You are using an outdated browser. Please upgrade your browser to improve your experience and security.

English anarchist thought

The first sketch of an anarchist commonwealth in this sense was developed in England in the years immediately following the English Civil Wars (1642–51) by Gerrard Winstanley, a dissenting Christian and founder of the Digger movement. In his pamphlet of 1649, Truth Lifting Up Its Head Above Scandals, Winstanley laid down what later became basic principles among anarchists: that power corrupts; that property is incompatible with freedom; that authority and property are between them the begetters of crime; and that only in a society without rulers, where work and its products are shared, can men be free and happy, acting not according to laws imposed from above but according to their consciences. Winstanley was not only the pioneer theorist of anarchism but also the forerunner of anarchist activism. In 1649, calling upon the people “to manure and work upon the common lands,” he and a band of followers occupied a hillside in southern England and established a society of agrarian free communism.

The Digger experiment was destroyed by local landowners, and Winstanley vanished into such obscurity that the place and date of his death are unknown. But the principles he defended lingered on in the traditions of English Protestant sects and reached their ultimate flowering in the work of a former dissenting minister, William Godwin. In his masterpiece, Political Justice (1793), Godwin not only presents the classic anarchist argument that authority is against nature and that social evils exist because men are not free to act according to reason, he also sketches out a decentralized society composed of small autonomous communities, or parishes. Within these communities, democratic political procedures would be dispensed with as far as possible, because, according to Godwin, they encourage a majoritarian tyranny and dilute individual responsibility. Godwin also condemns “accumulated property” as a source of power over others and envisions a loose economic system in which people would give and take according to their needs. Godwin was a prophet of technological progress, and he believed that industrial development would eventually reduce the necessary working time to half an hour a day, provided people lived simply, and that this arrangement would facilitate the transition to a society without authority.

Godwin enjoyed great celebrity in the 1790s and influenced varied writers such as Percy Bysshe Shelley (whose Queen Mab and Prometheus Unbound are virtually anarchist poems), William Wordsworth, William Hazlitt, and Robert Owen. By the time of his death in 1836, however, he was almost forgotten. Although his ideas had a subterranean influence on the British labour movement through the work of Owen, they had virtually no effect on the quasi-political anarchist movement on the continent of Europe during the mid-19th century.

French anarchist thought

The theoretical foundations of the Continental anarchist movement were laid by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. A brewer’s son of peasant stock from the Franche-Comté region of eastern France, he worked for a time (like many later anarchists) as a printer. In 1838 he won a scholarship to study in Paris, where he earned notoriety as a polemicist and radical journalist. His early works What Is Property? (1840) and System of Economic Contradictions; or, The Philosophy of Poverty (1846) established him as one of the leading theoreticians of socialism, a term that in the early 19th century embraced a wide spectrum of attitudes. In Paris during the 1840s Proudhon associated with Karl Marx and the Russian nobleman-turned-revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin. From his experiences during the Revolutions of 1848 Proudhon developed the theories presented in The Federal Principle (1863) and The Political Capability of the Working Classes (1865).

Proudhon was a complex writer who remained obstinately independent, refusing to consider himself the founder of either a system or a party. Yet he was justly regarded by Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, and other leaders of organized anarchism as their philosophical ancestor.

The main themes of his work were mutualism, federalism, and the power of the working classes to liberate themselves through organized economic action, an idea later known as “direct action.” By mutualism he meant the organization of society on an egalitarian basis. Although he was infamous for declaring (in What Is Property?) that “property is theft,” he did not advocate communism. He attacked the use of property as a means of exploiting the labour of others, but he regarded “possession”—the right of a worker or group of workers to control the land or tools necessary for production—as an essential bulwark of liberty. He therefore envisioned a society formed of independent peasants and artisans, with factories and utilities run by associations of workers, all united by a system of mutual credit founded on people’s banks. In place of the centralized state—the enemy of all anarchists—Proudhon suggested a federal system of autonomous local communities and industrial associations, bound by contract and mutual interest rather than by laws, with arbitration replacing courts of justice, workers’ management replacing bureaucracy, and integrated education replacing academic education. Out of such a network would emerge a natural social unity that would make the existing order seem “nothing but chaos, serving as a basis for endless tyranny.” In The Political Capability of the Working Classes—his final, posthumously published work—Proudhon argued that liberation was the task of the workers themselves. He thereby laid the intellectual foundations of a movement that rejected democratic and parliamentary politics in favour of various forms of direct action.

