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Existentialist anarchism

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Some observers[who?] believe that existentialism forms a philosophical ground for anarchism. Anarchist historian Peter Marshall (1946- ) claims "there is a close link between the existentialists' stress on the individual, free choice, and moral responsibility and the main tenets of anarchism".[1]


Max Stirner[edit]

Anarchism had a proto-existentialist view mainly in the writings of German individualist anarchist Max Stirner. In his book The Ego and Its Own (1845), Stirner advocates concrete individual existence, or egoism, against most commonly accepted social institutions—including the state, property as a right, natural rights in general, and the very notion of society—which he considers mere phantasms or essences in the mind. Existentialism, according to Herbert Read, "is eliminating all systems of idealism, all theories of life or being that subordinate man to an idea, to an abstraction of some sort. It is also eliminating all systems of materialism that subordinate man to the operation of physical and economic laws. It is saying that man is the reality—not even man in the abstract, but the human person, you and I; and that everything else—freedom, love, reason, God—is a contingency depending on the will of the individual. In this respect, existentialism has much in common with Max Stirner's egoism."[2]

Early and middle 20th century[edit]

Kafka and Buber[edit]

In the first and middle decades of the 20th century, a number of philosophers and literary writers had explored existentialist themes. Before the Second World War, when existentialism was not yet in name, Franz Kafka and Martin Buber were among these thinkers who were also anarchists. Both are today sometimes seen as Jewish existentialists as well as Jewish anarchists.

It is agreed that Kafka's work cannot be reduced to either a philosophical or political theory, but this has not necessarily been an obstacle to making links from existentialism and anarchism to his principal writings. As far as politics, Kafka attended meetings of the Klub Mladých, a Czech anarchist, anti-militarist, and anti-clerical organization, and in one diary entry, Kafka referenced influential anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin: "Don't forget Kropotkin!"[3]

Post-war period[edit]

Albert Camus, theorist of absurdism.

Following the Second World War, existentialism became a well-known and significant philosophical and cultural movement, and at this time undoubtedly influenced many anarchists.[4] This was done mainly through the public prominence of two French writers, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, who wrote best-selling novels, plays, and widely read journalism as well as theoretical texts.

Although best known for his Marxist politics and for aligning with the French Communist Party and the Maoists during 1968, Sartre said after the May rebellion, "If one rereads all my books, one will realize that I have not changed profoundly, and that I have always remained an anarchist."[5] Towards the end of his life, Sartre explicitly embraced anarchism.[6][7][8]

One of the most substantial expressions of both his existentialist and anarchist positions appears in his work The Rebel. For Camus, as for Nietzsche, rebellion should not delve into nihilism, and as for Stirner, should be distinct from revolution. It is not a lonely act, and does not destroy human solidarity but affirms the common nature of human beings. In the experience of the absurd, suffering is individual, but when it moves to rebellion, it is aware of being collective. The first step of the alienated individual, Camus argues, is to recognize that he or she shares such alienation with all human beings. Rebellion therefore takes the individual out of isolation: "I rebel, therefore we are." At the end of his book, Camus celebrates the anti-authoritarian spirit in history and comes out in favor of anarcho-syndicalism as the only alternative: "Trade-unionism, like the commune, is the negation, to the benefit of reality, of abstract and bureaucratic centralism."[9]

Influence of existentialism[edit]

Italian anarchist Pietro Ferrua became an admirer of Sartre during this period and considered existentialism the logical philosophy for anarchists and "had written some papers on that topic".[7] Marie Louise Berneri wrote that "in France, Jean-Paul Sartre, André Breton, and Camus... have all fought the battle of the individual against the State".[10]

In his essay Existentialism, Marxism, and Anarchism (1949), English anarchist Herbert Read acknowledges the link between anarchism and existentialism. Read takes an interest in the writings of Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre, and juxtaposes existentialism with his own anarchism, considering both to be superior to Marxism. Read was one of the earliest writers outside of continental Europe to take notice of the movement, and was perhaps the closest England came to an existentialist theorist of the European tradition.[11] He was also strongly influenced by Max Stirner, noting the closeness between Stirner's egoism and existentialism, and wrote an enthusiastic Preface to the 1953 English translation of Albert Camus's The Rebel.

