What is Anarchism?

Anarchism, broadly speaking, is the political philosophy of human emancipation.

Humans are happiest and most productive, anarchists argue, when they are free to exercise their creative powers in cooperation with one another, outside of the confines of capital and the state.

Conversely, human beings are most miserable and alienated under the weight of indebtedness, poverty, and violence, all characteristics of capitalism and the state.

These structures of domination, however, cannot last forever.

As a coherent political ideology and social movement, anarchism first appeared in the labor movement of the 19th century in reaction to the rapid increase in industrialization and the centralization of power.

Millions of working people and peasants from around the world contributed to the early anarchist movement; whether through direct membership in one of the many large anarchist unions of the early 20th century, or through participation in a wide variety of anarchist publications, free schools, co-operatives, social clubs or affinity groups.

These organizations included – but can hardly be limited to – the Spanish Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, the Industrial Workers of the World, the Federacion Obrera Regional Argentina, the Uruguayan Anarchist Federation, the Shinmin autonomous region founded by Korean anarchists, and the Makhnovist Ukrainian Free Territory.

The anarchist canon has been equally global in its influence and development, including thinkers like Li Pei Kan (Ba Jin) and Liu Shifu (“Shifu”) of China, Louise Michel and Jules Bonnot of France, Armando Borghi and Errico Malatesta of Italy, Nestor Makhno and Piotr Arshinov of the Ukraine, Severino Di Giovanni and Juana Rouco Buela of Argentina, Lucía Sánchez Saornil and Jaime Balius of Spain, Ricardo Flores Magón, Juana Belén Gutiérrez de Mendoza, and Antonio Gomes y Soto of Mexico, Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis of the Netherlands, Ōsugi Sakae, Kōtoku Shūsui and Kanno Sugako of Japan, Lucy Parsons and Emma Goldman of the United States, Enrique Roig de San Martín of Cuba, Shin Chaeho and Kim Jwa-jin of Korea, Rudolph Rocker of Germany, Neno Vasco and Maria Lacerda de Moura of Brazil, Abraham Guillén of Spain and Uruguay, Ngo Van Xuhat of Vietnam, and S.P. Bunting and T.W. Thibedi of South Africa.

In short, anarchists have organized alongside militant sections of the working class across the globe – supporting and initiating strikes, occupations, and insurrections; promoting a philosophy of direct action and mutual aid; and building the capacity and spirit of the communities they have lived among.

Part of that project has included anarchist publications like the Seattle Free Press, which have tried to relate not only the practical developments of the anarchist movement to its readers, but also the ideas of anarchism to a wider audience – anti-capitalism perhaps chief among them.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the first theorist to formally identify as an anarchist.

Contrary to many stereotypes, in fact, anarchists do not simply oppose the state, but oppose all oppressive forces, including the totality of capitalist society. Indeed, many anarchists argue that it is difficult to distinguish between the state, capital, and other forms of oppression at all. The state is seen less as an autonomous institution – one which is free to make decisions of its own accords – and more as a function of capital and other oppressive forces, responding first and foremost to the needs of oppressors.

Likewise, Anarchists object to our own increasing incorporation into the flows and violence of capital: the reduction of human relationships to a mere relation between objects; our stultifying compartmentalization into the archaic and divisive categories of race, gender, and nationality; the violent conflicts we are plunged into at the behest of the state, and our increasing impoverishment and degradation.

Put simply, as we are currently seeing around the globe –  

with waves of financial ruin, foreclosures, bankruptcy, 

environmental destruction, war, and unemployment – 

capitalism is crisis.

Oppression is crisis.

Accordingly, anarchists stress that our struggles –

from the smallest confrontations on the job

to waves of unrest and insurrection in the streets –

must aim at the immediate and irreversible destruction of capitalism and its state, along with all other forms of oppression, and the creation of the human community in their place.


Further reading

The Anarchist Library (a multilingual website with thousands of essays, zines, and books)

Life Without Law (essay/zine)

Anarchy Works (book, free online)

An Anarchist FAQ (an extensive website, published in a two-volume book)