Note:  Because Guerin’s work here encompasses a lot- especially within the confines of a mere 159 pages- I’m going to offer my review of this text in three, possibly four parts, to coincide with the format of the book (Part 1: The Basic Ideas of Anarchism, Part 2: In Search of a New Society, Part 3: Anarchism in Revolutionary Practice, and perhaps a part 4, which would cover Guerin’s “By Way of Conclusion” plus his post-script “May 1968” if I don’t cover those sections in part 3).  Breaking the text down into three (or four) parts will give me the added luxury of fleshing more out of each one, and expanding and interjecting my own views where they agree or differ.

In Guerin’s classic 1965 text Anarchism, the “French New Left” author attempted to put together a concise, encompassing and accessible book on what “anarchism” is, how it developed, what it seeks, does, and how that has looked in the real world.  In the Introduction written by Noam Chomsky- I believe for the 1970 English translation of the book- we get a glimpse of just how difficult Guerin’s task was:

There have been so many styles of anarchist thought and action.  It would be hopeless to try and encompass all of these conflicting tendencies in some general theory or ideology.  And even if we proceed to extract from the history of libertarian thought a living, evolving tradition, as Daniel Guerin does  in the present work, it remains difficult to formulate its doctrines as a specific and determinate theory of society and social change.

Chomsky then goes on to quote Rudolf Rocker, noting that anarchism is not

a fixed, self-enclosed social system but rather a definite trend in the historic development of mankind, which, in contrast with the intellectual guardianship of all clerical and governmental institutions, strives for the free unhindered unfolding of all the individual and social forces in life.  Even freedom is only a relative, not an absolute concept, since it tends constantly to become broader and to affect wider circles in more manifold ways. (emphasis mine)

Which is a point that cannot be taken too lightly at all, especially because it is the point the trips up so many who struggle with a politic of their own that is often so close to anarchism (if not it, only not by name) but who fail to understand this concept.  Anarchism, above and beyond any other definitions that have attempted to chain it down over the years, is a belief in the continually expanding freedom of the individual, but with a simultaneous recognition of our existence only as parts within the larger whole of society; recognizing that my “unlimited freedom” must come face-to-face with the same of my neighbors, anarchist thinkers through history have sought to envision a society which affords the maximum space for individual liberty- a tension not easily reconciled without lofty vision and imagination.  As Chomsky rightly points out, anarchism has little at all to do with a particular program or “utopian vision” for what the world should look like, but instead concerns itself forever and always with demanding a broader and wider, a continually expanding, definition of freedom, for both the individual and society at large.  Which is why anarchists are socialists; not advocating an “authoritarian socialism” like Marx did, or much if not at all what has been developed by various State-socialist models (the U.S.S.R., China).  As Mikhail Bakunin famously put it: “Freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice; socialism without freedom is slavery, brutality.”

Guerin begins his monumental task of unpacking for us all that is “anarchism” (a task that, given the the near impossibility of it, he does quite well), by bringing us  to the French thinker Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a very typical and reasonable starting point for a timeline of anarchism’s development.  It was Proudhon, in fact, who chose to take the word “anarchy” from it’s pejorative sense meaning chaos, disorder, and disorganization because he disagreed  with the assumption that its strict epistemological meaning (something like “no government” or “no authority”) was a synonym for said chaos and disorder.  Proudhon insisted that there was no other word in language that was fit to describe his belief that it is in fact government and the State itself that brings dis-order, suffering, and want to the natural order of mankind.  But right here, just a couple hundred words in, Guerin hints at the rocky road ahead for us as we try to understand anarchism and anarchist thinkers, because Proudhon and his disciple Bakunin (two of anarchism’s “founding fathers”) both used the word anarchy not only to describe their personal beliefs in this manner, but interchangeably with the pejorative sense of the word.  Literally, anarchy in the use of the word “anarchy”.

Stemming from the discomfort many felt in adopting this term for their beliefs, followers of Proudhon and Bakunin took a number of names that in general are (or, at least were at the time) one in the same in describing their anarchism: collectivism, mutualism, communism; Proudhon himself, in his later years, took to calling himself a “federalist” mostly because “anarchist” had already developed a hard to shake weight.  Eventually it was a word coined in 1858 by Joseph Dejacque, “Le Libertaire”, which came to be the true synonym for that nasty and mis-understood word “anarchism”, and libertarian thought was born.

Most of these terms have a major disadvantage: they fail to express the basic characteristics of the doctrines they are supposed to describe.  Anarchism is really a synonym for socialism.  The anarchist is primarily a socialist whose aim is to abolish the exploitation of man by man.  Anarchism is only one of the streams of socialist thought, the stream whose main components are concern for liberty and haste to abolish the State. (p. 12)

From here Guerin takes on liberalism in its classical meaning (not as the “left” to a more conservative “right”, but as the formal name of the the capitalist system, synonymous with the notion of “bourgeois democracy”).  Throughout Anarchism, and most specifically in this first part of the book, the author is far more of an objective observer than anything else, gathering together for us what has been said and meant by various anarchist thinkers, rather than interjecting much if any of his own stance on the matter.  In  this manner, Guerin does a great service to the reader who picks up his book looking to understand what the anarchist means in general rather than hear one man’s interpretation of it all.

