Study Guide


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.)