Political Theories for Students. Editor: Matthew Miskelly & Jaime Noce. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2002.


The political theory of anarchism revolves around the ideal of noncoercion. Born with the rise of the nation-states in the eighteenth century, anarchism has developed four major strains including muualism, anarcho-individualism, anarcho-socialism, and anarcho-communism. In the late twentieth century, anarchism has been adapted to the student, women’s, and environmentalist movements, among others. Anarchism has spawned experimental communities, peaceful protest, violent rebellion, and a wide and varied literature dedicated to the achievement of human liberty.


Popular use of the term “anarchy” tends to portray an image of chaos, of bombs and fires and looting, of crisis overtaking order. Hollywood dystopias and fringe rock bands have played into this stereotype with glee. Although some anarchists desired political revolution over political reform, many advocated peace. Equating anarchy with chaos obscures a rich and serious tradition of political thought and the subtle variations that have evolved from it.

The ideas of anarchism began in the distant past. When Plato (428-348 B.C.) wrote his Republic in the fourth century B.C., he advocated a centralized government coordinating a communist society; his fellow Greek philosopher Zeno (c. 335-c. 263 B.C.), founder of the Stoa school, responded by championing a stateless society as the ideal way for humans to live together. The absence of government described by Zeno might be called one of the earliest articulations of anarchism. This theme found repetition among different peoples and eras for centuries.

A later precursor to anarchism developed after the English Civil War in the form of the Digger Movement. The founder of this dissenting group was Gerrard Winstanley (c. 1609-1660), an unorthodox Christian who identified God with reason. In his 1649 pamphlet Truth Lifting Up Its Head Above Scandals, Winstanley proposed principles for the Diggers, principles that later served as foundational assumptions for many anarchists. He noted the following: power corrupts, property hinders freedom, authority and property cause crime, and freedom requires the opportunity for people to live without laws or rulers according to their own consciences. He and his followers also taught nonviolent activism. In 1649, they occupied an English hillside, created a communist community there, and offered passive resistance to local landlords. Although local opposition eventually crushed the movement and forced Winstanley into obscurity, the Diggers provided a direct antecedent to later anarchist thought and practice.

The term “anarchy” was not used to describe the nonexistence of governmental coercion until 1703, however, when the French traveler Louis Armand de Lahontan (1666-1715) in his book New Voyages in North America described Native American societies that functioned without a state apparatus. He noted that they lived without governments or codified laws: in other words, “in anarchy.” Thus the modern sense of the term was born.

William Godwin

Anarchism as a political theory and movement appeared in the late eighteenth century and paralleled the rise of nationalism tied to the era of great nation-states. The British philosopher and novelist William Godwin (1756-1836) offered the first systematic treatment of anarchist thought in his 1793 work An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness. In this book he argued that humans were evolving toward increasing perfection, but institutions such as the government hindered individuals’ use of reason. By removing such hindrances as the state, enlightened and educated people could live peacefully in small, cooperative communities and devote themselves to self-betterment. Godwin’s work found resonance in the political theory community. It also influenced the literary establishment; Godwin’s daughter by the feminist leader Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was Mary Shelley (1797-1851), author of Frankenstein and wife of Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). Percy Shelley adopted Godwin’s theme in his own work and gave anarchism an influential, poetic voice.

Godwin’s concept of small, cooperative communities thriving in the absence of government control inspired French theorist Charles Fourier (1772-1837). Many of his concerns about the coercion, mechanization, dehumanization, and class schism of society previewed concerns later raised by critics of the Industrial Revolution. His belief in channeling humans’ natural passions to achieve social harmony, and the practical means he suggested for achieving it, became known as Fourierism.


Unlike other collectivists of the era, who believed the state needed to own the means of production in the economy, Fourier called for anti-authoritarian socialism based on private property ownership and individual needs and desire. He simply wanted a well-ordered agricultural society, one based on cooperation and gender equality. Fourier devised with almost mathematical precision his plan for achieving harmony: the phalanx, an economic unit of 1,620 people who divided labor among themselves according to ability. He wrote and spoke about his blueprint for utopia, and followers and newspapers responded enthusiastically. Unfortunately, Fourier did not live to see his ideas applied in concrete settings. After his death in 1837, adherents such as Albert Brisbane (1809-1890) and Horace Greeley (1811-1872) transplanted Fourierism to the United States and in 1843 founded Phalanx, New Jersey, the first of almost thirty experimental communities based on Fourier’s vision. Christian, but nonsectarian, these colonies organized themselves as cooperatives with equalized wages and supported themselves by the work of members and funds from non-resident stockholders. The communities encouraged traditional values such as monogamy and family, but also encouraged gender equality: several directors or presidents of Fourierist communities, in fact, were women.

The best symbol of Fourierism was Brook Farm, an experimental community in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. The community began in 1841 as a Unitarian venture but converted to a Fourierist phalanx in 1844. Brook Farm gained international celebrity status thanks to its membership, which included some of the era’s intellectual elite, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller (1810-1850), and Orestes Brownson (1803-1876). The Fourierist newspaperHarbinger began publication at Brook Farm as well. After the central building was destroyed by fire, the colony fell into economic hardship and eventually disbanded. Its fame lived on, however, in the works and lives of its former members. Though certainly not the only attempts to create utopia through experimental communities, Fourierism did represent one of the earliest and most successful attempts at implementing the kind of non-coercive framework Godwin advocated.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

After Godwin’s theory and Fourier’s practice, the next dramatic step in the story of anarchism appeared with the French journalist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865).

The Frenchman Proudhon was haunted by the spectre of poverty all of his life. Born to a poor family, Proudhon worked hard to obtain scholarships in order to continue his education, but eventually was forced to abandon them in order to work. His later life found him once again with little income or economic opportunities. His experience with financial hardship helped to form his view of property as an exploitative system. He first gained public recognition writing about the abuses inherent in the institution of property and his anarchist solutions to these inequalities in the 1840 work What Is Property? He followed this publication with many other works, the highlights among which are System of Economic Contradictions; or The Philosophy of Poverty (1846), General Idea of Revolution in the Nineteenth Century (1851), and the three- volume Of Justice in the Revolution and the Church (1858). In his writings he gave the words anarchy and anarchist their modern meaning and opened the door for an identifiable anarchist movement across the West.

Proudhon’s activism began as a vocal member of the Constituent Assembly in France, in which he voted against a constitution for the simple fact that it was a constitution. His 1840 What Is Property? used the term “anarchy” to mean the absence of sovereignty and “anarchist” to mean one who advocates anarchy. His later works further explored the subject. Proudhon made waves with his attack on the state in general and representative democracy in particular. To replace these systems, he advocated the cooperation of industrial and agricultural communities and the commercial use of labor checks instead of money; labor checks, he explained, would represent how much labor went into the production of a given product, and thus would assure that the exchange rate of products would be determined by the labor they represent, to the benefit of the workers. He termed this cooperative system with its corresponding labor theory of value “mutualism.”


