Forgotten Radicals: The Anarcha-Feminists of Women’s Voice

One of the depressing features of historic anarchist movements is insufficient attention being given to women’s emancipation. When attention was given, it often came in the form of not very good articles or pamphlets written about women’s emancipation by men, instead of by women. For example, a 1901 article published in ‘The Rebel’ states that “Woman should be free, completely free—to think, to work and to love, but always sheltered and safeguarded by man.” (Suriano 2010, p95) This often went alongside the view that the main role for women as revolutionaries was to be a radical housewife. Their task was to ensure that the home was a “coveted paradise of love, the charm of our ideals” and that children were taught to hate religion, nationalism, and the state and thereby prepared to be the revolutionaries of the future. (Ibid, p96) The patriarchal gendered division of labour remained, albeit in service to radical rather than bourgeois ends. While in theory anarchists were opposed to patriarchy, marriage, and the nuclear family, in practice such ideals were postponed till after the revolution. In the meantime, women were expected to accept their fate as victims of male domination.

Several women, unsurprisingly, reacted angrily to the sexism within the anarchist movement. One of the best examples is the Argentinian newspaper called ‘women’s voice’. The paper, which was written explicitly by and for women, held that women were the most oppressed in contemporary society because they faced the dual oppression of capitalism and patriarchy. The first issue of women’s voice was published January 8th, 1896. The newspaper ran for a year, released nine issues, and printed between 1,000 and 2,000 copies per issue. (Molyneux 1986, p132, 124, 130)

Women’s voice first editorial read,

fed up as we are with so many tears and so much misery; fed up with  the never ending drudgery of children (dear though they are); fed up with asking and begging; of being a plaything  for our infamous exploiters  or vile husbands, we have decided  to raise our voices in the concert of society and demand, yes, demand our bit of pleasure in the banquet of life. (Molyneux 1986, p126)

The response by the anarchist movement to the first issue ranged from praise, to silence, to hostility. (Molyneux 1986, p126). In the second issue, the editors of women’s voice responded to men critical of their paper in no uncertain terms. They wrote,

When we women, unworthy and ignorant as we are, took the initiative and published women’s voice, we should have known, Oh modern rogues, how you would respond with your old mechanistic philosophy to our initiative. You should have realized that we stupid women have initiative and that is the product of thought. You know-we also think . . . The first number of women’s voice appeared and of course, all hell broke loose: “Emancipate women?  For what?” “Emancipate women?  Not on your nelly!” . . . “Let our emancipation come first, and then, when we men are emancipated and free, we shall see about yours.” (Molyneux 1986, p128)

The writers of women’s voice proceeded to label sexist men who opposed women’s liberation as “false anarchists” who only wanted to have a “submissive compañera” at their side to raise their children, cook their food, and do their laundry. “To you,” they said, “a woman is nothing more than a pretty piece of furniture”. Such men “better understand once and for all that our mission is not reducible to raising your children and washing your clothes and that we also have a right to emancipate ourselves and to be free from all kinds of tutelage, whether economic or marital.” Perhaps best of all, the angry anarcha-feminists of women’s voice threatened to go to the homes of sexist anarchist men and reveal to their wife and family that they were “all a bunch of chickens and crabs who talk about freedom but only want it for themselves.” (Suriano 2010, p95)

This opposition to patriarchy, both within the movement and society at large, stemmed from the anti-authoritarianism of these women. As issue 4 of women’s voice phrases it, “We hate authority because we aspire to be human beings and not machines directed by the will of ‘another,’ be this authority, religion, or any other name.” A supporter of women’s voice aptly labelled authority by any other name when she signed herself, “No God, No Boss, No Husband.” (Molyneux 1986, p129)


Molyneux, Maxine. 1986. No God, No Boss, No Husband: Anarchist Feminism in Nineteenth-Century Argentina. Latin American Perspectives, Issue 48, Vol.13, No.1, p119-145 (for summary see)

Suriano, Juan. 2010. Paradoxes of Utopia: Anarchist Culture and Politics in Buenos Aires, 1890-1910. AK Press.


