170 years of Anarchism

This year, 2010, marks the 170th anniversary of anarchism as a named socio-economic theory. With the publication of Proudhon’s "What is Property?" in 1840, what was a tendency within history became explicit. Yes, libertarian ideas and movements existed before 1840 – some of them, such as radicals in the Great French Revolution and the Lyons mutualists, influenced Proudhon but before 1840 these were never called anarchist. Socialist politics would never be the same again!

Here is an extract (sans footnotes) from the introduction to my Proudhon Reader (entitled "Property is Theft!"), namely its start:

‘In 1840, two short expressions, a mere seven words, transformed socialist politics forever. One, only four words long, put a name on a tendency within the working class movement: "I am an Anarchist." The other, only three words long, presented a critique and a protest against inequality which still rings: "Property is Theft!"

‘Their author, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865), was a self-educated son of a peasant family and his work, "What is Property?", ensured he became one of the leading socialist thinkers of the nineteenth century. From his works and activity, the libertarian movement was born: that form of socialism based on "the denial of Government and of Property." It would be no exaggeration to state categorically that if you do not consider property as "theft" and "despotism" and oppose it along with the state then you are not a libertarian. As George Woodcock summarised:

‘"What is Property? embraces the core of nineteenth century anarchism . . . [bar support for revolution] all the rest of later anarchism is there, spoken or implied: the conception of a free society united by association, of workers controlling the means of production. Later Proudhon was to elaborate other aspects: the working class political struggle as a thing of its own, federalism and decentralism as a means of re-shaping society, the commune and the industrial association as the important units of human intercourse, the end of frontiers and nations. But What is Property? . . . remains the foundation on which the whole edifice of nineteenth century anarchist theory was to be constructed."’

And so on…

And I have to tell you, this introduction has been revised quite a few times. This anthology contains substantial newly translated material or new in book format of previously translated works, plus substantial extracts of key books already in the public domain (such as "What is Property?", "System of Economic Contradictions" and "General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century") this will be, I hope, the definitive work on Proudhon. So it is essential that the introduction gets it right! As it is, I’ve dropped the section on Hal Draper and "Proudhon and the Right" for space considerations – and also I came to the conclusion that the Reader was not the best place to discuss this (as will become clear from the extracts presented, Draper and Schapiro were talking through their arses). The section on Mutualists in the First International remains, plus the sections on the Paris Commune and Marx (although much changed). Some of the introduction which will be familiar to readers of my lengthy review-article on the Paris Commune, most of it not.

While Proudhon is important, it would be a mistake to focus too much on individuals. After all, libertarian ideas developed before him and spontaneously after him. It would be somewhat time consuming to discuss the various proto-anarchist ideas and movements that existed before 1840 and their relationship with anarchism. However, the only reason we label them anarchistic is because of Proudhon (hence Godwin was seen as a proto-anarchist when he was re-discovered in the 1890s because he argued for the same things anarchists did – however, he did not create or influence the movement). Moreover, Bakunin, Kropotkin and others have developed anarchism since Proudhon – but genuine libertarians have developed the ideas he first expounded so well. His anti-capitalism and anti-statism (both interwoven, it must be stressed), his federalism, self-management, decentralisation, and so on, all define what anarchism is and what it has become and what it will become. It is hard to imagine an anarchism without these themes – in fact, it would not qualify as anarchism!

I will be posting an update on the Reader soon, basically the contents and maybe some publication information (if I have any). Later in the year I will start transferring the material on-line – plus supplementary material which did not make it into the published edition. Suffice to say, I’m excited about this as it not only enriches our understanding of Proudhon (and we sometimes forget that he was a giant in 19th century socialism) but also our understanding of the evolution of anarchism between 1840 and 1870. Many of the ideas we usually associate with, say, Bakunin were first expounded by Proudhon (Bakunin was not exaggerating when he stated that his ideas were "Proudhonism widely developed and pushed right to these, its final consequences"). It will also, I think, help undermine the baseless caricature Marx and Engels (and Marxists) have inflicted upon the world (one even some anarchists subscribe to!) – for it becomes clear that Marx appropriated, without acknowledgement, many of the key insights of Proudhon. He may have deepened and enriched them, but that is not reason to tolerate his mockery or appropriation.

Suffice to say, while I recognise the importance of individuals such as Proudhon in developing our ideas I also recognise that they are not the end-all or be-all of anarchism. Anarchism is first and foremost about the movement, the actions of the nameless many who make it a possibility and a hope. Anarchism would exist without Proudhon, Bakunin, Goldman, Chomsky, or whoever – although it would probably not be called anarchism with Proudhon! It is the ideas that count, not the label. This means you can have people (such as libertarian Marxists) who are close to anarchism but refuse the title and those who embrace the name, but are obviously alien to the tradition (numpties like Rothbard, obviously, although he once recognised the truth).

