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Origins of anarchism

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Long before anarchism emerged as a distinct perspective, human beings lived for thousand of years in societies without government.[1] It was only after the rise of hierarchical societies that anarchist ideas were formulated as a critical response to and rejection of coercive political institutions and hierarchical social relationships.

In ancient Greece, the philosopher Zeno of Citium, in opposition to Plato, argued that reason should replace authority in guiding human affairs. In China, the Daoist sage Lao Zi (Lao Tzu) developed a philosophy of "non-rule" in the Tao Te Ching. In 300 CE, Bao Jingyan explicitly argued that there should be neither lords nor subjects.[2]

There were a variety of anarchistic religious movements in Europe during the Middle Ages, including the Brothers and Sisters of the Free Spirit, the Klompdraggers, the Hussites, Adamites and the early Anabaptists.[2] Prior to Leo Tolstoy, Christian anarchism found one of its most articulate exponents in Gerrard Winstanley, who was part of the Diggers movement in England during the English Civil War. Drawing on the Scriptures, Winstanley argued that "the blessings of the earth" should "be common to all... and none Lord over others."[3]

In Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-52), François Rabelais wrote of the Abby of Thelema, an imaginary utopia whose motto was "Do as Thou Will." Around the same time, the French law student, Etienne de la Boetie wrote his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, in which he argued that tyranny resulted from voluntary submission, and could be abolished by the people refusing to obey the authorities above them.

In the modern era, the first to use the term "Anarchy" to mean something other than chaos was Louis-Armand, Baron de Lahontan, in his Nouveaux voyages dans l'Amérique septentrionale, (New voyages in northern America) (1703) where he described the indigenous American society, which had no state, laws, prisons, priests or private property, as being in anarchy.[3]

In A Vindication of Natural Society (1756), Edmund Burke advocated the abolition of government, but later claimed the Vindication was intended as a satirical work. William Godwin, in An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, later referred to Burke's Vindication as a treatise "in which the evils of the existing political institutions are displayed with incomparable force of reasoning and lustre of eloquence, while the intention of the author was to shew that these evils were to be considered as trivial."

Thomas Jefferson spoke of his respect for a society with no government. [4]"The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them. I am convinced that those societies (as the Indians) which live without government enjoy in their general mass an infinitely greater degree of happiness than those who live under the European governments. Among the former, public opinion is in the place of law and restrains morals as powerfully as laws ever did anywhere. Among the latter, under pretense of governing, they have divided their nations into two classes, wolves and sheep. I do not exaggerate. This is a true picture of Europe."

Peter Kropotkin wrote that it was William Godwin himself, in "his Enquiry concerning Political Justice (2 vols., 1793), who was the first to formulate the political and economical conceptions of anarchism, even though he did not give that name to the ideas developed in his remarkable work."[5] Godwin advocated the abolition of government through a gradual process of reform and enlightenment and is therefore regarded as one of the founders of "philosophical anarchism." [4]

There were a variety of anarchist currents during the French Revolution, with some revolutionaries using the term "anarchiste" in a positive light as early as September 1793,[6]. The Enragés opposed revolutionary government as a contradiction in terms. Denouncing the Jacobin dictatorship, Jean Varlet wrote in 1794 that "government and revolution are incompatible, unless the people wishes to set its constituted authorities in permanent insurrection against itself."[5] In his "Manifesto of the Equals," Sylvain Marechal looked forward to the disappearance, once and for all, of "the revolting distinction between rich and poor, of great and small, of masters and valets, of governors and governed."[6]

In 1825 in the United States, Josiah Warren participated in a communitarian experiment headed by Robert Owen called New Harmony, which failed in a few years amidst much internal conflict. In 1827, as New Harmony disintegrated, he returned to Cincinnati. As Kenneth Rexroth wrote, "almost all critics of New Harmony have said that what it lacked was strong leadership, discipline, and commitment — strong government. Warren came to exactly the opposite conclusion." [7] Warren blamed the community's failure on a lack of individual sovereignty. He proceeded to organise experimental anarchist communities at Utopia and Modern Times.

The first self-labeled anarchist[edit]

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon is regarded as the first self-proclaimed anarchist, a label he adopted in his groundbreaking work What is Property?, published in 1840. It is for this reason that some claim Proudhon as the founder of modern anarchist theory.[8] He developed the theory of spontaneous order in society, where organization emerges without a central coordinator imposing its own idea of order against the wills of individuals acting in their own interests; his famous quote on the matter is, "Liberty is the mother, not the daughter, of order." In What is Property? Proudhon answers with the famous accusation "Property is theft." In this work, he opposed the institution of decreed "property" (propriété), where owners have complete rights to "use and abuse" their property as they wish.[9] He contrasted this with what he called "possession," or limited ownership of resources and goods only while in more or less continuous use. About this latter type of property, Proudhon wrote "Property is Liberty," and argued that it was a bulwark against state power.[10]

Pierre Joseph Proudhon

His opposition to the state, organised religion, and certain capitalist practices inspired subsequent anarchists, and made him one of the leading social thinkers of his time.

While he opposed communism and favoured remuneration for labour, he also opposed capitalist wage labour (i.e. profiting from someone else's labour).[11] He also opposed rent, interest, and profit. He supported an economic system called mutualism. He urged workers "to form themselves into democratic societies, with equal conditions for all members, on pain of a relapse into feudalism." Under capitalism, he argued, employees are "subordinated, exploited" and their "permanent condition is one of obedience," a "slave."

Proudhon's ideas were influential within French working class movements, and his followers were active in the Revolution of 1848 in France as well as the Paris Commune of 1871. Anarcho-communists, such as Kropotkin, later disagreed with Proudhon for his support of "private property" in the products of labour (i.e. wages, or "remuneration for work done") rather than free distribution of the products of labour.[12]

There were other anarchists active in the 1848 Revolution in France, including Anselm Bellegarrigue, Ernest Coeurderoy and Joseph Déjacque, who was the first person to call himself a "libertarian." Déjacque was also a critic of Proudhon's anti-feminism and mutualism, adopting an anarchist communist position.[7]

See also[edit]

Notes and References[edit]

  1. Harold Barclay, People Without Government: An Anthropology of Anarchism (London: Kahn & Averill, 1982).
  2. Max Nettlau, A Short History of Anarchism (London: Freedom Press, 1996), p.8.
  3. Dictionary of the History of Ideas - ANARCHISM
  4. An example of this can be seen in a letter he wrote to Col. Edward Carrington, on Jan. 16, 1787,
  5. Peter Kropotkin, "Anarchism", from The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1910
  6. Sheehan, Sean. Anarchism, London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2004. pg. 85
  7. Kenneth Rexroth, "Communalism."[1]
  8. Daniel Guerin, Anarchism: From Theory to Practice (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970).
  9. Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph. "Chapter 3. Labour as the efficient cause of the domain of property" from "What is Property?", 1840
  10. Edwards, Stewart. Introduction to Selected Writings of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Anchor Books, Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1969, p. 33
  11. Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph. The General Idea of the Revolution, p. 281
  12. Kropotkin, Peter. Chapter 13 The Collectivist Wages System from The Conquest of Bread, G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York and London, 1906.
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