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A Simple Introduction to Anarchism

Updated on January 1, 2016

There was a time when almost everyone believed that every system – whether it was a social one or a cosmological one – was governed according to some set of rules or laws and there was a hierarchy of rulers in any such system whose job was to make it sure that these rules were being followed. There was God at the top, the emperor on the Earth, and the master at home, and all of them immaculately performed their duties and never took undue advantage of their power. Even irresponsible and cruel acts of the master were believed to have been ordained under some divine scheme.

With the development of Science and evolution of societies, people started putting question marks upon God’s existence. Acts of the ‘masters’ started getting scrutinized under the lens of reason and it was observed that people in power took undue advantage of their privilege and exploited the weaker. Thrones trembled, revolutions occurred and modern form of socio-political systems came into force. Whatever be the form, socialism or democratic capitalism, all the systems have these ‘sentries’ with power who administrate them and exercise special authority; the hierarchical structure is still intact though the balance of power has shifted to the masses to a great extent. Anarchism is a social and political ideology which proposes a system of governance in which the masses collectively do administration and the hierarchy of power is dissolved.

The whole edifice of Anarchism is based upon the perception of a society governed by rules without the presence of any rulers. Therefore Anarchism does not imply ‘total chaos’ as often misunderstood by many; there will be rules and government in an anarchist society but the rein of power will not be devolved to a ruling elite, rather it will be dispensed to the masses.

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What caused the inception of anarchist ideology?

Old despotic forms of governments were uprooted by revolutions brought about by the common people who had hoped that newer governmental systems would eventually end exploitation of the weaker, but it did not turn out to be true. Tyranny did diminish to a great extent but exploitation of the weaker sections by the elite still continued and the promise of equality was not realized. People felt betrayed; they thought their leaders didn’t deliver what they had promised. They observed that in newer political systems the elite could still exploit the common in subtle and indirect ways. It was observed that power itself contains all the ingredients to corrupt, therefore it was necessary to diffuse it. Some social activists proposed newer ways to mitigate the power hierarchy and the idea of anarchism was born.

Elucidation of the anarchist ideology

Anarchism is very puzzling and one of the most misunderstood philosophies, therefore it needs to be clearly explained before any further discussion.

Anarchists are against the idea of the nation state. It is not that they propose any better option for governing a state, they believe that an ideal society can only be formed by abolition of the state itself. They believe that all the states are Orwellian in nature which keep an eye on its dissidents and safeguard the vested interests of the elite. So every state, however benign and democratic it claims to be, is sort of a dystopian elitist regime in anarchism’s view. The state maneuvers total institutions like armed forces, police, and schools, to kill individuality and repress resistance.

Anarchism is often confused to be synonymous with communism, whereas it is completely opposite to the communist ideology, for it opposes any central authority. However it agrees with socialism in abolition of ownership of land, labor, natural resources, and other properties, but it also demands that no party or authority should control these either . Anarchism is anti-capitalist but it is also anti-authoritarian, whereas communism is notorious for its dictators such as Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin. It advocates equality but opposes authority.

For a detailed study of Anarchism and its various anarchist schools follow these links:

anarchist-communism

Collective Anarchism

Anarcho-syndicalism

Fundamental Ideas of Anarchism

Spontaneous Order

It has been observed that many systems, such as free markets, have self-organizing character and they do not require human intervention to function correctly. Anarchists claim that the same is true with human societies also and they will function better without any government.

Dissolution of authority, ownership, and leadership

Anarchism asserts that economic equality can only be achieved by abolition of ownership, and social equality can only be achieved in absence of any authority or leaders.

William Godwin

Prominent anarchist thinkers

William Godwin (1756-1836)

Godwin was born in England in a middle class family. He was a political scientist but he also wrote novels. His daughter Mary wrote one of the most popular fiction books ever – Frankenstein. His book Enquiry Concerning Political Justice established him as one of the most influential political philosophers of his time. How maverick his views were can be evaluated from his following words:

“Why should I promise that I will do everything that a certain power, called the government, shall imagine it convenient, or decide that it is fitting, for me to do? Is there in this either morality, or justice, or common sense? Does brute force alone communicate to its possessor a sufficient claim upon my veneration? For, be it observed, the wisdom or duty of obedience proceeds upon exactly the same principle, whether it be to a tyrant, or to the most regularly elected House of Representatives.”