The anarchist denounces the deception of bourgeois democracy even more bitterly than does the authoritarian socialist…. In Proudhon’s view “democracy is nothing but a constitutional tyrant.”  The people were declared sovereign by a “trick” of our forefathers.  In reality they are a monkey king which has kept only the title of sovereign without the magnificence and grandeur.  The people rule but do not govern, and delegate their sovereignty through the periodic exercise of universal suffrage… The dynasts have been driven from the throne but the royal prerogative has been preserved intact.  In the hands of a people whose education has been willfully neglected the ballot is a cunning swindle benefiting only the united barons of industry, trade, and property. (p. 17)


Bakunin saw that the “representational system, far from being a guarantee for the people, on the contrary, creates and safeguards the continued existence of a governmental aristocracy against the people.”  Universal suffrage is a sleight of hand, a bait, a safety valve, and a mask behind which “hides the really despotic power of the State based on the police, the banks, and the army.” (p.17-18)

At the same time, the anarchist’s interaction with electoralism, or bourgeois democracy, has been varied, contradictory, and complicated throughout history.  Proudhon himself, though he continually declared he was an “abstentionist”, allowed himself to briefly become elected and hold office, and on at least two occasions he openly supported a candidate in elections.  He even went as far as supporting a “lesser of two evils” military General who was running against Lois Napoleon.  Bakunin and others rejected the term “abstentionist”.  They saw boycotting elections to be simply a matter of tactic and not an article of faith.  “They gave priority to the class struggle in the economic field”, (and) they would not agree that they ignored “politics”.  They were not rejecting “politics”, but only bourgeois politics” (p. 18).  Meanwhile, other anarchists both at the time and through history have declared elections as a last resort.  Malatesa, though he generally took the stance that non-participation in elections was a matter of doctrinal purity for anarchists, nonetheless “admitted that in certain circumstances the outcome of an election might have ‘good’ or ‘bad’ consequences and that the result would sometimes depend on anarchist votes” (p. 19).  Personally, the matter falls neither here nor there for me.  If the (organized) anarchist movement in one country or another comprised a meaningful number of individuals, abstentionism would prove both meaningful and powerful- which has been the case on a number of occasions, mostly in the early and middle parts of the Twentieth Century and mostly in Europe.  As for elections here in the U.S., I find a wide degree of variation on what makes sense.  Here in Vermont, elections of town and city select boards, as well as the generally non-partisan administrative offices (Town Clerk, Justice of the Peace, etc)- especially in the less populated rural areas versus the larger towns and cities- have little if anything to do with capitalism or the State itself but rather are almost entirely matters of local administration; participating in such elections not only makes sense to me, but in fact is a close simulation of what many anarchists have advocated for- a direct, recallable, participatory system of self-governance.  Though far from being exactly what anarchists have sought, I see mostly positives in participation in local, New England Town Meeting-styled politics.  On the other hand, this is by no definition a means to an ends, but rather a more or less social attribute to a political goal; one that I’ve found difficult, if not impossible, to adequately explain to anarchists who have never participated in rural New England living.

Back to Guerin’s explanations of the dizziness involved in understanding the anarchist perspective on electoralism:

The inconsistency of anarchist doctrine on this matter was to be especially well illustrated in Spain.  In 1930 the anarchists joined in a common front with bourgeois democrats to overthrow the dictator, Primo de Rivera.  The following year, despite their official abstention, many went to the polls in the municipal elections which led to the overthrow of the monarchy.  In the general election of November 1933 they strongly recommended abstention from voting, and this returned a violently anti-labor Right to power for more than two years.   (p. 19)

Today, the anarchists’ refusal to draw meaningful and nuanced conclusions from the experiences of Spain are disappointing to me.  Again, without falling for the trap of elections and reform as a means whatsoever towards freedom and social liberation, the Spanish anarchists and even Bakunin himself are more logical (more integral, in fact) than the lofty rhetoric might suggest:

It should be noted that in spite of their savage attacks on bourgeois democracy, the anarchists admitted that it is relatively progressive (the eventual electoral victory of the leftist Popular Front in Spain).  Even Stirner, the most intransigent, occasionally let slip the word “progress.”  Proudhon conceded: “When a people passes from the monarchical to the democratic State, some progress is made.”  And Bakunin said “It should not be thought that we want… to criticize the bourgeois government in favor of monarchy… The most imperfect republic is a thousand times better than the most enlightened monarchy… the democratic system gradually educates the masses to public life.” (p. 20)

Despite the reactionary “anti-electoralism” from many of today’s anarchists, the move from monarchy to liberal democracy is socially progressive, just as the leftist candidates in the bourgeois system are a social progress over the far right parties.  As a “definite trend in the historic development of mankind” anarchists today could be aided by recognizing this, and participate or not on an individual basis, this major rift amongst the socialist factions (Marxist vs libertarian) today could prove much more powerful and successful if this were to happen.  I am not suggesting that active participation in electoral politics is the thing for anarchists today to be doing (exactly not, in fact), but the distaste for all things electoral that inhabits the anarchist is limiting and self-defeating (and the state of anarchism as a pole in popular politics is good evidence of such).

