Anarchism Essay - Critical Essays




The doctrine of Philosophical Anarchism presents a theoretical framework for the construction of a society without government. Critics carefully distinguish anarchism from the related concept of anarchy, which simply denotes a society without rule, and from the sensationalistic outpouring of so-called anarchist activities of the late nineteenth century associated with a number of prominent political assassinations. As a social-political theory, anarchism is more broadly defined according to its philosophical justifications for anarchy as a practicable goal, coupled with a view of complete human freedom brought about by mutual aid, and its emphasis on individualism and the moral and rational perfectibility of humankind. Generally, anarchist thought of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is critical of law, private property, and political authority, all of which it considers to be means of oppression. Overall, the anarchists forwarded a radically optimistic view of human nature that suggests that human beings, unrestrained by laws and governments, may form a society based on the principle of cooperation.

Philosophical Anarchism found its expression in the writings of several nineteenth-century European thinkers, particularly the French writer and polemicist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. A significant portion of Proudhon's radical thought can be summed up in his dictum, “property is theft.” In place of private property, Proudhon advocated an egalitarian distribution of wealth and power in his work Du principe fédératif et de la nécessité de reconstituer le parti de la révolution (1863; The Federal Principle). Basing his theory on the concepts of individual freedom and mutual aid, Proudhon championed the eradication of privately-owned property, which, he argued, exploits the labor of workers. Commentators observe, additionally, that despite apparent affinities between Proudhon's anarchism and the communist theories of Karl Marx, the analyses of society provided by both men differ significantly. Proudhon's ideas did, however, prove influential on the Russian theorists Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin. Bakunin was largely in agreement with Proudhon's anarchist goals, although he proposed collectivism and violent revolution as necessary means to the development of Proudhon's mutualist society. Kropotkin likewise modified several of Proudhon's views in developing a theory that critics characterize as anarcho-socialism. In such works as La Conquête du pain (1892; The Conquest of Bread) and Vzaimnaia pomoshch, kak faktor evoliutsii (1902; Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution) Kropotkin presented a plan for a communist federation and analyzed the mechanisms of human cooperation that would factor into a free anarchist society.

Anarchist theory in England and North America followed a somewhat different line of development from that associated with continental European anarchism. Considered the principal theoretician of Reformist Anarchism, William Godwin published An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice in 1793, a work that outlines the essentials of classic anarchist thought and finds the source of evil in the subjugation of human free will to the arbitrary dictates of authority. According to Godwin's somewhat utopian vision of an anarchist society, advances in technology would result in a drastic reduction in work—perhaps to as little as one half hour per individual per day—with no loss in material comfort. Unlike Russian anarchists, who frequently proposed a collectivist solution to the problem of realizing an anarchist society, Godwin advocated individualism but criticized democratic practices that could curb individual liberty through the tyranny of majority rule. In the United States, Godwin's theories proved influential on the American anarchist Josiah Warren, whose ideas differ from his English predecessor in their emphasis on the free market system and the acceptability of private property as a means of expanding the material well-being of humanity.

Representative Works

Mikhail Bakunin
Fédéralisme, Socialisme et Antithéologie[Federalism, Socialism and Anti-theologism] (philosophy) 1895

William Godwin
An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (socio-economics) 1793

Jean Grave
La Société mourante et l’anarchie [The Dying Society and Anarchy] (socio-economics) 1893

Peter Kropotkin
La Conquête du pain [The Conquest of Bread] (socio-economics) 1892
Vzaimnaia pomoshch, kak faktor evoliutsii [Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution] (socio-economics) 1902

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
Qu’est-ce que la propriété [What Is Property?] (essay) 1840
Système des contradictions économiques [System of Economic Contradictions] (socio-economics) 1846
Du principe fédératif et de la nécessité de reconstituer le parti de la révolution [The Federal Principle] (socio-economics) 1863

Max Stirner
Der Einzige und sein Eigentum [The Ego and His Own] (philosophy) 1845

Josiah Warren
Equitable Commerce: A New Development of Principles as Substitutes for Laws and Governments, for the Harmonious Adjustment and Regulation of the Pecuniary, Intellectual, and Moral Intercourse of Mankind Proposed as Elements of a New Society (socio-economics) 1852

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Harold Barclay (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “On the Nature of Anarchy,” in People Without Government: An Anthropology of Anarchy, Kahn & Averill, 1990, pp. 15-33.

[In the following essay, Barclay enumerates the differences between anarchy and anarchism, and goes on to define each in theoretical and practical terms.]


Our first task must be to clarify the meaning of anarchy in relation to a variety of different terms. Let us begin by considering anarchy and anarchism. These must be distinguished from one another, just as one distinguishes ‘primitive communism’ from Marxian communism. The latter is an elaborate sociological system, a philosophy...

(The entire section is 8126 words.)

George Crowder (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Three Sources of Anarchism,” in Classical Anarchism: The Political Thought of Godwin, Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin, Clarendon Press, 1991, pp. 6-38.

[In the following essay, Crowder illuminates three major sources of anarchist thought: the concept of the moral and rational perfectibility of man, Jean-Jacques Rousseau's critique of civilization, and the optimism of Enlightenment science.]

The history of Western political thought contains many anti-authoritarian currents. The vision of a golden age without government is a favourite theme from Ovid to Rousseau, and those writers who have advocated release from the authority of Church and State are too...

(The entire section is 12616 words.)

Criticism: The French Anarchist Tradition

S. Y. Lu (essay date 1922)

SOURCE: “Proudhon's Theory of the State from the Standpoint of an Anarchist-Creative,” in The Political Theories of P. J. Proudhon, M. R. Gray, Inc., 1922, pp. 95-121.

