Anarchist FAQ/What is Anarchism?/4

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A.4 Who are the major anarchist thinkers?

Although Gerard Winstanley (The New Law of Righteousness, 1649) and William Godwin (Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, 1793) had begun to unfold the philosophy of anarchism in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was not until the second half of the 19th century that anarchism emerged as a coherent theory with a systematic, developed programme. This work was mainly started by four people -- a German, Max Stirner (1806-1856), a Frenchman, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865), and two Russians, Michael Bakunin (1814-1876) and Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921). They took the ideas in common circulation within sections of the working population and expressed them in written form.

Born in the atmosphere of German romantic philosophy, Stirner's anarchism (set forth in The Ego and Its Own) was an extreme form of individualism, or egoism, which placed the unique individual above all else -- state, property, law or duty. His ideas remain a cornerstone of anarchism. Stirner attacked both capitalism and state socialism, laying the foundations of both social and individualist anarchism by his egoist critique of capitalism and the state that supports it. In place of the state and capitalism, Max Stirner urges the "union of egoists," free associations of unique individuals who co-operate as equals in order to maximise their freedom and satisfy their desires (including emotional ones for solidarity, or "intercourse" as Stirner called it). Such a union would be non-hierarchical, for, as Stirner wonders, "is an association, wherein most members allow themselves to be lulled as regards their most natural and most obvious interests, actually an Egoist's association? Can they really be 'Egoists' who have banded together when one is a slave or a serf of the other?" [No Gods, No Masters, vol. 1, p. 24]

Individualism by definition includes no concrete programme for changing social conditions. This was attempted by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the first to describe himself openly as an anarchist. His theories of mutualism, federalism and workers' self-management and association had a profound effect on the growth of anarchism as a mass movement and spelled out clearly how an anarchist world could function and be co-ordinated. It would be no exaggeration to state that Proudhon's work defined the fundamental nature of anarchism as both an anti-state and anti-capitalist movement and set of ideas. Bakunin, Kropotkin and Tucker all claimed inspiration from his ideas and they are the immediate source for both social and individualist anarchism, with each thread emphasising different aspects of mutualism (for example, social anarchists stress the associational aspect of them while individualist anarchists the non-capitalist market side). Proudhon's major works include What is Property, System of Economical Contradictions, The Principle of Federation and, and The Political Capacity of the Working Classes. His most detailed discussion of what mutualism would look like can be found in his The General Idea of the Revolution. His ideas heavily influenced both the French Labour movement and the Paris Commune of 1871.

Proudhon's ideas were built upon by Michael Bakunin, who humbly suggested that his own ideas were simply Proudhon's "widely developed and pushed right to . . . [their] final consequences." [Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 198] However, he is doing a disservice to his own role in developing anarchism. For Bakunin is the central figure in the development of modern anarchist activism and ideas. He emphasised the importance of collectivism, mass insurrection, revolution and involvement in the militant labour movement as the means of creating a free, classless society. Moreover, he repudiated Proudhon's sexism and added patriarchy to the list of social evils anarchism opposes. Bakunin also emphasised the social nature of humanity and individuality, rejecting the abstract individualism of liberalism as a denial of freedom. His ideas become dominant in the 20th century among large sections of the radical labour movement. Indeed, many of his ideas are almost identical to what would later be called syndicalism or anarcho-syndicalism. Bakunin influenced many union movements -- especially in Spain, where a major anarchist social revolution took place in 1936. His works include Anarchy and Statism (his only book), God and the State, The Paris Commune and the Idea of the State, and many others. Bakunin on Anarchism, edited by Sam Dolgoff is an excellent collection of his major writings. Brian Morris' Bakunin: The Philosophy of Freedom is an excellent introduction to Bakunin's life and ideas.

