A(n incomplete) compilation of quotes from anarchists, past and present, about what anarchism/anarchy is and what it means to them. Almost all of these texts can be found online for free.
Anarchism is the only philosophy which brings to man the consciousness of himself; which maintains that God, the State, and society are non-existent, that their promises are null and void, since they can be fulfilled only through man’s subordination. Anarchism is therefore the teacher of the unity of life; not merely in nature, but in man. There is no conflict between the individual and the social instincts, any more than there is between the heart and the lungs: the one the receptacle of a precious life essence, the other the repository of the element that keeps the essence pure and strong. The individual is the heart of society, conserving the essence of social life; society is the lungs which are distributing the element to keep the life essence–that is, the individual–pure and strong.
– Emma Goldman, “Anarchism: What It Really Stands For” in Anarchism and Other Essays (1910)
In a nutshell, then, the meaning of Communist Anarchism is this: the abolition of government, of coercive authority and all its agencies, and joint ownership-which means free and equal participation in the general work and welfare.
– Alexander Berkman, “What is Communist Anarchism?” in The ABC’s of Anarchism (1929)
Anarchism means that you should be free; that no one should enslave you, boss you, rob you, or impose upon you.
It means that you should be free to do the things you want to do; and that you should not be compelled to do what you don’t want to do.
It means that you should have a chance to choose the kind of a life you want to live, and live it without anybody interfering.
It means that the next fellow should have the same freedom as you, that every one should have the same rights and liberties.
It means that all men are brothers, and that they should live like brothers, in peace and harmony.
That is to say, that there should be no war, no violence used by one set of men against another, no monopoly and no poverty, no oppression, no taking advantage of your fellow-man.
In short, Anarchism means a condition or society where all men and women are free, and where all enjoy equally the benefits of an ordered and sensible life.
– Alexander Berkman, “What is Communist Anarchism?” in The ABC’s of Anarchism (1929)
But ours is neither the Communism of Fourier and the Phalansteriens, nor of the German State-Socialists. It is Anarchist Communism, — Communism without government — the Communism of the Free. It is the synthesis of the two ideals pursued by humanity throughout the ages — Economic and Political Liberty.
-Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread (1892)
Anarchism is not a concept that can be locked up in a word like a gravestone. It is not a political theory. It is a way of conceiving life, and life, young or old as we may be, whether we are old people or children, is not something final: it is a stake we must play day after day. When we wake up in the morning and put our feet on the ground we must have a good reason for getting up, if we don’t it makes no difference whether we are anarchists or not. We might as well stay in bed and sleep. And to have a good reason we must know what we want to do because for anarchism, for the anarchist, there is no difference between what we do and what we think, but there is a continual reversal of theory into action and action into theory. That is what makes the anarchist unlike someone who has another concept of life and crystallises this concept in a political practice, in political theory.
-Alfredo Bonanno, The Anarchist Tension (1996)
Solidarity, that is the harmony of interests and of feelings, the coming together of individuals for the wellbeing of all, and of all for the wellbeing of each, is the only environment in which Man can express his personality and achieve his optimum development and enjoy the greatest possible wellbeing. This is the goal towards which human evolution advances; it is the higher principle which resolves all existing antagonisms, that would otherwise be insoluble, and results in the freedom of each not being limited by, but complemented — indeed finding the necessary raison d’être in — the freedom of others.
-Errico Malatesta, Anarchy (1891)
Insurrectionary anarchism is one such form, although it is important to stress that insurrectionary anarchists don’t form one unified block, but are extremely varied in their perspectives. Insurrectionary anarchism is not an ideological solution to social problems, nor a commodity on the capitalist market of ideologies and opinions. Rather it is an on-going practice aimed at putting an end to the domination of the state and the continuance of capitalism, which requires analysis and discussion to advance. Historically, most anarchists, except those who believed that society would evolve to the point that it would leave the state behind, have believed that some sort of insurrectionary activity would be necessary to radically transform society. Most simply, this means that the state has to be knocked out of existence by the exploited and excluded, thus anarchists must attack: waiting for the state to disappear is defeat.
Here we spell out some implications that we and some other insurrectionary anarchists have drawn from this general problem: if the state will not disappear on its own, how then do we end its existence? Insurrectionary anarchism is primarily a practice, and focuses on the organisation of attack. Thus, the adjective ‘insurrectionary’ does not indicate a specific model of the future. Anarchists who believe we must go through an insurrectionary period to rid the world of the institutions of domination and exploitation, moreover, take a variety of positions on the shape of a future society — they could be anarcho-communist, individualist or primitivist, for example. Many refuse to offer a specific, singular model of the future at all, believing that people will choose a variety of social forms to organise themselves when given the chance. They are critical of groups or tendencies that believe they are ‘carriers of the truth’ and try to impose their ideological and formal solution to the problem of social organisation. Instead, many insurrectionary anarchists believe that it is through self-organisation in struggle that people will learn to live without institutions of domination.
