What is Anarchism?

Anarchism is an ideology that regards abolition of government as the necessary precondition for a free and just society. The term itself comes from the Greek words meaning “without a ruler.” Anarchism rejects all forms of hierarchical authority, social and economic as well as political. What distinguishes it from other ideologies, however, is the central importance it attaches to the state. To anarchists, the state is a wholly artificial and illegitimate institution, the bastion of privilege and exploitation in the modern world. The immediate objective of Anarchism is the annihilation of the state and of all authority imposed “from above downward.” Once liberated from political oppression, society would spontaneously rebuild itself “from below upward.” A multitude of grass-roots organizations would spring up to produce and distribute economic goods and to satisfy other social needs.

The state, with its impersonal laws and coercive bureaucracies, would be supplanted by a dense web of self-governing associations and free federations. Anarchists had an enduring faith in the natural solidarity and social harmony of human beings. They believed that the creation of the future society should be entrusted to the free play of popular instincts, and any attempt by anarchists themselves to offer more than technical assistance would impose a new form of authority. They tended to concentrate, therefore, on the task of demolishing the existing state order rather than on social blueprints of the future. While battling the established order, anarchists also battled the alternatives proposed by liberalism and socialism. Like Marxism, anarchism was anticapitalist and scorned liberalism’s dedication to political liberty on the grounds that only the propertied classes could afford to enjoy it. Anarchists rejected with equal vehemence, however, the Marxist “dictatorship of the proletariat,” the idea of capturing and using the capitalist state to achieve a classless society. Political institutions were inherently corrupting, they believed, and therefore even the most selfless revolutionaries would therefore inevitably succumb to the joys of power and privilege. Instead of the state “withering away,” as the Marxists anticipated, it would simply perpetuate a new bureaucratic elite.

Because anarchism regarded doctrinal and organizational discipline as contradictions of its principles, it gave rise to a wide variety of interpretations:

  1. Anarchist-communists: shared many of the collectivist principles of socialism but sought to realize them in autonomous local communities;
  2. Anarcho-syndicalism: was an adaptation of anarchist ideas to modern industrial conditions. It advocated the running of factories by the workers themselves rather than by owners or managers, with trade unions (in French, syndicates) forming the building blocks of a regenerated society;
  3. Christian anarchism: formulated by the novelist Count Leo Tolstoi which rejected the state on religious grounds, and
  4. Anarchist-individualists: who proclaimed the sovereignty of the individual personality. Contrary to widespread belief, terrorism was never an integral part of anarchist theory or practice. Some anarchists, however, did engage in what they called “propaganda by the deed,” acts of terror and assassination against state officials and property owners.