After the Revolution of 1848 in France, Proudhon, who had worked his way up to the editorship of a successful newspaper, was elected to the Constituent Assembly. He sensed an historic opportunity to make changes on behalf of the workers, and therefore proposed establishing a national bank to reorganize the credit system to liberate and empower the working class. His efforts failed. He went on to think outside of the French system and imagine a replacement, one with loosely federated communities uniting by free choice around certain common assumptions about the labor theory of value and the endeavor to reach common societal goals. His work criticized legal government’s centralization of authority in officials and fixed, general rules that discouraged individual judgments and broke down communal ties—in short, stunting individuals’ growth and their opportunity to cooperate with others for mutual benefit. He is best known as the father of mutualism, the variety of anarchism in between individualism’s reliance on private property and collectivism’s wariness of it.

Proudhon’s mutualist anarchy, with its focus on laboring classes and their emancipation from economic coercion, contrasted with another contemporary version of anarchism, individualism. Individualist anarchists emphasized the emancipation of the individual from the political coercion of the state. Two pioneers of this variation of anarchism included Max Stirner (1806-1856) and Benjamin R. Tucker (1854- 1939). The German philosopher Stirner came to the conclusion that the state should not exist because it deprives individuals of the qualities that make them unique. Any time people are treated as collectives rather than different individuals, he argued, violence is done against them. In order to rule, the state requires servants who obey. Without this obedience, people become individuals and the state ceases to exist. In his 1844 work The Ego and his Own, Stirner set out his views on individuality, collectivity, the will of the state, and the way in which individuals could break free of submission and thus rid themselves of the institutions of coercion such as the state.

Anarchism in the United States

Anarchism crossed the ocean in the nineteenth century and came to the United States in the persons of Josiah Warren (1798?-1874), Lysander Spooner (1808-1887), and Benjamin R. Tucker (1854-1939). Warren had followed the socialist utopian teachings of Robert Owen (1771-1858), but soon became convinced of what he called “the sovereignty of the individual” against the claims of the group. Like Godwin before him, Warren believed that products should be valued by the amount of labor it took to produce them. Based on this conviction, Warren opened several so-called “equity stores” where goods could be exchanged based on the labor they required to produce. Cost, in effect, served as the limit of price. His efforts led him to found several experimental colonies based on his anarchist principles, including the highly visible Modern Times, which endured on Coney Island, New York from 1851 until approximately 1860. He published his views on anarchist theory and practice in his 1852 Practical Details in Equitable Commerce, his 1863 True Civilization, and other works.

Lysander Spooner 

Lysander Spooner, like Warren, was both an activist and a political philosopher. A critic of the U.S. system and its legislative process, Spooner believed the Constitution created opportunities for minority groups to exploit others through the use of special privileges. His training and practice as an attorney afforded him the tools to dissect the finer points of statutes. In 1843, he warned that artificial restrictions were closing the door to private, competitive credit in Constitutional Law Relative to Credit, Currency and Banking, which influenced the free banking movement in the United States for decades. He noted that acts of incorporation helped individuals to escape their contractual obligations by hiding behind the fictional face of a corporation. When Spooner formed the American Letter Mail Company in 1844 to compete with the U.S. Post Office, he proved that a private company could deliver mail faster and at a lower price than could a government monopoly—and the United States promptly outlawed his venture. His two-part The Unconstitutionality of Slavery in 1845 and 1846, among his many other publications, explored his understanding of natural law, justice, and government, and set the stage for his criticisms of the institutions of majority rule. His pamphlet series No Treason and 1882’s Natural Law further cemented him as a giant of American anarchism.

Benjamin Tucker 

American journalist Benjamin R. Tucker drew inspiration from Josiah Warren’s “sovereignty of the individual” idea and in turn led a publishing venture that supported and galvanized a flourishing anarchist movement in the United States. Tucker’s individualist anarchist newspaper Liberty, Not the Daughter but the Mother of Order, with its title taken from a quote from Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, ran from 1881 to 1908. As editor, Tucker wrote for the paper, but he also published the work of Lysander Spooner, Victor Yarros, J. William Lloyd, Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923), and many others. Diverse and visible readers such as Walt Whitman (1819-1892), George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), and H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) praised Liberty for providing a quality forum for American radicalism. The paper served to unify American individualists and had a great impact on U.S. libertarianism through the twentieth century. Due to its popularity and longevity, Liberty remains one of the most thorough and wide- ranging collections of individualist anarchist writing in existence.


The nineteenth century also brought anarchism to Russia. Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876) helped to take anarchist thought from the theory books to the street. He prized human freedom and dismissed its enemies, which he believed included the state—even when it appeared as a representation of the people—and all forms of religion. He predicted that the future of Europe included increasing state powers and economic monopoly unless someone took action. Bakunin tried; he advocated revolution and organized secret societies under the conviction that a few people could change the system and liberate all individuals. His goal was to create a society arranged from the bottom up through collective, social property; he opposed the centralized state necessary for the implementation of communism, however, and instead supported free association. His theories put him in direct opposition to another revolutionary thinker, Karl Marx, and inspired socialist movements in France, Italy, Switzerland, and, most notably, Spain, where it impacted the country’s civil war in the late 1930s.

Peter Kropotkin 

Unlike Bakunin, fellow Russian Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) was an anarcho- communist who believed in the coordination of industry and agriculture; like Bakunin, he feared the power of the centralized state, and so he believed that small communities should control their economies. Kropotkin’s main interest rested in finding a scientific justification for anarchism. His 1902 Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution challenged Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) assumptions about evolution and suggested that mutual aid played as important a role in society as the struggle for survival. He saw cooperation as a fundamental aspect of human nature, and expected that any process of self-realization would lead an individual not to isolation, but to greater harmony and solidarity with others. Kropotkin was not impressed with the final result of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and criticized the fact that power continued to be centralized in an impersonal authority, the party dictatorship, rather than in the councils of the workers, peasants, and communities. Kropotkin’s voice brought anarchism into the twentieth century.

For a short time at the turn of the century, a phenomenon known as anarcho-syndicalism existed. Based on the Frenchsyndicat, or union, the idea was to infuse the movement with stabilizing organization by infiltrating the union system and taking over its infrastructure. The most successful example of anarcho-syndicalism was Fernand Pelloutier’sFédération des Bourses du Travail. These French labor exchanges provided workers the opportunities to seek jobs and, at the same time, receive anarchist propoganda. Beginning in about 1895, this had great success in moving anarchism in a positive direction. The French model inspired similar organizations in Spain and elsewhere. By the time of World War I, however, this movement began its decline everywhere but Spain, where it played a key role in that country’s civil war.


