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From Theory to Practice

Daniel Guerin, Mary Klopper

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eBook - ePub


From Theory to Practice

Daniel Guerin, Mary Klopper

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The Basic Ideas of Anarchism


The word anarchy is as old as the world. It is derived from two ancient Greek words, αv (an), αρχη (arkhê), and means something like the absence of authority or government. However, for millennia the presumption has been accepted that man cannot dispense with one or the other, and anarchy has been understood in a pejorative sense, as a synonym for disorder, chaos, and disorganization.
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was famous for his quips (such as “property is theft”) and took to himself the word anarchy. As if his purpose were to shock as much as possible, in 1840 he engaged in the following dialogue with the “Philistine.”
“You are a republican.”
“Republican, yes; but that means nothing. Res publica is ‘the State.’ Kings, too, are republicans.”
“Ah well! You are a democrat?”
“What! Perhaps you are a monarchist?”
“Constitutionalist then?”
“God forbid.”
“Then you are an aristocrat?”
“Not at all!”
“You want a mixed form of government?”
“Even less.”
“Then what are you?”
“An anarchist.”
He sometimes made the concession of spelling anarchy “anarchy” to put the packs of adversaries off the scent. By this term he understood anything but disorder. Appearances notwithstanding, he was more constructive than destructive, as we shall see. He held government responsible for disorder and believed that only a society without government could restore the natural order and re-create social harmony. He argued that the language could furnish no other term and chose to restore to the. old word anarchy its strict etymological meaning. In the heat of his polemics, however, he obstinately and paradoxically also used the word anarchy in its pejorative sense of disorder, thus making confusion worse confounded. His disciple Mikhail Bakunin followed him in this respect.
Proudhon and Bakunin carried this even further, taking malicious pleasure in playing with the confusion created by the use of the two opposite meanings of the word: for them, anarchy was both the most colossal disorder, the most complete disorganization of society and, beyond this gigantic revolutionary change, the construction of a new, stable, and rational order based on freedom and solidarity.
The immediate followers of the two fathers of anarchy hesitated to use a word so deplorably elastic, conveying only a negative idea to the uninitiated, and lending itself to ambiguities which could be annoying to say the least. Even Proudhon became more cautious toward the end of his brief career and was happy to call himself a “federalist.” His petty-bourgeois descendants preferred the term mutuellisme to anarchisme and the socialist line adopted collectivisme, soon to be displaced by communisme. At the end of the century in France, Sébastien Faure took up a word originated in 1858 by one Joseph Déjacque to make it the title of a journal, Le Libertaire. Today the terms “anarchist” and “libertarian” have become interchangeable.
Most of these terms have a major disadvantage: they fail to express the basic characteristics of the doctrines they are supposed to describe. Anarchism is really a synonym for socialism. The anarchist is primarily a socialist whose aim is to abolish the exploitation of man by man. Anarchism is only one of the streams of socialist thought, that stream whose main components are concern for liberty and haste to abolish the State. Adolph Fischer, one of the Chicago martyrs,* claimed that “every anarchist is a socialist, but every socialist is not necessarily an anarchist.”
Some anarchists consider themselves to be the best and most logical socialists, but they have adopted a label also attached to the terrorists, or have allowed others to hang it around their necks. This has often caused them to be mistaken for a sort of “foreign body” in the socialist family and has led to a long string of misunderstandings and verbal battles—usually quite purposeless. Some contemporary anarchists have tried to clear up the misunderstanding by adopting a more explicit term: they align themselves with libertarian socialism or communism.


