Anarchism in the English tradition

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In English speaking countries, anarchist ideas and practises initially developed within the context of radical Whiggery and Protestant religious dissent. During the English Civil War, the American Revolution and the industrialisation English language anarchist thought developed in the context of revolutionary working class politics and other Anarchisms. Finally, in the late 20th Century, some American classical liberals developed a capitalist position on small governments and limited law.


Early English anarchism

Like much of the rest of Europe, Medieval England was ruled by a limited monarch in coalition with a parliament of wealthy aristocrats and landowners. Unlike continental Europe, the parliament of the rich maintained its rights and privileges. When the English monarchy sought to establish absolute monarchy, the English parliament rebelled. During this civil war dissenting protestants and rural workers began forming utopian communities based on common ownership of the tools of production. This revolts can be distinguished from medieval revolts like Wat Tyler's on the basis that they occurred inside a commodified production system. (See Christopher Hill, Century of Revolution). As a result of this Civil War, the English aristocratic and capitalist ruling classes united behind Parliament. The Civil War, however, established many civil liberties.

The Anabaptists of 16th century Europe are sometimes considered to be religious forerunners of modern anarchism. Bertrand Russell, in his History of Western Philosophy, writes that the Anabaptists "repudiated all law, since they held that the good man will be guided at every moment by the Holy Spirit...[f]rom this premiss they arrive at communism...."

Gerrard Winstanley, who published a pamphlet calling for communal ownership and social and economic organization in small agrarian communities in the 17th century, is considered another of the forerunners of modern anarchism. The first modern author to have published a treatise explicitly advocating the absence of government was William Godwin in An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793); though he did not use the word anarchism, some today regard him as the "founder of philosophical anarchism"[1] (

Liberals were often labeled "anarchists" by monarchists, even though they did not call for the abolition of hierarchy. Still, they did promote the idea of human equality, individual rights, and the responsibility of the people to judge their governments, which provided a groundwork for the development of anarchist thought. As American political society developed along the liberal model, anarchist thoughts were expressed in the writings of Henry David Thoreau (Civil Disobedience).

English anarchism

In the latter nineteenth century, opposition to the existing order of society and a feeling that one could do without it, was not uncommon. It varies rom the gradualist support for the [[English republic of Charles Bradlaugh to the revolutionary republicanism of Algernon Charles Swinburne, to the anarcho-socialism of William Morris and Oscar Wilde to the full anarchism of Peter Kropotkin and his symparthizers, such as Edith Nesbit Bland.

English colonialism

The English established early colonies in North America. Many colonists in the Southern and Centrals colonies were interested in wealth (often in an alliance with the English king). Others, particularly in the Northern colonies, crossed the ocean specifically to escape the king or his religion. The colonies were small, isolated and not self-sufficient; instead they relied on an international system of trade and capitalist extraction, and on close alliances with indigenous populations. This was particularly true in the international fur trade, where capitalist relations spread rapidly into the interior (even to areas where Europeans had never reached, the new systems of trade were found).

In order to preserve their rights of commercial extraction, or religious freedoms, the colonies were established with remarkably democratic governments for the time period, especially in New England. While few or no colonists actually advocated anarchy, the conditions of the colonies made their existence much more anarchistic than was possible in Europe. For many years, even after the establishment of the states, these conditions continued to permit extensive economic self-sufficiency and local decision making, which are central values of many forms of anarchism. This tradition contributed to the development of individualist anarchism.

Contact with the indigenous peoples of North America provided colonists with examples of a diverse set of societies that were all radically different than the societies in Europe. While many colonists dismissed the indigenous peoples as "savages," others looked to them for lessons about how societies could possibly be structured as well as identifying possible causes for problems in their own society. Some of these societies lacked concepts such as private property and had very flexible leadership. In the late 20th century these societies have served as models for primitivist anarchists.

The colonial societies continued to develop with massive immigration, bringing more cultural diversity. Anarchistic ideas entered from around the world with these immigrants. The association of immigrants with radical politics often motivated anti-immigrant movements in the United States.

In Australia, however, the colonies were explicitly established as capitalist workhouses for the United Kingdom. Here the indigenous inhabitants were forcibly alienated from their communal property, and state planned genocide was used to generate farm land for industrial wool production. Australian anarchism has a much greater association with the development of the Australian labour movement through individuals such as Chummy Fleming, particularly in the early militant days of labourism.

In New Zealand the combination of an indigeneous highly stratified class society, which rapidly took up the tools, systems and weaponry of European culture created a greater challenge for the English empire. Maori culture fought the pakeha (Europeans) to a stand still. The Maori were highly successful in acquiring weapons off American or English traders, and succeeded in gaining formal treaties off the English. This situation was reversed over much of the course of the 20th century. New Zealand anarchy has much of its roots in the internal conflicts of paheka culture (particularly in the form of the labour movement), and of the conflicts between Maori and pakeha culture.

Industrial Unionism

Unique amongst national anarchist traditions is the development of English language industrial unionism in the United States and Australia. See: Industrial Unionism, Industrial Workers of the World. This tendency represented the largest wing of English anarchism until the 1960s. In the United Kingdom, anarchism redeveloped from dormant syndicalist movements within Trotskyism, like Solidarity (UK). Additionally, these movements were inspired by events in Europe, like Situationalism or Autonomist Marxism.

In the United States, many new immigrants were anarchists; an especially notable group was the large number of Jewish immigrants who had left Russia and Eastern Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These groups were disrupted by the Red Scare of 1919.

Emma Goldman was a very influential anarchist and feminist during this period. She traveled the country and the world spreading anarchist ideas and attempting to live an anarchist life.

The anarcho-syndicalist orientation of many early American labor unions played a large part in the formation of the American political spectrum. The United States is the only industrialized former British colony to not have a labor-based political party.

Social revolt

The waves of progressive social revolt in the 1960s inspired a large number of anarchist movements in the English speaking world. Many of these movements have been short lived, small, disorganised and dominated by the middle class. Since the early 1990s, however, American anarchism has shown an increasing emphasis on class based organisation.

A surge of popular interest in anarchism occurred during the 1960s and 1970s. In the UK this was associated with the punk rock movement; the band Crass is celebrated for its anarchist and pacifist ideas.

Beginning in the later part of the 20th century anarchist primitivists like John Zerzan began to proclaim that civilization — not just the state — would need to fall for anarchy to be achieved. A rejection of industrial technology is also prominent in the views of many green anarchists. This worldview was associated with the growth of the anti-roads movement in the UK, Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Front in the US, and the actions of Theodore Kaczynski (aka the "Unibomber").

North America: Many collectives and anarchist groups exist within the United States. Food Not Bombs, Indymedia Centers, ARA Chapters, etc exist in large numbers. Large scale American anarchist groups include Green Anarchy, NEFAC, IWW, and others. Canada also has members of NEFAC, and has it's own host of anarchist groups and collectives.

Prominent anarchists in English speaking societies

United States of America



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