Explain and critically assess the anarchist challenge to the existence of the state

Alexander Berkman in his writings of what Communist Anarchism is, identifies the problems with the capitalist system that existed during his time, the early twentieth century. The problems he outlined of social stratification, class antagonisms, monopolies and opportunity as freedom are still relevant in today’s hyper neo-liberal society. “Our present system of civilisation has by disinheriting millions, made the belly the centre of the universe,” (Berkman 1972:191).
His central notion of society’s structure “Capitalism robs you, makes a wage slave of you. The law upholds and protects that robbery. The government fools you into believing that you are independent and free.” (Berkman 1972:16) clearly shows a strong antagonism toward government and its institutions. Berkman holds that the sole purpose of the government is to uphold the market based economy that suits the capitalist/bourgeoisie class through pedagogy and legislation.
I will argue in favour of the state by first exploring how the state can be an antagonist toward market based interests and secondly by exploring how the state can successfully increase opportunity for its citizens and thus increase the freedom of individuals.

Berkman is strong in his conviction against governments.
“Take a good look at it and you will see that government is the greatest invader; more than that; the worst criminal man has ever known of, I fills the world with violence, with fraud and deceit, with oppression and misery. As a great thinker once said, “it’s breath is poison.” It corrupts every-thing it touches” (Berkman 1972:182)

He holds that more than anything the government is the institution in place to spread the myth that the way things are is the best way. This is a very strong and absolute position. The curious thing to note is that in many cases the government forms a buffer against market based interests.
Within the USA, healthcare reform is one of the most salient topics of the public sphere (Bernick, Myers 2012:131). During President Obama’s first term in office, his healthcare reform plan included measures that made employers obligated to provide health insurance coverage to their employees or pay a penalty to the federal government to fund other mechanisms for providing coverage(Bernick, Myers 2012:134). On top of that under the new law of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, individual businesses could receive federal assistance in obtaining coverage. During this time, and especially during the height of its salience, the Republican Party fell back on more traditionally conservative, free-market remedies.
This is a clear example of government meddling with the affairs of private businesses (the capitalists/bourgeois), imparting cost and responsibilities that the class did not previously have. And whilst the Republican Party did stand opposed to such measures with more rightwing, market friendly measures, the point still stands that in this case, the government does not in absolute terms exist to uphold a system of neo-liberalism. Free or heavily subsidised healthcare is a feature of many socialist/communist states such as Venezuela (Maybarduk 2004:11).
What this shows is that unlike the absolute terms that Berkman uses, government is less of an institution with an inherent interest in supporting a neo-liberal society, and more a tool which can be used by parties from either side of the political spectrum.
The point behind a more comprehensive and less market friendly form of healthcare such as those in Australia, Venezuela or even under the Obama administration is to provide services to the people which they would otherwise not have the opportunity to access under more market friendly policies

The extreme opposite of Berkman’s conception of Communist Anarchy is Anarcho-Capitalism. Anarcho-Capitalism wishes to dismantle government while retaining private property and to allow complete laissez-faire in the economy. It stresses the sovereignty services of the individual and rejects all government interference in everyday life. Government such as healthcare and education would be turned over to private entrepreneurs. In some forms, even public spaces like town halls, streets and parks would be private property (Marshall 2009:10).
Whilst this is an extreme form of rightwing political agenda, it is clear how this manner of Frederick Hayek-esque style of thinking and faith in the free market system informs and underlines the policies of rightwing political parties such as the Republican Party.
What this shows is that even the capitalist class, the bourgeoisie themselves can in the extreme form of their interests as a class, find government and its institutions to be a hindrance to their agenda, and in many cases even an enemy in the same way Berkman views the government. The fact that the polar opposite of Berkman’s position finds the government a hindrance shows that the government does not exist for the sole purpose of protecting the interests of the ruling class. In fact eliminating the influence of the government could have the exact opposite desired effect on society to what Berkman intends, instead of a communist anarchy utopia, the elimination of democratic government could finally place humanity in the hands of extreme bourgeois interests. Something Berkman would have no doubt loathed.

Where does this leave the government then? Berkman condemns the Bolsheviki, because while their communist state desires the same ends as his own anarchy, they desire a strong state which compels individuals to live in communism, whereas Berkman’s ideal is that people would voluntarily live in communism (Berkman 1972:185). He goes on to state:

