Anarchism as defined by Grolier's Electronic Encyclopedia

Anarchism is an ideology that regards abolition of government as the necessary precondition for a free and just society. The term itself comes from the Greek words meaning "without a ruler." Anarchism rejects all forms of hierarchical authority, social and economic as well as political. What distinguishes it from other ideologies, however, is the central importance it attaches to the state. To anarchists, the state is a wholly artificial and illegitimate institution, the bastion of privilege and exploitation in the modern world.

Anarchist Thought

Although the roots of anarchist thought can be traced at least as far back as the 18th-century English writer William GODWIN, anarchism as a revolutionary movement arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its immediate objective was annihilation of the state and of all authority imposed "from above downward." Once liberated from political oppression, society would spontaneously rebuild itself "from below upward." A multitude of grass-roots organizations would spring up to produce and distribute economic goods and to satisfy other social needs. Where necessary, these primary associations would form regional and even nation-wide federations. The state, with its impersonal laws and coercive bureaucracies, would be supplanted by a dense web of self-governing associations and free federations.

Like other radical ideologies of its time, anarchism intended to complete the "unfinished business" of the French Revolution. It placed special emphasis on the third of the values expressed in the rallying cry "liberty, equality, and fraternity." Anarchists had an enduring faith in the natural solidarity and social harmony of human beings. They believed that the creation of the future society should be entrusted to the free play of popular instincts, and any attempt by anarchists themselves to offer more than technical assistance would impose a new form of authority. They tended to concentrate, therefore, on the task of demolishing the existing state order rather than on social blueprints of the future.

While battling the established order, anarchists also battled the alternatives proposed by liberalism and socialism. Like Marxism, anarchism was anticapitalist and scorned liberalism's dedication to political liberty on the grounds that only the propertied classes could afford to enjoy it. They rejected with equal vehemence, however, the Marxist "dictatorship of the proletariat," the idea of capturing and using the capitalist state to achieve a classless society. Political institutions were seen as inherently corrupting, and even the most selfless revolutionaries would inevitably succumb to the joys of power and privilege. Instead of the state "withering away," as the Marxists anticipated, it would simply perpetuate a new bureaucratic elite. This disagreement led to a bitter conflict between Marx and the Russian anarchist Michael BAKUNIN in the early 1870s, after which Marxism and anarchism went their separate ways. Anarchism in Practice

Anarchism attracted a following mainly in the countries of eastern and southern Europe, where the state's repressiveness was especially pronounced and communal traditions remained strong. There were some exceptions: the ideas of the French anarchist Pierre-Joseph PROUDHON left a permanent mark on the French industrial labor movement, and Bakunin's views found adherents among the watchmakers of Switzerland's Jura region. Anarchism had its greatest impact in Russia, where numerous anarchist groups participated in the revolutionary movement both before and during 1917. The two outstanding anarchist theorists also were Russians: Bakunin, whose advocacy of popular revolution had considerable influence, and Prince Peter KROPOTKIN, whose writing spelled out some of the constructive sides of the anarchist social vision. Spain and Italy also had vigorous anarchist movements. In only two instances did anarchists have a real opportunity to put their social ideals into practice. During the Russian civil war of 1917-21, (see RUSSIAN REVOLUTIONS OF 1917), the peasant partisan movement led by Nestor Makhno in the Ukraine tried to implement anarchist principles, and in the SPANISH CIVIL WAR of 1936-39 anarchism was a significant force in the regions of Catalonia and Andalusia. The results of these experiments were limited and inconclusive. In the United States, anarchism's influence was confined largely to some of the European immigrant communities, but it did produce a striking representative of American radicalism in the person of Emma GOLDMAN.

Because anarchism regarded doctrinal and organizational discipline as contradictions of its principles, it gave rise to a wide variety of interpretations. Anarchist-communists shared many of the collectivist principles of socialism but sought to realize them in autonomous local communities. Anarcho-SYNDICALISM was an adaptation of anarchist ideas to modern industrial conditions. It advocated the running of factories by the workers themselves rather than by owners or managers, with trade unions (in French, syndicats) forming the building blocks of a regenerated society. The novelist Leo Tolstoi formulated a kind of Christian anarchism that rejected the state on religious grounds, and there were anarchist-individualists who proclaimed the sovereignty of the individual personality.

Contrary to widespread belief, terrorism was never an integral part of anarchist theory or practice. Some anarchists, however, did engage in what they called "propaganda by the deed," acts of terror and assassination against state officials and property owners.

Except in Spain, anarchism as an organized movement virtually ceased to exist after the Russian Revolutions. Anarchist ideas, however, have had a longer life. In the 1960s and 1970s, currents of the New left rediscovered anarchist theory, particularly the writings of Kropotkin, and drew from it inspiration for some of their communitarian and antibureaucratic impulses. They also found new merit in the anarchist critique of Marxian socialism. At least some elements of the outlook proved to have a surprising vitality and contemporary relevance.

Marshall S. Shatz

* Bibliography: Avrich, Paul, Anarchist Portraits (1988) and The Russian Anarchists (1967; repr. 1980); Guillet de Monthoux, Pierre, Action and Existence (1983); Joll, James, the Anarchists (1964); Shatz, Marshall S., ed., The Essential Works of Anarchism (1971); Woodcock, George, Anarchism (1962).


Copyright 1995 by Grolier Electronic Publishing, Inc.

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