Seven Stories Press

Works of Radical Imagination

(image: Gerhard Seyfried, Anarchy Comics No. 1,1978)

Now that New York, Seattle, and Portland have been designated "Anarchist Jurisdictions" - whatever that means - by our government of staggeringly misplaced priorities, it might be a good idea to refresh our understanding of what anarchism is, and what it isn't.

As Norman Baillargeon asserts in the introduction to his informative primer on anarchism, Order Without Power:

Declare yourself to be an anarchist and you are—almost inevitably—taken for a nihilist, a cheerleader of chaos, or even a terrorist.

Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a distortion resulting from decades of skillfully cultivated confusion around the concept of anarchism. Dictionaries are no exception; they generally foster the same preconceptions and prejudices.  According to Le Robert, anarchism is supposed to be “Absence of government; confusion or disorder which results.”

“Absence [an] of government [archie] and thus disorder and chaos,” declares Le Littré. Larousse concludes that “the anarchist doctrine presents a peculiar mixture of disinterested illuminism and blind or brutal violence.” One wouldn’t know how to do any worse in so few words.

Elite culture, such as that encountered in academia, sometimes scarcely does better. For example, the relativist and irrationalist epistemology of Paul Feyerabend was recently described and discussed as an anarchist theory of  knowledge. This indicates a complete ignorance of anarchism, and of the rationalism that has always inspired it.

What is anarchism, if all of this is far from the mark?

Etymologically, anarchism is defined as [an-] (privative) [archos] (power, commandment, or authority). Taken literally, it is thus the absence of power or authority. This does not mean confusion or disorder if we accept that the order imposed by authority is not the only possible kind of order. Expressed as simply as possible, this is indeed what anarchism contends. Anarchists believe that this order in the absence of power will be born of freedom—freedom being the mother of order and not its daughter, as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon asserted. In other words, anarchism believes that, in the end, disorder may well only be “order without power,” in the fine words of Léo Ferré.

Anarchists have incessantly highlighted the antiauthoritarian aspect of their philosophy. For example, Sébastien Faure wrote, “Those who refuse authority and fight it are anarchist.” Similarly, Proudhon stated, “No more authority: not in church, state, land, or money.” It would be easy to find many more such statements. I once met an old woman who had fought in the Spanish Civil War. She put it very simply, “I am an anarchist: that is, I don’t like to give or receive orders.”

As can be imagined, to the authorities this idea is unforgiveable; it is an unacceptable ideal. It is thus neither forgiven nor accepted. 

As a first approximation, then, we can say that anarchism is a political theory in which the idea of anti-authoritarianism is central. That is, it is a conscious and rational rejection of all illegitimate forms of authority and power. Of course the question then becomes: What constitutes illegitimate power? There are unquestionably powers and forms of authority that pass the test of legitimacy and to which anarchists are willing to submit. As Georges Brassens put it, “I am such an anarchist that I go out of my way to cross at the crosswalk!”

What are these legitimate powers and forms of authority? Why are they legitimate? There are no simple or definitive answers to these questions. All the less so because anarchism maintains that with the advance of freedom, the field of legitimacy can be revisited and legitimacy denied to forms of power previously accepted as justifiable.

Drawing out the theoretical and practical implications of this antiauthoritarianism, anarchism is the passionate love of freedom and equality. It gives birth to the profound conviction— or I should say hope—that relations freely consented to are best suited to our nature; that they alone are definitively capable of ensuring the harmonious organization of society. In the final analysis, they thus constitute the most adequate means of satisfying what Peter Kropotkin called the “infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilized being.”

Recent posts