This is not to deny the contribution of the "names", just to place them in context – as the most visible of anarchists who express the ideas within the movement better than some, develop and enrich them. Anarchism evolves and changes thanks to what we all do and what happens in the class struggle. If certain people are remembered and read more than others, that does not mean we are whoever-ists nor does it mean denying the actions of the many who have always made up the movement and who give it life. It simply means we appreciate the contributions of all.

So, with that in mind, I think I’ll present my top-ten anarchist thinkers and activists. These are the people who have influenced me the most and whom I think every anarchist (and every radical) should read. I’m excluding important libertarian thinkers who refused the name (people like Maurice Brinton and Cornelius Castoridias) simply for space reasons. I’m not one to deny their contribution to modern anarchism simply because their Marxist-background lumbered them with too-much baggage to call themselves anarchists!

10. Noam Chomsky.

What can I say, an untiring attacker of injustice and oppression. Where does he find the time to write all his books? I remember when I first heard of him, I was walking down a street in Glasgow when I bumped into a comrade who asked me if I were going to the "Self-determination and Power" event later that year. I said I wasn’t sure and he said Noam Chomsky would be there, to which I asked "Who?" Suffice to say, I did go along and heard him speak and was deeply impressed. I ran to the library and started reading.

His great power is that he presents the evidence to back-up your gut-feelings that things are wrong. I know some people attack him for being too "liberal" on some issues (that may be better described as too realistic!) and he does not discuss anarchism enough. To some degree I concur, but I feel that misses the point. His books are read far beyond the anarchist movement and that raises our ideas far more than being completely pure in a journal which few people read. And there is enough bloody sniping in the movement from people whose only contribution to anarchism seems to be complaining about what others do…

So, while not perfect, Chomsky always inspires me and his books are essential reading – "Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship" alone secures his place here!

9. Alexander Berkman

The first proper anarchist book I read from cover to cover was Berkman’s "ABC of Anarchism" (I had read bits from Woodcock’s Anarchist Reader and Anarchism). And it was good, very good. I was really happy when I got to read the other parts not included in the Freedom Press edition. Thank goodness that AK Press published the full version of his classic work (entitled "What is Anarchism?")! As popular introductions go, it is pretty good if a wee bit dated in parts. However, it gets the core ideas across well and shows the basics of communist-anarchism in their full glory. As such, it is a good read and sets you up well for finding out more about anarchism.

And it is simply the fact that Berkman was my first anarchist book (and that it was a classic) that secures his place here rather than, say, Rudolf Rocker. I started reading Rocker later and while he was also a great writer, thinker and activist my memories of buying and reading in a weekend when I was a teenager wins! Sorry, Rudolf – oh, and I really disagree with the notion that anarchism is socialism plus liberalism (I consider this an utter misreading of liberalism, democracy and the actual development of anarchism and its direct influences in post-Revolutionary France). If I were producing an objective list on contributions to anarchism, Rocker would be higher on the list than Berkman but as I’m not…

8. Emma Goldman

 I know she is not to everyone’s taste and Goldman does come across as a bit of a big-head, but her works and life are inspiring. Her account of the Russian Revolution (the somewhat publisher entitled "My Disillusionment in Russia") covers what went wrong well, while "Anarchism and Other Essays" is a good. The bits of her biography ("Living My Life") I’ve read are very interesting. Obviously, the anthology "Red Emma Speaks" is the definitive book now (the most recent edition has all the essays from "Anarchism and Other Essays" plus more) – it is just a shame the editor did not manage to squeeze in "Trotsky Protests Too Much"! Now that is a great article, as is her continual stress by fighting the restrictive (and usually hypocritical) morality internally and externally which hinder our full development.

I would say my liking of Goldman increased considerably when I saw a terrible attack on her by a Leninist (of all people!) as an "elitist"… Suffice to say, such arguments simply ignore the dynamics of social change and basic common sense (as I’ve discussed here). She grasped key issues and was not afraid to court criticism and diatribe to advocate them.

