A history of anarchism and where it fits in our society today.

Political Taboo – Anarchism

Anarchism might mean different things to many people, but I am quite comfortable in saying that people often grossly misunderstand its actually meaning.

Anarchism is a genuine political system and has been in practice around the globe for many centuries. Ultimately, Anarchism is a political philosophy that advocates completely decentralised stateless societies. It draws on many schools of thought and can support anything from extreme individualism to complete collectivism.

Realistically, Anarchism forms a particular part of the radical left wing ideology. As Noam Chomsky put it himself in For Reasons of State, “The consistent anarchist, then, should be a socialist, but a socialist of a particular sort. He will not only oppose alienated and specialised labour and look forward to the appropriation of capital by the whole body of workers, but he will also insist that this appropriation be direct, not exercised by some elite force acting in the name of the proletariat.”

Simply, this means that Anarchists differ from Communists and Socialists in one big way. Socialists seek to use a Capitalist model in which to put in place certain left wing ideals: nationalisation, collective bargaining, workers rights etc. However Communists, especially of the Marxist traditions, seek to encourage a revolution to remove the aristocracy and counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie from power. Communists will then replace the upper classes with their own revolutionary class and then eventually impose “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”. Anarchists by either revolutionary or gradualist means seek to remove the state and hierarchy so they can introduce direct participatory democracy.

Any of these three methods should ideally reach the same goal: Absolute Democracy. However, Anarchism is the only method which has been seen to be consistent in its results. This is not to say that Socialism and Communism are necessarily wrong or fruitless but, as I will demonstrate, they often reach unwanted conclusions.

Anarchism comes from “anarchy-ism” which means “no rulers-ism”. Libertarianism and Anarchism are often thought of as the same but Libertarianism is more often used to refer to free-market philosophies especially in the USA.

It is generally thought that Anarchism was a natural way of governance in many early societies until a time that hierarchy developed. Lao Tzu and Ancient Greek philosophy are both seen as philosophical developments of Anarchism in early times. Zeno’s vision of a stateless society directly opposes Plato’s Republic. Zeno believed that if people follow their instincts, they will have no need of law courts or police, no temples and no public worship, and use no money.

The 16th century European Anabaptists are sometimes considered to be the religious starting point of modern anarchism. Gerrard Winstanley was a prominent Digger during the English Civil War, and a Christian Anarchist. Winstanley published a pamphlet calling for communal ownership and social and economic organisation in small agrarian communities.

In France, various anarchist groups were present during the Revolutionary period. Denouncing the Jacobin dictatorship, Jean Varlet believed that “government and revolution are incompatible, unless the people wishes to set its constituted authorities in permanent insurrection against itself.” In his Manifesto of the Equals Sylvain Maréchal looked forward to the disappearance, once and for all, of “the revolting distinction between rich and poor, of great and small, of masters and valets, of governors and governed.”

In 1870, Mikhail Bakunin led a failed uprising in Lyon on the principles later exemplified by the Paris Commune, calling for a general uprising in response to the collapse of the French government during the Franco-Prussian War. The Paris Commune was a government that briefly ruled Paris in early 1871. The Commune was the result of an uprising in Paris after France was defeated in the Franco-Prussian War and Anarchists participated actively in the establishment of the Paris Commune. Following the 1871 Paris Commune, the anarchist movement, as the whole of the workers’ movement, was damaged and deeply affected for years.

Henry David Thoreau was an important early influence in individualist anarchist thought in the United States and Europe. Thoreau was an American author, poet and leading transcendentalist. He is best known for his books Walden and his essay, Civil Disobedience, an argument for individual resistance to civil government in moral opposition to an unjust state. An important concern for American individualist anarchism was free love. Free love particularly stressed women’s rights since most sexual laws discriminated against women: for example, marriage laws and anti-birth control measures.

