Notes on Anarchism

A French writer, sympathetic to anarchism, wrote in the 1890s that “anarchism has a broad back, like paper it endures anything”—including, he noted, those whose acts are such that “a mortal enemy of anarchism could not have done better.” it remains difficult to formulate its doctrines as a specific and determinate theory of society and social change.

In his work Anarchosyndicalism, the German anarchist historian Rudolf Rocker presented a systematic conception of the development of anarchist thought toward anarchosyndicalism along lines that bear comparison to Guérin’s work. He wrote that anarchism is not

…a fixed, self-enclosed system, but rather a definite trend in the historic development of mankind, which, in contrast with the intellectual guardianship of all clerical and governmental institutions, strives for the free unhindered unfolding of all the individual and social forces in life. Even freedom is only a relative, not an absolute concept, since it tends constantly to become broader and to affect wider circles in more manifold ways. For the anarchist, freedom is not an abstract philosophical concept, but the vital concrete possibility for every human being to bring to full development all the powers, capacities, and talents with which nature has endowed him, and turn them to social account. The less this natural development of man is influenced by ecclesiastical or political guardianship, the more efficient and harmonious will human personality become, the more will it become the measure of the intellectual culture of the society in which it has grown.

One might ask what value there is in studying a “definite trend in the historic development of mankind” that does not articulate a specific and detailed social theory. Indeed, many commentators dismiss anarchism as utopian, formless, primitive, or otherwise incompatible with the realities of a complex society. One might, however, argue differently: that at every stage of history our concern must be to dismantle those forms of authority and oppression that survive from an era when they might have been justified by the need for security or survival or economic development, but that now contribute to—rather than alleviate—material and cultural deficit.

If so, there will be no doctrine of social change fixed for the present and future, nor even, necessarily, a specific and unchanging concept of the goals of social change. Surely our understanding of the nature of man or of the range of workable social forms is so rudimentary that any far-reaching doctrine must be treated with great skepticism, just as skepticism is in order when we hear that “human nature” or “the demands of efficiency” or “the complexity of modern life” requires this …

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