Anarchist: Definition & Movement

Instructor: Trenton Mabey

Trenton has a master's degree in global history and has developed college Asian history courses.

Anarchism is a political philosophy that rejects governance by an organized state. Anarchist protests are often violent, leading to a misunderstanding of the original philosophy. This lesson will discuss the basic premises of anarchism and a brief history of the movement.


In 1999, Seattle, WA hosted a conference of the World Trade Organization. Anti-globalization protests were organized with several different activist groups participating including a group of anarchists. The anarchists, dressed in black bloc attire not only participated in the demonstrations but illustrated the anarchist principles of anti-authoritarianism and anti-capitalism by smashing windows and vandalizing corporate buildings in the downtown area. The protests escalated from peaceful to violent with the infusion of the anarchist element.

Anarchist backed protests of the WTO conference in Seattle 1999
Seattle WTO Protests

Definition of Anarchy

The concept of an anarchist, or an individual desiring freedom from a government, began in ancient Greece. The word anarchy derives from the Greek word anarchos, meaning 'without rulers.' Ancient Greek philosophers, like Aristotle and Plato, considered anarchism negative and in direct confrontation with the Greek idea of democracy.

Classical anarchy, as defined by philosophers and anarchists of the 19th and 20th centuries, was not a clarion call to promote chaos. However, a form of anarchism referred to as ontological anarchism places chaos as a foundational aspect of the philosophy. Anarchy is defined as the political philosophy of a society without government.

Modern Anarchist Movements

The modern anarchist philosophy began in Europe during the 19th century. French philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon wrote the book What is Property? in 1840. In the book, Proudhon discussed the concepts of property ownership versus the possession of property. The book speaks out against government and capitalism becoming a foundation of modern anarchy philosophy. Proudhon was also the first individual to claim the label of anarchist.

French Anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. The first self-proclaimed anarchist
French Anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin led an unsuccessful revolt designed to overthrow the French government in Lyon. His goal was to unite the peasantry with the working class to institute a social revolution under his anarchist philosophy. Bakunin is considered the founder of the social anarchist philosophy, which emphasized community and equality among members.

Development of anarchist thought in America began in the early 19th century with the publication of the anarchist periodical, The Peaceful Revolutionist, by America's first anarchist Josiah Warren. The most famous of the early American anarchists was author Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau's Civil Disobedience propagated the anarchist philosophy of anti-government, calling on individuals to resist a corrupt or unjust government.

American anarchism focused on the rights of the individual. A critical event in the evolution of American anarchy was the Haymarket affair in Chicago. On May 4, 1886 workers gathered in Haymarket square to protest against the violent treatment of their May Day strike in support of the 8-hour work day, which ended in a clash with the police. The peaceful protest erupted in violence when a bomb was thrown into the crowd. Anarchists were blamed by authorities and four anarchists were executed. American anarchy continued to gain momentum. Anarchists began campaigning for women's rights and fought against discrimination based on sexual preference.

One of the early American individual anarchists was Emma Goldman. Goldman wrote extensively about individual rights and social justice. During the economic crises in 1893, Goldman gave impassioned speeches to unemployed New York workers, urging them to take action by violence if necessary. Goldman was arrested in relation to the assassination of U.S. President William McKinley. The perpetrator of the crime claimed he was inspired by the activist speeches of Goldman. She was investigated but released due to her lack of involvement with the crime. American anarchism lost support following World War I when many anarchists and communists were imprisoned or deported from the country.

Outside of the United States anarchism movements were also on the rise. In Russia, anarcho-communism developed through the writings of anarchists like Peter Kropotkin. Russian anarchists supported democratic reforms and the end of the Romanov monarchy. Anarchists and Marxists worked together to bring about social reforms. The Bolshevik victory during the October Revolution of 1917 created an authoritarian state and stopped the momentum of Russian anarchism.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 160 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create An Account