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Fr 427 Lecture 1: What is anarchism?

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Fr 427 Lecture 1: What is anarchism?

1. What is anarchism?

  • Anarchy comes from the Greek (cf. monarchy, oligarchy etc.) and means without a leader or ruler. In the Middle Ages, the term ‘anarchy’ was also applied to God in the sense of being ‘without a beginning’, and not ruled by time, but later the word returned to its Greek sense.

  • The first person to call himself an anarchist (and in a positive sense) was the nineteenth-century French thinker Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.

  • Some trace the concept back to Asia in the 6th century BC, to the works of Taoist philosophers of ancient China (positive ideas about the state of nature; authority understood as having been imposed subsequently)

  • Others trace the origins of anarchism to ancient Greek thought, particularly to the Stoics (among them Zeno, 336-264 BC), who believed that the path to happiness meant being rational parts of a rational nature.

2. Some key theorists

  • Anarchist thinkers are identified from the late 18thc onwards: ‘pre-history’ of anarchism includes 17thc English revolutionaries, e.g. Diggers and Ranters.

  • A key figure of the French Revolutionary period is François-Noël (‘Gracchus’) Babeuf, and his ‘Conspiracy of Equals’ of 1795–6. He formulated radical ideas on equality and common ownership of property.

  • English writer William Godwin was much influenced by the philosophes and the French Revolution, and in 1793 published An Enquiry concerning the principles of political justice, and its influence on general virtue and happiness (emphasis on an ideal cooperative community).

  • Other early anarchists were more individualist, e.g. Max Stirner (Johann Caspar Schmidt, 1806–56) in Der Einzige und Sein Eigenthum (1845). Like Babeuf and Godwin, Stirner opposed the state, the law, government, and private property, but he also condemned religion, the family, and even love — anything that might hinder the freedom of action of the individual.

  • In contrast, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-65), imagined as his ideal a cooperative society based around small-scale enterprises and skilled artisans.

  • Mikhail Bakunin (1814-76) took Proudhon’s ideas further: anti-Marxist, he still imagined a collectivist society as the ideal, in which wealth would be not inherited but rather distributed in proportion to work accomplished.

  • Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921), a Russian anarchist geographer (and nobleman), developed these ideas further, advocating self-government, and cooperation (following the Russian zoologist Karl Kessler rather than Darwin).

3. Varieties and paradoxes

  • Paradox: there is often a sharp contrast between anarchists’ cynical, pessimistic vision of contemporary society and politics and their imagination of future community and cooperation.

  • Some key themes in anarchist thought include individual liberty (not liberty as guaranteed by the law), opposition to authority and the state, opposition to capitalism and the bourgeoisie. Against this, anarchists construct a utopian vision of a cooperative future society, without authority and in accordance with nature.

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