The etymological roots of anarchism in the Greek α´ναρχι´α (combining the negative prefix αν- and α´ρχη´, “authority,” “rule”) indicates that anarchism should not be equated with chaos but signals an absence of governmentality. Anarchy is best defined as a political system relying on nonhierarchical forms of voluntary association of free individuals in self-organizing, cooperative societal formations. Anarchism opposes authoritarian power systems, social hierarchy, and institutionalized religion, while espousing beliefs in individual privacy. The logic of anarchism as an ideal is based on the philosophy of the individual of the Enlightenment: Independence of thought, outer and inner freedom, and self-determination are preconditions to anarchism. This entry reviews the origins and evolution of the term anarchy and how it is framed in religious and political philosophies, and describes the three branches of modern anarchism.
The first uses of the term in the modern period were during the English Civil War (1642–1641) and then in The Anarchiad (1786), an epic poem by the Connecticut Wits, Joel Barlow, David Humphreys, John Trumbull, and Lemuel Hopkins. These references equated anarchy to chaos, which the royalists viewed as a driving force behind the ideals of the “roundheads,” who supported the Parliament of England and fought against the royalists during the English Civil War. The early American poets issued a warning about social unrest and anarchy, which was the point of origin of the rebellions that shook the young republic. During the Reign of Terror, which followed the French Revolution, Maximilien de Robespierre also used the term anarchist against political enemies.
Structurally related to anarchism were a variety of communitarian projects in the late Middle Ages, like the English Diggers, and some peasant uprisings. To claim anarchism as a religious philosophy, however, is difficult since religious beliefs are based on an eschatological system beyond this earth and often also center on charismatic forms of religious leadership, which would be antithetical to the anarchist ideal of absent hierarchies.
As a political philosophy, anarchism developed in the wake of the French Revolution. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Anselme Bellegarrigue used the term anarchy in the title of publications in the mid-19th century, while the first political rejection of the state and of institutionalized government has been attributed to William Godwin (in Political Justice, 1793).
Modern anarchism can be differentiated into three main branches: (1) individualist libertarianism, (2) the political ideology of insurrectionist antiauthoritarianism, (3) and the cooperative and communitarian forms of anarcho-syndicalism and anarcho-communism or collectivism.
The libertarian movement is based on the idea of an absolutely free individual, liberated from the withholding strings of government, religion, tradition, education, ethics, and morals. The most influential of these “tabula rasa” anarchist thinkers was Max Stirner (i.e., Johann Caspar Schmidt), though few of his original works have survived besides The Ego and Its Own (literally Unique Man and His Property, 1844; English edition, 1907). Stirner influenced Karl Marx, John Henry Mackay, and Rudolf Steiner, as well as the radical egotism of economic libertarians, especially in the United States and Great Britain, even though Stirner expressly rejected egotism for the sake of material gain.
The antiauthoritarian wing of anarchism has been the most visible expression of anarchist ideas, as well as the form most frequently represented in caricatures, in satirical articles and dramatic sketches, and in literary fiction by, for instance, H. G. Wells and Joseph Conrad. It has also been the branch that generated the most police activity and secret service counterinsurgency measures. Insurrectionist anarchists believe in direct action against governmental institutions and officeholders, the (para-)military and police forces of the state apparatus, and shareholder capitalism. The assassination of former U.S. president William McKinley by Leon Czolgosz in 1901 and Alexander Berkman’s attack on industrialist and financier Henry Clay Frick in 1892 contributed to the caricatures of dark-clad and wild-haired bohemians turned bomb-throwing and knife-wielding terrorists. It also resulted in statements like that of McKinley’s successor, Theodore Roosevelt, who declared anarchism to be the “enemy of humanity.”
The background to antiauthoritarian anarchism is usually traced to Michail Bakunin, who had extended Stirner’s tabula rasa philosophy to the idea of a necessary obliteration of all power structures before anarchism could assure social and ethno-racial equality, liberty, and access to education for all. Followers of Bakunin, such as Emma Goldman, translated this idea into the “propaganda of the deed,” which proved influential, most notably in the 1880s and 1890s. In 1885 in New York, the German-born Johann Most published his booklet Revolutionaere Kriegswissenschaft (not to be confused with the 1970s hippie publication The Anarchist Cookbook) on how to use arms and explosives. It was also in the United States that the most flagrant use of illegal means against the antiauthoritarian anarchists occurred: A bomb thrown at Haymarket Square in Chicago during an altercation between the police and demonstrators following a workers’ rally, which killed several police officers and civilians, was used as a pretext to arrest eight leading anarchists. Although none of them had been at the event, they were found guilty. Four were hanged, and one committed suicide. The Haymarket judicial murders showed how far the state apparatus was ready to go to counteract the perceived threat of anarchism.