Peter Kropotkin, a scientist by training, fashioned a sophisticated and detailed anarchist analysis of modern conditions linked to a thorough-going prescription for a future society -- communist-anarchism -- which continues to be the most widely-held theory among anarchists. He identified mutual aid as the best means by which individuals can develop and grow, pointing out that competition within humanity (and other species) was often not in the best interests of those involved. Like Bakunin, he stressed the importance of direct, economic, class struggle and anarchist participation in any popular movement, particularly in labour unions. Taking Proudhon's and Bakunin's idea of the commune, he generalised their insights into a vision of how the social, economic and personal life of a free society would function. He aimed to base anarchism "on a scientific basis by the study of the tendencies that are apparent now in society and may indicate its further evolution" towards anarchy while, at the same time, urging anarchists to "promote their ideas directly amongst the labour organisations and to induce those union to a direct struggle against capital, without placing their faith in parliamentary legislation." [Anarchism, p. 298 and p. 287] Like Bakunin, he was a revolutionary and, like Bakunin, his ideas inspired those struggle for freedom across the globe. His major works included Mutual Aid, The Conquest of Bread, Field, Factories, and Workshops, Modern Science and Anarchism, Act for Yourselves, The State: Its Historic Role, Words of a Rebel, and many others. A collection of his revolutionary pamphlets is available under the title Anarchism and is essential reading for anyone interested in his ideas. In Addition, Graham Purchase's Evolution and Revolution and Kropotkin: The Politics of Community by Brain Morris are both excellent evaluations of his ideas and how they are still relevant today.

The various theories proposed by these "founding anarchists" are not, however, mutually exclusive: they are interconnected in many ways, and to some extent refer to different levels of social life. Individualism relates closely to the conduct of our private lives: only by recognising the uniqueness and freedom of others and forming unions with them can we protect and maximise our own uniqueness and liberty; mutualism relates to our general relations with others: by mutually working together and co-operating we ensure that we do not work for others. Production under anarchism would be collectivist, with people working together for their own, and the common, good, and in the wider political and social world decisions would be reached communally.

It should also be stressed that anarchist schools of thought are not named after individual anarchists. Thus anarchists are not "Bakuninists", "Proudhonists" or "Kropotkinists" (to name three possibilities). Anarchists, to quote Malatesta, "follow ideas and not men, and rebel against this habit of embodying a principle in a man." This did not stop him calling Bakunin "our great master and inspiration." [Errico Malatesta: Life and Ideas, p. 199 and p. 209] Equally, not everything written by a famous anarchist thinker is automatically libertarian. Bakunin, for example, only became an anarchist in the last ten years of his life (this does not stop Marxists using his pre-anarchist days to attack anarchism!). Proudhon turned away from anarchism in the 1850s before returning to a more anarchistic (if not strictly anarchist) position just before his death in 1865. Similarly, Kropotkin's or Tucker's arguments in favour of supporting the Allies during the First World War had nothing to do with anarchism. Thus to say, for example, that anarchism is flawed because Proudhon was a sexist pig simply does not convince anarchists. No one would dismiss democracy, for example, because Rousseau opinions on women were just as sexist as Proudhon's. As with anything, modern anarchists analyse the writings of previous anarchists to draw inspiration, but a dogma. Consequently, we reject the non-libertarian ideas of "famous" anarchists while keeping their positive contributions to the development of anarchist theory. We are sorry to belabour the point, but much of Marxist "criticism" of anarchism basically involves pointing out the negative aspects of dead anarchist thinkers and it is best simply to state clearly the obvious stupidity of such an approach.

Anarchist ideas of course did not stop developing when Kropotkin died. Neither are they the products of just four men. Anarchism is by its very nature an evolving theory, with many different thinkers and activists. When Bakunin and Kropotkin were alive, for example, they drew aspects of their ideas from other libertarian activists. Bakunin, for example, built upon the practical activity of the followers of Proudhon in the French labour movement in the 1860s. Kropotkin, while the most associated with developing the theory communist-anarchism, was simply the most famous expounder of the ideas that had developed after Bakunin's death in the libertarian wing of the First International and before he became an anarchist. Thus anarchism is the product of tens of thousands of thinkers and activists across the globe, each shaping and developing anarchist theory to meet their needs as part of the general movement for social change. Of the many other anarchists who could be mentioned here, we can mention but a few.