Despair and Being Nice to Other Leftists

Something I’ve noticed a lot online is leftists treating other leftists terribly. I try to be nice to people online. I don’t of course always succeed. Some days I’m in a bad mood and I let it out on a random stranger whose wrong about the history of the Russian Revolution.

In my video ‘how should anarchists talk to liberals’ I argued that being nice to people online is important for actually having a worthwhile discussion and changing people’s minds. The likelihood that they’ll listen decreases in proportion to how much of a dickhead you’re being. But this isn’t the only reason.

Another reason is that existence is difficult, especially in as awful a society as ours. I don’t think my default setting in a social interaction should be to increase the difficulty of another person’s existence. This is only more true when dealing with a fellow leftist.

The reason for this is that when interacting with a fellow leftist you’re likely to be interacting with someone who cares as much as you do and experiences as much angst over the state of the world as you do.

I find that the knowledge that comes with being left wing results in a constant overwhelming sense of despair. The kind of despair that just gradually eats you alive. Each day you wake up and are confronted by a capitalist, racist, sexist, queer-phobic, authoritarian society. You walk around and see advertising everywhere. You overhear conversations between people whose ambition in life is advancing up a corporate job ladder or getting just the right t-shirt with just the right brand label.

You read the news and its just full of so much human suffering that you want to break down in tears. You want to cry not only because other humans are suffering, but also because of your own sense of powerlessness and inability to substantially decrease the amount of screams in the world.

This absolute terror only increases when you read a history book. You try to think positive and remind yourself that things aren’t as bad as they used to be. Women are no longer the legal property of men. Homosexuality is no longer a crime punishable by death. But this knowledge of progress is incredibly bitter. Bitter because you are confronted by a past in which generation after generation of fellow humans, who were as aware and sensitive as you are, went through their lives under amounts of oppression that you just can’t fathom. You had to deal with school and authoritarian teachers. A black child in the 18th century had to deal with slavery and the constant fear that they’ll be torn from their family and sold to a distant plantation.

Your knowledge of the past and present brings with it a further burden. Its not just that you’re aware of how terrible things are, you’re also able to see through illusions and lies that other people just don’t notice. You’re aware that Great Britain was never great; that the Democrat Party isn’t going to save us; that human extinction is an imminent possibility and that using energy saving light bulbs and canvas bags isn’t going to stop the ice caps melting; that the racism of the police won’t be reformed away. But part of you wishes you were deluded, because the price of knowing is the inability to function.

Maybe this is just me. But I don’t think I’m alone. As a result, when I interact with another left wing person, I try to remind myself that perhaps existence is difficult enough already. I don’t need to make it worse by being a dickhead to someone and if I’m going to treat anybody right, it should be someone who shares my sense of despair and terror at living in a fundamentally hierarchical society based on domination, alienation, violence and death.

Osugi Sakae and Little Acts of Resistance

There’s a tendency for people on the radical left to focus on large acts of rebellion, such as general strikes, riots, or revolutions. The problem with doing this too much is that it is difficult to translate lessons from these massive events to our every day mundane lives. After all, I won’t be storming Parliament on Tuesday or abolishing wage labour on Friday. It is because of this that I think its very important to learn about tiny acts of resistance performed by normal people going about their lives. These more down to earth actions can inspire me to act differently in the here and now and thereby push against the cage that we all live in.

One little known example of such tiny resistance comes from the autobiography of Osugi Sakae. Sakae was an early 20th century Japanese anarchist. He was arrested a lot and as a result had served almost 37 months in prison before his 27th Birthday. He was killed in 1923, at the age of 38, when the military police beat him, the anarcha-feminist Noe Ito, and his 6 year old nephew to death and threw their corpses down a well.

