History 104: Western Civilization since 1648
Lecture: Socialist and Romantic Response

Anarchism Click here for audio

Anarchy symbolMost people consider anarchy to mean "total chaos". But that is not its original definition, and it is a precise political theory.

Webster's defines it as "a political theory opposed to all forms of government and governmental restraint and advocating voluntary cooperation and free association of individuals and groups in order to satisfy their needs." Thus anarchy is voluntary government.

The origin of anarchy was apparently something called "Libertarian Socialism", advocated by radicals in Mexico during the 18th century. In Europe, the first study of it was done in 1793 by William Godwin, husband of Mary Wollstonecraft. But Pierre Proudhon is often given credit for inventing anarchism, because he added to the definition the abolition of property rights.
bookWorkbook document: Pierre Proudhon's What is Property? (1840)

One way to help understand Proudhon is to look at his assertion that "property is theft". Try reversing the equation:

no property = no theft

If no one owns anything privately, than nothing can be stolen from an individual. If all is shared, there can be no stealing, because everything belongs to everyone. Paris commune

In 1870, this theory was attempted in practice in Paris, with the Paris Commune. At the end of the Franco-Prussian War, which you'll learn about later, the National Guard in Paris refused to admit defeat. When the government tried to disarm them, they revolted and became the support for the Third Republic, which called for city elections and became the Paris Commune, full of radicals voted in by working people. They voted in elementary education for all, education for women, day nurseries to help working women. But they were constantly attacked by the French army, against which women and children put up barricades in the street. Every time a barricade fell, defenders were put against the wall and shot. As many as 30,000 Parisians were killed before the government of Napoleon III regained authority (this is more people than died in the Terror or the Franco-Prussian War).

After the Commune, anarchism became more associated with violent resistance against violent oppression. Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin took 15 pages to define anarchism in the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1910. Here he discussed briefly whether the state is really needed as a form of social control:

Web document: Kropotkin: Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Ideal (1896)

Kropotikin noted that in an anarchist society, harmony is achieved "not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of the needs and aspirations of a civilized being. . ."

Imagine a world where everyone has what s/he needs, not just in terms of material goods like food and shelter, but in terms of job satisfaction and self-fulfillment. Where individuals can achieve this because the only authorities they answer to are those they join voluntarily, and from which they are excluded if they can't agree. To anarchists, this is the ultimate in human liberty, not a beourgois constitutionalist government under laws made by and for the middle class.

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