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A Brief Explanation of Anarchism

Mary Shelley’s father, political philosopher William Godwin, was the first modern exponent of anarchism. In his honour, Nick Gutierrez states the stateless ideal.

anarchist symbol

Anarchism has been making headlines lately. Anarchists recently supposedly disturbed the peace during protests at the University of California in Berkeley simply because, according to one witness, “they just want to fight.” Anarchists apparently prompted several cities around the world to cancel May Day demonstration permits after protests got out of hand. Google for pictures of ‘anarchists’ and you see images of police engulfed in the flames of a Molotov cocktail in Paris, police quelling activists with rubber bullets in Istanbul, police in Washington D.C. clashing with anti-Trump protestors on inauguration day.

Such lurid publicity is hardly new for the anarchist movement. An entire century of poor press led David Miller to write that “the prevalent image of the anarchist in the popular mind is that of a destructive individual prepared to use violent means to disrupt social order, without having anything constructive to offer by way of alternative – the sinister figure in a black cape concealing a stick of dynamite” (Anarchism, p.2). Indeed, the popular consensus appears to be that those who advocate anarchist ideals are either misguided, or evil, or both.

But is any of this accurate? Is anarchism really a violent ideology hell-bent on destroying everything we love and cherish? For the anarchist, is the only path to liberation littered with smoke bombs and Molotov cocktails? Believe it or not, the simple answer to these questions is a resounding no. Anarchism as a strand of political thought is well over two hundred years old and has included major philosophers as diverse as Godwin, Bakunin, Kropotkin and Proudhon, thinkers who saw it as a way to peace and freedom, rather than hatred and violence.

It strikes me that to make reasonable value judgments about anarchism as a political theory, one needs a solid understanding of its underlying ideas. Unfortunately, anarchism hasn’t been the most well-defined of ideologies and, as David Graeber points out, “it’s hard to think of another time when there has been such a gulf between intellectuals and activists; between theorists of revolution and its practitioners” (‘The New Anarchists’ in New Left Review 13, p.61). The inevitable side-effect of this division is that anarchist movements tend to appear disjointed and hodge-podge, a haphazard gathering of motley students and dispossessed workers, who may not always be on the same page.

In what follows, I will try to clear up some of this confusion by providing a very brief explanation of what anarchism actually is. I will first provide a quick definition of anarchism by conducting a short survey of some of the thinkers most closely associated with it, paying special attention to its core tenet. Second, I will briefly describe the different types of anarchism that exist, putting particular emphasis on the two major categories, social anarchism and individualist anarchism. Lastly, I will attempt to illustrate how anarchist ideals are put into practice by pointing to several examples of the various methods of resistance that anarchists employ today.

It’s not possible in such a short article to give an authoritative survey of all aspects of anarchism in either theory or practice. I hope only to provide a guide comprehensive enough that those already familiar with the subject find it insightful, yet concise enough that the casual reader may find it easily accessible. Perhaps some clarity as to what anarchism is actually about could begin to dispel the cloud of misinformation that hangs over the movement and the negative stereotype of anarchism that has become so ubiquitous in Western culture.

anarchist money
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A Definition of Anarchism

What is anarchism? One may be tempted to simply dissect the Greek origins of the word, by translating an + arkhe as something akin to ‘without rulers’. This, however, would be far too vague and simplistic. Fortunately, over the past few decades scholars have provided more elaborate definitions that we can use as a starting point. Rudolf Rocker (1873-1958), for example, once described anarchism as “a definite trend in the historical development of mankind, which, in contrast with the intellectual guardianship of all clerical and governmental institutions, strives for the free unhindered unfolding of all the individual and social forces in life” (quoted by Noam Chomsky in ‘Notes on Anarchism’ in For Reasons of State). In the 1983 documentary Anarchism in America, the social theorist and ecologist Murray Bookchin asserted that someone may consider himself or herself an anarchist if they believe that “society could be managed without the state”. This makes explicit what many would consider to be the most fundamental tenet of anarchism: a rejection of the state. Chomsky hints at this principle when he notes that anarchism is at odds with “the intellectual guardianship of all clerical and governmental institutions.” The Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921), often considered a pioneer in the movement, also suggested it when he wrote that anarchism strives for “a society to which preestablished forms, crystallized by law, are repugnant” (Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Ideal).

