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On Anarchism

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Anarchism is an ideology that has seen a resurgence in the last few years. But there is a lot more to anarchism than the folk devils of the tabloid press. West Lothian activist Eddie Cornock takes a detailed look at anarchist ideas.

Anarchism is the political belief that society should have no State or other coercive authority, but instead should be a free association of all its members. Alternative names for anarchism include ‘stateless socialism’ or ‘libertarian socialism’.

Be that as it may, in common parlance ‘anarchy’ has negative connotations and is often used as a synonym for chaos, mayhem, disorder, lawlessness, mob rule, a free-for-all and the law of the jungle.  Moreover, ‘anarchists’ are routinely portrayed in the mass media as subversive, irresponsible, nihilistic extremists who are intent on destroying everything that ‘decent society’ holds dear.

A glaring example of existing prejudice against anarchism took place last July when the Metropolitan Police’s "counter terrorist focus desk" called for businesses and members of the public in the Westminster area of London to act as anti-anarchist whistleblowers stating: "Anarchism is a political philosophy which considers the state undesirable, unnecessary, and harmful, and instead promotes a stateless society, or anarchy. Any information relating to anarchists should be reported to your local police."

In this article the following questions regarding anarchism will be addressed:

  • What is anarchism?

  • What is the history of anarchism?

  • What examples have there been of anarchism in action?

  • What are the main criticisms of anarchism from a Leftist perspective?


The word ‘anarchy’ can be split up into a prefix ‘an’ and a subject ‘archy’ both of which are derived from the Greek language. The prefix ‘an’ means ‘without’ (as used, for example, in the word anaerobic’ meaning without the involvement of free oxygen) and ‘archy’ denotes government or a type of rule (as used, for example, in the word ‘monarchy’ meaning government by a single supreme ruler).

Consequently, the term anarchy pertains to a society without formal government, or put more precisely, no state structures to regulate and control the actions of its citizens.  This does not imply, however, that disorder, lawlessness and criminality are inevitable concomitants for any society in which anarchy prevails.

On the contrary, according to anarchist philosophy, it is the very existence of coercive state structures designed to maintain an exploitative system of private-property ownership in current capitalist societies that give rise to social disruption and moral decay.  What anarchists advocate instead is the free, non-hierarchical association of people living together in autonomous communities and cooperating on a voluntary basis to produce goods and services to satisfy needs, not to make profits and provide luxurious life styles for a privileged elite.

Notwithstanding the above, ‘anarchism’ is a generic term that encompasses various schools of thought, each with its own distinct set of ideas.  Examples of ‘anarchism with adjectives’ include:

  • Anarcho-collectivism (aka collectivist anarchism): is a term associated with Mikhail Bakunin who advocated not only  the abolition of the State but also private ownership of the means of production, with the means of production instead being owned collectively and controlled and managed by the producers themselves with no superiors and subordinates.   Collectivist anarchists first used the term ‘collectivism’ to distinguish themselves from the ‘mutualism’ (i.e. the school of thought based on the labour theory of value which holds that when labour or its product is sold, in exchange, it ought to receive goods or services embodying ‘the amount of labour necessary to produce an article of exactly similar and equal utility’) of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and the ‘communism’ advocated by Karl Marx. They regarded Marx’s communism (or ‘state socialism’ as they preferred to call it) as fundamentally authoritarian and, therefore, at odds with socialist principles of equality and freedom.
  • Anarcho-communism (aka anarchist communism) is a theory of anarchism which advocates the abolition of the State, markets, money, private property, and capitalism in favour of common ownership of the means of production,  direct democracy and a horizontal network of voluntary associations and workers' councils with production and consumption based on the guiding principle: "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need". Some forms of anarchist communism such as insurrectionary anarchism are strongly influenced by egoism and radical individualism, believing anarcho-communism is the best social system for the realisation of individual freedom.  Most anarcho-communists view anarcho-communism as a way of reconciling the opposition between the individual and society.
  • Anarcho-individualism (aka individualist anarchism): refers to any of many schools of thought that hold that individual conscience and the pursuit of self-interest should not be constrained by any collective body or public authority and that the imposition of democracy, (i.e. majority decisions holding sway over the decisions of the individual) is invalid. Traditionally adherents of individual anarchism have always held far more positive views towards private property than those who advocate other forms of anarchism.  They have tended to embrace the market economy, though not full-blown capitalism, an exception being so-called ‘anarcho-capitalists’ (better described as ‘libertarian capitalism’) who believe ‘free-market’ capitalism forms the basis for a free and prosperous society.  However, it is highly debatable if anarcho-capitalism can be considered to be a form of anarchism at all since it is difficult to imagine how anarchist principles (e.g. production for needs) can be reconciled with those of capitalism (e.g. production for profits).
  • Anarcho-Syndicalism: is a branch of anarchism that developed in Spain and France and spread elsewhere towards the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. Anarcho-syndicalists believe industrial unions to be a potential force for revolutionary change and seek to replace capitalism and the State by means of paralysing general strikes with a new social and economic order democratically self-managed by workers. Anarcho-Syndicalism can, therefore, be defined as the strategy of advancing the Anarchist project through building a leaderless mass movement of wage-workers using direct action to take control of the workplace away from the bosses.
  • Eco-anarchism (aka green anarchism): is a school of thought within anarchism which focuses on environmental issues. Some eco-anarchists can be described as ‘anarcho-primitivists’ since they have developed a strong critique of modern technology and argue people need to curtail their lifestyles drastically in order to save the planet from environmental disaster. Other eco-anarchists though are ‘techno-positive’ as they advocate the use of advanced green technology to create and maintain an anarchist society and do not see modern civilization and technology as totally devoid of merit.
anarchism can be seen as a radical left-wing political philosophy encompassing many theories and attitudes which are anti-authoritarian, anti-hierarchical, anti-capitalist and anti-State in nature.

