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Study notes

Collectivist Anarchism

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

Collectivist anarchism, as its name suggests, emphasises the superiority of the collective (a self-governing and freely-formed community or association) over the individual or the state.

Consequently, it is best understood as a form of stateless socialism. Collectivist anarchism, also known as anarcho-collectivism or social anarchism, is closely linked to socialism since it promotes an optimistic view of human nature and advocates common ownership. By calling for the abolition of the state and the introduction of common ownership, collectivist anarchism seeks to liberate the rational, altruistic and co-operative features of human nature. As such, it represents an extreme form of socialist collectivism.

For this strand of anarchism, ‘true’ human nature is sociable and cooperative. Therefore, human relationships are naturally based on social unity, mutual assistance, consensus and peace. These positive elements of human nature are fostered by living in small-scale voluntary communities whereas the state encourages conflict, resentment and greed by curbing liberty and upholding inequality, capitalism and private property. Consequently, from a collectivist anarchist perspective, the state has to be abolished because it has a negative impact on human nature, defends the economic inequalities of capitalism and rules through coercion and deception. Most collectivist anarchists endorse revolutionary action to overthrow the state.

Society, reflecting collectivist anarchism’s view that humans are altruistic and cooperative, would be organised into voluntary communities (or collectives) of producers and consumers. These communities would form the basic units of society, responsible for the production and distribution of goods. Such a society would run on the principle of ‘from each according to their ability and to each according to their work done’. Furthermore, capitalism has to be destroyed and replaced with more collective and equal economic arrangements. Private property would be abolished and the means of production (including land) taken into common ownership by the communities but individuals would own the product of their own labour. Although the various sub-strands of collectivist anarchism differ in their approach to the economy, they all stress the importance of self-sufficiency and cooperation.

Predictably, given the socialist roots of collectivist anarchism, there are several points of agreement between this form of anarchism and Marxism but it is important to recognise that fundamental disagreements between the two also exist. Set out below are the key similarities and differences:

Collectivist anarchism and Marxism: similarities

Both provide critiques of capitalism. They reject the capitalist system because they see it as based on economic exploitation, social inequality and fundamental injustice. For these reasons, collectivist anarchists and Marxists call for the removal of all capitalist features including private property, production for profit and hierarchical social relations.

Collectivist anarchists and Marxists both endorse revolution as the best way of removing capitalism and the bourgeois state. In their view, the capitalist system and the bourgeois state structure are so entrenched only the use of force can dislodge and destroy them. For this reason, both collectivist anarchists and Marxists reject reformist strategies (such as engaging in elections and parliamentary politics) to bring about change.

Both advocate collective ownership and argue for a stateless decentralised communal society. This stance is based on collectivist anarchism’s and Marxism’s optimistic view of human nature. They stress that people (1) are naturally sociable and cooperative (2) can achieve self-realisation and fulfil their potential through collective action (3) have the capacity to organise their own lives without the need for external forms of authority.

Collectivist anarchism and Marxism: differences

Collectivist anarchists reject the Marxist concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat, arguing that a so-called ‘temporary’ workers’ state would not wither away during the transition from socialism to communism. Instead it would inevitably become, like all other states, permanent, controlling and oppressive. For collectivist anarchists, revolution involves the immediate and final overthrow of both capitalism and the state.

Collectivist anarchists reject the ‘scientific socialism’, economic determinism and historical stages approach underpinning Marxism on the grounds that these features (1) suggest revolution is inevitable when in fact popular revolutionary enthusiasm is required to bring about such change (2) implies that a group of experts are required to guide the revolution and the post-revolutionary society, thereby creating a new privileged elite.

Collectivist anarchists reject the Marxist emphasis on the revolutionary role of the proletariat on the grounds that (1) the urban working class lacks revolutionary unity (2) other groups such as the unemployed and the poor provide more promising revolutionary material (3) the post-revolutionary dictatorship would be narrowly based on the proletariat’s interests, not those of all the oppressed.

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