anarchy archives

An Online Research Center on the History and Theory of Anarchism



About Us

Contact Us

Other Links

Critics Corner


The Cynosure

  Michael Bakunin
  William Godwin
  Emma Goldman
  Peter Kropotkin
  Errico Malatesta
  Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
  Max Stirner
  Murray Bookchin
  Noam Chomsky
  Bright but Lesser Lights
  Cold Off The Presses
  Anarchist History
  Worldwide Movements
  First International
  Paris Commune
  Haymarket Massacre
  Spanish Civil War

Words of a Rebel

Peter Kropotkin

Chapter 9: – Order

We are often reproached with having taken as our slogan word anarchy which stirs up fear in so many minds. “Your ideas are excellent – we are told – but you must admit that you have made an unfortunate choice in naming your party. Anarchy, in current speech, is the synonym for disorder, for chaos; that word awakens in the mind the idea of colliding interests, of individuals at war with each other, who cannot succeed in establishing harmony.”

Let us begin by observing that an activist party, a party which represents a new tendency, rarely has the chance of itself choosing its name. It was not the Beggars of Brabant1 who invented that name which later became so popular. But, from being a nickname – and an almost inspired one – it was taken up by the movement, generally accepted, and soon became its glorious title. In the end the word seemed to contain a whole idea.

And the sans-culottes of 17932 It was the enemies of the popular revolution who invented that name; but did it not condense a whole idea, that of the revolt of the people, ragged and tired of poverty, against all these royalists, self-styled patriots and Jacobins, well-dressed and spick-and-span, who in spite of their pompous speeches and the incense burnt before them by middle-class historians, were the true enemies of the people, because they despised the populace deeply for its poverty, for its libertarian and egalitarian spirit, for its revolutionary ardour?

It was the same with the word nihilists,3 which has so intrigued the journalists, and which led to such games with words, in both the good and the bad sense, until it was finally understood that here was not a question of a baroque and almost religious sect but of a true revolutionary force. Launched by Turgenev in his novel, Fathers and Sons, it was taken up by the “fathers” who used the nickname to take revenge for the disobedience of the “sons”. The sons accepted it, and when later they found that it led to misunderstandings and tried to shed it, it had become impossible. The press and the people in Russia did not want to describe the Russian revolutionaries by any other name. Besides, the name was not entirely inappropriate, since it embraced an idea: it expressed a negation of all the features of present-day civilization that are based on the oppression of one class by another; the negation of the existing economic system, the negation of governmentalism and power, of bourgeois politics, of routine science, of bourgeois morality, or art put at the service of exploiters, of customs and habits made grotesque and detestable by hypocrisy which past centuries have bequeathed to present day society – in brief, the negation of all that bourgeois society now loads with veneration.

It was the same with the anarchists. When in the heart of the International there rose up a party that fought against authority in all its forms, that party first took on the name of the federalist party, then called itself anti-statist or anti-authoritarian. At that epoch it even avoided assuming the name of anarchist. The word an-archy (as it was written then) might have attached the party too closely to the Proudhonians,4 whose ideas of economic reform the International then combated. But it was precisely to create confusion that the adversaries of the anti-authoritarians took pleasure in using the name; besides, it enabled them to say that the very name of the anarchists proved that their sole ambition was to create disorder and chaos, without thinking of the result.

The anarchist party hastened to accept the name that was given to it. It insisted first of all on the hyphen uniting an and archy, explaining that under that form, the word an-archy, of Greek origin, signified no power, and not “disorder”; but soon it accepted the word as it was, without giving a useless task to proof-readers or a lesson in Greek to its readers.

The word was thus returned to its primitive, ordinary and common meaning, expressed in 1816 in these words by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham.5 “The philosopher who wants to reform a bad law does not preach insurrection against it…. The character of the anarchist is quite different. He denies the existence of the law, he rejects its validity, he incites men to ignore it as a law and to rise up against its implementation.” The meaning of the word has become even broader today: the anarchist denies not only existing laws, but all established power, all authority; yet the essence remains the same; the anarchist rebels – and this is where he begins – against power, authority, under whatever form it may appear.

But this word, we are told, awakens in the mind the negation of order, and hence the idea of disorder, of chaos!

Let us try to understand each other. What kind of order are you talking about? Is it the harmony of which we dream, we anarchists? The harmony that will establish itself freely in human relations once humanity ceases to be divided into two classes, on sacrificed to the other? The harmony that will arise spontaneously from the solidarity of interests, when all men will form the same single family, when each will work for the well-being of all and all for the well-being of each? Evidently not! Those who reproach anarchism for being the negation of order are not speaking of that future harmony; they speak of order as it is conceived in our present society. So let us take a look at this order which anarchy wishes to destroy.

Order, as it is understood today, means nine-tenths of humanity working to procure luxury, pleasure and the satisfaction of the most execrable of passions for a handful of idlers.