To sum up, anarchism can be seen as a radical left-wing political philosophy encompassing many theories and attitudes which are anti-authoritarian, anti-hierarchical, anti-capitalist and anti-State in nature.   However, there is no single defining position that all anarchists adhere to and those different schools of thought that can be described as anarchist at best merely share a family resemblance.

A brief history of anarchism

Anarchist ideas are to be found throughout history even though they were not labelled as such until the 18th century.  For example, in Ancient China, Taoists such as Lao Zi developed a philosophy of ‘non-rule’ that was permeated with anarchistic attitudes. Similarly, in the West, anarchistic tendencies were displayed by philosophers of Ancient Greece, such as Zeno, the founder of the Stoic philosophy, who said that the wise should not give up their liberty to the State. Later movements, such as the Free Spirit in the Middle Ages and the Diggers and the Levellers in mid-17th century England, also expounded egalitarian ideas that can retrospectively be interpreted as anarchist.

It was William Godwin, however, who was the first to formulate the political and social conceptions of anarchism in a systematic way, even though he did not give that name to the ideas developed in his book Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Modern Morals and Manners (2 vols., 1793).   Godwin advocated the abolition of government through a gradual process ‘as public opinion develops in accordance with the dictates of reason’  and was, therefore, not a revolutionary (or a socialist) but rather a ‘philosophical anarchist’.

The first social theorist to describe himself as an anarchist was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.  His opposition to the state, organized religion, and the capitalist wage system inspired many within the French working class and his followers were active in the Revolution of 1848 as well as the Paris Commune of 1871.

Proudhon’s followers, unlike Proudhon himself, did not call themselves anarchists, preferring instead the term ‘mutualists’.  In 1864, shortly before Proudhon’s death, a group of mutualists joined with British trade unionists (i.e. reformist socialists) and European revolutionary socialists exiled in London to found the International Workingmen’s Association (i.e. the First International). Within the International, the mutualists opposed Karl Marx and his revolutionary socialist followers (i.e. ‘communists’ aka ‘Marxists’), who advocated political action and the seizure of the state in order to create a proletarian dictatorship as a precursor for a stateless, communist society. Marx’s most voiceferous opponents, however, were not the mutualists but those revolutionary socialist followers of Mikhail Bakunin who were labelled ‘anarchists’.

Bakunin's anarchism (or more accurately, anarcho-collectivism) was a synthesis of various ideas including socialism, liberty, federalism, anti-theism, and materialism, not dissimilar to Marx’s communism in most respects.  However,  the main bone of contention for anarchists  was that Marxism was an authoritarian ideology which led Bakunin to predict that if the Marxists were ever to seize power, they would create a party dictatorship "all the more dangerous because it appears as a sham expression of the people's will."

In 1872, the conflict in the First International culminated with the expulsion of Bakunin and his followers.  They were outvoted by delegates at the Hague Congress who supported Marx and his strategy for socialists to form proletarian parties and engage in the political arena with a view to securing power.

If those who engineered the expulsion felt they had dealt anarchism a fatal blow they were to be proved woefully wrong. Anarchist ideas evolved further through prominent thinkers like Peter Kropotkin and Leo Tolstoy and took root all over the world towards the end of the 19th century.

An important development in the history of anarchism was the emergence of the doctrine of ‘propaganda of the deed.’ Errico Malatesta, the prominent Italian anarchist, expressed the belief that ‘the insurrectionary deed destined to affirm socialist principles by acts, is the most efficacious means of propaganda.’ However, anarchist activism tended to take the form of acts of terrorism by individual supporters, who would attempt to kill ruling figures to make the state appear vulnerable and to inspire the masses with their self-sacrifice. Several high profile assassinations were carried out including those of King Umberto I of Italy, President Sadi Carnot of France, President McKinley of the USA, and Antonio Canovas del Castillo, the Prime Minister of Spain. Such terrorist acts established the image of the anarchist as a mindless destroyer which has persisted to the present day even though anarchists have long since repudiated such actions.

