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Anarchism - Origins

AQA, Edexcel, IB

Last updated 25 May 2019

Although the term has been in use since the late 18th century, initially as a description of social breakdown, the word ‘anarchism’ itself comes from the ancient Greek anarchos and literally means ‘without a government or ruler’.

For most people, the idea of ‘anarchy’ has negative connotations, conjuring up images of a disorderly and chaotic society.

Anarchists, of course, reject this negative association, starting with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon who, in his work What Is Property (1840), openly declared himself an anarchist and argued that anarchism was a positive and coherent body of political thought.

Anarchism is defined by a number of key beliefs or features:

  • All forms of political authority, notably the state, are unnecessary and evil because they are controlling, commanding, coercive and corrupting
  • The creation of a stateless society (without government or imposed laws) is the only way to guarantee freedom, equality, natural order and social harmony
  • Humans can organise their own lives through their own initiative and voluntary agreements; they do not need to regulated by ‘top down’ social and political hierarchies or a system of incentives and sanctions
  • Anarchism is not based on a single ideological tradition: individualist anarchism is influenced by liberalism, and collectivist anarchism rests on socialist foundations

Anarchism and its Origins from Three Political Traditions

Anarchism derives from three different political traditions which help to explain why anarchism has assumed a variety of forms.

Philosophical anarchism

Philosophical anarchism emerged during the 18th century Enlightenment, a wide-ranging intellectual movement that stressed the importance of human reason and the need to examine critically existing ideas, institutions and traditions. During this period, William Godwin (1756-1836), was the key figure in the development of philosophical anarchism. He produced the first statement of anarchist principles in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793). Godwin argued that humans were rational social creatures, moulded by their environment, and the state was tyrannical and corrupting. A better stateless society could be achieved if individuals could attain moral perfection, chiefly through education. Under such circumstances, morally perfect humans would use their private judgement for unselfish and benevolent ends and thus would not require guidance from the law or state. Godwin was convinced that this process would be ongoing until its inevitable completion. He is viewed as a philosophical anarchist because he is chiefly concerned with principles rather than practice.

Collectivist anarchism

Collectivist anarchism was part of the broad socialist movement that surfaced in the 19th century in reaction to the inequalities and exploitation associated with feudalism and industrial capitalism in Europe. Marxism was arguably the most prominent feature of this general left-wing response to the hardships endured by the peasantry and the industrial working class. Collectivist anarchism, perhaps best exemplified by Mikhail Bakunin (1814-76), represents a form of decentralised or stateless socialism based on voluntary association and communal living. Collectivist anarchists call for the abolition of the state and the introduction of common ownership to promote the rational, altruistic and co-operative aspects of human nature.

Collectivist anarchism is divided into three different sub-strands – anarcho-communism, mutualism and anarcho-syndicalism. Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921) and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) are widely regarded as the leading exponents of anarcho-communism and mutualism respectively. Collectivist anarchism and Marxism parted company in the 1870s due to differences over the state. Marxist socialists argue that, after the overthrow of capitalism, a temporary workers’ state will be required to consolidate the revolution and prepare the way for stateless communism. Collectivist anarchists reject this retention of the state apparatus, maintaining that all forms of the state have to be removed since they are immoral, unjust, coercive, controlling and corrupting.

Individualist anarchism

Individualist anarchism also first appeared in the 19th century and is located on the libertarian right of the political spectrum since it takes classical liberalism to an extreme end point.

One strand of individualist anarchism emerged in the USA, represented by Josiah Warren (1798-1874), Henry Thoreau (1817-62) and Benjamin Tucker (1854-1939). These individualist anarchists view society as simply a loose grouping of separate autonomous rational individuals. To protect this personal autonomy, the state (because it has the power to impose taxes, conscription and laws) has to be abolished. Freed from such restrictions, individuals will behave rationally, working together voluntarily where necessary to settle disagreements through reason rather than conflict. Such an approach would establish natural order and a stable harmonious society.

The other more assertive and egotistical strand of individualist anarchism emerged in 19th century Europe and is best represented by Max Stirner (1806-56) and his concept of egoism. According to Stirner, humans are driven by egoism because they are self-interested, lack morality and want total personal autonomy. Consequently, individuals should act as they see fit without any restrictions being imposed on them. Nihilists, such as Sergei Nechaev (1847-82), are the most extreme egoists and push this stark individualism to its limit by arguing that humans are cut off from both morality and society. Egoism and nihilism represent a romanticised form of individualism based on will, emotion and the expression of unique individuality.

The most recent manifestation of individualist anarchism, anarcho-capitalism, appeared in the USA in the 1970s and 1980s, due to growing criticism in the west of government regulation of capitalism and a revival of interest in free market economics. Anarcho-capitalism has been championed by US economists Murray Rothbard (1926-95) and David Friedman (1945-) and calls for a stateless society with a completely unregulated free market capitalist economy.

Key terms:

State: a body with sovereign powers that exercises complete authority over all people living within its territorial boundaries. Anarchists reject the existence of the state, claiming that it protects the interests of the ruling class and prevents the development of personal independence.

Government: the system of rule, operating now or in the past, which controls the state. Governments can take many different forms such as monarchies, liberal democracies and dictatorships. For anarchists, governments are both corrupt and corrupting, and thwart individual development and personal growth.

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