Free thinkers working to create a free society

October 12, 2001

Anarchistic ideas date back to the ancient world: dissident writers from ancient Greece, Rome, China and India condemned authority and demanded a form of anarchy - a society without a ruler. Their views were echoed and elaborated on by certain Christian sects in the later Middle Ages and developed from the 16th century onwards under the guise of the Reformation and the spreading of humanist ideas. They can be seen in utopias such as Rabelais's Abbey of Thelema as well as in the writing of Diderot and William Godwin.

But it was not until the mid-19th century, in the context of mainly European and North American revolutionary movements, that a specific ideology emerged that embraced both individuals and organisations.

The French writer Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was the first person to describe himself as an anarchist and to call his doctrine anarchy. In What Is Property?, published in Paris in 1840, he wrote: "I am an anarchistI (This is) my serious and well-considered profession of faith." He saw anarchism - "the absence of a master, of a sovereign" - as the logical extension of man's quest for equality and justice.

In France, the term "libertarian" quickly became synonymous with anarchism. It first appeared in 1857 in an open letter from Ernest Dejacque to Proudhon, in which he attacked the veteran anarchist for his sexist views. It was later used as the title of a magazine that Dejacque produced from 1858 to 1861 and in which he expounded "true anarchy" and "radical anarchy" through "absolute liberty". By the end of the 19th century in some countries, the term "libertarian" had replaced the term "anarchist".

Several of Proudhon's contemporaries in France, Germany, England and America developed similar ideas. They shared a political vision of a society without rulers, but they differed on how this should be organised economically. Some stressed individual autonomy in every field, and their views were seen as radical alternatives to liberalism. Many more envisaged a form of socialism based on organising the rural and the urban working class.

All worked for some kind of social and political revolution. Some expected to achieve this by changing the "economic status quo", others through its violent destruction. The goal was a free and equal society in which the government of men was replaced by the administration of things, with the state deliberately abolished rather than just allowed to wither away. This meant rejecting not only some form of party dictatorship but also parliamentary democracy.

Not only do all anarchists start from the notion that power invariably corrupts, they all understand that education is essential in a society that wants to become and remain free. In this sense, individualism was always a key component of almost all forms of anarchism, which concentrated as much on society's emancipation from the state as on the individual's from society. Early anarchists were predominantly collectivist, aspiring to the common ownership of the instruments of labour but with the fruits of that labour being shared on an individual basis. At the same time, there were always strong tendencies towards mutualism, which favoured small individual or cooperative enterprises over large collective industry and agriculture, and a devolved system of distribution over the revolutionary abolition of authority and property.

From the late 1870s, anarchist communism became the main current of anarchism. It called for the common ownership and administration of the economy, on the principle of "from each according to his ability to each according to his need". It also tried to extend anarchist ideas and actions beyond the struggle for the emancipation of the working class to the liberation of society as a whole.

Most anarchists at this time tended towards communalism, living in small independent collectives or communities apart from society. This developed into council communism, a form of social organisation in which all the units of society would be administered by egalitarian and libertarian councils. All the different schools of anarchism assumed that every unit of society would be linked according to federalist principles without hierarchy or bureaucracy; if there had to be delegation, discussion would be conducted by non-permanent representatives, and decisions would be made based on general consensus rather than by legal imposition following majority vote.

Towards the end of the 19th century, anarcho-syndicalism emerged, first in France. This was a return to the socialist roots of anarchism and a consequence of the growth of libertarian tendencies in the syndicalist movement. It focused more on working life, giving priority to struggle in the workplace, direct action workers' unions and a society based on the reorganisation of labour.

At about the same time, a number of Spanish and American anarchists proposed what has been called "anarchism without labels". By focusing on shared political goals, they aimed to bring together all the different ideas on the economic organisation of society presented by libertarian thought.

Anarchists have, in theory, always accorded particular importance to the relationship between ends and means. Unlike their authoritarian and Marxist opponents, they did not believe that an end could justify the means. A free and tolerant society could be created only through tolerance and liberty.

Generally, anarchists spread their ideas through the organisation of groups and the production of written and spoken propaganda. But in some conditions, some anarchists used what they called propaganda by deed, perpetrating the kind of actions used at some stage by most "democratic" movements, including insurrection, suicide and even assassination to dramatise their message and to teach the basic rule of a free and equal society - not to accept oppression. But on principle, most anarchists refused any form of violence, and anarchists "dominated" the peace movements.

Also, while most of those who called themselves anarchists were anti-religious - religion being regarded as one of the pillars of authoritarian societies ("No God no Master!") - there were a number of religious anarchists, including the Tolstoyans and the Catholic Workers' Movement.

Historically, anarchism seems to have appealed mostly to artisans and skilled workers, as well as to some intellectuals, writers and artists, and not to peasants, "lumpen proletariat" or "primitive rebels". Anarchists tended to be people with a highly developed consciousness and sense of independence who favoured very sophisticated organisational models for society rather than their easier, more inhumane authoritarian equivalents.

The original anarchist movement - the late 19th-century libertarian working-class variety of socialism - was strongest in the Latin countries of southwestern Europe. Although it soon spread to other regions of Europe and the world, it was almost always considerably smaller than rival revolutionary or parliamentary socialist movements.

In a few places, however, it played a key role in the history of the left, especially in France, Italy and Spain in the decades before the first world war, in the US in the 1880s, in Japan at the start of the 20th century, in China before and during the early stages of the revolution, in several Latin American countries from the end of the 19th century and between the world wars, and in Mexico and Russia during their revolutions.

Militant anarchism reached its climax in the Spanish civil war of 1936-39, when large parts of agriculture and industry in northeast Spain were controlled by anarcho-syndicalist collectives. But like most anarchist successes, it was crushed by overt enemies on the right and covert enemies on the left.

Heiner M. Becker is a researcher at the International Institute of Social History in the Netherlands.

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