What is Anarchism?


“Anarchism is not a fixed, self-enclosed social system but rather a definite trend in the historic development of mankind, which, in contrast with the intellectual guardianship of all clerical and governmental institutions, strives for the free unhindered unfolding of all the individual and social forces in life. Even freedom is only a relative, not an absolute concept, since it tends constantly to become broader and to affect wider circles in more manifold ways.

For the anarchist, freedom is not an abstract philosophical concept, but the vital concrete possibility for every human being to bring to full development all the powers, capacities, and talents with which nature has endowed him, and turn them to social account. The less this natural development of man is influenced by ecclesiastical or political guardianship, the more efficient and harmonious will human personality become, the more will it become the measure of the intellectual culture of the society in which it has grown.”

Rudolf Rocker: Anarcho-syndicalism – Theory and Practice p31


Eat Your Lunch ~ Banksy

Q: What does “anarchism” mean?

A: Anarchism is the no-government system of socialism. In other words, the abolition of exploitation and oppression of man by man, that is the abolition of private property and government.

Anarchism, therefore, is a political theory that aims to create a society which is without political, economic, or social hierarchies. Anarchists maintain that anarchy, the absence of rulers, is a viable form of social system and so work for the maximization of individual liberty and social equality. They see the goals of liberty and equality as mutually self-supporting.

We are convinced that freedom without Socialism is privilege and injustice, and that Socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality. The history of human society proves this point. Liberty without equality is only liberty for the powerful, and equality without liberty is impossible and a justification for slavery.

While there are many different types of anarchism (from individualist anarchism to communist-anarchism), there has always been two common positions at the core of all of them: opposition to government and opposition to capitalism. Anarchism insists on the abolition of the State and the abolition of usury; on no more government of man by man, and no more exploitation of man by man.” All anarchists view profit, interest, and rent as usury (i.e. as exploitation) and so oppose them and the conditions that create them just as much as they oppose government and the State.

More generally,  the unifying link within anarchism “s a universal condemnation of hierarchy and domination and a willingness to fight for the freedom of the human individual. For anarchists, a person cannot be free if they are subject to state or capitalist authority.

Thus anarchism is both positive and negative. It analyses and critiques current society while at the same time offering a vision of a potential new society — a society that fulfills certain human needs which the current one denies. These needs, at their most basic, are liberty, equality and solidarity

One cannot build a better society without understanding what is wrong with the present one. However, it must be stressed that anarchism is more than just a means of analysis or a vision of a better society. It is also rooted in struggle, the struggle of the oppressed for their freedom. In other words, it provides a means of achieving a new system based on the needs of people, not power, and which places the planet before profit.

An Anarchist FAQ


Michael Wilson:
You are, among many other things, a self-described anarchist; an anarcho-syndicalist specifically. Most people think of anarchists as disenfranchised punks throwing rocks at store windows, or masked men tossing ball-shaped bombs at fat industrialists.

Is this an accurate view? What is anarchy to you?

Noam Chomsky:
Well, anarchism is, in my view, basically a kind of tendency in human thought, which shows up in different forms in different circumstances, and has some leading characteristics. Primarily it is a tendency that is suspicious and skeptical of domination, authority, and hierarchy. It seeks structures of hierarchy and domination in human life over the whole range, extending from, say, patriarchal families to, say, imperial systems, and it asks whether those systems are justified.

It assumes the burden of proof for anyone in a position of power and authority lies on them. Their authority is not self-justifying. They have to give a reason for it, a justification. And if they can’t justify that authority and power and control, which is the usual case, then the authority ought to be dismantled and replaced by something more free and just. And, as I understand it, anarchy is just that tendency. It takes different forms at different times.

I mean it’s not at all the general image you described: people running around the streets, you know, breaking store windows. Anarcho-syndicalism is a conception of a very organized society, but organized from below by direct participation at every level, with as little control and domination as is feasible, maybe none.

Noam Chomsky: The Kind of Anarchism I Believe In

Professor Chomsky, perhaps we should start by trying to define what is not meant by anarchism — the word anarchy is derived, after all, from the Greek, literally meaning “no government.” Now, presumably people who talk about anarchy or anarchism as a system of political philosophy don’t just mean that, as it were, as of January 1st next year, government as we now understand it will suddenly cease; there would be no police, no rules of the road, no laws, no tax collectors, no post office, and so forth. Presumably, it means something more complicated than that.

Well, yes to some of those questions, no to others. They may very well mean no policemen, but I don’t think they would mean no rules of the road. In fact, I should say to begin with the term anarchism is used to cover quite a range of political ideas, but I would prefer to think of it as the libertarian left, and from that point of view anarchism can be conceived as a kind of voluntary socialism. That is, as libertarian socialist or anarcho-syndicalist or communist anarchist, in the tradition of, say, Bakunin and Kropotkin and others.


