An Anarchist by Any Other Name: Albert Parsons and Anarchist Socialism
home | many pasts | evidence | www.history | blackboard | reference
talking history | syllabi | students | teachers | puzzle | about us
search: go!
advanced search - go!

An Anarchist by Any Other Name: Albert Parsons and Anarchist Socialism

Few terms have been surrounded with as much myth and misunderstanding as “anarchism.” Part of the difficulty is that there are many kinds of anarchists. The high point of American anarchism surely came in the 1880s in the movement led by Chicago “Social Revolutionaries,” such as Lucy and Albert Parsons. Contrary to the stereotype, anarchists like the Parsons did not object to order itself but to the oppressive forms of order imposed by the capitalist state. Albert Parsons also frankly acknowledged the belief shared by other anarchists in his circle that social transformation would only come through revolution, “through bloodshed and violence.” What is perhaps less clear from the statement is Parsons’s simultaneous commitment to trade unionism as the primary agency of social change. In this 1887 essay, “What Is Anarchism?” social revolutionary Parsons explained how his strain of anarchist socialism derived its name and purpose from the Greek words for “no” and “government.”

Anarchy is anti-government, anti-rulers, anti-dictators, anti-bosses. . . . Anarchy is the negation of force; the elimination of all authority in social affairs; it is the denial of the right of domination of one man over another. It is the diffusion of rights, of power, of duties, equally and freely among all the people.

But Anarchy, like many other words, is defined in Webster’s dictionary as having two meanings. In one place it is defined to mean “without rulers or governors.” In another place it is defined to mean, “disorder and confusion.” This latter meaning is what we call “capitalistic anarchy,” such as is now witnessed in all portions of the world and especially in this courtroom; the former, which means without rulers, is what we denominate communistic anarchy, which will be ushered in with the social revolution.

Socialism is a term which covers the whole range of human progress and advancement. . . . I think I have a right to speak of this matter, because I am tried here as a socialist. I am condemned as a socialist. . . . If you are going to put me to death, then let the people know what it is for.

Socialism is defined by Webster as “a theory of society which advocates a more precise, more orderly, and more harmonious arrangement of the social relations of mankind than has hitherto prevailed.” Therefore everything in the line of progress, in civilization in fact, is socialistic.

There are two distinct phases of socialism in the labor movement throughout the world today. One is known as anarchism, without political government or authority; the other is known as state socialism or paternalism, or governmental control of everything. The state socialist seeks to ameliorate and emancipate the wage-laborers by means of law, by legislative enactments. The state socialists demand the right to choose their own rulers. Anarchists would have neither rulers nor lawmakers of any kind. The anarchists seek the same ends [the abolition of wage-slavery] by the abrogation of law, by the abolition of all government, leaving the people free to unite or disunite as fancy or interest may dictate, coercing no one. . . .

We are charged with being the enemies of “Law and order,” as breeders of strife and confusion. Every conceivable bad name and evil design was imputed to us by the lovers of power and haters of freedom and equality. Even the workingmen in some instances caught the infection, and many of them joined in the capitalistic hue and cry against the anarchists. Being satisfied of ourselves that our purpose was a just one, we worked on undismayed, willing to labor and to wait for time and events to justify our cause. We began to allude to ourselves as anarchists and that name, which was at first imputed to us as a dishonor, we came to cherish and defend with pride. What’s in a name? But names sometimes express ideas, and ideas are everything.

What, then, is our offense, being anarchists? The word anarchy is derived from the two Greek words an, signifying no, or without, and arche, government; hence anarchy means no government. Consequently anarchy means a condition of society which has no king, emperor, president or ruler of any kind. In other words, anarchy is the social administration of all affairs by the people themselves; that is to say, self-government, individual liberty. Such a condition of society denies the right of majorities to rule over or dictate to minorities. Though every person in the world agree upon a certain plan and only one objects thereto, the objector would, under anarchy, be respected in his natural right to go his own way. . . .

