April Carter, The Political Theory of Anarchism, 1971.


The cluster of ideas, attitudes and beliefs which can be defined by the term 'anarchism' have not received much attention from political theorists. There are a number of reasons for this neglect. One is that anarchist political theory sounds like a contradiction in terms -- a denial of the value and necessity of government both sweeps aside many of the traditional concerns of political theorists, and suggests an essentially apolitical doctrine. Another is the lack of any outstanding theoretical exponent of anarchism. There are important, interesting and attractive anarchist writers, but none comparable as social theorists with, for example, Marx. Within the corpus of 'great political thinkers' only Rousseau comes close occasionally to being an anarchist. A third reason for the comparative neglect of anarchism is probably the fact that anarchists have never yet won permanent victory, and there are no anarchist societies in being; so their opponents have never felt under pressure to examine anarchist ideas very seriously. However, their political failure is also the anarchists' strength, as spokesmen for values which the politically established and victorious have too often forgotten or suppressed.

Anarchism like most other contemporary political ideals and doctrines began to emerge as a relatively coherent theory at about the time of the French Revolution. William Godwin's Political Justice, which is usually treated as the first theoretical exposition of anarchism, was popularly regarded as a reply to Burke's denunciation of the Revolution. Godwin was writing within the theoretical framework of individualism and rationalism associated with the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. The diversity of anarchist thought is illustrated by the fact that the next major anarchist theorist, Max Stirner, belonged to the generation of young intellectuals in Germany of the 1840s who were strongly influenced by Hegel's Idealist philosophy, and who developed their own theories through a systematic critique of the more conservative implications of Hegel's philosophy in relation to the State and to religion. Another member of that circle of Young Hegelians, Karl Marx, later attacked the ideas of the other Young Hegelians, including those of 'Saint Max', in The German Ideology. Stirner argued in The Ego and His Own that the individual should be totally free from all socially imposed ties and from the conventions of morality. Godwin and Stirner had in common only [2] their atheism and their willingness to take to logical extremes the belief that the individual -- not the State or Society -- is sovereign. In their stress on the complete autonomy of the individual both differed from most later anarchist thinkers. By the second half of the nineteenth century anarchism had become a political movement closely associated with the international socialist movement, and sharing to some extent the socialist commitment to fraternity as a social ideal, and working class solidarity as a necessary weapon in the political struggle.

The development of anarchism as a political movement revealed that it was a doctrine which had its strongest appeal in areas where the process of industrialization had not yet changed the social landscape: among craftsmen like the Swiss watchmakers in the Jura mountains; among skilled workers in small factories, as in France in the 1860s; and among poverty-stricken peasants, for example in Andalusia in Spain. The type of anarchism developed by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who first adopted the title 'anarchist', idealized the sturdy independence of the small peasant proprietor or skilled craftsman, and proposed a type of co-operative organization appropriate to the economic needs of this kind of community and to a society of independent equals. Proudhon had spent part of his childhood on a farm in the Franche-Comte, was apprenticed as a printer (a trade which has produced many anarchists), and gained some of his ideas -- including the name of his 'Mutualist' social and economic theory -- from the militant textile workers of Lyons in the 1840s. His thought always tended to reflect these models of society, though he extended his theory to include workers' co-operative ownership of large scale industry. For a time the Proudhonists were a significant force in the French socialist movement, and in the First Socialist International, which was founded in 1864, the year before Proudhon's death.

But the dominant anarchist figure of the First International was the Russian Michael Bakunin, a genuinely internationalist revolutionary who saw the inside of a great many European jails. Bakunin's influence was greatest in Switzerland, where for a short time the headquarters of his separate anarchist international was located; and in particular among the Jura watchmakers, whom he had encouraged in their initiative in opposing Marx's leadership of the First International. The Jura watchmakers epitomized the virtues of the Proud-honian ideal. Bakunin's compatriot, Prince Peter Kropotkin, said in his Memoirs that the Jura watchmakers had finally converted him to anarchism.

The very organization of the watch trade, which permits men to know one another thoroughly and to work in their own houses, [3] where they are free to talk, explains why the level of intellectual development in this population is higher than that of workers who spend all their life from early childhood in the factories. There is more independence and more originality among petty trades ... The clearness of insight, the soundness of judgment, the capacity for disentangling complex social questions, which I noticed amongst these workers ... deeply impressed me;... But the equalitarian relations which I found ... appealed even more strongly to my feelings (266-7).

