Anarchism Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


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.