Anarchists logo
Anarchists logo

Anarchism is a philosophy of social change that emerged as an international movement in the midnineteenth century and saw its heyday in the early twentieth century. The anarchist movement as a whole advocated the eradication of the state and believed that individuals would capably provide their own order.

The state, with its centralized mechanisms of control (whether socialist or democratic), was seen as inevitably coercive. In the United States the anarchist movement was interpreted as a leftist conspiracy to use aggression to eradicate law and order.

Labor union strikes, a series of assassinations of European monarchs carried out by anarchists, and the Bolshevik Revolution accelerated fears that the movement intended to induce worldwide uprisings and chaos. Within the movement, anarchists of various ideological persuasions promoted diverse methods of carrying out revolutionary activity. They supported actions ranging from peaceful protest, publications, and delivering speeches, to violence.

The philosophy gained appeal in the United States through opposition to the ills of industrialization. Many anarchists expressed concern over issues such as wage slavery, the suffering experienced by recent immigrants, war and conscription, and a perceived trampling of individual rights.

Anarchist figureheads sought especially to disseminate their message among the U.S. working classes. This activity was largely perceived by certain power structures—trusts, police, and government—as a threat to democracy in the United States.

Anarchism was increasingly seen as a monolithic leftist conspiracy: all anarchists were potential bomb throwers or assassins, and the ideology was interchangeably lumped together with communism and socialism. Although many anarchists, specifically anarcho-communists, adopted some Communist and socialist principles, anarchist values in many ways clashed with these ideas (particularly the idea of the state as purveyor of social and economic organization).

In the wake of the Haymarket affair of 1886, anarchists in the United States were popularly portrayed as terrorists (Woodcock, 464). In his analysis of the anarchist movement published after the trial, Michael Schaack, captain of the Chicago Police, argued that: Let none mistake either the purpose or the devotion of these fanatics, nor their growing strength.

This is methodic—not a haphazard conspiracy. The ferment in Russia is controlled by the same heads and the same hands as the activity in Chicago. There is a cold-blooded, calculating purpose behind this revolt, manipulating every part of it, the world over, to a common and ruinous end.

The men executed in connection with the Haymarket bombing had no direct involvement with the incident, and became martyrs for U.S. anarchists, inspiring many important people in the movement’s history to become actively involved. Emma Goldman, for example, was arguably the most famous and influential anarchist figure in twentieth-century America (Avrich, 165).

Many U.S. anarchists were immigrants and suffered prejudicial treatment as a result. This was particularly evident during the “red scare” of 1919–1920, when anarchists were deported under the 1918 Immigration Act (Morton, 98). It was also in this sociopolitical climate that Italian American anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were tried and executed for murder in a controversial and, many believed, unfair trial.

Fears of an anarchist conspiracy were justifiable in some respects. Anarchists openly preached revolution through anarchist newspapers, books, lectures, and through affiliations with labor groups such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Johann Most advocated attentat—“propaganda-by-the-deed”—and published instructions for making bombs, encouraging their use to spark revolt.

Alexander Berkman, an influential figure in the movement, attempted to assassinate Henry Clay Frick because of Frick’s handling of the Homestead Strike of 1892, during which Carnegie steel mill workers were shot. A drifter who claimed that he was an anarchist assassinated popular president William McKinley in 1901.

However, violent deeds were carried out independently and caused controversy even within the anarchist movement among those who advocated violence as a justifiable means of bringing about the revolution, and those who denounced violent acts as unjustifiable under any circumstances.

Emma Goldman expressed sympathy for both McKinley’s assassin and Berkman, publicly acknowledging their actions as desperate responses to an oppressive system. Following McKinley’s assassination, foreign anarchists were legally prohibited from entering the United States.