Stirner is not the only famous anarchist to come from Germany. It also produced a number of original anarchist thinkers. Gustav Landauer was expelled from the Marxist Social-Democratic Party for his radical views and soon after identified himself as an anarchist. For him, anarchy was "the expression of the liberation of man from the idols of state, the church and capital" and he fought "State socialism, levelling from above, bureaucracy" in favour of "free association and union, the absence of authority." His ideas were a combination of Proudhon's and Kropotkin's and he saw the development of self-managed communities and co-operatives as the means of changing society. He is most famous for his insight that the "state is a condition, a certain relationship among human beings, a mode of behaviour between them; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently towards one another." [quoted by Peter Marshall, Demanding the Impossible, p. 410 and p. 411] He took a leading part in the Munich revolution of 1919 and was murdered during its crushing by the German state. His book For Socialism is an excellent summary of his main ideas.

Other notable German anarchists include Johann Most, originally a Marxist and an elected member of the Reichstag, he saw the futility of voting and became an anarchist after being exiled for writing against the Kaiser and clergy. He played an important role in the American anarchist movement, working for a time with Emma Goldman. More a propagandist than a great thinker, his revolutionary message inspired numerous people to become anarchists. Then there is Rudolf Rocker, a bookbinder by trade who played an important role in the Jewish labour movement in the East End of London (see his autobiography, The London Years, for details). He also produced the definite introduction to Anarcho-syndicalism as well as analysing the Russian Revolution in articles like Anarchism and Sovietism and defending the Spanish revolution in pamphlets like The Tragedy of Spain. His Nationalism and Culture is a searching analysis of human culture through the ages, with an analysis of both political thinkers and power politics. He dissects nationalism and explains how the nation is not the cause but the result of the state as well as repudiating race science for the nonsense it is.

In the United States Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were two of the leading anarchist thinkers and activists. Goldman united Stirner's egoism with Kropotkin's communism into a passionate and powerful theory which combined the best of both. She also placed anarchism at the centre of feminist theory and activism as well as being an advocate of syndicalism (see her book Anarchism and Other Essays and the collection of essays, articles and talks entitled Red Emma Speaks). Alexander Berkman, Emma's lifelong companion, produced a classic introduction to anarchist ideas called What is Anarchism? (also known as What is Communist Anarchism? and the ABC of Anarchism). Like Goldman, he supported anarchist involvement in the labour movement was a prolific writer and speaker (the book Life of An Anarchist gives an excellent selection of his best articles, books and pamphlets). Both were involved in editing anarchist journals, with Goldman most associated with Mother Earth (see Anarchy! An Anthology of Emma Goldman's Mother Earth edited by Peter Glassgold) and Berkman The Blast (reprinted in full in 2005). Both journals were closed down when the two anarchists were arrested in 1917 for their anti-war activism.

In December 1919, both he and Goldman were expelled by the US government to Russia after the 1917 revolution had radicalised significant parts of the American population. There as they were considered too dangerous to be allowed to remain in the land of the free. Exactly two years later, their passports arrived to allow them to leave Russia. The Bolshevik slaughter of the Kronstadt revolt in March 1921 after the civil war ended had finally convinced them that the Bolshevik dictatorship meant the death of the revolution there. The Bolshevik rulers were more than happy to see the back of two genuine revolutionaries who stayed true to their principles. Once outside Russia, Berkman wrote numerous articles on the fate of the revolution (including The Russian Tragedy and The Kronstadt Rebellion) as well as publishing his diary in book from as The Bolshevik Myth. Goldman produced her classic work My Disillusionment in Russia as well as publishing her famous autobiography Living My Life. She also found time to refute Trotsky's lies about the Kronstadt rebellion in Trotsky Protests Too Much.

