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The difficult history of anarchism

The Government of No One. The Theory and Practice of Anarchism
Forfatter: Ruth Kinna
Forlag: Pelican (Penguin Books) (USA)
ANARCHISM / Typical anarchist struggles such as the eight-hour day, access to contraception, liberalization of marriage law and access to military denial have largely been successful. But where does anarchism stand today?


It is easy to see that the utopias of anarchism were a child of their time who could not grow up. At the same time, anarchist ideas and struggles are with us to the highest degree, despite the bad reputation of anarchism.

Anarchism developed in critical interaction with other movements – with a coordinated opposition from conservative and reactionary forces. The dissolution of the First International (1872) is said to be the breakthrough of the European anarchist movement. What Marxists and anarchists had in common was 1) the belief that the struggle for liberation could only be fought by the workers themselves, and 2) the belief that class affiliation transcended distinctions based on race, tribe or nationality. Apart from these two points, there was little that kept them together.

Mikhail Bakunin (1814–76) believed that Marx was wrong in that one had to organize political parties in order to carry out the revolution. Not only were there poor future prospects for this, Bakunin also believed that involvement within the legal system would take the fut out of the movement and that it would be rolled into the system's exploitation and oppression. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–65) distanced himself from Marx's economic determinism. Marx's description of economic power was wrong. Namely, it came from the opportunity to invoke the property right. Bakunin and Proudhon come together in a critique of Marx's view of both property and the state. Control over the means of production would provide class equality in the sense that it removed the power of the bourgeoisie, but it would not remove hierarchies: the workers would still have to obey the dictates of the law. They would have to work for the state instead of private capital owners.

by Mikhail Bakunin


The violence that Paris Commune (1871) and the Haymarket Riots (1886) sparked, became for anarchists a revelation of the true face of European republicanism and liberalism. From here it was not a long way to establish that the authorities er violence. For Bakunin, authoritarian socialism was only a variant of revolutionary republicanism. The people's representatives do not serve the people, they serve themselves.

Control over the means of production would not remove the hierarchies.

While the anarchists worked out principles for a revolutionary identity, an image of the anarchist as the state's fiercest enemy was formed in society. This was supported by, among others, Cesare lombroso (1835–1909), who, according to physiognomic theories, described the anarchist as a lower-ranking, criminal type. He eventually had to admit that the material he was building on was irredeemable, but the common view among most people was that anarchists were deviants who posed a threat to the health of society.

If the anarchist society were to be achieved, people had to be educated so that they could demystify power and authority and constitute autonomy. However, this did not mean going to school. Anarchists in the 1800th and early 1900th centuries believed that schooln had a rough ideological function in the sense that it inculcated the existing values. We can trace the rejection of compulsory school back to William Godwin (1756–1836). Nor did he want classroom teaching. He wanted practical learning to take a much larger place at the expense of theory. The school was far too focused on academic success, and in practice became a filtering system.

Skill sharing

The anarchists emphasized skill sharing. As described in Peter Kropotkins 1880 pamphlet, "An Appeal to the Young": Newly graduated lawyers, doctors, engineers, poets, artists, and teachers—professionals of all kinds—are urged to set aside personal career ambitions to serve the most disadvantaged, and for to contribute to social change. At the same time, there has been a long debate regarding the extent to which knowledge developed under a repressive regime can be used, or whether it should be left behind. For example, John means Zerzan (b. 1943) that Western doctrines have suppressed innovative, sensuous and non-symbolic practices rooted in ecology. "Culture" is thus a false term that promotes the aggressive taming of human and non-human worlds.

Skill sharing is meant to remove the distinction between "us" and "them". However, no anarchists give an answer on how technology should be developed and how advanced knowledge should be produced. One gets the impression that they envision the 1800th century village as happy with its business and sharing knowledge and goods without caring about money, property or oppressive knowledge regimes. Shouldn't these villages have contact with the outside world – with today's technology? And how will they avoid being infected by the non-anarchist world?

Voluntary agreement?

The relationship of anarchism to violence is problematic. In the 1800th century, many believed that assassination attempts on leaders would show people that their symbolic power was a myth. And they defended themselves by saying that it was the state that used violence in the first place, therefore the attacks were legitimate. Opponents of violence as a revolutionary tool feared that a revolution would soon end with the establishment of a new power elite.


Other aspects of the establishment of a new society have also been pointed out. In his eagerness to take over the means of production he overlooked Marx polluting industrial production, the mindless boredom of working in a factory and the structural dictates of capitalist-driven technology.

A pervasive problem with all anarchist theory is when one begins to describe how society should be organized: How to prevent these rules from becoming oppressive as other rules are? This question anarchists have trouble answering. They want neither politics nor political organizations, as these will drag individuals into processes over which they have no control. They rather envisage voluntary agreements between the inhabitants.

The people's representatives do not serve the people, they serve themselves.

Anarchists have been ambivalent about democracya. Like it serves oppressive purposes – especially because it does nothing with capitalism's private property rights. Furthermore, the majority has no right to decide over the individual. Noam Chomsky also believes that the majority consent is produced by capitalist democracy via media control and propaganda. Newer consensus models are intended as an alternative to democracy, but even direct participation has proven vulnerable to manipulation.

Any historical summary of the extent to which anarchist utopias have been realized will be deplorable reading. But one can see this in other ways, such as the extent to which anarchists have influenced non-anarchist organizations. Typical anarchist struggles such as the eight-hour day, access to contraception, liberalization of marriage law and access to military denial have largely been successful. The concrete utopias have been abandoned, but anarchism continues to inspire both thinking and action in our time.

Kjetil Korslund
Kjetil Korslund
Historian of ideas and critic.

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