H. Quelch October 1897

The Essential Difference between Anarchism and Social Democracy

Source: The Social Democrat, October 1897, pp. 207-301;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The article by Saverio Merlino in last month’s SOCIAL-DEMOCRAT, as well as other writings of a similar character, suggesting the possibility of an all-inclusive Socialist party, embracing the most rigid Collectivist and the extremist Anarchist, seem to indicate the advisability of considering how far the differences between Social-Democracy and Anarchism are real or hypothetical. Merlino has practically given up the Anarchist position. He recognises that Anarchism, pure and simple, is incompatible with the existence of society. But he also claims that Social-Democracy, as he understands it, could not be the form of a true Socialist society. Here, however, Merlino appears, like so many others, to assume that the only difference between Social-Democrats and Anarchists is the difference of view as to how future society will be constituted. Now this, although it is undoubtedly the culminating point in which the difference manifests itself, although, as regarding the ultimate object in view, it may be said to be the basic difference between Social-Democracy and Anarchism, is scarcely the difference with which we have to deal now. It is not the essential difference to-day. Social-Democrats are all agreed as to the general object for which they are striving – the ownership of all the means of production by the community; that community to be organised on the most democratic basis possible. But, beyond this, Social-Democrats are not concerned with the political organisation of the new society; and it is possible that in the conception of what that organisation will be, there may be the widest divergence of view even among Social Democrats. The point of difference here between Social-Democrats and Anarchists is not one as to the mere form of organisation of the future society, or of the details of such organisation. It is not that Social-Democrats wish to impose on the future society a huge bureaucratic system, spreading its arms, octopus like, over all the arrangements of social life, crushing all individuality, and reducing every detail of existence to rule and plan. But they do stand for social ownership and social control, whereas the Anarchist, while still professing to be a Socialist and to believe in social ownership, denounces social control, although he never attempts to explain how individual sovereignty can be reconciled with social ownership.

No matter how wide a difference there may be, however, between the conception of future society of the Social-Democrat and that of the Anarchist, that is not the question here. The real point of difference here, the difference which places the Anarchist and the Social-Democrat at opposite poles, and makes it impossible for the former to be in any real sense of the word a Socialist, is that with the latter, society, and the good of society, are the paramount considerations; while with the former the individual is sovereign. To the Anarchist pure and simple society has, and can have, no rights as against, or apart from, the individual. The Anarchist makes of individual liberty a fetish, and loses himself in the pursuit of the absolute. In any controversy between an Anarchist and a Social-Democrat the discussion will invariably be found to ultimately centre round that inconceivable and indefinable abstraction, “absolute individual liberty.” The Anarchist will explain such liberty to be “the liberty of each individual to do just as he likes so long as he does not interfere with the liberty of others.” But the liberty which is. bounded by restrictions imposed by the exercise of equal liberty by others is most certainly not “absolute” liberty. And how are the restrictions necessary to secure equal liberty for all to be imposed and enforced except by social. arrangements which have all the force of laws? Under no conceivable set of circumstances would the interest of the individual and the interest of the community be always and absolutely identical. In the main, certainly so far as the economic conditions are concerned, it is not the coercion of society which we are in revolt against to-day, but its lack of coercion in permitting individuals, as landlords and capitalists, to prey upon the community. The very essence of Socialism, as the word connotes, is that society, the community at large, has interests superior to those of any individual and often antagonistic to the interests of every individual. Any individual may wish to steal a book from a public library, or a flower or plant from a public garden. By so doing he would enrich himself at the expense of the community. But if all the individual members of a community did either the one or the other, in the exercise of their equal individual liberty, they would utterly destroy the library or the garden, as the case may be, and in endeavouring to enrich themselves individually would despoil themselves collectively. Yet the fear that others might follow his evil example, and thus injure him as well as themselves may not in itself be sufficient to deter the stealer of a book, or plant, or flower. Therefore it is necessary for the community, as a whole, to protect itself from every one of its members, and thus it comes that society has rights and powers and duties superior to those of any individual. No individual, qua individual, has a right to prevent another individual from taking a book or plucking a flower, but society in its corporate capacity, or the appointed delegate of society, has such a right, in the interest of the whole of its members, including the individual whose designs. may be thwarted by the intervention of the social authority.

All this is so elementary that it would be a waste of time to state it were it not that this is precisely the real point of difference between Social-Democrats and Anarchists, or Individualists of any type. To the latter society is a mere aggregation of self-contained, and self sufficient individuals. In their view, what is not right in the individual cannot be right in that aggregation of individuals called society, which, after all, they contend, is only the sum total of all the individuals it contains. But society is much more than this. Just as a bundle of sticks is stronger than the same number of sticks taken separately; just as a building is something more than a heap of bricks and timber and stone and mortar; just as a painting is something more than mere colour and canvas, so every association of men has a corporate being greater than the sum total of its individual units, and possesses rights superior to the rights of any of its members, or to the aggregate of such individual rights. It is this elementary truth which the Anarchist ignores.

