been maintained by mankind up to the present time.’

ANARCHISM'S PESSIMISTIC VIEW OF HUMAN NATURE

Nevertheless, in one sense, anarchism does have a pessimistic view of human nature. All strands of anarchism maintain that the exercise of power by humans has an inevitable corrupting effect on those wielding political authority. For example, the brutality of 20th century tyrants such as Hitler, Stalin, Chairman Mao and Pol Pot, who were able to concentrate enormous power in their hands, reinforces, for anarchists, the case for completely decentralising all forms of political authority. Anarchists call for this dispersal of power not because humans are ‘good’ but because when a few people monopolise positions of dominance they tend to inflict suffering on others.

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