They had in mind a highly organized form of society, but a society that was organized on the basis of organic units, organic communities. And generally, they meant by that the workplace and the neighborhood, and from those two basic units there could derive through federal arrangements a highly integrated kind of social organization which might be national or even international in scope. And these decisions could be made over a substantial range, but by delegates who are always part of the organic community from which they come, to which they return, and in which, in fact, they live.

QUESTION: So it doesn’t mean a society in which there is, literally speaking, no government, so much as a society in which the primary source of authority comes, as it were, from the bottom up, and not the top down. Whereas representative democracy, as we have it in the United States and in Britain, would be regarded as a from-the-top-down authority, even though ultimately the voters decide.

CHOMSKY: Representative democracy, as in, say, the United States or Great Britain, would be criticized by an anarchist of this school on two grounds. First of all because there is a monopoly of power centralized in the state, and secondly — and critically — because the representative democracy is limited to the political sphere and in no serious way encroaches on the economic sphere. Anarchists of this tradition have always held that democratic control of one’s productive life is at the core of any serious human liberation, or, for that matter, of any significant democratic practice. That is, as long as individuals are compelled to rent themselves on the market to those who are willing to hire them, as long as their role in production is simply that of ancillary tools, then there are striking elements of coercion and oppression that make talk of democracy very limited, if even meaningful.

QUESTION: Historically speaking, have there been any sustained examples on any substantial scale of societies which approximated to the anarchist ideal?

CHOMSKY: There are small societies, small in number, that I think have done so quite well, and there are a few examples of large scale libertarian revolutions which were largely anarchist in their structure. As to the first, small societies extending over a long period, I myself think the most dramatic example is perhaps the Israeli kibbutzim, which for a long period really were constructed on anarchist principles, that is: self-management, direct worker control, integration of agriculture, industry, service, personal participation in self-management. And they were, I should think, extraordinarily successful by almost any measure that one can impose.

QUESTION: But they were presumably, and still are, in the framework of a conventional state which guarantees certain basic stabilities.

CHOMSKY: Well, they weren’t always. Actually, their history is rather interesting. Since 1948 they’ve been in the framework of a conventional state. Prior to that they were within the framework of the colonial enclave and, in fact, there was a subterranean, largely cooperative society, which was not really part of the system of the British mandate, but was functioning outside of it. And to some extent, that’s survived the establishment of the state, though of course, it became integrated itself into the state and in my view lost a fair amount of its libertarian socialist character through this process, and through other processes which are unique to the history of that region which we need not go into.

However, as functioning libertarian socialist institutions, I think they are an interesting model that is highly relevant to advanced industrial societies in a way in which some of the other examples that have existed in the past are not. A good example of a really large-scale anarchist revolution — in fact the best example to my knowledge — is the Spanish revolution of 1936, in which, over most of Republican Spain, there was a quite inspiring anarchist revolution that involved both industry and agriculture over substantial areas, developed in a way which to the outside, looks spontaneous. Though, in fact, if you look at the roots of it, you discover that it was based on some three generations of experiment, thought and work which extended anarchist ideas to very large parts of the population in this largely pre-industrial — though not totally pre-industrial — society.

And that, again, was, by both human measures and indeed anyone’s economic measures, quite successful. That is, production continued effectively; workers in farms and factories proved quite capable of managing their affairs without coercion from above, contrary to what lots of socialists, communists, liberals and others wanted to believe. And in fact, you can’t tell what would have happened. That anarchist revolution was simply destroyed by force, but during the brief period in which it was alive I think it was a highly successful and, as I say, in many ways a very inspiring testimony to the ability of poor working people to organize and manage their own affairs, extremely successfully, without coercion and control. How relevant the Spanish experience is to an advanced industrial society one might question in detail.

QUESTION: It’s clear that the fundamental idea of anarchism is the primacy of the individual — not necessarily in isolation, but with other individuals — and the fulfillment of his freedom. This in a sense looks awfully like the founding ideas of the United States of America. What is it about the American experience which has made freedom as used in that tradition become a suspect and indeed a tainted phrase in the minds of anarchists and libertarian socialist thinkers like yourself?


CHOMSKY: Let me just say I don’t really regard myself as an anarchist thinker. I’m a derivative fellow traveler [of anarchism], let’s say. Anarchist thinkers have constantly referred to the American experience and to the ideal of Jeffersonian democracy very very favorably. You know, Jefferson’s concept that the best government is the government than governs least, or Thoreau’s addition to that, that the best government is the one that doesn’t govern at all, is one that’s often repeated by anarchist thinkers through modern times.

