The word ‘anarchy’ comes from Greek and literally means ‘without rule’. The term has been in use since the French Revolution. It was used to describe a breakdown of order. This remains the case today. The word only acquired positive associations when Pierre-Joseph Proudhon declared in his book What is Property?, published in 1840: ‘I am an anarchist’. Anarchists advocate the abolition of law and government in the belief that a more natural social order will develop. Some anarchists have supported violence to bring an end to the existing social order but most reject this.
The first thinker associated with anarchism is William Godwin, author of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, published in 1793. Godwin himself would have rejected the label ‘anarchist’. During the 19th Century, anarchism came to constitute a key element of the emerging socialist movement. In 1864, the followers of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon joined with the followers of Karl Marx to set up the International Working Men’s Association or First International. The International collapsed in 1871 on account of growing antagonism between Marxists and anarchists, led by Michael Bakunin. In the late 19th Century, anarchists sought support from the landless peasants of Russia and southern Europe. Through the anarcho-syndicalist movement, they made a bid for support among the urban proletariat. Syndicalism was a form of revolutionary trade unionism.
It was strong in France, Italy and Spain. In France, the Confédération Generale des Travailleurs was dominated by anarchists before 1914. The same can be said for the Confederacion Nacional de Trabajadores in Spain. During the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, the CNT had over two million members. Anarcho-syndicalist movements emerged in Latin America in the early 20th Century, particularly in Argentina and Uruguay. The Mexican Revolution, led by Emiliano Zapata, was influenced by syndicalist ideas. Anarchism in Spain and Latin America soon fell victim to authoritarianism and repression. It also lost out to Communism.
Anarchism has never succeeded in winning power at national level. During the Spanish Civil War, anarchists briefly controlled parts of eastern Spain, setting up workers’ and peasants’ collectives. As a result of this, anarchists have looked to history for inspiration – Ancient Greece, Medieval Europe or traditional peasant communes such as the ‘mir’ in Tsarist Russia. They have also emphasised the non-hierarchical and egalitarian nature of tribal society. The anarchist objective of overthrowing the state and all forms of political authority is widely seen as impractical. Anarchists spurn participation in the political process as corrupting, placing their faith in spontaneous, mass action. Anarchism is nevertheless very much in being, especially with the young and idealistic. It is a key part of the anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation movement.
Anarchism is defined by its opposition to the state and the institutions of government and law which form a part of the state. Anarchists have as their ideal a stateless society in which free individuals manage their affairs by voluntary agreement, free from compulsion or coercion.
Anti-statism Anarchism is the negation of the principle of authority. It sees authority as an offence against the principles of freedom and equality. It corrupts those who exercise it and oppresses those who are subject to it. In the words of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: ‘To be governed is to be watched over, inspected, spied on, directed, legislated, regimented, closed in, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, assessed, evaluated, censored, commanded; all by creatures that have neither the right, nor the wisdom, nor the virtue.’ Anarchists reject the liberal concept of the ‘social contract’ between rulers and ruled. Anarchists emphasise the ability of the state to coerce its citizens, ultimately through capital punishment. They also see the state as acting in alliance with the wealthy and the privileged, oppressing the poor and the weak, and conscripting its citizens to fight in wars of conquest. The state, as a repository of sovereign, compulsory and coercive authority is seen as a concentrated form of evil. The anarchist view of the state has attracted criticism: if individuals are fundamentally good and are only corrupted by power, then how did political authority arise in the first place?
Natural order Anarchists see people as inherently rational, with a natural propensity to organise their own lives and live in harmony with each other. Anarchists have identified with the opening words of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract: ‘Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.’ Though anarchists are opposed to the state, they do endorse other institutions. Collectivist anarchists endorse co-operative societies and individualist anarchists endorse the free market.