The judicial murder of eight anarchists in Chicago in 1886 (i.e. the Chicago Martyrs), falsely accused of involvement in a terrorist bombing incident, gave impetus to anarchism's major growth in the United States. It spurred the creation of radical unions throughout the country, the largest of which was the Industrial Workers of the World, founded in 1905.

The fusion of anarchism and trade unionism (i.e. anarcho-syndicalism), however, was most complete and most successful in Spain.  As a result, until the defeat of the Republicans in 1939, the anarchist movement in that country remained the most numerous and the most powerful in the world.

By the time of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), however, anarchism outside Spain had been greatly diminished as a result of the Russian Revolution of 1917.  The prestige of the Russian Revolution led to the rise of new communist parties throughout the world and enabled them to win much of the support formerly given to the anarchist movement.

However, a significant trend has emerged in recent years that has seen a general shift away from membership of political parties towards participation in social movements and single issue campaigns.  A possible explanation for this phenomenon is that parties, on the one hand, have been losing touch with their grassroots membership in a move to centralise power and are so closely managed by the leadership that internal debate is stifled and meaningful participation by the membership has all but been eliminated.

On the other hand, social movements tend to be organised according to anarchist principles inasmuch as they are decentralised organisations based on affinity groups that work together consensually on an ad hoc basis. Anarchist ideas are, therefore, at the heart of the current revolutionary struggles involving eco-warriors, peace campaigners, anti-globalisation activists and anti-capitalist protestors, all of whom are participants in social movements.  

Finally, it should be noted that there is a considerable overlap between contemporary anarchism and socialism not least because both were shaped by the cultural radicalism of the sixties. However, it remains the case, to quote Bakunin,  that: ‘all anarchists are socialists but not all socialists are anarchists’ if anarcho-individualism is taken out of the equation.

Anarchism in action

Anarchism is about the liberation of the masses from political domination and exploitation in capitalist society as a result of their own determined actions. According to anarchist theory, it is only a revolutionary transformation of society from the bottom up by the action of the oppressed themselves that can lead to the maximum development and fulfilment of individuals.

Although a successful anarchist revolution has yet to take place there have been a number of insurrections based on anarchist ideas, each of which though has ended in failure not because of any internal problems in anarchism itself but as a result of overwhelming force being used to defeat them. Two examples of anarchism in action, the Paris Commune and the Spanish Revolution, defeated as they ultimately were, nevertheless, have been an inspiration for anarchists and, in the case of the Spanish Revolution, proof that anarchism is a viable system that can be practised on a large scale successfully.

The Paris Commune was created in 1871 after France was defeated in the Franco-Prussian war. When the French government tried to send in troops to disarm the National Guard (composed largely of workers who fought during the siege of Paris) an insurrection broke out in Paris. Then, on 26th March, municipal elections, organised by the central committee of the National Guard, resulted in victory for the insurgents, who formed the Paris Commune. Among those in the newly-elected Commune were the  neo-Jacobins (i.e. Republicans), who followed in the French Revolutionary tradition, the Proudhonists (i.e. anarcho-mutualists) who supported a federation of communes throughout the country and the Blanquistes, who were revolutionary socialists. The programme that the Commune adopted included measures that harked back to the French Revolution (e.g.  separation of church and state and use of the Revolutionary calendar) and a number of social reforms (e.g. 10-hour workday and end of work at night for bakers).

With the defeat of the communes that had arisen in various other French towns, the Paris Commune was left to stand alone against the French Government. However, the Communards were no match militarily for the French government troops who went on the offensive on 21st May.  During the subsequent ‘bloody week’ that followed, about 20,000 insurrectionists were killed, compared to about 750 government troops. In the aftermath of the Commune, the French government took further punitive action and many thousands of Communards were tried then executed or imprisoned.

However, it can be argued that the Paris Commune was not so much an anarchist (or socialist) uprising but essentially a radical Republican rebellion. Most of those elected to the council of the Commune were neo-Jacobins and the anarcho-mutualists and Blanquists, were in a minority.  The Commune did implement many reforms for the benefit of working people but crucially did not seek to completely overthrow capitalism.

Nevertheless, Bakunin saw the Commune as, above all, a ‘rebellion against the State’ and commended the Communards for rejecting not only the State but also revolutionary dictatorship. Marx, took a somewhat different view of the Commune as he regarded the uprising as a model for the future ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.