But this can’t all be taken too far: Guerin gives voice to the anarchist’s distaste not only for capitalism and the bourgeois system, but for authoritarian socialism as well.  While in the early stages of anarchist thinking critiques of Marx and his followers as power-hungry and wedded to the continued exploitation of the masses by a State were more than a bit of an exaggeration, in the face of how authoritarian socialist systems have developed over the Twentieth Century make many Nineteenth Century anarchist critiques of “vulgar” communists seem downright prophetic.  Anarchists insist on the entire dismantling of the State because they see such power, regardless of the intentions and goals of those who posses it, as corrupting and destructive, and we need look no further than the experiences of State communism (socialism) first in Russia, and then China, Cuba, and beyond to verify the anarchists claims.

Geurin finishes the first section, his historical outline of where the anarchist’s base ideas came from and how they interacted with the politics around them, by looking at two of the anarchists’ primary orientations: “the individual” and “the masses”.  In looking at the individual, we encounter Stirner:

(According to Stirner) In order to emancipate himself, the individual must begin by putting under the microscope the intellectual baggage with which his parents and teachers have saddled him.  He must undertake a vast operation of “desantification”, beginning with the so-called morality of the bourgeoisie… Stirner was especially incensed by sexual morality.  The “machinations” of Christianity “against passion” have simply been taken over by the secularists…. The people furiously urge the police on against anything which seems to them immoral or even improper, and this public passion for morality protects the police as an institution far more effectively than a government ever could. (p.28)

And Guerin points out that, while noting that Stirner’s individualism “sometimes misled him into paradoxical statements” and he “let slip some antisocial aphorisms”, nonetheless:

Stirner foreshadowed modern psychoanalysis by observing and denouncing the internalization of parental moral values.  From childhood we are consumed with moral prejudices…. The real seducers and corrupters of youth are the priests and parents who “muddy young hearts and stupefy young minds.”  If there is anything that “comes from the devil” it is surely this false divine voice which has been interpolated into the conscience.  In the course of rehabilitating the individual, Stirner also discovered the Freudian subconscious. (p. 29)

Finally on the matter, Guerin reconciles the individualism of Stirner with that of the socialism of classical anarchism:

The individual needs help and friends; for example, if he writes books he needs readers.  He joins with his fellow man in order to increase his strength and fulfill himself more completely through their combined strength than either could in isolation.  “If you have several million others behind you to protect you, together you will become a great force and will easily be victorious”- but on one condition: these relations with others must be free and voluntary and always subject to repudiation.  Stirner distinguishes a society already established, which is a constraint, from association, which is a voluntary act.  “Society uses you, but you use association.”  Admittedly, association implies a sacrifice, a restriction upon freedom, but this sacrifice  is not made for the common good: It is my own personal interest that brings me to it.” (p.30)

All  of which generally leads the anarchist to imagine a society in which one’s individual liberty is limited in no way, by anyone, and it is only we ourselves who would voluntarily choose to put constraints on ourselves- intentionally, by association not cohesion and knowingly- in order to take part and reap to benefits from that of society at large.

Far from checking the spread of immorality, repression has always extended and deepened it.  Thus it is futile to oppose it by rigorous legislation which trespasses on individual liberty.  Bakunin allowed only one sanction against the idle, parasitic, or wicked: the loss of political rights, that is, of the safeguards accorded the individual  by society.  It follows that each individual has the right to alienate his own freedom by his own acts but, in this case, is denied the enjoyment of his political rights for the duration of his voluntary servitude.

If crimes are committed they must be seen as a disease, and punishment as treatment rather than as social vengeance.  Moreover, the convicted individual must retain the right not to submit to the sentence imposed if he declares that he no longer wishes to be a member of the society concerned.  The latter, in return, has the right to expel such an individual and declare him to be outside its protection. (p.32)

Though insinuated but never stated, Guerin and the anarchists he is describing view human nature as a positive, and place the blame of greed, malice, and vulgarity on the effects of the State itself.  And increasingly, behavioral and psychological research is suggesting that this is true.  It is the moral corruption of  capitalism itself that leads one to self-identify with value systems which are unnatural to mankind’s nature: as Bakunin noted often, we are both “the most individual and most social” of all the species.  The blatantly anti-social nature of capitalism, and the anti-Self nature of religion and monotheistic  morality are a two-pronged affront which is paralyzing and destructive.  To be an “anarchist” is to recognize this, and to always and forever take the side of individual and social liberty as it expands and multiplies.