Anti-clericalism Anarchists are as strongly opposed to the church as they are to the state. It is no coincidence that anarchism has flourished in countries where the church has been powerful, such as Spain, France, Italy and the countries of Latin America. Anarchists have seen religious and political authority working hand-in-hand. In the words of Michael Bakunin, the Russian anarchist and revolutionary: ‘The abolition of the Church and the State must be the first and indispensable condition of the true liberation of society.’ Anarchists see religion as a pillar of the state: it propagates an ideology of obedience and submission to both spiritual leaders and earthly rulers. In many instances, the Bible legitimises state power. The Old Testament sets out and defends the institution of kingship and in the New Testament Christ enjoins his followers to ‘render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s’ when they ask Him whether they should pay tax to the Roman authorities. The doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings was derived from the Bible. Religion seeks to impose a set of moral principles on the individual. Good and evil are defined by members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. People are thereby deprived of the ability to make ethical judgments. Anarchists nevertheless do not reject religion entirely. Many anarchists have been attracted to Taoism and Budhism, religions which emphasise living in harmony with one’s environment.
Economic freedom For anarchists, the overthrow of the state is a prelude to fundamental changes in social and economic life. In the 19th Century, anarchists saw themselves carrying out a social revolution in the name of the exploited masses. With the overthrow of the state, capitalism too would be swept away. Today, anarchists who seek the overthrow of capitalism are referred to as collectivist anarchists. They aim to base economic life on collective ownership. Those anarchists who support the free market and private property are known as individualist anarchists. Both collectivist and individualist anarchists were strongly opposed to the mixed economies of the post-1945 era. Collectivist anarchists saw state intervention in the economy as an attempt to give capitalism a human face. Individualist anarchists saw it as distorting the market by creating monopolies. Both collectivist and individualist anarchists were equally opposed to Soviet-style state socialism. For individualist anarchists, this was an offence against property rights and individual freedom. For collectivist anarchists, the state simply replaced the capitalist class as the source of exploitation.
Collectivist anarchism The philosophical roots of collectivist anarchism lie in socialism. Collectivism is the belief that human beings are sociable – better suited to working together for the common good than striving for individual self-interest. People have no need to be regulated by government. In the words of Michael Bakunin: ‘social solidarity is the first human law; freedom is the second law’. There is a clear overlap between collectivist anarchism and Marxism in terms of the rejection of capitalism and the need for revolution to bring about change. Both collectivist anarchists and Marxists believe that a fully communist society will be anarchic. Marx referred to the ‘withering away’ of the state. There are nevertheless fundamental differences between the two systems of thought. They centre on differing conceptions of the transition from capitalism to communism. Marx called for a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ to guard against the danger of bourgeois counter-revolution following a proletarian revolution and prior to the establishment of full communism. To collectivist anarchists, even a proletarian state was unacceptable. There are also fundamental differences between collectivist anarchism and parliamentary socialism. Parliamentary socialists were dismissive of the revolutionary potential of the masses, seeking instead to establish socialism through the ballot box. They saw the state in a positive light: it was the means by which capitalism could be reformed. Collectivist anarchists, needless to say, did not see the state as a proper means either of reforming capitalism or establishing socialism.
Mutualism This is above all associated with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. In his book What is Property?, Proudhon stated: ‘Property is theft.’ He condemned laissez-faire capitalism as being based on exploitation and the accumulation of capital. Unlike Marx, however, he was not opposed to all forms of property. He distinguished between ‘property’ and ‘possessions’, to which people had a moral right. Proudhon’s system of property ownership and exchange was referred to as mutualism. Individuals or groups of people could trade with each other on a voluntary basis, without the coercion and exploitation associated with laissez-faire capitalism. Proudhon’s followers set up mutual credit banks in France and Switzerland. These provided cheap loans for investors, charging a rate of interest only high enough to cover the cost of running the bank.
Anarcho-syndicalism Syndicalism was a form of revolutionary trade unionism. In French, ‘syndicat’ means union or group. In France, the CGT was committed to syndicalism in the period before 1914. Syndicalism spread to Italy, Latin America, the United States and Spain, where it was adopted by the CNT. In the short-term, syndicalists were prepared to work within the existing system to bring about improvements for workers. They would then overthrown capitalism and seize power. In his work Reflections on Violence, published in 1908, the French syndicalist theorist Georges Sorel argued that revolution would be brought about by means of a general strike. Conventional politics was rejected as corrupting and pointless. Emphasis was placed on boycotts, sabotage and strikes as a prelude to a general strike. Syndicates were seen as providing a model for a decentralised, non-hierarchical future. Sydicalism never achieved its revolutionary objectives.
Anarcho-communism This is principally associated with Peter Kropotkin. Thinkers such as Herbert Spencer had adapted Darwin’s theory of evolution to justify competition and aggression – Social Darwinism. Kropotkin argued that species survived by working together. He claimed that competitive capitalism threatened the further evolution of the human species.
Individualist anarchism Individualist anarchists believe that the sovereignty of the individual is impossible in a society ruled by law and government. They do not believe in the liberal concept of the minimal or ‘nightwatchman’ state; neither do they believe in checks and balances. All states, howsoever constituted, are bad.
Egoism This is principally associated with Max Stirner’s work The Ego and His Own, published in 1854. Like Marx, Stirner was influenced by Hegel. For Stirner, the individual self should be placed at the centre of the moral universe. People should simply act as they choose, unrestrained by laws, social conventions or religious or moral principles. Egoism is related to nihilism, atheism and existentialism.
Libertarianism The American libertarian thinker Henry David Thoreau adapted Thomas Jefferson’s famous maxim on government – ‘That government is best which governs least’ – to read: ‘That government is best which governs not at all’. He saw the individual conscience as more important than political obligation. He saw his own government as immoral because of its maintenance of slavery and because of the wars it engaged in.
Anarcho-capitalism This strand of anarchist thought emerged in the late 20th Century as part of the neo-liberal critique of state interference in economic life. But while liberals accept that the free market has its limits and that the state should continue to assume responsibility for law and order and defence, anarcho-capitalists believe that these, too, should be left to private individuals. Security and justice would be delivered more efficiently as the providers of these commodities would be motivated by the need to respond to consumer demand. This state of affairs has partly come about. In the United States and Britain, some prisons are run privately. In Britain, members of religious and ethnic minorities often have recourse to their own courts, though it should be noted that the decisions of these courts have no legal force. Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, suggested that Sharia Law should be part of the state’s legal system for British Muslims who wished to submit to it. As far as security is concerned, in parts of North West London, Jewish security groups operate alongside the police.
Anarchists tend to focus on producing texts and engaging in experiments in communal living rather than on putting their beliefs into practice on a larger scale. They are not so much apolitical as anti-political. The notion of an anarchist government or an anarchist political party is a contradiction in terms.
Revolutionary violence In the 19th Century, Michael Bakunin led a conspiratorial brotherhood known as the Alliance for Social Democracy. He participated in anarchist risings in France and Italy. In Italy, Malatesta worked for a peasant revolution. The same might be said for the Populists in Tsarist Russia, and for Zapata in Mexico. At this time, anarchists carried out assassinations. Prominent victims were Tsar Alexander II, assassinated in 1881 by a group known as ‘The People’s Will’. King Humbert of Italy and Empress Elizabeth of Austria were also assassinated, as was President Carnot of France and President McKinley of the United States. Anarchist violence resurfaced in the 1970s with the activities of Baader-Meinhof in West Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy, the Red Army in Japan and the Angry Brigade in Britain. Anarchists see violence as an acceptable form of retaliation against political oppression. In Italy, the Red Brigades set up ‘people’s courts’ and held ‘proletarian trials’ before assassinating their victims. Violence is also seen as a way of demoralising the ruling classes and raising the political consciousness of the masses. In practice, political violence has tended to provoke public horror and outrage and states have responded by extending their repressive machinery, usually with public support.
Direct action This is employed by the modern anti-globalisation or anti-corporate movement. An example of direct action is the protest camp outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in London in 2011 and 2012.
Anarchism in the 21st Century Anarchism has had a powerful influence on both the Right and the Left in recent decades and has made a powerful stand in its own right on such contemporary issues as pollution, environmental destruction, consumerism, urban development, gender relations and global poverty, which largely cut across the conventional political divide.