Anarchist entry for a theological dictionary

Colin Ward

Colin Ward had a rather unusual request, which was to write the entry on anarchism for the 'Dictionary of Theology and Society' edited by Dr Paul A. B. Clarke and Professor Andrew Linzey, to be published in January 1995 by Routledge. Bearing in mind the particular needs of the kind of reader who might refer to such a work, this is what he wrote.

The word derives from the Greek anarkhia meaning without a ruler, and was used in a derogatory sense until, in the mid-nineteenth century in France, it was adopted in a positive way to describe a political and social ideology arguing for organisation without government. In the evolution of political ideas, anarchism can be seen as an ultimate projection of both liberalism and socialism, and the differing strands of anarchist thought can be related to their emphasis on one or the other of these aims. Historically, anarchism was a radical answer to the question `What went wrong?' that followed the outcome of the French Revolution. Conservatives like Edmund Burke, liberals like Alexis de Tocqueville, had their own responses. Anarchist thinkers were unique on the political left in affirming that workers and peasants, grasping the chance to overturn the result of centuries of exploitation and tyranny, were betrayed by the seizure of centralised state power by a new class of politicians who had no hesitation in applying violence and terror, a secret police and a professional army to maintain themselves in power. The institution of the state was itself the enemy. They applied the same criticism to every revolution of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The main stream of anarchist propaganda for more than a century has been anarchist-communism, which argues that property in land, natural resources and the means of production should be held in mutual ownership by local communities, federating for innumerable joint purposes with other communes. It differs from state socialism and from Marxist communism in opposing any central authority which, it has always argued, inevitably leads to governmental and bureaucratic tyranny, enforced by terror. Anarcho-syndicalism puts its emphasis on the organised workers who, through a social general strike, could expropriate the expropriators and establish workers' control of industry. Individualist anarchism has several traditions, one deriving from the `conscious egoism' of the German writer Max Stirner (1806-1856) and another from a series of American nineteenth-century thinkers who argued that in protecting our own autonomy and associating with others only for common advantages, we are promoting the good of all. They differed from free-market liberals in their emphasis on mutualism, usually derived from the French anarchist Proudhon. Pacifist anarchism follows both from the anti-militarism that accompanies rejection of the state with its ultimate dependence on armed force, and from the conviction that any morally-viable human society depends upon the uncoerced good will of its members.

These, and other, threads of anarchist thought have different emphases. What links them is their rejection of external authority, whether that of the state, the employer, the hierarchies of administration and of established institutions like the school and the church. The same is true of more recent varieties of anarchist propaganda, green anarchism and anarcha-feminism. Like those who believe that animal liberation is an aspect of human liberation, they claim that the only ideology consistent with their aims is anarchism.

It is customary to relate the anarchist tradition to four major thinkers and writers. The first was William Godwin (1756-1836) who in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice set out from first principles an anarchist case against government, the law, property and the institutions of the state. He was an heir both to the English tradition of radical nonconformity and to the French philosophes, and although social historians have traced his influence on nineteenth-century organs of working-class self-organisation, he was not rediscovered by the anarchist movement until the 1890s.

The second was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865), the French propagandist who was the first person to call himself an anarchist. In 1840 he declared that Property is Theft, but he went on to claim that Property is Freedom. He saw no contradiction between these two slogans, since the first related to the landowner and capitalist whose ownership derived from conquest or exploitation and was only maintained through the state, its property laws, police and army, while the second was concerned with the peasant or artisan family with a natural right to a home, to the land it could cultivate and to the tools of a trade, but not to ownership or control of the homes, land or livelihoods of others.

The third of these anarchist pioneers was the Russian revolutionary Michael Bakunin (1814-1876), famous for his disputes with Marx in the `First International' in the 1870s where, for his successors, he accurately predicted the outcome of Marxist dictatorships in the twentieth century. `Freedom without socialism', he said, `is privilege and injustice, but socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality'. The last was another Russian of aristocratic origins, Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921). His original reputation was as a physical geographer and in a long series of books and pamphlets he attempted to give anarchism a scientific basis. The Conquest of Bread was his manual on the self-organisation of a post-revolutionary society. Mutual Aid was written to confront misinterpretations of Darwinism that justified competitive capitalism, by demonstrating through the natural history of animal and human societies that competition within species is less significant than co-operation as a pre-condition for survival. Fields, Factories and Workshops was his treatise on the humanisation of work, through the integration of agriculture and industry, of hand and brain, and of intellectual and manual education. The most widely read of all anarchist authors, he linked anarchism both with social ecology and with everyday experience.

