Anarchism, Its Origin and Creed

By Alain Leroy Locke

[During the spring of 1902, there was an essay contest presented to the students of Central High School in Philadelphia. While there were several topics offered, one of the topics was “The Origin and Creed of Anarchism.” This came under the sub-category of “Historical Essays” within the contest.

It is important to realize that in 1902, Central High School served as a working-class college. We find the school awarding Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degrees in the same breath as they gave a gold medal for the winner of this contest. Most of the instructors at Central High held Doctoral degrees.

Also important is that on September 5, 1901 a self-described anarchist named Leon Czolgosz fatally shot US President William McKinley. Thus the season of this essay contest was a very tense one for anarchists. The assassination brought on intense repression of anarchism in some US cities, but in Philadelphia, the anarchists made an effort to educate the public on their philosophy, and this essay contest was one of its results.

Alain Leroy Locke (1885-1954) did not win the contest, but received “honorable mention,” along with two other students. Locke went on in later life to be one of the great intellectuals of African-American culture, and is best known for his writings on the “Harlem Renaissance.” The original manuscript of this essay is preserved at the Special Collections Department at Howard University in Washington, DC.

The author was fifteen years old when he wrote this essay. -- Ed.]

In the course of the onward march of human progress toward the ideal of its civilization, to which the highest and noblest philosophy and religion look forward as the future goal of man, often come those great transitional periods, when the world discards its time-honored customs and traditions and, eagerly adopting a new ideal, pushes forward toward the attainment of a higher and nobler civilization.

Such a period in the world's history is marked by the French Revolution, when the modern spirit of freedom overcame that great institution of ancient society, Feudalism.

It was at this dawn of the world's freedom that the great and curious phenomenon of modern society, Socialism, aiming at a still further reconstruction of the institutions of existing society in order to secure social equality arose, [came into existence].

One of the many phases of this socialistic movement (one which although having the same idea and purpose, in fact, has become the very antithesis as regards method of what is now commonly understood to be Socialism) is Anarchy –that creed which demands the unconditional realization of freedom as an ideal by the abolishment of all external government.

So as an intellectual phenomenon, as a doctrine whose opinions are the logical, even if in practice inadmissible, [the] development of views long since recognized by the majority of civilized mankind, it cannot be dismissed as the product of the diseased fancy of a half-crazed brain, or a phase of crime. It must be dealt with as a well-defined creed, having some sort of scientific basis, whose best propounders have been men of exceptional ability, differing widely in their education and environment, yet all united in the one belief of the “unfettered self-government of the individual and the abolition of all external government.” But is it reasonable that such men should adopt principles which were so radically different from those existing and should so antagonize those stupendous institutions which society had been creating and supporting for so many centuries, without a firm belief in a theory, which to them seemed most logical, just, and necessary to the welfare and development of society? Could such a theory be conceived by these men without deep-rooted causes in existing affairs to justify and prove to their minds the truth of their doctrines? We find these causes did exist and carried to an extreme logical conclusion resulted in Anarchy.

At this time a great change was occurring in the school of modern philosophy. Philosophers ceased to follow the lines of thought of their former leaders Kant, Hegel, and Locke – namely, the exposition of their conception of God and the discussion of the philosophy of the intellect – and commenced to concentrate their thoughts on this life and Humanity. Leaving the consideration of the impersonal and turning to that of Humanity, it was but a step to destroy this generalization and to make the individual the center of thought. This step was greatly urged by the strong individualistic and subjective of the Kantian philosophy. So the current of thought was toward the contemplation of self and individualism.

A greater and more varied change was going on in the political world. France had with great confidence and vigor entered upon the Great Revolution, and all Europe turned its eyes toward France, expecting to see the downfall of tyranny and the end of the sufferings and misery of the lower classes. In great contrast to their hopes came the stern reality of those years of suffering and chaos during and following the revolution.