As well as Berkman and Goldman, the United States also produced other notable activists and thinkers. Voltairine de Cleyre played an important role in the US anarchist movement, enriching both US and international anarchist theory with her articles, poems and speeches. Her work includes such classics as Anarchism and American Traditions, Direct Action, Sex Slavery and The Dominant Idea. These are included, along with other articles and some of her famous poems, in The Voltairine de Cleyre Reader. These and other important essays are included in Exquisite Rebel, another anthology of her writings, while Eugenia C. Delamotte's Gates of Freedom provides an excellent overview of her life and ideas as well as selections from her works. In addition, the book Anarchy! An Anthology of Emma Goldman's Mother Earth contains a good selection of her writings as well as other anarchists active at the time. Also of interest is the collection of the speeches she made to mark the state murder of the Chicago Martyrs in 1886 (see the First Mayday: The Haymarket Speeches 1895-1910). Every November the 11th, except when illness made it impossible, she spoke in their memory. For those interested in the ideas of that previous generation of anarchists which the Chicago Martyrs represented, Albert Parsons' Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Scientific Basis is essential reading. His wife, Lucy Parsons, was also an outstanding anarchist activist from the 1870s until her death in 1942 and selections of her writings and speeches can be found in the book Freedom, Equality & Solidarity (edited by Gale Ahrens).

Elsewhere in the Americas, Ricardo Flores Magon helped lay the ground for the Mexican revolution of 1910 by founding the (strangely named) Mexican Liberal Party in 1905 which organised two unsuccessful uprising against the Diaz dictatorship in 1906 and 1908. Through his paper Tierra y Libertad ("Land and Liberty") he influenced the developing labour movement as well as Zapata's peasant army. He continually stressed the need to turn the revolution into a social revolution which will "give the lands to the people" as well as "possession of the factories, mines, etc." Only this would ensure that the people "will not be deceived." Talking of the Agrarians (the Zapatista army), Ricardo's brother Enrique he notes that they "are more or less inclined towards anarchism" and they can work together because both are "direct actionists" and "they act perfectly revolutionary. They go after the rich, the authorities and the priestcraft" and have "burnt to ashes private property deeds as well as all official records" as well as having "thrown down the fences that marked private properties." Thus the anarchists "propagate our principles" while the Zapatista's "put them into practice." [quoted by David Poole, Land and Liberty, p. 17 and p. 25] Ricardo died as a political prisoner in an American jail and is, ironically, considered a hero of the revolution by the Mexican state. A substantial collection of his writings are available in the book Dreams of Freedom (which includes an impressive biographical essay which discusses his influence as well as placing his work in historical context).

Italy, with its strong and dynamic anarchist movement, has produced some of the best anarchist writers. Errico Malatesta spent over 50 years fighting for anarchism across the world and his writings are amongst the best in anarchist theory. For those interested in his practical and inspiring ideas then his short pamphlet Anarchy cannot be beaten. Collections of his articles can be found in The Anarchist Revolution and Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, both edited by Vernon Richards. A favourite writing technique was the use of dialogues, such as At the Cafe: Conversations on Anarchism. These, using the conversations he had with non-anarchists as their basis, explained anarchist ideas in a clear and down to Earth manner. Another dialogue, Fra Contadini: A Dialogue on Anarchy, was translated into many languages, with 100,000 copies printed in Italy in 1920 when the revolution Malatesta had fought for all his life looked likely. At this time Malatesta edited Umanita Nova (the first Italian daily anarchist paper, it soon gained a circulation of 50 000) as well as writing the programme for the Unione Anarchica Italiana, a national anarchist organisation of some 20 000. For his activities during the factory occupations he was arrested at the age of 67 along with 80 other anarchists activists. Other Italian anarchists of note include Malatesta's friend Luigi Fabbri (sadly little of his work has been translated into English bar Bourgeois Influences on Anarchism and Anarchy and 'Scientific' Communism) Luigi Galleani produced a very powerful anti-organisational anarchist-communism which proclaimed (in The End of Anarchism?) that "Communism is simply the economic foundation by which the individual has the opportunity to regulate himself and carry out his functions." Camillo Berneri, before being murdered by the Communists during the Spanish Revolution, continued the fine tradition of critical, practical anarchism associated with Italian anarchism. His study of Kropotkin's federalist ideas is a classic (Peter Kropotkin: His Federalist Ideas). His daughter Marie-Louise Berneri, before her tragic early death, contributed to the British anarchist press (see her Neither East Nor West: Selected Writings 1939-48 and Journey Through Utopia).