Some anarchists object to the identification of anarchism with its best-known writers. They point to the fact that its aspirations can be traced through the slave revolts of the ancient world, the peasant uprisings of medieval Europe, in the ideology of the Diggers in the English revolution of the 1640s and in the revolutions in France in 1789 and 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871. In the twentieth century, anarchism had a role in the Mexican revolution of 1911, the Russian revolution of 1917 and most notably in the Spanish revolution that followed the military rising that precipitated the civil war of 1936. In all these revolutions the fate of the anarchists was that of heroic losers.

But anarchists do not necessarily fit the stereotype of believers in some final revolution, succeeding where the others failed, and inaugurating a new society or utopia. The German anarchist Gustav Landauer (1870-1919) declared that `The state is not something which can be destroyed by a revolution, but is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently'.

Anarchism has, in fact, an endless resilience. Every European, North American, Latin American and Oriental society has had its anarchist publicists, newspapers, circles of adherents, imprisoned activists and martyrs. Whenever an authoritarian or repressive political regime collapses, the anarchists are there, a minority among the emerging ideologists, urging their fellow citizens to learn the lessons of the sheer horror and irresponsibility of government. The anarchist after Franco, in Portugal after Salazar, in Argentina after the generals and in the Soviet Union after seventy years of suppression. For anarchists this is an indication that the ideal of a self-organising society based on voluntary co-operation rather than coercion is irrepressible. It represents, they claim, a universal human aspiration.

The main varieties of anarchism are resolutely hostile to organised religion. Blanqui's slogan Ni Dieu ni ma te reflects their attitude, particularly in countries like France, Italy and Spain, with long anarchist and anti-clerical traditions. But beneath the anarchist umbrella there are specifically religious trends. The novelist Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) preached a gospel of Christian anarchism, especially in essays like The Kingdom of God is Within You which profoundly influenced several generations of pacifist anarchists, as did the social attitudes of the Society of Friends, particularly the Quaker approach to decision-making. Similarly several of the radical tendencies in the Catholic church, particularly the Distributist movement associated with G.K. Chesterton, with its links with the ideology of Proudhon, or the Catholic Worker movement in the United States, and its later equivalents in Latin America, have been strongly attracted by some aspects of anarchist propaganda.

In India, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) acknowledged that his campaigns for civil disobedience in the form of non-violent non-cooperation with government, and his hopes for self-governing village democracy built around local food production and craft industry, derived from Tolstoy, from the archetypal American advocate of individualist anarchism, Henry David Thoreau, and from Kropotkin's Fields, Factories and Workshops. His work, and that of successors like Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan has been evaluated from an anarchist standpoint by Geoffrey Ostergaard. And there are, needless to say, Western writers who have  discovered strongly anarchist elements in Taoism and Buddhism. One of the best revaluations of the thought of Proudhon, Kropotkin and Landauer was made by the theologian Martin Buber in his book Paths in Utopia. It has even been suggested that anarchist movements themselves resemble `chiliastic' or `millenarian' religious sects. This view has been propagated by Marxist historians, designating, for example, rural Spanish anarchists as `primitive rebels'. More recent work by historians and anthropologists has destroyed this interpretation. Those villagers were found to be rational people with a realistic assessment of their situation.

But the mere mention of the millennium leads us to consider the future of anarchist in the twenty-first century. Anarchists argue that if they are simply a marginal curiosity in the evolution of political ideas in the twentieth century, how do we evaluate the major political theories? Marxism may survive in universities, but as a ruling ideology it exists only in those countries where the army and secret police remain loyal and unintimidated by popular discontent. The Fabian variety of socialism through nationalisation has been abandoned even by its inheritors. The economic liberalism of the free market, even in the world's richest countries, creates an `underclass' of citizens with no access to it, while capital investment shifts around the world in search of ever cheaper sources of labour.

