How Anarchism Works

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

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.

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