Anarchism Essay

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The term anarchism comes to us from the Greek anarkhos, defined as “without a ruler.” While seemingly uncomplicated, the question of whether and how societies might live peacefully without a ruler is at the core of anarchist theory and practice.

Historical Roots

Until French writer Pierre-Joseph Proudhon embraced them in his 1840 book What Is Property?, the words anarchy and anarchism were pejorative terms for the chaotic and conflictual condition said to result from the absence of a ruler. While Proudhon was the first self-proclaimed anarchist, the political theory of anarchism is conventionally traced back to William Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, published in 1793. Although never using the label, Godwin rejected the artificial and coercive authority of the state in favor of a natural, egalitarian society. Anarchist thought can then be traced through a number of European and American writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, Benjamin Tucker, and Emma Goldman.

Anarchism is much more, however, than the creation of these individuals. Kropotkin himself argues that “[a]narchy does not draw its origin from . . . any system of philosophy” but represents one of “two currents of thought and action [that] have been in conflict in . . . [all] human societies . . . from all times there have been Anarchists and Statists” (Horowitz 1964, 145–147).

An Anarchist Orientation

Understood in this way, anarchism is less an intellectual tradition than it is a distinctive spirit, or an orientation, defined by antipathy to domination and coercion—especially, but not solely, by the state—and a vision of an alternative free of domination. This understanding casts a wide net, drawing together not only avowed anarchists, but many earlier thinkers, activists, and movements. Various interpreters and historians have characterized Lao Tzu, Aristippus, Zeno, Diogenes, Jesus, and the Anabaptists, for example, as sharing an anarchist orientation. It is also reflected in many literary and cultural works. Perhaps surprisingly, this understanding also expands the scope of contemporary anarchism. While there has been a notable reemergence of self-proclaimed anarchists in recent years, the pejorative connotation of anarchy as “chaos” remains influential. As a consequence, many in the alternative globalization, antiwar, indigenous autonomy, radical environmental, and radical feminist movements share an anarchist orientation, yet eschew the label—often describing themselves as antiauthoritarian instead.

In contrast to the artificial, coercive power of the state and other institutions that they reject, anarchists counterpoise a more natural and informal basis—Kropotkin calls it “mutual aid”—for social harmony and agreement. Although anarchists characterize this alternative vision in diverse ways, its role is vital. As a consequence, while some who are truly anarchists do not identify themselves using with the label, others who do promote the term are not properly understood as anarchists. Philosopher Robert Paul Wolff ’s widely read In Defense of Anarchism offers a prominent example of this. Wolff unequivocally rejects the legitimacy of the state, arguing that it conflicts with individual moral autonomy, which he takes to be “the fundamental assumption of moral philosophy” (Wolff 1970, 12).Yet Wolff makes no actual defense of anarchism; he offers no sense of how a society might be sustained without the state. As a result, he makes no argument for dismantling or overthrowing states or rulers, despite their avowed illegitimacy.

Individual Versus Community?

If, as Emma Goldman has argued, anarchism stands for both “the sovereignty of the individual” and “social harmony,” anarchists both past and present can be differentiated by their relative emphasis on the individual or community. Often this reflects differences in their views of property and capitalist economic organization. At one end of the spectrum, individualist anarchists regard private property as the basis for a noncoercive society. At the other, anarchist communists reject capitalism and private property as a central form of domination in modern society. Other differences exist. While the historical preoccupation of anarchism has been the abolition of state rule, many contemporary anarchists have sought to expand the rejection of “rule” to hierarchies of race, gender, and species.

Anarchism’s Influence And Relevance

The legacy and contemporary relevance of anarchism depends on the viewpoint from which it is assessed. As a comprehensive theory and revolutionary movement, anarchism can be understood literally as utopian—it exists nowhere—and has been unsuccessful in reconstructing any large-scale society in its image. Moreover, such an anarchist theory relies on a dichotomy: On one side is the coercive power of the state and other rejected forms of rule; on the other are social sanctions and other informal sources of power acceptable with a liberated society. Yet theorists from Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill to Michel Foucault have argued that the latter can be at least as domineering as the former. If so, both normative and empirical bases for such a dichotomy become questionable.

By contrast, the influence of an anarchist orientation has been widespread. Bakunin and other nineteenth-century anarchists offered a remarkably prescient critique of the perils of the proletarian state envisioned by Marx. During the twentieth century, anarchists have been a fount of energy and inspiration to labor organizing and the creation of cooperative institutions, to resistance during the Spanish Civil War (1936– 1939), and to education reform movements. In recent decades, as Uri Gordon has argued, an anarchist orientation has been central to many grassroots political movements, opposing domination in a wide variety of forms. It also has promoted an ethos of direct action rather than attempting to influence policy makers and other institutional actors.

Rather than condemning anarchism to the dustbin of history, the inability to truly liberate society has continued to nurture anarchists’ critical and reconstructive vision. In this sense, paraphrasing Kropotkin, there will always be anarchists.


  1. Carter, April. The Political Theory of Anarchism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971. Godwin,William. 1793.
  2. Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.
  3. Goldman, Emma. Anarchism and Other Essays, 3rd rev. ed. New York: Mother Earth, 1917, anarchism.html.
  4. Gordon, Uri. Anarchy Alive! Anti-authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory. London: Pluto, 2008.
  5. Horowitz, Irving Louis, ed. The Anarchists. New York: Dell, 1964.
  6. Kropotkin, Peter. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, edited and with an introduction by Paul Avrich. London: Penguin, 1972.
  7. Marx, Karl. “After the Revolution: Marx Debates Bakunin.” In The MarxEngels Reader, 2nd ed., edited by Robert C.Tucker, 542–548. New York: Norton, 1978.
  8. Miller, David. Anarchism. London: J.M. Dent, 1984. Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph. 1840. What Is Property? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  9. Sheehan, Sean M. Anarchism. London: Reaktion, 2003.
  10. Wolff, Robert Paul. In Defense of Anarchism. New York: Harper Colophon, 1970.
  11. Woodcock, George. Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements. New York:World Publishing, 1962.

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