In Germany, Gustav Landauer, a generation younger than Kropotkin, felt the impact of the German School of Romanticism as embodied in figures such as Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), and Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906). Landauer’s contribution to anarchism was the blending of Romantic sensibilities with anarchist politics. He was fascinated by the notion of the human psyche resting beneath consciousness, and he prioritized the spiritual need for rootedness and community that pulled individuals together. He believed the society of the times—cold, mechanical, industrialized, impersonalized, and centralized—could not replace the relationships that had been lost, and he called for an uprising to replace the authoritarian state with the wholeness of folk community. The revolution he supported was not a violent cause of politics, however, but an internal change of attitude, a rebirth within individuals. In his words: “The state is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently.” Landauer did participate briefly in the Bavarian Revolution of 1917-1919, but later in 1919 was stoned to death by state troops in Munich.

Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman’s (1869-1940) activist anarchism is more difficult to assign to a specific country. A native of Lithuania, Goldman immigrated to the United States in 1886 and was deported to Russia in 1919. She took part in the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and died in Canada in 1940. This woman of the world is best known for introducing feminism to the anarchist tradition. Her controversial views included promoting birth control and obstructing the draft. Together with Alexander Berkman (1870-1936), Goldman published the short-lived but highly visible anarchist paper Mother Earth. Goldman based her activism on Kropotokin’s anarcho-communism but admitted that the theory might be less than successful in actual practice. This did not dissuade Goldman, however, from her attacks on the concentration of political and economic power. She urged women in particular not to be satisfied with a vote that meant little in a system stacked against the individual. In the process, her controversial and public protest brought new sensibilities to the movement.

Sacco and Vanzetti

Often when anarchism is discussed, Nicola Sacco (1891-1927) and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (1888-1927) are the first names mentioned. The seven-year trial of Sacco and Vanzetti was perhaps the most famous trial in U.S. history; it certainly was the most famous trial of the first half of the twentieth century. One of the keys to the emotions and politics surrounding the case rested in the fact that both Sacco and Vanzetti were anarchists.

Both Sacco and Vanzetti were Italian emigrants who came to the United States to practice their trades. Sacco was a shoemaker and Vanzetti was a fishmonger. Both became involved with the American anarchist movement and avoided the draft for World War I. On April 15, 1920, in Braintree, Massachusetts, a shoe company’s paymaster and his guard were shot and killed by two men who stole over $15,000 from their victims’ company. Local police investigated and linked a car with the crime. When Sacco, Vanzetti, and two others arrived at the garage to claim the car, the police arrested them and charged them with the crime.

The case seemed problematic: Sacco and Vanzetti were armed when arrested, but neither had a criminal record and no sign of the stolen money could be traced to them. Sentiment against such so-called “radicals” as anarchists ran high, however, and circumstantial evidence—much of which was later discredited— mounted against Sacco and Vanzetti. The trial received further controversy due to the conduct of Judge Webster Thayer. Nonetheless, the Massachusetts State Supreme Court stood behind the conviction of Sacco and Vanzetti and the governor chose not to pardon them. Despite worldwide sympathy demonstrations and political protests, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed on August 22, 1927. Their true guilt or innocence remains uncertain. Their death made them anarchist martyrs, however, and their story was translated into songs such as Joan Baez’s “The Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti” (an anthem of the 1960s U.S. counterculture), plays such as Maxwell Anderson’s Gods of the Lightning, novels such as Upton Sinclair’s Boston, and poems such as the sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay.

The Twentieth Century

The twentieth century brought feminist and environmental variations on the anarchist theme, among others. Longer-lived strains such as individualist anarchism also gained a second wind. Murray Rothbard (1926-1995) was one of the theorists who brought individualist anarchism to public attention in the late twentieth century. Rothbard came of age intellectually in the Austrian School of Economics, which was pioneered by Carl von Menger (1840-1921) and Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He took that school’s emphasis on human unpredictability and spontaneous order, as well as its condemnation of centralized planning, and followed it to an anarchist conclusion. Believing that all state intervention is not only disastrous but also based on unconscionable force, Rothbard produced such works of theory as Man, Economy and State (1962), Power and the Market (1970), For A New Liberty (1973), and Ethics of Liberty (1982). His work brought him great prominence in the emerging American Libertarian Movement before his death in 1995.

From its roots in ancient times through its development in France, England, and the United States, as well as its relationship with revolts such as the Russian Revolution and Spanish Civil War, anarchism has been a theory of many manifestations. As a coherent movement, however, anarchism is relatively young, which has meant that theorists and activists have influenced each other significantly, even when writing or working in other countries and situations. As new concerns such as environmentalism confront individuals, the tradition evolves to encompass new voices and positions. Despite the movement’s adaptability, the repudiation of coercion holds all of anarchism’s diverse strains together across the years and miles.

Theory in Depth

Anarchist theorists have covered the spectrum from those who believed property is theft to those who believed property is an inalienable natural right, from those who wished to stir revolution to those who embraced pacifism. Others incorporated the agendas of other movements: anarcho-feminism appeared in hand with the women’s suffrage movement, and anarcho-environmentalism emerged with the Green Movement. At its core, all strains of anarchism deal with the question of how to eliminate coercion. The four principle divisions of anarchist theory that sprang up in answer to this question were individualism, mutualism, socialism, and communism.

Godwin and Noncoercion

The first systematic exploration of the anarchist theme of noncoercion appeared in William Godwin’s 1793 English workAn Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness. Any examination of anarchism must begin there. The former minister set out his vision of the ideal community and explained that its existence implied the dissolution of government. Godwin’s vision of societies based on consent, cooperating with one another, and working and sharing the wealth equally, sounded almost utopian. With the members in agreement, no external state or mechanism of law would be necessary:

Government can have no more than two legitimate purposes, the suppression of injustice against individuals within the community, and the common defence against external invasion. The first of these purposes, which alone can have an uninterrupted claim upon us, is sufficiently answered, by an association of a jury, to decide upon the offences of individuals within the community, and upon the questions and controversies, respecting property, which may chance to arise…. But there will be no need of any express compact, and still less of any common center of authority, for this purpose. General justice, and mutual interest, are found more capable of binding men, than signatures and seals…. This is one of the most memorable stages of human improvement. With what delight must every well informed friend of mankind look forward, to the auspicious period, the dissolution of political government, of that brute engine, which has been the only perennial cause of the vices of mankind…


Anarchist individualist theory begins with the individual as the building block of the world. Individualists believe that each person has rights—some would call these natural rights—that no other person or group of people can ever violate. These often include rights such as the individual’s right to live, to control his or her body, and to speak his or her mind. Theorists in this tradition also believe that people have rights to certain actions around them, including the rights to be creative and to own what they have produced. If people are independent thinkers and producers, then, the main way individuals interact socially is through exchange—buying, selling, and/or trading—and contract, where two or more individuals agree to an action with reciprocal duties, responsibilities, and gains.