So the core principle of anarchism is rejection of the state. But what is the state? It’s typically at this point in discussions of anarchism that fine details fall by the wayside, as many seem to take the dictum that ‘anarchism opposes the state’ as a broad decree for its followers to resist any and all forms of social organization – a prospect which many find disturbing. This notion of anarchism, however, is inaccurate. I will again turn to Bookchin for what I take to be the best explanation. By rejecting the state, he says, “I don’t mean the absence of any institutions, the absence of any form of social organization. ‘The state’ really refers to the professional apparatus of people who are set aside to manage society, to preempt the control of society from the people” (Anarchism in America). So for Bookchin, the state typically includes such entities as the military, judges, and politicians. In other words, the state consists of those categories of people who are given a special privilege or degree of control over the rest of society, but don’t typically act from within it. This status is sometimes referred to as ‘sovereignty’. Yet Bookchin emphasizes that anarchism does not oppose social organizations in principle. Rather, social organizations only become problematic when they take the form of a state. Not all organizations are states, and accordingly, anarchists take issue with some organizations but not others. Labor unions, for example, are a kind of organization that some anarchists would deem to be beneficial for society.

But what’s wrong with the state? I think David Miller has provided the most comprehensive answer.

While there is hardly any complete consensus among anarchists about which characteristics of a state are problematic (there is hardly any complete consensus among anarchists about many things), Miller points to several themes that recur in anarchist literature. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) claims that “to be governed is to be at every operation registered, taxed, forbidden, licensed, extorted, robbed, condemned, shot [and] betrayed” (quoted by Miller in Anarchism, p.6), among other things. Referencing Proudhon, Miller agrees that states are both ‘coercive’ and ‘punitive’, reducing people’s freedom “far beyond the point required by social co-existence” and “enacting restrictive laws and other measures which are necessary, not for the well-being of society, but for [the state’s] own preservation” (Anarchism, p.6). Additionally, states inflict “cruel and excessive penalties on those who infringe its laws, whether or not those laws are justified in the first place.”

What does it mean for anarchists to reject the state? John P. Clark argues that for a political theory to be considered anarchist, it must have “a view of an ideal, noncoercive, nonauthoritarian society” (‘What is Anarchism?’ in Nomos XIX). For Clark, anarchism “proposes voluntarism, decentralization, or freedom” and “the anarchist does not want to bind anyone to one vision of the ideal.” Anarchism implies, he says, that the individual shouldn’t be forced to adhere to any one view of society, and must have the ability to ‘opt-out’ of a given society as he or she sees fit. Therefore in essence, anarchism must be non-binding. This is in stark contrast to the traditional state vividly described by Proudhon.

There are many recent examples of states being excessively coercive or punitive, or enacting unnecessarily restrictive laws. Miller is quick to point to the innumerable laws worldwide that limit various sexual behaviors between consenting adults. There are many other cases too of laws against actions that either harm nobody, or else harm nobody but the acting individuals, such as laws prohibiting certain forms of drug use.

To summarize, anarchists believe that the state needs to be rejected or resisted, and that the state consists of special groups of people that have gained sovereignty over the rest of society. For the anarchist, this hierarchy exploits the rest of society in a number of pernicious ways, such as coercing citizens to submit to their will by imposing excessive penalties for violating laws that may or may not be justified. There’s an interesting discussion among anarchists about whether or not all states are inherently problematic. Perhaps all currently existing states just happen to be bad ones and this leaves open the possibility that there may be such a thing as a benevolent state. This discussion goes beyond my present scope. Please also note that there are many other characteristics of anarchism that, while just as important as the rejection of the state, I have not examined here. One such is the concept of ‘voluntary association’.

