Anarchist Movements In Europe And America Essay

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Anarchism is a political belief that rejects organized government and asserts that each individual person should govern him or herself. Anarchists believe that all forms of rulership and government over a people are detrimental to society because they interfere with individual action and responsibility. The term is distinguished from the word anarchy, which means the actual absence of any form of organized government. The origin of anarchism can be traced to the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, when movements supporting intellectualism and reason became influential. Some of the effects of the ideas of this age were radical changes in government ideals and values. The ideas of Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–78), a Swiss-born philosopher, influenced the inciters of the French Revolution. Some of these groups applied the term anarchist to themselves as a positive label referring to people who were opposed to old and undesirable forms of government.

Anarchist ideas can be found in the writings of William Godwin (1756–1836), the father of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. Godwin attributed the evils of mankind to societal corruption and theorized that it was better to reduce organized government. Godwin felt that humans’ possession of a rational mind would be spoiled should external controls interfere.

The person who is most often credited as the father of modern anarchism is Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–65). He was the first to coin the words anarchism and anarchist to refer to his belief system. In 1840 he published his first significant work, What is Property? He was also opposed to both capitalism and communism, though his beliefs and writings put him under the socialist umbrella.

Proudhon, when he settled in Paris, found people who had already accepted his ideas. However, the movement soon evolved into several types of anarchism mainly due to views on economics. Most of the concepts of anarchist groups are based on the treatment of the industrial worker, as this was a primary concern at the time these groups were founded, and workers were the ones who most commonly formed anarchist groups.

The major types of anarchism that have evolved since then are:

Mutualism—Although this started as a set of economic ideas from French and English labor groups, it later became associated with Proudhon. It bases its ideas on Proudhon’s assertion that a product’s true price should be determined by the amount of labor spent to produce it without considering materials. Therefore, mutual reward is achieved when people are paid for their labor no matter what economic conditions will apply. However, private ownership of production facilities is maintained.

Collectivist Anarchism—This movement is mostly attributed to Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin (1814–76). For collectivist anarchists private ownership of the means of production is opposed, and ownership is collectivized. Workers should be paid according to the time spent on production work.

Anarchist Communism—Also called communist anarchism, this movement suggests that a worker is not necessarily entitled to the products that he or she worked to produce and that mere satisfaction of needs is the payment. Instead of a general government, self-governing communes can be organized that are ruled by actual democracy, based on constituent voting. Joseph Déjacque (1821–64) is considered the first figure of this subgroup, while the most influential is Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921). Like in communism, private ownership is opposed.

Anarcho-Syndicalism—This movement promotes the power of trade unions to override capitalism and seeks to abolish the wage system and private ownership. It borrows heavily from collectivist and communist modes of anarchism. Workers’ groups are to have a heavy degree of solidarity and are able to self-govern without external controls. The most prominent anarcho-syndicalist was Rudolf Rocker (1873–1958).

Individualist Anarchism—This is the most common form of anarchism in the United States. Individualist anarchism is influenced mainly by the writings of Henry David Thoreau (1817–62), although his writings are mainly philosophical and do not recommend any kind of action. Other U.S. anarchists, such as Josiah Warren, Lysander Spooner, and Benjamin Tucker had more explanation on their courses of action. However, another kind of individualist anarchism, egoism, was presented by German philosopher Max Stirner (1806– 56) in the mid-1800s.

Other anarchist forms were anarcho-capitalism, which enjoys a strong following in the United States, and anarchism without adjectives, a uniquely named form championed by the most prominent female anarchist in history, Voltairine de Cleyre (1866–1912). Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) promoted a religion-based form of anarchism, Christian anarchism, advocating that since God is the ultimate government there should be no human governments organized.

Anarchist ideals had gained a significant following by the 19th century but had lost mass appeal by the turn of the 20th century. In the Russian Revolution and Civil War of 1917, anarchists participated alongside communists but were turned against by the communist government. This led to the 1921 Kronstadt Rebellion, and anarchists were either jailed or made to leave the country.

In the 1930s, anarchists were opposed to the Fascist government of Italy under Benito Mussolini. Anarchists were active also in France and Spain. In 1937, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo was a generally anarchist labor union that participated in events leading to the Spanish civil war.



  1. Avrich, Paul. The Modern School Movement: Anarchism and Education in the United States. San Francisco: AK Press, 2005;
  2. Berkman, Alexander, Emma Goldman, and Paul Avrich. The ABCs of Anarchism. London: Freedom Press, 2000;
  3. Graham, Robert. Anarchism. A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2005;
  4. Meltzer, Albert. Anarchism: Arguments For and Against. San Francisco: AK Press, 2000.

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