Warren’s Vision

Josiah Warren’s vision of anarcho-individualism may have been the first fully articulated version of the theory, but it was not indicative of the tradition as a whole for two reasons. First, Warren argued that the individual should follow his or her wishes only; other individualists recognized that religious, moral, and social rules might have a part to play in individuals’ decision making. Second, Warren remained tied to the labor theory of value and its idea of using cost to determine just price for items.

Josiah Warren was concerned with the inequities and imbalances of power created by property ownership. In his 1852 book Practical Details in Equitable Commerce, he offered a different interpretation of legitimate property: individuals owned the products of their own labor. This eliminated more passive earnings such as rent on lands or interests on loans and leveled the playing field for individuals within the framework. Warren reiterated that his blueprint for a new system held individuality as its highest goal:

I will not now delay to detail the reasonings which led to the conclusion that SOCIETY MUST BE SO RECONSTRUCTED AS TO PRESERVE the sovereignty of every individual inviolate. That it must avoid all combinations and connections of persons and interests, and all other arrangements, which will not leave every individual at all times at LIBERTY to dispose of his or her person, and time, and property, in any manner in which his or her feelings or judgement may dictate, WITHOUT INVOLVING THE PERSONS OF OTHERS.

There must be:

Individuality of Interests,

Individuality of Responsibilities,

Individuality in the deciding power; and, in one sense,

Individuality of action.

The idea of the sovereignty of each over his own property made it necessary to determine what is truly and legitimately one’s property. The answer would seem to be, the whole product or results of his own labor.

Other individualists alternately ignored or refuted Warren’s understanding of economics. Benjamin Tucker, Lysander Spooner, and Murray Rothbard better represent the consensus of anarchist individualist theory. Tucker, for example, put some restraints on a person’s liberty. In his 1893 collection Instead of A Book, he explained that an individual should exercise the greatest possible amount of freedom that allows an equal amount of freedom to all other people.

Tucker’s Liberty

Tucker remains best known for editing the anarchist newspaper Liberty, but he also wrote works independent of the publication. His 1888 book State Socialism and Anarchism demonstrates the breadth of the anarchists’ attention; whereas Spooner was concerned with close legal readings of the Constitution, for example, Tucker explained how a broad belief in noncoercion might affect the most intimate relationships between adults and their families. Even the relationships that form the building blocks of society were liberated, according to Tucker, by anarchist theory:

In the manner of the maintenance and rearing of children, the Anarchists would neither institute the communistic nursery which the State Socialists favour, or keep the communistic school system which now prevails. The nurse and teacher, like the doctor and the preacher, must be selected voluntarily, and their services must be paid for by those who patronize them. Parental rights must not be taken away, and parental responsibilities must not be foisted on them. Even in so delicate a matter as that of the relation between the sexes the Anarchists do not shrink from the application of their principle. They acknowledge and defend the right of any man and woman, or any men and women, to love each other for as long or as short a time as they can, will, or may. To them legal marriage and legal divorce are equal absurdities. They look forward to the time when every individual, whether man or woman, shall be self-supporting, and when each shall have an independent home of his or her own, whether it be a separate house or rooms in a house with others: when the love relations between these independent individuals shall be as varied as are individual inclinations and attractions; and when the children born of these relations shall belong exclusively to the mothers until old enough to belong to themselves.

Spooner and the Constitution

Spooner’s view of anarcho-individualism led him to celebrate private property as one of the natural rights of individuals. He explored contemporary authorities and questioned their legitimacy. One source of illegitimate power, the American believed, was the U.S. Constitution. He often explained that the Constitution was used by the few who were favored by its founders or who had discovered its loopholes in order to accumulate more power for themselves. In the sixth tract of his No Treason series, entitled “The Constitution of No Authority” and published in 1870, Spooner went further by pointing out that the Constitution as a contract was impotent, since the past generation could not bind future ones without their express consent. Since Spooner himself and his contemporaries had not agreed to the contract, he argued, it did not apply to them:

The Constitution has no inherent authority or obligation. It has no authority or obligation at all, unless as a contract between man and man. And it does not so much as even purport to be a contract between persons now existing. It purports, at most, to be only a contract between persons living eighty years ago. And it can be supposed to have been a contract only between persons who had already come to years of discretion, so as to be competent to make reasonable and obligatory contracts. Furthermore, we know, historically, that only a small portion even of the people then existing were consulted on the subject, or asked, or permitted to express either their consent or dissent in any formal manner. Those persons, if any, who did give their consent formally, are all dead now. Most of them have been dead forty, fifty, sixty, or seventy years. And the Constitution, so far as it was their contract, died with them. They had no natural power or right to make it obligatory upon their children.

All of the anarcho-individualists criticize monopolies, especially those created and upheld by the state, for wielding coercive power against individuals and limiting their decision-making capabilities. Despite some of the earlier individualists’ sympathies with socialism, many later individualists have looked to the free market for models to follow. Since they support the expansive right of the individual to obtain and sell goods in the marketplace, some call themselves anarcho-capitalists rather than anarcho-individualists, thus focusing attention on the metaphor of the market as a key to their philosophy. These anarchist individualists often have taken part in the movement of libertarianism, which is based on similar claims of individual rights and distrust toward centralized state authority.

Mutualism and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Mutualism, the second version of anarchism, splits the difference between individualism on one side and socialism and communism on the other. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon coined the term to describe the economic system he devised. He did not do away with private property; instead, his model allowed individuals to own the tools of production. In the case of manufacturing, these tools might be the equipment used to make products. In the case of agriculture, these tools might be the land itself as well as the implements necessary to plant and harvest crops. Proudhon believed that individuals should only be rewarded for their labor, however. This eliminated rewards such as rent or profit and maintained a form of equality among all people regardless of what they owned.

Proudhon took Godwin’s theory of noncoercion a step further. Where Godwin focused on consent, Proudhon asserted that there could be no consent while property, a great inequalizer and therefore oppressor, existed. He advocated changing the nature of private property and holding all goods in common. Proudhon was not a traditional communist, however. He believed that communism failed to recognize independence and proportionality, and without those balancing instincts the theory became tyrannical and unjust. He concluded that communism’s focus on equality could be saved by infusing it with the individualism often provided by property: by mixing the two, he created mutualism. He described this combination in his 1840 work What Is Property?:

Anarchy—the absence of a master, of a sovereign—such is the form of government to which we are every day approximating, and which our accustomed habit of taking man for our rule, and his will for law, leads us to regard as the height of disorder and the expression of chaos… Then, no government, no public economy, no administration, is possible, which is based on property. Communism seeks equality and law. Property, born of the sovereignty of reason, and the sense of personal merit, wishes above all things independence and proportionality. But communism, mistaking uniformity for law, and levelism for equality, becomes tyrannical and unjust. Property, by its despotism and encroachments, soon proves itself oppressive and anti-social. The objects of communism and property are good—their results are bad. And why? Because both are exclusive, and each disregards two elements of society. Communism rejects independence and proportionality; property does not satisfy equality and law. Now if we imagine a society based on these four principles—equality, law, independence, and proportionality… this third form of society, this synthesis of communism and property, we will call liberty.

