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Anarchism

Etymology and Meaning

Anarchism is a political and social philosophy that seeks to bring about anarchy—from the Greek prefix an, meaning “absence of” or “not,” and archos, meaning “leader,” “ruler” or “authority.” 1) 2) In other words, anarchism is a philosophy which seeks to create a society without hierarchies—without rulers or authorities that exert control over others.

There is a very common misconception about the word anarchy—that it means only “chaos” and therefore, that anarchists seek to create chaos. This implication is likely no mistake, as it historically provided an easy straw man by which to quickly dismiss the merits of anarchism. However, this definition of anarchy is quite unrelated to the definitions mentioned earlier. Errico Malatesta states the problem:3)

“...The word anarchy was universally used in the sense of disorder and confusion; and it is to this day used in that sense by the uninformed as well as by political opponents with an interest in distorting the truth...So, since it was thought that government was necessary and that without government there could only be disorder and confusion, it was natural and logical that anarchy, which means absence of government, (wrongly) should sound like absence of order...Convince the public that government is not only unnecessary, but extremely harmful, and then the word anarchy, just because it means absence of government, will come to mean for everybody: natural order (i.e. real law and order, human rights etc.), unity of human needs and the interests of all, complete freedom...”

While some definitions of anarchy have been taken to mean “in a state of no government” or “having no government,” 4) anarchist philosophers have historically used anarchism in the above-stated sense of “absence of rulers.” As Tucker said, “An-archism, a word derived from the Greek, and meaning, not necessarily absence of order, as is generally supposed, but an absence of rule.” 5) As such, it is important to note that the philosophy of anarchism is one that opposes hierarchies—social dynamics in which a person or group holds power over others—and not only one that opposes the existence of government. As Gustav Landauer said, “Anarchism is the goal that we pursue: the absence of domination.” 6)

Advocating against hierarchy—thus against unequal relationships among people—necessitates that one is in favor of equality. Indeed, as a socialist philosophy, there is an emphasis among anarchists on the need for equal, non-coercive relationships among people. As Stuart Christie explains:7)

“Philosophically, [anarchism] aims for perfect accord between the individual, society and nature. In an anarchist society, mutually respectful sovereign individuals would be organised in non-coercive relationships within naturally defined communities in which the means of production and distribution are held in common.”

Thus, anarchism is a philosophy opposed to hierarchy—naturally opposed to capitalism, government and other unequal power dynamics, and in favor of equality—seeking a non-coercive, open society in which people can freely organize such that they are free of inequality and domination.

Origins and History

Some interpretations of anarchism’s history begin with recollections of religious traditions like Taoism and obscure ancient figures, and others concentrate on Enlightenment thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and William Godwin as providing the original foundation of anarchism. Indeed, prominent anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin said that Godwin was “the first to formulate the political and economical conceptions of anarchism, even though he did not give that name to the ideas developed in his work.” 8) Of note, however, is the fact that Godwin said that the “errors and perverseness of a few” necessitated the existence of government; quoting Thomas Paine, he called government a “necessary evil.” 9)

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Undoubtedly, there have been many people and groups historically that have expressed anarchistic ideas. However, speaking to the history of the anarchist movement, and what has been most influential to anarchist thought, it is clear that there is a starting point from which to begin. The roots of anarchism as a socio-economic—and not merely political—theory, begin with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s What is Property?, published in 1840. Prior to this time, anarchy—and thus, anarchism—was viewed primarily as being connected to chaos and disorder. Proudhon’s work—in which he exclaimed, “I am an anarchist”—was the first to use the term anarchist in an affirmative sense.10) Proudhon—considered by many to be the founder of modern anarchist theory11)—and his groundbreaking work What is Property? established anarchism as a social theory that fervently opposing capitalism and the state.

According to Josephus Nelson Larned:12)

“Anarchism, as a social theory, was first elaborately formulated by Proudhon. In the first part of his work, ''What is Property?'' he briefly stated the doctrine and gave it the name ‘anarchy,’ absence of a master or sovereign. In that connection he said: ‘In a given society the authority of man over man is inversely proportional to the stage of intellectual development which that society has reached...Property and royalty have been crumbling to pieces ever since the world began. As man seeks justice in equality, so society seeks order in anarchy.”

