Anarchism forces us to re-evaluate political activity. Ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato held that human beings flourished within just political communities and that there was a virtue in serving the polis. Modern political philosophy tended to hold, as well, that political action
—including obedience to the law and the ideal of a rule of law—was noble and enlightened. In Hegelian political philosophy, these ideas combine in a way that celebrates citizenship and service to the state.
And in contemporary liberal political philosophy, it is often presumed that obedience to the law is required as a prima facie duty (see Reiman 1972; Gan’s 1992). Anarchists, of course, call this all into question.
The crucial question for anarchists is thus whether one ought to disengage from political life, whether one ought to submit to political authority and obey the law, or whether one ought to engage in active efforts to actively abolish the state.
Those who opt to work actively for the abolition of the state often understand this as a form of “direct action” or “propaganda of the deed”. The idea of direct action is often viewed as typical of anarchists,
who believe that something ought to be done to actively abolish the state including: graffiti, street theatre, organized occupations, boycotts, and even violence.
There are disputes among anarchists about what ought to be done, with an important dividing line occurring with regard to the question of violence and criminal behaviour.
Before turning to that discussion, let’s note one further important theoretical distinction with regard to the question of taking action, connected to the typology offered above:
whether action should be justified in consequentialist or non-consequentialist terms. Franks has argued that anarchist direct action ought to exemplify a unity of means and ends
On this view, if liberation and autonomy are what anarchists are pursuing, then the methods used to obtain these goods must be liberationist and celebrate autonomy—and embody this within direct action.
Franks argues that the idea that “the end justifies the means” is more typical of state-cantered movements, such as Bolshevism—and of right-wing movements. While some may think that anarchists are willing to engage in action “by any means necessary”
, that phraseology and the crass consequentialism underlying it is more typical of radical movements which are not anarchist. Coercive imposition of the anarchist ideal re-inscribes the problem of domination, hierarchy, centralization, and monopolistic power that the anarchist was originally opposed to.
But politically motivated anarchists encourage resistance to state power, including strategic and principled disobedience.
Such disobedience could involve symbolic actions—graffiti and the like—or acts of civil resistance, protests, tax resistance and so on—up to, and possibly including, sabotage, property crime, and outright violence.
Again, there is overlap with the discussion of violence here, but let’s set that question aside and focus on the notion of civil disobedience.
One important example is found in Thoreau, who famously explained his act of disobedience by tax resistance as follows:
In fact, I quietly declare war with the State, after my fashion, though I will still make what use and get what advantage of her I can, as is usual in such cases.
Thoreau’s disobedience is principled. He recognizes that a declaration of war against the state is a criminal act. He willingly goes to jail.
But he also admits that he will cooperate with the state in other cases—since there is something advantageous about cooperation.
This indicates the complexity of the question of cooperation, protest, and disobedience. Thoreau’s essay, “Civil Disobedience” (1849), is often viewed as an anarchist manifesto.
Kropotkin discussed him as an anarchist (Kropotkin 1927 ). And Tolstoy admired his act of civil disobedience—as did Gandhi.
Anarchists continue to discuss strategies and tactics of disobedience. One problem throughout this discussion is the degree to which disobedience is effective.
If there were to be successful anarchist campaigns of disobedience, they would have to be organized and widespread. Whether such campaigns would actually work to disassemble the state apparatus remains an open question.
Until their dreamed-of revolution comes, anarchist must consider the degree to which cooperation with the state involves “selling out” to the political status quo.
Perhaps there are reforms and short-term gains that can be obtained through traditional political means: voting, lobbying legislators, etc.
But anarchists have often held to an all-or-nothing kind of approach to political participation.
We noted above that the Christian anarchist Jacques Ellul has said that he does not vote because anarchy implies conscientious objection. But herein lies a strategic conundrum.
If progressively minded anarchists opt out of the political system, this means that less enlightened policies will prevail. By not voting or otherwise engaging in ordinary politics,
the anarchist ends up with a system that he or she will be even less happy with than if he or she had actively participated in the system.
This is, really, a problem of revolution versus reform. The revolutionary wants revolution now, believing that it will occur by way of direct action of various sorts.
Perhaps the revolutionary is also thinking that the psychological, cultural, and spiritual evolution toward revolutionary consciousness can only occur when direct action is taken in order for anarchism to emerge,
the anarchist may think, one ought to behave and think like an anarchist. But without a concerted and nation-wide revolution,
revolutionary action begins to look like mere selfishness, Epicurean opting out, or what Bookchin criticized as “lifestyle anarchism”.
Meanwhile those reform-minded folks who work within the system of political power and legality can end up supporting a system that they have doubts about.
This philosophical problem of reform vs. revolution exists for all radical political agendas. But the problem is especially acute for anarchists, since anarchism is often an all-or-none proposition:
if the state is justified then gradualism and reformism make sense; but if no state can be justified, then what is sometimes called “reformist anarchism” is a non-starter (see L. Davis 2012).
Objection: This objection holds that a political theory that abolishes political structures makes no sense.
A related concern arises when anarchism is taken to be a critique of authority in every case and in all senses. If anarchists deny then that there can be any archer whatsoever, then the claim contradicts itself: we would have a ruling theory that states that there is no ruling theory.
This sort of criticism is related to standard criticisms of relativism and nihilism. Related to this is a more concrete and mundane objection that holds that there can be no anarchist movement or collective action,
since anarchism is constitutionally opposed to the idea of a movement or collective (since under anarchism there can be no authoritative ruler or set of rules).
Reply: This objection only holds if anarchism is taken to be an all-or-nothing theory of the absolutist variety.
Political anarchists do not necessarily agree with the sceptical post-foundationalist critique which holds that there can be no ruling principle or authority whatsoever. Rather, political anarchists hold that there are legitimate authorities but that political power
quickly loses its authoritativeness and legitimacy. Furthermore, anarchists tend to advocate for a principle and procedure for organization based upon voluntarism and mutual aid
, as well as unanimity and/or consensus. From this point of view anarchist communities can work very well, provided that they avoid coercive authority.
To support this point anarchists will point to historical examples of successful anarchist communes. They will also point to ordinary human relations—
in families and civil society relationship—which operate quite well apart form coercive and hierarchical political authority
Objection: One objection to philosophical anarchism of the sort discussed throughout this essay is that it remains merely theoretical. Some political anarchists
have little patience for abstract discourses that do not engage in direct action. One worry about philosophical anarchism is that in failing to act—
and in failing to take responsibility for the actions that ought to follow from thought—philosophical anarchism remains a bourgeois convenience that actually serves the status quo.
Thus, when philosophical anarchists remain uncommitted in terms of the concrete questions raised by anarchism—
whether they should obey the law, whether they should vote, and so on—they tend to support the interests of defenders of the status quo.
Reply: In response to this objection, one might defend the importance of philosophical reflection.
It is important to be clear about principles and ideas before taking action.
And with anarchism the stakes are quite high. The puzzles created by philosophical anarchism are profound. They lead us to question traditional notions of sovereignty, political obligation, and so on.
They lead us to wonder about cultural and ethical conventions, including also our first principles regarding the theory and organization of social life. Given the difficulty of resolving many of these questions, the philosophical anarchist may hold that caution is in order.
Moreover, the philosophical anarchist might also defend the importance of wonder. The anarchist critique gives us reason to wonder about much that we take for granted. Wonder may not change the world in immediate ways or lead to direct action. But wonder is an important step in the direction of thoughtful, ethical action