Anarchism and the love of Freedom


"Ireland unfree will never be at peace" according to the oft quoted phrase of Padraig Pearse. Of course, he was right. But what exactly did Pearse and the republicans of 1916 mean by freedom? What do you think it means? Why does it seem to be so highly prized by anarchists.

The anarchist is, according to Bakunin (himself one of the greatest), "a fanatic lover of liberty, considering it as the unique condition under which intelligence, dignity and human happiness can develop and grow" (from 'The Paris Commune and the Idea of the State').

Anarchists aim to achieve maximum personal freedom for everyone. We see liberty and freedom as absolutely essential to any form of socialism. Without freedom there is no growth, no creativity, no dignity - a revolution without freedom is simply a change of rulers. To be dominated is to be oppressed and denied the chance and the time to think.

Domination stifles individuality and initiative and leads inevitably to conformity, mediocrity and misery. You only have to look to the former Stalinist countries to see how a revolution without freedom at it's core would disintegrate. Freedom is the one guarantee of an anarchist society as well as the thing which would make it most interesting and enjoyable.

A truly free people could never be sucked back into the nightmare of hierarchies and oppressions that is capitalism. As the anarchist-individualist Max Stirner put it "If you command them "bend before the most high" They will answer "if he wants to bend us, let him come himself and do it; we, at least, will not bend of our own accord" (from 'The Ego and His Own', 1845).

The longing for freedom is deeply ingrained in most people. You don't have to look ahead to an anarchist society to see this. Is there anyone in the world who enjoys getting up at seven thirty every morning to go to work? Yet the same people casually devote hours to everything from pottering around the garden to racing pigeons, mixing records or whatever.

Obviously a lot of "hobbies" are enjoyable at an individual level but what about the people who gladly coach soccer, Gaelic and athletic teams all the way to world beating levels or those who do overseas volunteer work or voluntarily risk their lives on lifeboats?

Clearly it is not the physical labour that puts people off work or getting up in the mornings - it is the fact that the time is not your own. Everybody wants to be "free to do what they want to do" to quote the film Easy Rider. You work hard when you work on your own terms to do what you want to do - whether for yourself or society.

So freedom is essential if we are to advance down the road of anarchism. That having been said there is no such thing as absolute freedom. Firstly you hardly need me to tell you that although you could declare yourself "free" of the law of gravity such a declaration would do nothing to prevent you hitting the ground with a bang if you try jumping out of a third floor window. Nobody is free of the need to eat or drink or sleep.

Beyond this, though, we don't advocate "total freedom". My right to swing a frying pan ends where your nose begins. In a future anarchist society no one will have the freedom to kill, rape, exploit or coerce others. We do not consider the exercise of authority over others to be a legitimate freedom. We do not respect the right of command. No one has the "right" to rule over another.

In an anarchist society people who were truly free would not conceded such rights-would not allow themselves to be ruled. As Henry David Thoreau pointed out "disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves" (from 'Essay on Civil Disobedience', 1847).

But our bosses always maintain we live in a free society - well they would wouldn't they. But do they seriously expect us to believe that our "democratic freedoms" have meaning in a society were lack of money continuously hedges the majority out. So long as a tiny minority own and control everything; wealth, factories, armies, banks, etc. the "rights" and "freedoms" of ordinary people must remain theoretical. Stirner puts it well "free competition is not free because I lack the things for competition" (ibid).

Capitalist society is not free in any real sense. Even those theoretical freedoms already mentioned like freedom of assembly and freedom of speech can quickly be snatched away.

For example when people find themselves in conflict with the state and bosses, for example in strikes, they quickly find their rights will be cracked down on with boot and baton. Obviously even in the absence of widespread censorship (of which we in Ireland have had plenty of experience) freedom of the press is a joke when the media is totally controlled by a handful of press barons and sets the agenda to suit it's advertisers.

Freedom can only be won by smashing this system of domination and hierarchies and replacing it with direct democracy. Only when people have a real say in the decisions that effect their lives can they begin to build a free society.

Conor Mc Loughlin


This article is from Workers Solidarity No 57 published in May 1999