The vernacular meaning of “anarchy” is something akin to “all hell breaking loose.” And judging by the video images of last week’s chaotic protests by anarchists against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, that definition would seem to make some sense. The scattered demonstrations; the desultory clashes with the police; the impish posturing of the twentysomething activists; the failure of any single message to captivate the news media—all this led intellectually impatient observers to conclude that today’s anarchist protesters are nothing but ideologically aimless malcontents, rebels without a cause. The “anti-globalization left,” right-wing pundit David Frum wrote in the New York Times, lacks “a clear and coherent vision of a better world.”
But this is a mischaracterization, resting partly on a confusion of the lay and philosophical meanings of anarchism. Anarchists don’t preach pandemonium. They have a relatively coherent (if fanciful) ideology, which holds that if people in society organize themselves without rulers or laws, natural human instincts for altruism and cooperation will bring about greater freedom, happiness, and equality. Anarchism thus defined has a long pedigree in America, dating at least to the.
Beyond opposing formal government, most anarchists also reject capitalism in favor of a cooperative or communal method of allocating goods and land. (One exception is so-called “individualist anarchists”—essentially libertarians—who consider private property a right.) In 1840, the French anarchist Pierre Joseph Proudhon wrote that property earned without labor (interest) is “theft” and should be forbidden. Other anarchists went further, to argue for abolishing all private property. And certainly since the Industrial Revolution, anarchists have, like other radicals, denounced the vast, state-supported power of corporations. Anarchists have a lot in common with anti-capitalists in general, and that’s one reason they can protest globalization alongside Trotskyists, protectionists, and the motley leftist brigade.
L ike good left-wing schismatics, though, anarchists have always underscored their critical differences from other revolutionaries—a point lost on critics like Frum, who lump all leftist movements together. The differences date at least to the “First International” of 1864, the original party of European and American anti-capitalists. In 1872, anarchists in the International—frustrated that socialists and Communists dominated the show—split off to form their own group. Where the Communists waved the red flag, the anarchists took black as their color, which it remains today. (This isn’t to say all anarchists are likeminded; they themselves have been divided among [at least].)
During the Gilded Age, the wretched plight of laborers fed anti-capitalist movements, anarchism among them, especially in America’s industrial hubs. Chicago in particular became an anarchist hotbed, hosting, for example, the 1881 Congress of the Black International, which convened delegates from 14 cities. Chicago’s anarchist leaders were of the syndicalist or, often espousing violence in the name of fighting capitalist oppression. To widespread consternation, the Chicago journal the Alarm printed instructions on how to use dynamite and published other provocative summonses to terrorism.
In 1886, Chicago’s anarchists squared off against state and capital in anarchism’s moment of greatest notoriety: the Haymarket Square Riot. At the beginning of May, some 40,000 workers were striking for an eight-hour day. The strikes rapidly led to protests, the protests to battles with the police. On May 3, police fired on strikers who were menacing the strikebreakers at McCormick Harvester, and several strikers were injured. Labor leaders then convened a mass meeting for the following evening at the city’s Haymarket Square.
As the peaceful rally was concluding, the police summarily demanded it be shut down. In the ensuing moments, someone—it was never learned who—threw a dynamite bomb toward a cluster of cops, who responded with sprays of gunfire. Seven policemen died, and several workingmen were injured.
Public judgment swiftly fingered the anarchist leaders for punishment, and in a matter of months eight of them, in a group trial marked by corruption and impropriety, were convicted of conspiracy or other crimes. Four, including Albert Parsons, publisher of the Alarm, were hanged; one killed himself in prison. The others were pardoned six years later by Illinois’ new governor, John Peter Altgeld—whose political career ground to a halt.
T he Haymarket trials radicalized, among others, America’s most famous anarchist, Emma Goldman. A Russian Jewish immigrant, Goldman left a Rochester, N.Y., sweatshop at age 20 for New York City, where she met a charismatic young revolutionary named Alexander Berkman. For the next 20 years, the couple shocked the nation with their rhetoric and escapades—Berkman for trying to kill the industrialist Henry Frick, Goldman as a radical woman who lectured on not just anarchism but birth control, female suffrage, and the plays of Henrik Ibsen. She also defended Leon Czolgosz, the deranged man who assassinated President McKinley in 1901. (Czolgosz identified himself as an anarchist, but he had no ties to any movement.) In 1919, Berkman and Goldman were deported to the Soviet Union for interfering with the World War I draft. True to her principles, the repatriated Goldman pronounced Lenin’s government more repressive than that of the United States.
The last well-known appearance of anarchists on the national scene was the murder trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. As every schoolchild knows, Sacco and Vanzetti were prosecuted during the Red Scare for the murder of two Massachusetts shoe-company employees. Their trial, which became a cause célèbre, was marred by false testimony, doctored evidence, and a judge who openly sneered at the defendants’ politics. In 1927, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed, over the protests of liberal society.
Since the ‘20s, anarchism has never recaptured the prominence it had at the turn of the century, yet it has retained a solid marginal appeal. The Catholic activist Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker in 1933, identified as an anarchist for many years, as have other religious pacifists from World War I through Vietnam. During the 1960s, Paul Goodman, author of the influential Growing Up Absurd, and Murray Bookchin, a former labor activist, were leaders in seeking to combine anarchism with environmentalism, education reform, and other New Left causes. Some scholars have also described the libertarianism of novelist Ayn Rand and others as an intellectual descendent of the individualist anarchism of the 19th century.
If anarchism has assumed different guises in American politics, its adherents have had one thing in common: They have consistently won renown less for their ideas than for their martyrdom. In all of the above episodes—the Haymarket affair, Emma Goldman, Sacco and Vanzetti—the anarchists in question were hardly models of good behavior. Some Chicago anarchists preached or undertook violence; Goldman apologized for an assassin; Sacco (though probably not Vanzetti) may well have been guilty of murder. And yet history has been kind to them all, treating them as martyrs. Historians now generally agree that the Haymarket trial was a travesty of justice. The Red Scare prosecutions of Goldman, Berkman, and others are widely considered a shameful breach of free speech. And 50 years after their execution, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis declared Aug. 23, 1977, “Sacco and Vanzetti Day,” an occasion to atone for prejudice against foreigners and unpopular political views.
History is most interesting for its ironies: here, the fact that the anarchists’ enemy—the state—contributed more than anyone to making them martyrs. Today’s anarchists do have a critique to make of global capitalism. Trivializing them runs the risk of making them martyrs and giving them a glamour they could never otherwise obtain.