“Consider your daily life and you will find that in reality the government is no factor in it at all except when it begins to interfere in your affairs, when it compels you to do certain things or prohibits your from doing others. It forces you for instance to pay taxes and support it, whether you want to or not.”(Berkman 1972:186)
Berkman’s contempt for the government in this instance is forgivable. He wrote primarily in the early 20th century and his views are necessarily by the hardships he must have encountered during the time. However how relevant is this critique to modern governments?
His claim that the government is no factor in my own personal life, as a 22 year old university student is flat out incorrect. The Hawke Labor government of 1989 put in place the Higher Education Contributions Scheme (HECS), which in simple terms is a funding system for Australian citizens to access universities. The system works by the student paying an upfront fee, whilst the commonwealth pays the difference. This debt is then paid back to the government in the form of taxes once the student’s income has reached particular levels. The taxes Australians are “forced” to pay directly contribute to this social program and others.
Further as the Obama administration in the US is trying to emulate, in Australia Medicare is a publically funded universal healthcare system. Through this service, as an Australian citizen, individuals have access to funding for medical expenses. Surgeries, blood tests, general visits and under some schemes even optical and dental care are either free or heavily subsidised through the Medicare Benefits Scheme. Further through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, even the drugs individuals may require can be offset by the government.
What this shows is that a government can not only protect individuals from the interests of large corporations, in many cases it funds and maintains the public directly through education and health services. Again, Berkman can be forgiven for his ignorance of how future governments can help the working class of a nation, but his argument against the existence of government for the good of man is heavily antagonised by such modern day schemes as the HECS, MBS and PBS.
Berkman founds his entire point of view on this notion of compulsion. It is better in his eyes to voluntarily live in a communist society than to be compelled to do so. However I question the efficacy of this notion. Under what pretences is this notion correct? Is it correct because it gives the individual more opportunity? Is it correct because it gives the individual a better quality of life, or is it because in all, the individual is freest when she is rid of compulsion?

Berkman’s claim is entirely focused on this principle of it being better to choose than to be chosen for. It is a deontological claim to the moral status of the state.
Instead of having this principle of living free and without compulsions, should we not judge the “good” of a societal system by the consequences of its existence? Because of the existence of the Australian government and its social programs including the HECS, MBS and the PBS, individuals are free from the need to provide for these services themselves. Whilst I am compelled and essentially “forced” to exist within such a frame work whereby I help maintain the government through my taxes, I also receive a great deal of benefits from this bureaucratised form of social living. Because of the Australian government, I as an individual do not need to focus, stress or worry about the funding of my healthcare, meaning I have more resources, time and energy to focus on other tasks. Because of the Australian government I as an individual have access to schooling and university level education, allowing me to study the writing of Berkman in the first place.

The thing about the government in this instance is that it has directly increased my opportunity and freedom through social programs that I am forced into. As he put it himself “The freedom that is given to you on paper, that is written down in law books and constitutions, does not do you a bit of good. Such freedom only means you have the right to do a certain thing. But it doesn’t mean that you can do it. To be able to do it, you must have the chance,  the opportunity. You have the right to eat three fine meals a day, but if you haven’t the means, the opportunity to get those meals, then what good is that right to you?” (Berkman 1972:16)
The key is the opportunity to access these things. He continues “Real freedom means opportunity and well-being. If it does not mean that, it means nothing“. If I were to concede that having a communist or more leftwing society was in some form denying freedoms by being compelled to live in such a society, I still maintain that individuals have more opportunity than if they did not under one. The moral value of freedom/liberty from compulsions to live under a government is misguided and misses the point of creating a healthy society. The key is opportunity, and having the government provide me with the means to education and healthcare means I have the opportunity to dedicate more time and resources to other endeavours on top of the opportunity to study and be healthy. My freedom is enhanced.

Alexander Berkman and his conception of Communist Anarchy is admirable from a moral view. His aims are for greater equality and freedom. He is however misguided in the manner of how these should come about. Concessions can be made given the context of his writings, but the government does not exist as a body to sustain and protect the interests of the bourgeoisie/capitalists, in fact the elimination of government could prove disastrous to these ends. The government is instead a tool which can be used to increase opportunity and wellbeing for individuals through social development programs, education and universal healthcare. In the end we are freer under the compulsion to live under certain governments, than if we were to live without them.


Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing, Medicare Benefits Schedule Book, G1.2. viewed 1/05/2013, http://www.mbsonline.gov.au/internet/mbsonline/publishing.nsf/Content/72A85B0A56219B2DCA257B3B007ED3A4/$File/201305-MBS.pdf

Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing, Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, viewed 1/05/2013 http://www.pbs.gov.au/info/about-the-pbs

Australian Government, Higher Education Funding Act 1988 – C2011C00257, viewed 10/05/2013, http://www.comlaw.gov.au/Details/C2011C00257

Berkman, A. Selections from Alexander Berkman, What Is Communist Anarchism? Dover Publications, New York, 1972. Pages 3 – 21 & 182 – 194

Bernick, E. M., & Myers, N. (2012). Issue salience, party strength, and the adoption of health-care expansion efforts. Politics & Policy, 40(1), 131-159. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1747-1346.2011.00340.x

Marshall, P. (2009) Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism, PM Press, 2009, Pages 9 – 12, 160486270X, 9781604862706

Maybarduk, P. (2004). A people’s health system: Venezuela works to bring healthcare to the excluded. Multinational Monitor, 25(10), 9-13. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/208877183?accountid=12528


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About Saúl A. Zavarce

Venezuelan-Australian journalist and international relations academic.

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