This article was last modified on April 8, 2013.

What Is Anarchism?

The following essay is a second draft of a piece I wrote in the mid-1990s as a freshman in high school (originally entitled “What Anarchism Really Is”). While the original was, in my opinion, well-written for someone in their mid-teens, I feel it would serve the public better if I brought the information and style up to my current level. Therefore, I have heavily revised the piece for your consumption. A third draft is coming, with extensive expansion from new sources, including Rudolf Rocker and Daniel Guerin, and perhaps someday this will be fit to print in some form.

What is Anarchism?

The fact cannot be denied that anarchism, more commonly but inaccurately referred to as anarchy, is a very confusing concept. Not only is the concept difficult to define, but most people’s ideas about anarchism are wrong or at least distorted. “Anarchy” may be defined as “a state of political disorder, absence of government”. Colloquially, this comes across as common sense. In truth, this apparently apt definition is very wrong. Anarchism is neither disorderly, nor necessarily a lack of government.

Along with the traditional definition, there is a common belief people have that “anarchy” entails a lack of government or order. These individuals think chaos would break out, and everyone would run amok, stealing and killing as they please. Without people in authority to look over us, we would become mindless zombies. The average citizen would disown all of their morals and anything and everything would happen. This assumed conception is incorrect. [Jacker, 1968: 1]

The way anarchists see the situation, anarchism is a possible form of utopia. They feel that a lack of set laws would not make people mindless. People kill or do not kill regardless of what the law may be. If people are not killers now, they will not be killers when the law enforcers are absent. This same thing is present in theft. Thieves do not concern themselves with laws, and those who do never intended to steal in the first place. All laws really do is limit our God-given freedoms –- they rarely protect us a priori or stop crimes from occurring. [Jacker 1968: 1]

The theory is not a new idea, either. The modern politics of anarchism can be found in the writing of 18th century English author William Godwin, but such concepts actually existed long before. [Shatz, 1993: –] Professor Vernon Louis Parrington (1871-1929), a commentator on American thought, had the following to say:

“God created the world as a great place where each man is his own center of life. Man is without leaders except that he leads himself. Schools, laws churches, and other establishments are not in charge – they only influence a man. They force him to decide his way of life, to decide the way of his soul. His soul rules his world, the world does not rule his soul.” [Jacker, 1968:39]

John Ball of England agrees. He decided that things will not go well in England until serfs and gentlemen are equal. To this day, only pure communism and anarchism produce true equality in theory, and since communism has yet to prove successful (due to poor governing and improper translation from theory to practice), the only logical step in the minds of some is anarchism. [Jacker, 1968:15]

Which brings me back to what anarchism really is: not a world of chaos and disorder. Anarchy offers us a world of free-thinkers and peaceful people. Anarchism is also not a complete lack of government – the people know well enough to govern themselves. Anarchy is simply the Greek word for “without a ruler” (excluding self-rulership). [Shatx, 1993: –]

Anarchism in Colonial America

Anarchism was present in the colonies before the United States even existed. The intention of the early Americans was more or less to provide a more individualistic society than the one they had known. They took their stand against the government of England. Even the democracy created by the first Americans was a step closer to anarchism. It made authority less of a central tenet to government (unlike the hierarchy in England) by bringing the rulership down to the people of the county they live in. So the law was stated that majority shall rule (i.e. democracy), not just one man. [Jacker, 1968:17]

Democracy and anarchism are two separate governments, but in fact share similar goals and ideas. A democracy is a “form of government by and for the people” [Webster, 1993:38]. That is correct; a government for the people, where only the majority end up getting what they want, leaving many citizens to be let down. You cannot please all the people all the time. Or can you? Anarchism is government for the person, where everybody in theory gets what they want, leaving no one out. Everyone is happy, nobody complains, and arguments are far fewer. [Jacker, 1968:47]