From an anarchist standpoint the history of the twentieth century has been an absolute justification of the anarchist critique of the state. It has been the century of the totalitarian state, subverting every other form of human organisation into organs of state power. It has consequently been the century of total war, reaching out to enrol every last citizen into the war machine, promoted by rivalry for markets among the great powers and by the free market in weapons, where every local dictator is fed by the state-sponsored arms trade of the rich nations. Similarly anarchists see the anti-clericalism of the nineteenth-century precursors vindicated by the late-twentieth- century re-emergence of militant religion, whether in the form of Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or Sikh fundamentalism, as a justification for persecuting, attacking and slaughtering adherents of other faiths.

Finally, they see themselves as precursors of universal yearnings for the humanisation of work. Kropotkin urged the decentralisation of industry on a small scale and its combination with food production for local needs, arguing for `a new economy in the energies used in supplying the needs of human life, since these needs are increasing and the energies are not inexhaustible'. He was almost unique in foreseeing current issues in these terms, just as he foresaw the history of economic imperialism in the twentieth century, leading to wars which `are inevitable so long as certain countries consider themselves destined to enrich themselves by the production of finished goods and divide the backward nations up among themselves ... while they accumulate wealth themselves on the basis of the labour of others'.

A century and a half of anarchist propaganda has had no visible effect on the world outside. But the concerns it has raised are bound to become the overwhelming social issues of the coming century. Can humanity outgrow nationalism and the religious loyalties that have become inextricably entangled with it? Can we overcome differences without resort to weapons? Can we feed, clothe and house ourselves and stay healthy without the obligation to win purchasing power by selling our time and talent to organisations we hate? Can we organise ourselves to gain a livelihood that does not add to the destruction of our own environment and that of other people and other species, far away? This series of questions is very far from the preoccupations of any political party with the faintest hope of electoral success. Anarchists are, as they have always been, among the people who, by raising them, condemn themselves to exile to the fringe of political and social agitation. Rejecting both the polarities of the voting system and the simplicities of a coup d' ‚ tat to replace the existing order by the imposition of a new order, the anarchists, whether they want or not, pursue a path of permanent opposition. They stress that the history of the twentieth century is crowded with new orders, installed and subsequently dethroned at a vast human cost. In predicting this, the anarchists have been steadfastly correct.

One of the most interesting and suggestive modern anarchist propagandists  was the American writer Paul Goodman (1911-1972) who wrote, later in life, that: For me, the chief principle of anarchism is not freedom but autonomy, the ability to initiate a task and do it one's own way ... The weakness of `my' anarchism is that the lust for freedom is a powerful motive for political change, whereas autonomy is not. Autonomous people protect themselves stubbornly but by less strenuous means, including plenty of passive resistance. They do their own thing anyway. The pathos of oppressed people, however, is that, if they break free, they don't know what to do. Not having been autonomous, they don't know what it's like, and before they learn, they have new managers who are not in a hurry to abdicate ...

Any inquirer, chancing upon his words, will recognise that he is describing not only the problem of anarchism but that of any liberatory ideology. The anarchists emerge from the dilemma with rather more credit than most.


  • M. Buber Paths in Utopia, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1949.
  • D. DeLeon The American as Anarchist: reflections on indigenous radicalism, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press 1978.
  • P. and P. Goodman Communitas: means of livelihood and ways of life (1947), New York: Columbia University Press 1990.
  • D. Goodway (editor) For Anarchism: history, theory and practice London: Routledge 1989.
  • P. Kropotkin Fields, Factories and Workshops (1899), London:Freedom Press 1985.
  • P. Marshall Demanding the Impossible: a history of anarchism London: Harper Collins 1992.
  • G. Ostergaard and M. Currell The Gentle Anarchists Oxford: Clarendon Press 1971.
  • L. Tolstoy Government is Violence: essays on anarchism and pacifism, London: Phoenix Press 1990.
  • C. Ward Anarchy in Action, London: Allen & Unwin 1973, Freedom Press 1985.
  • G. Woodcock Anarchism: a history of libertarian ideas and movements Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1963
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