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What the ism? Anarchism

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The term anarchist was first used in 1462 by royalists during the English Civil War as a term of abuse for their opponents. Since then, the term has lost and regained its negative connotations but it remains an ambiguous concept.

As part of the ‘what the ism?’ series, TNS attempts to demystify the term...

Anarchism is a political theory which advocates a stateless society. It deems governmental authority undesirable and instead suggests individuals should strive for a society based on cooperation and freedom. Although the philosophy is most commonly considered to be radical and left wing, there are many different forms which have been influenced by other ideologies such as Marxism, capitalism and communism.

The word anarchy is derived from Ancient Greek. The root ‘anarchos’ is translated as ‘without rulers’ and likewise, an accepted symbol for anarchism is the circle-A. The combination of the O and A signifies that anarchy is the mother of order. Anarchists believe in a society without class distinctions which operates without the need for forceful authority.

Different strands of anarchist thought include individualist anarchism which opposes state control over the individual and social anarchism, which believes freedom is required for an individual’s potential to be achieved, but that society should fulfil some needs through public ownership of organisations. Collectivist anarchists similarly believe that society should not encourage private ownership and advocate revolution to achieve this situation.

As anarchism is an umbrella term encompassing many different perspectives, there are often disagreements between anarchists over values, ideology and the tactics necessary to bring about change. Important topics for discussion by anarchists are education and free love; many anarchists believe that education should encourage student autonomy and similarly, free love is seen as a sign of self-ownership.

Anarchists argue that collective ownership would remove the motive to steal and also that the eradication of bosses would mean industry could be driven by the needs of workers rather than money and power.

Marriage is also criticised by anarchists as a means by which the state and religion control individual relationships. While education is central to the reform of society, anarchists do not feel that it should be compulsory or include examination. These aspects of the system are said to destroy natural curiosity, reinforce a sense of inferiority and encourage submission to authority.

Common myths about anarchism include the belief that all anarchists have the same views and advocate an aggressive approach. In fact, opinions differ dramatically among anarchists and many believe in non-violence. It is also wrong to think anarchism seeks solely to destroy society as we know it; it had a significant role in the feminist and civil rights movements during the nineteenth-century.

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