How Anarchism Works

By: Patrick J. Kiger

A masked demonstrator displays an anarchy flag close to the blocked street leading to Spain's parliament during an anti-government demonstration in Madrid in 2013. JAVIER SORIANO/AFP/Getty Images
A masked demonstrator displays an anarchy flag close to the blocked street leading to Spain's parliament during an anti-government demonstration in Madrid in 2013. JAVIER SORIANO/AFP/Getty Images

You may have seen TV footage of black-clad, masked protesters, smashing storefront windows and spray-painting their logo — an 'A' inside a circle — on buildings on the eve of President Donald Trump's inauguration in January 2017. Or, viewed news stories about similarly clad dissidents throwing rocks and firebombs at police in the streets of Portland, Oregon, as a May Day march for immigrant and workers' rights suddenly turned into a melee [sources: Stockman, Ryan].

Those clashes — and countless others that have erupted over the years in cities across the U.S. and Europe — might give the impression that anarchists are simply out to create disorder and chaos. But there's a whole lot more to anarchism than that. It's a political philosophy that's been around since the mid-1800s and traces its roots back to ancient Greece and China, as well as to the ideas of thinkers such as Henry David Thoreau and Leo Tolstoy [sources: Woodcock, Buckley].


While there are a range of different ideas and approaches within the movement, in general anarchists believe that government authority — and any sort of hierarchy, for that matter — is bad for people and should be eliminated. They want to replace the existing power structure with a society in which everyone is free and equal, and the only associations are ones that people enter into voluntarily. Instead of electing representatives to lead them, people would rule themselves through direct democracy. As Robert Hoffman explained in the 1975 book "Anarchism as Political Philosophy," anarchists say "that a society ruled by government cannot be orderly, that government creates and perpetuates both disorder and violence."

But not all anarchists agree on the best way to establish a society without government authority. While some have depended on violent revolution as the only route, other anarchists have advocated achieving change peacefully, though activism and nonviolent protest. Some even have set up their own communities that practice anarchist principles on a local level, and in some places — most recently, in Greece — anarchists have stepped in to provide poor people with services when the government hasn't.

In this article, we'll look at the history of anarchism and the ways in which anarchists have tried to advance their vision of society.

Types of Anarchism

A man wearing a Guy Fawkes mask flies an anarchy flag as he takes part in a May Day demonstration for workers' rights in El Salvador in 2012. Many anarchists have adopted the Guy Fawkes mask, made famous in the graphic novel 'V is for Vendetta.' Jose CABEZAS/AFP/Getty Images
A man wearing a Guy Fawkes mask flies an anarchy flag as he takes part in a May Day demonstration for workers' rights in El Salvador in 2012. Many anarchists have adopted the Guy Fawkes mask, made famous in the graphic novel 'V is for Vendetta.' Jose CABEZAS/AFP/Getty Images

The word anarchism comes from the Greek "anarkhia," which means "without rulers" or "without authority" [source: Wittel]. But as the Canadian anarchist writer George Woodcock explained in 1962, anarchism is more than just rejecting the power of government. Instead, he said, "its ultimate aim is always social change."

But as you might expect from a philosophy that rejects the idea of overriding authority, anarchists have come up with a dizzying array of visions for how to achieve a society that exists without government or authority. Some have mixed anarchism with some other philosophies, such as feminism or environmentalism, or with religious beliefs such as Christianity.


Others have focused on what would be the best way to organize the economy of a stateless society. Anarchists of the mutualism school, for example, want workers to control land and factories, but they're OK with market competition among them. Anarcho-communists, in contrast, would do away with private property completely, and set up a system of communal ownership without competition [source: Kinna].

Still others have come up with different visions for how to eliminate authority. Anarcho-syndicalists want to use labor unions to effect change. Pacifist anarchists favor non-violent resistance, while others think violent revolution is the best route.