In desperation they tried a Republic, a Constitutional Monarchy and the imperialism of Napoleon, but to no purpose. The social condition of the masses remained unchanged. They realized that between them and the upper classes another gulf had opened. They had swept away the privileges of rank and birth only to find that the social inequality still existed on account of their privileges of wealth. Was it not natural then for superficial minds to conclude that the radical fault lay in government itself and that to secure equality, wealth and poverty must be attached?

Thus we have discovered in the current of the thought and political movements of the time, those causes which when carried to their logical extreme will form the basis of philosophical, social and political Anarchism. The condition of the proletarian class under the existing government was such as to entirely remove all respect for authority and wealth in any form and also in philosophy there was a tendency to consider the individuals as the important element. With these causes in motion, the world had only to wait until some man should arrive at these conclusions and first set forth the doctrine of Anarchy for the modern world. This came when in 1840 the world received that famous production from the pen of the father of Anarchy, Pierre Joseph Proudhon. Here we see this talented son of the working class, after having gained his education at Besancon, only by dint of hardest efforts, rising in the full power of his self-achieved intellect and attacking the fundamental social question of property. We hear him asking “Qu'est ce que la Propriete?” and then listen to his answer “La propriete c'est vol.” 1 For years he strove to show his unbelief in the prevalent French socialism and reducing his doctrines to a system to defend and justify his principles, so at variance with all existing affairs.

At the same time in Germany, Max Stirner was advocating the principles of Proudhon and became the head of a school of early German anarchists, including Moses Hess,2 Karl Brun and Wilhelm Marr,3 who followed out the theoretical lines of Proudhon's ideas very closely, accentuating a little more, however, the doctrine of individualism.

Such is the origin and early development of the theoretical Anarchy of Proudhon, whose lofty idealism, nurtured by the culture of Western Europe, sought to anticipate the probable results of “yet unborn centuries” and to thus establish that state of perfect and free personality.

But there is another form of Anarchism which is the more modern and in fact a more characteristic one, namely that creed which seems to have as its only object, the complete destruction of the existing state. This phase of the creed is not the offspring of Democratic France, or the civilization of Western Europe, and certainly that spirit of wanton destructiveness and unconcernedness as to consequences, on which the Anarchist theory soon throve and flourished, did not come from the teachings of Proudhon.

It was left to Russian thinkers to give that impulse forward into the domain of practical revolutionary politics, which was destined to result in such disastrous consequences.

On account of their despotic government, under which reform and opposition to government are not tolerated, they were driven to secret and violent action and the intensity of enthusiastic devotion and self-sacrifice, with which Anarchists have braved death, imprisonment and exile, is most characteristic of the Russian revolutionary spirit.

The father of this form of Anarchy was Bakunin (1814 –1872), a Russian of aristocratic family. He devoted himself to scientific study and while at Berlin and Dresden studied Philosophy, especially the works of Hegel and Schopenhauer. Here he formed a circle of young men (among whom were Katkoff the editor of the Moscow Gazette ) who believed that democracy must eventually sweep away all existing institutions regardless of consequences. He went about joining many socialistic movements and finally founded the International Alliance of Democratic Socialism, afterwards known as the Federation of Jura. His greatest work was Dieu et l'Etat .4

Such were the origins and underlying causes of Anarchism, that theory which seems to occupy so strong a foothold among the socialistic theories of the times and which has alike been produced by the democracy of France and the despotism of Russia.

The adherents of Anarchism go back many centuries for the basis of their creed and, in the writings of authors of established fame, found various statements which, apart from their context, seem to lend support to the teachings of Anarchy or, although perfectly justifiable in the ideal, when applied to practical affairs, tend to Anarchy. So they claim among their prophets Rabelais, Bossuet, Diderot and Rousseau.

Although there are among Anarchists vastly different opinions as to the best way to realize their ideals, their creed is essentially the same.

They desire the definite and complete abolition of classes and the political, economic and social equality of all – the abolition of inheritance so that every man may enjoy a like share in the products of labor, that land, the instruments of labor and all capital become the common property of the whole society – and also the absence of all external authority and government.