Rather than bargaining for profit, as many did and do in the marketplace, Proudhon imagined individuals would bargain only for direct equivalents to what they were offering—he called this “ethical” exchange. As so often happened in anarchist thought, much of the implementation of his ideas required a different kind of banking. Proudhon imagined a kind of mutual credit bank, a non-profit institution, which would lend money to producers at a rate of interest high enough to cover the bank’s operational costs only. Although Proudhon’s experiments did not succeed, his vision of mutualism continued to have currency in France for some time. Nonetheless, anarcho-mutualism became perhaps the shortest-lived of the various forms of anarchism.

Socialist Anarchism

Socialist anarchism did not make the same concessions to property as mutualism did, but it retained the sense of voluntary cooperation absent in the more coercive forms of state-centralized socialism experienced across the globe. Charles Fourier’s experimental communities in the United States did allow some property ownership, and these small agricultural colonies fit the bill as attempts at socialist societies, complete with collective decision making and communal work for the community’s maintenance and upkeep. Participation in such societies remained voluntary.

Mikhail Bakunin 

Under Mikhail Bakunin, anarcho-socialism became the dominant form of anarchist thought, at least for a time. Bakunin and his compatriots had experienced too much centralized control and coercive force under the old Russian regime of the tsars—they did not wish to wield the same kind of control over individuals by forcing them into a socialist system. If, after the Russian Revolution of 1917, control could have been divided among community groups such as representatives of the workers and peasants, and these bodies could have devised collective governance led by free association, Bakunin and his contemporaries would have considered the rebellion a success. Instead, another form of government, Marxist communism, became just as coercive as the former had been.

Mikhail Bakunin represented the collectivist end of the anarchist spectrum. In his influential 1882 work God and the State, he questioned the nature of power and set out why universal authorities—whether they come from the government, the church, or other institutions—did not deserve submission. He relied on his reason to determine when he should be subordinate, and to whom. His dismissal of state, religion, and even family hierarchy fed anarchist rebellions across Europe:

I bow before the authority of special men because it is imposed upon me by my own reason. I am conscious of my own inability to grasp, in all its detail, and positive developments, any very large portion of human knowledge. The greatest intelligence would not be equal to a comprehension of the whole. Thence results, for science as well as for industry, the necessity of the division and association of labour. I receive and I give—such is human life. Each directs and is directed in his turn. Therefore there is no fixed and constant authority, but a continual exchange of mutual, temporary, and, above all, voluntary authority and subordination. This same reason forbids me, then, to recognize a fixed, constant and universal authority, because there is no universal man, no man capable of grasping in that wealth of detail, without which the application of science to life is impossible, all the sciences, all the branches of social life. And if such universality could ever be realized in a single man, and if he wished to take advantage thereof to impose his authority upon us, it would be necessary to drive this man out of society, because his authority would inevitably reduce all the others to slavery and imbecility.

Unlike the Russian variety of Marxist communism, anarcho-socialism, had it been instituted, would have been a voluntary system, because even communist anarchists believe in the rule of non-coercion. Peter Kropotkin, among others, argued for communities to hold resources in common instead of privately, so each member of the society could draw upon these resources according to his or her need. In such a system, Kropotkin believed, people would work without the need for material incentives to motivate them; moreover, without scarcity, crime would all but disappear and, with it, the need for centralized institutions such as the law. Workers would unify of their own free will to do work, and each community would determine what work was necessary for the good of all. Large infrastructure projects—roads, bridges, railroads—would evolve due to the voluntary cooperation of smaller communities working together for a common goal.


Peter Kropotkin, a Russian like Bakunin, followed a scientific program to arrive at anarcho-communism. Despite his reasoned approach, however, he was also an inspirational and emotionally charged leader. This side of Kropotkin appeared most clearly in his 1895 work The Commune of Paris, in which he described the rise and fall of revolutionary protest and experimental communities in Paris. The work captured a snapshot of anarchism in action and the brutal force of the state used to combat and subdue it. By writing his book, Kropotkin helped to create and remember martyrs for the anarchist cause.

The Commune of Paris, the child of a period of transition, born beneath the Prussian guns, was doomed to perish. But by its eminently popular character it began a new series of revolutions, by its ideas it was the forerunner of the social revolution. Its lesson has been learned, and when France once more bristles with communes in revolt, the people are not likely to give themselves a government and expect that government to initiate revolutionary measures. When they have rid themselves of the parasites who devour them, they will take possession of all social wealth to share according to the principles of anarchist communism. And when they have entirely abolished property, government, and the state, they will form themselves freely, according to the necessities indicated by life itself. Breaking its chains, overthrowing its idols, humanity will march onward to a better future, knowing neither masters nor slaves, keeping its veneration for the noble martyrs who bought with their blood and suffering those first attempts at emancipation which have enlightened our march toward the conquest of liberty. At the heart of the main opposition in the anarchist tradition, that between individualism and collectivism such as socialism and communism, rests a fundamental disagreement over the core of human nature. Individualists assume that the primary motivation that moves people to act is self-interest, and that people will naturally choose to interact with others when this interaction benefits them. When an impersonal mechanism such as the market exists, a number of individuals can act for their own self-interest and these decisions will form a natural harmony of interests that allows everyone to benefit. Collectivists assume that individuals are drawn to interact with each other naturally, and the desire for cooperation and fellowship is the primary motivation that moves people to act. Individualists hold that the state or any other institution or group should not coerce people because this coercion infringes on individual rights. Although most collectivists would agree with the notion of rights in some limited way, they would argue that coercion is wrong primarily because it interferes with the harmony of free association and the opportunities for cooperation.

Emma Goldman and the Russian Revolution

Just as Kropotkin captured his memories of Paris, Emma Goldman wrote of what she witnessed in Russia after the revolution. The United States deported Emma Goldman to Russia in 1919; she could only bear to stay for two years. Two years after she left, she published My Further Disillusionment with Russia. This critique of the revolution was all the more poignant for the fact that Goldman seemed to see an opportunity for greatness after the abdication of the tsar and the overthrow of the monarchy. Instead, she witnessed another kind of tyranny. Her warnings about the means of rebellion matching the ends of rebellion resonated in the anarchist movement and particularly were repeated in the 1960s and 1970s during the first phase of anarcho-feminism.