We might also go so far as to say that democracy is, in reality, a form of oppression. Being based on majority, leaving out the minority, the minority (which could be as much as 49% of the population) does not get what they want. Let us say you are in the minority. When your own government does what you do not want them to do, you are potentially being oppressed or at the very least not being represented. So, in a twisted sort of way, democracy is just another form of controlling your life without your consent. Unfortunately, there really is not much we can do about this. [Jacker, 1968:47]

Not long after the time of our first presidents came a man known as Josiah Warren (1798-1874). Already in the early 1800s, Warren decided that democracy just was not good enough for him. So Warren, along with Robert Owen, goes out and starts up a new colony of people in a city called New Harmony in Indiana. In New Harmony, you could do whatever you so liked as long as your actions did not violate what the other colonists wanted (which basically means you would not be violent). Instead of the American dollar, the colonists used a form of pay called Equitable Money, where labor is exchanged for labor. Being a blacksmith was no more important than a farmer this way. Sadly, New Harmony eventually died off, but the colony remains important to anarchism as the only real success to this day (May, 1997). [Jacker, 1968:55].

The most vocal and outspoken anarchism supporter and social philosopher of all time would have to be Pierre Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865). [Hall, 1993: –] A French mutualist (someone who believes equal amounts of labor should receive equal pay, like Josiah Warren), Proudhon was known as “the man of paradoxes.” He was a brilliant student. [Jacker, 1968:64] He even learned Latin, Greek and Hebrew besides his native French. Often his school prize money would be needed to feed his family in Besancon, as they were very poor. [Hall, 1996: –] To earn a living, Proudhon became a proofreader of church works, providing him an unofficial education in theology. In 1840, Proudhon published his most well-known work, “What is Property?” His answer: “Property is Theft.” He believed that things in people’s possession were not earned, although some scholars clarify that he meant property is theft when landowners benefit from laborers and not necessarily at other times. (This mentality could be a result of his poor upbringings). [Jacker, 1968:64]

Proudhon was never afraid to share his thoughts with the world, even when his thoughts were well past “counterculture”. In his best-known work “The Philosophy of Poverty,” [Hall, 1993:–] he says of the state: “Whoever lays his hand on me to govern me is a usurper and a tyrant; I declare him to be my enemy. Government of man by man is slavery.” And laws were “cobwebs for the rich and chains of steel for the poor.” He went on to say the following about the Catholic and Protestant God: God “is stupidity and cowardice; God is hypocrisy and falsehood; God is tyranny and poverty; God is evil.” This open declaration of such thoughts was what lost him the popularity he might have otherwise had. [Suskind, 1971:22]

The most famous anarchist event in American history was the Haymarket Affair on Tuesday, May 4th, 1886 in Haymarket Square, Chicago. [Suskind, 1971:10] What happened that day was a series of pro-labor speeches followed by the first major anarchist bombing (killing eight policemen, and three civilians [1]), but more important the turning point in five famous anarchists’ lives. [David, 1993:–] The most powerful anarchist of the day was Johann Most (1846-1906), a large Bavarian immigrant with the trademark slogan, “I am not only there, but I am very much there!” But, in fact, on this occasion he was not there. [Jacker, 1968:106]

However, the four men who were very much there and very much involved, were the ones sentenced to death by hanging, although the police never discovered who the actual bomber was [David, 1993:–]. These men came not to be known as the treacherous traitors they were hung for, but as American heroes. Their final words will go down in history forever.

Albert Richard Parsons (1848-1887), the head of Alarm, Chicago’s underground anarchist newspaper, and a former Confederate soldier (at age 13): “Shall I be allowed to speak? Let the voice of the common people be heard, oh men of America.” Parsons allegedly left Haymarket Square before the bomb was thrown, but turned himself in to join in solidarity with his fellow anarchists and labor activists.

George Engel (1836-1887), who had not even been at the bombing site, declared a simple yet powerful: “Hurrah for Anarchy!” Other sources claim he yelled, “this is the happiest moment in my life.”

