Anarchism without adjectives

Anarchism without adjectives (from the Spanish anarquismo sin adjetivos), in the words of historian George Richard Esenwein, "referred to an unhyphenated form of anarchism, that is, a doctrine without any qualifying labels such as communist, collectivist, mutualist, or individualist. For others, [...] [it] was simply understood as an attitude that tolerated the coexistence of different anarchist schools".[1]

In the 1920s, synthesis anarchism emerged as a form of anarchist organizations based on anarchism-without-adjectives principles.[2]


The originators of the expression were Fernando Tarrida del Mármol and Ricardo Mella, who were troubled by the bitter debates between mutualist, individualist and communist anarchists in the 1880s.[3] Using the phrase "anarchism without adjectives" was an attempt to show greater tolerance between anarchist tendencies and to be clear that anarchists should not impose a preconceived economic plan on anyone—even in theory. Anarchists without adjectives tended either to reject all particular anarchist economic models as faulty, or take a pluralist position of embracing them all to a limited degree in order that they may keep one another in check. Regardless, to these anarchists the economic preferences are considered to be of "secondary importance" to abolishing all coercive authority, with free experimentation the one rule of a free society.


The theoretical perspective known as anarquismo sin adjetivos was one of the by-products of an intense debate within the movement of anarchism itself. The roots of the argument can be found in the development of anarcho-communism after Mikhail Bakunin's death in 1876. While not entirely dissimilar to collectivist anarchism (as can be seen from James Guillaume's famous work "On Building the New Social Order" within Bakunin on anarchism, the collectivists did see their economic system evolving into free communism), communist anarchists developed, deepened and enriched Bakunin's work just as Bakunin had developed, deepened and enriched PIerre-Joseph Proudhon's. Communist anarchism was associated with such anarchists as Élisée Reclus, Carlo Cafiero, Errico Malatesta and (most famously) Peter Kropotkin.

Anarcho-communist ideas replaced collectivist anarchism as the main anarchist tendency in Europe, except in Spain. Here the major issue was not the question of communism (although for Ricardo Mella this played a part), but a question of the modification of strategy and tactics implied by communist anarchism. At this time (the 1880s), the anarcho-communists stressed local cells of anarchist militants, generally opposed trade unionism as were characterized by a degree of anti-organisation. Unsurprisingly, such a change in strategy and tactics came in for a lot of discussion from the Spanish collectivists who strongly supported working class organisation and struggle.

This debate soon spread outside of Spain and the discussion found its way into the pages of La Revolte in Paris. This provoked many anarchists to agree with Malatesta's argument that "[i]t is not right for us, to say the least, to fall into strife over mere hypotheses".[4] Over time, most anarchists agreed (to use Max Nettlau's words) that "we cannot foresee the economic development of the future"[5] and so started to stress what they had in common, rather than the different visions of how a free society would operate. As time progressed, most anarcho-communists saw that ignoring the labour movement ensured that their ideas did not reach the working class while most anarcho-communists stressed their commitment to communist ideals and their arrival sooner, rather than later, after a revolution.

United StatesEdit

Similarly, in the United States there was an intense debate at the same time between individualist and communist anarchists. There, Benjamin Tucker was arguing that anarcho-communists were not anarchists while Johann Most was similarly dismissing Tucker's ideas. Troubled by the "bitter debates" between anarchists from divergent schools of economic thought, those who did not see a need to confine themselves to one particular school of thought called for more tolerance among anarchists, with some of them explicitly terming it "anarchism without adjectives".[6]

For example, early feminist Voltairine de Cleyre labelled herself as simply "anarchist" and called on others to adopt an "anarchism without adjectives" until enough experimental examples were tried in different localities to determine its most appropriate form.[7] De Cleyre sought conciliation between the various schools and said in her essay Anarchism:

There is nothing un-Anarchistic about any of [these systems] until the element of compulsion enters and obliges unwilling persons to remain in a community whose economic arrangements they do not agree to. (When I say 'do not agree to' I do not mean that they have a mere distaste for...I mean serious differences which in their opinion threaten their essential liberties...)...Therefore I say that each group of persons acting socially in freedom may choose any of the proposed systems, and be just as thorough-going Anarchists as those who select another.[8]