Once when in prison Sakae was told by the captain of the guard to sit beneath him on the floor. In Japanese culture at the time the height at which you sat denoted relations of subordination. The person who sits high up is powerful and the person who sits beneath them is subject to their power. Hence why one of the complaints of Japanese striking workers in 1898 was that assistant stationmasters sat above railway engineers and firemen. Sakae responded to the guard captain by refusing to sit beneath him and instead insisting that he stand. When the guard captain responded by shouting at him and ordering him to sit down, Sakae said “What do you mean, order? If you want to make me sit, go ahead and make me sit.” In the end Sakae was not forced to sit and was instead taken back to his cell. What I like about this example is that even though Sakae is in prison, and so very unfree, he still refuses to submit to those who have power over him. A lesson I think we could all learn when dealing with authority figures who lord it over us.

Source: Byron Marshall, trans., The Autobiography of Osugi Sakae (University of California Press, 1992), 157.

The Left and the Politics of Writing Style

A lot of leftists write in a very technical, academic, and pretentious manner. Why do they do this?

I’ve come up with three reasons. First, and most obviously, people mirror how those they read or talk to communicate. They read a book and find themselves copying its language, or they have a conversation and end up talking more and more like their conversation partner. This is just what humans do. They copy each other. In the case of the left this means copying words like “means of production”, “rupture”, or “the ideological state apparatus”.

Second, people gain a sense of superiority and self-worth from communicating and thinking in a highly academic fashion. Through their speech they are able to demonstrate that they, unlike most people, have read famous authors and can effectively deploy the latest fashionable jargon. Doing so is especially important for gaining in-group currency among other like minded individuals. If you cannot name drop the right authors and concepts then you’re clearly not well read enough and lack intellectual depth. People often learn this habit at university where in seminars and essays they try to please and impress the academics who assess them. Indeed, at many universities the academics insist as part of the marking criteria that their students write in this manner.

Third, when you communicate in an unclear pretentious manner it is very easy to say things that you yourself don’t properly understand, let alone your audience, but which have the appearance of insight. This ability proves useful when you are searching for something to say in an argument or are struggling to phrase an idea in writing. Instead of carefully and painstakingly trying to articulate an idea as clearly as possible, you opt for the easier approach of writing a long sentence full of as much jargon as possible.

Defenders of these styles of communication may insist that these things occur in all sub-cultures. Mountain climbers, for instance, will use terms that you will not hear out of their circle, such as ‘free solo’, and may try to gain in-group status through their knowledge of all the right climbing language. While all groups of friends develop in-jokes and slang that outsiders will not understand. The inward facing nature of in-group language is not a problem for these groups, so why should it be an issue for the left? The answer is that most groups are happy to only communicate amongst themselves and have no need to do otherwise. The radical left is not such a group. They aim for the abolition of systems of power by the oppressed themselves. Building up to such a point of revolution requires that millions of people come to understand these systems of power, that an alternative is possible and desirable, and that there are effective means to make this alternative a reality. With such an emancipatory mission, the left cannot afford to be inward facing. It must, if it is to achieve its goal, reach broader audiences and grow its numbers. As a result, the usually harmless creation of in-group language through mirroring becomes a problem. This is especially so when what is being copied and reproduced, academic leftist language, is impenetrable to most people alive and difficult and time consuming to learn. Given this, how we write is not politically neutral. Writing unclearly about issues of importance prevents people from understanding these issues. This helps perpetuate oppression by preventing the oppressed from improving their knowledge and so gaining the understanding required to change society.

Some may argue in response that some ideas are just too complex to be expressed in clear simple terms. While this is true in many cases, the only way to know if it is true in a particular case is to actually try and write about the topic clearly. I frequently find when I do so that my expression of the idea in complex terms was not a sign of deep insight, but instead a mask to hide my own lack of understanding. Hence why a mark of true understanding is so often the ability to explain something complex in a clear manner.