Today is the parent of tomorrow. The present casts its shadow far into the future. That is the law of life, individual and social. Revolution that divests itself of ethical values thereby lays the foundation of injustice, deceit and oppression for the future society. The means used to preparethe future become its cornerstone. Witness the tragic condition of Russia. The methods of State centralization have paralysed individual initiative and effort; the tyranny of the dictatorship has cowed the people into slavish submission and all but extinguished the fires of liberty; organized terrorism has depraved and brutalized the masses and stifled every idealistic life, and all sense of dignity of man and the value of life has been eliminated; coercion at every step has made effort bitter, labour a punishment, has turned the whole of existence into a scheme of mutual deceit, and has revived the lowest and most brutal instincts of man. A sorry heritage to begin a new life of freedom and brotherhood. It cannot be sufficiently emphasized that revolution is in vain unless inspired by its ultimate ideal. Revolutionary methods must be in tune with revolutionary aims.

After Emma Goldman’s disillusionment with the Russian Revolution, it seemed as if anarchism had lost its moment. Then the Austrian School of Economics, which moved from Europe to the United States due to World War II, infused anarcho-individualism, also known as a form of libertarianism, with a new vitality. One of the most prolific writers to come out of this reemergence was Murray Rothbard. He published a number of books, the most notable of which is 1973’sFor A New Liberty. He used the terms “individualist” and “libertarian” interchangeably to refer to those who sought to live without coercion. His work attacked the state as the chief agent of corruption and called for a dissolution of all state apparatus:

The State! Always and ever the government and its rulers and operators have been considered above the general moral law. The ‘Pentagon Papers’ are only one recent instance among innumerable instances in history of men, most of whom are perfectly honorable in their private lives, who lie in their teeth before the public. Why? For ‘reasons of State.’ Service to the State is supposed to excuse all actions that would be considered immoral or criminal if committed by ‘private’ citizens…. In fact, if you wish to know how libertarians regard the State and any of its acts, simply think of the State as a criminal band…

Although they originated in different assumptions and carried with them different conclusions, the variations on the theme of anarchism all embrace noncoercion as the highest political and social value. In practice, anarchism has appeared violent and peaceful, secretive and overt, male and female, and informed other movements during their development. Its many faces make anarchism a dynamic and living political theory even in the twenty-first century.

Theory in Action

Anarchism has always been something of a fringe theory, meaning that at any given time its proponents never led a regime or successfully held majority power in any nation. Much of this is due to the theory itself: if anarchists did come to power, their goals would not be to force specific policies into action, but rather to end force altogether. In general, manifestations of anarchism have differed due to the individuals involved—the influence of Spooner, for example, or Bakunin—as opposed to the regions in which they were practiced, although the broad tendency has been for anarchism to be increasingly individualistic the further west it traveled and increasingly collectivist the further east it traveled. Exceptions to this trend do exist, however. Scattered anarchists have thrown bombs, plotted assassinations, preached peace, and practiced nonviolent protest. Few anarchist actions have been well-coordinated enough, lasted a significant amount of time, or drawn enough individuals together to warrant calling them an example of theory in action.

The Spanish Civil War

One exception might be the case of the Spanish Civil War, which took place from 1936 to 1939. Spain had been an eager recipient of the French model of anarcho-syndicalism, and Spanish anarchists looked for ways in their own country to use the infrastructure of trade unions to provide stability and order for the movement. The Confederación Nacional de Trabajo, for example, formed in 1910. Thanks to organizations such as these, anarcho-syndicalist groups began to gain a wide following, especially among lower classes in places like the industrial Catalonia, rural Andalusia, and mining Asturias districts. The revolutionary form of anarchism and socialism of the time had the flavor of Mikhail Bakunin and his secret societies.

The Spanish-American War in 1898 marked the end of Spain’s empire era, but this defeat spawned a new moment of self-reflection and cultural rebirth. When World War I erupted, King Alfonso XIII (1886-1941) kept Spain neutral. The wartime economy flourished and the industrialists’ profits swelled. The anarchist and socialist workers responded with strikes and uprisings, which the state beat down often with brutal force. The church sided with the landowners and prompted bitter anti-clerical feelings among the revolutionaries. Even greater unrest occurred after the end of the war. Rebellions flared. One movement in Catalonia in 1923 resulted in a military dictatorship over the area, but massive opposition eventually led to his resignation, followed by municipal elections. In 1931, Alfonso XIII was deposed and the second republic was born. Alcalá Zamora became the new president and enacted reforms meant to please the anarchist and socialist groups; for example, church property was redistributed to the people. These reforms were only skin deep, however, and more anarcho-syndicalist uprisings followed in Catalonia. By 1934, the new government behaved as the old one had, quelling revolt with force and bloodshed.

The anarchists had more than rebellion, however; they, along with republican, socialist, and communist allies, had a majority in Spain. Together they won the 1936 Spanish elections and chose a new government under Manuel Azaña (1880-1940). Before the newly- elected administration could act, however, a military rebellion led by General Francisco Franco (1892-1975) swept the nation and instigated civil war. On the one side was social and political change—anarchists, socialists, communists—and on the other was the establishment—the military, the church, the landowners. The Nationalists under Franco received military support from Germany and Italy. France and England both observed noninterventionist policies toward Spain, so the Popular Front, including the anarcho-syndicalists, had little support save meager aid from Russia. Anarchist leaders from across the world, including Emma Goldman, traveled to Spain to lend support. The Popular Front made determined stands, especially in central Spain, but eventually fell to the Nationalists’ superior military forces. Many of the survivors fled to France as Franco’s government took control of Spain.

The experience of the Spanish Civil War was important for several reasons. First and foremost, it showed how popular the principles of anarchism could be to a widespread audience. The financial inequities in Spain led to a schism between labor and landowners/producers, and anarchism appealed to the laboring class due to its emphasis on equality, especially as reflected in the labor theory of value. The Bakunin- inspired rhetoric of revolution against the institutionalized interests such as the aristocracy and clergy also played well with the masses; not only did they listen, but they also participated. The Spanish example further proved the staying power of anarchism once it was organized. By using the trade union structure to create anarcho-syndicalist societies, anarchists were able to reach and mobilize a number of people effectively.

Moreover, these anarchist leaders proved to be practical in mindset, willing to compromise the rigidity of their political beliefs in order to ally themselves with similarly minded activists from the socialist and communist camps. The resulting coalition sacrificed some anarchist principles, but managed to move a fair portion of anarchist thought, if ever so briefly, into the mainstream. Finally, the response from anarchists outside of Spain who joined in the efforts either in person or through the power of the pen underscored the close anarchist community that transcended national boundaries and united theorists across the miles.

Since the Spanish Civil War, other movements, although perhaps less visible on the world front, have continued to demonstrate the adaptability and energy of anarchist thought. Toward the end of the first half of the twentieth century, anarchist thought often fueled the work of pacifists, who were concerned with military build-up at the onset of the Cold War. Refusal to serve in the military, as well as civil disobedience, was common in the pacifist wing most allied with anarchism.