Bakunin, however, saw himself rather as the spokesman for the very poor: the 'proletariat of the countryside, this last outcast of history', and 'that great mass, those millions of non-civilized, disinherited, wretched and illiterates' who are 'very nearly unpolluted by all bourgeois civilization' (Marxism, Freedom and the State, 47-8). Bakunin tried to win support in Italy, but had more success among workers in the towns of the northern-central provinces than among the very poor peasants of the South. In Spain, however, Bakunin's Italian emissary, Fanelli, was successful in spreading anarchism not only among the workers but among the rural proletariat. Bakunin's concern for the poorest peasants, and for the 'riff raff', was not intended to exclude other potentially revolutionary groups. Bakunin often seems to share Marx's belief that the factory workers will be in the vanguard of revolutionary activity -- at least in the West; and he saw the potentialities of the strike as a revolutionary tactic. What Bakunin objected to was Marx's exclusive emphasis on the organized working class, because this approach ignored the possibility of revolt by other groups, and because it seemed to imply a new 'class domination' over the masses, the peasantry and 'lumpenproletariat'.

Bakunin's thought had affinities with Proudhon, whom he had read and admired; though Bakunin, consistent with his appeal to the propertyless and illiterate, opposed personal ownership of property in land or of small workshops, and what he regarded as the bourgeois ideology of individualism. Instead he urged a form of 'collectivism':

I think that liberty must establish itself in the world by the spontaneous organisation of labour and of collective ownership by productive associations freely organised and federalised in districts ... (Marxism, Freedom and the State, 18).

Kropotkin, before he encountered the Jura watchmakers, had already been inclined towards anarchism by his experience on the one hand of the brutality, corruption and incompetence of the Tsarist regime; and on the other by his perception of the natural good sense, initiative, and ability for spontaneous co-operation among the 'un- [4] civilized' tribes in Siberia, or among the Russian peasantry. His perceptions and his conclusions were similar to those formed by the other eminent Russian anarchist theorist, Count Leo Tolstoy. Kropot-kin observed in his Memoirs:

The years that I spent in Siberia taught me many lessons which I could hardly have learned elsewhere. I soon realised the absolute impossibility of doing anything really useful for the masses of the people by the means of the administrative machinery ... To witness for instance, the ways in which the communities of the Dukhobortsy ... migrated to the Amur region; to see the immense advantages which they got from their semi-communistic brotherly organization; and to realise what a success their colonization was, amidst all the failures of State colonization, was learning something which cannot be learned from books ... The part which the unknown masses play in the accomplishment of all important historical events, and even in war, became evident to me from direct observation, and I came to hold ideas similar to those which Tolstoy expresses concerning the leaders and the masses in his monumental work, War and Peace (201-2).

Intellectuals in Russia were particularly attracted to anarchist ideas, both because existing social and economic conditions seemed favourable to the transition to an anarchist society -- the Russian peasant commune as a basis for a regenerated society appealed to many radicals -- and because throughout most of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century the existing government barred the way to moderate liberal reforms. However Russian anarchists had surprisingly little mass revolutionary support. George Woodcock comments in his study of Anarchism that only 'between 1918 and 1921, did Russian anarchists gain a brief and sudden glory when the peasants of the southern Ukraine flocked in their tens of thousands to the black banners of the anarchist guerilla leader Nestor Makhno', whose army was crushed by Trotsky in 1921 (376).

Bakunin in his polemic with Marx about the organization and policy of the First International, and about the role of the State after a socialist revolution, contrasted the anarchist tendencies of the Latin and Slav nations with German authoritarianism. Although such generalizations should, as Bakunin was aware, be treated with caution, his predictions were not inaccurate. Germany had become by 1900 the home of the best organized and best drilled Marxist Party in Europe. The German anarchist Gustav Landauer complained in 1896 in a report to the London International Congress that: 'in no other country has a single party, an isolated sect, managed to such a degree to pass for the unique and only legitimate representative [5] of the proletariat . . .' (Social Democracy in Germany, 1). But anarchist ideas retained popularity in France, Italy, Russia and Spain well into this century, even after the progress of industrialization, and the organization of significant Marxist movements in these countries. In France, the most industrially advanced, Proudhonian Mutualism was adapted to the realities of large scale industry in the form of anarcho-syndicalism, which looked to a federal trade union organization as the basis for revolutionary action, and for administration in a future socialist society. This conception had been foreshadowed in Proudhon's own views on the need for workers' productive co-operatives to run factories, and in his insistence that the workers should avoid the snares of parliamentary politics and concentrate on building up their economic strength. Syndicalism was also influenced by Bakunin's more militant and collectivist anarchism. But syndicalism as it developed was not always linked to anarchist theory, and many anarchists had reservations about the syndicalist emphasis on working exclusively through trade union organizations.