Adolph Fischer (1858-1887), a typesetter for the anarchist paper Arbeiter Zeitung, gave the following speech at his trial: “I was tried here in this room for murder and I was convicted of Anarchy. I protest against being sentenced to death, because I have not been found guilty of murder. I have been tried for murder, but I have been convicted because I am an Anarchist. If the ruling classes think that by hanging us, hanging a few Anarchists, they can crush out Anarchy, they will be badly mistaken, because the Anarchist loves his principles more than his life. An Anarchist is always ready to die for his principles.” Fischer was also not in Haymarket Square when the bomb went off, but rather at Zepf’s Hall, a tavern.

Finally, most importantly among the group, August Spies (1855-1887), editor of the anarchist journal, Arbeiter Zeitung, since 1880: “There will come a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today!” [Jacker, 1968:115] Spies was delivering a speech when the pipe bomb was thrown, making historians fairly sure he was not the bomb-thrower.

George Santayana said of August Spies after his hanging: “Perhaps he was a revolutionist, with the millennium in his heart and a bomb in his pocket.” [Suskind, 1971:1]

French Anarchism 1891-1894

François Claudius Koenigstein, known as Ravachol. On May 1, 1891, at Fourmies, a workers demonstration took place for the eight hour day and confrontations with the police followed. The police opened fire on the crowd, resulting in nine deaths, including women and children, amongst the demonstrators. The same day, at Clichy, serious incidents erupted in a procession in which anarchists were taking part and three were arrested and taken to the commissariat of police. At the commissariat, they were interrogated and brutalized with beatings and injuries. A trial (the Clichy Affair) ensued, in which two of the three anarchists were sentenced to prison terms despite the questionable situation.

These events, along with the ongoing repression of the communards, which had continued from the time of the insurrection of the Paris Commune of 1871, revolted Ravachol, and led him to acts of terrorism. He placed bombs in the living quarters of the Advocate General, Bulot (executive of the Public Ministry), the councilor Benoit who presided over the Assises Court during the Clichy Affair. Informed on by a restaurant employee called Lhérot, Ravachol was captured. In reprisal, the restaurant where Lhérot worked was bombed the day before Ravachol’s trial.

Arrested on March 30, 1892 for his bombings at the Restaurant Véry, his trial at the Assises Court of Seine took place on April 26 and he was condemned to prison for life. On June 23, Ravachol was condemned to death in a second trial at the Assises Court of Loire for three killings, though his participation in two of them remains very doubtful (that of the murder, admitted by Ravachol, of the hermit of Montbrison was claimed to be the result of the poverty in which he lived). On July 11, 1892 Ravachol was publicly guillotined.

Auguste Vaillant was a French anarchist, famous for his bomb attack on the French Chamber of Deputies on December 9, 1893. The government’s reaction to this attack was the passing of the infamous repressive Lois scélérates that restricted the freedom of the press. He threw the home-made device from the public gallery and was immediately arrested. The weakness of the device meant that the explosion only caused slight injuries to twenty deputies. At his trial in Paris he was defended by Fernand Labori. Valliant claimed that his aim was not to kill but to wound as many deputies as possible in revenge for the execution of Ravachol. Despite this, Vaillant was sentenced to death and execution followed on February 3, 1894. Vaillant’s last words were “Death to the Bourgeoisie! Long live Anarchy!”

Another French anarchist, Emile Henry, threw a bomb into the Cafe Terminus in Paris on February 12, 1894, killing one and wounding twenty others. His actions were in retaliation for the execution of Auguste Vaillant. The victims were claimed to be justified by Henri because “there are no innocent bourgeois.” Anyone content with the established order was part of that order. What would be called manslaughter by many was to Henri a political act. [Zellner: 87] He was executed by guillotine on May 21, 1894. His last words were reputed to be “Courage camarades! Vive l’anarchie!”.

Sante Geronimo Caserio was an Italian anarchist. On June 24, 1894, he fatally stabbed French President Marie François Sadi Carnot after a banquet, to avenge Auguste Vaillant and Emile Henry. At his trial, Caserio described the assassination in detail:

“I heard the ‘Marseillaise’ and the cries of ‘Viva Carnot!’ I saw the cavalry come up. I understood that the moment had come and I held myself ready. On seeing the President’s carriage I drew my dagger and threw away the sheath. Then, when the carriage was passing close by me, I sprang forward to the step, supported myself by resting my left hand on the carriage, and with my right hand buried the dagger in the President’s breast.”