-Do or Die #10, Insurrectionary Anarchy (2003)
Volumes have been written in answer to this question, and millions of people have dedicated their lives to creating, expanding, defining, and fighting for anarchy. There are countless paths to anarchism and countless beginnings: workers in 19th century Europe fighting against capitalism and believing in themselves instead of the ideologies of authoritarian political parties; indigenous peoples fighting colonization and reclaiming their traditional, horizontal cultures; high school students waking up to the depth of their alienation and unhappiness; mystics from China one thousand years ago or from Europe five hundred years ago, Daoists or Anabaptists, fighting against government and organized religion; women rebelling against the authoritarianism and sexism of the Left. There is no Central Committee giving out membership cards, and no standard doctrine. Anarchy means different things to different people. However, here are some basic principles most anarchists agree on.
Autonomy and Horizontality: All people deserve the freedom to define and organize themselves on their own terms. Decision-making structures should be horizontal rather than vertical, so no one dominates anyone else; they should foster power to act freely rather than power over others. Anarchism opposes all coercive hierarchies, including capitalism, the state, white supremacy, and patriarchy.
Mutual Aid: People should help one another voluntarily; bonds of solidarity and generosity form a stronger social glue than the fear inspired by laws, borders, prisons, and armies. Mutual aid is neither a form of charity nor of zero-sum exchange; both giver and receiver are equal and interchangeable. Since neither holds power over the other, they increase their collective power by creating opportunities to work together.
Voluntary Association: People should be free to cooperate with whomever they want, however they see fit; likewise, they should be free to refuse any relationship or arrangement they do not judge to be in their interest. Everyone should be able to move freely, both physically and socially. Anarchists oppose borders of all kinds and involuntary categorization by citizenship, gender, or race.
Direct Action: It is more empowering and effective to accomplish goals directly than to rely on authorities or representatives. Free people do not request the changes they want to see in the world; they make those changes.
Revolution: Today’s entrenched systems of repression cannot be reformed away. Those who hold power in a hierarchical system are the ones who institute reforms, and they generally do so in ways that preserve or even amplify their power. Systems like capitalism and white supremacy are forms of warfare waged by elites; anarchist revolution means fighting to overthrow these elites in order to create a free society.
Self-Liberation: “The liberation of the workers is the duty of the workers themselves,” as the old slogan goes. This applies to other groups as well: people must be at the forefront of their own liberation. Freedom cannot be given; it must be taken.
-Peter Gelderloos, Anarchy Works (2010)
What is Anarchism exactly? People have asked and answered this question since the birth of the word as a distinct political philosophy within the revolutionary tradition. Most definitional tracts on the “ABCs of anarchism” were penned long ago. I will try to offer an introduction to anarchism from the vantage point of the early twenty-first century. More specifically, I will hone in on anarchism’s aspirations, as opposed to its history or current practices. That Anarchist projects, and anarchists themselves, fall short of these aims underscores how essential it is to transform society in order to also transform ourselves. “We’re only human,” the saying goes, but our humanity is profoundly damaged by the alienated world of control that we inhabit. Anarchism contends that people would be much more humane under nonhierarchical social relations and social arrangements. […] As will hopefully become clear, anarchism serves unflinchingly as a philosophy of freedom, as the nagging conscience that people and their communities can always be better.
-Cindy Milstein, Anarchism and its Aspirations (2010)
The question “Why I am an Anarchist” I could very summarily answer with “because I cannot help it,” I cannot be dishonest with myself; the conditions of life press upon me; I must do something with my brain. I cannot be content to regard the world as a mere jumble of happenings for me to wander my way through, as I would through the mazes of a department store, with no other thought than getting through it and getting out. Neither can I be contented to take anyone’s dictum on the subject; the thinking machine will not be quiet. It will not be satisfied with century-old repetitions; it perceives that new occasions bring new duties; that things have changed, and an answer that fitted a question asked four thousand, two thousand, even one thousand years ago, will not fit any more. It wants something for today.
-Voltairine De Cleyre, Why I Am An Anarchist (1897)
Anarchism is the idea that everyone is entitled to complete self-determination. No law, government, or decision-making process is more important than the needs and desires of actual human beings. People should be free to shape their relations to their mutual satisfaction, and to stand up for themselves as they see fit. Anarchism is not a dogma or a blueprint. It is not a system that would supposedly work if only it were applied right, like democracy, nor a goal to be realized in some far-off future, like communism. It is a way of acting and relating that we can put into practice right now. In reference to any value system or course of action, we can begin by asking: How does it distribute power?