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Contrary to those historical conceptions of anarchy as chaos, Proudhon spoke of it as the most sensible and fair means of creating an orderly society. His conception of anarchism was “rational, non-violent and anti-utopian.” 13) Indeed, the movement that Proudhon espoused, to some extent, was one of anti-utopian gradualism. He said, “It is unlikely that all traces of government or authority will disappear,” 14) and thus sought for society to increasingly minimize the role of authority as part of a gradual process that would bring it closer to anarchy—whether or not the final goal of anarchy was realized: “[Anarchy]… the ideal of human government…centuries will pass before that ideal is attained, but our law is to go in that direction, to grow unceasingly nearer to that end.” 15)

So while Proudhon’s conception of an orderly and just society was revolutionary, he did not advocate for violence or revolutionary upheaval, but rather for the transformation of society—building the new in the shell of the old:16) 17)

“We should not put forward revolutionary action as a means of social reform, because that pretended means would simply be an appeal to force, to arbitrariness, in brief, a contradiction.”

“We desire a peaceful revolution...you should make use of the very institutions which we charge you to abolish...in such a way that the new society may appear as the spontaneous, natural and necessary development of the old and that the revolution, while abrogating the old order, should nevertheless be derived from it.”

He advocated for a system of federalism in which society was “composed of a variety of autonomous groups, each with a democratic form of organization, which freely federate with one another for their mutual benefit and advantage.” 18) Thus, unlike states as they existed, the federal “state” that Proudhon espoused was a product of free association among the groups that comprised it; it was represented democratically, with mandates subject to the approval of members, and with powers bounded by the contract of federation agreed upon by each member.

Notable Quotes

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Emma Goldman, on the anarchist’s definition of anarchy:19)

“Anarchy stands for the liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion; the liberation of the human body from the dominion of property; liberation from the shackles and restraints of government.”

Emma Goldman, on revolution, means and ends:20)

“No revolution can ever succeed as a factor of liberation unless the means used to further it be identical in spirit and tendency with the purposes to be achieved. Revolution is the negation of the existing, a violent protest against man's inhumanity to man with all the thousand and one slaveries it involves. It is the destroyer of dominant values upon which a complex system of injustice, oppression, and wrong has been built up by ignorance and brutality. It is the herald of new values, ushering in a transformation of the basic relations of man to man, and of man to society.”

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John Zerzan, on the expansive definition of anarchism:21)

“Anarchism is the attempt to eradicate domination. This includes not only such obvious forms as the nation-state, with its routine use of violence and the force of law, and the corporation, with its institutionalized irresponsibility, but also such internalized forms as patriarchy, racism, homophobia. Also it is the attempt to expose the ways our philosophy, religion, economics, and other ideological constructions perform their primary function, which is to rationalize or naturalize — make seem natural — the domination that pervades our way of life...Anarchism is the attempt to look even into those parts of our everyday lives we accept as givens, as part of the universe, to see how they, too, dominate us or facilitate our domination over others...Most fundamentally, I would see Anarchism as a synonym for anti-authoritarianism.”

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Peter Kropotkin, on the meaning and practice of anarchy:22)

“Anarchy, when it works to destroy authority in all its aspects, when it demands the abrogation of laws and the abolition of the mechanism that serves to impose them, when it refuses all hierarchical organization and preaches free agreement — at the same time strives to maintain and enlarge the precious kernel of social customs without which no human or animal society can exist. Only, instead of demanding that those social customs should be maintained through the authority of a few, it demands it from the continued action of all.”

Errico Malatesta, on the meaning of anarchism, and how to bring it about:23)

“Anarchism is the abolition of exploitation and oppression of man by man, that is, the abolition of private property and government; Anarchism is the destruction of misery, of superstitions, of hatred. Therefore, every blow given to the institutions of private property and to the government, every exaltation of the conscience of man, every disruption of the present conditions, every lie unmasked, every part of human activity taken away from the control of the authorities, every augmentation of the spirit of solidarity and initiative, is a step towards Anarchism.”

Charlotte Wilson, on the breadth of anarchist beliefs:24)

“The genuine Anarchist looks with sheer horror upon every destruction, every mutilation of a human being, physical or moral. He loathes wars, executions and imprisonments, the grinding down of the worker's whole nature in a dreary round of toil, the sexual and economic slavery of women, the oppression of children, the crippling and poisoning of human nature by the preventable cruelty and injustice of man to man in every shape and form.”

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Noam Chomsky, on anarchism and socialism:25)

“The consistent anarchist, then, should be a socialist, but a socialist of a particular sort. He will not only oppose alienated and specialized labor and look forward to the appropriation of capital by the whole body of workers, but he will also insist that this appropriation be direct, not exercised by some elite force acting in the name of the proletariat.”

