Anarchism is a term given to a political philosophy advocating a society without "the state", and often the overthrow, violent or otherwise, of the current system of government. As Benjamin Tucker put it, anarchism is the philosophy that "all the affairs of men should be managed by individuals or voluntary associations, and that the state should be abolished."

As a political force, anarchism was defeated in the early 20th century with the domination of fascism in Europe and Communism in Russia, though many argue that its philosophical influence remains. Anarchist organisations continue to exist across the globe, however, and in recent years, amid the rise in protest against globalisation, anarchism has gained a higher profile.

Table of contents
1 Overview and brief history
2 Anarchist ideology
3 Development of anarchism
4 Thematic articles
5 See also
6 External links

Overview and brief history

The anarchy sought by many anarchists is not chaos or anomie -- that is, some anarchists do not desire an absence of order, rules, and organized structure. Others believe that order, rules, and organized structure are inherently authoritarian.

Anarchists refuse to participate in party politics, firmly believing that power corrupts.

Philosophical anarchists are divided on both the methods used to achieve their goal and the nature of the goal itself. They philosophise on the distinctions between order and hierarchy, rules and authority, organised structure and power.

Although anarchists all wish to reach a stateless society, the proposed methods of political, economic and social organisation vary immensely. William Godwin's vision of a free society published in 1793 alongside a critique of government in An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice is considered by many to be the first anarchist treatise and Godwin is sometimes credited with founding philosophical anarchism, though he did not use the word. It was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon who, with his What is Property in 1840, declared himself an anarchist, the first to do so - at least using that particular title.

Later in the nineteenth century revolutionaries like Mikhail Bakunin saw a need for violence to overthrow the existing society to reach anarchism; this view encouraged acts of political violence such as the assassinations of heads of state at the end of the nineteenth century, though these actions were regarded by many anarchists as counter-productive or ineffective (see "Violence and non-violence", below). Peter Kropotkin's anarchist communism developed from a scientific approach based on an alternative theory of evolution as illustrated in Mutual Aid (1897).

Anarchists played a role in many of the labour movements, up-risings and revolutions of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including the Russian Revolution (1917) and the Spanish Civil War (1936-9). Anarchists took control of large areas of the east of Spain during the civil war in the 1930s. However, their actions generaly lead to increasingly authoritarian rule and political repression across Russia and southern Europe in the first half of the twentieth century.

After World War II, a new form of anarchism developed, mainly in North America. This new strand has become known as anarcho-capitalism, and owed more to classical liberalism than to previous anarchist traditions, only being politically related via individualism. Anarcho-capitalism is usually disowned actively by anarchists of differing stripes.

A surge of popular interest in anarchism occured during the 1970s in Britain following the birth of the punk rock movement. The band Crass is often credited for its anarchist and pacifist ideas.

Feminism has always been a part of the anarchist movement. North American anarchism also takes strong influences from the American Civil Rights Movement and the movement against the war in Vietnam. European anarchism has developed out of the labour movement, and both have incorporated animal rights activism. Globally, anarchism has also grown in popularity and influence as part of the anti-war, anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation movements. Recently, anarchists have been known for their involvement in protests against World Trade Organization and Group of Seven meetings and the World Economic Forum, protests which are often portrayed as violent riots. Many anarchists were part of the black blocs at these protests and some engaged in property destruction or in direct conflict with police, though others uphold non-violent principles.

Andrew Heywood writes in Political Ideologies,

Anarchists have highlighted the coercive and destructive nature of political power, and in so doing have countered statist tendencies within other ideologies... anarchism has had a growing influence on modern political thought. Both the new left [including "anticolonialism, feminism and environmentalism"] and the new right [including anarcho-capitalism and free market economics], for instance, have exhibited libertarian tendencies, which bear the imprint of anarchist ideas. (Political Ideologies (second edition, 1998) p.210-211.)

Anarchist ideology

Anarchist schools of thought

From William Godwin's free society, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's mutualism to Max Stirner's individualism, the roots of anarchist thought were always varied, with many different views of what a society without government should be like. Individualists, taking much from the writings of Stirner, among others, demanded the utmost respect for the liberty of the individual. Anarchist communistss like Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin built on the Marxist critique of capitalism and synthesised it with their own critique of the state, developing a view of society where the fate of the individual was tied to that of society.

Anarcho-syndicalism developed as the industrialised form of this libertarian communism, emphasising industrial actions, especially the general strike, as the primary strategy to achieve anarchist revolution, and 'build the new society in the shell of the old'.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, two new schools of thought developed in North America: namely, anarcho-capitalism and primitivism. Anarcho-capitalism built on the classical liberal tradition, taking the distrust of government further and claiming that free markets could provide justice and security; the state was not required, its intervention was harmful. Primitivists like John Zerzan proclaimed that civilisation -- not just the state -- would need to be abolished to create liberty and a just social order.

Pacifism, referring to opposition to the practice of war, is considered by most anarchists to be inherent in their philosophy. Some anarchists take it further and follow Leo Tolstoy's belief in non-violence (note, however, that these anarcho-pacifists are not necessarily Christain anarchists as Tolstoy was), advocating non-violent resistance as the only method of achieving a truly anarchist revolution.

Anarchy, chaos and disorder

The word 'anarchy' is used to refer to lawless and chaotic political situations where, for instance, warlords rule by virtue of military force or there is a temporary power vacuum. The current political situation in Somalia, for example, is often referred to as anarchy, since it has no central government.