Contemporary era[edit]

Although throughout the 1940s and 1950s existentialism was the dominant European intellectual movement, in the 1960s it was starting to lose its influence in the face of growing negative response. During the 1960s, there would be little or no existentialist movement to speak of, and what popularity it had would become far more overshadowed by structuralism, post-structuralism, and postmodernism, intellectual approaches which are today still widely used in academia. However, existentialism, particularly existential phenomenology, would still remain a significant influence on post-structuralism and postmodernism; one commentator has argued that post-structuralists might just as accurately be called "post-phenomenologists".[12]

In The Politics of Individualism (1993), anarcha-feminist L. Susan Brown explicitly argues for the continuing relevance of existentialism and its necessary complement to anarchism. She believes anarchism is a philosophy based on "existential individualism" that emphasizes the freedom of the individual, and defines "existential individualism" as the belief in freedom for freedom's sake, as opposed to "instrumental individualism", which more often exists in liberal works and is defined as freedom to satisfy individual interests without a meaningful belief in freedom. But she argues, like post-anarchists, that classical anarchist theory has asserted human beings as naturally cooperative, and that this fixed human nature presents many problems for anarchism as it contradicts its commitment to free will and the individual. For anarchism to be fundamentally individualist, she argues, it must look to existentialism for a more "fluid conceptualization of human nature".[13][non-primary source needed]

Contemporary anarchist Simon Critchley sees the existential phenomenologist Emmanuel Levinas's self-defined "an-archic" ethics, the infinite ethical demand that is beyond measure and "an-archic" in the sense of having no hierarchical principle or rule to structure it, as important for actual contemporary anarchist social practice. His book Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance propounds a Levinasian conception of anarchism and an attempt to practice it.[14][non-primary source needed] The contemporary French anarchist and self-described hedonist philosopher, Michel Onfray, published a book on Albert Camus called The Libertarian Order: The Philosophical Life of Albert Camus (2012).[15][non-primary source needed]

See also[edit]

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  1. Marshall, Peter. Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism, 1991. pg. 580.
  2. Read, Herbert. Existentialism, Marxism, and Anarchism. London: Freedom Press, 1952.
  3. The Cambridge Companion to Kafka - Google Books. One could humorously note that this is a existentialist anarchist statement, since no one has been able to make a "true" meaning of what Kafka was talking about, to know whether it may be an "intellectual or emotional commitment, a special indebtedness, or simply a note on an overdue library book."
  4. Marshall, Peter. Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism. p. 579.
  5. Sartre, Jean-Paul; Contat, Michel (August 7, 1975). "Sartre at Seventy: An Interview". The New York Review of Books. Translated by Auster, Paul; Davis, Lydia. ISSN 0028-7504.
  6. Sartre, Jean-Paul; Contat, Michel (August 7, 1975). "Sartre at Seventy: An Interview". The New York Review of Books. Translated by Auster, Paul; Davis, Lydia. ISSN 0028-7504.
  7. 7.0 7.1 "Sartre par lui-même (Sartre by Himself) - R.A. Forum". Archived from the original on 2011-09-30. Retrieved 2011-04-28. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  8. "Interview with Jean-Paul Sartre" in The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, ed.P.A. Schilpp, p.21.
  9. Camus, Albert. The Rebel. New York: Vintage, 1956. p. 298.
  10. Berneri, Marie Louise. Journey Through Utopia. New York: Schocken Books, 1950. p. 313.
  11. See Michael Paraskos, The Elephant and the Beetles: The Aesthetic Theories of Herbert Read, PhD, University of Nottingham, 2005.
  12. Davis, Colin; "Levinas: An Introduction"; p. 8; 2006; Continuum, London.
  13. Brown, L. Susan. The Politics of Individualism. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2002. p. 153.
  14. Critchley, Simon. Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance. New York: Verso, 2007.
  15. Michel Onfray. L'ordre Libertaire: La vie philosophique de Albert Camus. Flammarion. 2012.


Further reading[edit]

  • Moore, John. I Am Not a Man, I Am Dynamite!: Friedrich Nietzsche and the Anarchist Tradition (2005). Autonomedia.
  • Marshall, Peter. "Existentialism". Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism (2010). Oakland CA: PM Press.
  • Onfray, Michel. L'ordre Libertaire: La vie philosophique de Albert Camus. Flammarion. 2012
  • Levi, Mijal. Kafka and Anarchism (1972). Revisionist Press.
  • Goodman, Paul. Kafka's Prayer (1947). New York: Vanguard Press.
  • Buber, Martin. I And Thou (1971). Touchstone.
  • Buber, Martin Paths in Utopia (1996). Syracuse University Press.
  • Sartre at Seventy.
  • Sartre By Himself.
  • Camus, Albert. The Rebel (1956). New York: Vintage.
  • Read, Herbert. Existentialism, Marxism, and Anarchism, Chains of Freedom (1949). London: Freedom Press.
  • Newman, Saul. From Bakunin to Lacan: Anti-Authoritarianism and the Dislocation of Power (2001). Lanham MD: Lexington Books.
  • Brown, L. Susan. The Politics of Individualism: Liberalism, Liberal Feminism and Anarchism (1993). Montreal: Black Rose Books.
  • Critchley, Simon. Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance (2007). New York: Verso.
  • Remley, William L. Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anarchist Philosophy (2018) London: Bloomsbury

External links[edit]


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