But within so many different schools of thought, as German social theorist Andreas Wittel has written, it's possible to distinguish two basic types of anarchism: At one end, there's social anarchism, which emphasizes the society, having people work together in harmony for the common good. At the other end is libertarian anarchism, which mostly focuses upon the individual, making sure that each person has the maximum amount of freedom.

Why Eliminate Government?

Some trace the origins of anarchism to the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu, the founder of Taoism, who taught that people should live in balance with nature in order to achieve happiness, or to the Indian holy men who gave up their property so they could devote themselves to spiritual enlightenment. In classical Greece, the philosopher Zeno argued that people would do better without government interfering in their lives, and that if they were reasonable and moral enough, courts and police would be unnecessary. His ideas sound a lot like those of modern anarchists [source: Buckley].

For a brief period in the mid-1600s, a group of English peasant farmers known as the Diggers, who were tired of the turmoil caused by the English Civil War, tried to live without government and cultivate public land without getting permission. Gerrard Winstanley, a Christian radical who was founder of the Digger movement, articulated its principles in a 1649 pamphlet titled "Truth Lifting Up Its Head Above Scandals." Winstanley argued that power inevitably corrupts, property is incompatible with liberty, and that people could only be truly happy in a society without rulers and laws, where they could do what they believed to be right [source: Rosemont, et al.].


As membership in the community doubled in a year, both the government and landowners saw the Diggers as a threat, and their commune soon was broken up [source: Campbell].

But the idea the Diggers hit upon — that it was possible to live without a government — didn't die off. In the late 1700s, the English philosopher William Godwin argued that government was an inherently corrupt influence upon people.

In the place of a national government, Godwin envisioned a decentralized society, in which people would live in small autonomous communities where they could govern themselves with as little politics as possible. Godwin also thought that accumulation of wealth and property was a bad thing, because it enabled some to have power over others. He favored a system similar to the one later advocated by Karl Marx, in which people contributed what they could and took what they needed. Goodwin thought technological progress would make such a society possible, by reducing the time that people would need to work to produce goods [source: Rosemont, et al.].

Who Founded Anarchism?

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon is depicted with his daughters in this painting. Proudhon was the first person to label himself an anarchist. DeAgostini/Getty Images
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon is depicted with his daughters in this painting. Proudhon was the first person to label himself an anarchist. DeAgostini/Getty Images

In the mid-1800s, anarchism began to take shape as a distinct political philosophy, thanks to a visionary Frenchman named Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. The offspring of impoverished rural peasants, Proudhon labored as a cowherd and later as an apprentice printer. (While he was setting type, he taught himself Latin, Greek and Hebrew.) Eventually, in 1838, he won an academic scholarship to study in Paris, which gave him time to think about society and what it would take to fix the things that he thought were wrong with it [source: Woodcock].

The result, in 1840, was a book entitled "Qu'est-ce que la propriété? " or "What Is Property?" in which Proudhon became the first person to label himself an anarchist. He answered the question that he asked in the title in a sensational way: "Property is theft!" became an anarchist catchphrase. Proudhon wasn't against owning property, but rather ownership by someone who profits from other people's labor.


Among Proudhon's key contributions was the concept of replacing government with spontaneous order, in which organizations would emerge in a society without any leaders or central coordinating effort.

In 1840s Paris, Proudhon got to know two other important figures. One was Karl Marx, the German economist who was the father of communism. The other was Mikhail Bakunin, who became a follower of Proudhon and an important anarchist theorist in his own right. The offspring of a Russian noble family who rebelled against his privileged background, Bakunin held one key difference from his mentor. While Proudhon thought people could do away with government gradually, Bakunin didn't believe it would go without a fight. He felt violent revolution was necessary. His view helped shift anarchism in a different direction, and make it into a mass movement that inspired fear.

