Every state is a despotism, be the despot one or many.

-Max Steiner

The word Anarchy is derived from the Greek word anarkhia which means being ‘without a leader’ but often translated as ‘without a ruler.’ In 1840, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon the first self-styled anarchist adopted this supposedly derogatory term to describe his political and social ideology as he launched the apparent paradox: ‘Anarchy is order.’
In the everyday language, anarchy is compared with nihilism, the absolute decadence of moral values. Anarchists are considered as a brute offensive force that intends to bring down the state and the civilization. Conversely; they are also portrayed as naive daydreamers and cynical saints.

In Theodore Roosevelt’s diatribe,

Anarchism is a crime against the whole human race, and all mankind should band against anarchists.

A 1919 campaign called Red Scare launched by Woodrow Wilson against the ‘subversives,’ spared the socialists, but murdered anarchists.

Although always being portrayed by the people in power as the ultimate evil, Noam Chomsky maintains that,

Anarchism as a social philosophy has never meant “chaos”-in fact, anarchists have typically believed in a highly organized society, just one that’s organized democratically from below.

Anarchism criticizes the existing order and strives for a free society. Anarchists reject the legitimacy of any external government or a state, they are against imposed political authority, hierarchy, and domination. They seek to achieve a condition of anarchy that is the abolishment of the state and the establishment of a decentralized and self-regulating society consisting of a federation of voluntary associations of free and equal individuals. Anarchists dream of a free society that allows all human beings to realize their full potential. While anarchists cherish the society for its value as a sum of voluntary associations, they reject the state for it is an external burned placed on society. In this sense, anarchists reject the authoritarian organization, but not the organization itself.

The role of state and the state order

Political theorists have identified anarchism as an ideology of the extremist left. Anarchism is not classified as a ‘political’ theory, for it doesn’t concern itself with the state. It could rather be considered as a synthesis of the combined values of liberalism and socialism. Anarchists are concerned about the centralized bureaucracy and the concentration of power vested in the hands of few. Anarchism is equally concerned about the tyranny of the majority and advocates for social pluralism and cultural diversity. Anarchists believe that freedom can not be achieved through the existing state structure, only through the abolition of it. Anarchists perceive the states and the governments as tools of perpetuating oppression and inequality through their coercive apparatus of law, courts, prisons and army. They maintain that the idea of a society without rulers is not outlandish, neither it would result in chaotic unruliness. Rather it might lead to the most desired form of an ordered human existence.

As explained eloquently in Thomas Pain’s Common Sense in 1776,

Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means we suffer.

Contrary to the accusations, over the past few centuries, only a handful number of anarchists have ever used violence as a tool to achieve their political goals. Anarchism has been far less violent than any other political creed. Apart from Bakunin, anarchism received advocacy from peaceful men like Godwin, Proudhon, Kropotkin, and Tolstoy. Bakunin, a classic anarchist thinker, believed that it was necessary to destroy the old in order to create the new.

The Classical Anarchists

Four major thinkers and writers shaped the ideas of classical anarchism. The first William Godwin(1756-1836) in his Enquiry against Political Justice set the anarchist case against the government, the law, property and the institutions of the state. The self-proclaimed anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon(1809-65) came to limelight by an essay in which declared ‘Property is Theft.’ The third, a Russian revolutionary Michael Bakunin(1814-76) predicted with remarkable accuracy the outcome of Marxist dictatorships in the 20th century. In his words,

Freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice, but socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality.

The fourth of the anarchist luminaries was also a Russian with an aristocratic origin, Peter Kropotkin(1842-1921). In Kropotkin’s understanding anarchism is,

a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government-harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements.

Anarchists don’t fit in the category of the utopian enthusiasts, nor they believe in some ultimate revolution. They don’t believe in laying down an incontrovertible blueprint for future generations. German anarchist Gustav Landauer declared,

The state is not something which can be destroyed by a revolution, but is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently.

Anarchism vs. Marxism

Regardless of it’s apparent closeness to Marxism; anarchism departs away from Marxist ideals as it rejects the Marxist vision of establishing a workers state and ‘Dictatorship of the proletariat’ as the only political establishment. Regarding a Marxist-Leninist totalitarian state George Orwell agrees with the anarchists that,

The totalitarian state governs its subjects not only by naked force but by trying to define reality, even to the extent of manipulating their thoughts through the control of permissible language.

In his criticism of the ‘Authoritarian Left,’ Bakunin asserts,

They maintain that only a dictatorship – their dictatorship, of course – can create the will of the people, while our answer to this is: No dictatorship can have any other aim but that of self-perpetuation, and it can beget only slavery in the people tolerating it; freedom can be created only by freedom, that is, by a universal rebellion on the part of the people and free organization of the toiling masses from the bottom up.

Regarding Marxism Bakunin’s observation was:

I believe Herr Marx is a very serious if not very honest revolutionary, and that he really is in favor of the rebellion of the masses, and I wonder how he manages to overlook the fact that the establishment of a universal dictatorship, collective or individual, a dictatorship which would create the post of a kind of chief engineer of world revolution, ruling and controlling the insurrectionary activity of the masses in all countries, as a machine might be controlled that the establishment of such a dictatorship would itself suffice to kill revolution and warp and paralyse all popular movements…

For the anarchists, it is impossible to achieve a libertarian goal through an authoritarian approach. Rather, in general, Anarchism is much closer to socialism. In Rudolf Rocker’s definition, ‘a kind of voluntary socialism,’ while Kropotkin defined it as ‘the No-government system of Socialism.’

The Anarcho-capitalists

A minority section from the conservative capitalists has also been spurred by certain tenets of anarchism, who identify themselves as anarcho-capitalists. Its adherents advocate for complete laissez-faire of the economy where the public services will be handed over to the private sectors; even the law enforcement and emergency medical services. Anarcho-capitalists like David Friedman and Murray Rothbard maintain that the state hinders free-market capitalism and ‘the invisible hand of the market’ is sufficient enough to bring social order while the defense of property and person can be carried out by private protection agencies. The anarcho-capitalist definition of freedom is unable to guarantee the positive freedom of individual autonomy and independence. And such freedom is highly unlikely to flourish behind the high fences protected by private companies. Anarcho-capitalists are indifferent to the conception of general good and public interests.

Criticizing the American libertarian capitalists Chomsky declares,

The American version of “libertarianism’ is an aberration, though nobody takes it seriously…everybody knows that a society that worked by American libertarian principles would self-destruct in three seconds. The only reason people pretend to take it seriously is because you can use it as a weapon. Like, when somebody comes out in favor of tax, you can say: “No, I’m a libertarian, I’m against tax”-but of course, I’m still in favor of the government building roads, and having schools and killing Libyans, and all that sort of stuff.

The free-market cannot provide natural conditions for freedom and will leave its victims enslaved, alienated and oppressed. For their rejection of economic equality and social justice, Anarcho-capitalists, therefore, fall outside the camp of traditional anarchists. They should rather be called right-wing libertarians than anarchists.

(To be continued….)

Based on:

1. Anarchism: A very short Introduction by Colin Ward
2. Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism by Peter Marshall
3. On Anarchism by Noam Chomsky
4. The Ecology of Freedom by Murray Bookchin