Fighting Word

It's time for the left to reclaim the term 'anarchy' -- and the philosophy behind it.

| Fri Jul. 27, 2001 3:00 AM EDT

"Anarchism does not mean bloodshed; it does not mean robbery, arson, etc. These monstrosities are, on the contrary, the characteristic features of capitalism. Anarchism means peace and tranquility to all."
-- August Spies, Haymarket protester

If you've watched the news much in the past two years, the term "anarchist" probably evokes balaclava-clad ruffians with no political agenda beyond breaking windows, burning police cars, and looting stores. Mention the word and the world tunes out; violent thugs can't possibly have a message worth listening to. The term has been used to paint all activists with the same brush and to justify violent responses against peaceful and aggressive protesters alike. The New York Post even called Carlo Giuliani, the protester killed by Italian carabinieri at the G-8 summit in Genoa, an "anarchist berserker" who "deserved what he got."

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As it happens, it was during another protest, more than 100 years ago, that the word "anarchist" first made headlines. On May 1, 1886, an anarchist group called the Chicago Knights of Labor -- whose supporters included Mary Harris "Mother" Jones -- staged a peaceful march for an eight-hour workday. The event led to a days-long general strike involving thousands of workers; at one rally, police arrived and without provocation sprayed the crowd with gunfire, killing at least one demonstrator.

Laborers gathered the next day at the city's Haymarket Square to protest the violence. As the police chief shouted at the crowd to disperse, a bomb exploded nearby, killing one officer. Startled and angry, police shot into the crowd; seven more officers died in the melee, as did four striking workers.

To this day, the identity of the Haymarket bomber is unknown. A number of strike leaders were charged in connection with the crime, and four were ultimately hanged. The campaign to clear their names inspired anarchist movements worldwide, and led to May 1 being declared International Workers Day, a holiday in much of the world.

But the word "anarchist" never was resuscitated. Writes historian W.T. Whitney, "Unfortunately, the events surrounding the execution of the Haymarket martyrs fueled the stereotype of radical activists as alien and violent, thereby contributing to ongoing repression."

In fact, the word is derived from the Greek "an", meaning "without," and "archos," meaning "ruler" or "authority. Historically, anarchism has been defined as a philosophy opposed to hierarchy and exploitive power structures -- an idea many lefties could love.

Problem is, the media, a significant portion of the left, and even some academics misuse and misunderstand the term "anarchy." The kid in the turtle costume marching peacefully in Seattle, Quebec, or Genoa may be as much an anarchist as the guy smashing the windows at The Gap. It isn't violence that makes the anarchist; it's the philosophy.

"Anarchism emerged out of the socialist movement as a distinct politics in the nineteenth century," says the Institute for Anarchist Studies, a New York-based nonprofit. "It asserted that it is necessary and possible to overthrow coercive and exploitative social relationships, and replace them with egalitarian, self-managed, and cooperative social forms."

So perhaps there is good reason why the term is so rarely used properly: A nuanced debate about anarchism would lend credence to a set of ideas that challenge the status quo.

"This process of misrepresentation is not without historical parallel," argues the Anarchism FAQ, an anarchist overview of the philosophy. "For example, in countries which have considered government by one person (monarchy) necessary, the words 'republic' or 'democracy' have been used... to imply disorder and confusion. Those with a vested interest in preserving the status quo will obviously wish to imply that opposition to the current system cannot work in practice, and that a new form of society will only lead to chaos."

The Web is full of resources about the history, meaning, and application of anarchism. In addition to the links above, check out the Anarchist Archives, the Utne Reader Online's Anarchism 101, Noam Chomsky's thoughts on anarchism, and Britannica.com's anarchists on film.

Bits and Pieces

MCVEIGH MURDERED?
Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh's death certificate lists the manner of his death as "homicide." He was executed by lethal injection on June 11.

COLOMBIA: ROUNDUP READY
Perennial biotech bad guy Monsanto is profiting from the drug war in Colombia, according to CorpWatch. The United States government has sponsored the spraying of thousands of gallons of the Monsanto herbicide Roundup on coca fields in Colombia. Local farmers have complained repeatedly of human health problems, crop failures, and livestock illnesses they suspect are related to the spraying, but have been rebuffed and ignored by Washington and Monsanto alike.

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