However, the ideal of Jeffersonian democracy — putting aside the fact that it was a slave society — developed in an essentially pre-capitalist system, that is, in a society in which there was no monopolistic control, there were no significant centers of private power. In fact, it’s striking to go back and read today some of the classic libertarian texts. If one reads, say, Wilhelm von Humboldt’s critique of the state of 1792 [English language version: The Limits of State Action (Cambridge University Press, 1969)], a significant classic libertarian text that certainly inspired Mill, one finds that he doesn’t speak at all of the need to resist private concentration of power, rather he speaks of the need to resist the encroachment of coercive state power. And that is what one finds also in the early American tradition. But the reason is that that was the only kind of power there was. I mean, Humboldt takes for granted that individuals are roughly equivalent in their private power, and that the only real imbalance of power lies in the centralized authoritarian state, and individual freedom had to be sustained against its intrusion — the State or the Church. That’s what he feels one must resist.

Now, when he speaks, for example, of the need for control of one’s creative life, when he decries the alienation of labor that arises from coercion or even instruction or guidance in one’s work, he’s giving an anti-statist or anti-theocratic ideology. But the same principles apply very well to the capitalist industrial society that emerged later. And I would think that Humboldt, had he been consistent, would have ended up being a libertarian socialist.

QUESTION: How far does the success of libertarian socialism or anarchism really depend on a fundamental change in the nature of man, both in his motivation, his altruism, and also in his knowledge and sophistication?

CHOMSKY: I think it not only depends on it but in fact the whole purpose of libertarian socialism is that it will contribute to it. It will contribute to a spiritual transformation — precisely that kind of great transformation in the way humans conceive of themselves and their ability to act, to decide, to create, to produce, to inquire — precisely that spiritual transformation that social thinkers from the left-Marxist traditions, from Luxembourg, say, through anarcho-syndicalists, have always emphasized. So, on the one hand, it requires that spiritual transformation. On the other hand, its purpose is to create institutions which will contribute to that transformation in the nature of work, the nature of creative activity, simply in social bonds among people, and through this interaction of creating institutions which permit new aspects of human nature to flourish. And then the building of still more libertarian institutions to which these liberated human beings can contribute. This is the evolution of socialism as I understand it.

QUESTION: And finally, Professor Chomsky, what do you think of the chances of societies along these lines coming into being in the major industrial countries in the West in the next quarter of a century or so?

CHOMSKY: I don’t think I’m wise enough, or informed enough, to make predictions and I think predictions about such poorly understood matters probably generally reflect personality more than judgment. But I think this much at least we can say: there are obvious tendencies in industrial capitalism towards concentration of power in narrow economic empires and in what is increasingly becoming a totalitarian state. These are tendencies that have been going on for a long time, and I don’t see anything stopping them really. I think those tendencies will continue. They’re part of the stagnation and decline of capitalist institutions.

Now, it seems to me that the development towards state totalitarianism and towards economic concentration — and, of course, they are linked — will continually lead to revulsion, to efforts of personal liberation and to organizational efforts at social liberation. And that’ll take all sorts of forms. Throughout all Europe, in one form or another, there is a call for what is sometimes called worker participation or co-determination, or even sometimes worker control. Now, most of these efforts are minimal. I think that they’re misleading — in fact, may even undermine efforts for the working class to liberate itself. But, in part, they’re responsive to a strong intuition and understanding that coercion and repression, whether by private economic power or by the state bureaucracy, is by no means a necessary feature of human life. And the more those concentrations of power and authority continue, the more we will see revulsion against them and efforts to organize and overthrow them. Sooner or later, they’ll succeed, I hope.

Noam ChomskyThe Relevance of Anarcho-syndicalism Peter Jay Interview, July 25, 1976


Anarcho-syndicalism symbol/ Black Cat of Industrial Workers of the World
~ otaku4242 (DeviantArt)

Given the highly conservative cast of our highly ideological society, it is not too surprising that the United States has been relatively untouched by these developments. But that too may change. The erosion of cold-war mythology at least makes it possible to raise these questions in fairly broad circles. If the present wave of repression can be beaten back, if the left can overcome its more suicidal tendencies and build upon what has been accomplished in the past decade, then the problem of how to organize industrial society on truly democratic lines, with democratic control in the workplace and in the community, should become a dominant intellectual issue for those who are alive to the problems of contemporary society, and, as a mass movement for libertarian socialism develops, speculation should proceed to action.

In his manifesto of 1865, Bakunin predicted that one element in the social revolution will be “that intelligent and truly noble part of youth which, though belonging by birth to the privileged classes, in its generous convictions and ardent aspirations, adopts the cause of the people.” Perhaps in the rise of the student movement of the 1960s one sees steps towards a fulfillment of this prophecy.

Noam Chomsky: Notes on Anarchism Noam Chomsky: Notes on AnarchismNew York Review of Books, May 21, 1970

(header image: UnderDogs ~ Andrius Burba)

    Further Reading

Works of Mikhail Bakunin – Anarchist Library

Works of Pëtr Kropotkin – Anarchist Library

Anarchism: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Anarchism: Rational Wiki

Anarcho-syndicalism: Wikipedia

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