If I knew more about Louise Michel, I may have included her as well as Goldman. Not to mention Lucy Parsons. As for Voltairine de Cleyre, well I know she attracts strong feelings but I first read a lot by her relatively recently and her impact was nowhere near as strong as Goldman. It is also somewhat funny to read certain "anarcho"-capitalists praise her as a "genius" and fail to ponder why she rejected individualist anarchism for communist-anarchism…

7. Murray Bookchin

I know, he rejected anarchism right at the end of his live and effectively destroyed his own legacy. That is why he is not higher in the list! But I still remember the joy I felt reading "Post-Scarcity Anarchism" – this was a book by someone who got it, who knew what anarchism meant and who could express it! "Toward an Ecological Society" was almost as good, although after that his works got increasingly, well, academic feeling ("The Spanish Anarchists" being a notable exception). Still, his works were always worth reading – no matter how obscure they were at times! I did recently read "The Ecology of Freedom" from cover to cover and it was very thought-provoking. And, needless to say, his ecological perspective was ground-breaking and his analysis of the eco-limits of capitalism all to relevant.

I would say that he never broke sufficiently from his early Leninism, as can be seen by his dismissal of the "proletariat" as a force of social change – his definition (as industrial worker) was far too narrow. Somewhat ironically, his earlier attacks on "class politics" did come back to haunt him during the "Social Anarchism and Lifestyle Anarchism" diatribes which finally drove him from anarchism. Still, I cannot really dismiss his contributions to anarchism from the 1960s to 1990s, even if his last works were pretty bad.

6. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

What, so low down the list? And after reading him non-stop for a year! Ah, but this is not unfair to Proudhon. Important as he is to anarchism, he is up against some libertarian activists and thinkers who really were outstanding. And, of course, there is the whole sexist prat side of him which cannot help but knock off a few points…

Suffice to say, Proudhon’s influence in the evolution of anarchism is key. So many of the ideas we take for granted come from him. I remember how surprised I was to see the advocating of mandated and recallable delegates to federal councils which combined legislative and executive functions in 1848, a mere 23 years before Marx praised them when the Paris Commune implemented them. I knew Bakunin had advocated such a vision before 1871, but I was not aware that he was simply taking up Proudhon’s ideas. Then there is decentralisation, federalism, etc., not to mention his clear expounding of the "Marxist" theory of surplus value a mere 27 years before Capital was published… All good stuff!

I got into Proudhon as a direct result of working on "An Anarchist FAQ" – I had to go back to the original texts to cover why anarchists believe certain things. For the critique of capitalism, I had to read "What is Property?" and I was impressed (and pleased) by what I read. I then found volume 1 of "System of Economical Contradictions" on-line and read that about ten years ago. Again, I was impressed – it really did not have any relation to the caricature Marx made of it. Then it was "General Idea of the Revolution" and, again, liked what I read. Since then, I’ve been reading what I can when it becomes available. And I cannot believe it is about a year since I was walking to work and realised that this year was the 170th anniversary of "What is Property?" and so the naming of anarchism – from there it was a quick jump to the idea of a Proudhon Reader…

Ultimately, I think that those anarchists who downplay or dismiss Proudhon (such as the authors of the otherwise excellent Black Flame) have not read him or perhaps assume that Marxist attacks are accurate? I doubt that they do that for Bakunin, but then more is available in English by him. Hopefully the Reader will change that – he was a flawed thinker, but important nevertheless.

5. Peter Kropotkin

I have to say that initially I was not that impressed by Kropotkin when I first became an anarchist. While "Conquest of Bread" was invigorating in its optimism and breath of vision, I guess I was too influenced by the whole "breaded academic who advocated co-operation" myth that has grown around him. And that whole supporting the Allies in the First World War madness did not help (and knocked him down a few places!).

I would say that what changed my opinion was libertarian Marxist Harry Cleaver’s article "Kropotkin, Self-valorization and the Crisis of Marxism" which got me thinking about his ideas in a different way. Then it all started to fit into place and the power and importance of his work became clear. Such collections as "Words of a Rebel" and "Act For Yourselves" are classics, but I think that "The Great French Revolution" should be read by all revolutionary anarchists – it does present a good summary of how Kropotkin saw a libertarian revolt working. Also, "Modern Science and Anarchism" is very good (the version in the collection "Anarchism" or "Revolutionary Pamphlets" is much edited, try and get it in "Evolution and Environment" but it really should be published as a book in its own right).

And, of course, Kropotkin is one of the few anarchists whose ideas are now part of the mainstream of a science – namely his ideas on "Mutual Aid" are better known as "Reciprocal Altruism" in biology.