Second, writing clearly is a skill which is only developed through practice. It is not something that you can just do. A musician does not learn to play well unless they practice. The same is true with writing. Those who write in a technical academic manner choose to devote their energies to developing their ability to communicate in this style. Hence why they find it easier to write like this than write clearly. They practice writing unclearly and then wonder why they find it so hard to write clearly. The only way to change this situation is to consciously put in the hours developing a clear writing style. I have spent much of my time deliberately trying to unlearn how my education taught me to write and aim in videos to communicate academic ideas in a manner that is accessible to non-academics. Whether or not I’ve succeeded at this is for others to decide.

Bakunin and the Creative Passion to Destroy

In 1842 Mikhail Bakunin famously remarked “Let us therefore trust the eternal Spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unfathomable and eternal source of all life. The passion for destruction is a creative passion, too!”

I’m not particularly interested in what exactly Bakunin meant by this. Rather I am interested in the ideas that emerge from trying to interpret his words in different ways. I’ve come up with four main ideas.

Firstly, there’s the idea that the desire to destroy the society in which we live emerges not merely from a negative hatred of existing society, but also from a positive aspiration for a better society. In, for example, the desire to destroy a homophobic society we aren’t merely hating the homophobic society, but also longing for a society without homophobia. In the desire to destroy what is, there is thus also the desire to create something new. Indeed, we reject society as it precisely because we want and aim for an entirely different society.

Secondly, there’s the idea that in order to create we must also destroy. This comes from the fact that we cannot go to an imaginary land and create a new society out of thin air. Instead, we find ourselves in a society which is structured in a particular way and is full of people with particular beliefs who engage in particular kinds of actions. Changing society thus requires that we change how society is currently structured and how people currently think and act. Doing so in turn requires us to destroy those dominant institutions which reproduce existing society. If we do not do so, then we cannot create a new society as the dominant institutions will simply continue to maintain the status quo. For example, the state uses violence to enforce private property. As a result, any movement which attempts to create a society without private property must overthrow the state. If they do not do so, then the state will continue to enforce private property and crush any serious attempt at abolishing private property. Destruction is thus a necessary precondition for creation. We must destroy to create the space in which we can create.

As Bakunin remarks in ‘Statism and Anarchy’, the “passion for destruction” is “far from sufficient for achieving the ultimate aims of the revolutionary cause. Without it, however, that cause would be inconceivable, impossible, for there can be no revolution without widespread and passionate destruction, a destruction salutary and fruitful precisely because out of it, and by means of it alone, new worlds are born and arise.” (Bakunin, 1990, Statism and Anarchy, Cambridge University Press, p28)

Thirdly, when people struggle against oppressive structures they simultaneously both destroy and create at the same time. So, for example, when someone smashes a bank window during a protest they are both destroying the bank window and creating a situation in which banks and private property are not being respected and treated according to the norms of capitalist society. Or to take a different example, when feminists won women the vote they simultaneously destroyed the social relations in which women did not have the vote and created a new set of social relations, namely one in which women did have the vote. Destruction and creation can then be viewed not as opposed entities, but rather as two elements of a single overarching process of changing society.

Fourthly, the act of destruction is itself a creative act. Destroying oppressive social relations takes a certain skill and finesse which is developed through struggle. People experiment and try out new ways of fighting the police. Or they reflect on what went well and what went badly the last time they fought the police. They refine their Molotov cocktail making skills. They come up with new ways of building barricades, or making decisions, or changing discourse.

The Left Before Identity Politics: Daniel Guerin & Homophobia

There are many anarchists and marxists who dismiss identity politics and long for the return of a historic left they’ve imagined where class came first and everything was so much better. These same people just so happen to be ignorant about the huge amounts of sexism, racism, and queerphobia that existed within the historic left.

To take just one example of left wing prejudice, in France from the 1930s to 1960s the famous libertarian socialist Daniel Guerin was forced to hide his homosexuality from homophobic socialists. As he himself put it,

There were within me two men and two lives. In one life, I was exclusively an activist and in the other I was, depending on the period, more or less tormented by my homosexuality, but there was never any link between my two selves. I certainly refrained from broaching the subject in front of any labour activists. … If other comrades were living with similar problems, it was only much later that I found out. There really was no interference between my two lives. (Berry, 2004, p17)

During this period several French socialist groups explicitly opposed homosexuality and were even violent towards homosexuals (the Maoists being the most violent). As David Berry puts it,

[Guerin] is emphatic about the abject misery caused for him personally and for all those in a similar position by the constant fear of being discovered and unmasked by a comrade whom one respected and admired, of losing their respect and even of becoming scorned and loathed. One was forced, at all costs, to remain silent, to dissemble, to lie if need be, in order to preserve a revolutionary respectability whose price could be measured only in terms of the abjection one risked falling into if one dropped the mask. (Ibid, p18)

Identity politics is not ruining the left. The left has already been ruined for marginalized people by all those radicals who oppress those around them while claiming to struggle for freedom and equality for all. Identity politics is thus an essential corrective to historic and on-going flaws within the left. Flaws whose cost was and is the intense and long term suffering of already marginalized people within the very spaces that should have been fighting for their emancipation.


Berry, David. 2004. “Workers of The World Embrace” Daniel Guerin, the labour movement, and homosexuality. 

Kropotkin’s Definition of Anarchism

A common view of anarchism is that it is a general tendency in human thought which rejects the state and advocates individual freedom. In order to legitimize this view as properly ‘anarchist’ people are quick to cite Peter Kropotkin’s famous historical overviews of anarchism. The problem with doing this is that Kropotkin outlines a variety of conflicting accounts of the history of anarchism across his different works, and sometimes even within the same essay. Kropotkin broadly speaking shifts between thinking of anarchism as either a trans-historical form of anti-statism or as a historically specific form of anti-state socialism which first emerged in the 19th century.

The Anti-Statist View

In several places Kropotkin defines anarchism as any theory or practice which advocates or implements a stateless society based on individual freedom and self-governance by the people themselves.

In his 1910 Encyclopedia Britannica article on anarchism Kropotkin defines anarchism as:

“the name given to a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government – harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilized being.” (Kropotkin, 1970, p284)

Kropotkin similarly states in Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Ideal that anarchism,

“seeks the most complete development of individuality combined with the highest development of voluntary association in all its aspects, in all possible degrees, for all imaginable aims; ever changing, ever modified associations which carry in themselves the elements of their durability and constantly assume new forms which answer best to the multiple aspirations of all.

A society to which pre-established forms, crystallized by law, are repugnant; which looks for harmony in ever-changing and fugitive equilibrium between a multitude of varied forces and influences of every kind, following their own-course – these forces themselves promoting the energies which are favourable to their march towards progress, towards the liberty of developing in broad daylight and counterbalancing one another.” (Kropotkin, 1993, 105-6)

In short, Kropotkin thinks of anarchism as anything which conceives of a voluntary stateless society based on individual freedom and self-governance. Kropotkin speaks of anarchism so understand as a trans-historic tendency in human thought and action which merely takes different forms at different historic moments:

“The conception of society just sketched, and the tendency which is its dynamic expression, have always existed in mankind, in opposition to the governing hierarchic conception and tendency – now the one and now the other taking the upper hand at different periods of history.” (Kropotkin, 1970, p287)

In Modern Science and Anarchism he tells us that, “[f]rom all times two currents of thought and action have been in conflict in the midst of human societies”. On the one hand, there is the creative tendency of the masses to govern themselves by building institutions “in order to make social existence possible, to maintain peace, to settle quarrels, and to practice mutual aid”. On the other hand, there is the tendency of elites to work together “in order to be able to command the masses, to reduce them to obedience, to govern them, and to make them work for them.” For Kropotkin anarchism represents the first tendency and statism the second tendency, such that “from all times there have been Anarchists and Statists” (Kropotkin, 1995, p31-2)