Anarchists who did not espouse syndicalism tended by the end of the nineteenth century to embrace the doctrine of anarchist communism. Kropotkin was the best known exponent of anarchist communism, which differed from Bakuninist collectivism in seeking the abolition of the wage system and of all forms of private property. One of the most outstanding anarchists who advocated anarchist communism was the Italian Enrico Malatesta, active between the 1870s and the 1920s. Malatesta combined Kropotkin's belief in complete communal ownership of property with a Marxist reliance on the organized political strength of the working class, and drew to some extent from both belief in a historically determined socialist future. He later came to beheve that he had been both too Marxist and too Kropotkinian (see Vernon Richards, ed, Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, 209-10). He sympathized with the Italian experiment in anarcho-syndicalism which, inspired by the French example, won support among railway, building and metal workers in northern cities just before the First "World War; though he differed enough from the syndicalists to try to revive the anarchist movement between 1913-14. After the War the anarchists supported the 1919-20 movement towards workers' occupation and control of the factories, a movement inspired by the example of the Russian Soviets. The anarchists themselves initially hailed the Bolshevik regime, though by November 1921 they were formally denouncing Lenin's Bolshevik Government as the major enemy of the Revolution (see Daniel Guerin, L'Anarchisme, 131). After Mussolini's advent to power anarchist organizations in Italy were effectively crushed. [6]

In the Soviet Union itself many anarchists initially supported the October Revolution, but soon began to oppose aspects of the regime. Anarchists split on the question of whether to support the Bolshevik Government during the Civil War. Up to 1921 both anarcho-syndicalist and anarchist groups continued to be active, despite considerable police harassment -- some anarchists had turned to armed resistance and terrorist tactics, and though Lenin had distinguished between these groups and ideological anarchists in general, the political police, the Cheka, did not. By the end of 1922 anarchist groups and propaganda had been eliminated much more successfully than by the Tsarist regime. In 1921 and 1922 the Cheka shot many anarchists, including the pacifist Tolstoyans. Kropotkin had hastened back from exile after the February Revolution in 1917. He defended the new Bolshevik regime against attacks from abroad, but protested against the Government's suppression of all non-Communist publications, and its practice of taking hostages. Kropotkin's views on developments in Russia are described briefly by another Russian-born anarchist who returned after the Revolution, Emma Goldman, in her book My Disillusionment with Russia. Kropotkin died in February 1921. The mile-long procession through the streets of Moscow that marked his funeral was the last public anarchist demonstration in Russia.

Anarchism has persisted more tenaciously in Spain than in other countries. In the nineteenth century anarchism was the creed of many peasants in Valencia, Catalonia and Andalusia, where it had strong millenarian overtones, as well as appealing to workers in the cities. Anarcho-syndicalism dominated the early trade union movement. The national trade union confederation, the CNT, was from its foundation in 1910 dominated by anarchists. During the Spanish Civil War anarchism came briefly into its own. Spanish anarchism revealed some very ugly and destructive tendencies -- in the massacres 'carried out by the Durutti column in Aragon or by the militia in Madrid on their way to the front' (Gerald Brenan, The Spanish Labyrinth, 318); and in the destruction of churches and works of art. The anarchist movement also revealed its attractive and constructive possibilities. Peasants in parts of Castile and Aragon and in Andalusia collectivized the land, and many of these villages launched educational campaigns to end illiteracy, and tried to set up medical services. They also adopted radical economic principles, often abolishing use of money. Catalonia was for a short time effectively controlled by the anarchists and from July to October 1936 there was almost complete workers' control in the factories and public services of Barcelona.

George Orwell, who went to Catalonia as a volunteer for the [7] International Brigade, recorded in Homage, to Catalonia his first impressions of Barcelona:

Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists ... Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized ... Tipping was forbidden by law... There were no private motor-cars, they had all been commandeered, and all the trams and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black... Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine. In the barbers' shops were Anarchist notices (the barbers were mostly Anarchists) solemnly explaining that barbers were no longer slaves. In the streets were coloured posters appealing to prostitutes to stop being prostitutes ... At that time revolutionary ballads of the naivest kind ... were being sold on the streets for a few centimes each. I have often seen an illiterate militiaman buy one of these ballads, laboriously spell out the words, and then, when he had got the hang of it, begin singing it to an appropriate tune (8-10).

This experiment in running an anarchist society was ended when the anarchists were supressed by their allies, the Communists, aided by the Republican Government, and was doomed even before the final victory of Franco's forces.