When General Franco organised a military revolt in July 1936 against the newly-elected Popular Front government,  the Spanish working class responded by making a revolution that went much further toward realising the classless and stateless ideal of proletarian socialism than any preceding popular insurrection

If there is any doubt about whether the Paris Commune can be considered a proletarian revolt there can be none about the Spanish Revolution. When General Franco organised a military revolt in July 1936 against the newly-elected Popular Front government,  the Spanish working class responded by making a revolution that went much further toward realising the classless and stateless ideal of proletarian socialism than any preceding popular insurrection. Spontaneously, workers seized factories and other workplaces; land was collectivised; workers' militias were formed throughout the country; church property was confiscated; public utilities and transportation were collectivised.

Supporting the workers' revolution were Spain's largest unions, the anarcho-syndicalist National Confederation of Labour (CNT) and its rival, the General Union of Workers (UGT), largely led by the Socialist Party (PSOE), then in a markedly Left phase, as well as such revolutionary groups as the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI), the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unity (POUM), and a small contingent of Trotskyists. The Spanish Communist Party (PCE), however, maintained that Spain was not historically ripe for an anti-capitalist revolution and declared support for the Republican bourgeois state.

After the Nationalists under Franco secured military assistance from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in their struggle against the Republicans, the PCE, which, in the early days of the civil war, had been a small formation, became very quickly the dominant component of the Popular Front government. They gained power as a result of the USSR (their sponsor) sending military officers and political advisers, as well as military aid, to shore up the Republican forces.

Under the direction of the Communists, the collectives were forcibly closed down, and dissidents arrested or executed; particular targets were anarchists and members of POUM. By the time the Nationalists in 1939 secured final victory over the Republicans, the Spanish Revolution had already been defeated.

Criticisms of Anarchism

Anarchism in all its various forms are criticised from an extremely wide range of perspectives. Socialists, classical liberals, conservatives and others have examined anarchist theories and found them wanting.   Below are some criticisms of anarchism commonly put forward by those who stand on the Left of the political spectrum.

Firstly, contrary to what anarchists maintain, those who want a fundamental transformation of society need to have an organisation to coordinate and maximise their efforts, that is to say a political party. It is an anarchist myth that political parties are always undemocratic and authoritarian. Often anarchist movements are much more undemocratic than socialist parties, because they lack the democratic procedures to make majority decisions. Instead you get the 'tyranny of structurelessness' - where the best speakers (or the loudest), those with the most ‘charisma’ are able to manipulate and dominate the movement. When you have formless movements, you don't have accountability, regular elections or a collective overview of whether decisions have been implemented.

Secondly, anarchists are opposed to standing in elections, or supporting any political party. Since they consider bourgeois parliaments to be undemocratic, they refuse to participate in the political arena. Such an attitude is counter-productive and a clear case of cutting off your nose to spite your face. Fighting elections, and getting people elected, is an important way to communicate your ideas to the wider public and expose the capitalist system you want to destroy.

Thirdly, anarchists want to abolish the State, but to do so on the day after the revolution would be foolhardy. Even after the workers have seized power they will still face many enemies, at home and abroad. It would be sensible to maintain the state apparatus in order that it can be used to serve the interests of the working class.  That is not to say that the state should never be abolished but that dismantling the state apparatus should be carried out judiciously and only after power has been consolidated in the hands of the working class.  

Lastly, anarchism can be characterised as utopian since, for example, it is an anarchist tenet that ill intentions will cease if repressive force disappears which is more an expression of hope than a realistic expectation. However, it has to be said that not all anarchists hold the utopian view that conflict can be eliminated if the State or other coercive authorities are made to disappear. Many anarchists view anarchy as a continuing goal that in fact cannot be reached, but should be continuously worked toward. For example, Rudolf Rocker, an anarchist writer and activist,  once said, ‘I am an anarchist not because I believe anarchism is the final goal, but because there is no such thing as a final goal.


Contemporary Anarchism has many facets. It is not so much a single ideology or movement but a series of linked ideologies and movements.  The common feature for the various forms of anarchism is the belief that society should be a free, non-hierarchical association of all its members that rejects coercion and domination in all forms including the State. To that extent, there is, to say the least, considerable overlap between anarchism and libertarian socialism.

Be that as it may, anarchism is a much misrepresented and maligned political philosophy.  The mass media routinely use the term ‘anarchy’ as a synonym for ‘chaos’ and portray mindless acts of vandalism by disaffected youths as anarchism in action.  Such misrepresentation undoubtedly has contributed to the public’s negative perception of anarchism.

Nonetheless, since around the turn of the 21st century, anarchism has experienced a resurgence in popularity and has strongly influenced the anti-war, anti-globalisation and anti-capitalist movements in terms of how they are organised and their political outlook.  The fact that presently, anarchism is inspiring and attracting young activists in particular, while revolutionary socialism is not, or at least, not in the same numbers must give socialists pause for thought.