Since Kropotkin thinks of anarchism so understood as a tendency within both human thought and action he locates it within both the practice of the masses when they constructed their own self-governing institutions and within the writings of a variety of thinkers. In his Encyclopedia Britannica article he locates the practice of anarchism within “the clan, the village community, the guild, the free medieval city”, “the great religious movements of medieval times, especially in the early movements of the reform and its forerunners”, and “during the great French Revolution” when the “masses of the people, in their municipalities and “sections,” accomplished a considerable constructive work.” (Kropotkin, 1970, p287, p289) Kropotkin expands upon this point in his History of the Great French Revolution, where he states that the sections of Paris “sought for unity of action, not in subjection to a Central Committee, but in a federative union”, organised self-governing general assemblies, attempted to make as many decisions as possible at the lowest levels of their organisations, and relied on mandated delegates when necessary. Such organisations, alongside the networks of popular and fraternal societies created by the people during the revolution, represents “the realisation of what the modern anarchist groups in France are advocating”. (Kropotkin, 1989, p183-4, p365).

In the realm of thought Kropotkin locates anarchism within a highly eclectic number of thinkers. To name only a few of the authors Kropotkin cites: in the Ancient world there is the 6th century BC Taoist Lao-tze and the 3rd century BC stoic Zeno of Citium. During the 16th century anarchism is represented by the humanist Bishop Marco Vida and the Anabaptist Hans Denck. By the 18th century anarchism is represented by the Radical Enlightenment figure William Godwin, who was apparently “the first to formulate the political and economical conceptions of anarchism”. The anarchists of the first half of the 19th century are the mutualist Pierre Joseph Proudhon, the individualist Josiah Warren, the left Hegelians Moses Hess and Karl Griin, and the egoist individualist Max Stirner. (Kropotkin, 1970, p288-93)

What Kropotkin terms “modern anarchism” doesn’t emerge till the 1870s and the split within the International Working Men’s Association between the followers of Marx and the followers of Bakunin. Kropotkin writes that the tactical disputes between those in favour of parliamentarianism and those opposed “soon led to a division in the Working Men’s Association, and the Latin federations, Spanish, Italian, Belgian and Jurassic. . .constituted among themselves a Federal union which broke entirely with the Marxist general council of the International. Within these federations developed now what may be described as modern anarchism. After the names of ‘Federalists’ and ‘Anti-authoritarians’ had been used for some time by these federations the name of ‘anarchists’, which their adversaries insisted upon applying to them, prevailed, and finally it was revindicated.” (ibid, p294)

Despite thinking that the federalist wing of the first international is the origins of “modern anarchism”, Kropotkin does not limit “modern anarchism” to the ideas of this group. Rather he holds that modern anarchism has developed into four main branches. These are: the American individualists influenced by Proudhon and Warren, such as Benjamin Tucker, anarcho-communists such as Kropotkin, Errico Malatesta and Elisee Reclus, radical Christians such as Leo Tolstoy, and ‘literary anarchists’, which include any author which expresses any anarchisty ideas whatsoever such as John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, Friedrich Nietzsche and Alexander Herzen. (ibid, p296-9)

It is this history of anarchism which many historians of anarchism have taken as their starting point. For example, Peter Marshall writes in his famous book Demanding the Impossible that he has “followed in this study the example of Kropotkin who in his famous article on anarchism for the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1910) traced the anarchist “tendency” as far back as Lao-Tzu in the ancient world.” (Marshall, 2008, xiv)

The Anti-State Socialism View

Elsewhere, however, Kropotkin contradicts the trans-historical anti-statist view of anarchism. Firstly, instead of viewing anarchism as a trans-historical tendency in human thought and action, he holds that throughout history there have been varying forms of authoritarianism in the interests of the elite, and anti-authoritarian popular self-governance in the interests of the masses. Kropotkin writes,

“So far as we know anything about the history of human society, there has always been found in it two currents of thought and action—two different tendencies. There has been the authoritarian tendency, represented by the wizards (the scientists of olden times), the priests, the military chiefs, and so on—who maintained that society must be organised by a central authority, and that this authority must make laws and be obeyed. And in opposition to this authoritarian current there has always been the popular current, which worked at organising society, not from above downwards, but on a basis of equality, without authority, from the simple to the complex, by the free consent of the individuals in the clan and the tribe, and later on in the village community and the confederation.