In Spain, the national anarcho-syndicalist trade union Confederación Nacional del Trabajo initially refused to join a popular front electoral alliance, and abstention by CNT supporters led to a right wing election victory. But in 1936, the CNT changed its policy and anarchist votes helped bring the popular front back to power. Months later, the former ruling class responded with an attempted coup causing the Spanish Civil War. In response to the army rebellion, an anarchist-inspired movement of peasants and workers, supported by armed militias, took control of Barcelona and of large areas of rural Spain where they collectivised the land. The anarchists eventually lost ground in a bitter struggle with the Stalinists, who controlled the distribution of military aid to the Republican cause from the Soviet Union. Much of Spain’s economy was put under worker control; in anarchist strongholds like Catalonia, the figure was as high as 75%, but lower in areas with heavy Communist Party of Spain influence, as the Soviet-allied party actively resisted attempts at collectivisation enactment. Factories were run through worker committees, agrarian areas became collectivised and run as libertarian communes. Spanish Communist Party-led troops suppressed the collectives and persecuted both dissident Marxists and anarchists.

The Zapatista Movement is a modern example of anarchism still currently in motion. The Zapatista (EZLN) went public on January 1, 1994, the day when the North American Free Trade Agreement came into effect. On that day, they issued their First Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle and their Revolutionary Laws. The declaration amounted to a declaration of war on the Mexican government, which they considered so out of touch with the will of the people as to make it illegitimate. The EZLN stressed that it opted for armed struggle due to the lack of results achieved through peaceful means of protest. Their initial goal was to instigate a revolution throughout Mexico, but as this did not happen, they used their uprising as a platform to call the world’s attention to their movement to protest the signing of NAFTA, which the EZLN believed would increase the gap between rich and poor people in Chiapas—a prediction that has been vindicated by subsequent developments. The EZLN also called for greater democratisation of the Mexican government, which had been controlled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) for 65 years, and for land reform mandated by the 1917 Constitution of Mexico but largely ignored by the PRI. The EZLN did not demand independence from Mexico, but rather autonomy, and, among other things, that the natural resources extracted from Chiapas benefit more directly the people of Chiapas.

This is just a brief history of Anarchism from the early times but we essentially see that from age to age the one thing that has prevented the Anarchists ever achieving their aims was larger powers that believed in the state.

The Spanish Civil War has been seen to be one of the most successful examples of Anarchism at work. The only thing that truly defeated the movement was the state-obsessed Communists but it is only in hindsight that we realise that state concerned Communism, which is essentially an economically collectivised dictatorship, is the opposite of Anarchism. As Chomsky puts it, Socialism is locked in a battle between Conservative and Libertarian with the latter being in favour of a stateless society.

As someone who does not believe in war or revolution I do not believe that this sort of society should come about through revolutionary means but as part of a reformation made for and conducted by the people themselves. Any state concerned ideologies will lie opposed to this but it is not the concern of people to dogmatically overturn the opinions of others. Instead, people should engage in debate with one another and reach a consensus by focusing on the points of agreement. That is Anarchism: finding what works.

Sadly, general Socialism has often left itself too open to be repelled by Capitalist and Neo-Liberal powers while Communist societies have either gone in the direction of dictatorships or Capitalist powers. Anarchism has most often stayed as Anarchism.

To prevent the battle between Libertarian and Conservative socialists becoming bloody consensus is indeed the panacea. Firstly, we must perfect ourselves and then the subsequent and resultant change we desire or, more correctly, require will then follow. If it is indeed that it is the state that is unnecessary then it will fall away or if it something else then it will fall away.

When the human being has perfected themselves through becoming more compassionate, more cooperative and less concerned with accumulating wealth and material goods then political and social change will naturally follow. All excess will became obsolete.

That is the revolution.

Image: © A Syn (24293932@N00, flickr).

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Noah Brown

Name: Noah Surname: Brown City: Tweedsmuir Education: MA (Hons) Celtic at the University of Edinburgh Career Aspirations: Anything which challenges me How: Follow your nose and your heart Date of birth: 04.02.96 Email: noah.brown@young-perspective.net

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  1. Noah, I found this a really interesting article. I particularly like it when you say the revolution is not about violent overthrow of government, but more a change of attitudes, beliefs and values in society. It also made me think about anarchism in a whole new way! Completely different to how it is portrayed in modern day society. There again, I suspect we have gone to the other end of the scale in the UK – with Neo-Liberal, Conservative inspired ideologies about society. Your article has also reminded me that the most simplest things in life seem to be the hardest to achieve (i.e. peace, fairness, equality, mutual appreciation of others etc).

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