Anarchism can be described first and foremost as a visceral revolt. The anarchist is above all a man in revolt. He rejects society as a whole along with its guardians. Max Stirner declared that the anarchist frees himself of all that is sacred, and carries out a vast operation of deconsecration. These “vagabonds of the intellect,” these “bad characters,” “refuse to treat as intangible truths things that give respite and consolation to thousands and instead leap over the barriers of tradition to indulge without restraint the fantasies of their impudent critique.” *
Proudhon rejected all and any “official persons”—philosophers, priests, magistrates, academicians, journalists, parliamentarians, etc.—for whom “the people is always a monster to be fought, muzzled, and chained down; which must be led by trickery like the elephant or the rhinoceros; or cowed by famine; and which is bled by colonization and war.” Elisée Reclus explained why society seems, to these well-heeled gentlemen, worth preserving: “Since there are rich and poor, rulers and subjects, masters and servants, Caesars who give orders for combat and gladiators who go and die, the prudent need only place themselves on the side of the rich and the masters, and make themselves into courtiers to the emperors.”
His permanent state of revolt makes the anarchist sympathetic to nonconformists and outlaws, and leads him to embrace the cause of the convict and the outcast. Bakunin thought that Marx and Engels spoke most unfairly of the lumpenproletariat, of the “proletariat in rags”: “For the spirit and force of the future social revolution is with it and it alone, and not with the stratum of the working class which has become like the bourgeoisie.”
Explosive statements which an anarchist would not disavow were voiced by Balzac through the character of Vautrin, a powerful incarnation of social protest—half rebel, half criminal.


The anarchist regards the State as the most deadly of the preconceptions which have blinded men through the ages. Stirner denounced him who “throughout eternity … is obsessed by the State.”
Proudhon was especially fierce against “this fantasy of our minds that the first duty of a free and rational being is to refer to museums and libraries,” and he laid bare the mechanism whereby “this mental predisposition has been maintained and its fascination made to seem invincible: government has always presented itself to men’s minds as the natural organ of justice and the protector of the weak.” He mocked the inveterate authoritarians who “bow before power like church wardens before the sacrament” and reproached “all parties without exception” for turning their gaze “unceasingly toward authority as if to the polestar.” He longed for the day when “renunciation of authority shall have replaced faith in authority and the political catechism.”
Kropotkin jeered at the bourgeois who “regarded the people as a horde of savages who would be useless as soon as government ceased to function.” Malatesta anticipated psychoanalysis when he uncovered the fear of freedom in the subconscious of authoritarians.
What is wrong with the State in the eyes of the anarchists?
Stirner expressed it thus: “We two are enemies, the State and I.” “Every State is a tyranny, be it the tyranny of a single man or a group.” Every State is necessarily what we now call totalitarian: “The State has always one purpose: to limit, control, subordinate the individual and subject him to the general purpose . … Through its censorship, its supervision, and its police the State tries to obstruct all free activity and sees this repression as its duty, because the instinct of self-preservation demands it.” “The State does not permit me to use my thoughts to their full value and communicate them to other men … unless they are its own.… Otherwise it shuts me up.”
Proudhon wrote in the same vein: “The government of man by man is servitude.” “Whoever lays a hand on me to govern me is a usurper and a tyrant. I declare him to be my enemy.” He launched into a tirade worthy of a Molière or a Beaumarchais:
To be governed is to be watched over, inspected, spied on, directed, legislated, regimented, closed in, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, assessed, evaluated, censored, commanded; all by creatures that have neither the right, nor wisdom, nor virtue.… To be governed means that at every move, operation, or transaction one is noted, registered, entered in a census, taxed, stamped, priced, assessed, patented, licensed, authorized, recommended, admonished, prevented, reformed, set right, corrected. Government means to be subjected to tribute, trained, ransomed, exploited, monopolized, extorted, pressured, mystified, robbed; all in the name of public utility and the general good. Then, at the first sign of resistance or word of complaint, one is repressed, fined, despised, vexed, pursued, hustled, beaten up, garroted, imprisoned, shot, machine-gunned, judged, sentenced, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed, and to cap it all, ridiculed, mocked, outraged, and dishonored. That is government, that is its justice and its morality! … O human personality! How can it be that you have cowered in such subjection for sixty centuries?”
Bakunin sees the State as an “abstraction devouring the life of the people,” an “immense cemetery where all the real aspirations and living forces of a country generously and blissfully allow themselves to be buried in the name of that abstraction.”
According to Malatesta, “far from creating energy, government by its methods wastes, paralyzes, and destroys enormous potential.”
As the powers of the State and its bureaucracy widen, the danger grows more acute. Proudhon foresaw the greatest evil of the twentieth century: “Fonctionnairisme [legalistic rule by civil servants] … leads toward state communism, the absorption of all local and individual life into the administrative machinery, and the destruction of all free thought. Everyone wants to take refuge under the wing of power, to live in common.” It is high time to call a halt: “Centralization has grown stronger and stronger … , things have reached … the point where society and government can no longer coexist.” “From the top of the hierarchy to the bottom there is nothing in the State which is not an abuse to be reformed, a form of parasitism to be suppressed, or an instrument of tyranny to be destroyed. And you speak to us of preserving the State, and increasing the power of the State! Away with you—you are no revolutionary!”
Bakunin had an equally clear and painful vision of an increasingly totalitarian State. He saw the forces of world counter-revolution, “based on enormous budgets, permanent armies, and a formidable bureaucracy” and endowed “with all the terrible means of action given to them by modern centralization,” as becoming “an immense, crushing, threatening reality.”