[In the following essay, Lu studies the development of Proudhon's anarchist political theory.]

As has already been said, Proudhon was the father of anarchism.1 From 1840 to 1863, he repeatedly declared himself an anarchist.2 In discussing his theory of anarchy, we may, for the sake of clearness, divide the work into three parts: (1) why he preferred anarchy to the other forms of government, (2) how it can be realized, and (3) what are its general characteristics.


(The entire section is 8335 words.)

Alan B. Spitzer (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: “The Life and Historical Role of Blanqui,” in The Revolutionary Theories of Louis Auguste Blanqui, Columbia University Press, 1957, pp. 3-27.

[In the following essay, Spitzer describes the life and evaluates the influence of the martyred anarchist and precursor of modern revolutionary socialism, Louis Auguste Blanqui.]

The fact and idea of revolution have been crucial to French political history ever since 1789. Throughout the nineteenth century an articulate minority advocated the revolutionary solutions of political problems and actively fostered the resolution of ideological conflicts by physical violence. However, the great French theorists of...

(The entire section is 7093 words.)

Alan Ritter (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: “Proudhon as a Radical Critic of Established Institutions,” in The Political Thought of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Princeton University Press, 1969, pp. 94-117.

[In the following essay, Ritter examines Proudhon's critique of hierarchy, government, law, and political rule.]

A critic qualifies as radical by carrying his assault on the status quo beyond its surface defects to their hidden sources. He grabs matters by the root, as Marx said, while others are content to prune their leaves and branches. Proudhon wants to grab by the root what he regards as the present world's most potent instruments of oppression: hierarchy and government.1


(The entire section is 6323 words.)

Louis Patsouras (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Road to Revolution,” in Jean Grave and the Anarchist Tradition in France, The Caslon Company, 1995, pp. 79-89.

[In the following excerpt, Patsouras investigates the theoretical views of the anarcho-communist Jean Grave.]

The theoretical views of [Jean] Grave and anarchism in certain key areas—criticism of bourgeois society, revolution, and other related topics—are the focus of this section. More developed restatements are needed in order to better understand the anarchist position.

Grave's thought is greatly indebted to Proudhon, Bakunin, contemporary anarcho-communism (Kropotkin's and Elisée Reclus' influence is obvious), and to...

(The entire section is 6065 words.)

Criticism: Anglo-American Anarchism

SOURCE: “The Birth of Individualist Anarchism,” in The Individualist Anarchists: A Critique of Liberalism, University Press of America, 1987, pp. 1-34.

[In the following excerpt, Kline discusses the American brand of individualist anarchism advocated by Josiah Warren and Stephen Pearl Andrews.]


Almost fifty years ago the last distinct vestiges of an entire radical American tradition disappeared with the death of Benjamin Tucker. Since that time the radical tradition which Tucker represented has been virtually lost in American history books. The reasons for this obscurity are manifold but two seem to predominate. The first...

(The entire section is 10882 words.)

Criticism: Anarchism: Incidents And Issues

H. Oliver (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “The Era of Propaganda by Deed II: 1894-7,” in The International Anarchist Movement in Late Victorian London, Croom Helm, 1983, 99-119.

[In the following essay, Oliver details several prominent anarchist incidents of the 1890s, including the event that inspired Joseph Conrad's novel, The Secret Agent.]


The sole outrage that occurred in London, a bomb explosion outside the Greenwich Observatory in February 1894, killed the man carrying the bomb. It is probably best known because Conrad based his novel The Secret Agent on it. In his “author's note” to the novel, Conrad said that the subject came...

(The entire section is 7853 words.)

Peter Marshall (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “Human Nature and Anarchism,” in For Anarchism: History, Theory, and Practice, edited by David Goodway, Routledge, 1985, pp. 127-49.

[In the following essay, Marshall considers the anarchist theories of William Godwin, Max Stirner, and Peter Kropotkin, and offers his own critique of the concept of human nature.]

Critics of anarchism, indeed of any attempt to expand freedom, have repeatedly fallen back on the tired argument that it is against ‘human nature’. The conventional wisdom amongst historians of political thought is that anarchists have an optimistic view of human beings as being naturally good and that it is only the state that produces evil in...

(The entire section is 9404 words.)

David Morland (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Kropotkin: Mutual Aid and Anarchy,” in Demanding the Impossible? Human Nature and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Social Anarchism, Cassell, 1997, pp. 125-79.

[In the following excerpt, Morland analyzes Kropotkin's theory of anarchism.]

Of all the classical anarchists it is perhaps Kropotkin who corresponds most closely to informed perceptions of anarchism. Martin Miller, for example, has described him ‘as the world's leading anarchist theoretician.’1 Certainly, when compared to Proudhon and Bakunin, there are fewer doubts associated with the standing or status of Kropotkin as an anarchist. Nevertheless, doubts persist and there are strong...

(The entire section is 9678 words.)

Further Reading


Adán, José Peréz. Reformist Anarchism 1800-1936: A Study of the Feasibility of Anarchism. Braunton: Merlin Books, Ltd.: 1992, 242 p.

Examines the philosophical theory and political solutions postulated by the Reformist Anarchists—William Godwin, Josiah Warren, Stephen P. Andrews, and others.

Ehrenberg, John. Proudhon and His Age. Atlantic Highlands, N. J.: Humanities Press International, Inc., 1996, 184 p.

Studies Proudhon's thought in regard to capitalism and its effects on the petite bourgeoisie of mid nineteenth-century France.

Guérin, Daniel. “Marxism and...

(The entire section is 248 words.)