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The Anarchists of the 19th Century


Anarchism is a political belief that society should function as a free association and should not be controlled by the state and its laws which limit the rights and freedoms of the citizens. Anarchists firmly believed that the existence of society without government is not only desirable but possible as well; they claimed that “:

  1. people have no general obligation to obey the commands of the state;
  2. the state ought to be abolished;
  3. some kind of stateless society is possible and desirable;
  4. the transition from state to anarchy is a realistic prospect.” (Craig 1998)

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was the one who coined the term “anarchism” in the nineteenth century. “At that point, however, it did not yet advocate the destruction of the state – only its reorganization in a manner that would ensure respect for the individual, as well as political and economic free association.” (Blin, Scheider, Pulver & Browner 2007) He inspired classical anarchist movement which later was supported and developed by Michael Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin. Bakunin is sometimes referred to as the father of anarchism, which is not true for “he was not anarchist until late in life” (Meltzer 2000), but he indeed strongly influenced the anarchist movement. “In its Bakuninist phase, the anarchist movement favored a revolutionary strategy in which the oppressed classes, peasants as well as industrial workers, would rise in popular insurrections, expropriate the means of production, and abolish the state.” (Ostergaard 2008) Anarchists rejected that “citizens have an unqualified obligation towards their state” (Heywood 2007and saw “the abolition of the state as the abolition of both government and authority” (Vincent 1995) The anarchists of the 19th century ardently demanded the abolishment of the State because they wanted to offer the society a worthy substitution of the government and because they considered the state a coercive, punitive, exploitative, and destructive body using the citizens for its own benefit.

The disutility of the Government

The anarchism movement of the 19th century cannot be regarded as mere rebellion and desire to object to the government’s ruling, since its representatives opposed not the society or order but the State itself. Anarchists demanded the abolishment of the state because they were convinced that they could offer something better to the society; they were not simply organizing a rebellion but wanted to introduce positive changes into society, which was impossible if the government existed. As Peter Kropotkin once stated.

No destruction of the existing order is possible if at the time of the overthrow, or of the struggle leading to the overthrow, the idea of what is to take the place of what is to be destroyed is not always present in the mind. Even the theoretical criticism of the existing conditions is impossible unless the critic has in mind a more or less distinct picture of what he would have in place of the existing state. (Caplan 2009)

Anarchists considered that the disutility of the government lied in “its support for the established administration of property” (Craig 1998) which divided the society into antagonistic unequal classes. Anarchists’ utility, according to their beliefs, required “the goods [to] be distributed so as to bring about the greatest happiness, and that people’s affairs [could] be left to those most familiar with them, namely the individuals themselves.” (Craig 1998) This was the life the anarchists wanted to offer to the society, the life which was not possible without the abolition of the State.

Government as a Coercive Body

The State had to be abolished because, as anarchists stated, it was a coercive body that has been constantly limiting people’s freedoms. They believed in the “fundamental goodness of human nature which, however, may be corrupted by association with the coercive state and its institutions.” (Varma 1998) They kept to the idea that all the laws which the government enacted were aimed at the government’s own benefit rather than at increasing the welfare of the society. It restricted the citizens’ free will and directly pointed at what was right or wrong depriving people of free choice. Therefore, the government had to be abolished because it did not serve the right to society.

Government as a Punitive, Exploitative, and Destructive Body

Anarchists also stated that the government functioned as a punitive body, which added to their desire to abolish it. It had a right to inflict unfair and excessive penalties on its citizens for the violation of laws that were unjustified and enforced by the government itself. However, the anarchists opposed punishment only when it was meted out by the government; they never opposed punishment as such. Objecting to the government as an exploitative body, the anarchists claimed that it abused its powers of taxation trying to enrich either itself or the privileged economic groups with which it functioned as a whole. Lastly, as a destructive body, the State was able to organize wars with the only purpose of protecting itself, rather than its citizens who, because of these wars, had to sacrifice their lives and who suffered from the expenses the war usually involves. They did not deny the fact that, without the government, the country could still have conflicts with other states but the scale of the conflict could be much smaller and they could be not so devastating. The anarchists believed that all these arguments taken into consideration allowed demanding the abolition of the State, which was their primary purpose.


The anarchists of the 19th century strictly opposed the government believing that the society could have a better life without it. They had four main arguments for their beliefs. They pointed out the disutility of the government resulting in an unequal division of society into classes and were ready to offer another, more fair, form of ruling instead. Anarchists viewed the government as a coercive, punitive, exploitative, and destructive body that limited people’s freedoms unfairly punished them for law infringements, enriched themselves through collecting taxes, and devastated the society through the wars and conflicts with other states. They considered that all these facts were sufficient for convicting the society to refuse the government.


Blin, A, Schneider, E, Pulver, K, & Browner, J 2007, The history of terrorism: from antiquity to al Qaeda, University of California Press.

Caplan, B 2009, Don’t anarchists favor chaos? Stason, Web.

Craig, E 1998, Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor & Francis. Heywood, A 2007, Political Ideologies, Palgrave.

Meltzer, A 2000, Anarchism: Arguments for and Against, AK Press.

Ostergaard, G, 2008, ANARCHISM AS A SOCIAL MOVEMENT, Peace Pledge Union, Web.

Varma, VP 1998, The Political Philosophy of Sri Aurobindo, Motilal Banarsidass Publ.

Vincent, A 1995, Modern Political Ideologies, Blackwell.


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