4. Nestor Makhno

Well, what can I say? He fought the Reds and the Whites in the name of freedom for over 3 years. His army shows the validity of anarchism and that the standard defences of the Bolsheviks by latter-day Leninists are just plain false. Which helps explain why they hate him so much

Also, a bit of personal history. When I was a teenager I read lots of Michael Moorcock books and Makhno appears in quite a few (Moorcock is an anarchist and a fan of Makhno). His appearances in "The Steel Tsar" and elsewhere got me interested in him, while Moorcock’s review of Michael Malet’s "Nestor Makhno in the Russian Civil War" got me looking at the Makhnovist section in Woodcock’s "The Anarchist Reader". Suitably impressed, I read the introduction and discovered that the ideas I had in my head had a name – anarchism! And the rest is history…

I still remember when I read this in "The Anarchist Reader" all those years ago:

"The freedom of the workers and the peasants is their own, and not subject to any restriction. It is up to the workers and peasants to act, to organise themselves, to agree among themselves in all aspects of their lives, as they themselves see fit and desire. . . The Makhnovists can do no more than give aid and counsel . . . In no circumstances can they, nor do they wish to, govern."


3. Buenaventura Durruti

It was a toss-up between Durruti and Makhno in terms of the third and fourth places. Durruti gets third place simply because he seemed so overall right on! According to Abel Paz he said:

"When will you stop thinking like the bourgeoisie, that women are men's servants? It's enough that society is divided into classes. We're not going to make even more classes by creating differences between men and women in our own homes!"

Paz’s "Durrutu in the Spanish Revolution" was one of my favourite books of the last few years. An insight into an amazing life and an amazing movement – looking at our situation it is hard to be believe something like the CNT existed!

Union activist, anarchist militant, at the forefront of so many struggles. What a guy! And, of course, dying a hero’s death defending Madrid from fascism cannot do Durruti’s memory any harm…

2. Michael Bakunin

Ah, Bakunin! Dismissed by Marx and Marxists ever since, but what do they know? He managed to predict both the failure of Social Democracy and that "the dictatorship of the proletariat" would become the dictatorship over the proletariat. But as I’ve learned, being right does not guarantee any recognition… particularly if being right goes against powerful interests!

If Proudhon defined what anarchism was, then Bakunin laid the foundations for revolutionary anarchism. From his ideas both communist- and syndicalist- anarchism flows. He took Proudhon’s ideas and developed them by adding the militant activism of the labour movement and a recognition that capitalism cannot be reformed. Which is why I find the recent flurry of comments that the Haymarket Martyrs somehow "synthesised" anarchism and Marxism! They were clearly following the path laid by Bakunin, who was hardly a Marxist… as Marx and Engels pointed out.

I’ve written an article on why Bakunin is great (one of many!), so I’ll leave it there – beyond asking when his Collected Works will be published? Apparently they have been translated into English…

1. Errico Malatesta

While Malatesta was not the most innovative thinkers, he was certainly the clearest and most realistic. His works express a humanism which is truly inspiring and he managed (beyond his early days) to weave a path between the extremes which so many anarchists fall into. His critiques of syndicalism and the Platform are spot on and Anarchy remains for me simply the best short introduction to anarchism there is. His analysis of what anarchists should do, the problems we face and possible solutions are sound. His writings are the best I have read. He really is an inspiration (and no silly stupidities like forgetting everything anarchism stands for when faced with World War). An outstanding activist and writer.

Perhaps needless to say, my original copy of "Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas" got so dog-eared that I had to buy a new one! And you can imagine how happy I was to learn AK Press was publishing a new anthology of Malatesta’s writings. Hopefully they will include his articles on Bolshevism as it would be interesting to see what someone who in the First International made of the Third…

So do yourself a favour, read Malatesta if you already haven’t!

Of course there are many, many others. Colin Ward, obviously ("Anarchy in Action" is a classic and his recent introduction to anarchism was good); Vernon Richards and Albert Meltzer (the former for "Lessons of the Spanish Revolution" and his editorials in Freedom from the ‘50s and ‘60s; the latter for Black Flag, keeping class struggle anarchist alive and fighting Freedom’s now reversed descent into quasi-liberalism); Voline ("The Unknown Revolution") and Peter Arshinov ("The History of the Makhnovist Movement"); Luigi Fabbri ("Anarchy and ‘Scientific’ Communism" – there really should be more translated by him!); Nicholas Walter also produced some useful material (not only "About Anarchism" but also numerous reviews and articles over the years); Daniel Guérin should also be named checked, if only for his excellent introduction "Anarchism: From theory to practice" (and he was also a Proudhon fan as well); but then the list would be extremely long…

For those interested in reading more, may I point to the excellent Anarchy Archives. It is pretty comprehensive (although it never seems to have new material in it!). It has pages for most, if not all, the people I’ve discussed above. I suppose the big question is, if someone did this kind of list in 50 years which anarchists writing and struggling today would be in contention to join them?

Anyways, enough of my rambling! Hope yous had a good holiday and that 2010 is as revolutionary as you desire…

Until I blog again, be seeing you!


Like what you are reading?  Get a notification whenever we post a new article to

Anarchist Writers via Facebook or Twitter

where you can also like and comment on our articles