Fighting Word

It’s time for the left to reclaim the term ‘anarchy’ — and the philosophy behind it.

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“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

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 — 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.

gathered the next day at the city’s Haymarket Square 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 workers.

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, “Unfortunately, the events
surrounding the execution of the Haymarket martyrs fueled the stereotype of radical
activists as alien and violent, thereby contributing to ongoing

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, and even some academics misuse and misunderstand the term “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 philosophy.

“Anarchism emerged out of the socialist movement as a distinct politics
in the nineteenth century,” says the Institute for Anarchist
, 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, 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, the Utne Reader Online’s Anarchism 101, Noam Chomsky’s
thoughts on anarchism, and’s
anarchists on film.

Bits and Pieces


Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh’s death certificate lists the manner of his death as
“homicide.” He was executed by lethal injection on June 11.


Perennial biotech bad guy Monsanto is profiting from the drug war in Colombia, according
to CorpWatch. The United States government has sponsored the spraying of
thousands of gallons of the Monsanto herbicide Roundup on coca fields in
Colombia. Local farmers have complained repeatedly of human health
problems, crop failures, and livestock illnesses they suspect are related
to the spraying, but have been rebuffed and ignored by Washington and
Monsanto alike.


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