–Crimethinc, To Change Everything (2014)
Anarchism is the teaching of freedom as the foundation of human society. Anarchy (in English: without rule, without authority, without state) thereby denotes the condition of social order aspired to by the anarchists, namely the freedom of each individual through the general freedom. In this objective, in no other, consist the common bonds of all anarchists with one another, consists the fundamental distinction of anarchism from all other social doctrines and human faiths.
Whoever asserts the freedom of the individual person in demanding the community of all people, and conversely whoever equates the freedom of society with the freedom of all those who are communally bound within it, has the right to call himself an anarchist. Whoever, on the other hand, believes it acceptable to place people for the sake of the social order, or society for the sake of the presumed freedom of people, under external compulsion, has no right to be considered an anarchist. The different views about the paths which humanity must take to arrive at freedom, about the means by which the forces resistant to freedom are to be fought and conquered, about the endless forms and institutions of the libertarian society, comprise differences of opinion among anarchist tendencies within the common world view. Their comparison and evaluation is not the object of this work, which limits itself to expounding and promoting the principles of communist anarchism as considered correct by the author and those anarchists closest to him in conviction and engagement.
-Erich Mühsam, The Liberation of Society from the State (1932)
Anarchism is the goal that we pursue: the absence of domination and of the state; the freedom of the individual. Socialism is the means by which we want to reach and secure this freedom: solidarity, sharing, and cooperative labor.
Some people say that we have turned things upside down by making anarchism our goal and socialism our means. They see anarchy as something negative, as the absence of institutions, while socialism indicates a positive social order. They think that the positive part should constitute the goal, and the negative the means that can help us to destroy whatever keeps us from attaining the goal. These people fail to understand that anarchy is not just an abstract concept of freedom but that our notions of a free life and of free activity include much that is concrete and positive. There will be work — purposeful and fairly distributed; but it will only be a means to develop and strengthen our rich natural forces, to impact our fellow human beings, culture, and nature, and to enjoy society’s riches to the fullest.
Anyone who is not blinded by the dogmas of the political parties will recognize that anarchism and socialism are not opposed but co-dependent. True cooperative labor and true community can only exist where individuals are free, and free individuals can only exist where our needs are met by brotherly solidarity.
-Gustav Landauer, Anarchism – Socialism (1895)
Our program can be summed up in a few words:
Peace, emancipation, and the happiness of the oppressed.
War upon all oppressors and all despoilers.
Full restitution to workers: all the capital, the factories, and all instruments of work and raw materials to go to the associations, and the land to those who cultivate it with their own hands.
Liberty, justice, and fraternity in regard to all human beings upon the earth.
Equality for all.
To all, with no distinction whatever, all the means of development, education, and upbringing, and the equal possibility of living while working.
Organizing of a society by means of a free federation from below upward, of workers associations, industrial as well as a agricultural, scientific as well as literary associations – first into a commune, then a federation communes into regions, of regions into nations, and of nations into international fraternal association.
-Mikhail Bakunin, Stateless Socialism: Anarchism (sometime between 1814-1876)
From the time anarchism was first defined as a distinct radical movement it has been associated with the left, but the association has always been uneasy. Leftists who were in a position of authority (including those who called themselves anarchists, like the leaders of the CNT and the FAI in Spain in 1936–37) found the anarchist aim of the total transformation of life and the consequent principle that the ends should already exist in the means of struggle to be a hindrance to their political programs. Real insurgence always burst far beyond any political program, and the most coherent anarchists saw the realization of their dreams precisely in this unknown place beyond. Yet, time after time, when the fires of insurrection cooled (and even occasionally, as in Spain in 1936–37, while they still burnt brightly), leading anarchists would take their place again as “the conscience of the left”. But if the expansiveness of anarchist dreams and the principles that it implies have been a hindrance to the political schemes of the left, these schemes have been a far greater millstone around the neck of the anarchist movement, weighing it down with the “realism” that cannot dream.