The anarchist denounces the deception of bourgeois democracy even more bitterly than does the authoritarian socialist. The bourgeois democratic State, christened “the nation,” does not seem to Stirner any less to be feared than the old absolutist State. “The monarch … was a very poor man compared with the new one, the ‘sovereign nation.’ In liberalism we have only the continuation of the ancient contempt for the Self.” “Certainly many privileges have been eliminated through time but only for the benefit of the State … and not at all to strengthen my Self.”
In Proudhon’s view “democracy is nothing but a constitutional tyrant.” The people were declared sovereign by a “trick” of our forefathers. In reality they are a monkey king which has kept only the title of sovereign without the magnificence and grandeur. The people rule but do not govern, and delegate their sovereignty through the periodic exercise of universal suffrage, abdicating their power anew every three or five years. The dynasts have been driven from the throne but the royal prerogative has been preserved intact. In the hands of a people whose education has been willfully neglected the ballot is a cunning swindle benefiting only the united barons of industry, trade, and property.
The very theory of the sovereignty of the people contains its own negation. If the entire people were truly sovereign there would no longer be either government or governed; the sovereign would be reduced to nothing; the State would have no raison d’être, would be identical with society and disappear into industrial organization.
Bakunin saw that the “representative system, far from being a guarantee for the people, on the contrary, creates and safeguards the continued existence of a governmental aristocracy against the people.” Universal suffrage is a sleight of hand, a bait, a safety valve, and a mask behind which “hides the really despotic power of the State based on the police, the banks, and the army,” “an excellent way of oppressing and ruining a people in the name of the so-called popular will which serves to camouflage it.”
The anarchist does not believe in emancipation by the ballot. Proudhon was an abstentionist, at least in theory, thinking that “the social revolution is seriously compromised if it comes about through the political revolution.” To vote would be a contradiction, an act of weakness and complicity with the corrupt regime: “We must make war on all the old parties together, using parliament as a legal battlefield, but staying outside it.” “Universal suffrage is the counter-revolution,” and to constitute itself a class the proletariat must first “secede from” bourgeois democracy.
However, the militant Proudhon frequently departed from this position of principle. In June 1848 he let himself be elected to parliament and was briefly stuck in the parliamentary glue. On two occasions, during the partial elections of September 1848 and the presidental elections of December 10 of the same year, he supported the candidacy of Raspail, a spokesman of the extreme Left. He even went so far as to allow himself to be blinded by the tactic of the “the lesser evil,” expressing a preference for General Cavaignac, persecutor of the Paris proletariat, over the apprentice dictator Louis Napoleon. Much later, in 1863 and 1864, he did advocate returning blank ballot papers, but as a demonstration against the imperial dictatorship, not in opposition to universal suffrage, which he now christened “the democratic principle par excellence.”
Bakunin and his supporters in the First International objected to the epithet “abstentionist” hurled at them by the Marxists. For them, boycotting the ballot box was a simple tactical question and not an article of faith. Although they gave priority to the class struggle in the economic field, they would not agree that they ignored “politics.” They were not rejecting “politics,” but only bourgeois politics. They did not disapprove of a political revolution unless it was to come before the social revolution. They steered clear of other movements only if these were not directed to the immediate and complete emancipation of the workers. What they feared and denounced were ambiguous electoral alliances with radical bourgeois parties of the 1848 type, or “popular fronts,” as they would be called today. They also feared that when workers were elected to parliament and translated into bourgeois living conditions, they would cease to be workers and turn into Statesmen, becoming bourgeois, perhaps even more bourgeois than the bourgeoisie itself.
