Anarchism is a political theory that is sceptical of the justification of authority and power. Anarchism is usually grounded in moral claims about the importance of individual liberty, often conceived as freedom from domination.
Anarchists also offer a positive theory of human flourishing, based upon an ideal of equality, community, and non-coercive consensus building.
Anarchism has inspired practical efforts at establishing utopian communities, radical and revolutionary political agendas, and various forms of direct action.
This entry primarily describes “philosophical anarchism”: it focuses on anarchism as a theoretical idea and not as a form of political activism. While philosophical anarchism describes a sceptical theory of political legitimation,
anarchism is also a concept that has been employed in philosophical and literary theory to describe a sort of anti-foundationalism.
Philosophical anarchism can mean either a theory of political life that is sceptical of attempts to justify state authority or a philosophical theory that is sceptical of the attempt to assert firm foundations for knowledge.
There are various forms of anarchism. Uniting this variety is the general critique of centralized, hierarchical power and authority. Given that authority, centralization, and hierarchy show up in various ways and in different discourses, institutions,
and practices, it is not surprising that the anarchist critique has been applied in diverse ways
The anarchist critique has been extended toward the rejection of non-political centralization and authority.
Bakunin extended his critique to include religion, arguing against both God and the State. Bakunin rejected God as the absolute master, saying famously,
“if God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him” (Bakunin 1882
There are, however, religious versions of anarchism, which critique political authority from a standpoint that takes religion seriously.
has shown how anarchism can be found in Taoism. And Ramnath (2011) has identified anarchist threads in Islamic Sufism, in Hindu bhakti movements,
in Sikhism’s anti-caste efforts, and in Buddhism. We consider anarchism in connection with Gandhi below. But we focus here on Christian anarchism.
Christian anarchist theology views the kingdom of God as lying beyond any human principle of structure or order.
Christian anarchists offer an anti-clerical critique of ecclesiastical and political power. Tolstoy provides an influential example. Tolstoy claims that Christians have a duty not to obey political power and to refuse to swear allegiance to political authority
Tolstoy was also a pacifist. Christian anarcho-pacifism views the state as immoral and unsupportable because of its connection with military power
But there are also non-pacifist Christian anarchists. Berdyaev, for example, builds upon Tolstoy and in his own interpretation of Christian theology. Berdyaev concludes: “The Kingdom of God is anarchy”
Christian anarchists have gone so far as to found separatist communities where they live apart from the structures of the state. Notable examples include
New England transcendentalists such as William Garrison and Adin Ballou. These transcendentalists had an influence on Tolstoy
Other notable Christians with anarchist sympathies include Peter Maurine and Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement.
In more recent years, Christian anarchism has been defended by Jacques Ellul who links Christian anarchism to a broad social critique.
In addition to being pacifistic, Ellul says, Christian anarchism should also be “antinationalist, anticapitalism, moral, and antidemocratic”
. The Christian anarchist ought to be committed to “a true overturning of authorities of all kinds”
When asked whether a Christian anarchist should vote, Ellul says no. He states, “anarchy first implies conscientious objection”
Anarchism is primarily understood as a sceptical theory of political legitimation.
The term anarchism is derived from the negation of the Greek term arch, which means first principle, foundation, or ruling power.
Anarchy is thus rule by no one or non-rule. Some argue that non-ruling occurs when there is rule by all—with consensus or unanimity providing an optimistic goal (see Deposer 2010).
Political anarchists focus their critique on state power, viewing centralized, monopolistic coercive power as illegitimate.
Anarchists thus criticize “the state”. Bakunin provides a paradigm historical example, saying:
If there is a State, there must be domination of one class by another and, as a result, slavery; the State without slavery is unthinkable—and this is why we are the enemies of the State. (Bakunin 1873
A more recent example comes from Gerard Casey who writes, “states are criminal organizations. All states, not just the obviously totalitarian or repressive ones”
Such sweeping generalizations are difficult to support. Thus anarchism as political philosophy faces the challenge of specificity.
States have been organized in various ways. Political power is not monolithic. Sovereignty is a complicated matter that includes divisions and distributions of power
. Moreover, the historical and ideological context of a given anarchist’s critique makes a difference
in the content of the political anarchist’s critique. Bakunin was responding primarily to a Marxist and Hegelian view of the state,
offering his critique from within the global socialist movement; Casey is writing in the Twenty-First Century in the era of liberalism and globalization,
offering his critique from within the movement of contemporary libertarianism. Some anarchists engage in broad generalizations, aiming for a total critique of political power.
Others will present a localized critique of a given political entity. An ongoing challenge for those who would seek to understand anarchism is to realize how historically and ideologically diverse approaches fit under the general anarchist umbrella. We look at political anarchism in detail below