-Wolfi Landstreicher, From Politics to Life: Ridding Anarchy of the Leftist Millstone (2000s)
Like revolution, love, friendship and the wide variety of other possible relationships are not events one waits for, things that merely happen. When one recognizes herself as having agency, as being an individual capable of acting and creating, these cease to be wishes, ghostly longings aching in the depth of one’s gut; they become possibilities toward which one moves consciously, projectually, with one’s will. That burning energy that goads one to revolt is desire — desire that has broken free from the channel that reduced it to mere longing. This same desire that moves one to create her life as a projectuality toward insurrection, anarchy, freedom and joy also provokes the realization that such a projectuality is best built on shared projects. Liberated desire is an expansive energy — an opening of possibilities — and wants to share projects and actions, joys and pleasures, love and revolt. An insurrection of one may indeed be possible. I would even argue that it is the necessary first step toward a shared insurrectional project. But an insurrection of two, three, many increases courage and enjoyment and opens a myriad of passional possibilities.
-Wolfi Landstreicher, Against the Logic of Submission (2005)
Anarcho-primitivism (a.k.a. radical primitivism, anti-authoritarian primitivism, the anti-civilization movement, or just, primitivism) is a shorthand term for a radical current that critiques the totality of civilization from an anarchist perspective, and seeks to initiate a comprehensive transformation of human life. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as anarcho-primitivism or anarcho-primitivists. Fredy Perlman, a major voice in this current, once said, “The only -ist name I respond to is ‘cellist’.” Individuals associated with this current do not wish to be adherents of an ideology, merely people who seek to become free individuals in free communities in harmony with one another and with the biosphere, and may therefore refuse to be limited by the term ‘anarcho-primitivist’ or any other ideological tagging. At best, then, anarcho-primitivism is a convenient label used to characterise diverse individuals with a common project: the abolition of all power relations — e.g., structures of control, coercion, domination, and exploitation — and the creation of a form of community that excludes all such relations.
-John Moore, A Primitivist Primer (1990s)
Anarchist individualism as we understand it – and I say we because a substantial handful of friends think this like me – is hostile to every school and every party, every churchly and dogmatic moral, as well as every more or less academic imbecility. Every form of discipline, rule and pedantry is repulsive to the sincere nobility of our vagabond and rebellious restlessness!
Individualism is, for us, creative force, immortal youth, exalting beauty, redemptive and fruitful war. It is the marvelous apotheosis of the flesh and the tragic epic of the spirit. Our logic is that of not having any. Our ideal is the categorical negation of all other ideals for the greatest and supreme triumph of the actual, real, instinctive, reckless and merry life! For us perfection is not a dream, an ideal, a riddle, a mystery, a sphinx, but a vigorous and powerful, luminous and throbbing reality. All human beings are perfect in themselves. All they lack is the heroic courage of their perfection. Since the time that human beings first believed that life was a duty, a calling, a mission, it has meant shame for their power of being, and in following phantoms, they have denied themselves and distanced themselves from the real. When Christ said to human beings: “be yourselves, perfection is in you!” he launched a superb phrase that is the supreme synthesis of life.
-Renzo Novatore, Anarchist Individualism in the Social Revolution (1919)
You are waiting for the revolution! Very well! My own began along time ago! When you are ready — God, what an endless wait! — it won’t nauseate me to go along the road awhile with you!
-Renzo Novatore, My Iconoclastic Individualism (1920)
Anarchism is a profoundly social movement as distinguished from the usual political movements we associate with The Left. Its vitality, its theoretical form, indeed its very raison d’etre stem from its capacity to express the millenia-long aspirations of peoples to create their own egalitarian or, at least, self-administered social structures, their own forms of human consociation by which they can exercise control over their lives. In this sense, Anarchism really constitutes a folk or people’s social philosophy and practice in the richest sense of the term, just as the folk song constitutes the emotional expression of a people in their esthetic or spiritual depths.
-Murray Bookchin, Anarchism: Past and Present (1980)
The philosophy of anarchism is included in the word “Liberty,” yet it is comprehensive enough to include all things else that are conducive to progress. No barriers whatever to human progression, to thought, or investigation are placed by anarchism; nothing is considered so true or so certain, that future discoveries may not prove it false; therefore, it has but one infallible, unchangeable motto, “Freedom”: Freedom to discover any truth, freedom to develop, to live naturally and fully. Other schools of thought are composed of crystallized ideas — principles that are caught and impaled between the planks of long platforms, and considered too sacred to be disturbed by a close investigation. In all other “issues” there is always a limit; some imaginary boundary line beyond which the searching mind dare not penetrate, lest some pet idea melt into a myth. But anarchism is the usher of science — the master of ceremonies to all forms of truth. It would remove all barriers between the human being and natural development. From the natural resources of the earth, all artificial restrictions, that the body might be nurtures, and from universal truth, all bars of prejudice and superstition, that the mind may develop symmetrically.
Anarchists know that a long period of education must precede any great fundamental change in society, hence they do not believe in vote begging, nor political campaigns, but rather in the development of self-thinking individuals.