Noam Chomsky, on anarchism and organization of society:26)

“Anarchism can be conceived as a kind of voluntary socialism, that is, as libertarian socialist or anarcho-syndicalist or communist anarchist, in the tradition of, say, Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin and others. They had in mind a highly organized form of society, but a society that was organized on the basis of organic units, organic communities. And generally, they meant by that the workplace and the neighborhood, and from those two basic units there could derive through federal arrangements a highly integrated kind of social organization which might be national or even international in scope. And these decisions could be made over a substantial range, but by delegates who are always part of the organic community from which they come, to which they return, and in which, in fact, they live.”

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Mikhail Bakunin, on the nature of work:27)

“The truth is that the whole life of the worker is simply a continuous and dismaying succession of terms of serfdom — voluntary from the juridical point of view but compulsory in the economic sense — broken up by momentarily brief interludes of freedom accompanied by starvation; in other words, it is real slavery.”

Mikhail Bakunin, on religion:28)

“All religions, with their gods, their demigods, and their prophets, their messiahs and their saints, were created by the credulous fancy of men who had not attained the full development and possession of their faculties. Consequently, the religious heaven is nothing but a mirage in which man, exalted by ignorance and faith, discovers his own image, but enlarged and reversed--that is, divinized.”

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Pierre Joseph Proudhon, on laws:29)

“Laws: We know what they are, and what they are worth! They are spider webs for the rich and mighty, steel chains for the poor and weak, fishing nets in the hands of government.”

Pierre Joseph Proudhon, on Marxism, government and revolution:30)

“The conclusion is that government can never be revolutionary quite simply because it is government. Society alone, the masses armed with their intelligence, can create revolution; society alone is able to deploy all its spontaneity, to analyse and explain the mystery of its destiny and its origin, to change its faith and its philosophy, because it alone is capable of fighting against its originator and to bear its fruit. Governments are God’s scourge, established to discipline the world: do you really expect them to destroy themselves, to create freedom, to make revolution?”

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Rudolf Rocker, on capitalism and industry:31)

“People forgot that industry is not an end in itself, but should be only a means to insure to man his material subsistence and to make accessible to him the blessings of a higher intellectual culture. Where industry is everything and man is nothing begins the realm of a ruthless economic despotism whose workings are no less disastrous than those of any political despotism. The two mutually augment one another, and they are fed from the same source.”

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Benjamin Tucker, on absentee ownership, occupancy and use:32)

“The Anarchists say to the individual: ‘Occupancy and use is the only title to land in which we will protect you; if you attempt to use land which another is occupying and using, we will protect him against you; if another attempts to use land to which you lay claim, but which you are not occupying and using, we will not interfere with him; but of such land as you occupy and use you are the sole master, and we will not ourselves take from you, or allow anyone else to take from you, whatever you may get out of such land.’”

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Murray Bookchin, on the modern challenge of defining the anarchist movement and the Left:33)

“Viewed broadly, anarcho-syndicalism, Proudhonianism, and Bakuninism belong to an irretrievable past. I say this not because they lack ideological coherence and meaning -- indeed, Proudhon's emphasis on federalism still enjoys its original validity -- but simply because they speak to epochs which have faded into history. There is much they can teach us, but they have long been transcended by historically new issues -- in my view, more fundamental in their libertarian implications -- to which the entire Left must now address itself. This does not mean the ‘death’ or even the ‘transcendence’ of Anarchism as such once we view the term in its generic and historical meaning, for the issues that confront us are more distinctly social than they have ever been at any time in the past.”

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Murray Rothbard, on the misnomer of “anarcho”-capitalism:34)

“We must therefore turn to history for enlightenment; here we find that none of the proclaimed anarchist groups correspond to the libertarian position, that even the best of them have unrealistic and socialistic elements in their doctrines. Furthermore, we find that all of the current anarchists are irrational collectivists, and therefore at opposite poles from our position. We must therefore conclude that we are not anarchists, and that those who call us anarchists are not on firm etymological ground, and are being completely unhistorical.”

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Donald Rooum, on bossism:35)

“All anarchists believe in worker's control, in the sense of individuals deciding what work whey do, how they work, and who they work with. This follows logically from the anarchist belief that nobody should be subject to a boss.”

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31) Rocker, Rudolf in Anarcho-Syndicalism (1989 Ed), Pluto Press, 10.
32) Tucker, Benjamin. “Economic Rent,” Individual Liberty: Selections From the Writings of Benjamin R. Tucker. Vanguard Press, New York, 1926. <http://flag.blackened.net/daver/anarchism/tucker/tucker29.html>
33) Bookchin, Murray. “Anarchism: Past and Present.” <http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/bookchin/pastandpresent.html>
34) Rothbard, Murray. “Are Libertarians 'Anarchists'?” <http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Anarchism>
35) Rooum, Donald. What is Anarchism? (1992) <http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Anarchism>

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