Anarchism is a generic term used to encompass a number of political ideas but central to all of them is a rejection of the state and other forms of authority or hierarchical organisation in favour of a society based on co-operation between individuals. However the wide spectrum of beliefs which might be termed Anarchist have been grouped into two categories – Social Anarchism, which sees individual freedom and rights as dependent on a sense of community and mutuality, and Individualist Anarchism which saw any governmental structure as a form of tyranny.

Anarchist ideas can be traced back to early Chinese philosophical writings but perhaps the proposals put forward by men such as Gerrard Winstanley and his followers (called the ‘Diggers’) during and after the Civil War in the British Isles during the mid seventeenth century are the first European examples. However Pierre-Joseph Proudon is seen as the founder of modern anarchist theory – he famously answered  the question in the title of his influential work What is Property? published in 1840, by the assertion that ‘property is theft’.   

In 1870 Napolean III, goaded by Bismark, declared war on Prussia. At Sedan on 1 September the French army suffered a catastrophic defeat precipitating the collapse of the Second French Empire. The Prussian Army then subjected Paris to a siege which lasted until January 1871 when the city capitulated. Elections for the National Assembly in February returned a right wing government which sued for peace. The new government decided to meet at Versailles which caused outrage in Paris. In March 1871 Municipal elections in Paris returned a radical council or Commune. At its first meeting the members of the Commune passed a number of resolutions which were effectively a declaration of war on the Versailles government. The red flag replaced the tricolor in Paris.

Anarchists were prominent in the establishment of the Paris Commune and they saw some of their ideas come to fruition, such as the establishment of co-operatives, during its short life. Eventually the armed forces of the Versailles government moved against Paris and on entering the city exacted a brutal revenge during ‘Bloody Week’ when thousands of Communards were killed, many summarily shot, and over 40,000 taken prisoner .   

The political and social wounds opened during the suppression of the Commune lasted for decades. Although the leadership of the various anarchist, socialist and workers movements had been effectively extinguished, anarchist ideas continued to attract considerable numbers of followers and a plethora of anarchist periodicals were freely available in Paris during the 1880’s and 1890’s.

During the 1890’s a number of Neo-Impressionists, among them Camille Pissarro and Maximilien Luce as well as the supportive critic Felix Fénéon and other associates, maintained close links with the anarcho-communists, led by Peter Kropotkin and Jean Grave, and other anarchist groups. Luce and Pissarro contributed illustrations to anarchist journals   such as La Révolte and later Les Temps nouveaux. Paul Signac shared Luce’s strong political and philosophical views which contributed to a strengthening of their friendship.

Text by Geoffrey Smith