“Anarchy doesn’t mean out of control; it means out of their control.” ~ Jim Dodge
In 1793 William Godwin wrote Inquiry Concerning Political Justice, implicitly establishing the philosophical foundations of anarchism; laying down the foundation of anarchy, as it would be understood by those brave anarchists who would follow. In his own words: “Government by its very nature counteracts the improvement of of original mind.” The following five anarchists were the heavy-hitters who refused to have their original minds counteracted by existing governments.
1) Henry David Thoreau
“The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgement or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens.” ~ Thoreau
If Godwin is the grandfather of anarchy, then Thoreau is arguably the father. Best known for his book about simple living, Walden, he also wrote the blueprint on civil disobedience in 1849 in his greatly influential treatise, Resistance to Civil Government, which was a radical philosophical discourse that later influenced the political thoughts and actions of such notable figures as Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He doubled down on the motto “That government is best which governs least” with the addendum, “That government is best which governs not at all.” Thus opening the door to anarchy.
He taught us that life is too short not to seize it; that life is too precious not to make it something of our own. He challenged the status quo, saying, “Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.” He slammed the proverbial gauntlet at the feet of anyone claiming to be a forceful authority. “I was not designed to be forced,” he said. “I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.”
2) Emma Goldman
“Anarchism stands for the liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion; the liberation of the human body from the dominion of property; and the liberation from the shackles and restraint of government. It stands for a social order based on the free grouping of individuals.” ~ Emma Goldman
Emma Goldman was an anarchist par excellence. She resisted the oppression of both American and Russian authorities for most of her life, hounded by the state and constantly under surveillance. She went to jail multiple times for her cause. She was anti-state, anti-war, anti-prison, and anti-voting, saying, “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” She was even considered “the most dangerous woman in America” according to historian Paul Avrich.
She was an early advocate of free speech, birth control, women’s equality and independence, and union organization. Though she didn’t self-identify as a feminist, she put Anarcha-feminism on the map and didn’t look back. She was thoroughly devoted to anarchism, calling it a “beautiful ideal,” and “the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things. Anarchism means that to me, and I will live it in spite of the whole world — prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own closest comrades I would live my beautiful ideal.”
When told by a fellow anarchist (at a dance, mind you) that her “dancing with such reckless abandon was undignified for one who was on the way to become a force in the anarchist movement, and that her frivolity would only hurt the cause,” Goldman was reported as saying, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”
3) Mohandas Gandhi
“The ideal nonviolent state would be an ordered anarchy.” ~ Gandhi
Gandhi was a self-described philosophical anarchist and believed in Swaraj: self-rule. It was his idea that self-rule in a nation meant that every person rules himself and that there is no tyrannical state which enforces laws upon the people, and how, through nonviolent conflict mediation over time, power could be siphoned from the state’s hierarchical system and expiated among the people.
He is best known for his philosophy of direct nonviolence (ahimsa), for his theory of Satyagraha, and for leading the Salt March against the British tax on salt. Satyagraha is a form of proactive nonviolence that seeks to eliminate violence without becoming violent in return, thus arming the individual with moral power rather than mere physical power.
The Salt March was an act of Satyagraha, as it opposed the violence of the state (British rule) through the nonviolent act of sidestepping the state and directly making salt instead.
In his own words: “Satyagraha does not mean meek submission to the will of the evil-doer. It means the pitting of one’s whole soul against the will of the tyrant. Working under this law of our being, it is possible for a single individual to defy the whole might of an unjust empire to save his honor, his spirituality, his soul and lay the foundation for that empire’s fall.” This theory had a huge influence on Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr.
4) Howard Zinn
“They’ll say we’re disturbing the peace, but there is no peace. What really bothers them is that we are disturbing the war.” ~ Howard Zinn
Howard Zinn is famous for his best-selling historical book, A People’s History of the United States. He was an essential facilitator of anarchy, motivating the youth in ways not seen since Martin Luther King Jr. As he states in his memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, “The power of a bold idea uttered publicly in defiance of dominant opinion cannot be easily measured. Those special people who speak out in such a way as to shake up not only the self-assurance of their enemies, but the complacency of their friends, are precious catalysts for change.”
He was a catalyst’s catalyst, a leader who led through courageous articulation. He had his finger on the pulse of the nation and its history. The pulse he felt was gluttonous with excessive greed and power on one side of the vein and oppressive with structural violence and unnecessary poverty on the other.
In his own words: “The state and its police were not neutral referees in a society of contending interests. They were on the side of the rich and powerful. Free speech? Try it and the police will be there with their horses, their clubs, and their guns, to stop you. From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country.”
5) Noam Chomsky
“About 70 percent of the population, at the lower end of the wealth/income scale, has no influence on policy. Moving up the scale, influence slowly increases. At the very top are those who pretty much determine policy, by means that aren’t obscure. The resulting system is not democracy but plutocracy.” ~ Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky is a Jack of all Trades, with interests in fields as diverse as metalanguage, cognitive psychology, philosophy of the mind, politics, ethics, and activism. Ideologically, he’s an anarcho-syndicalist. Politically, he’s known for being an outspoken opponent of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam and Gulf Wars, which he sees as acts of American imperialism. He even earned a place on President Nixon’s “Enemies List” in 1967.
His influential political essay, The Responsibility of Intellectuals (1967), about the US involvement in Vietnam, put him on the anarchist map, but his most important work was arguably Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988), which was eventually adapted into a film.
In this book, he shreds the veil between the propagandized mainstream media model and the censorship between content and viewer. In his own words: “The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda.”
If, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Capitalism fails to realize that life is social. Communism fails to realize that life is personal,” then maybe anarchy is socially aware enough to realize the inherent truths of both individualism and collectivism.
The five heavy-hitting anarchists discussed in this article show through supreme living example how anarchy can be both an intellectual and an actual reality. They give us permission to disregard the laws of the corporate/consumerist State, and help us to see how we too are morally obligated to strike down the plutocracy that threatens our democracy.
Indeed, as these fellow anarchists would probably agree, democracy through anarchy trumps capitalism through plutocracy. In the end, maybe anarchy can lead us back to a more rational assessment of what is moral by working against tradition and inviting us to recalibrate our habits with the natural order of things.