How do anarchists envision society operating without the state? You may be concerned about the practical application of anarchist principles to situations in which we currently expect the state to step in. One may reasonably wonder how an anarchist society would handle situations where one individual aggresses against another, for instance in armed robbery or attempted murder, if it opposes police forces, judges and prisons. Recall that, according to Murray Bookchin, anarchists don’t necessarily oppose all forms of social organization. A similar observation is made by Miller when he writes that “it would be wrong to conclude that anarchists regard all the functions now performed by the state as superfluous”, and that, in the case of violence from one individual towards another, “anarchists admit… that in these areas some collective action may be necessary; but they refuse to admit that only a state can fit the bill.” In other words, anarchists can mobilize to confront acts of individual violence, and this is not inconsistent with their rejection of the state.

Varieties of Anarchism

Let me now say a few words about the different forms of anarchism. I imagine most people have at some point encountered terms such as ‘anarcho-communism’ or ‘anarcha-feminism’, or have perhaps heard that political libertarians are like anarchists, in a way. One may be forgiven for getting lost in all the –isms, and wondering what the difference is between, say, anarcho-syndicalism and egoist anarchism, or how anarcho-communism can somehow be related to libertarianism. I will try to clear up some of that confusion.

Generally speaking there are two breeds of anarchism typically identified in the literature, under which most other sub-categories fall: social anarchism and individualist anarchism.

Social anarchism has in the past been referred to as a ‘stateless form of socialism’. It’s a broad category that encompasses such currents as collectivist anarchism, anarcho-syndicalism, and anarcho-communism. Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876), one of the earliest thinkers in social anarchism, outlined its essential characteristics: “The Communists believe that it is necessary to organize the forces of the workers in order to take possession of the political might of the State. The revolutionary [anarchist] Socialists organize with the view of destroying, or if you prefer a more refined expression, of liquidating the State. The Communists are the partisans of the principle and practice of authority, while revolutionary Socialists place their faith only in freedom” (‘Stateless Socialism: Anarchism’ in The Political Philosophy of Bakunin). Additionally, Peggy Kornegger makes the curious distinction between what she calls ‘rugged individualism’ and ‘true individuality’, where only the latter is compatible with the kind of non-authoritarian socialism she envisions for a good society. For Kornegger, this means “balancing individual initiative with collective action through the creation of structures which enable decision-making to rest in the hands of all those in a group, community, or factory, not in the hands of ‘representatives’ or ‘leaders’.” (‘Anarchism: The Feminist Connection’ in Second Wave: A Feminist Magazine Vol.4).

Individualist anarchism, in contrast, emphasizes that one pursue his or her desires over the desires of any group, and that the state only serves as a hurdle in achieving this aim. This view is usually attributed to the likes of Émile Armand and Max Stirner in Europe, and to Benjamin Tucker and the Libertarian Party in the USA. As Armand puts it, “the anarchist wishes to live his life, as much as possible, morally, intellectually, economically, without occupying himself with the rest of the world, exploiters or exploited” and there is “no common ground between the anarchist and any environment regulated by the decisions of a majority or the wishes of an elite” (‘Mini-Manual of Individualist Anarchism’ in L’Encyclopédie Anarchiste). Writing about Ron Paul and the Libertarian Party, Joel Sucher says that “Anarchism and Libertarianism are two political philosophies that have clearly shared the same space”, where “anarchism, in any guise, champions the struggle of the individual against institutions.” He remarks that Americans “hate being told what to do, where to go, who to be friends with, and that rather than blindly follow orders, we’ll bolt and run at the earliest opportunity.” Unlike social anarchists the individualist anarchists recognize that, even without the state, conflicts can still arise between the individual and the group, between an individual’s wishes and desires and the values of the majority. Yet one doesn’t have true freedom, for the individualist, if one has to compromise his or her desires simply to appease other people.