The Board of Pardons decided against all appeals for clemency on August 14. Caserio was executed by guillotine in Lyon at precisely 5am, August 16, 1894. In front of the guillotine, he exclaimed “Coraggio cugini—evviva l’ anarchia!” (“Courage, cousins—long live anarchy!”)

Other Notables

Throughout the following years, anarchism had many supporters and antagonists. For me to list them all here would be simply impossible, but a few key players are:

Benjamin Tucker (1854-1939). Tucker is known as the last great individualist. Born on April 17th in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, Tucker was a great reader who was affected by the ideas of William J. Potter, a Unitarian minister. He was known as a cheerful and friendly guy, at least until he started attending lectures at the New Bedford Lyceum, where he became a believer in rights and freedoms. Tucker later opened a bookstore in New York City specializing in libertarian books (Tucker’s Unique Book Shop), several of which he wrote. [Jacker, 1968:19] The store’s slogan was “Egoism in Philosophy, Anarchism in Politics, Iconoclasm in Art”.

Thomas Nast (1840-1902). Nast was a political cartoonist with strong anti-anarchism beliefs. One notable cartoon appeared in “Harper’s Weekly” in 1879, featuring two sword-carrying skeleton conspirators. C1: “After we have killed all Kings and Rulers, we shall be the Sovereigns.” C2: “And then we can kill each other. What sport!” [Suskind, 1971:40] Nast is probably best known as the man who popularized the modern image of Santa Claus.

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950). Shaw was a very famous author, and he was also an anti-anarchist individual. In 1893, he published “The Impossibilities of Anarchism,” which stated: “If man is good and his institutions bad, how did the corruption and oppression under which he groans ever arise?” Anarchists ignored this comment, yet the sentiment begs an answer. [Suskind, 1971:172]

The South Braintree bandits (1920). The scene is West Bridgewater, Massachusetts, April 15th. A team of five men rob a shoe company’s payroll of $15,766.51 and murders the store owner (Frederick Parmenter) and security guard (Alessandro Berardelli)and who are help responsible? Nicola Sacco (1891-1927), a shoemaker, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (1888-1927), a fish peddler. [Avrich, 1993:–] They were caught on a train with loaded revolvers while going to Brockton to visit Vittorio “Poppy” Papa. They barely spoke English, but were put away. Despite being anarchists, they created a strong following of people rallying against the city to free the men. [Suskind, 1971:139] On July 14, 1921, the jury gave them a thumbs down. Six years later after several motions and appeals, the men were electrocuted on August 23, 1927. [Avrich, 1993: –]

The End of Johann Most

Johann Most’s influence was waning by the time the Haymarket Affair occurred, having published the last of his pamphlets and newspapers. He was best known for “The Science of Revolutionary Warfare”, which included instructions on bomb construction. One last moment of notoriety came on September 1901, when Most was arrested in the office of the Freiheit newspaper for publishing an editorial immediately after the assassination of President McKinley in which he argued that it was no crime to kill a ruler. The editorial had actually been published fifty years prior, and would have been ignored had it not been timed so poorly (or perfectly, depending on your perspective).

On September 16, Most was arraigned. He told the magistrate he would conduct his own defense, and bail was set at $500. In October, he was imprisoned for one year.

Most was the direct influence behind Lithuanian-born feminist Emma Goldman (1869-1940) and her lover, Alexander Berkman. He passed on in 1906.

