Historical Term: Anarchism

“Anarchism (deriv. Gk. anarchia, non-rule) Doctrine advocating the abolition of all organized authority, since, in the words of Josiah Warren, ‘every man should be his own government, his own law, his own church.’ The first systematic exposition of anarchy was William Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793–which claimed that since men, when given free choice, are rational, sociable, and cooperative, they will form voluntary groups and live in social harmony without state control of the institution of property). Such a situation would be achieved not by revolution but by rational discussion, Pierre Joseph Proudhon (1809-65),  a French economist, elevated anarchism to the status of a mass movement in Qu’est-ce la propriete? (What Is Property?), published in 1840. In it he concluded that property is theft and that ‘governments are the scourge of God.’ He urged the establishment of non-profit making cooperative credit banks to provide interest-free capital. He disapproved of violence and of organized groups, including trade unions. These ideas were combined with a revolutionary philosophy by communistic anarchists, including the Russians Michael Bakunin (1814-76) and Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921), who favored ‘direct action’ by the workers to topple the state by all possible means, including assassination. In 1868 anarchists joined the First International, which was later split following conflicts between Marxists and the followers of Bakunin. Anarchists were later responsible for the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, King Humbert of Italy, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, President McKinley of America and President Carnot of France.

Anarchism differs from communism in its opposition to the state and its refusal to form political parties. Not all anarchists advocated violence. Philosophical anarchists such as the American Henry Thoreau (1817-62) were primarily individualists believing in a return to nature, nonpayment of taxes and passive resistance to state control. Leo Tolstoy (1828-1916) professed a Christian anarchism, believing the state to be inconsistent with Christianity and holding that refusal to pay taxes, render military service or recognize the courts would topple the established order. Such ideas influence Gandhi. In Spain the anarchists actually participated in government (1936-7) but the conflict between anarchists and communists within the Spanish Republican ranks during the Civil War, together with the mounting prestige of Soviet Communism between 1941 and 1948 led to a decline in the international influence of anarchism. But in the 1960s anarchist sentiment revived in the student movement’s revulsion at capitalism, coinciding with disillusionment at Soviet foreign policy. In recent anarchist movements such as the Baader-Meinhof group and Italian Red Brigades, terrorism is prevalent.”

Excerpted from: Cook, Chris. Dictionary of Historical Terms. New York: Gramercy, 1998.

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