The great natural law of power derived alone from association and cooperation will of necessity and from selfishness be applied by the people in the production and distribution of wealth, and what the trades unions and labor organizations seek now to do, but are prevented from doing because of obstructions and coercions, will under perfect liberty—anarchy—come easiest to hand. Anarchy is the extension of the boundaries of liberty until it covers the whole range of the wants and aspirations of man. . . .

The anarchists are the advance-guard in the impending social revolution. They have discovered the cause of the worldwide discontent which is felt but not yet understood by the toiling millions as a whole. The effort now being made by organized and unorganized labor in all countries to participate in the making of laws which they are forced to obey will lay bare to them the the secret source of their enslavement to capital. Capital is a thing—it is property. Capital is the stored up, accumulated savings of past labor . . . the resources of life, the means of subsistence. These things are, in a natural state, the common heritage of all for the free use of all, and they were so held until their forcible seizure and appropriation by a few. Thus the common heritage of all, seized by violence and fraud, was afterwards made the property—capital—of the usurpers, who erected a government and enacted laws to perpetuate and maintain their special privileges. The function, the only function of capital is to confiscate the labor-product of the propertyless, non-possessing class, the wage-workers. The origin of government was in violence and murder. Government disinherits and enslaves the governed. Government is for slaves; free men govern themselves. . . .The right to live, to equality of opportunity, to liberty and the pursuit of happiness, is yet to be acquired by the producers of all wealth. . . . Legalized capital and the state stand or fall together. They are twins. The liberty of labor makes the state not only unnecessary, but impossible. When the people—the whole people—become the state, that is, participate equally in governing themselves, the state of necessity ceases to exist. . .

Anarchy, therefore, is liberty; is the negation of force, or compulsion, or violence.

It is the precise reverse of that which those who hold and love power would have their oppressed victims believe it is. . . .

The great class-conflict now gathering throughout the world is created by our social system of industrial slavery. Capitalists could not if they would, and would not if they could, change it. This alone is to be the work of the proletariat, the disinherited, the wage-slave, the sufferer. Nor can the wage-class avoid this conflict. Neither religion nor politics can solve it or prevent it. It comes as a human, an imperative necessity. Anarchists do not make the social revolution; they prophesy its coming. Shall we then stone the prophets? . . . .

In the line of evolution and historical development, anarchy—liberty—is next in order. With the destruction of the feudal system, and the birth of commer- cialism and manufactories in the sixteenth century, a contest long and bitter and bloody, lasting over a hundred years, was waged for mental and religious liberty. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with their sanguinary conflicts, gave to man political equality and civil liberty, based on the monopolization of the resources of life. . . .

All over the world the fact stands undisputed that the political is based upon, and is but the reflex of the economic system, and hence we find that whatever the political form of the government, whether monarchical or republican, the average social status of the wage-workers is in every country identical.

The class struggle of the past century is history repeating itself; it is the evolutionary growth preceding the revolutionary denouement. Though liberty is a growth, it is also a birth, and while it is yet to be, it is also about to be born. Its birth will come through travail and pain, through bloodshed and violence. It cannot be prevented. . . .

An anarchist is a believer in liberty, and as I would control no man against his will, neither shall anyone rule over me with my consent. Government is compulsion; no one freely consents to be governed by another—therefore, there can be no just power of government.

Anarchy is perfect liberty, is absolute freedom of the individual. Anarchy has no schemes, no programmes, no systems to offer or to substitute for the existing order of things. Anarchy would strike from humanity every chain that binds it, and say to mankind: "Go forth! you are free! Have all, enjoy all!"

Source: Albert R. Parsons, “What is Anarchism?” Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Scientific Basis, as Defined by Some of its Apostles (Chicago, 1887). Reprinted in Dave Roediger and Franklin Rosemont, eds. Haymarket Scrapbook (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, 1986), 27–28.

See Also:Haymarket Martyr Albert Parsons's Last Words to His Wife
"His Act is Doublely Despicable": Albert Parsons Responds to His Condemnation by Terence V. Powderly
"We ask it; we demand it, and we intend to have it": Printer Albert R. Parsons Testifies before Congress about the Eight Hour Day