However, the anarchist attitude toward universal suffrage is far from logical or consistent. Some considered the ballot as a last expedient. Others, more uncompromising, regarded its use as damnable in any circumstances and made it a matter of doctrinal purity. Thus, at the time of the Cartel des Gauches (Alliance of the Left) elections in May 1924, Malatesta refused to make any concession. He admitted that in certain circumstances the outcome of an election might have “good” or “bad” consequences and that the result would sometimes depend on anarchist votes, especially if the forces of the opposing political groupings were fairly evenly balanced. “But no matter! Even if some minimal progress were to be the direct result of an electoral victory, the anarchist should not rush to the polling stations.” He concluded: “Anarchists have always kept themselves pure, and remain the revolutionary party par excellence, the party of the future, because they have been able to resist the siren song of elections.”
The inconsistency of anarchist doctrine on this matter was to be especially well illustrated in Spain. In 1930 the anarchists joined in a common front with bourgeois democrats to overthrow the dictator, Primo de Rivera. The following year, despite their official abstention, many went to the polls in the municipal elections which led to the overthrow of the monarchy. In the general election of November 1933 they strongly recommended abstention from voting, and this returned a violently anti-labor Right to power for more than two years. The anarchists had taken care to announce in advance that if their abstention led to a victory for reaction they would launch the social revolution. They soon attempted to do so but in vain and at the cost of heavy losses (dead, wounded, and imprisoned).
When the parties of the Left came together in the Popular Front in 1936, the central anarcho-syndicalist organization was hard pressed to know what attitude to adopt. Finally it declared itself, very halfheartedly, for abstention, but its campaign was so tepid as to go unheard by the masses who were in any case already committed to participation in the elections. By going to the polls the mass of voters insured the triumph of the Popular Front (263 left-wing deputies, as against 181 others).
It should be noted that in spite of their savage attacks on bourgeois democracy, the anarchists admitted that it is relatively progressive. Even Stirner, the most intransigent, occasionally let slip the word “progress.” Proudhon conceded: “When a people passes from the monarchical to the democratic State, some progress is made.” And Bakunin said: “It should not be thought that we want … to criticize the bourgeois government in favor of monarchy.… The most imperfect republic is a thousand times better than the most enlightened monarchy.… The democratic system gradually educates the masses to public life.” This disproves Lenin’s view that “some anarchists” proclaim “that the form of oppression is a matter of indifference to the proletariat.” This also dispels the fear expressed by Henri Arvon in his little book L’Anarchisme that anarchist opposition to democracy could be confused with counter-revolutionary opposition.


The anarchists were unanimous in subjecting authoritarian socialism to a barrage of severe criticism. At the time when they made violent and satirical attacks these were not entirely well founded, for those to whom they were addressed were either primitive or “vulgar” communists, whose thought had not yet been fertilized by Marxist humanism, or else, in the case of Marx and Engels themselves, were not as set on authority and state control as the anarchists made out.
Although in the nineteenth century authoritarian tendencies in socialist thought were still embryonic and undeveloped, they have proliferated in our time. In the face of these excrescences, the anarchist critique seems less tendentious, less unjust; sometimes it even seems to have a prophetic ring.

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Citation styles for Anarchism
APA 6 Citation
Guerin, D. (1970). Anarchism ([edition unavailable]). Monthly Review Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 1970)
Chicago Citation
Guerin, Daniel. (1970) 1970. Anarchism. [Edition unavailable]. Monthly Review Press.
Harvard Citation
Guerin, D. (1970) Anarchism. [edition unavailable]. Monthly Review Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Guerin, Daniel. Anarchism. [edition unavailable]. Monthly Review Press, 1970. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.