Unphilosophical anarchists | GUEST COMMENTARY

When I was a teenager, my mother told me that her father had been a philosophical anarchist who wrote articles about anarchism for a Yiddish-language newspaper in the early 20th century. He died when I was a little girl, so I never had an opportunity to discuss his political beliefs with him.

Wondering what philosophical anarchism was, I did some research and decided that I was an anarchist, too. The “philosophical” part meant that my grandfather didn’t believe in using violence to reach the utopian goal of a stateless world. As a pacifist I agreed. For me anarchism was a benign, unachievable substitute for religion that I sentimentally clung to for many years.


One of my literary heroes was George Orwell, who fought alongside anarchists in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and wrote about his experiences there in “Homage to Catalonia.” I was also thrilled by “Living My Life,” the autobiography of Emma Goldman, the anarchist propagandist who once was known as the most dangerous woman in America.

During the 1919 Red Scare, Goldman was deported from the United States to Russia, her homeland. She was appalled to discover that the new Bolshevik government was persecuting anarchists, suppressing strikes and denying freedom of speech to dissidents. After leaving the Soviet Union in 1921 she spent the rest of her life in exile. Her career as an influential public figure was finished.


Goldman watched helplessly from France as anarchist comrades Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, convicted of robbery and murder in a Boston suburb, were executed in 1927. Like Orwell she traveled to Spain during the Civil War to support anarcho-syndicalists who were fighting both fascists and communists. She refused to support the allies in World War II because she considered the U.S., British and French governments almost as fascistic as the Italians and Germans. She couldn’t support the tyrant Josef Stalin, either. Tragically, she followed her convictions to their logical end: oblivion.

Anarchism was a feared international movement between the 1880s and 1940 (the year Goldman died). Its followers considered themselves idealists who socialized at picnics and “indignation meetings.” Many were immigrants, refugees or poverty-stricken workers for whom an 8-hour workday was a radical dream. (The federal government didn’t mandate a 40-hour workweek until 1940.)

A relatively small number of anarchists dedicated themselves to what they called the IDEA [all caps] of anarchism by committing sensationally violent acts, including bombings and assassinations. They called these actions “propaganda of the deed.” But anarchists disappeared from the political stage as state repression brought down their leaders. Or they killed themselves while making or setting off bombs. By World War II the anarchist movement was dead.

A wave of terrorist bombings in the 1970s might have marked an attempted revival of anarchist propaganda of the deed, but that movement was too small and isolated to have great impact over time. Later terrorists, such as the 9/11 al Qaida gang, Chechen bombers and Timothy McVeigh, did not identify themselves as anarchists, although they adopted anarchist strategies.

In 2009, I saw one of the first demonstrations of the Tea Party movement on Boston Common. Reading their signs, I thought, “How odd. These people seem to be right-wing anarchists who believe all government is evil.” Could it be true that extremes of left and right eventually meet?

Recent protest movements, such as Occupy, have been influenced or inspired by earlier anarchists. And now right-wing anarchists, intent on overthrowing governments and overturning public-health mandates in the name of freedom, are carrying out provocative actions in the U.S., Canada and other countries. Their ideology seems to be an almost-incoherent mixture of white supremacy, neo-fascism, anarchism, uncontrolled individualism, nihilism and paranoia. They may lack ideas that most would consider rational, but they have the capacity to organize intimidating actions by relatively few people against all sectors of society.

The efflorescence of violent anarchism reflects generalized discontent that leads a small minority to take drastic actions that provide an intoxicating sense of power they otherwise lack. Such conditions reappear periodically in complex societies. We must address the underlying problems that breed hatred and division or, as history shows, we are bound for increasing pain and suffering.

Linda Rabben ( is an associate research professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland.