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Anarchist... Anarchy... Anarchism

Updated on October 26, 2010

Anarchism is a theory of social organization that represents the extreme of individualism. It looks upon all law and government as invasive, the twin sources of nearly all social evils. It therefore advocates the abolition of all government as the term is understood today, except that originating in voluntary cooperation. Anarchists do not conceive of a society without order, but the order they visualize arises out of voluntary association, preferably through self-governing groups.

Anarchists do not ignore the benefits resulting from association but insist that the purposes of association will be better served in a state of freedom and in the absence of all compulsion. They believe that everything now done by the state can be done better by voluntary or associative effort and that no restraint upon conduct is necessary because of the natural tendency of men in a state of freedom to respect the rights of the individual. The repression of crime, where crime might arise, could safely be left to spontaneously created organizations, such as the vigilance committees in early California, where no state government existed. In the view of Prince Pyotr Kropotkin, a leading Russian anarchist, no cause for litigation would arise after the abolition of "the present system of class privilege and unjust distribution of the wealth produced by labor, which creates and fosters crime".

While agreeing that the doctrine of laissez-faire should be extended to all departments of human activity, anarchists are by no means in agreement on all points. There are evolutionary and revolutionary anarchists and communist and individualist anarchists. The points on which all are agreed are their opposition to compulsory forms of government and the view that the despotism of majorities in a democracy is only a little less hateful than the despotism of a monarchy.

Proudhon and His Followers

"Governments are the scourge of God," said Pierre Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865), the Frenchman with whom the philosophy of modern anarchism may be said to have begun. Germs of the doctrine of which Proudhon was the founder may be traced to much earlier, even ancient periods. Among his modem precursors was the English philosopher William Godwin, who in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice advocated the abolition of every form of government and formulated the theory of anarchistic communism.

Modern anarchism as a force in sociologic thought began with the publication of Proudhon's famous essay, What is Property?. In it he rejects all law and authority, but in a work that appeared in 1863 entitled The Federative Principle he modifies in a measure his former theory of government and favors the formation of serf-governing communities. In What is Property? occurs Proudhon's famous answer to the question posed by the title: "Property is robbery." Actually, this phrase as used by the father of anarchism applied rather to modern methods of acquisition than to property itself. Proudhon was an individualist, not a communist anarchist, and he strove, however unsuccessful he was in making himself understood, rather to refine than to destroy the idea of property.

Proudhon's chief follower in the United States was Benjamin R. Tucker, who started the journal Liberty in 1881. In Germany, Proudhon found an adherent in Moses Hess, who showed a strong Hegelian influence. The doctrines of anarchism in the hands of the Russian Mikhail Bakunin underwent a change from the advocacy of a purely peaceful revolution to the advocacy of force. He was prominent in the Paris Revolution of 1848, was surrendered to Russia and sent to Siberia, but succeeded in making his escape. His principal work, in addition to innumerable pamphlets and addresses, is God and the State.

As Proudhon was the father of anarchistic individualism, Kropotkin was as indisputably the father of anarchistic communism. Theoretic anarchism for some time after Proudhon was rigidly individualistic. Max Stirner, a follower of Proudhon in Germany, whose philosophy was more of a blank negation than that of his master, pushed individualism to a point where it resembled a caricature more than a dogma, and Bakunin hated the idea of communism. But in Kropotkin's thought the idea of property reached the disappearing point, and the ideal of anarchism became at the last purely communistic.

Anarchist Violence

"Propaganda by action" became the rallying cry of anarchists influenced by Bakunin's advocacy of force. Its aim was to inspire such dread and horror as to compel the adoption of measures of social amelioration, or perhaps the overthrow of the state itself. Incidents attributed to anarchists include the attempted assassination of German Emperor William I in 1878; the attempt on the life of the German princes in 1883; and the assassinations of President Sadi Camot of France in 1894, of the Empress Elizabeth of Austria in 1898, of King Humbert I of Italy in 1900, and of U.S. President McKinley in 1901.

In the Haymarket tragedy of 1886, in Chicago, a number of persons lost their lives in a bomb explosion, which resulted in the trial and conviction of eight professed teachers of anarchism in that city. Seven were sentenced to die on the gallows (two sentences were later commuted to life imprisonment) and one to a prison term of 15 years. The trial aroused the attention of the whole civilized world. It is now seen, after the lapse of years, that these men, even if dangerous to the community, were convicted more by the existing state of public terror than by any actual evidence connecting them with the throwing of the bomb. The fact that the pardon of the two who escaped the gallows was petitioned for (after the terror of the time had died away) by some of the most prominent citizens of Chicago, is evidence of the change the public mind underwent regarding the accused.

The purely economic doctrines of anarchism have no relation to acts of murder and vengeance. "Propaganda of action" is repudiated by those who are sometimes termed "philosophical anarchists," to distinguish them from the revolutionary wing. Members of this latter school regard force as fundamentally at war with their ideals. They do not believe that social revolution can be accomplished by the methods of Bakunin and his school. Proudhon never preached force.


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    • Chad Banks profile image

      Chad Banks 7 years ago from the swampy marsh

      Yes, there is more to anarchy than random violence and pure lawlessness.

    • _cheryl_ profile image

      _cheryl_ 7 years ago from California

      Very interesting hub Chad. Definitely promotes thinking which always makes for a great read. I'll be reading more from you.... =)

    • Chad Banks profile image

      Chad Banks 7 years ago from the swampy marsh

      I like to prompt and promote thinking!

    • Beth100 profile image

      Beth100 7 years ago from Canada

      This was a very good read! I hadn't thought of the connections, but am thinking about them now. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • TeaPartyCrasher profile image

      TeaPartyCrasher 7 years ago from Camp Hill, PA


      Check out some of my writings too!

    • Chad Banks profile image

      Chad Banks 7 years ago from the swampy marsh

      Wordscribe, love your work! At least that's what I would say if I really did love your work.

    • Chad Banks profile image

      Chad Banks 7 years ago from the swampy marsh

      TeaPartyCrasher, love your name!

    • wordscribe43 profile image

      Elsie Nelson 7 years ago from Pacific Northwest, USA

      Wow, Chad! I had no idea you were such a fantastic writer! I mean, given the only other "work" I've read of yours, frankly I just didn't know you had it in you. Cheers!

    • TeaPartyCrasher profile image

      TeaPartyCrasher 7 years ago from Camp Hill, PA


      What's odder is that to me, at least in America, it's the far right that's more anarchistic than the left.