A Brief History of Anarchism

Article excerpt

Anarchism is a diverse philosophy arguing the natural state of people is to live together harmoniously, and that authority, law and religion pervert the natural moral sense. To achieve their aims anarchists have created independent communal societies and in the face of state oppression have offered non-violent resistance strategies, which Mahatma Gandhi used to great effect in removing the British Empire from power in India. This article was compiled by KAY WEIR.

Anarchist thought is very diverse but generally argues the natural state of people is to live together harmoniously and that society functions best without the coercion of the State, its laws and institutions. The term is derived from the ancient Greek word anarkhia, meaning 'no ruler.' Mikhail Bakunin (pictured below) is one of the founders of Anarchism along with Karl Marx. While Marx favoured State-run Socialism, Bakunin argued for the abolition of the State as the most fundamental goal of freedom and justice. Rather than seeing the legal apparatus of the State as a means of protecting individual freedom, anarchists contend the State and its laws represent the self-serving interests of powerful groups in society. With this view, law is a means of oppressing the vast majority of people and the best way to eliminate this oppression is to do away with the institutions that create and reinforce it, especially the State and private property. Private property is a particular concern for anarchists, corrupting the democratic process by controlling inputs and outputs in the political system, and also because it directs people to think merely of their own self-interest rather than about how to co-operate with their fellow citizens. Since owners of private property use the State to benefit members of the ruling class/elite, anarchists are not in favor of representative democracy as it is currently practiced.

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Of particular concern for many anarchists is the way the State generates violence, conscripting people to fight in wars for its empire and the violence of protecting wealth over the right to life of the masses of people. As Bakunin wrote:

   The state is the most flagrant
   negation, the most cynical and
   complete negation of humanity.
   It rends apart the universal
   solidarity of men upon earth and
   unites some of them in order to destroy, conquer
   and enslave the rest.

Peter Kropotkin said the real moral sense which guides our social behaviour is instinctive, based on the sympathy and unity inherent in group life. 'Mutual aid is the condition of successful social living. The moral base is therefore the good old golden rule: Do to others as you would have others do to you. He saw this natural moral sense as perverted, by superstitions surrounding law, religion and authority, deliberately cultivated by conquerors, exploiters and priests for their own benefit. Morality has therefore become the instrument of ruling classes to protect their privileges.

Leo Tolstoy in his book, The Kingdom of God is Within You: Christianity not as a mystic religion but as a new theory of life, also found the Christian Church mistaken in its support of the state's oppression and wars. He held this to be the antithesis of Christ's teaching and his life and death. Non-resistance, not responding with violence, was a binding tenet of a true Christian and was professed by a minority from the very foundation of Christianity. He wrote eloquently of the problems of wealth and poverty. His words from 1893 are as fitting today:

   We cannot persuade ourselves and others that we
   do not know that men do not like dying of hunger,
   bereft of the right to gain their subsistence from
   the earth on which they live; that they do not like
   working underground, in the water, or in stifling
   heat, for ten to fourteen hours a day, at night in
   factories to manufacture objects for our pleasure. …