Proudhon

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865)

Proudhon was a French philosopher and Journalist who was sent to prison because of his radical views and acrimonious criticism of the then French regime. He was a self-proclaimed anarchist. He wrote an iconoclastic essay What is property in which he stated that ‘property is theft’. Here is a famous and frequently quoted paragraph of Proudhon’s:

To be ruled is to be kept an eye on, inspected, spied on, regulated, indoctrinated, sermonized, listed and checked-off, estimated, appraised, censured, ordered about, by creatures without knowledge and without virtues. To be ruled is, at every operation, transaction, movement, to be noted, registered, counted, priced, admonished, prevented, reformed, redressed, corrected. It is, on the pretext of public utility and in the name of the common good, to be put under contribution, exercised, held to ransom, exploited, monopolized, concussed, pressured, mystified, robbed; then, at the least resistance and at the first hint of complaint, repressed, fined, vilified, vexed, hunted, exasperated, knocked-down, disarmed, garroted, imprisoned, shot, grape-shot, judged, condemned, deported, sacrificed, sold, tricked; and to finish off with, hoaxed, calumniated, dishonored. Such is government! And to think that there are democrats among us who claim there's some good in government!”

Mikhail Bakunin

Michael Bakunin (1814-1876)

Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin was probably the most influential anarchist of all time. He was a contemporary of Karl Marx and criticized Marx for his authoritarian philosophy. Bakunin accurately prophesied that one day Marxism would turn into an apparatus for killing individual freedom by dictators in the name of bringing equality. Following words of Bakunin describe his opposition of Marxist philosophy and his support of individual liberty:

Marx is an authoritarian and centralizing communist. He wants what we want, the complete triumph of economic and social equality, but he wants it in the State and through the State power, through the dictator of a very strong and, so to say, despotic provisional government, that is by the negation of liberty.”

Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921)

Kropotkin was born in an aristocratic Russian family. Kropotkin was 17 when Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published. He was very influenced by Darwin’s theory and found it to be true; that was the time when theory of evolution was being run down for its anti-Christian claims. Later when ‘survival of the fittest’ theory started to be used as a justification for capitalism and social inequality, Kropotkin criticized its misinterpretation and explained that the theory could not be extended to workings of human societies. Here is a great anarchist quote of Kropotkin:

The economic and political liberation of man will have to create new forms for its expression in life, instead of those established by the State.”

Noam Chomsky

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Noam Chomsky (Born 1928)

Chomsky is the Emeritus Professor of Linguistics at MIT. He is famous for his Universal Grammar Theory according to which the human brain has the innate ability to learn grammar. Chomsky has opposed USA’s foreign policies throughout his life. Being a fervent opponent of Vietnam war, Gulf war, and all the wars in which USA is involved, he is viewed as a traitor by many. He claimed that 9/11 attack was a result of USA’s aggressive policies; this outrageous comment of his was severely criticized by the press all around the globe. Chomsky is an anarchist and a great dissenter. His ideas are too radical and unique which does not fit into any prominent ideologies. Chomsky describes himself in the following words:

I am a fanatic lover of liberty, considering it as the unique condition under which intelligence, dignity, and human happiness can develop and grow; not the purely formal liberty conceded, measured by, and regulated by the state, an eternal lie which in reality represents nothing more than the privilege of some founded on the slavery of the rest.”

Problems with Anarchism

Anarchism sounds like a fanciful idea which dreams of the establishment of an utopian society without any leaders. Even if such a society is established, will it last long? Without any hierarchical framework will it not turn into an inert heap? The most fundamental assumption on which Anarchism is based is that humans are benevolent, cooperating social animals; isn’t it half true, over simplified assumption? Can any economy function properly after abrogation of property ownership? How fast such economy will grow? These are some questions of profound importance that anarchists need to answer. They have proposed an idea of an ideal society but they also need to come up with a roadmap instructing how such a society can be built.


Can an anarchist society last long?

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    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 11 months ago from San Diego California

      I don't know how to answer your question. I wish there was a "not sure" response. In the present state of the planet, I would have to say no. In order for an anarchist system to survive, the entire world would have to become anarchist at once, and that will not happen, unfortunately.

      People misunderstand anarchism. They see hooded figures wearing the anarchist logo throwing bottles through windows, and they confuse that with real anarchism. As for me, the older I get and the more I read, I think the only way to just government is to abolish ruling classes altogether, democratic or otherwise. Democracy has just created a new political elite to take the place of royalty. My solution, and it sounds somewhat radical, is to get rid of elections and have people take turns running the government, whether they want to or not. Kind of like extended jury duty. This way, people could not make politics a career, to the detriment of the rest of us.

      Brilliantly written hub. I wholeheartedly concur that anarchism would be a great system, but that there are almost insurmountable problems associated with it.

    • Parimalpolymath profile image
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      Prabhat Parimal 11 months ago from India

      Thank You for your comment! and the solution you have thought is worth pondering.

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