Anarchist ideas were transported across the Atlantic along with Italian, Russian, East European and German immigrants to the United States, and had some success in the comparatively weak labour movement of the 1880s and 1890s. The association between anarchism and acts of terrorism tended to discredit the movement in the 1900s. In the United States syndicalism is associated with the militant union the Industrial Workers of the World -- the Wobblies -- which was founded in 1905 and initially got its main support from the miners in the West. However anarchists were only one among several diverse influences in the IWW, where their stress on decentralism and federalism contrasted with Bill Haywood's aim of 'One Big Union' (see G. D. H. Cole, A History of Socialist Thought, Vol. III, Part 2).

But quite a different brand of anarchism had also taken root in America, and this native anarchism was, in accord with the American ethos, strongly individualist. Godwin's Political Justice was published in America in 1796; but a more formative influence on [8] later American anarchism was Josiah "Warren's attempt to put individualist anarchism into practice, through experimental co-operatives, in the 1830s and 1840s. Warren propagated ideas on economic organization and private property not unlike those Proudhon was independently putting forward in France. Both influenced a later exponent of individuahst anarchism, Benjamin Tucker, whose major contribution to the anarchist movement was as journalist and pub-Usher. He brought out a translation of Max Stirner in 1907, and Stirner's 'egoism' understood in American terms won some converts. Tucker's belief in the need for individual non-co-operation with the State, especially through tax refusal, linked him to another important figure in the American libertarian tradition, Henry David Thoreau, who is remembered partly for his classic essay published in 1849 On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. 'Under a government which imprisons any unjustly', commented Thoreau, 'the true place for a just man is also in prison' (see Peter Mayer, ed, The Pacifist Conscience, 149).

Tucker set out, however, to make anarchism respectable, as against the violence advocated by European emigres, and to combat all forms of socialism and communism. In the economic sphere he attacked monopolies, but deplored the 'all-inclusive monopoly' proposed by the State socialists as an alternative. To replace monopolies he appealed to the 'natural law of competition' and urged that laissez-faire economics should be taken to its logical conclusion in totally free trade, and an end to those restrictions which protect the privileges of capital. Many of Tucker's ideas have affinities with a certain kind of conservatism, which opposes bureaucracy and 'collectivism' in the name of individual liberty. As Bakunin saw, individualism, which interprets liberty as the absence of social restrictions on the individual, tends to be opposed to collective action to secure justice and equality. Tucker was at the opposite pole from the syndicalists -- though he managed to avoid the conservative trap of preferring 'freedom' for economic trusts to any form of political control.

Anarchism as a theoretical movement derives from European and North American traditions, but it has had an important influence in parts of the Third World, especially Latin America. Daniel Guerin in his analytical survey L'Anarchisme stresses Bakunin's awareness of the future importance of anti-colonial movements of national liberation, and his hope that these would also achieve social liberation of the masses (81-2). Bakuninist ideas were introduced into Mexico, Argentina and Cuba in the 1870s. Later in Mexico theoretical anarchist influences merged with spontaneous peasant anarchism in Zapata's campaign after 1910. Woodcock compares Zapata's movement with Makhno's attempt to create an anarchist society in the [9] Ukraine. Anarcho-syndicalist ideas stemming from Spain also influenced trade unions in many Latin American countries in the early years of this century. In the 1920s anarcho-syndicalism tended to give way before Communism, but has remained influential in Argentina.

In Asia anarchism spread to circles of students and intellectuals -- to Japan 'where the small anarchist movement was completely destroyed after the execution of D. Kotoku and his comrades in January 1911' (Rudolph Rocker, Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice, 200); to Indonesia under the impetus of the libertarian movement in Holland; to China where it was briefly revived after the Second World War; and to India. In India, however, a much more significant expression of near-anarchist ideas could be found in the Gand-hian movement for national independence. Gandhi himself was influenced by both Tolstoy and Thoreau, but his philosophy was primarily a reinterpretation of elements in the Indian cultural tradition, and a response to immediate social and political conditions. So he cannot easily be fitted into Western political categories. The movement which has since Gandhi's death been led by Vinoba Bhave is village-based, anti-parliamentary and anti-governmental in its approach to land reform and social development. Its approach is in many senses anarchist, though the Gandhian movement itself is wary of accepting the anarchist label; and its avoidance of any direct resistance to the Indian Government would make many anarchists hesitant to identify with it (see Geoffrey Ostergaard and Melville Curreu, The Gentle Anarchists, Clarendon Press, 1971).