In the 1860s Proudhon’s working-class followers, unlike Proudhon himself, did not accept the name anarchist; instead, they preferred to call themselves Mutualists, after a working-class secret society to which Proudhon had belonged in Lyons during the 1830s. In 1864, shortly before Proudhon’s death, a group of Mutualists joined with British trade unionists and European socialists exiled in London to found the International Workingmen’s Association (the First International). Within the International, the Mutualists were the first opponents of Karl Marx and his followers, who advocated political action and the seizure of the state in order to create a proletarian dictatorship. Marx’s most formidable opponents, however, were not the Mutualists but the followers of Bakunin, who entered the International in 1868 after a long career as a political conspirator.

Russian anarchist thought

Bakunin had been a supporter of nationalist revolutionary movements in various Slav countries. In the 1840s he had come under the influence of Proudhon, and by the 1860s, when he entered the International, he had not only founded his own proto-anarchist organization—the Social Democratic Alliance, which had a considerable following in Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and the Rh?ne valley of France—but had modified Proudhonian teachings into a doctrine later known as collectivism. Bakunin accepted Proudhon’s federalism and his insistence on the need for working-class direct action, but he argued that the modified property rights Proudhon allowed were impractical. Instead, he suggested that the means of production should be owned collectively, though he still held that each worker should be remunerated only according to the amount of work he actually performed. The second important difference between Bakunin and Proudhon lay in their concepts of revolutionary method. Proudhon believed it was possible to create within existing society the mutualist associations that could replace it; he therefore opposed violent revolutionary action. Bakunin, declaring that “the passion for destruction is also a creative urge,” refused to accept a piecemeal approach; a violent revolution, sweeping away all existing institutions, was in his view the necessary prelude to the construction of a free and peaceful society.

Although the individualism and nonviolence implicit in Proudhon’s vision have survived in peripheral currents of the anarchist tradition, Bakunin’s stress on collectivism and violent revolutionary action dominated mainstream anarchism from the days of the First International down to the destruction of anarchism as a mass movement at the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939.

The First International was itself destroyed by the conflict between Marx and Bakunin, a conflict rooted as much in the contradictory personalities of the two leaders as in their rival doctrines—revolution by a disciplined party versus revolution by the spontaneous insurgence of the working class, respectively. When the International finally broke apart at the Hague congress in 1872, Bakunin’s followers were left in control of the working-class movements in the Latin countries—Spain, Italy, southern France, and French-speaking Switzerland—and these movements were to remain the principal bases of anarchism in Europe. In 1873 the Bakuninists set up their own International, which lasted as an active body until 1877; during this period its members finally accepted the name anarchist rather than Mutualist.

Bakunin died in 1876. His ideas had been developed in action as well as in writing, for he was the hero of many barricades, prisons, and meetings. His successor as ideological leader was Peter Kropotkin, who had renounced the title of prince when he became a revolutionary in 1872. Kropotkin is more celebrated for his writing than for his actions, though in his early years he led an eventful career as a revolutionary militant, which he described in a fine autobiography, Memoirs of a Revolutionist (1899). Under the influence of Russian revolutionary populist thought as well as a comrade such as the French geographer élisée Reclus (a former disciple of the French utopian socialist Charles Fourier), Kropotkin developed a variant of anarchist theory known as anarchist communism. Kropotkin and his followers went beyond Bakunin’s collectivism, arguing not only that the means of production should be owned cooperatively but that there should be complete communism in terms of distribution. This theory revived the scheme described in Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), involving common storehouses from which everyone would be allowed to take whatever he wished on the basis of the formula “From each according to his means, to each according to his needs.” In The Conquest of Bread (1892), Kropotkin sketched a vision of a revolutionary society organized as a federation of free communist groups. He reinforced this vision in Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution (1902), where he used biological and sociological evidence to argue that cooperation is more natural and usual than competition among both animals and human beings. In his Fields, Factories, and Workshops (1899) he developed ideas on the decentralization of industry appropriate to a nongovernmental society. In recognition of his scholarship, Kropotkin was invited to write an article on anarchism for the 11th edition of the Encyclop?dia Britannica.

Additional Information
Check out Britannica's new site for parents!
Subscribe Today!