Anarchist FAQ/What is Anarchism?/1.5

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A.1.5 Where does anarchism come from?[edit]

Where does anarchism come from? We can do no better than quote The Organisational Platform of the Libertarian Communists produced by participants of the Makhnovist movement in the Russian Revolution (see Section A.5.4). They point out that:

"The class struggle created by the enslavement of workers and their aspirations to liberty gave birth, in the oppression, to the idea of anarchism: the idea of the total negation of a social system based on the principles of classes and the State, and its replacement by a free non-statist society of workers under self-management.

So anarchism does not derive from the abstract reflections of an intellectual or a philosopher, but from the direct struggle of workers against capitalism, from the needs and necessities of the workers, from their aspirations to liberty and equality, aspirations which become particularly alive in the best heroic period of the life and struggle of the working masses.

"The outstanding anarchist thinkers, Bakunin, Kropotkin and others, did not invent the idea of anarchism, but, having discovered it in the masses, simply helped by the strength of their thought and knowledge to specify and spread it." [pp. 15-16]

Like the anarchist movement in general, the Makhnovists were a mass movement of working class people resisting the forces of authority, both Red (Communist) and White (Tsarist/Capitalist) in the Ukraine from 1917 to 1921. As Peter Marshall notes "anarchism . . . has traditionally found its chief supporters amongst workers and peasants." [Demanding the Impossible, p. 652]

Anarchism was created in, and by, the struggle of the oppressed for freedom. For Kropotkin, for example, "Anarchism . . . originated in everyday struggles" and "the Anarchist movement was renewed each time it received an impression from some great practical lesson: it derived its origin from the teachings of life itself." [Evolution and Environment, p. 58 and p. 57] For Proudhon, "the proof" of his mutualist ideas lay in the "current practice, revolutionary practice" of "those labour associations . . . which have spontaneously . . . been formed in Paris and Lyon . . . [show that the] organisation of credit and organisation of labour amount to one and the same." [No Gods, No Masters, vol. 1, pp. 59-60] Indeed, as one historian argues, there was "close similarity between the associational ideal of Proudhon . . . and the program of the Lyon Mutualists" and that there was "a remarkable convergence [between the ideas], and it is likely that Proudhon was able to articulate his positive program more coherently because of the example of the silk workers of Lyon. The socialist ideal that he championed was already being realised, to a certain extent, by such workers." [1]

Thus anarchism comes from the fight for liberty and our desires to lead a fully human life, one in which we have time to live, to love and to play. It was not created by a few people divorced from life, in ivory towers looking down upon society and making judgements upon it based on their notions of what is right and wrong. Rather, it was a product of working class struggle and resistance to authority, oppression and exploitation. As Albert Meltzer put it:

"There were never theoreticians of Anarchism as such, though it produced a number of theoreticians who discussed aspects of its philosophy. Anarchism has remained a creed that has been worked out in action rather than as the putting into practice of an intellectual idea. Very often, a bourgeois writer comes along and writes down what has already been worked out in practice by workers and peasants; he [or she] is attributed by bourgeois historians as being a leader, and by successive bourgeois writers (citing the bourgeois historians) as being one more case that proves the working class relies on bourgeois leadership." [2]

In Kropotkin's eyes, "Anarchism had its origins in the same creative, constructive activity of the masses which has worked out in times past all the social institutions of mankind -- and in the revolts . . . against the representatives of force, external to these social institutions, who had laid their hands on these institutions and used them for their own advantage." More recently, "Anarchy was brought forth by the same critical and revolutionary protest which gave birth to Socialism in general." Anarchism, unlike other forms of socialism, "lifted its sacrilegious arm, not only against Capitalism, but also against these pillars of Capitalism: Law, Authority, and the State." All anarchist writers did was to "work out a general expression of [anarchism's] principles, and the theoretical and scientific basis of its teachings" derived from the experiences of working class people in struggle as well as analysing the evolutionary tendencies of society in general. [Op. Cit., p. 19 and p. 57]

However, anarchistic tendencies and organisations in society have existed long before Proudhon put pen to paper in 1840 and declared himself an anarchist. While anarchism, as a specific political theory, was born with the rise of capitalism (Anarchism "emerged at the end of the eighteenth century . . .[and] took up the dual challenge of overthrowing both Capital and the State." [Peter Marshall, Op. Cit., p. 4]) anarchist writers have analysed history for libertarian tendencies. Kropotkin argued, for example, that "from all times there have been Anarchists and Statists." [Op. Cit., p. 16] In Mutual Aid (and elsewhere) Kropotkin analysed the libertarian aspects of previous societies and noted those that successfully implemented (to some degree) anarchist organisation or aspects of anarchism. He recognised this tendency of actual examples of anarchistic ideas to predate the creation of the "official" anarchist movement and argued that:

"From the remotest, stone-age antiquity, men [and women] have realised the evils that resulted from letting some of them acquire personal authority. . . Consequently they developed in the primitive clan, the village community, the medieval guild . . . and finally in the free medieval city, such institutions as enabled them to resist the encroachments upon their life and fortunes both of those strangers who conquered them, and those clansmen of their own who endeavoured to establish their personal authority." [Anarchism, pp. 158-9]

Kropotkin placed the struggle of working class people (from which modern anarchism sprung) on par with these older forms of popular organisation. He argued that "the labour combinations. . . were an outcome of the same popular resistance to the growing power of the few -- the capitalists in this case" as were the clan, the village community and so on, as were "the strikingly independent, freely federated activity of the 'Sections' of Paris and all great cities and many small 'Communes' during the French Revolution" in 1793. [Op. Cit., p. 159]

Thus, while anarchism as a political theory is an expression of working class struggle and self-activity against capitalism and the modern state, the ideas of anarchism have continually expressed themselves in action throughout human existence. Many indigenous peoples in North America and elsewhere, for example, practised anarchism for thousands of years before anarchism as a specific political theory existed. Similarly, anarchistic tendencies and organisations have existed in every major revolution -- the New England Town Meetings during the American Revolution, the Parisian 'Sections' during the French Revolution, the workers' councils and factory committees during the Russian Revolution to name just a few examples (see Murray Bookchin's The Third Revolution for details). This is to be expected if anarchism is, as we argue, a product of resistance to authority then any society with authorities will provoke resistance to them and generate anarchistic tendencies (and, of course, any societies without authorities cannot help but being anarchistic).

In other words, anarchism is an expression of the struggle against oppression and exploitation, a generalisation of working people's experiences and analyses of what is wrong with the current system and an expression of our hopes and dreams for a better future. This struggle existed before it was called anarchism, but the historic anarchist movement (i.e. groups of people calling their ideas anarchism and aiming for an anarchist society) is essentially a product of working class struggle against capitalism and the state, against oppression and exploitation, and for a free society of free and equal individuals.


  1. K. Steven Vincent, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and the Rise of French Republican Socialism, p. 164
  2. Anarchism: Arguments for and against, p. 18