How Anarchism Works

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

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.