This is the vital basic difference between the Social-Democrat and the Anarchist. Yet it is not in its relation to future society that this difference is important. How far the antagonism between society and the individual will be eliminated or modified by changed conditions only the development of those conditions can decide. We are not called upon to make rules for future society; we can very well afford to let that society take care of itself in that respect, as, in any case, it will have to do, whatever we may say or decide. It is very interesting, no doubt, to speculate on the future arrangements of society, but it is out of our power, and would be impertinent, were it not impossible, to say that these arrangements be thus and so; and any discussion on this matter must necessarily be of an academic character. What is important, and what constitutes the essential difference between Social-Democrats and Anarchists the present, the opposite attitudes which their difference of view with regard to society, and the individual, leads them to adopt towards the practical pressing questions of today, towards those social problems of the present, in the proper solution of which lies the development of Socialism. With regard to every one of these the Anarchist is necessarily opposed to the Social Democrat. In dealing with these problems the Social-Democrat is prepared to use any means that may be available and which promise any measure of success. He sees that here, today, political means are practically the only means available. But the Anarchist will have none of these. With regard to the hours of labour, dangerous trades, the employment of children, education, the unemployed, the Social-Democrat proposes to use all the legislative and administrative machinery which the classes in possession have found so efficacious. The Anarchists, on the other hand, in their fetish-worship of the individual, their hatred of collective control, and their misconception of society, necessarily and absolutely refuse to use any such means, but pin their faith to voluntary co-operation and strikes. The Social-Democrat points to the utter failure of voluntary co-operation to ever touch the social problem, notwithstanding its magnificent success from the point of view of joint stock business; to the ghastly failure of strike after strike and the loss and suffering and ruin they involve; but the Anarchist, so long as he remains an Anarchist, can adopt no other means than those which long and bitter experience has shown to be obsolete.

The Anarchist principle, in its relation to the questions of to-day, represents the old ideas which are steadily being discarded, in spite of strong prejudices in their favour, by all organisations of working men. In spite of their natural Anarchistic prejudices all the great organised bodies of working men are steadily progressing in a Socialist direction, because they wish to do so, but because circumstances are forcing them along that course. Every man is an egoist, and, generally speaking, every man who joins a trade union does so, not for mutual protection, but for self-protection. Men associate for their own individual advantage, not, as a rule, for the general advantage. Thus there is, as we say, a natural prejudice against Socialism, and most men become Socialists in spite of themselves. This appears to be specially true of trade unionists. Year by year each succeeding Trade Union Congress becomes more Socialist in its views, and this, although for some years past every effort has been made to exclude the Socialist leaven. They are the principles of Social-Democracy, not the belated principles of Anarchism, which are making way in the trade unions. Yet, although an increasing number of trade unionists are becoming Socialists, and although the trade unions themselves are becoming more Social-Democratic in their views, it is doubtful if the latter, as a body, have less dislike to Social-Democrats, as Social-Democrats, than they ever had. After all, people do not, as a rule, greatly love those whom for a long time they have contemned, but whom they are forced, ultimately, to admit to have been in the right. For years Social-Democrats agitated for the legal restriction of the hours of labour to eight per day, against the opposition of the trade unions and their leaders. Slowly and steadily, having practically exhausted the possibilities of error, the trade unions have come round to the Social-Democratic view, and by yearly increasing majorities in their congress declare that we were right. But they, in all probability, detest us just as cordially now they are forced to that admission, as they did when they honestly opposed us – or it may be even more than they did then. Nor does this, as some of our friends seem to imagine, apply only to the Social-Democratic Federation. Whatever mistakes they may have made no two men have done more for the Eight Hours’ movement in this country than Keir Hardie and Tom Mann, Hardie inside the Congress and Mann outside; yet they are both ruled out of the Congress now, and no members of the S.D.F. could have been more bitterly opposed by leading trade unionists than were Hardie and Mann at East Bradford and Halifax respectively. This, however, by the way; but it is interesting as illustrating the point that the trade unionists have been forced, in spite of themselves and not out of any love for any particular section or body of Socialists, in a Socialist direction.

Nothing, moreover, could more clearly illustrate the reactionary nature of Anarchism than this progress towards Social-Democracy of the trade union movement, Just as the trade unions are learning the utter hopelessness of strikes, just as they are shaking off the old laissez faire nonsense, and are showing a determination to exert their organised power along political lines, Anarchists like Kropotkin are holding the language of the old trade unionist of ten years ago, or of John Morley; eulogising that ineffectual weapon, the strike, and declaring that Social-Democrats have in vain endeavoured to induce the organised workers to turn their attention to political action. We can see, on the contrary, that the very reverse of this is true, and, although at present the trade unions have not got much further than declaration in favour of our principles, we may be assured that they will ere long translate these declarations into deeds.

On the question of the education and protection of children, of housing, of sanitation, of want of employment, on all the pressing questions of the day, working class opinion is more and more tending in our direction. But what has Anarchism to say to these matters? That is the real question to be answered. Voluntaryism is played out; it has absolutely failed alike as regards the health and lives and education of the children, the housing of the people, and the conditions of employment. With regard to all these Social-Democrats have definite proposals, the effect of which would be, not only to mitigate existing evils, but to help on the social development. But what have the Anarchists to suggest? That is the real question at issue, and that is the essential difference between Social-Democracy and Anarchism. Speculations as to the future of society need not of necessity prevent any bodies of men working together for a common object, but when there is a complete divergence of view as to the immediate steps to be taken such co-operation is absolutely impossible, and thus it comes that there can be no place in a Socialist party for Anarchists only in so far as they abandon the distinctive and radical principles of Anarchism.

H. Quelch