19th Century Anarchy: A brief History

In some ways you can say that anarchy has been around forever. Disorder, the break-down of rules and societies, confusion and (frequently) slaughter as one ruler disappears and another takes his place, we generally call that “history.” But anarchy as a specific philosophical idea is far younger, and really only came into being in the 1800s, in part because of the Romantic Movement’s nostalgia for a time before the then-modern social and political order of Europe and the United States. A few writers claimed that the Peasants’ Uprisings in England (1300s) and Germany (1500s) were proto-democratic movements based on freedom from government and equality for all, thus establishing a historical precedent for the Romantics and anarchists. Partly an invocation of the noble savage, partly a plea for the Golden Rule, partly a dose of “just leave us alone,” partly a reaction to the authoritarianism that developed after 1800, anarchism offered an alternative to autocracy, monarchy, and Marxism. And then there were the people we think of when we say “anarchist” today, the ones who wanted other people to burn it all down and start anew.

The word itself is derived from Greek and means “without ruler.” Mon-archy is rule by one, an-archy is rule by none. The Russian philosophers who first espoused it, Bakunin and Kropotkin, both came from lesser and greater nobility, and loathed what they saw of the autocracy in Russia. Yes, the serfs had been freed. Yes, there had been some tiny reforms before the czar and conservatives reacted to the complaints about the lack of even more reforms. Part of the Romantic ideals that bubbled up in Russia included a veneration for the peasant clan and village collective, called a mir. All the men over a certain age took part and worked as a group, made decisions for the community as a group, and paid taxes or divided up forced labor duties as a group. For those opposed to autocracy, it seemed like an ideal system: authentically native, localized, ancient*, and free from interference by king or foreign ruler (Napoleon and the French Revolution). Peasants represented the true spirit and heart of Russia, and anything good would start with them. So an ideal society, as Bakunin and later Kropotkin saw it, would be made up of all these little collectives, all self-sufficient or engaging in peaceful trade with neighbors, taking care of the needs of all, and free from the corrupting influences of the industrial bourgeoise as well as from czar or overlord.

Now, the Russians were not the first to come up with new communal ideas in an attempt to save people from the evils of the Industrial Revolution, the Old Regime, and autocracy. The French Revolution (1789-1815) had a few of those ideas within it and they were crushed. Anarchy required that the State leave people alone to organize themselves their own way. The French Revolution never got rid of the State, and in fact each stage strengthened the State in opposition to the individual. The Committee of Public Safety had no tolerance for people unwilling to pull their load for the People and the State. After the Wars of the Revolution and Napoleon’s little fling with world domination, Marx tried his hand (1848 and beyond), arguing for a scientific view of history and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. And that anyone who wanted a commune without the State was a foolish utopian socialist and probably insane to boot. Because SCIENCE!

The Franco-Prussian War (1871) led to the creation of the Paris Commune, an episode with a lot of interesting and horrible things in its own right. The French Republic crushed it, in part because the Communards could not agree on how to run things and because their military leaders misread some things and walked into a trap. A number of socialists, Communists (Marxist), Communards, Fourierists, and others ended up on prison barges if they were lucky, then fled into exile where they met the Russians and glowered at Marx (who declared that he’d saved the honor of the Commune by writing a book about it, rather than actually doing something to help them).

As all this is going on, some anarchists had grown tired of waiting for the state to realize the folly of its ways, for the people to form federalized communes and to turn their backs on the state, for the People to spontaneously rose up and overthrow the state and then form little communes, or for some deity to smite various rulers and make them see the errors of their ways. Marx had the same problem, but his approach was a bit different. The younger anarchists took leaves from the Russian activists still in Russia, who tried to assassinate the czar (and eventually succeeded, but got an even harsher autocrat), police inspectors, secret police inspectors, and others in hopes of triggering a revolution or scaring the government into making reforms. The term for this, developed by an Italian, was “the Propaganda of the Deed.” Keep in mind, propaganda at this time just meant information spread to encourage people to accept your idea. It did not mean “lies or shaded truths broadcast to deceive or to sway the people to support a bad cause” in the way we use the term in 2016.

The propaganda of the deed did not mean forming an anarcho-syndicalist commune and living as an example to show the world. It meant actions to draw attention, and took on the connotation of killing rulers and politicians. And people claiming to be anarchists took a pretty sizeable toll of monarchs and others: King Humberto of Italy, Empress Elizabeth of Austria, Alexander II of Russia, President Carnot of France, Prime Minister Cánovas de Castillo of Spain, and US president William McKinley. In addition, Feb. 12, 1894 Emile Henry detonated a bomb in the Cafe Terminus, killing one and injuring twenty. An anarchist blew up a restaurant in France in 1892, offices were blown up, and it seemed as if the bomb had replaced knives and pistols as the preferred tool of the assassin. (Thus the round bomb with a fuse as the symbol of anarchists in some poster and art.) Also policemen, military, and others died.

And Bakunin and others didn’t want violence, but understood why the young and desperate might resort to such tactics. Anarchism as a terror force disappeared after WWI, in part because Communists did their best to crush it. Anarchy of the idealist school is opposed to any statist philosophy, especially Marxist Communism.

Today’s “anarchists?” The ones that seem to show up at protests and political gatherings to incite riots are not followers of Bakunin or Kropotkin. They want no government and chaos, or what we think of when we say “anarchy.” out of that will come a perfect state, not small groups of self-sufficient communities living free of all outside governance and in harmony and peace. The old-school anarchists tend to avoid the Black Bloc-type groups. They remember what happened in Spain during the Civil War.


The above article is a biased but good summary of anarchy as a movement today. I don’t agree with some of their arguments, but it’s a pretty decent overview. www.theanarchistlibrary.org is a collection of sources and articles by modern and historic anarchists. It is run by volunteers, so the quality of the articles varies.


*The peasant collective actually dated to around 1760 when Peter the Great set up a new taxation system based on collective payment of taxes. It wasn’t ancient and the serfs and formerly free peasants did not care for it one whit, as Catherine the Great rediscovered. Peter also ended slavery but finished turning serfs into land-bound slaves with military duties. The Romantics missed that little detail, as did some Soviet writers.


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