Daniel Guerin on the words "anarchism" & libertarian"

Jamal Hannah jamal at bronze.lcs.mit.edu
Tue Sep 19 18:23:39 MDT 1995

(Where the words "Anarchism" and "Libertarian" come from)

Anarchism: A Matter of Words

>From Chapter 1, part 1 of the book "Anarchism", by Daniel Guerin

The word anarchy is as old as the world. It is derived from to ancient Greek
words, "an", "arkhe^", and means something like the absence of authority or
government. However, for millennia the presumption has been accepted that
man cannot dispense with one or the other, and anarchy has been understood
in a pejorative sense, as a synonym for disorder, chaos, and

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was famous for his quips (such as "property is
theft") and took to himself the word anarchy. As if his purpose were to
shock as much as possible, in 1840 he engaged in the following dialogue with
the "Philistine".

     "You are a republican."
     "Republican, yes; but that means nothing. Res publica is 'the
     State.' Kings, too, are republicans."
     "Ah well! You are a democrat?"
     "What! Perhaps you are a monarchist?"
     "Constitutionalist then?"
     "God forbid."
     "Then you are an aristocrat?"
     "Not at all!"
     "You want a mixed form of government?"
     "Even less."
     "Then what are you?"
     "An Anarchist."

He sometimes made the concession of spelling anarchy "an-archy" to put the
packs of adversaries off the scent. By this term he understood anything but
disorder. Appearances notwithstanding, he was more constructive than
destructive, as we shall see. He held government responsible for disorder
and believed that only a society without government could restore the
natural order and re-create social harmony. He argued that the language
could furnish no other term and chose to restore to the old word anarchy its
strict etymological meaning. In the heat of his polemics, however, he
obstinately and paradoxically also used the word anarchy in its pejorative
sense of disorder, thus making confusion worse confounded. His disciple
Mikhail Bakunin followed him in this respect.

Proudhon and Bakunin carried this even further, taking malicious pleasure in
playing with the confusion created by the use of the two opposite meanings
of the word: for them, anarchy was both the most colossal disorder, the most
complete disorganization of society and, beyond this gigantic revolutionary
change, the construction of a new, stable, and rational order based on
freedom and solidarity. The immediate followers of the two fathers of
anarchy hesitated to use a word so deplorably elastic, conveying a negative
idea to the un- initiated, and lending itself to ambiguities which could be
annoying to say the least. Even Proudhon became more cautious toward the end
of his brief career and was happy to call himself a "federalist." His
petty-bourgeois descendants preferred the term mutuellisme to anarchisme and
the socialist line adopted collectivisme, soon to be displaced by
communisme. At the end of the century in France, Sebastien Faure took up a
word originated in 1858 by one Joseph Dejacque to make it the title of a
journal, Le Liberataire. Today the terms "anarchist" and "libertarian" have
become interchangeable.

Most of these terms have a major disadvantage: they fail to express the
basic characteristics of the doctrines they are supposed to describe.
Anarchism is really a synonym for socialism. The anarchist is primarily a
socialist whose aim is to abolish the exploitation of man by man. Anarchism
is only one of the streams of socialist thought, that stream whose main
components are concern for liberty and haste to abolish the State. Adolph
Fischer, one of the Chicago martyrs, (1) claimed that "every anarchist is a
socialist, but every socialist is not necessarily an anarchist."

Some anarchists consider themselves to be the best and most logical
socialists but they have adopted a label also attached to the terrorists, or
have allowed others to hang it around their necks. This has often caused
them to be mistaken for a sort of "foreign body" in the socialist family and
has led to a long string of misunderstandings and verbal battles-- usually
quite purposeless. Some contemporary anarchists have tried to clear up the
misunderstanding by adopting a more explicit term: they align themselves
with libertarian socialism or communism.



[1] In 1883 an active nucleus of revolutionary socialists founded an
International Working Men's Association in the United States. They were
under the influence of the International Anarchist Congress, held in London
in 1881, and also of Johann Most, a social democrat turned anarchist, who
reached America in 1882. Albert R. Parsons and Adolph Fischer were the
moving spirits in the association, which took the lead in a huge mass
movement concentrated on winning an eight-hour day. The campaign for this
was launched by the trade unions and the Knights of Labor, and May 1, 1886,
was fixed as the deadline for bringing the eight-hour day into force. During
the first half of May, a nationwide strike involved 190,000 workers, of whom
80,000 were in Chicago. Impressive mass demonstrations occurred in that city
on May 1 and for several days thereafter. Panic-stricken and terrified by
this wave of rebellion, the bourgeoisie resolved to crush the movement at
its source, resorting to a bloody provocation if need be. During a street
meeting on May 4, 1885, in Haymarket Square, a bomb thrown at the legs of
the police in an unexplained manner provided the necessary pretext. Eight
leaders of the revolutionary and libertarian socialist movement were
arrested, seven of them sentenced to death, and four subsequently hanged (a
fifth committed suicide in his cell the day before the execution). Since
then the Chicago martyrs-- Parsons, Fischer, Engel, Spies, and Lingg-- have
belonged to the international proletariat, and the universal celebration of
May Day (May 1) still commemorates the atrocious crime committed in the
United States.

For more along these lines, see these web pages:

     --- from list marxism at lists.village.virginia.edu ---


More information about the Marxism mailing list