1930s Spain

In the 1930s, anarchists were a powerful force in Spain, and put up a great deal of resistance to the fascist forces of Franco, who ultimately defeated them. When George Orwell visited Barcelona in December 1936, he wrote the following:

“To anyone who had been there since the beginning it probably seemed even in December or January that the revolutionary period was ending; but when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black.” [Orwell: 4-5]

Anarchism still exists today in modern times, but has fallen short of the mark compared to the olden days. The 1960s seemed to be the era of the last anarchists, if we could even call them that. Though not referred to as anarchists, that is essentially what Hippies were. They refused to vote, completely avoiding the unfair two-party system (which still exists to this day). They openly practiced free love and experimented with illicit drugs, which by today’s standards would have been considered terribly foolish, but they created their own freedoms. They were considered rebellious, a word with negative connotations, but may have actually been beneficial to America. Despite their odd methods, their ideas were pure and good. [Jacker, 19868:172]

Anarchists in this day and age simply do not seem to exist. Many individual anarchists exist, and even certain well-known figures such as Noam Chomsky claim to have anarchist foundations, but the organization and momentum cannot be found. Today’s idea of anarchists in the the public mind are some wild Neo-Nazi group or rambunctious teenagers, which is not what anarchism needs. The few real anarchists out there just do not have the resources to make a difference these days. The belief of Bob Black, a famous political philosopher, is that anarchy cannot exist with today’s anarchists. They are devoid of order and therefore are all running around getting nothing done. If they worked together, they might make an impression on America today. But… they are not working together. [Black, —:2]

What’s worse is that today’s “anarchists”, teenage punks standing against society, are not only making anarchism look bad by claiming to follow the theory when they obviously do not, but they are basing their beliefs off of a publication called “The Anarchist Cookbook.”

“The Anarchist Cookbook”, by William Powell, was first published in 1971. The book contains hundreds of “recipes” for making drugs, bombs, and other devices in your own home. The manual gives step by step instructions on how to use various weapons and kill people with your bare hands. Granted, the book was written around the time of anti-Vietnam demonstrations when this type of violent action was more prevalent, but was it necessary to widely distribute such information? Let us keep anarchism peaceful as the idea is truly meant to be. [Powell, 1971]

Well now, given the basics of anarchism – what the concept is, and the short history – I hope you have discovered there is more to the theory than what people seem to believe. Perhaps I have turned you away from the idea of anarchism being chaotic. Perhaps I have prevented you from falling in there. And I hope I did, because if you remember nothing else, remember this: Anarchy’s goal is not chaos. The striving is for the peaceful order of free-thinking individuals.


[1] The policemen killed were: Mathias J. Degan, John J. Barrett, George Miller, Timothy Flavin, Michael Sheehan, Thomas Redden, Nels Hansen, Timothy Sullivan. A distinction should be made that Sullivan, Redden, Sheehan and Flavin actually died from gunfire (friendly fire?) and not from the bomb explosion. The names of the three civilians are unknown to me.


Avrich, Paul. (Original bibliography lost, 1992 source unknown. However, Paul Avrich has published a very extensive list of works on the history of anarchism including The Haymarket Tragedy in 1984 through Princeton University Press, which might also be of interest to readers.)

Black, Bob. (original bibliography lost, source unknown. Black is still writings numerous books and essays as of 2006 and many can be found online. I strongly recommend him both as an intelligent and thoughtful writer, and also for the controversy he creates.)

David, ???. (original bibliography lost, 1993 source unknown)

Hall, ???. (original bibliography lost, 1993 and 1996 sources unknown)

Jacker, Corrinne. The Black Flag of Anarchy: Antistatism in the United States. New York: Scribner, 1968.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary. 1993.

Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1952.

Powell, William. The Anarchist Cookbook 1971. (Note: This book should not be confused with the documents floating around on the Internet. Also, Powell has since distanced himself from the book although you can still order it from most booksellers.)

Shatz, Marshall S. (original bibliography lost, 1993 work cited unknown)

Suskind, Richard. By Bullet, Bomb, and Dagger: The Story of Anarchism. Atheneum, 1971.

Zellner, Harold M., ed. Assassination Schenkman Publishing Company, 1974.

Also try another article under Historical / Biographical, Political
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

One Response to “What Is Anarchism?”

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