Anarchism entry from Keywords by Raymond Williams

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This is the entry on Anarchism from Raymond Williams' book Keywords (1976). The book documents the history and development of 'keywords' in the English language in their linguistic and social context. I've inserted explanations of the abbreviations used in the book in square brackets. Bold or italic words may refer to the word itself rather than the thing denoted by the word.

Anarchy came into English in the mC16 [the mid 16th Century] from fw [its forerunner word] anarchie, F [French] rw [root word] anarchia, GK [Greek] – a state without a leader. Its earliest uses are not too far from the early hostile uses of democracy: 'this unleful lyberty or lycence of the multytude is called an Anarchie' (1539). But it came through primarily as a description of any kind of disorder or chaos (Gk [Greek] – Chasm or Void). Anarchism, from mC17 [the mid 17th Century], and anarchist lC17 [late 17th Century], remained, however, much nearer the political sense: 'Anarchism, the Doctrines, Positions or Art of those that teach anarchy; also the being itself of the people without a Prince or Ruler' (1656). The anarchists thus characterised are very close to democrats or republicans, in their older senses; there was also an association of anarchists and atheists (Cudworth, 1678). It is interesting that as late as 1862 Spenser wrote 'the anarchist…denies the right of any trench upon his individual freedom'; these are now often the terms of a certain modern liberalism or indeed a radical conservatism.

However the terms began to shift in the context of the French Revolution, when the Girondins attacked their radical opponents as anarchists, in the older general sense. This had the effect of identifying anarchism with a range of radical political tendencies, and the term of abuse seems first to have been positively adopted by Proudhon, in 1840. From this period anarchism is a major tendency in the socialist and labour movements, often in conflict with centralising versions of Marxism and other forms of socialism. From the 1870 groups which had previously defined themselves as mutualists, federalists, or anti-authoritarians consciously adopted anarchists as their identification, and this broad movement developed into revolutionary organisations which were opposed to 'state socialism' and to the 'dictatorship of the proletariat'.The important anarcho-syndicalist movement founded social organisation on self-governing collectives, based on trade unions, these would be substituted for all form of state organisation.

Also, however, mainly between the 1870s and 1914, one minority tendency in anarchism had adopted tactics of individual violence and assassination, against political rulers. A strong residual sense of anarchist as this kind of terrorist (in the language, with terrorism, since C18 [the 18th Century] has not been forgotten, though it is clearly separate from the mainstream anarchist movement.

Conscious, self-styled anarchism is still a significant political movement, but it is interesting that many anarchist ideas and proposals have been taken up in later phases of Marxist and other revolutionary socialist thought, though the distance from the word, with all it's older implications, is usually carefully maintained.