The “Benthamite” anarchism and the origins of anarchist history

There is, perhaps, healing for some of our divisions to be found, a little farther down this road. But it is probably necessary, first, to take an unusually clear look at some of the wounds that that have served as foundations for our tradition. Wounds and foundations—wounds as foundations—that’s metaphor-mixing worthy of a Joseph Déjacque, but it also cuts directly to a fundamental problem with anarchist history and tradition: the extent to which organized anarchism and explicitly anarchist history both emerged as distinctly partisan affairs, both built upon and set against the an-archy of the earliest anarchists.

Them’s fightin’ words…,” you might well say, and indeed they are, but it’s a very old fight and, strangely enough, we seem to have nearly all been on the same side of it, regardless of our others differences. I am not suggesting that modern anarchists have been divided around this opportunist, love-hate relationship with the anarchy or anarchies of the earliest era. Instead, I’m suggesting that one of the reasons our divisions have been so troublesome is the fact that a conflicted, possibly incoherent relationship between our own anarchisms and the philosophies of that Era of Anarchy is the very thing that has held us together—for better and for worse.

One of the consequences of proposing this initial Era of Anarchy—and, I must admit, one of the motives for proposing it at this moment—is that the question of succession, from anarchy to anarchism, has to be raised, and the usual developmental account that makes up the basis of the “anarchist tradition” has to be at least reexamined. The diversity of the earlier period (complete, as it was, with positions at least analogous to virtually every modern school not specifically linked to technological advances, including the anti-state capitalists), the largely unexplored depths of the various writers and tendencies, and the relative lack of carry-over, even in the realm of memory, fit poorly into the story we have so often told of a progressive development from mutualism through collectivism to communism. But so do some of the earliest accounts we have given of the emergence of what Kropotkin called “modern anarchism,” accounts which have arguably played an important role in the emergence of a specifically anarchist history.

Take, for example, Kropotkin’s 1880 essay “On Order.” I must confess that this has become one of my very favorite bits of partisan polemic, at the same time that I consider it symptomatic of something very harmful embedded very near the core of the “anarchist tradition.” The whole essay is worth reading. In it Kropotkin takes up an already very familiar theme—the relationship between anarchy and order—that had already occupied anarchists like Proudhon and Bellegarrigue. In his conclusion on that score, he is in some regards quite orthodox. In The General Idea of the Revolution, Proudhon recognized that there is a “so-called public order” that is “only anarchy, corruption and brutal force,” just as there is a just, free order that is best recognized as “anarchy.” (This is the jumping-off point for my ongoing series on “Anarchy, in All its Senses.”) Bellegarrigue had argued that “anarchy is order” and “government is civil war.” Kropotkin, wishing to answer those who reproach anarchists “for accepting as a label this word anarchy, which frightens many people so much,” pointed to a similar inversion of concepts in the political world—and in that he simply returned to a familiar analysis—but he also wanted to make a point about the emergence of the “modern anarchism,” founded by Bakunin, which he saw as emerging from the struggle between libertarian and authoritarian factions in the International. Observing that “a party representing a new tendancy, seldom has the opportunity of choosing a name for itself,” he claimed that:

It was the same with the anarchists. When a party emerged within the International which denied authority to the Association and also rebelled against authority in all its forms, this party at first called itself federalist, then anti-statist or anti-authoritarian. At that period they actually avoided using the name anarchist. The word an-archy (that is how it was written then) seemed to identify the party too closely with the Proudhonists, whose ideas about economic reform were at that time opposed by the International. But it is precisely because of this — to cause confusion — that its enemies decided to make use of the name; after all, it made it possible to say that the very name of the anarchist proved that their only ambition was to create disorder and chaos without caring about the result.

The anarchist party quickly accepted the name it has been given. At first it insisted on the hyphen between an and archy, explaining that in this form the work an-archy — which comes from the Greek — means “no authority” and not “disorder”; but it soon accepted the word as it was, and stopped giving extra work to proof readers and Greek lessons to the public.

So the word returned to its basic, normal, common meaning, as expressed in 1816 by the English philosopher Bentham, in the following terms: “The philosopher who wished to reform a bad law”, he said, “does not preach an 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 refuse to recognize it as law and to rise up against its execution”. The sense of the word has become wider today; the anarchist denies not just existing laws, but all established power, all authority; however its essence has remained the same: it rebels — and this is what it starts from — against power and authority in any form.

