Anarchism is a political and philosophical doctrine that seeks to achieve human flourishing through the removal of constraints on human action.
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon said, "I destroy and I build up", and Mikhail Bakunin stated, "Let us put our trust in the eternal spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unsearchable and eternally creative source of all life."
Anarchists despise democracy as enslavement by the majority - voting is the act of betrayal, both symbolically and practically. "Universal suffrage is the counter-revolution" declared Proudhon, in one of his rallying cries. ('Property is theft' was perhaps the most famous, adopted by Marxism, but "God is evil' had its followers too.) As William Godwin put it more powerfully, "There is but one power to which I can yield a heartfelt obedience, the decision of my own understanding, the dictate of my own conscience."
The word comes from the Greek anarkhos, meaning without a ruler: cynics cite a headless chicken running around aimlessly. At its heart is the rejection of all authority. And if anarchism is constructive in intention, it must still always start with a destructive phase, and hence may be crushed before it can proceed beyond that stage. Nonetheless, anarchistic ideas have always pervaded the lower echelons of managed societies with elitist hierarchies, effectively all societies.
Popular revolts, from that of the slaves lead by Spartacus against the Roman Republic 73-71 BCE to the Solidarity movement started in the Lenin Shipyards, Gdansk (Poland) 1981, often draw on or depend upon anarchistic motivations, even if their leaders are far from being anarchists themselves. But they all face organised suppression. And although anarchism was compatible with communism during the destructive phase that displaced the previous regimes, once construction was required the anarchists were marginalised.
Anarchism - like Buddhism - preaches the virtue of surviving on only just enough. Its leaders were from the aristocracy, and the churches, not from the industrial or political classes, and it only became a mass movement amongst the very poorest peasants of Andalusia and the Ukraine - amongst even middling peasants, it had little appeal. The anarchist not only despises the wealthy - the anarchist despises wealth itself. Much of its literature arose from the English Revolution of the mid-seventeenth century, which saw the King of England beheaded and the anarchistic Levellers ruthlessly killed by Oliver Cromwell.
Celebrated anarchist works include William Godwin's Political Justice, one amongst the wide range of pamphlets, essays and poems of the English Romantic movement. Similar publications across central Europe lead to the widespread turmoil of 1848, the year of revolutions, none of which survived for long.
'Anarchism' is a highly contentious term, which has been used to describe a range of political movements and disparate range of political ideas including Tolstoyan pacifists, militant terrorists, hyper-capitalists, punk entrepreneurs and primitivists as well as anarchist communists, Situationists and revolutionary syndicalists. Indeed it is probably better to speak of 'anarchisms' The distinction made by the contemporary sociologist, Murray Bookchin, between lifestyle anarchists and social anarchists, although perhaps flawed, is still useful.
Lifestyle anarchism, also known as liberal or individualist anarchism, borrows from the liberal enlightenment tradition and regards the abstract ego as central. Not unlike Kantian ethics, this form of anarchism holds that there should be no limits placed on rational individuals from pursuing their own interests so long as they do not coerce others. However, an important difference from Kant is that impersonal universal reason imposes constraints, unheard of in anarchist thought and lifestyles.
Criticisms of such individualist politics are that it does little to eradicate oppressive power; so long as the individualist is free it does not matter if others remain exploited. Others have pointed to the inherently hierarchical nature of such egoism . The individualist's 'self' is at the top, as their perceptions are the ultimate source of knowledge, with all other egos having the same, lesser value. As such it also ignores the inequalities of power which mould us, and against which we define ourselves. As such there appears little to separate this form of individualism from free-market libertarianism.
Libertarians assert the 'freedom of the will', and often trace their origins to John Locke and the notion fundamental 'rights'. Robert Nozick (1938-2002) argues, for example, in Anarchy State and Utopia (1974) that the interests of the individual and the 'majority' (as the State seeks to present itself as representing) are opposed and that actions should be judged instead on a 'case-by-case' basis for their uncontroversial beneficence.
Social (or 'class struggle') anarchism can be identified through four criteria, which are used by many contemporary anarchist groups. The first is a complete rejection of capitalism and the market economy, as a form of hierarchical relationship; second, an egalitarian concern for the interests and freedoms of others, recognising that an individual's identity is not fixed but based on social forces. The third is that anarchists reject state power and all other intermediary forces. The final criterion is that, for anarchists, methods have to prefigure the ends. It is this prefigurative feature that sets class struggle anarchism apart from many other socialist movements. James Guillaume, a colleague of Mikhail Bakunin, considered prefiguration the defining distinction between anarchism and orthodox Marxism: 'How could one want an equalitarian and free society to issue from authoritarian organisation? It is impossible.' The methods involved have to embody the goals, and the appropriate agent performing the act is fundamental to the classification and assessment of that act.
Whilst the broad themes of anarchism have existed in many epochs, anarchist movements have developed in response to modern capitalism. Their fortunes have fluctuated enormously in the 160 years since Pierre Proudhon became the first to use the term in a non-pejorative sense; from the high-points of the early twentieth-century anarchist federations, to the low points when Leninism had hegemony amongst the revolutionary milieu. Although anarchism never completely died out, its reappearances have been sporadic and short-lived, notably in the student protests of 1968. However, since the decline of the state-socialist model, following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, anarchism has had a greater impact, both in radical environmental campaigns and amongst sections of the anti-capitalist, 'anti-globalisation' movement.
A large part of an early version of this article was taken from the entry on Anarchism, by Martin Cohen, Colin Kirk and Benjamin Franks, in 'Essentials of Philosophy and Ethics', edited by Martin Cohen, (Hodder Arnold 2006) and donated to the Citizendium by the author.
- Selected Writings, Bakunin M (1973)
- Anarchism, George Woodcock (1962)