In some ways, Bakunin's views were very similar to those of Marx. In 1864, in fact, the two men were among the founders of the First International Working Men's Association, a group that sought to free workers in European countries from economic exploitation. But their personalities clashed, and their ideas eventually diverged. Bakunin — who fervently believed that the only way to fix things was to abolish nations altogether — split off with his fellow anarchists to form their own International in 1872. He also took issue with Marx's authoritarian ideas about the state [source: Buckley].

Was Anarchism Ever a Major Movement?

This poster advertises a mass meeting of workers on the evening after the Haymarket Square incident of May 4, 1886. Bettmann/Getty Images
This poster advertises a mass meeting of workers on the evening after the Haymarket Square incident of May 4, 1886. Bettmann/Getty Images

After Bakunin died in 1876, Peter Kropotkin, another Russian who'd renounced his noble roots, emerged to take his place at the European movement's forefront. By then, anarchism was gaining followers, who saw the deprivation endured by workers in the industrial age, and thought that demolishing government and the capitalist system was the way to fix it.

On the other side of the Atlantic, anarchists started making their point with bombs and guns. In 1886, after police tried to break up an anarchist meeting in Chicago's Haymarket Square, someone threw a bomb, triggering a riot in which six officers and numerous other people died. Though the bomb-thrower was never identified, eight prominent anarchists were arrested and convicted of murder. Four of the anarchists were hanged. In 1892, during a steel strike in Homestead, Pennsylvania, an anarchist named Alexander Berkman shot industrialist Henry Clay Frick, but failed to kill him. In 1901, another anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, had better aim, and assassinated President William McKinley.


It wasn't lost on people in power that many of the anarchists were immigrants. In 1903, Congress passed a law banning foreign anarchists from entering the U.S., and calling for the deportation of those who were already in the states. By World War I, the anarchist movement in the U.S. was pretty much crushed, though in 1920, two immigrant anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were convicted of killing a payroll clerk and a guard during a robbery in Braintree, Massachusetts. In apparent retaliation, someone set off a bomb near New York's Wall Street financial district, killing 30 people. Despite an international outcry that raised questions about their guilt, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed in 1927 [source: Campbell].

Back in Europe, the anarchist movement had a bit more success. In the 1920s, Spanish anarchists took over factories and railways in Catalonia, and in hundreds of villages, peasants established communes similar to the ones described by anarchist leader Kropotkin in his book, "The Conquest of Bread."

But the anarchists were on the losing side in the Spanish Civil War, and afterward, the fascist regime of General Francisco Franco took back the factories and abolished the communes [source: Campbell]. Anarchists in Russia were also enthusiastic about the Russian Revolution in 1917 until the Bolsheviks started imprisoning anarchists and imposing one-party rule after the Bolsheviks won.

How Has Anarchism Evolved?

Anti-WTO protestors run from exploding tear gas grenades as riot police continued to battle World Trade Organization demonstrators during the Battle in Seattle, December 1999. KIM STALLKNECHT/AFP/Getty Images
Anti-WTO protestors run from exploding tear gas grenades as riot police continued to battle World Trade Organization demonstrators during the Battle in Seattle, December 1999. KIM STALLKNECHT/AFP/Getty Images

The international anarchist movement had been crushed by the events we described previously, but the philosophy lived on. The hippie counterculture that arose in the U.S. in the 1960s, with its defiant resistance to government authority and its communal lifestyle, adopted many of anarchist ideas. One hippie activist group, which sought to create a money-free economy through recycling of surplus goods, even called themselves the Diggers, in homage to the proto-anarchist farmers of the 1600s [source: Misiroglu].

And some 1960s radicals, as late 19th-century anarchists had, saw violent revolution as the only way to fix society's injustices. A popular 1971 book called "The Anarchist Cookbook" even gave "recipes" on how to make weapons and explosives. The author, William Powell, later renounced violence and asked for the book to be taken out of print. However, the copyright didn't belong to him but to his publisher, who refused to do so [source: Sandomir].