Other Movements

The second half of the twentieth century offered three specific examples of anarchist variations across the world: the student movement, anarcho-feminism, and anarcho-environmentalism. The first of these appeared in the 1960s in the form of the student movement.

The student movement 

The student movement stretched across the globe from the United States to France to Japan to Mexico. After World War II and the escalation of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, interest in communism waned. In the United States, for example, some students found fault with the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organization due to its strong links with communism. These students wanted to distance themselves from the dogmatic, centralized activism of the SDS and other such groups and link their protests of the establishment and the Vietnam situation with issues of lifestyle, including experimentation with sexuality and drugs.

When the antiwar movement and the counterculture movement united in the United States and elsewhere, the agenda broadened to include not only new attitudes toward sex and drugs, but also new exploration of mystical religions and rock music. Those involved criticized the nuclear family, the corporate economy, the consumer ethic, the bigotry of sexism and racism, and the hierarchies of university, church, and career life; in short, they rebelled against what they saw as agents of coercion in favor of freedom and equality. The values of community and spontaneity manifested themselves in gatherings such as the Woodstock music festival of 1969 in New York and the creation of communes such as The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee.

The revolution discussed by such youth usually contained a pacifist, nonviolent tone, although a terrorist fringe also existed. The United States’ Weathermen faction of the SDS and Italy’s Red Brigade, among other groups, had collectivist predecessors in anarchism. Daniel Cohn-Bendit (born 1945) gained notoriety for the mini-revolution of May 1968 in France, in which students liberated their schools and called for student, black, woman, and gay power as ends to traditional hierarchies. He wrote in his 1968 work Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative that he saw this action in the tradition of Nestor Makhno’s (1889-1934) uprising in the Ukraine and the Kronstadt revolt against the Bolshevik Party, both of which were primarily anarchist movements. As the personal became political, few youth overtly called themselves anarchist, but the movement’s concern with obliterating coercion against the individual made the 1960s brand of collectivism a distinctly anarchist moment.


On the heels of the student movement came the feminist anarchists. The momentum behind their cause grew out of the sexual experimentation and freedom of the 1960s. Some called themselves “anarcho-feminists” up front as they criticized what they perceived as the two faces of coercion: male-dominated government in the public sphere and male-dominated family in the personal sphere. They believed the aggression in the world sprang from the aggression in nations’ states and homes. Inherent in their protests was the assumption that men objectified both nature and the Other—regardless if the Other’s difference came from gender, race, religion, or beliefs—and thus coerced them; women’s approach to relationships on grand or intimate scales was more egalitarian, empathetic, and cooperative.

Anarcho-feminists sought to counter male dominance even in the anarchist movement itself and highlighted past women leaders such as Emma Goldman as true embodiments of the anarchist ideal.

Following the anarcho-feminist strain of anarchism that emerged in the West in the 1960s and 1970s came anarcho-environmentalists, also known as eco-anarchists. These thinkers moved beyond the mindset of many communists, for example, who leaned on industrialism as the main window into the world. In contrast, these anarchist thought in post-industrialist, information age terms about global economy and society of the twentieth and twenty-first century. Unlike traditional environmentalists who saw humans and nature often in unfortunate opposition, eco-anarchists viewed the world as an interdependent whole including animal and plant life, humanity, and its setting.

Murray Bookchin 

American anarchist Murray Bookchin (born 1921) authored two key texts in this movement: 1971’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism and 1982’s The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy. With a scientific approach reminiscent of Kropotkin, Bookchin criticized authoritarian reason and its coercive tendency to view the world in hierarchies, to objectify and to dominate. He called for a more symbiotic relationship with nature and each other, nurturing and cooperating with the ecology of the planet and society. On a more radical note, green groups such as Earth First! have developed a form of anarchist eco-terrorism to support their environmentalist agenda around the world. Though they, too, have clear roots in anarchist activism, theorists such as Bookchin denounce them as coercive in their own right.

In practice, anarchism has collaborated with other similar political theories for momentary success, as in the case of Spain before and during that nation’s civil war, and also split apart from other movements to focus criticism on a particular form of coercion, as in the case of the student movement, anarcho-feminism, and eco-anarchism. The adaptability of the tradition and its applicability to new issues ensures that the young theory will endure in a number of variations for years to come. Perhaps the latest incarnation is the anti-globalization movement.

The Anti-Globalization Movement

Many of the young activists at the heart of the current anti-globalization and anti-corporate movements consider themselves anarchists, but as Barbara Epstein writes in her article “Anarchism and the Anti-Globalization Movement” in the September 2001 Monthly Review, “these circles might be better described as an anarchist sensibility than as anarchism per se.” The current radical ideology holds decentralized organizational structure, decision-making by consensus, and opposition and/or suspicion of authority as its key principles. They are more aligned with socialist thought than the individualist strains of anarchism envisioned by Benjamin Tucker.

The activists connected with the anti-globalization movement express their perspectives through action. For perhaps the best example of this, one can look at the mobilization against the World Trade Organization (WTO) that took place in Seattle in late November and early December of 1999. Over the course of several days, the activists blocked the meetings of the WTO, fought with police, and aligned themselves with trade unionists and environmentalists, groups with similar aims. They succeeded in bringing a great deal of media attention to their cause.

Similar demonstrations—against the WTO, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank— have taken place elsewhere. In addition, stronger ties are being forged between the movement and like- minded individuals and groups. The anti-globalization movement and the anti-corporate movement are beginning to overlap, particularly in protest against the Free Trade Area of the Americas, the use of sweatshops by major corporations, and the destruction of natural environments. Viewpoints on how to deal with corporations vary. Some activists want regulation of large companies, while others would like to see them destroyed altogether.

Perhaps the biggest issue in the current movement is the question of violence to achieve desired ends. Some factions in the anti-globalization movement believe violence toward corporate property and police authority furthers the cause. There was violence in Seattle as well as at demonstrations in Quebec City in May 2001. What must be determined by these activists is if the violence they carry out is according an ethical vision, rather than simply an expression of frustration or rage.

Analysis and Critical Response

Anarchism must be analyzed and judged on two criteria: as a theory in the abstract, and as a political plan in action. The first of these categories, as a theory in the abstract, is somewhat difficult, considering the fact that individualism, mutualism, socialism, and communism, the four contributing wings of the theory, start from different philosophical assumptions. All forms of anarchism hold coercion as wrong and undesirable, but on other fundamental issues—the natural perfectibility or depravity of humanity, the sociability or independence of human nature—diverge greatly.

