It's time for the left to reclaim the term 'anarchy.'
by Brooke Shelby Biggs
July 27, 2001
"Anarchism does not mean bloodshed; it does not mean robbery, arson, etc.
These monstrosities are, on the contrary, the characteristic features of
capitalism. Anarchism means peace and tranquility to all."
-- August Spies, Haymarket protester <http://www.chicagohistory.org/dramas/>
If you've watched the news much in the past two years, the term "anarchist"
probably evokes balaclava-clad ruffians with no political agenda beyond
breaking windows, burning police cars, and looting stores. Mention the word
and the world tunes out; violent thugs can't possibly have a message worth
listening to. The term has been used to paint all activists with the same
brush and to justify violent responses
against peaceful and aggressive protesters alike. The New York Post
even called Carlo Giuliani, the protester killed by Italian carabinieri at
the G-8 summit in Genoa, an "anarchist berserker" who "deserved what he got."
As it happens, it was during another protest, more than 100 years ago, that
the word "anarchist" first made headlines. On May 1, 1886, an anarchist
group called the Chicago Knights of Labor, whose supporters included Mary
Harris "Mother" Jones <http://www.motherjones.com/about_us/mojo_bio.html> ,
staged a peaceful march for an eight-hour workday. The event led to a
days-long general strike involving thousands of workers; at one rally,
police arrived and without provocation sprayed the crowd with gunfire,
killing at least one demonstrator.
Laborers gathered the next day at the city's Haymarket Square
<http://www.chipublib.org/004chicago/timeline/haymarket.html> to protest
the violence. As the police chief shouted at the crowd to disperse, a bomb
exploded nearby, killing one officer. Startled and angry, police shot into
the crowd; seven more officers died in the melee, as did four striking
To this day, the identity of the Haymarket bomber is unknown. A number of
strike leaders were charged in connection with the crime, and four were
ultimately hanged. The campaign to clear their names inspired anarchist
movements worldwide, and led to May 1 being declared International Workers
Day, a holiday in much of the world.
But the word "anarchist" never was resuscitated. Writes historian W.T.
Whitney <http://www.igc.org/laborstandard/Vol1No3/MayDay.htm> ,
"Unfortunately, the events surrounding the execution of the Haymarket
martyrs fueled the stereotype of radical activists as alien and violent,
thereby contributing to ongoing repression."
In fact, the word is derived from the Greek "an", meaning "without," and
"archos," meaning "ruler" or "authority. Historically, anarchism has been
defined as a philosophy opposed to hierarchy and exploitive power
structures, an idea many lefties could love.
Problem is, the media, a significant portion of the left
<http://commondreams.org/views01/0724-03.htm>, and even some academics
<http://www.foreignaffairs.org/articles/Nye0701.html> misuse and
misunderstand the term <http://www.anarchy.org/library/miscon.html>
"anarchy." The kid in the turtle costume marching peacefully in Seattle,
Quebec, or Genoa may be as much an anarchist as the guy smashing the
windows at The Gap. It isn't violence that makes the anarchist; it's the
"Anarchism emerged out of the socialist movement as a distinct politics in
the nineteenth century," says the Institute for Anarchist Studies
<http://flag.blackened.net/ias/>, a New York-based nonprofit. "It asserted
that it is necessary and possible to overthrow coercive and exploitative
social relationships, and replace them with egalitarian, self-managed, and
cooperative social forms."
So perhaps there is good reason why the term is so rarely used properly: A
nuanced debate about anarchism would lend credence to a set of ideas that
challenge the status quo.
"This process of misrepresentation is not without historical parallel,"
argues the Anarchism FAQ <http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/1931/>, an
anarchist overview of the philosophy. "For example, in countries which have
considered government by one person (monarchy) necessary, the words
'republic' or 'democracy' have been used... to imply disorder and
confusion. Those with a vested interest in preserving the status quo will
obviously wish to imply that opposition to the current system cannot work
in practice, and that a new form of society will only lead to chaos."
The Web is full of resources about the history, meaning, and application of
anarchism. In addition to the links above, check out the Anarchist Archives
<http://ispp.org/Anarchist_Archives/anarchisthistory.html>, the Utne Reader
Online's Anarchism 101
Noam Chomsky's thoughts on anarchism
Britannica.com's anarchists on film
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