What is Anarchism?

download_ca_blackIn the prologue to Anarchism, Woodcock attempts to define anarchism and debunks the stereotypes imposed on anarchists (ism) by exposing the historical misunderstandings and semantic confusions associated with the movement. Despite many variations within the tradition, Woodcock asserts that by examining the doctrines from Proudhon and Bakunin to Kropotkin, Godwin and Stirner, anarchism is a system of thought that aims at fundamental changes in the structure of society, and particularly –the uniting element common to all its forms –“at the replacement of the authoritarian state by some form of non-governmental cooperation between free individuals (pp.14)”.

The anarchist proposition of human nature is that ‘man naturally contains within him all the attributes which make him capable of living in freedom and social concord,’ i.e. humans are naturally social and are capable of living in mutually cooperative societies, regulated by no laws or an artificial authority, but by mutual agreements between the members (pp. 22). This pre-political view of man’s social condition gives rise to the Marxist critique of anarchism as ‘reactionary’ by denying the existence of a progressive element in anarchism. Woodcock tries to clarify and examine the differences between anarchism and Marxism, for instance, the anarchists places greater hope in peasants than industrial workers, in achieving their aim. Horowitz makes the distinction clearer and thorough, as we shall see.

Woodcock argues that ‘at no time was a policy of terrorism adopted by anarchists in general’, he claims that acts of terrorism carried in the shades of anarchism are those lonely men driven by a curious blend of idealism and apocalyptic passion (pp.17). However, he is also critical of the historical events or personalities, which might have contributed in creating the negative image of anarchism in popular imagination. For instance, assassinations carried out by men like Emile Henry and Leon Czolgosz. Interestingly, Kropotkin reluctantly accepts violence while the Tolstoyans reject violence under any circumstance (pp.16).

In Part I, Woodcock begins to look at the genealogy of anarchism as a socio-political thought by examining a number of key thinkers from Thomas Paine and Gerrard Winstanley to Leon Tolstoy and Gandhi. His approach in examining the philosophy of anarchism is historical, i.e. he studies the origins of the idea and the personalities associated with it. Woodcock seems to detest the fact that the anarchist apologists have tried to trace the origin of anarchism in primitive non-governmental societies by making various religious and philosophical claims, which are attributed to different historical figures (pp. 36). Woodcock maintains that even though it is true that some of the libertarian ideas can be traced in those times and thinkers with varying degrees, it is problematic to label their thoughts as anarchism or them as anarchists. He argues that anarchism as a socio-political philosophy first appeared with the emergence of modern state and capitalism following the collapse of the medieval “Divine Right of Kings” rulership (pp. 40). Woodcock thinks that Gerrard Winstanley and his friends, the diggers, were the first anarchists or the predecessors of anarchism and emerged during the Commonwealth. He argues that Thomas Paine hugely influenced later anarchists like Godwin and Kropotkin, and but he maintains that Paine himself was not an anarchist because of his lack of optimism about the future of anarchism, despite his extreme distrust of the government (pp. 47).

In the introduction to The Anarchists, like Woodcock, Horowitz attempts to define anarchism negatively by arguing what is not anarchism.  To put it positively, anarchism means the “internalization” of rules to such a high degree as to do away with the need for external constraint altogether (pp. 16). The presupposition is, contrary to the Hobbesian notion of human condition in the state of nature as ‘War of All Against All,’ that ‘natural man’ is capable of living in mutually cooperative societies before entering “civilization.” Therefore, Horowitz states that the anarchists view civilization as a series of impediments and obstructions preventing man from realizing himself (pp. 17). In protest against Rousseau, the anarchists deny the existence of an actual voluntary contract, which robs the natural man of his liberty and spontaneity.

Horowitz’s analysis of the nature of anarchism as a movement and as a political thought seem much more thorough as he goes on proving how and why anarchism is anti-egoistic (egoism as an expression of civilization), anti-fatalistic (fatalism violates individual liberty), and mutualistic in the sense that the natural man has a propensity to voluntary association based on practice of mutual aid (pp. 20).  Horowitz stresses the point of natural man as members of a community to which one has communal obligation (Kantian ethics), and alienation of men from the sources of his labor violates the social ethic of human dignity. That is why anarchism is seen as anti-political and anti-economic.

Horowitz makes a clear and thorough distinction between anarchism and socialism: the socialist envisions a future society through redistribution of power, property, etc. and the anarchist thinks such compromise are doomed to perpetuate the problem in new forms. While the socialist thinks “class” is the problem, the anarchist maintains that “society” is the problem. The anarchist thinks that civilization is a subtle form of corruption, or self-delusion. Therefore, abolition is necessary, not improvement (pp. 23). In the second part of the introduction, Horowitz explains and analyzes the eight major different forms of anarchism, ranging from utilitarian anarchism of Diderot and Godwin to pacifist anarchism of Tolstoy and Gandhi. His comprehensive conceptual analysis of these forms of anarchism by contextualizing them to their historical events and personalities makes it easy to follow. Horowitz critically examines these forms of anarchism by pointing out the conceptual ambiguities or discrepancies in each form. Horowitz states, “ . . . my own view is that anarchism . . . is an effort to fashion a radical alternative to the Marxist tradition in its orthodox forms (pp. 12).” In contrast to Woodcock, Horowitz’s approach is idea or subject based as he traverses from a variety of subjects in organizing this book. His comprehensive introduction to anarchism as a socio-political philosophy gives a great warm-up exercise for tackling with the classic readings on anarchism.


Horowitz, Irving Louis, The Anarchists, (pp. 15-64).

Woodcock, George, Anarchism, chapters 1-2 (pp. 7-53).


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