From Anarchy to Anarchism

Anarchy Before Anarchism

Anarchy Before Anarchism

The subtitle of Volume One of my anthology of anarchist writings, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, was From Anarchy to Anarchism. By this I meant to emphasize that people lived without states for tens of thousands of years, and therefore in a kind of “anarchy,” before the first states began to emerge about 6,000 years ago. Far from being impossible, as Thomas Hobbes and many other political commentators have argued, anarchy was a very successful form of human social organization which existed for the most of the time of human existence on this planet. Because these societies without states were preliterate, it is impossible to say to what degree this may have been a conscious choice. It is highly doubtful that people living in stateless societies ever identified themselves in opposition to the state, as “anarchists” of some sort, given that there were no states in existence for most of the time that people lived within these stateless societies. Anarchism, as an identifiable doctrine, could only emerge after the development of state forms and institutions, hence the subtitle, “From Anarchy to Anarchism.” 

Volume 3

For Volume Three of the Anarchism anthology, I wrote an Afterword, “The Anarchist Current,” in which I discuss the evolution from living without states, or “anarchy,” to the origins of anarchist ideas and movements, after the rise of so-called “civilization.” I then survey the development of anarchist ideas over time and across the globe, from the Daoists in ancient China to contemporary “Occupy” and similar transnational movements against neo-liberalism. As the Afterword also serves as an extended introduction to the material in the the volumes of the Anarchism anthology, and the history of anarchist thought, I have decided to publish it in serial form here on my blog in the hope that this will pique peoples’ interest in the original material contained in the anthology, of which the Afterward can of course only offer a glimpse (the material is referenced in the text by volume and selection numbers). I hope someday in the not too distant future to expand the Afterward into a book.

Bakunin Bicentennial 2014

Bakunin Bicentennial 2014

From Anarchy to Anarchism

Anarchism, George Woodcock once wrote, is like the river of the ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus: constantly changing, with different sources, eddies and currents, sometimes percolating below the surface, at other times bursting forth in revolutionary torrents, but generally moving “between the banks of certain unifying principles” (1977: 16). Contrary to popular misconceptions, those unifying principles are not chaos and terrorism, but a rejection of hierarchy, authority and exploitation, and an alternative vision of a society without domination based on freedom and equality. Anarchists reject the State and its institutions, advocating societies based on free association, without anyone having the power to dominate or exploit another.

Long before anyone consciously articulated anarchist ideas, people had lived in societies without a state for thousands of years. So-called primitive and prehistoric peoples lacked any formal institutions of government and hierarchical social structures based on relationships of command and obedience (Clastres, Volume Two, Selection 64). As the anthropologist Harold Barclay puts it, “Ten thousand years ago everyone was an anarchist” (1982: 39). Around 6000 years ago, the first hierarchical societies began to emerge in which a minority of their members assumed positions of prestige and authority, from which they came to exercise power over others (Barclay, Volume Three, Selection 17).

It took thousands of years for this process of state formation finally to encompass the entire globe, with some people continuing to live in stateless societies into the 20th century. Members of stateless societies lived in roughly egalitarian communities without rank or status (Taylor, 1982). For the most part, stateless societies had sustainable subsistence economies based on relationships of equality, reciprocity and mutual aid (Clastres, Volume Two, Selection 64; Bookchin, Volume Three, Selection 26; Sahlins (1974), Barclay (1982) and Kropotkin (1902)).

Relatively few states emerged from within their own societies: ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Mexico, Hawaii, Tahiti, Tonga, Samoa and possibly India (Barclay, 2003). State institutions were forced on most societies by external powers, or were created in response to such power. According to Barclay, a combination of factors led to the emergence of state forms: 1) increased population; 2) sedentary settlement; 3) horticulture/agriculture; 4) redistribution of wealth; 5) military organization; 6) secondary significance of kinship ties; 7) trading; 8) specialized division of labour; 9) individual property and control of resources; 10) a hierarchical social order; and 11) ideologies of superiority/inferiority (Volume Three, Selection 17).

As most people were innocent of government, having lived without it for thousands of years, they had nothing against which to compare their so-called primitive forms of social organization until it was too late. “Anarchy” was for them a way of life, not a concept. Although they may have had nonhierarchical conceptions of their societies and the natural world (Bookchin, Volume 3, Selection 25), it is unlikely that they conceived of anarchy as some sort of ideal. Anarchist ideas only began to be articulated after people started living within hierarchical societies based on exploitation and domination. When looking for precursors of the anarchist idea, one must be careful then not to read too much into the writings of people who never identified themselves as anarchists and never explicitly endorsed anarchy as an ideal.

Lao Tzu - Neither Lord Nor Subject

Lao Tzu – Neither Lord Nor Subject

Daoism and Early Anarchism

Daoism in ancient China helped give more formal expression to the nonhierarchical sensibilities of earlier human societies, eventually leading some Daoists to adopt an anarchist stance. John P. Clark has argued that the classic text, the Daode Jing (or Tao Te Ching), circa 400 BCE, evokes “the condition of wholeness which preceded the rending of the social fabric by institutions like the state, private property, and patriarchy” (1984: 168).

Writing around 300 CE, the Daoist sage Bao Jingyan gave the Daoist rejection of the hierarchical cosmology of the Confucians a more political slant, seeing it as nothing more than a pretext for the subjugation of the weak and innocent by the strong and cunning (Volume One, Selection 1). He harkened back to the “original undifferentiated” condition of the world in which “all creatures found happiness in self-fulfillment,” expressing a nonhierarchical, ecological sensibility which eschews “the use of force that goes against the true nature of things.” He noted that in “the earliest times,” prior to the creation of a hierarchical social order, “there was neither lord nor subjects.” He saw compulsory labour and poverty as the results of the division of people into ranks and classes. With the emergence of a hierarchical social order, everyone seeks to be above the other, giving rise to crime and conflict. The “people simmer with revolt in the midst of their poverty and distress,” such that to try to stop them from revolting “is like trying to dam a river with a handful of earth.” He prefered a life worth living to the religious promise of life after death.

In his commentary on Bao Jingyan’s text, Etienne Balazs argues that Bao Jingyan was “China’s first political anarchist” (1964: 243). As with later self-proclaimed anarchists, Bao Jingyan opposed hierarchy and domination, seeing them as the cause of poverty, crime, exploitation and social conflict, rejected religious beliefs that justify such a state of affairs, predicted the revolt of the masses and advocated a society without hierarchy and domination where there are “neither lord nor subjects,” a phrase strikingly reminiscent of the 19th century European anarchist battle cry, “Neither God nor Master.” While similar ideas may have been expressed in ancient Greece by the Stoic philosopher, Zeno of Citium (333-262 BCE), only fragments of his writings have survived, making Bao Jingyan’s text perhaps the oldest extant to set forth a clearly anarchist position.

Robert Graham

Additional References

Balazs, Etienne. Chinese Civilization and Bureaucracy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964. Trans. H.M. Wright.

Barclay, Harold. People Without Government. London: Kahn & Averill, 1982.

Clark, John P. “Master Lao and the Anarchist Prince.” The Anarchist Moment. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1984.

Kropotkin, Peter. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902). Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1989.

Sahlins, Marshall. Stone Age Economics. London: Tavistock Publications, 1974.

Taylor, Michael. Community, Anarchy and Liberty. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Woodcock, George, Ed. The Anarchist Reader. Fontana, 1977.

Back to the Future

Back to the Future


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