From the earliest times these two currents were found struggling against each other. They continue to do so, and the history of mankind is the history of their struggles.” (Kropotkin, 2014, p354)

Secondly, Kropotkin thinks of anarchism as not just being any form of anti-statism, but being specifically anti-state socialism. In Anarchist Communism: Its Basis and Principles, Kropotkin writes,

“ANARCHISM, the no-government system of socialism, has a double origin. It is an outgrowth of the two great movements of thought in the economic and the political fields which characterize the nineteenth century, and especially its second part. In common with all socialists, the anarchists hold that the private ownership of land, capital, and machinery has had its time; that it is condemned to disappear; and that all requisites for production must, and will, become the common property of society, and be managed in common by the producers of wealth. And in common with the most advanced representatives of political radicalism, they maintain that. the ideal of the political organization of society is a condition of things where the functions of government are reduced to a minimum, and the individual recovers his full liberty of initiative and action for satisfying, by means of free groups and federations-freely constituted–all the infinitely varied needs of the human being.” (Kropotkin, 1993, p72)

Thirdly, anarchism understood as anti-state socialism represents a particular kind of anti-authoritarianism which emerged within the federalist wing of the first international and so is distinct to the 19th century. Kropotkin writes in The Anarchist Principle,

“Originally, Anarchy was presented as a simple negation: it was a negation of the State and of the personal accumulation of capital; a negation of all forms of authority; a negation too of the established structures of society, based on injustice, absurd egoism and oppression, as well as of the prevailing morality, derived from Roman Law, adopted and sanctified by the Christian church. As a result of this struggle against authority, and born at the very heart of the International [Working Men’s Association], the anarchist position developed as a distinct revolutionary party.” (Kropotkin, 2014, p347)

Kropotkin makes this point again in A Few Thoughts About The Essence of Anarchism. He writes,

“[the popular current] is represented now by the Anarchists. Whilst those who ignore—willingly or not—the constructive work that has been accomplished by the popular current in the savage tribe, the village community, the urban commune, the federations of communes, and, till our own days, in the working men’s organisations, open and secret, as well as in the thousands of free societies now formed for all sorts of purposes—those who ignore this work and consider themselves predestined to organise the masses are the representatives of the dominating, governing tendency that found its expression in the Church, the State, and authoritarian Socialism.” (ibid, p355)

He continues later,

“What we describe now as political and economic equality was thus aimed at since those times by the primitive builders of society. More than that. To the dominating spirit of the minorities of warriors and wizards, they were opposing the constructive spirit of the masses. To the spirit of obedience and submission they opposed the spirit of independence of the individual, and at the same time the spirit of voluntary co-operation, so as to constitute society without subduing every one to authority.

Nowadays, in the struggle of the exploited ones against the exploiters, the same constructive activity has fallen to the Anarchists. Their aim is the free individual. But they understand that it is not by robbery, nor by seizing upon and monopolising all sorts of natural wealth (lands, mines, roads, rivers, seaports, etc.), nor by exploiting the labour of other men fallen (forcibly or willingly) into servitude, that they shall succeed in freeing the individual. They understand that, as they live amidst sociable creatures, such as men are, they never would free themselves if they tried to free themselves alone, individually, without taking the others into account. To have the individual free, they must strive to constitute a society of equals, wherein every one would be possessed of equal rights to the treasuries of knowledge and to the immense wealth accumulated by mankind and its civilisation, wherein nobody should be compelled to sell his labour (and consequently, to a certain degree, his personality) to those who intend to exploit him.