In Japan, Hatta Shuzo developed Kropotkin's communist-anarchism in new directions between the world wars. Called "true anarchism," he created an anarchism which was a concrete alternative to the mainly peasant country he and thousands of his comrades were active in. While rejecting certain aspects of syndicalism, they organised workers into unions as well as working with the peasantry for the "foundation stones on which to build the new society that we long for are none other than the awakening of the tenant farmers" who "account for a majority of the population." Their new society was based on decentralised communes which combined industry and agriculture for, as one of Hatta's comrade's put it, "the village will cease to be a mere communist agricultural village and become a co-operative society which is a fusion of agriculture and industry." Hatta rejected the idea that they sought to go back to an ideal past, stating that the anarchists were "completely opposite to the medievalists. We seek to use machines as means of production and, indeed, hope for the invention of yet more ingenious machines." [quoted by John Crump, Hatta Shuzo and Pure Anarchism in Interwar Japan, p. 122-3, and p. 144]

As far as individualist anarchism goes, the undoubted "pope" was Benjamin Tucker. Tucker, in his Instead of Book, used his intellect and wit to attack all who he considered enemies of freedom (mostly capitalists, but also a few social anarchists as well! For example, Tucker excommunicated Kropotkin and the other communist-anarchists from anarchism. Kropotkin did not return the favour). Tucker built on the such notable thinkers as Josiah Warren, Lysander Spooner, Stephen Pearl Andrews and William B. Greene, adapting Proudhon's mutualism to the conditions of pre-capitalist America (see Rudolf Rocker's Pioneers of American Freedom for details). Defending the worker, artisan and small-scale farmer from a state intent on building capitalism by means of state intervention, Tucker argued that capitalist exploitation would be abolished by creating a totally free non-capitalist market in which the four state monopolies used to create capitalism would be struck down by means of mutual banking and "occupancy and use" land and resource rights. Placing himself firmly in the socialist camp, he recognised (like Proudhon) that all non-labour income was theft and so opposed profit, rent and interest. he translated Proudhon's What is Property and System of Economical Contradictions as well as Bakunin's God and the State. Tucker's compatriot, Joseph Labadie was an active trade unionist as well as contributor to Tucker's paper Liberty. His son, Lawrence Labadie carried the individualist-anarchist torch after Tucker's death, believing that "that freedom in every walk of life is the greatest possible means of elevating the human race to happier conditions."

Undoubtedly the Russian Leo Tolstoy is the most famous writer associated with religious anarchism and has had the greatest impact in spreading the spiritual and pacifistic ideas associated with that tendency. Influencing such notable people as Gandhi and the Catholic Worker Group around Dorothy Day, Tolstoy presented a radical interpretation of Christianity which stressed individual responsibility and freedom above the mindless authoritarianism and hierarchy which marks so much of mainstream Christianity. Tolstoy's works, like those of that other radical libertarian Christian William Blake, have inspired many Christians towards a libertarian vision of Jesus' message which has been hidden by the mainstream churches. Thus Christian Anarchism maintains, along with Tolstoy, that "Christianity in its true sense puts an end to government" (see, for example, Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God is within you and Peter Marshall's William Blake: Visionary Anarchist).