Order is the deprivation for this nine-tenths of humanity of all that is necessary for a healthy life and for the reasonable development of the intellectual qualities. Reducing nine-tenths of humanity to the condition of beasts of burden living from day to day, without ever daring to think of the pleasures man can gain from the study of science, from artistic creation – that is order!

Order is poverty; it is famine become the normal order of society. It is the Irish peasant dying of hunger; it is the peasant of a third of Russia dying of diphtheria, of typhus, of hunger as a result of need in the midst of piles of wheat destined for export. It is the people of Italy reduced to abandoning their luxuriant countryside to wander over Europe seeking some tunnel or other to excavate, where they will risk being crushed to death after having survived a few months longer. It is land taken from the peasant for raising animals to feed the rich; it is land left fallow rather than being given back to those who ask nothing better than to cultivate it.

Order is the woman selling herself to feed her children; it is the child reduced to working in a factory or dying of starvation; it is the worker reduced to the state of a machine. It is the phantom of the worker rising up at the doors of the rich. It is the phantom of the people rising up at the gates of the government.

Order is a tiny minority, elevated into the seats of government, which imposes itself in that way on the majority and prepares its children to continue the same functions in order to maintain the same privileges by fraud, corruption, force and massacre.

Order is the continual war of man against man, of trade against trade, of class against class, of nation against nation. It is the cannon that never ceases to roar over Europe; it is the devastation of countryside, the sacrifice of whole generations on the battlefield, the destruction in a single year of wealth accumulated by centuries of hard toil.

Order is servitude, it is the shackling of thought, the brutalizing of the human race, maintained by the sword and the whip. It is the sudden death by fire-damp, or the slow death by suffocation, of hundreds of miners blown up or buried each year by the greed of the employers, and shot down and bayoneted as soon as they dare complain.

Order, finally, is the drowning in blood of the Paris Commune. It is the death of thirty thousand men, women and children, torn apart by shells, shot down, and buried alive, under the streets of Paris. It is the destiny of Russian youth, immured in prisons, isolated in the snows of Siberia, the best and purest of them dying by the hangman’s rope.

That is order.

And disorder? What is this you call disorder?

It is the uprising of the people against this ignoble order, breaking its fetters, destroying the barriers, and marching towards a better future. It is humanity at the most glorious point in history. It is the revolt of thought on the eve of the revolution; it is the overthrowing of hypotheses sanctioned by the immobility of preceding centuries; it is the opening out of a whole flood of new ideas, audacious inventions, it is the solution of the problems of science.

Disorder is the abolition of ancient slaveries, it is the uprising of the communes; it is the destruction of feudal serfdom, the effort to make an end to economic servitude.

Disorder is the insurrection of peasants rising up against priests and lords, burning castles to give place to farmsteads, emerging from their hovels to take their place in the sun. It is France abolishing royalty, and delivering a mortal blow to serfdom in all of Western Europe.

Disorder is 1848, making the kings tremble and proclaiming the right to work. It is the people of Paris who fight for a new idea and who, while succumbing to massacre, bequeath to humanity the idea of the free commune, and open for it the way towards that revolution whose approach we foresee and whose name will be “the social revolution.”

Disorder – what they call disorder – is all the ages during which whole generations sustained an incessant struggle and sacrificed themselves to prepare a better existence for humanity by freeing it from the servitude of the past. It is the ages during which the popular genius took its free way and in a few years made gigantic steps forward, without which men would have remained in the condition of the slave of antiquity, cringing and debased by misery.

Disorder is the blossoming of the most beautiful passions and the greatest of devotions, it is the epic of supreme human love.

The word anarchy, implying the negation of order, and invoking the memory of the most beautiful moments in the life of the peoples – is it not well chosen for a party that marches towards the conquest of a better future?

1 The true beginnings of the resistance to Austrian rule in Belgium, which ended in its independence in 1830, was the rebellion of 1789 to 1790, inspired by the French Revolution, which was defeated at the time but left a lasting heritage of resistance to Hapsburg rule.

2 The word “sans-culotte” was actually first used in 1789. It did not mean bare-bottomed, but referred to those more radical – and usually lower middle class – revolutionaries who chose to wear pantaloons (trousers) in preference to the culottes (knew breeches) favored by the aristocrats.

3 The word “nihilists” was certainly not “launched” by Turgenev, though he popularized it in Fathers and Sons. (1861). The Oxford English Dictionary cites a use in 1817 by an American theologian, and the concept of nihilism cropped up in the religious word battles of the Reformation period.

4 The word anarchist was first used in a positive way by Proudhon himself, in What is Property? (1840), but it had already been used in a derogatory way against the Levellers during the English Civil War of the 17th century (they were called “Switzerising anarchists”) and by the Girondins against the enragés during the French Revolution.

5 Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was the founder of Utilitarianism and famous for his declaration that the only true criterion of political action was that it should promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number. He was an influential penal and legislative reformer.

Typed from text by Quinn Casal

This page has been accessed times since June 6, 2006.


[Home]               [Search]               [About Us]               [Contact Us]               [Other Links]               [Critics Corner]