This use of the word implies a broad definition: usually, any situation where there is no internationally recognised form of government can be considered 'anarchy'. Anarchists, however, reserve the term anarchy for an anarchist society: that is, a society organised on the principles of anarchism, though exactly what these principles are differs from anarchist to anarchist. Primitivistss, for instance, assert that in prehistoric times human society was organised on such principles as they define them (for example, non-hierarchal decision making), and so call these ancient societies anarchies. However, this primitivist view of prehistoric politics is controversial. Given the failure of the organized Left, others find the societies based on industry, such as those ran by "work syndicates" or "worker councils" also controvesial.

Violence and non-violence

Anarchists have been traditionally portrayed in the media as dangerous and violent, due mainly to a number of high-profile violent acts including riots, assassinations and insurrections involving anarchists. Since the 1970s, the punk image of irresponsible youths has also been associated with anarchist symbolism, so furthering the association with violence.

The use of terrorism and poltical violence, however, is condemned by most anarchists, though there remains no consensus on the legitimacy or utility of violence. The Tolstoian tradition of non-violent resistance is prevalent among some anarchists; others believe that violence (especially self-defense) is justified as a way to provoke social upheaval which could lead to a social revolution.

The writer J. R. R. Tolkien, in a letter to his son, briefly described anarchy as "philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs"[1] (our emphasis).


Pacifism, referring to opposition to the practice of war, is considered by the vast majority of anarchists to be inherent in their philosophy. Wars are often portrayed in anarchist literature as an activity of the state in which the state seeks to gain and consolidate power, both domestically and in foriegn lands. Many anarchists subscribe to the view expressed by Randolph Bourne that "war is the health of the state"[1]. Anarchists believe that if they were to support a war they would, by default, be strengthening the state -- indeed, Peter Kropotkin was alienated from other anarchists when he expressed support for the British side in World War I.

Just as they are very critical and distrustful of most government endeavours, anarchists often view the stated reasons for war with a cynical eye. Since the Vietnam War protests in North America and, most recently, the mass protests against the war in Iraq, much anarchist activity has been anti-war based.


Some anarchists share Leo Tolstoy's Christain anarchist belief in non-violence. These anarcho-pacifists (not necessarily Christians) advocate non-violent resistance as the only method of achieving a truly anarchist revolution. They often see violence as the basis of government and coercion and argue that, as such, violence is illegitimate, no matter who is the target. Some of Proudhon's French followers even saw strike action as coercive and refused to take part in such tradition socialist tactics.

The utility of violence

Famous anarchists of the nineteenth century such as Mikhail Bakunin and Errico Malatesta saw violence as a necessary and sometimes desirable force. Malatesta took the view that it is "necessary to destroy with violence, since one cannot do otherwise, the violence which denies [the means of life and for development] to the workers" (Umanità Nova, number 125, September 6, 1921[1]).

Between 1894 and 1901, anarchists assassinated numerous heads of state, including:

Such "propaganda of the deed" was not a popular tactic among anarchists, however, and the tactic was condemned by others in the movement. For example, McKinley's assassin, Leon Czogolsz, claimed to be a disciple of Emma Goldman, but she disavowed any association with the Czogolsz.

Goldman included in her definition of Anarchism the observation that all governments rest on violence, and this is one of the many reasons they should be opposed. Goldman herself didn't oppose tactics like assassination until she went to Russia, where she witnessed the violence of the Russian state and the Red Army. From then on she condemned the use of terrorism, especially by the state, and advocated violence only as a means of self-defense.

Depictions in the press and popular fiction (for example, a malevolent bomb-throwing anarchist in Joseph Conrad's "The Secret Agent") helped create a lasting public impression that anarchists are violent terrorists. This perception was enhanced by events such as the Haymarket Riot, where anarchists were blamed for throwing a bomb at police who came to break up a public meeting in Chicago.

More recently, anarchists have been involved in protests against World Trade Organisation (WTO) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) meetings across the globe, which have often turned violent (being described by some as "riots"). Traditionally, Mayday in London has been a day of marching, but in recent years the Metropolitan Police have warned that a "hardcore of anarchists" are intent on causing violence. The anarchists involved in such protests often formed black blocs at these protests and some engaged in property destruction or in direct conflict with police, though others stuck to non-violent principles.

Development of anarchism

Although anarcho-primitivists assert that for the longest period of human history, human society was organised on anarchist principles, there debate over the anthropological evidence to support this. Anarchist ideas are generally held to go back as far as Ancient Greece, where Zeno of Citium was, according to Kropotkin, "[t]he best exponent of Anarchist philosophy in ancient Greece" and the philosopher Aristippus said that 'the wise should not give up their liberty to the state'.

Zeno distinctly opposed his vision of a free community without government to the state-Utopia of Plato. "He repudiated the omnipotence of the state, its intervention and regimentation, and proclaimed the sovereignty of the moral law of the individual." Zeno argued that although the necessary instinct of self-preservation leads humans to egotism, nature has supplied a corrective to it by providing man with another instinct -- sociability. Like many modern anarchists, he believed that if people follow their instincts, they will have no need of law courts or police, no temples and no public worship, and use no money (free giftss taking the place of the exchanges). Zeno's beliefs, unfortunately, have only reached us as fragmentary quotations.[1]

Some also interpret the Ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism as the oldest example of anarchist doctrine[1].

The first author to have published a treatise explicitly advocating the absence of government was William Godwin in An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793); though he did not use the word anarchism, he is today regarded as the "founder of philosophical anarchism"[1]. The term "anarchist" is thought to have first come into use during the French Revolution as a derogatory term against the left, but Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, in the 1840s, adopted the term to describe his political philosophy.

Thematic articles

Anarchism is a vast subject that touches a lot of topics. Below are links to articles that discuss and argue various aspects of anarchism with reference to different anarchist strands of thought.

See also

For a dictionary definition, see wiktionary:anarchism


Historical events



Theoretical concepts

Anarchist organizations

External links

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