Nonetheless, certain things can be said of the theory of anarchism. First, it seems at times to be more about what it denounces, namely coercion, than what it espouses. In other words, it is sometimes difficult to gain a concrete vision of what world anarchists would prefer to substitute for the one in which they live. Cooperation and harmony sound like good things, but what, exactly, do they mean? What do they look like? When, in the defense of these values, would coercion be justified? If the anarchist theorists wanted to reform the world, they needed to provide clear recipes not only for how to dismantle a contemporary system, but what to erect in its place.

When descriptions were forthcoming, they often seemed more like utopias, or ideal communities, than real blueprints for actual life. For example, the collectivist anarchists’ vision included communal property and work without material reward, but the theorists insisted that these societies would be based on free will and consent. What, then if someone in the community chose not to give up private property? Would that person be relocated so that those who agreed could live together in harmony? Removing an individual would be coercion, however. What if an individual was not motivated by neighborly feelings and therefore did not work, but instead became a freeloader on the labor of others? How could the system be implemented without some kind of force mechanism? Collectivists assumed that everyone would be in agreement and see the wisdom of the anarchist model. This seems idyllic at times, not practical. What if agreement and cooperation never appeared?

Coordinating Communities

The problem of coordinating multiple communities posed another obstacle to tranquil life in free association societies. Theorists assumed that groups of communities would work together for the common good, from the establishment of trade to the construction of roads, bridges, and other forms of infrastructure. What mechanism ensured that each community agreed or, if they agreed, carried its own weight in the arrangement? What if one community decided to take over another? These small communities, communist or individualist, for that matter, offered the opportunity for outside groups that had opted out of the communal lifestyle to divide and conquer them due to their lack of centralized force. In the same way that feudal era Western Europe found itself vulnerable to invasions from the south, north, and east, these communities faced difficulty in provided a common action or a common defense.

The communes and experimental communities engaged with this theory solved these problems by founding small settlements of like-minded people located away from others. They did not face the challenge of incorporating many individuals of dissimilar backgrounds and convictions in preexisting societies. Even then, infighting, philosophical disagreements, and economic challenges threatened and often ended the fledgling groups. Imagining the harmony of many such communities banding together across countries and continents out of natural agreement seems somewhat naïve.

Anarchists on the individualistic side of the anarchist spectrum faced comparable problems. According to these theorists, individuals primarily relate to one another in terms of contracts. If institutions such as governments and laws wither away from disuse, however, what mechanism would enforce contracts? Who would settle disputes about them? Without some manner of protecting the private property and transactions of individuals, a list of “playing rules” everyone one must observe, the very foundation of the free market might crumble. What system would protect individuals from theft, fraud, and abandonment in the face of contractual obligations? Again, the theorists seem to rely on a naïve belief that everyone would choose to live in the same way and behave themselves while doing so. Like the collectivist anarchists, anarcho-capitalists face difficulties in explaining how to get there from here and how to maintain the ideal system once it is in place.


The generality or elasticity of the idea of anarchy also has led it to be misused and stretched beyond all proportion. When the British band the Sex Pistols begged for “Anarchy in the U.K.” in 1975, anarchy seemed to mean rebellion—and scandalous, dangerous rebellion at that, they implied, as they rhymed “anarchist” with “antichrist.” A listen and look at the band suggested that they in fact did not subscribe to anarchism as much as nihilism, the conviction that life is useless and senseless. When they screamed or sang or wore t-shirts proclaiming anarchy, what did they mean? Why did they choose that term? The symbol for anarchy remains a punk staple and has filtered into the underground of other forms of music and art, but what does it mean in this context?

The term has been modified by casual use to such a degree that “anarchy” has become synonymous with chaos, destruction, and bewildering confusion. Newscasters use it to describe natural and planned disasters, and pundits use it to forecast doom if the wrong policy is adopted. Certainly this is not the anarchy desired by the anarchist political theorists. The very vagueness and open-endedness of the theory, however, leaves the term susceptible to being appropriated and misused by others. In other words, if the theory were more concrete, perhaps the term would not have been available to take on multiple, misleading meanings.

Conversely, the breadth of the noncoercion foundation of anarchism has allowed the theory to evolve in new and relevant directions across the years. Not only has the coercion in question been that of authoritarian states, but it has also been understood to mean the coercion of the institution of slavery, according to Lysander Spooner, organized religion, according to Mikhail Bakunin, gender discrimination, according to Emma Goldman, and ecological domination, according to Murray Bookchin. The open-endedness of anarchism has allowed it to be adapted to the concerns of agriculture, manufacturing, students, and those who wished for the freedom to experiment with sexuality, drugs, and alternative lifestyles. The same vagueness that can be the Achilles’ heel of anarchism also allows the theory its longevity.

Anarchy in Practice?

Anarchism in practice has yielded mixed results. One could say anarchism proper has never been practiced, except perhaps in small, temporary, experimental communities outside of the mainstream West. The actions of activists, however, can be judged. On the one hand, the legacy of anarchism in action is one of compassion, egalitarianism, and nobility. In challenging coercion, anarchists have championed the oppressed, the ones against whom the weight of the social, economic, and/or political system rested. In trying to liberate the laborers, empower the women, and preserve the ecology, among other things, anarchists have approached heroic status. The strand of anarchist thought opposing all violence in principle fed the pacifist tradition and helped to inform the practice of civil disobedience; again, the scales tip favorably on the side of anarchy.

The popular image of anarchism is not that of pacifism, however. In the late nineteenth century, some anarchists across the world adopted the notion of “propaganda by the deed,” meaning that the anarchist message could be communicated best by taking dramatic, public action. This often translated into violence. On May 4, 1886, for instance, anarchists in Chicago staged a protest for an eight-hour workday. When policemen tried to disband the crowd of approximately 1,500 people, a bomb exploded and killed seven policemen and four crowd members and wounded more than 100 people. Although individual guilt was hard to determine in the case, four anarchists were executed, and four others were imprisoned. Other bombings, fights, and assassinations followed. On September 6, 1901, for example, anarchist Leon F. Czolgosz shot and killed U.S. President William McKinley, saying he was “an enemy of good working people.” Such violence occurred in Europe as well and became linked with anarchism in the popular mind. Revolutionaries like Bakunin encouraged this perspective.

Arguably, the U.S. execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in 1927 for murder had less to do with evidence beyond a reasonable doubt presented against them than with the stereotype of the violent, bloodthirsty anarchist that had grown in the public mind by that time due to bombings, assassinations, and attempted violence across the West. Anarchist terrorists reveal how the theory could derail into something destructive. In the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, unfortunately, the anarchist violence of others returned to haunt possibly innocent anarchists.

The Future

Though the many faces of anarchism make analysis challenging, they also ensure that the theory will adapt itself to new issues and eras. If the pattern holds, theorists will propose ideas that inspire new anarchist variations and inform other movements in the process. As some activists find constructive ways to use the theory, however, others will wield it in more destructive ways. The diversity of anarchism remains its strength and its weakness.