More recently, Noam Chomsky (in such works as Deterring Democracy, Necessary Illusions, World Orders, Old and New, Rogue States, Hegemony or Survival and many others) and Murray Bookchin (Post-Scarcity Anarchism, The Ecology of Freedom, Towards an Ecological Society, and Remaking Society, among others) have kept the social anarchist movement at the front of political theory and analysis. Bookchin's work has placed anarchism at the centre of green thought and has been a constant threat to those wishing to mystify or corrupt the movement to create an ecological society. The Murray Bookchin Reader contains a representative selection of his writings. Sadly, a few years before his death Bookchin distanced himself from the anarchism he spent nearly four decades advocating (although he remained a libertarian socialist to the end). Chomsky's well documented critiques of U.S. imperialism and how the media operates are his most famous works, but he has also written extensively about the anarchist tradition and its ideas, most famously in his essays "Notes on Anarchism" (in For Reasons of State) and his defence of the anarchist social revolution against bourgeois historians in "Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship" (in American Power and the New Mandarins). These and others of his more explicitly anarchist essays and interviews can be found in the collection Chomsky on Anarchism. Other good sources for his anarchist ideas are Radical Priorities, Language and Politics and the pamphlet Government in the Future. Both Understanding Power and The Chomsky Reader are excellent introductions to his thought.

Britain has also seen an important series of anarchist thinkers. Hebert Read (probably the only anarchist to ever accept a knighthood!) wrote several works on anarchist philosophy and theory (see his Anarchy and Order compilation of essays). His anarchism flowered directly from his aesthetic concerns and he was a committed pacifist. As well as giving fresh insight and expression to the tradition themes of anarchism, he contributed regularly to the anarchist press (see the collection of articles A One-Man Manifesto and other writings from Freedom Press). Another pacifist anarchist was Alex Comfort, a poet, novelist, physician, biochemist, psychologist, sociologist, gerontologist, neuropsychiatrist. He was an outspoken anarchist in the 40s and 50s, and wrote many books on a wide variety of topics (mostly scientific) from an anarchist perspective. His most famous anarchist book was Authority and Delinquency and a collection of his anarchist pamphlets and articles was published under the title Writings against Power and Death.

However, the most famous and influential British anarchist must be Colin Ward. He became an anarchist when stationed in Glasgow during the Second World War and came across the local anarchist group there. Once an anarchist, he has contributed to the anarchist press extensively. As well as being an editor of Freedom, he also edited the influential monthly magazine Anarchy during the 1960s (a selection of articles picked by Ward can be found in the book A Decade of Anarchy). However, his most famous single book is Anarchy in Action where he has updated Kropotkin's Mutual Aid by uncovering and documenting the anarchistic nature of everyday life even within capitalism. His extensive writing on housing has emphasised the importance of collective self-help and social management of housing against the twin evils of privatisation and nationalisation (see, for example, his books Talking Houses and Housing: An Anarchist Approach). He has cast an anarchist eye on numerous other issues, including water use (Reflected in Water: A Crisis of Social Responsibility), transport (Freedom to go: after the motor age) and the welfare state (Social Policy: an anarchist response). His Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction is a good starting point for discovering anarchism and his particular perspective on it while Talking Anarchy provides an excellent overview of both his ideas and life. Lastly we must mention both Albert Meltzer and Nicolas Walter, both of whom contributed extensively to the anarchist press as well as writing two well known short introductions to anarchism (Anarchism: Arguments for and against and About Anarchism, respectively).

We could go on; there are many more writers we could mention. But besides these, there are the thousands of "ordinary" anarchist militants who have never written books but whose common sense and activism have encouraged the spirit of revolt within society and helped build the new world in the shell of the old. As Kropotkin put it, "anarchism was born among the people; and it will continue to be full of life and creative power only as long as it remains a thing of the people." [Anarchism, p. 146]

So we hope that this concentration on anarchist thinkers should not be taken to mean that there is some sort of division between activists and intellectuals in the movement. Far from it. Few anarchists are purely thinkers or activists. They are usually both. Kropotkin, for example, was jailed for his activism, as was Malatesta and Goldman. Makhno, most famous as an active participate in the Russian Revolution, also contributed theoretical articles to the anarchist press during and after it. The same can be said of Louise Michel, whose militant activities during the Paris Commune and in building the anarchist movement in France after it did not preclude her writing articles for the libertarian press. We are simply indicating key anarchists thinkers so that those interested can read about their ideas directly.