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Anarchism is a theory and way of life rooted in the belief that the individual should be free to pursue his or her own interests without coercion, especially by the state and its laws and institutions. The term is derived from the ancient Greek word anarkhia, meaning “no ruler,” and originally was used to denote a disruption of the normal civic order that often implied a condition of civil war. As with democracy and democrat, the words anarchy and anarchist were typically used as terms of abuse until the nineteenth century, when with the rise of commercial society and the decline of feudalism the idea of self-rule by “the people” became increasingly accepted.
The political theory of anarchism properly begins only with William Godwin (1756–1836) and PierreJoseph Proudhon (1809–1865), though important elements of anarchist thought can be found in the ancient Greeks, among them Aristippus of Cyrene (c. 435–c. 360
BCE) and the founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium (c. 334–262 BCE). Strains of anarchist thought can also be found in the medieval era, in the Anabaptists of the Reformation, and in the Diggers of the English Revolution of the mid-seventeenth century. However, Godwin is the first exponent of the philosophic doctrine of anarchism, though he does not use the term anarchist to describe himself; it is Proudhon who first calls himself an anarchist. In Proudhon’s What Is Property? (1840) he lays out a vision of socialism in which the individual is liberated from the shackles of capitalist property relations, and is instead free to reap the benefits of his labor under a form of communal production. Anarchism became increasingly relevant to the political world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, first through the writings of Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876), who opposed the overly centralized socialism of Karl Marx (1818–1883), and later through Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921) and Emma Goldman (1869–1940).
Anarchist thought is extremely diverse, but is generally characterized by opposition to the state, capitalism, and religion. Rather than seeing the legal apparatus of the state as a means of protecting individual freedom, anarchists contend that the state and its laws merely represent the self-serving interests of powerful groups in society. In this view, law is a means of oppressing the vast majority of the people, and the best way to eliminate this oppression is to do away with the institutions that create and reinforce it—especially the state and private property. Private property is a particular concern for anarchists, in that it corrupts the democratic process by controlling the inputs and outputs to the political system, and also because it directs people to think merely about their own self-interest rather than about how to cooperate with their fellow citizens. Because private property uses the state to benefit the members of the ruling class or elite, anarchists are not in favor of representative democracy as it is currently practiced.
Anarchists promote their goals by multiple means, including sometimes violent revolution, but also through democratic evolution and the creation of independent communal societies that function outside the domain of the state. In the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists (linked industrial workercouncils) formed an important element in the opposition to Francisco Franco’s fascist coup, and shared governmental authority with a socialist coalition, particularly in Barcelona. This experiment, though short-lived, provided an example of anarchist “government” in practice, and was characterized by the liquidation of the landed estates and the parceling of the land into agricultural cooperatives, the establishment of a federation of worker-controlled factories, and the elimination of the social indications of class status that had marked Bourbon Spain. Although defeated in the war, Spanish anarchism continues to be a model for other nations, because it is here that one of the largest worker-run cooperatives in the world, the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation, has been functioning for more than fifty years.
Among anarchists in the early part of the twenty-first century there are several prominent trends, some of which are substantially in tension with one another. Libertarian anarchists such as Murray Rothbard (1926–1995) defend capitalism, arguing that the protection of private property under capitalism provides the surest foundation for promoting individual liberty. Unlike most libertarians, Rothbard claims that even the most minimal state is an unnecessary evil, but this is almost the only thing that unites him with anarchist-socialists such as the protesters at the World Trade Organization (WTO) and G8 meetings in Seattle in 1999 and Geneva in 2001. Though not united by a systematic program, these protesters represented groups that are dissatisfied with the current system of neoliberal trade promoted by the WTO, which to them represents an extension of the rule of private property over the globe.
Anarchism is not highly visible in most developed western nations, but it remains a powerful underground current that both the Left and the Right continue to find useful as a stimulant to political thought and political action. Anarchism will continue to be relevant as long as the meaning of the terms democracy, property, and freedom is not self-evident.
- Bakunin, Mikhail. 1990. Statism and Anarchy, ed. Marshall Shatz. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Guerin, Daniel. 1970. Anarchism: From Theory to Practice. New York: Monthly Review Press.
- Kropotkin, Peter.  2002. Anarchism: A Collection of Revolutionary Writings, ed. Roger Baldwin. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.
- Orwell, George.  1969. Homage to Catalonia. San Diego: Harvest Books.
- Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph.  1994. What Is Property? Donald Kelley and Bonnie Smith. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Wolff, Robert Paul.  1998. In Defense of Anarchism. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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