Anarcho-syndicalism is closest to the traditional models of cooperative labor and is the impulse behind trade unions. It is the most organized form of anarchism. Anselme Bellegarrigue’s journal L’Anarchie: Journal de l’Ordre (1850) set the pace for a number of utopian anarchist communities and cooperatives that attempted to carry on the most libertarian ideas of the failed European revolutions of 1848 to 1849. The concepts of syndicalism found their expression in the mutualist economic theory of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, reformulated by Pyotr Kropotkin in The Conquest of Bread (1892) and in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902).
Most individualist libertarian anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists agree that the ultimate freedom from oppression by governments and their state apparatuses as well as religious orders can be achieved only if this freedom is accompanied by self-discipline, and by responsibility toward fellow human beings. In recent decades, this attitude has been widened by many anarchist thinkers to include all life forms. Anarchism is not the absence of any structures of government; rather, it is self-government. However, all sorts of antisocial individualism, bourgeois escapism, and romantic glorifications of violence and bohemian irresponsibility have been labeled as anarchism by those groups and the media.
Few attempts have been made to create anarchist communities on a larger scale, and none have existed for long periods of time. The Munich Republic of 1919 lasted for only about 3 weeks before right-wing troops terminated it. Whether the so-called Red Army of the Ruhr, which fought back a proto-fascist coup d’etat in 1920, can be called anarchist is debatable; 2 weeks later, the very troops that had supported the attempted coup were used to quench this grassroots movement. Those parts of Ukraine liberated by anarchists headed by Nestor Makhno were subdued by the Bolsheviki by 1921. During the Spanish Civil War, anarchist units initially fought on all fronts, and in Catalonia, the popular anarcho-syndicalist unions organized collectivist cooperatives both in the agrarian sector and in factories. Their success led to high hopes, before the communists, with strong backing by the Stalinist Soviet Union, imprisoned, killed, or drove out of the country most of the leaders of the anarchist movement and brought the republic under their control for the rest of its existence.
The ideas of anarcho-syndicalism have, in more recent years, received renewed attention because they provide a viable alternative to the system of a capitalist economy that is based on exploitation of resources, labor, and time. The deterioration of the financial system into anarcho-capitalist irresponsibility and the failure of a number of states—notably in Africa—have also led to renewed interest in cooperative forms of production and in collectivist societal lifestyles. Social scientists have also pointed out that the will to harmony and the spirit of cooperation are more pronounced in human interactions than had been believed under the influence of ideologies of competition and progress. Consequently, numerous cooperative projects have started worldwide, giving renewed hope that a new society might form itself within the shell of the old (from the preamble of the Industrial Workers of the World, a syndicalist union founded in 1905 by Maria Harris “Mother” Jones, “Big Bill” Haywood, etc.). In Mexico, the rebellious province of Chiapas has provided space for experiments for years, garnering support for a nondogmatic, grassroots socialism.
One aspect lacking in anarchist philosophy is a theory of culture. Even influential thinkers such as Rudolf Rocker adopted rather traditional views of cultural production and a qualitative approach based on evaluations of art and literature on the basis of a rather bourgeois aestheticism. Anarchist cultural products include posters; shows like the Patterson Strike pageant of 1913 and the Pins and Needles musical, developed by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in 1937; and many songs, often based on traditional hymns or ballads. Syndicalist ideas also influenced educators such as A. S. Neill and Maria Montessori.
See also Security, Civil Liberties, and Law organizational theme
Dolgoff, Sam. The Relevance of Anarchism to Modern Society. Chicago, IL: Charles H. Kerr, 1989.
Goyens, Tom. Beer and Revolution. The German Anarchist Movement in New York City, 1880–1914. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007.
Rocker, Rudolf. Nationalism and Culture. New York, NY: Covici Friede, 1937.
Schmidt, Michael and Lucien van der Walt, eds. Black Flame. The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism. Edinburgh, Scotland: AK Press, 2009.
Woodcock, George, ed.The Anarchist Reader. Glasgow, Scotland: Fontana, 1986.