Toward the end of the 20th century, anarchism began to rise again. The emergence of the internet — where information often was free, rules seemed made to be broken and like-minded individuals could easily find one another — provided a fertile breeding ground for new converts. The rapid growth of multinational corporations and economic globalization, fostered by free-trade agreements, prompted a growing backlash from those who believed that ordinary people were getting the short end of the deal and that demolishing the power structure was the only way to fix that.

In 1999, anarchists took to the streets to disrupt World Trade Organization talks in what became known as the Battle of Seattle. The images of police officers in riot gear shooting tear gas at hordes of black-clad protesters shocked the world.

Other protests followed, such as the takeover of Manhattan's Zuccotti Park in 2011 by the Occupy Wall Street movement, a group that seemed to organize spontaneously. Occupy's members adopted what they termed "principles of solidarity" that called for direct democracy, eliminating exploitation of labor and other reforms similar to those anarchists have advocated [source: Kazin].

And on the internet, a loose confederation of hackers who called themselves Anonymous began threatening retribution against various institutions. Their messages often were delivered in the form of a video featuring a voice-altered person wearing a Guy Fawkes mask — a symbol borrowed from the graphic novel "V for Vendetta," in which an anarchistic vigilante challenges a fascist regime [source: Wells].

Anarchism is constantly evolving. A newer form is anarcho-primitivism, which advocates rejecting "civilized" life and returning to the hunter-gatherer ways of our very ancient ancestors. This process is called rewilding [source: The Anarchist Library].

Could Anarchism Ever Actually Work?

One common knock upon anarchism is that it's a dreamy utopian vision that would never actually work on a large scale. Critics can point to places such as Somalia, where the demise of the government in 1991 left a void that's been filled for years by violent warlords, religious extremists and pirates, as proof that humans need authority and structure to live in peace [source: Winter].

Some have argued, though, that by some measures Somalia is better off now than it was when it was ruled by a corrupt dictator. Economist Peter Leeson wrote in 2007 that life expectancy, infant mortality and access to sanitation were all better currently than they were in the last years of the Somali government's existence. (These trends still hold true in the 2010s.) "Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is simply not true that any government is always superior to no government. If state predation goes unchecked, government may not only fail to add to social welfare, but can actually reduce welfare below its level under statelessness," Leeson wrote.


Either way, Somalia is still not a desirable place to live. While there isn't an example of a successful experiment with anarchism on a national scale, anarchism has sometimes worked on a local level. One example is Christiana, an 84-acre area within the city of Copenhagen, Denmark. In 1971, a group of squatters and artists took over what had been the buildings of an abandoned military base and proclaimed it a "free zone" that would function outside Danish authority.

In 2012, the Danish government offered to sell Christiana's land to its residents for a below-market price of $13 million, and they accepted the deal, setting up a collective that would own the community. Vanity Fair writer Tom Freston, who visited Christiana the following year, described the town-within-a-city and its 900 residents as "perhaps the largest and longest-lasting commune in history," and noted its vibrant cafes, buildings covered with murals and numerous hashish shops.

In Greece, where years of government austerity and a recent influx of refugees from the civil war in Syria have resulted in an erosion of social services, anarchists have stepped in. In the capital of Athens, for example, anarchists have taken over 15 abandoned buildings and turned them into shelters to house 3,000 refugees. The anarchists have argued that the conditions in their un-authorized housing are better than those in camps provided by the government, which have been criticized by human rights groups as dirty and unsafe. Anarchists also provide food, medicine and other services to impoverished Greeks through scores of social centers that they've set up.

As Tasos Sagris, member of a Greek anarchist group called Void Network, told the New York Times, "Every failure of the system proves the ideas of the anarchists to be true."

Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Anarchism Works

I'm from the Pittsburgh area, where an anarchist famously tried to assassinate industrialist Henry Clay Frick during the 1892 steel strike in Homestead. As a result, I've always wanted to learn more about the anarchist movement, so this article was a good opportunity to do that.

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More Great Links

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