Anarchists Without Adjectives: The Origins of a Movement
Download a PDF copy of Kevin Carson’s full C4SS Study: Center for a Stateless Society Paper No. 21 (Spring 2016)
Voltairine De Cleyre
The Question of Anarcho-Capitalism
The “anarchism without adjectives” designation (the phrase, at least — the concept, as we shall see below, may have originated with Malatesta) was originally the work of two Spanish anarchists, Ricardo Mella and Fernando Tarrida del Marmol. Mella and Tarrida del Marmol worked out their theory in response to doctrinal disputes within the European anarchist movement between the collectivism of Bakunin’s followers, and the communism that was supplanting it, that was tearing the movement apart in the 1880s.
Tarrida, who emigrated to Spain from Cuba, published “Anarchism Without Adjectives” in the anarchist periodical La Révolte.  “We are anarchists and we preach Anarchy without adjectives,” he wrote. “Anarchy is an axiom and the economic question something secondary.” What he opposed was not dialogue or disagreement on the economic question by mutualists, collectivists, communists, syndicalists and so forth — he viewed such ideas as complementary rather than mutually exclusive — but totalizing and dogmatic systems that rendered themselves irrelevant by their own sectarianism.
This does not mean that we ignore the economic question. On the contrary, we are pleased to discuss it, but only as a contribution to the definitive solution or solutions. Many excellent things have been said by Cabet, Saint Simon, Fourier, Robert Owen and others; but all their systems have disappeared because they wanted to lock Society up in the conceptions of their brains, despite having done much to elucidate the great question.
Remember that from the moment in which you set about drawing up the general lines of the Future Society, on the one hand there arise objections and questions from one’s adversaries; and on the other hand, the natural desire to produce a complete and perfect work will lead one to invent and draw up a system that, we are sure, will disappear like the others. …
Let us agree then, as almost all of us in Spain have done, to call ourselves simply anarchists. In our conversations, in our conferences and our press, we do discuss economic questions, but these questions should never become the cause of division between anarchists.
Errico Malatesta and Max Nettlau also adopted the “anarchism without adjectives” position. Nettlau viewed both the communistic and individualistic tendencies in anarchism as vital. And, as Avrich paraphrased his argument, “economic preferences will vary according to climate, customs, natural resources, and individual tastes, so that no single person or group can possess the correct solution.” Nettlau made this case in 1914 in Freedom and Mother Earth. Tarrida del Marmol, he wrote,
used it in November, 1889, in Barcelona. He directed his comments towards the communist and collectivist anarchists in Spain who at the time were having an intense debate over the merits of their two theories. “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. Thus the economic preferences of anarchists should be of “secondary importance” to abolishing capitalism and the state, with free experimentation the one rule of a free society.
… The roots of the argument can be found in the development of Communist Anarchism after Bakunin’s death in 1876.
… Quickly Communist-Anarchist 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 Communist Anarchists stressed local (pure) cells of anarchist militants, generally opposed trade unionism (although Kropotkin was not one of these as he saw the importance of militant workers organisations) as well as being somewhat anti-organisation as well. 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. 
Anarchism without adjectives reflected the consensus of a majority of anarchists who perceived
“we cannot foresee the economic development of the future” and so started to stress what they had in common (opposition to capitalism and the state) rather than the different visions of how a free society would operate. 
Voltairine De Cleyre, who was to popularize the label in the United States in the context of the feud between individualists and communists, met del Marmol in London in 1897. 
1. Fernando Tarrida del Marmol, “Anarchism Without Adjectives,” La Révolte vol. 3 no. 51 (September 6-12, 1890). Translated by Nestor McNabb. Reproduced at Robert Graham’s Anarchist Weblog, August 8, 2015 <https://robertgraham.wordpress.com/2015/08/11/anarchism-without-adjectives-1890/>.
2. A.3.8 What is “anarchism without adjectives”?. An Anarchist FAQ. <https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Anarchist_FAQ/What_is_Anarchism%3F/3.8> (accessed July 26, 2015).
4. James J. Martin, Men Against the State (Colorado Springs: Ralph Miles Publisher, Inc., 1953, 1970), pp. 149-150.