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The theory espousing a societal state in which there is no structured government or law or in which there is resistance to all current forms of government.
Anarchists promote the absence of rules, which leads to the absence of any identifiable social structure beyond that of personal autonomy. When anarchy becomes defined by one anarchist, other anarchists may feel bound to change it.
Anarchism thus means different things to different believers. Anarchists do not hold common views on subjects such as desirable levels of community cooperation and the role of large industry in society. Another matter of continuing debate is whether anarchy is an end unto itself or simply the best means to a better government. To all anarchists, though, anarchy is the best refuge from political dogma and authority. Moreover, many anarchists agree that anarchism begins with the notion that people are inherently good, or even perfect, and that external authority—laws, governments, institutions, and so forth—limits human potential. External authority, they suggest, brings a corruption of the innocent human spirit and a ceiling on achievement.
Commentators on anarchism differentiate between "classical" theories of anarchy and more modern movements. Classical anarchists focused more heavily on the opposition to state control and capitalist society. Their strongest opposition was directed at government and the church. Many of the early anarchists were essentially socialists, and anarchist theories played a significant part in the socialist movements during the early twentieth century.
Beginning in about the 1960s, anarchism shifted its focus to a more general opposition to public and private hierarchy and domination of the working class. Modern anarchists tend to focus upon such issues as those related to patriarchy, racism, nature, and technology, and the effects these concepts have on society. One camp of anarchist theorists advocates a theory of anarcho-syndicalism, and those that subscribe to this theory promote a massive, leaderless movement of the working class intended to take control from those with public and private authority.
Modern anarchists directed their opposition against such pro-capitalist and quasi-governmental entities as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Anarchists became the focus of national attention in the late 1990s and early 2000s when they staged massive protests against World Trade Organization meetings in such U.S. cities as Seattle, Washington, and Eugene, Oregon. Although anarchists claim these protests were peaceful until law enforcement officers disrupted them, others consider these anarchists to be violent and unruly revolutionaries.
William Godwin (1756–1836) is widely regarded as the first to give anarchy a comprehensive intellectual foundation. Godwin, the son of a Calvinist minister, argued that the state and its laws were enslaving people instead of freeing them. According to Godwin, government was necessary only to prevent injustice and external invasion. With every person educated in sincerity, independence, self-restraint, and seriousness, any more governmental activity would be unnecessary.
Godwin opposed the rise of liberal democracy in the late 1700s. In the wake of the American and French Revolutions, he observed, "electioneering is a trade so despicably degrading, so eternally incompatible with moral and mental dignity that I can scarcely believe a truly great mind capable of the dirty drudgery of such vice." Godwin's observations and proposals were largely ignored during his lifetime, but they informed anarchists several decades later, when the brutal working conditions and "wage slavery" of industrialism began to present new reasons for revolt.
Two well-known anarchists, Emma Goldman (1869–1940) and Alexander Berkman (1870–1936), gained recognition in the 1890s. Goldman, the daughter of Jewish merchants, immigrated to the United States from Russia in 1885 at the age of 16. In Rochester, New York, Goldman worked in a sweat shop—a large, unsafe factory that paid low wages and demanded long hours. The experience radicalized Goldman, and with her natural flair for public speaking, she soon became a spokes-woman for anarchism. Goldman worked extensively for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), an organization dedicated to anarcho-syndicalism, which seeks to use the industrial union as the basis for a reorganization of society. Goldman's cross-country lecture tours, in which she addressed a broad range of social topics in German and English, earned her a reputation as a witty speaker and provocative thinker. A voracious reader and a magazine publisher, Goldman gave voice to ideas on sexuality, free love, Birth Control, and family structures that shocked members of her generation, including fellow anarchists.
Like many devout anarchists, Goldman had trouble with the law. She was imprisoned for a year for allegedly inciting a riot during a New York City hunger demonstration in 1893. Goldman also served a two-week sentence for distributing illegal birth control information. She was jailed on suspicion of complicity in the assassination of President William McKinley, in 1901. In 1917, she was arrested with Berkman for participating in antiwar protests, and both were charged with violating the Selective Service Act of 1917 (40 Stat. 76) by inducing young men to resist the draft. Goldman and Berkman were convicted, and, despite appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court, both served prison terms. Upon release in 1919, they were deported to Russia.
Berkman, Goldman's ally, shared Goldman's passion for breaking social barriers and inspiring creative thought. He also possessed a violent streak. In 1892, he was arrested for attempting to assassinate steel magnate Henry Clay Frick during a steel strike. After serving a 14-year prison sentence, Berkman devoted the rest of his life to freeing imprisoned political radicals and promoting workers' rights. He remained a close companion of Goldman until his death in 1936.
Goldman and Berkman cut dashing figures as romantic, intellectual anarchists, and they played no small part in a modest rise of anarchism in the early 1900s. Although anarchism still gains followers in Colleges and Universities and among self-styled intellectuals, it has been mostly dormant as a social force since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Many anarchists have suffered the bemusing fate of being convicted for breaking laws in which they do not believe. However, the justice system does occasionally protect the anarchist. In Fiske v. Kansas, 274 U.S. 380, 47 S. Ct. 655, 71L. Ed. 1108 (1927), Harold B. Fiske was charged in Rice County, Kansas, with violating the Kansas Criminal Syndicalism Act (Laws Sp. Sess. 1920, c. 37). Fiske had been arrested for promoting the Workers' Industrial Union (WIU), an organization devoted in part to establishing worker control of industry and the abolition of the wage system.
Under the syndicalism statute in Kansas, any person advocating "the duty, necessity, propriety or expediency of crime, criminal syndicalism, or sabotage … is guilty of a felony" (1920 Kan. Sess. Laws ch. 37, § 3). Criminal syndicalism was defined as the advocation of crime, physical violence, or destruction of property "as a means of effecting industrial or political revolution, or for profit" (§ 1). Kansas authorities charged Fiske with criminal syndicalism, citing only the preamble to the constitution of the IWW, the parent organization of Fiske's WIU. This preamble stated, in part, that "a struggle must go on until the workers of the World organize as a class, take possession of the earth, and the machinery of production and abolish the wage system" (Fiske).
The U.S. Supreme Court found insufficient evidence against Fiske to warrant conviction of criminal syndicalism. According to the Court, there was no suggestion that "getting possession of the machinery of production and abolishing the wage system, was to be accomplished by other than lawful means." The Court confirmed that a state may enact legislation to protect its government from insurrection, but it may not be Arbitrary or unreasonable in policing its citizens who advocate changes in the social order.
Brailsford, Henry N. 1931. Shelley, Godwin, and their Circle. London Press.
Goldman, Emma. 1982. Living My Life. Reprint, Salt Lake City: G.M. Smith.
Joll, James. 1964 The Anarchists. Boston: Little, Brown.
Nozick, Robert. 1975. Anarchy, State and Utopia. New York: Basic Books.
Sonn, Richard D. 1992. Anarchism. New York: Twayne.