Notes on Anarchism

A friend recently asked me to put together some sort of suggested “reading list” for anarchist political philosophy, which I may as well share here 🙂

Famous symbol denoting order “O” emerging from anarchy “A”. Anarchy is not “chaos” since “Liberty is the mother, not the daughter, of order” — Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

I tried to pick a set of short essays, by various “anarchist” authors, with the idea being to let somebody new to the concept of “anarchism” get rapidly acquainted with some of its core ideas and key thinkers, without having to soldier through any doorstop sized tomes. I didn’t try to be comprehensive, but rather to provide some hyper-links (click the titles) to essays I’ve particularly enjoyed reading. They’re all available for free online. Yay internet! I stuck to one per author. Of course, each of the authors here has a lot more to say for themselves, but I tried to pick something concise and representative for each of them. Here we go then! But first, a couple of “warm-up” contemporary intros before the more heavyweight “historical” material!


Are You an Anarchist? The Answer May Surprise You! by David Graeber

A fun little “warm-up” essay to introduce the rough idea of “anarchy” (before you begin with the “proper” essays below), by social anthropologist, Occupy activist and anarchist David Graeber, author of the fascinating book on economic and monetary history “Debt: the First 5000 Years” (free introductory essay here).

Also, this 1976 interview with Noam Chomsky (by Peter Jay) makes for an excellent brief introduction to some anarchist ideas.


Now onto the more “heavy-going” (but hopefully not too much! I tried to keep to brief-ish!) material of “anarchy proper”:

What is Property?, by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Classic essay arguing that, amongst other things, “property is theft” – if something is collectively produced it should not be individually owned, and to the extent property laws allow this they legalise a form of theft. Proudhon was the first to declare himself an “anarchist”, stating that:

Whoever lays his hand on me to govern me is a usurper and tyrant, and I declare him my enemy.”

Keywords: Mutualism, Market Anarchism

Revolutionary Catechism, by Mikhail Bakunin:

Bakunin’s 1866 “manifesto” for an anarchist society, outlining anarchism as an alternative means of social organization. Bakunin’s conception of anarchy is as a libertarian socialism, since:

“liberty without socialism is privilege, injustice; socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality”

Libertarian Socialism is an alternative vision of society in which, as Bakunin has it:

“The political and economic organization of social life must not, as at present, be directed from the summit to the base — the center to the circumference — imposing unity through forced centralization. On the contrary, it must be reorganized to issue from the base to the summit — from the circumference to the center — according to the principles of free association and federation.”

Keywords: Libertarian Socialism, Social Anarchism

Discourse on Inequality, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Interesting essay arguing that “civilisation” has corrupted man, because:

“the savage lives within himself, whereas the citizen, constantly beside himself, knows only how to live in the opinion of others”

Takes considerable liberties with anthropological fact no doubt (Rousseau’s individualist savage living in an idealized “state of nature” likely never existed – humans are social animals) but has some very quotable passages! For example:

“An unbroken horse erects his mane, paws the ground and starts back impetuously at the sight of the bridle; while one which is properly trained suffers patiently even whip and spur: so savage man will not bend his neck to the yoke to which civilised man submits without a murmur, but prefers the most turbulent state of liberty to the most peaceful slavery. We cannot therefore, from the servility of nations already enslaved, judge of the natural disposition of mankind for or against slavery; we should go by the prodigious efforts of every free people to save itself from oppression.

I know that the former are for ever holding forth in praise of the tranquillity they enjoy in their chains, and that they call a state of wretched servitude a state of peace: miserrimam servitutem pacem appellant. But when I observe the latter sacrificing pleasure, peace, wealth, power and life itself to the preservation of that one treasure, which is so disdained by those who have lost it; when I see free-born animals dash their brains out against the bars of their cage, from an innate impatience of captivity; when I behold numbers of naked savages, that despise European pleasures, braving hunger, fire, the sword and death, to preserve nothing but their independence, I feel that it is not for slaves to argue about liberty.”

Keywords: Anarcho-primitivism, Anarchist Individualism.

Limits of State Action (Chapter III), by Wilhelm Von Humboldt.