The Anarchists firmly believe that man freed from the trammels of oppressive authority, through the introduction of an anarchical state of affairs, will naturally develop into a highly reasonable and generous being, fully capable of governing himself.

Bakunin says in his Dieu et l'Etat [that] “The liberty of man consists solely in this, that he obey the laws of nature, because he has himself recognized them as such and not because they have been imposed upon him by any foreign will; whatsoever human or divine, collective or individual. In this way will the problem of freedom be solved. Natural laws will be ascertained by discovery and diffused among the masses – since they are recognized by every man for himself, he cannot but obey them being laws of his own nature and the need of political organization, administration and legislation will disappear. In a word we object to all legislation, all authority, all influence, privileged, official and legal, even when it has proceeded from the universal suffrage, convinced that it must always turn to the profit of a dominating minority against the interests of the immense majority enslaved.”

But this negation of authority. if carried to an extreme, necessitates (as authority pretends to justify its existence by the necessity of defending social institutions and has created a great machinery to assure its exercise and sanction) that Anarchists attack all the institutions of which Power has been created the defender and the utility of which it seeks to demonstrate in order to justify its own existence, and it is on this point, viz. the method and extent of antagonizing the present social institutions, that anarchists are divided into two classes.

There the milder form of anarchist who follows Proudhon's ideas and who does not declare open war against the existing authority, but wishes the authority to be gradually diminished until it has been entirely eradicated. Proudhon and Stirner, who really laid the basis of this new doctrine, never preached force and although revolutionary were decidedly moderate.

Then there is the force Anarchist, the disciple of Bakunin. Indeed nothing could be more frank and comprehensive in its destruction than the anarchism of Bakunin. It is revolutionary socialism based on materialism and aiming at the destruction of all authority and government by every available means.

Again there is the anarchist believing in the individualism of which Stirner was the greatest exponent and opposed to him the anarchist of the Kropotkin school who believes in communistic anarchy.

These are doctrines and influences which modern society much face, meet, refute and extinguish or else perish before the onslaught of their attacks, and with her in her fall, carry the results of the world's civilization and beginning again in savagery slowly retrace her former footsteps.

The furious frenzy of Russian Anarchism or Nihilism, that widespread doctrine of assassination, should be met with all forms of government, law, order, justice and society and should meet speedy retribution. A man turned loose with these ideals and a determination to immediately realize them through assassination is a most dangerous animal, a menace to society which she is perfectly justified in mercilessly wiping out.

The principles of theoretical anarchy are, however, not of that abhorrent description which people are accustomed to associate with the term “anarchy,” and must be met with justice and argument. We must remember that anarchism is but a phase of the opposition which despotic and badly-managed governments have produced, that it is the logical extreme of the very principle of freedom which is responsible for the great advance made in the social conditions of the world during the French Revolution. It looks forward to the same ideal state of civilization which all hope for and are looking forward to as the result of the advances of the centuries, but here is the great error in anarchism. It insists on taking the last step in civilization before we have finished taking our first steps, it advocates the abolition of government and the giving of unchecked freedom to all in the present debased condition of the majority of the human race. The great fallacy is that man freed from authority would become good, wise and noble. They intend an advance but really cause a retrogression to primitive conditions from which it has taken mankind centuries to lift itself to the present level.

[the last page is damaged, and these are its remaining words -- The Ed.]

Their creed with […]
mistakes and leading […]
back into the fold of […]
has been […]
The course of man's life upon this earth […]
restoring their faith in society secure their aid, not opposition, in the great work of achieving in coming years that happy state of social equality and peace which they so long for.

1 The French means: What is property? Property is theft!
2 Moses Hess (1812 - 1875) was a German-Jewish philosopher and a co-founder of socialism.
3 Wilhelm Marr (1819-1904) was an anti-Semitic journalist, theorist, and anarchist who coined the term “anti-semitism.”
4 “God and the State.”