This is why Anarchy necessarily is Communist, why it was born amidst the international Socialist movement, and why an Individualist, if he intends to remain Individualist, cannot be an Anarchist.” (ibid, p356-7)

While in Modern Science and Anarchism Kropotkin states that anarchism is a distinctly modern phenomenon which is part of the new ways of thinking brought about by the development of science in the 19th century:

“we may observe that a different conception of society, very different from that which now prevails, is in process of formation. Under the name of anarchism, a new interpretation of the past and present life of society arises, giving at the same time a forecast as regards its future, both conceived in the same spirit as the above mentioned interpretation in natural sciences. Anarchism, therefore, appears as a constituent part of the new philosophy”. (Kropotkin, 1993, 105)

The founders of anarchism understood as anti-state socailism are unsurprisingly 19th century thinkers, Proudhon and Bakunin,

“I have been accused of being the father of anarchism. That is too much of an honour. It was Proudhon who first stated it in 1848, and Bakunin and other socialists who popularised it.” (Kropotkin, 2014, p203)


From this it should be clear that Kropotkin is inconsistent when talking about the history of anarchism. But most people are not aware of this because they don’t choose to spend their time trawling through Kropotkin’s complete works in English. Instead they read Kropotkin’s Encyclopedia Britannica article, or books inspired by its approach, such as Marshall’s Demanding The Impossible. This leads to at least two issues.

Firstly, people new to anarchism are greeted by an overwhelming number of obscure historic figures whose ideas have little in common, contradict one another, and seem more relevant to a philosophy seminar than everyday political concerns and struggles. The anarchism that is relevant to people’s lives is not a list of anti-authoritarian intellectuals from the 6th century BC onwards. It is instead a contemporary social movement which has a history dating back to the first international and an accompanying set of coherent ideas about why our society is bad, what a better society would be, and how we can be transform our society through collective struggle. Developing a knowledge of anti-authoritarians throughout history can be important in helping us broaden our ideas and realise that we are not so alone since so many other anti-authoritarians have existed in the past. But this is an appropriate lesson for someone already familiar with anarchist basics and shouldn’t be a person’s first engagement with anarchism.

Secondly, it leads to anarchists themselves not understanding the history of anarchism. They read Marshall or Kropotkin and think they are developing a knowledge of anarchists throughout history, but are instead merely learning about a variety of anti-authoritarians, who are mainly male and European. When anarchists should instead be learning about such figures as the lesbian physician Marie Equi, the Mexican agitator Flores Magon, the black IWW member Lucy Parsons, the Chinese anarcha-feminist He-Yin Zhen and so on.

Kropotkin’s anti-state socialism definition in contrast has none of the above mentioned defects. It instead provides individuals with a coherent definition of anarchism that is useful to understanding the ideas of the movement and its history. As a result, I propose that we shift from Kropotkin’s broad definition of anarchism as anti-statism, and instead adopt his restricted definition of anarchism as the anti-state socialism that was founded by Proudhon and Bakunin.

Lastly, it’s important to keep in mind that which definitions of anarchism we use and share is not merely a semantic or academic question. It has direct relevance to how newcomers come to understand anarchism, how people in different movements discuss and relate to anarchism, and how we ourselves think about and develop our understanding of anarchist theory and history.


Kropotkin, Peter (1970). Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets: A Collection of Writings by Peter Kropotkin. Dover Publications.
Kropotkin, Peter (1989). The Great French Revolution. Black Rose Books
Kropotkin, Peter (1993). Fugitive Writings. Black Rose Books
Kropotkin, Peter (2014). Direct Struggle Against Capital: A Peter Kropotkin Anthology. AK Press
Marshall, Peter (2008). Demanding The Impossible: A History of Anarchism. Harper Perennial