The third chapter of this classic of classical liberal thought really sets out Humboldt’s view of human nature – man as an end in himself, not as a tool of the state – and labour as craftsmanship, as a means of self-actualisation, not a means to an end:

“Man never regards what he possesses as so much his own, as what he does; and the labourer who tends a garden is perhaps in a truer sense its owner, than the listless voluptuary who enjoys its fruits…In view of this consideration, it seems as if all peasants and craftsman might be elevated into artists; that is, men who love their labour for its own sake, improve it by their own plastic genius and inventive skill, and thereby cultivate their intellect, ennoble their character, and exalt and refine their pleasures. And so humanity would be ennobled by the very things which now, though beautiful in themselves, so often serve to degrade it.”

Beautiful stuff. Private Property was intended to defend the above conception of man, not destroy it. Shows how anarchist ideas grew out of the pre-capitalist roots of classical liberalism, though adapting these somewhat in response to the political challenges of a capitalist economy.

Keywords: Classical Liberalism.

Civil Disobedience, by Henry David Thoreau.

Thoreau, of Walden fame, opens this classic essay with the argument that:

“I heartily accept the motto,That government is best which governs least; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also believe,That government is best which governs not at all; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.”

The remainder of the essay outlines how men are to be “prepared for it” in Thoreau’s view.

Keywords: Individualist Anarchism, Civil Disobedience

On Anarchism, by Leo Tolstoy

Short but excellent essay arguing for a pacifist form of anarchism and putting Tolstoy’s own Radical Christian spin on matters. Echoes of Latin America’s influential liberation theology movement can be heard in Tolstoy’s work. Gandhi was a big fan too, I hear. Some nice comments on how parliamentary systems co-opt radicals – by turning them into “cultivated microbes” Tolstoy argues.

Keywords: Anarcho-pacifism, Christian Anarchism

Anarchist Morality, by Peter Kropotkin

A kind of potted version of the far longer book Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution. Kropotkin sets out to demolish the Social Darwinist ideas that Darwin himself so hated, and sets out his argument that, for a social species such as ourselves, “survival of the fittest” means survival of the most cooperatively sociable (not ruthlessly individualistic) and argues for a morality based upon this. Or as Wendell Berry put it:

“Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.”

Keywords: Anarchist Communism, Mutual Aid

The Soul Of Man Under Socialism, by Oscar Wilde.

Wilde argues that the abolition of private ownership of productive property (a.k.a. “socialism”) will allow the full development of free, self-perfecting individuals, of the sort Humboldt described a century before. He calls this the new individualism, to contrast it with classical liberalism’s tragically flawed pursuit of individual development through the means of private property. For Wilde (and I agree wholeheartedly):

“The recognition of private property has really harmed Individualism, and obscured it, by confusing a man with what he possesses. It has led Individualism entirely astray. It has made gain not growth its aim. So that man thought that the important thing was to have, and did not know that the important thing is to be. The true perfection of man lies not in what man has, but in what man is.

Private property has crushed true Individualism, and set up an Individualism that is false. It has debarred one part of the community [the poor] from being individual by starving them. It has debarred the other part of the community [the rich] from being individual by putting them on the wrong road [materialism], and encumbering them.”

Keywords: Individualist Anarchism, Libertarian Socialism

Government in the Future, by Noam Chomsky.

Mindblowingly good lecture in which Chomsky weaves together some of the above essays and much more besides to give a sense of the historical currents of anarchist thought and its continuing relevance to the future development of society. Completely changed the way I thought about “politics”. By the way, “notes on anarchism”, the title of this post, is also an essay by Chomsky.

Keywords: Mindblowing Lecture, Classical Liberalism, Libertarian Socialism, State Socialism, State Capitalism

The Dispossed, by Ursula K. Le Guin.

I know, I know, I said no books. But I simply cannot bring myself to leave out this wonderful novel on “an ambiguous utopia” which is replete with quotable passages that bring out the insanity of the present political systems we endure and the beauty and promise of anarchist ideals. Makes an interesting “sci-fi utopia”companion to 1984’s “sci-fi dystopia” – the book has a similar idea to “new-speak” but this time exploring the possibilities for language constructed to express freedom rather than repress it (that’s just one idea in the book – it’s packed full of ideas!). One of my favorite novels.

Keywords: Utopian Fiction, Anarchist Communism.


So that’s the end of my “potted anarchist history”. I’ll probably try to write something similar on the contemporary anarchist currents of thought at some point. David Graeber has argued (here, for example) that it offers the best source of hope and inspiration for revolutionary movements of the future and I would tend to agree with that. And if some or most of the above essays appealed to you, here is one “anarchist informed” recently founded contemporary project worth checking out, IMO:


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