Methods of Resistance

Now we have at least a crude idea of what anarchism looks like, theoretically speaking. But what does anarchism look like practically speaking?

Again, the most widespread image of the anarchist in the mainstream media appears to be that of the black-clad Guy Fawkes mask-wearing hoodlum smashing windows and throwing rocks at police. While there is no denying that examples of this sort exist, it is disingenuous to portray this as the anarchist norm. Anthropologist and activist David Graeber provides us with a much more accurate depiction of the very animated tactics that anarchists employ, straight from the front lines: “Over the past decade, activists in North America have been putting enormous creative energy into reinventing their groups’ own internal processes, to create viable models of what functioning direct democracy could actually look like.” The result, he says, “is a rich and growing panoply of organizational instruments – spokescouncils, affinity groups, facilitation tools, break-outs, fishbowls, blocking concerns, vibe-watchers and so on – all aimed at creating forms of democratic process that allow initiatives to rise from below and attain maximum effective solidarity” (‘The New Anarchists’, p.71). Spokescouncils, he explains, “are large assemblies that coordinate between small ‘affinity groups’… each affinity group selects a ‘spoke’ who is empowered to speak for them in the larger group.” Break-outs, on the other hand, “are when a large meeting temporarily splits up into smaller ones that will focus on making decisions or generating proposals.” Graeber also describes what he refers to as a new language of civil disobedience which incorporates “elements of street theater, festival, and what can only be called non-violent warfare.” For example, he points to a 2001 protest in Quebec City in which activists constructed a large catapult that hurled teddy bears and other soft toys at police; or how activists dressed in tuxedoes and evening gowns “tried to press wads of fake money into the cops’ pockets, thanking them for repressing the dissent” during the American Party Conventions for the 2000 presidential election. Beyond Graeber, a 2011 statement from Anarchist International outlines what may be considered the ‘shock value plan’ to undermine the authoritarian order of capitalist society, including “routinely smoking weed outside a placid cafe or tavern”, waiting for people “to join you until everyone is doing every drug imaginable”, then beginning “to have public sex in nearby fields or parks”.

On the other hand, there are some forms of anarchism that have no such calls to action at all. ‘Philosophical anarchism’, as it’s usually called, arrives at the anarchist conclusion about the illegitimacy of the state, and its adherents “take this judgment to entail the non-existence of general political obligations.” But as A. John Simmons goes on to say, “what is distinctive about philosophical anarchism is that its judgment of state illegitimacy does not translate into any immediate requirement of opposition to illegitimate states… philosophical anarchists hold that there may be good moral reasons not to oppose or disrupt at least some kinds of illegitimate states” (‘Philosophical Anarchism’ available at ssrn.com).


This ends my brief explanation of anarchism. Perhaps the two most important points to take away are firstly that anarchism is actually a developed political theory that can sometimes be distorted by individuals, and secondly that it does not entail the rampant destruction and violence that one is likely to find in the news or on social media. Anarchists can (hopefully) acknowledge that their theory is a little more haphazardly developed than some other political theories, but this doesn’t automatically disqualify it as implausible. As I think Graeber has convincingly shown, real-life anarchist communities have developed, survived and flourished, even if for quite a limited time so far. So critics are wrong when they say that anarchism is merely a utopian daydream. Some of these communities have even managed to have a political impact without instigating violence, being more often on the receiving end of harassment than dishing it out.

It would be an interesting experiment to see how long one of these communities can sustain itself on its own internal processes alone. Would it bloom and flourish like Macedonia under Alexander, or wither and crumble from its own internal strife, like Rome? But before we can test this, we would need to abandon whatever false preconceived notions we have of anarchism, including distinguishing those who would use the moniker as an excuse to bring havoc from those who actually take it seriously as a working theory.

© Nick Gutierrez 2018

Nick Gutierrez is a communications consultant and independent writer based in the Seattle area. He received his MA in Philosophy from San Diego State University and is interested in literature and art.

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