Historically, anarchists who embraced "anarchism without adjectives" objected to capitalism from the original use of the term as a call for tolerance amongst collectivist and communist anarchists, all of whom rejected capitalism. Voltairine de Cleyre was also of this bent and when commenting on the McKinley assassination wrote: "The hells of capitalism create the desperate; the desperate act - desperately!".[9] In lamenting the present difficulty in abolishing private property, Malatesta wrote that "[...] this does not prevent us now, or will it in the future, from continually opposing capitalism or any other form of despotism".[10]

Synthesist federationsEdit

Synthesis anarchism is a form of anarchist organization which tries to join anarchists of different tendencies under the principles of anarchism without adjectives.[2] Volin was a prolific Russian writer and anarchist intellectual who played an important part in the organization and leadership of the Nabat Confederation of Anarchist Organizations, an anarchist organization that came to prominence in Ukraine during the years 1918 to 1920. Volin was charged with writing a platform that could be agreeable to all the major branches of anarchism, most importantly anarcho-syndicalism, anarcho-collectivism/communism and anarcho-individualism. The uniform platform for Nabat was never truly decided upon, but Volin used what he had written and the inspiration from Nabat to create his anarchist synthesis for which he became famous among anarchists.[11]

The discussion about the anarchist synthesis arises in the context of the discussion on the Organisational Platform of the Libertarian Communists, written by the Dielo Truda group of Russian exiles in 1926.[12] The Platform attracted strong criticism from many sectors on the anarchist movement of the time including some of the most influential anarchists such as Voline, Errico Malatesta, Luigi Fabbri, Camillo Berneri, Max Nettlau, Alexander Berkman,[13] Emma Goldman and Gregori Maximoff.[14] Voline along with Mollie Steimer, Senya Fleshin and others wrote a reply, stating "to maintain that anarchism is only a theory of classes is to limit it to a single viewpoint. Anarchism is more complex and pluralistic, like life itself. Its class element is above all its means of fighting for liberation; its humanitarian character is its ethical aspect, the foundation of society; its individualism is the goal of mankind".[15]

Two texts made as responses to the Platform, each proposing a different organizational model, became the basis for what is known as the organisation of synthesis, or simply "synthesism".[12] Voline published in 1924 a paper calling for "the anarchist synthesis" and was also the author of the article in Sébastien Faure's Encyclopedie Anarchiste on the same topic.[2] The main purpose behind the synthesis was that the anarchist movement in most countries was divided into three main tendencies: communist anarchism, anarcho-syndicalism and individualist anarchism[2] and so such an organization could contain anarchists of this three tendencies very well. In his text The Anarchist Synthesis, Faure has the view that "these currents were not contradictory but complementary, each having a role within anarchism: anarcho-syndicalism as the strength of the mass organisations and the best way for the practice of anarchism; libertarian communism as a proposed future society based on the distribution of the fruits of labour according to the needs of each one; and anarcho-individualism as a negation of oppression and affirming the individual right to development of the individual, seeking to please them in every way.[12]

The International of Anarchist Federations (IAF/IFA) was founded during an international anarchist conference in Carrara in 1968 by the three existing European anarchist federations of France, Italy and Spain as well as the Bulgarian federation in French exile. These organizations were also inspired on synthesist principles.


Anarchism without adjectives tends to imply as far as economics a coexistence of economic models from mutualism/individualist anarchism, Bakuninist collectivism and anarcho-communism. German anarchist without adjectives Max Nettlau addressed the issue of the coexistence of different economic systems as follows:

Let me imagine myself for a moment living in a free society. I should certainly have different occupations, manual and mental, requiring strength or skill. It would be very monotonous if the three or four groups with whom I would work (for I hope there will be no Syndicates then!) would be organized on exactly the same lines; I rather think that different degrees or forms of Communism will prevail in them. But might I not become tired of this, and wish for a spell of relative isolation, of Individualism? So I might turn to one of the many possible forms of "equal exchange" Individualism. Perhaps people will do one thing when they are young and another thing when they grow older. Those who are but indifferent workers may continue with their groups; those who are efficient will lose patience at always working with beginners and will go ahead by themselves, unless a very altruist disposition makes it a pleasure to them to act as teachers or advisers to younger people. I also think that at the beginning I should adopt Communism with friends and Individualism with strangers, and shape my future life according to experience. Thus, a free and easy change from one variety of Communism to another, thence to any variety of Individualism, and so on, would be the most obvious and elementary thing in a really free society; and if any group of people tried to check this, to make one system predominant, they would be as bitterly fought as revolutionists fight the present system.[16]"Anarchism: Communist or Individualist? Both" by Max Nettlau

French individualist anarchist Émile Armand argued for a pluralistic economic logic when he said: "Here and there everything happening—here everyone receiving what they need, there each one getting whatever is needed according to their own capacity. Here, gift and barter—one product for another; there, exchange—product for representative value. Here, the producer is the owner of the product, there, the product is put to the possession of the collectivity."[17]

At the time of the Spanish Revolution led by the anarcho-syndicalist trade union CNT and by the FAI, the issue of the coexistence of different economic systems was addressed. In Anarchism: From Theory to Practice, Daniel Guérin reports:

Spanish anarcho-syndicalism had long been concerned to safeguard the autonomy of what it called "affinity groups". There were many adepts of naturism and vegetarianism among its members, especially among the poor peasants of the south. Both these ways of living were considered suitable for the transformation of the human being in preparation for a libertarian society. At the Saragossa congress the members did not forget to consider the fate of groups of naturists and nudists, "unsuited to industrialization." As these groups would be unable to supply all their own needs, the congress anticipated that their delegates to the meetings of the confederation of communes would be able to negotiate special economic agreements with the other agricultural and industrial communes. On the eve of a vast, bloody, social transformation, the CNT did not think it foolish to try to meet the infinitely varied aspirations of individual human beings.[18]


  1. ^ Esenwein, George Richard "Anarchist Ideology and the Working Class Movement in Spain, 1868-1898" [p. 135]
  2. ^ a b c d "What are "synthesis" federations?"". An Anarchist FAQ. Archived from the original on 2013-10-04. Retrieved Aug 12, 2013.
  3. ^ Presley, Sharon. Exquisite rebel: the essays of Voltairine de Cleyre. SUNY Press, 2005. 48
  4. ^ quoted by Max Nettlau, A Short History of Anarchism [p. 198-9]
  5. ^ Max Nettlau, A Short History of Anarchism [p. 201]
  6. ^ Avrich, Paul. 2000. Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America. Princeton University Press. p. 6
  7. ^ Marshall, Peter "Demanding the Impossible" [p. 393]
  8. ^ Havel, Hippolyte. ed. 1914. Selected Works of Voltairine de Cleyre. Harvard University. pp. 102-103
  9. ^ "McKinkley's Assassination from the Anarchist Standpoint, Mother Earth October 1907
  10. ^ Malatesta, Errico, "Towards Anarchy" in: Turcato, Davide (ed.) 2014, "The Method of Freedom, AK Press, pp. 299
  11. ^ Avrich, Paul (1990). Anarchist Portraits. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-04753-7.
  12. ^ a b c "Especifismo and Synthesis/ Synthesism" by Felipe Corrêa Archived March 10, 2016, at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ ¿Wooden shoes or platform shoes? on the organizational platform of the libertarian communists by Bob Black
  14. ^ "Why do many anarchists oppose the "Platform"?". An Anarchist FAQ. Archived from the original on 2013-10-04. Retrieved Aug 12, 2013.
  15. ^ "Reply by several Russian Anarchists to the ‘Platform’" by Various Authors Archived July 5, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
  16. ^ "Anarchism: Communist or Individualist? Both" by Max Nettlau Archived October 29, 2016, at the Wayback Machine
  17. ^ Émile Armand. Anarchist Individualism and Amorous Comradeship Archived November 24, 2016, at the Wayback Machine
  18. ^ Anarchism: From theory to practice Archived March 2, 2012, at the Wayback Machine by Daniel Guérin

Further readingEdit

  • Nettlau, Max (2001). A Short History of Anarchism. Freedom Press. pp. 195–201.