An Introduction to Anarchism


The following is Sheffield Autonomous Students’ first independent production: a short introduction to anarchism intended to provide those interested with a basic understanding of its theory and practice.

It covers 6 broad topics: (i) What is Anarchism? (ii) History, (iii) Capitalism, (iv) Violence and Disorder? (v) Revolution, and (vi) What does Anarchism have to Offer Humanity?

(i) What is Anarchism?

The word ‘anarchy’ derives from the Greek words ‘an’ (meaning without) and ‘archy’ (meaning rulers), which makes a state of anarchy one in which rulers do not exist. This is not to say that it is one in which rules do not exist, but rather that a specific minority of people with the right to dictate them to everyone else does not. As such, an anarchist is usually defined as someone that rejects the institutions of government or State as both harmful and unnecessary, and as such as something that should be dismantled. However, some will be dissatisfied with this narrow definition, and assert an alternative one that is more basic, perhaps arguing that the essence of anarchism is closer to a rejection of hierarchy, authority, or domination as illegitimate in all potential manifestations.

Even at its foundation, applying a unitary account of what all anarchists believe in is difficult. Anarchism has been combined with philosophical currents as varied as socialism, communism, syndicalism, capitalism, individualism, pacifism, feminism, queer-rights, animal-rights, environmentalism, post-humanism, and primitivism. There is no single thinker or school of thought that could be an uncontroversial point of common reference, and many strains of anarchism are indeed mutually exclusive. In recognising this potential ambiguity however, some will maintain that it is therein that the beauty of anarchism lies. As a philosophy that is subtle, diverse, and open to constant fluctuation, there may be no ideology that is more appropriate for cultivating the unique potential of every individual. There are as many anarchisms as there are anarchists, and in discovering what anarchism means for oneself can lie the meaning of true freedom.

(ii) History

Some anthropologists argue that, during the vast period in which humans existed predominantly in hunter-gatherer communities that preceded the existence of the State, humanity had been engaged in a quasi-anarchistic mode of living. Looking to a more distinct early expression of anarchist praxis, many cite the tradition of Taoism that emerged from China in the 4th century BC, and advocated a lawless but compassionate society that rejected the influence of the State and the codification of law. Some aspects of Ancient Greek thought are also argued to be anarchist, with writers referring to Zeno of Elea and Diogenes of Sinope as potential examples, whilst early Christianity, the Diggers of the English Civil War, and certain rogue British colonies in the Americas during the colonial age are posited as subsequent ones.

Most would agree that it was the writings of William Godwin (1756-1836) that provided the first unified account of anarchist political, economic, and social theory, whilst the first properly self-defined ‘anarchist’ was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865). Since then, anarchism has developed up until today through a succession of generational thinkers, some influential examples of whom have been Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876), Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921), Errico Malatesta (1853-1932), Emma Goldman (1869-1940), Murray Bookchin (1921-2006) and Noam Chomsky (1928-present), each of whom, amongst many others, have added their own personal slants and historical contexts to what has ultimately become a rich and diverse philosophy.

The first of the two most obvious cases of wide-scale anarchist revolution is the Free Territory of Ukraine 1918-1921, which emerged during the Russian Civil War when local communities fought for their autonomy from the Russian and Ukrainian ‘White’ nationalists and ‘Red’ Bolsheviks. The second is anarchist Catalonia 1936-39, which arose during the Spanish Civil War after citizens united to repel the fascist general Franco’s initial attempt to take control of the country. Both of these examples saw widespread attempts to achieve a meaningful social revolution, but met tragic fates when suppressed by reactionary forces from both sides of the political spectrum. Other than that, anarchism continues to influence contemporary events, showing its face in more recent instances such as the counterculture of the 1960s, radical environmentalism, and the Occupy movement.

(iii) Capitalism

Most historical and contemporary anarchists describe themselves as anti-capitalists, which will be unsurprising if one regards the nature of capitalism to be inherently exploitative. Anarcho-communists (often also known as libertarian-socialists) argue that the riches that humanity has achieved are predominantly the consequence of a collective effort that has been illegitimately stolen in the form of private property by an undeserving few. As such, they advocate the common ownership of property – including the means of production – and moreover assert that our economy should be based on the principles of workers control, voluntary association, and mutual aid, and must be directed towards achieving the equal wellbeing of all social participants. However, this is not to say that one could not be entitled to personal possessions, examples of which might be one’s home, clothing, or bicycle, meaning that the distinction to be understood is between possessing what you need to survive and flourish as justifiable, and denying what others need to do the same as unjustifiable.

Most anarchist approaches to economics share much in common with classical Marxism, both of which advocate a stateless, classless, and moneyless society – otherwise known as full-communism – as the ultimate goal of a successful revolution. However, the key difference between them concerns whether the State should be regarded as a plausible means of achieving this end, with most Marxists arguing that it can and should, and anarchists arguing that it cannot. As such, anarchism offers an alternative to those that are interested in opposing capitalism in a meaningful way, but have been dissuaded by examples of State-socialist systems that have not offered a picture of society that they find appealing, which proves that one’s political choices need not be constrained by a false dichotomy between capitalism and authoritarian Communism.