It’s a really fascinating story, full of interesting rhetorical twists. The (modern) anarchists had their name imposed by antagonists within the International, who called them the name associated with the Proudhonists, who were “opposed by the International,” and did it in order to cause confusion, both, it seems, between the soon-to-be anarchists and the Proudhonists and between the ideas of the libertarian faction and disorder. Unlike Proudhon, who seems to have imposed the troubling label on himself, these new anarchists made the best of the charge that they were like, well…, that they were like anarchists! Taking the label from the “opponents” of the International—otherwise known as founders of the International—was a matter of taking one for the team. And just in case we had any doubts that Kropotkin’s anarchism might still be the spawn of Proudhonism, he gave an alternate origin for the “basic, normal, common meaning” of the term “anarchist,” tracing it back to the anti-revolutionary writings of Jeremy Bentham.

Kropotkin apparently had a forgiving memory of Bentham’s comments on the French Declaration of Rights, which paints the “anarchists” of the French Revolution in the most unflattering tones:

[S]uch is the difference—the great and perpetual difference, betwixt the good subject, the rational censor of the laws, and the anarchist—between the moderate man and the man of violence. The rational censor, acknowledging the existence of the law he disapproves, proposes the repeal of it: the anarchist, setting up his will and fancy for a law before which all mankind are called upon to bow down at the first word—the anarchist, trampling on truth and decency, denies the validity of the law in question,—denies the existence of it in the character of a law, and calls upon all mankind to rise up in a mass, and resist the execution of it.


“Cruel is the judge,” says Lord Bacon, “who, in order to enable himself to torture men, applies torture to the law.” Still more cruel is the anarchist, who, for the purpose of effecting the subversion of the laws themselves, as well as the massacre of the legislators, tortures not only the words of the law, but the very vitals of the language.

But the end-run around Proudhonand all the rest of our Era of Anarchyis served in either case.

It’s all really rather delicious, in a rather trollish sort of way. It was not, of course, an account that could survive in quite so scurrilous a form, and it is quite likely that part of what seems like outrageous, partisan revision was actually the result of a real ignorance of much of what anarchists had done and believed in the earlier period. Subsequent versions of this origin story for “modern anarchism” soften the stark distinctions between the partisans of anarchism and “the Proudhonists,” but the general shape and sense of the narrative should be recognizable to just about any modern student of anarchism.

For usthe modern students of “anarchy,” of “anarchism,” of “anarchist history” and of “the anarchist tradition”—the mix of ignorance and audaciousness, whatever the actual proportions of each, should probably inspire a range of responses. Of those, I would hope that the sectarian impulses will be the most muted, both because, hey, this is an old, old gambit, which never entirely succeeded, and because it seems quite possible that really digging around in this old would might allow us to get at some things that have poisoned us in various ways for a long time.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.


  1. shawn – i’m really enjoying the ‘era of anarchy’ –

    how quickly do you think, after 1880 or so, do you surmise it took for the ‘commitment’ you spoke of in ‘our lost continent’ to really take hold. do you see it as a rather quick move to reified anarchism or a slow motion towards less wingnut (i use that term affectionately), less diverse, and more leftist versions?

    of course, the wild offshoots (l labadie, EO wilson, e.g.) continued to arise, so the question is really, how clean cut do you see the end of the Era, or in how many ways would you characterize the shift?

    another question – perhaps there was really no shift but that which is called ‘anarchy’?

    • There is obviously a lot more story to be told. My sense at this point is that there were incentives around the time of the Black international for a range of anarchist tendencies to see themselves as more closely connected than might have been possible at early points in the history. I’m working right now on the publishing history of Bakunin’s “God and the State,” and it’s really remarkable how many factions end up being involved in the translation and dissemination of that text in the early 1880s. It is likely that there was a fairly widespread solidarity in those years that did not hold up under various pressures, both internal and external. At the same time, the various attempts to explore anarchist history undermined the sort of account that Kropotkin gave in “On Order.” I think we can probably mark out another era that runs into the 1920s or so, where “anarchism” splintered into something fairly familiar, in terms of the competing tendencies. There’s an attempt to present the plural anarchism that resulted in the period of the Encyclopédie Anarchiste.

      The new diversity of positions ends up being sort of a funhouse reflection of the old range, I think, in part because the general worldview has changed dramatically from the mid-19th century to the turn of the 20th and in part because the problems of ideology and organization cannot help but occupy a central place in the later era. I don’t know how to use the notion of “leftism” carefully enough to be useful, but I suspect some of the tendencies that I am focused on, such as shifts in the role of science within anarchism and that new emphasis on specifically anarchist ideologies and institutions, cross concerns with the critique of “leftism.”

      Tucker is not Proudhon, nor is he Greene, or Warren, or Spooner. He is very much a product of a different worldview. The same is true when we compare Kropotkin or Most to Déjacque or the communists of l’Humanitaire. The individuals who cross over from one era to the other are fairly marginal in the stories we’ve told, though also very interesting.

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