by Bill Kauffman

This is an excerpt from American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia
33929f9f1> , forthcoming from ISI Books <> in
January 2006.

ERHAPS no political term is quite so misunderstood as "anarchy." In the
popular press, it is a synonym for disorder and chaos, not to mention
looting and pillage: countries like Haiti are always being "plunged into
anarchy." The anarchist, meanwhile, is frozen into a
late-nineteenth-century caricature: he is furtive, hirsute, beady-eyed,
given to gesticulation, gibberish, and, most of all, pointless acts of
violence. Yet anarchy, according to most of its proponents through the
years, is peaceable, wholly voluntary, and perhaps a bit utopian. The
word means "without a ruler"; anarchy is defined as the absence of a
state and its attendant coercive powers. It implies nothing about social
arrangements, family and sexual life, or religion; and in fact the most
persuasive anarchists, from Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy to Catholic
Worker founder Dorothy Day, have been Christians.

Under anarchy, wrote its advocate Prince Peter Kropotkin in The
Encyclopedia Britannica (1910), "the voluntary associations which
already now begin to cover all the fields of human activity would take a
still greater extension so as to substitute themselves for the state in
all its functions." From alms to arms, "an anarchist is a voluntarist,"
explained Karl Hess, the speechwriter for Barry Goldwater who chucked it
all to live as a husband, neighbor, and welder in rural West Virginia.
Anarchists would separate state from church, state from education, state
from welfare, even state from justice. (Murray N. Rothbard and David
Friedman, among others, have explored how courts and policing might work
in a stateless society.)

The word anarchism was not popularized until 1840 (by Pierre-Joseph
Proudhon), but its practice predates its philosophical defenders. In
many ways, the American settlers and citizens of the early republic
were, in their daily deeds, living anarchism. As Ralph Waldo Emerson
explained, "Massachusetts, in its heroic day, had no government-was an
anarchy. Every man stood on his own feet, was his own governor; and
there was no breach of peace from Cape Cod to Mount Hoosac." "The new
race is stiff, heady, and rebellious" said Emerson of his confreres in
the 1830s, the heyday of American anarchism. "They are fanatics in
freedom; they hate tolls, taxes, turnpikes, banks, hierarchies,
governors, yea, almost laws." Emerson's handyman, Henry David Thoreau,
expressed his anarchism aphoristically, altering the maxim of Thomas
Jefferson to read "that government is best which governs not at all."

The abolitionist ranks included a number of anarchists, among them the
wealthy New York Congressman Gerrit Smith, who made an exception to his
antistatism by advocating the prohibition of alcohol. Smith might appear
a hypocrite, but with a nod to Emerson's counsel about hobgoblins and
little minds, the inconsistency of American anarchists has been one of
their charms. Systematic anarchists weaving their elaborate schemes have
usually been bores, men just as trapped in webs of abstraction as the
statists against whom they rail. Their influence within the broader
culture has been nil. American anarchism has been more a tendency than a
philosophy; the most appealing anarchists have been literary men deeply
dyed in the American grain.

Anarchists acquired the twin taints of violence and alienness in the
late nineteenth century. Although a handful of "individualist
anarchists," most prominently Benjamin Tucker, editor of the publication
Liberty, have attracted scholarly attention, the "anarchist-communists"
of the era were far more visible, vocal, and execrated. While most
American anarchists have agreed with Dorothy Day that "property is
proper to man," the anarchist-communists generally sought collective
ownership of property, including land. As the Russian-born Emma Goldman,
America's most noted anarchist-communist, explained her ideal:
"Voluntary economic cooperation of all toward the needs of each."
(Despite her collectivism, Goldman was a fierce critic of the Soviet
Union's denial of individual liberties.) The anarchist-communists,
largely foreign-born, acting outside any local or even identifiably
American context, were persecuted by the Wilson administration for their
opposition to the First World War and disappeared, leaving few traces.

Yet echoes of native anarchism may be heard throughout American history:
in the warnings of the Anti-Federalists about the centralizing thrust of
the new Constitution; in the Garrisonian abolitionists who reviled any
government that countenanced slavery; in the Populists of the 1890s,
with their attacks on chartered corporations and paper wealth; in the
Old Right of the 1930s, which saw the New Deal as potentially
totalitarian; in the New Left of the 1960s, which denounced the
military, the university, and the corporation as dehumanizing; and among
contemporary libertarians, especially those influenced by the economist
and anti-imperialist Murray N. Rothbard. But except for the
anarchist-tinged Industrial Workers of the World, the radical labor
union that reached its zenith in the early twentieth century, anarchists
have never been adept organizers. For the most part anarchy in the
United States has been a literary-political tendency. A very partial
list of American men and women of letters who have described themselves
as anarchists includes Henry Adams (a "conservative Christian
anarchist"), Paul Goodman, Norman Mailer, Robinson Jeffers, e.e.
cummings, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ursula Le Guin, William Saroyan, Dwight
Macdonald, and Edward Abbey. Abbey's novels, especially The Brave Cowboy
(1956), The Monkeywrench Gang (1975), and The Fool's Progress (1988),
feature merry anarchist heroes who live by Abbey's anarchist creed: "Be
loyal to your family, your clan, your friends, and your community
<> . Let the
nation-state go hang itself."

Literary anarchists often display an intense localism
<> , reflecting
Ernest Hemingway's belief that "No larger unit than the village can
exist without things being impossible." They are anti-political in that
they deny that politics, or the demands of state, have any claim to our
time, or families, our lives. In Notes of a Neolithic Conservative
(1970), Paul Goodman, sometime guru of the New Left, wrote, "As a
conservative anarchist, I believe that to seek for Power is otiose, yet
I want to derange as little as possible the powers that be; I am eager
to sign off as soon as conditions are tolerable, so people can go back
to the things that matter, their professions, their sports, and

Ernest Crosby, who succeeded Theodore Roosevelt in the New York State
Assembly in 1887, was a fervent admirer of Tolstoy and something of an
anarchist himself. Crosby is remembered for Captain Jinks: Hero (1902),
his satirical novel of American imperialism, but his poem, "The State,"
might serve as a stark summation of the anarchist view:

They talked much of the State-the State.
     I had never seen the State, and I asked them to picture it to me,
as my gross mind could not follow their subtle language when they spake
of it.
     Then they told me to think of it as of a beautiful goddess,
enthroned and sceptred, benignly caring for her children.
     But for some reason I was not satisfied.
     And once upon a time, as I was lying awake at night and thinking, I
had as it were a vision,
     And I seemed to see a barren ridge of sand beneath a lurid sky;
     And lo, against the sky stood out in bold relief a black scaffold
and gallows-tree, and from the end of its gaunt arm hung, limp and
motionless, a shadowy, empty noose.
     And a Voice whispered in my ear, "Behold the State incarnate!"


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