-Lucy Parsons, The Principles of Anarchism (1905)
As for the Anarchists, never will we separate ourselves from the world to build a little church, hidden in some vast wilderness. Here is the fighting ground, and we remain in the ranks, ready to give our help wherever it may be most needed. We do not cherish premature hopes, but we know that our efforts will not be lost. Many of the ignorant, who either out of love of routine or simplicity of soul now anathematize us, will end by associating themselves with our cause. For every individual whom circumstances permit to join us freely, hundreds are hindered by the hard necessities of life from openly avowing our opinions, but they listen from afar and cherish our words in the treasury of their hearts. We know that we are defending the cause of the poor, the disinherited, the suffering; we are seeking to restore to them the earth, personal rights, confidence in the future; and is it not natural that they should encourage us by look and gesture, even when they dare not come to us? In times of trouble, when the iron hand of might loosens its hold, and paralyzed rulers reel under the weight of their own power; when the “groups,” freed for an instant from the pressure above, reform themselves according to their natural affinities, on which side will be the many? Though making no pretension to prophetic insight, may we not venture without temerity to say that the great multitude would join our ranks? Albeit they never weary of repeating that Anarchism is merely the dream of a few visionaries, do not even our enemies, by the insults they heap upon us and the projects and machinations they impute to us, make an incessant propaganda in our favor? It is said that, when the magicians of the Middle Ages wanted to raise the devil, they began their incantations by painting his image on a wall. For a long time past, modern exorcists have adopted a similar method for conjuring Anarchists.
-Elisée Reclus, An Anarchist on Anarchy (1884)
One qualifier that we feel is important to begin with is the distinction between “anarchy” and “anarchism”. Some will write this off as merely semantics or trivial, but for most post-left and anti-civilization anarchists, this differentiation is important. While anarchism can serve as an important historical reference point from which to draw inspiration and lessons, it has become too systematic, fixed, and ideological…everything anarchy is not. Admittedly, this has less to do with anarchism’s social/political/philosophical orientation, and more to do with those who identify as anarchists. No doubt, many from our anarchist lineage would also be disappointed by this trend to solidify what should always be in flux. The early self-identified anarchists (Proudhon, Bakunin, Berkman, Goldman, Malatesta, and the like) were responding to their specific contexts, with their own specific motivations and desires. Too often, contemporary anarchists see these individuals as representing the boundaries of anarchy, and create a W.W.B.D. [What Would Bakunin Do (or more correctly–Think)] attitude towards anarchy, which is tragic and potentially dangerous. Today, some who identify as “classical” anarchists refuse to accept any effort in previously uncharted territory within anarchism (ie. Primitivism, Post-Leftism, etc) or trends which have often been at odds with the rudimentary workers’ mass movement approach (ie. Individualism, Nihilism, etc). These rigid, dogmatic, and extremely uncreative anarchists have gone so far as to declare that anarchism is a very specific social and economic methodology for organizing the working class. This is obviously an absurd extreme, but such tendencies can be seen in the ideas and projects of many contemporary anarcho-leftists (anarcho-sydicalists, anarcho-communists, platformists, federationists). “Anarchism”, as it stands today, is a far-left ideology, one which we need to get beyond. In contrast, “anarchy” is a formless, fluid, organic experience embracing multi-faceted visions of liberation, both personal and collective, and always open. As anarchists, we are not interested in forming a new framework or structure to live under or within, however “unobtrusive” or “ethical” it claims to be. Anarchists cannot provide another world for others, but we can raise questions and ideas, try to destroy all domination and that which impedes our lives and our dreams, and live directly connected with our desires.
-Anonymous, What is Green Anarchy? (1990s)
What is Anarchism? Anarchism is free or Libertarian Socialism. Anarchists are opposed to government, the state and Capitalism. Therefore, simply speaking, Anarchism is a no-government form of Socialism.
Anarchists are social revolutionaries, and feel that the Social revolution is the process through which a free society will be created. Self-management will be established in all areas of social life, including the right of all oppressed races of people to self-determination. As I have stated, self-determination is the right to self-government. By their own initiative, individuals will implement their own management of social life through voluntary associations. They will refuse to surrender their self-direction to the State, political parties, vanguard sects since each of these merely aid in establishing or reestablishing domination. Anarchists believe the state and capitalist authority will be abolished by the means of direct action-wildcat strikes, slowdowns, boycotts, sabotage, and armed insurrection. We recognize our goals cannot be separated from the means used to achieve them. Hence our practice and the associations we create will reflect the society we seek.
-Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin, Anarchism and the Black Revolution (1993)
Anarchy is the obliteration of property.
-Ravachol, My Principles (1859-1892)