In the West, anarchist movements with roots in the traditions of the last century are not now politically significant. There is, however, some evidence that in response to the political experience of the mid-twentieth century anarchism is being revived in more modern form in Western Europe and North America. The prevalence of anarchist and syndicalist ideas and organizational forms in the French student revolt of May 1968, and their partial spill-over into the factories, was one of the more dramatic illustrations that anarchist tendencies belong not only to the past but potentially to the future. Students in particular, turning away from both Western and official Socialist societies, are responsive to anarchism. Though their protests are a response to contemporary ills -- the cold war, nuclear bombs, disillusionment with official politics -- student rebellion does link up with traditional anarchism, as Paul Goodman stresses:

They believe in local power, community development, rural reconstruction, decentralist organization ... They prefer a simpler standard of living ... they do not trust the due process of [10] administrators and are quick to resort to direct action and civil disobedience. All this adds up to the community Anarchism of Kropotkin, the resistance Anarchism of Malatesta, the agitational anarchism of Bakunin ... (Anarchy, No. 96, February 1969, 47).

Anarchism is however only one strand in student unrest, and it is still necessary to look for a modern formulation of anarchism primarily in the writings of their elders. Two of the main theorists relevant here are Alex Comfort, whose career as a biologist, novelist and poet encompasses writings on social psychology, sex and politics; and Paul Goodman, the American novelist, poet and teacher whose writings range from gestalt theory to town planning, and who is directly influential among American students.

The nature of writings about anarchism may in part reflect the background and experience of anarchist theorists. A great deal of standard political theory has been written either by philosophers (Plato -- who was also a poet, but wished to suppress poetry in his Republic; Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Hegel), or by those with experience of government and state craft (Machiavelli, Burke, the Federalists, De Tocqueville). Much anarchist thought has been elaborated by individuals whose ideas emerged out of their activities in anti-governmental movements -- Bakunin, Malatesta, Emma Goldman for example; a trait which anarchism shares with other Utopian and radical theories. Perhaps more interesting, much anarchist thought has been elaborated by those whose commitments have been in the sciences or the arts. Kropotkin was an eminent naturalist and geologist, committed to 'scientific method' in his social theory; and one of the leading French anarchist propagandists at the end of the last century, Elisee Reclus, was a well known geographer. Alex Comfort's anarchist ideas are explicitly linked to both his scientific and his artistic commitments (see, for instance, Art and Social Responsibility).

Paul Goodman comments on 'the humanistic and, so to speak, ecological background of the anarchist leaders', noting that Fanelli was an architect, Malatesta had studied medicine, and that 'Morris was an arts and craftsman' (People or Personnel, 42). "William Morris can be linked to the general anarchist tradition because of his rebellion against industrialism, his opposition to parliamentary politics, and the libertarian anti-governmental tone of his Utopian picture in News from Nowhere. On the other hand his organizational links were with the English Marxist movement of the 1880s and 1890s, and he explicitly dissociated himself from anarchism, remarking that he had learned from some of his Anarchist friends 'quite against their intention, that Anarchism was impossible' (Asa Briggs, ed., William Morris: Selected Writings and Designs, 34-5). A number of [11] artists have been attracted towards anarchism. Shelley was a member of the Godwin circle, Gustave Courbet a friend of Proudhon, and Oscar Wilde an admirer of Kropotkin. Herbert Read, poet and art critic, became a leading exponent of anarchism in England in the 1930s and 1940s. In France around the turn of the century anarchism was adopted by Neo-Impressionist painters, notably the Pisarros (see Anarchy, No. 91, September 1968), and by Symbolist poets and writers. Among leading anarchists in Russia the poet Voline became a supporter of Makhno, and Tolstoy's pacifist and Christian style of anarchism emerged after he had written his major novels.

The social and cultural background of anarchist thinkers may be relevant both to understanding which social groups are attracted to anarchism, and the leading ideas and images in anarchist theory. The purpose of this book is not however to chart the development of the anarchist movement, nor to study in detail the theories of particular anarchist writers. It is rather to explore certain key themes and ideas within anarchism in relation to other traditions of political theory, and to contemporary political and social conditions.

It is not easy, as the very brief and incomplete sketch of the anarchist tradition given here indicates, to define the scope and limits of anarchism. In the following discussion both syndicalism and the Gandhian movement are treated as peripheral to the central development of anarchism. Not that they are unimportant -- arguably both have more political relevance than a 'pure' anarchism, but they are not wholly accepted by anarchists as part of their tradition; and they both demand a more serious treatment than can be accorded them in the scope of this study.

For similar reasons the anarchist elements in the student movement of the late 1960s, and theoretical statements of these ideas -- for example by Daniel Cohn-Bendit -- are also excluded from this discussion.