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Definition: anarchism from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(1642) 1 : a political theory holding all forms of governmental authority to be unnecessary and undesirable and advocating a society based on voluntary cooperation and free association of individuals and groups 2 : the advocacy or practice of anarchistic principles


Summary Article: anarchism from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Political philosophy that society should have no government, laws, police, or other authority, but should be a free association of all its members. It does not mean ‘without order’, but believes that order can be achieved by cooperation. Anarchism is essentially a pacifist movement and should not be confused with nihilism (a purely negative and destructive activity directed against society).

There are different traditions of anarchism. Religious anarchism, claimed by many anarchists to be shown in the early organization of the Christian church, found expression in the social philosophy of the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy and the Indian nationalist Mahatma Gandhi. Political anarchism can be traced through the British Romantic writers William Godwin and Percy Bysshe Shelley to the 1848 revolutionaries Pierre Joseph Proudhon in France and the Russian Mikhail Bakunin, who had a strong following in Europe. Anarchist communism found expression in the works of the Russian revolutionary Peter Kropotkin. Perhaps the most influential anarchist of the 20th century has been the US linguist Noam Chomsky.

Anarchist philosophy Anarchists believe that society's ills and crimes result largely from repressive political and social institutions. They believe that the state apparatus cannot be employed to maintain order. They emphasize instead the importance of education in ensuring sociable behaviour, and of small social groupings, where the pressure of community opinion can ensure non-destructive behaviour.

Despite the emphasis placed on education and the optimism about human nature under non-repressive conditions, there is a strong irrationalist strain in the anarchist tradition. The extreme amorality of Max Stirner'sThe Ego and His Own represents an early example of this.

In the Middle Ages, there were anarchist outbreaks among Christian sects which emphasized the importance of community and the disregard of law (antinomianism). Some modern anarchism has been seen in areas with a rural village community tradition, for example in Catalonia in the Spanish Civil War, and in the Ukraine under Nestor Makhno in the Russian Civil War. Anarchism has also flourished within the factories of industrializing countries. Known as anarcho-syndicalism, the aim has been devolution of decision-making to the factory level.

Anarchist thinkers The first modern exponent of anarchist thinking was the English libertarian William Godwin (1756–1836). In his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), he advocated the application of the standard of utility to an individual's actions as the only morally defensible constraint on people's actions.

The first self-proclaimed anarchist philosopher was the French libertarian socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865). In What is Property? (1840), he equated property with theft and believed in mutualism, based on the free association of labour and proper reward for the true value of work. He asserted that in a perfect society order would be maintained by the reasonable self-control of the free individual.

The Russian revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876) was the leading exponent of collectivist anarchism. Unlike mutualists, collectivist anarchists oppose all private ownership of the means of production, and advocate that ownership be collectivized. In addition to works such as the atheistic God and the State (published in 1882, after his death), Bakunin is chiefly remembered for his prolonged struggle in the First International socialist organization with the followers of Karl Marx. Marx won the struggle, but Bakunin had a large following, especially in the Latin countries.

The Russian, Prince Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921), was the leading advocate of anarchist-communism, also known as libertarian communism. His works included Memoirs of a Revolutionist (1899). He advocated the abolition of the State and capitalism in favour of a horizontal network of voluntary associations through which everyone would be free to satisfy his or her needs. It has been suggested that Marx's theory of the withering away of the state under communism was developed primarily to take the wind out of the sails of his anarchist opponents.

Anarchism has numbered among its supporters many men of considerable erudition, including Kropotkin and Enrico Malatesta who made England their home, and Count Leo Tolstoy whose return to the simplicity of the primitive Christians gave rise to the term Tolstoian anarchy.

Some anarchists advocated propaganda by deed, leading to violent attacks on rulers and better-off members of society. Among rulers to perish at the hands of anarchists were President Carnot of France in 1894; Empress Elizabeth of Austria in 1898; King Umberto of Italy in 1900; and President McKinley of the USA in 1901.

Modern anarchism Anarchist writers have continued to explore ways of liberalizing our social and political life and a resurgence of anarchist thinking at this level influenced the post-war women's and gay ‘liberation’ movements. Modern anarchist writers include Herbert Reade and Paul Goodman. Later anarchists have also embraced environmental issues; the US writer and activist Murray Bookchin (1921–2006) was in the 1950s the first to incorporate ecology in his view of a free, non-hierarchical society.

From the 1960s there have been outbreaks of politically-motivated violence popularly identified with anarchism. The worldwide student unrest of May 1968 included some extreme and avowed irrationalists. Some believed that the only way of protesting against the highly-structured, modern, social world was to commit acts of pure and spontaneous contingency, unstructured by any of the ‘reasons’ which the social context might provide for even revolutionary action. In the UK anarchist action included the bombings and shootings carried out by the Angry Brigade 1968–71, and in the 1980s actions directed towards peace and animal-rights issues, as well as demonstrations against large financial and business corporations. The more recent antiglobalization and anti-World Trade Organization demonstrations have had a strong anarchist element.

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