Anarchism: History and Philosophy

An introduction to Anarchism intended for high school and college students.

An accompanying video can be found at Study.Com

Some form of government has been around for the entire period of recorded human history. However, some people don’t think government is necessary. In this lesson, you’ll learn about anarchism, its philosophy and its history.

Anarchism Defined

Arnie is an anarchist. Anarchism is a philosophy that argues that individuals should be free to pursue their interests without being coerced in anyway by anyone, especially the government. In fact, anarchists, like Arnie, believe that governments are unjust and completely illegitimate. Anarchists argue that nearly all states have been established illegitimately through violence and conquest.

For example, the United States, a democratic republic, was established through a revolutionary war and expanded through the help of military conquest, including the Mexican War and the so-called Indian Wars during the westward expansion. A government’s injustice, according to the theory, is due to its intrinsic coercion and violation of individual liberty and autonomy. In the final analysis, anarchists believe that no government is better than any government.


Anarchism is a broad philosophy and not all anarchists have the same focus and beliefs. Arnie decides to attend an anarchist convention. At the event, he runs across several different types of anarchists that hold surprisingly differently beliefs:

  • Sally believes in anarcho-syndicalism, which holds that the successful elimination of government in our lives can only be achieved through organizing people and unionization of industry. A syndicate is an association of people that is formed to advance a common interest, such as workers joining together to promote their interests.
  • Ivan follows anarcho-individualism, and believes that the individual and his will should reign supreme over any external force, such as states, social groups, traditions or systems of ideology.
  • Paul is aligned with anarcho-primitivism, which argues for the complete destruction of civilization and a return to a primitive form of life.
  • Gary believes in green anarchism, which argues that we should regress back to a pre-industrial, agrarian society.
  • Francine is an adherent of anarcha-feminism, and believes that the problems of society are based upon its patriarchal nature (male-dominated society), and this is the reason that justifies anarchy. Anarcha-feminism emphasizes gender equality and the alleged social problems arising from a male-dominated society.
  • Frederick is partial to anarcho-collectivism, which advocates for small self-sufficient collectives after anarchy has been achieved, where all members share in the worst work tasks and all decisions and rules are made through group deliberation. A collective is simply a group of people joined in a common enterprise working together towards a common goal. Compensation would be based on difficulty of work and the time contributed. There is no private property, but its outlook is more individualistic than anarcho-communism.
  • Carl likes anarcho-communism, which advocates for small communes after the requisite mass revolutionary movement to overthrow the government. The system is based on communism, where all property is collectively owned by the community and work is managed for the advantage of the community instead of the individual. The classic formulation of communistic distribution is advocated, where people contribute according to their abilities and receive according to their needs.
  • Ayn likes anarcho-capitalism, which advocates for the privatization of all property and that all transactions between people be based upon voluntary exchanges. Remember capitalism is about private property and free markets to help you distinguish it from the other forms of anarchy.


The history of anarchism is probably co-extensive with the history of government. You can trace elements of anarchism in Chinese Taoism and Greek Stoicism. However, anarchism as a coherent movement started in the 19th century until the failed Spanish Revolution in 1939. A major theorist was Proudhon, who was famous for saying, ‘Property is theft.’ During this time, anarchism was closely identified with the working class. Marxism also heavily influenced the movement.

This era of anarchism also involved illegal activity and terrorism, including assassinations of heads of state in France, the United States, Russia, Spain and Greece. Property owners and military officers were also targeted. However, the state gave better than it got against anarchists through imprisonment, torture, execution and mass murders. Anarchists were also subjected to special laws directed specifically towards them.

An anarchism revival occurred in the 1960s. While Marxism was still very influential to the movement, the revival was also influenced by environmentalism, feminism and pacifism. The revivalists advocated the abolition of capitalism, patriarchy, or a male-dominated society, and the state. However, the organization of activities typically had no formal hierarchy or leaders and was rather egalitarian with participative decision-making.

Some mark the beginning of the contemporary anarchist movement with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The newest element to the contemporary movement is anti-globalization. These neoanarchists, or contemporary anarchists, acknowledge the need to oppose not only the traditional ‘foes’ of state, war, capitalism, and neoliberalism but also racism, sexism, homosexual discrimination and ageism, with the opposition taking place not only locally but on a global basis.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review what we’ve learned. Anarchism is a diverse set of philosophies that argue individuals should be free to pursue their interests without being coerced in anyway by anyone, especially the government. In fact, anarchism advocates for the elimination of the state and its government.

We can trace the roots of anarchism back to antiquity and Chinese Taoism and Greek Stoicism. The first significant wave of anarchism as an influential movement was in the late 19th to early 20th century and was closely identified with the struggling working class of the Industrial Revolution and Marxism. This period was marked by acts of violence perpetrated both by and against anarchists. The second movement occurred in the 1960s and was influenced not only by Marxism but also environmentalism, feminism and pacifism. The contemporary movement has become pluralistic and global in nature.

There is no one grand unified philosophy of anarchism. Instead, different groups advocate different means to achieve anarchy and a different anarchical environment after it is achieved. Types of anarchism include anarcho-syndicalism, anarcho-individualism, anarcho-primitivism, anarcha-feminism, anarcho-collectivism, anarcho-communism and anarcho-capitialism.

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