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Anarchy in Literature

According to Donald Drew Ebert, anarchism is a doctrine “which rejects the idea that society is governed by rational laws”. The words ‘anarchist’ and ‘anarchism,’ in the context we use them today, have their origins in the French Revolution:

The two terms derive from the Greek anarchos, meaning ‘without head or chief,’ by way of anarchia, meaning ‘the condition of a people without government’: they connote both individualism and anti-statism. The origin of these terms out of the Greek during the French Revolution is significant because it reflects that reversion to exemplars from classical Antiquity which marked both the social thought and the art of the time.1

The French Revolution and the anarchist ideals that were propagated about individualism has served as an inspiration for authors and artists across Europe. In this article, we will take a closer look at the most important and influential authors in Great Britain and the United States.

William Godwin
Egbert notes that “[t]he first great modern anarchist did not call himself one.” The person Egbert talks about is none other than author William Godwin, known to most of us as the author of Caleb Williams and the father of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. However, Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning ... Political Justice, which has been written “partly under the influence of sympathy for the French Revolution in 1793 (the year in which the word ‘anarchist’ was first used in France),”2 may be considered as “the first monument of modern anarchist theory, while also being a logical continuation of [Jean Jacques] Rousseau’s Discourse on ... the Origin of Inequality”.3 William Godwin’s writings have been a big influence on Percy Bysshe Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey. Furthermore, Godwin’s “individualistic kind of anarchism profoundly affected English and American romantic literature and art as well as English and American social thought”.4

Interestingly, Godwin was greatly inspired by Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. This is both surprising and intruiging knowing that Swift is not an anarchist thinker at all. James Preu observes that,

oddly enough, Godwin would have admired Swift less had he understood him better, for it is evident that his admiration for Swift was based on a misunderstanding of Swift’s purpose. For this paradoxical situation, two factors were mainly responsible. In the first place, Godwin was literalminded to an extraordinary degree and was almost completely lacking in a sense of humor.5 This literalmindedness led him to take at face value what Swift had written with the overemphasis characteristic of satire. Another important factor in Godwin’s tendency to mistake Swift’s meaning is the fact that Godwin’s interpretation of Swift was colored by his own preconceptions.6

William Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, first published in 1793 and in a revised edition in 1796 and 1798, is “often cited as a founding philosophical text for modern anarchism”.7 According to Jared McGeough, “it is Godwin’s distinctive use of literature that allows him to revise and question the Utopian rhetoric of his anarchism”.8 Godwin’s novel Caleb Williams, in particular, is interpreted as a literary device for exploring anarchistic themes and theories by many scholars, “[carrying] forward the essence of the criticism against society, which had inspired Political Justice”.9

Henry David Thoreau
In the United States an anarchist tradition emerged as well, which was “independently represented by [...] Henry David Thoreau”.10 The American strand of anarchism has a strong(er) emphasis on individualism, which “especially fit in with the suspicion with which many Americans, Thoreau and his admirer Frank Lloyd Wright among them, have traditionally regarded a strong central government”.11 Thoreau’s anarchistic theory, which he presented in his novel Walden, centered on an idea Thoreau “had entertained at least since his honors graduation speech at Harvard, in which he suggested that a week should consist of one day of labor and six of rest, though by rest he meant the kind of study, self-culture, and artistic productivity to which he eventually gave his life”.12 M. Jimmie Killingsworth links Thoreau’s move to Walden to the philosophy and actions of the Occupy Movement:

Thoreau stayed closer to home—with great effect. For while those citizens, even friends and relatives, who travelled west, might never be heard of again, the eccentric who squatted on local land, playing at the pioneering lifestyle to make a point, dramatizing a critique of village life, was not as easy to dismiss, forget, ignore. [...] In moving to Walden, then in leaving Walden, he laid claim to the nomadism cherished by the American middle class. He was the spiritual and artistic ancestor to the people of Occupy Wall Street, who move to town with a message.13

In contemporary literature, anarchist philosophy is often found in the Science Fiction genre. As Neil Easterbrook points out,

[l]ibertarian and anarchist SF (the latter represented in works by Ursula K. Le Guin and Ken MacLeod) are all the more interesting for the radical challenge they present to complacent conceptions of the commonweal and common woe.14

Indeed, the science fiction genre is the ideal vehicle to explore “utopian invocations of political alternatives,” by portraying an alternative future (or history) in which either a totalitarian or lack of a central government can be explored: “political philosophers — William Godwin, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Michael Bakunin, and Peter Kropotkin — gave rise to an alternative political tradition, one that comes to fruition in contemporary versions of anarchist and libertarian thought, two very strong influences within SF”.15