(iv) Violence and Disorder? 

For those that have had their understandings of anarchism dictated to them by politicians or the mainstream media, it is likely that the word will conjure images something in the direction of masked insurrectionists intent on fighting police and smashing windows. In short, anarchism will be regarded as synonymous with violence and disorder. On the contrary however, every open minded individual – be they anarchists or not – must recognise that an endorsement of violence and disorder is in no way an inherent property of anarchist thought.

Regarding the question of disorder, there are perhaps no serious anarchists that strive for a society that is disordered and chaotic. This has been one of the most damaging and also the most ignorant myths surrounding anarchism. What is central to anarchist thought is not that we should have a society that is not organised, but rather that we should have a society that is not organised hierarchically. As Proudhon famously claimed – “Anarchy is order!” – because it is the current system that is genuinely chaotic, and only a Stateless society free from domination could ever be sustainably ordered.

Regarding the question of violence, many have and do regard this as an appropriate means of achieving change, and offer arguments worth listening to for their stance. However, this is certainly not to say that one must believe in violence to be an anarchist. On the contrary, some may choose to point the finger of inherent violence at the State, which maintains a monopoly on coercive force, and has produced a history of perpetual warfare and social disharmony that has ultimately culminated in the most destructive human invention yet created. It seems that a belief in pacifism is not a consistent option for the genuine statist, but this is definitely not the case for anarchists. Indeed, many anarchists have gone as far as arguing that anarchist principles are incompatible with anything short of absolute pacifism, and looked towards figures such as Jesus Christ, Mahatmas Ghandi, and Leo Tolstoy for guidance and inspiration.

(v) Revolution 

The advocated transition from the current authoritarian system to anarchism will almost certainly involve some kind of a revolution. Most regard its objective to be the creation of a society absent from any governmental or subsequent hierarchical structures. Those institutions that are deemed worth maintaining or replacing, such as places of learning, hospitals, orphanages, youth centres, and retirement homes – along with a wide range of others that would cater for the most basic and the most ambitious forms of human endeavour – would be formed on a basis of free and voluntary association. These will begin with the individual, and move their way towards achieving a communal, regional, national, and international level of federated horizontal organisation. These will stand in contrast to those institutions that are not regarded as necessary – or at least as social blemishes that we should aspire to one day overcome – examples of which might be bosses, banks, borders, armies, prisons, police, politicians, and armies.

However, exactly how we should best go about getting rid of the old structures and replacing them with the new is something that many anarchists are split over. Some of the on-going debate regards whether or not current structures can be reformed, or whether they must be totally abstained from and abolished, or whether the revolution will be achieved in a short space of time, or if it should be the product of a gradual progress, and – as was mentioned earlier – whether violence would be a permissible or obligatory aspect of it, or if it must always be refrained from even in self-defence. These are uncompromising questions that few would advise answering in a hurry.

One thing that all anarchists will agree on however, is that regardless of what outcomes the revolution will have, that it must be our revolution, and that its terms must be dictated by ordinary people. As Errico Malatesta puts it; “We anarchists do not want to emancipate the people, we want the people to emancipate themselves.” Meaningful change is not something that will occur if we do nothing to bring it about, and it is not something that can be voted for, it is a process that by its nature requires action, and not mere requests.

(vi) What Does Anarchism Have to Offer Humanity?

Economic instability, perpetual warfare, and environmental catastrophe are just some of the profound troubles that our species has been enduring for millennia, and that we are running out of time to address. In short: anarchism offers a fundamentally different approach to the way that we understand ourselves, each other, and the world that we live in. This is one in which poverty, war, crime, discrimination, and domination are not recognised as inherent aspects of the human condition, but instead symptoms of a sick society that we have the potential to cure.

Anarchists are radical through and through, as they argue that these problems can only be overcome when addressed at their roots. For most, this involves an analysis of the deep-seated hierarchical relationships that we have come to accept as ordinary, but that many strive to eliminate as a regrettable fact of history. Despite this radical stance however, few would be happy being labelled as extremists, as anarchists merely take commonplace notions that most people would agree with such as liberty, democracy, equality, and social justice, and argue that they could only ever be accurately realised within the parameters of an anarchist society.

What anarchism represents is a bold and uncompromising analysis of the most glaring problems that we as a species face today, and provides concrete solutions to overcoming them in an attempt to achieve a better world for all involved. Some will be put off by the undoubtedly ambitious nature of anarchist thought, but others will be dissatisfied with anything less, arguing that we have the potential – and fundamental need – to continually strive to overcome and improve our current situations, and that anything less than an embracement of this drive would be to deny an inextricable component of our common humanity: namely, the one that makes life worth living.

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