Curatorial Projects > Battle Emblems (2006)


In place of centralized political structures and coercive economic institutions, the theory of anarchism advocates social relations based upon voluntary association of autonomous individuals and self-governance. The word anarchy, as anarchists use it, doesn’t imply chaos, but rather a ruler-less and hierarchy-less society. Since the Industrial Revolution, anarchists have also opposed the concentration of economic power in business corporations. The philosophy of modern political anarchism was shaped in the 18th and 19th centuries by William Godwin, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and others. Mikhail Bakunin gave modern anarchism a collectivist and violent tone that has persisted despite revisionary efforts by Peter Kropotkin and Leo Tolstoy. In the U.S., early anarchists such as Josiah Warren were associated with cooperatives and utopian colonies. After the 1886 Chicago Haymarket riot and the 1901 assassination of President McKinley, a law was passed forbidding anarchists to enter the U.S., and influential writers Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman were among those deported. The 1920 Sacco-Vanzetti trial attests to the fear of anarchism in the U.S. As a movement, anarchism is largely dead, but retains importance as philosophical ideology and political tendency, as well as inspiring social protest. In the 1970s, anarchism received much attention and interest among rebellious students. Recently, anarchists have mounted highly visible and sometimes violent protests at international conferences attended by representatives of governments and corporations of industrialized nations, such as the World Trade Organization and the World Economic Forum.

The capital letter “A” surrounded by a circle is the symbol most associated with anarchism. The circle symbolizes unity, and since “anarchy” or “anarchism” begins with “A” in many languages, this symbol has become recognized internationally. The symbol can also be seen as manifesting Proudhon’s maxim “anarchy is order,”— where the circle represents the “O” in “order.” While origins of the symbol are unclear, it appears to have existed as early as the 1930s Spanish Civil War, to have been adopted by the French anarchist group Alliance Ouvriere Anarchiste in 1956, and to have been independently reinvented by another French anarchist group, Jeunesse Libertaire in 1964. Although many erroneously believe that the symbol originated with the late 1970s anarcho-punk movement, it gained widespread exposure from this movement, even among non-anarchists. The circle–A symbol is typically hand-drawn in order to distance itself from other symbols that are traditionally rendered neatly.