Easterbrook notices that these particular philosophers all have either a strong distrust or completely reject authority and “a privileging of collective justice over individual property”. These traits could give people the idea that anarchism therefore is related to the left side of the political spectrum, but Easterbrook warns that this is a misconception: at the right side of the political spectrum there are also thinkers whose philosophy shares these traits. The most famous example is Ayn Rand, author of famous works such as The Fountainhead (1943), Atlas Shrugged (1957), and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1966). Rand’s writings are in turn inspired by the works of economists Friedrich von Hayek, who wrote the famous and influential The Road to Serfdom (1944), and Milton Friedman and Richard Epstein. Easterbrook writes that

Rand’s enormous notoriety has sometimes seemed more a cult of personality than a set of arguments about political economy and philosophy [...]. The most seductive aspects of Rand’s fiction may well be its astonishing level of self- confident certainty and its brazen transformation of a character fault, selfish greed, into the greatest human virtue— something best reflected, perhaps, in Rand’s choice of name for her philosophical disposition: objectivism.16

The works of American SF author Ursula Le Guin, in particular her novel The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974), however, show parallels with William Godwin’s philosophy, as Le Guin “treats both systems [capitalism and anarchism] skeptically, identifying the positive and pleasurable opportunities created though capitalism and the rigidity of a communal system controlled by the moral imperative of ‘shared pain’.”17 Easterbrook further notes that “Le Guin’s fiction has had a profound effect on the real world: Occupy Wall Street organizers and websites frequently cite The Dispossessed and her other major novel, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969); some protesters at Occupy Oakland marched with placards depicting the cover of The Dispossessed18

Still, Ayn Rand, particularly her novel Atlas Shrugged, is considered the most influential in the United States by most scholars: “Rand seems as prominent now as ever she was, and it is commonplace to see ‘I am John Galt’ signs at libertarian political rallies or in groups of fellow travelers, such as the Tea Party movement (Gary Weiss calls Rand ‘The First Teabagger’)”.19 In the United States, the distinctions between libertarianism and anarchism seem to have become blurred over time.

Anarchism in art
The anti-government stance and individualism in anarchist philosophy has also influenced the art world. The reason for this, according to Egbert, is that

anarchism would have a special attraction for artists in both Europe and America, because of the highly individualistic, anti-official, and artistically revolutionary nature of so much avant-garde art since the late eighteenth century, and because so many of the founders and leaders of both communist and individualist anarchism [...] regarded at least some of the arts as being highly important. The combination, even within communist-anarchism, of an individualistic emphasis, frequent interest in the arts, and strongly social aims naturally made anarchism appeal to artists who regarded themselves as being both artistically and socially radical.20

In modern and contemporary literature and art, anarchist theory remains a big influence to this very day. David Weir notes that

[b]y the second decade of the twentieth century, aesthetic anarchism had entered into culture so completely that it made little difference whether individual artists advocated anarchism or not. The case can be made that James Joyce was largely sympathetic to anarchistic thought, whereas T. S. Eliot assuredly was not. Nonetheless, both of these writers worked in the fragmented, discontinuous style so often identified with modernism, a style that developed, in part, out of earlier exchanges between individualist aesthetics and anarchist politics.21

Even though the power of anarchism as a political force seems to have waned, the influence of anarchist philosophy continues to captivate people’s minds. The anarchist thought which William Godwin and Henry David Thoreau introduced over two hundred years ago, can still be felt quite strongly in today’s art, literature, film, and fashion.

By Birgitte Breemerkamp


1. 1. Donald Drew Egbert, Social Radicalism and the Arts: Western Europe. A Cultural History from the French Revolution to 1968
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970) 43-44.

2. Ibid., p.44

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., p. 44-45

5. So far as James Preu has been able to ascertain, Godwin made but one joke in his life.
See Ford Keeler Brown, The Life of William Godwin (London, 1926) 8

6. James Preu, “Swift’s Influence on Godwin’s Doctrine of Anarchism,” Journal of the History of Ideas 15-3 (1954): 371-383

7. Jared McGeough,,”Unlimited Questioning: the literary anarchism of William Godwin,” Studies in the Literary Imagination 45.2 (2012): 1-25

8. Ibid.

9. H.N. Brailsford, Shelley, Godwin, and their Circle (London: Oxford UP, 1914) 143

10. Donald Drew Egbert, Social Radicalism and the Arts: Western Europe. A Cultural History from the French Revolution to 1968
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970) 45

11. Ibid.

12. M. Jimmie Killingsworth, “Occupy Walden,” South Central Review 80-1 (2013): 83-96

13. Ibid.

14. Neil Easterbrook, “Libertarianism and Anarchism,” The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction edited by Rob Latham
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014) DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199838844.013.0043

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. See: Paul Morton, “Getting Away with Murder: The Millions Interviews Ursula K. Le Guin,” The Millions Jan. 31 (2013).

19. Gary Weiss, Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America’s Soul (New York: St. Martin’s, 2012): 138-44.

20. Donald Drew Egbert, Social Radicalism and the Arts: Western Europe. A Cultural History from the French Revolution to 1968
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970) 45

21. David Weir, Anarchy and culture: the aesthetic politics of modernism (Amherst, USA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997): 201