Anarchism is a political theory, which is skeptical of the justification of authority and power, especially political power. Anarchism is usually grounded in moral claims about the importance of individual liberty. Anarchists also offer a positive theory of human flourishing, based upon an ideal of 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 skeptical 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 skeptical of attempts to justify state authority or a philosophical theory that is skeptical of the attempt to assert firm foundations for knowledge.
Varieties of Anarchism
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.
Anarchism is primarily understood as a skeptical theory of political legitimation. The term anarchism is derived from the negation of the Greek term arché, 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
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.
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
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”
There are, however, religious versions of anarchism, which critique political authority from a standpoint that takes religion seriously. Rapp (2012) 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 (see Tolstoy 1894).
Tolstoy was also a pacifist. Christian anarcho-pacifism views the state as immoral and unsupportable because of its connection with military power (see Christoyannopoulos 2011).
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 Maurin 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, anticapitalist, 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”
Anarchist rejection of authority has application in epistemology and in philosophical and literary theory. One significant usage of the term shows up in American pragmatism. William James described his pragmatist philosophical theory as a kind of anarchism: “A radical pragmatist is a happy-go-lucky anarchistic sort of creature” .
James had anarchist sympathies, connected to a general critique of systematic philosophy . Pragmatism, like other anti-systematic and post-Hegelian philosophies, gives up on the search for an arché or foundation.
Anarchism thus shows up as a general critique of prevailing methods. An influential example is found in the work of Paul Feyerabend, whose Against Method provides an example of “theoretical anarchism” in epistemology and philosophy of science (Feyerabend 1975 ). Feyerabend explains:
Science is an essentially anarchic enterprise: theoretical anarchism is more humanitarian and more likely to encourage progress than its law-and-order alternatives. His point is that science ought not be constrained by hierarchically imposed principles and strict rule following.
Post-structuralism and trends in post-modernism and Continental philosophy can also be anarchistic (see May 1994). So-called “post-anarchism” is a decentered and free-flowing discourse that deconstructs power, questions essentialism, and undermines systems of authority.
Following upon the deconstructive and critical work of authors such as Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, and others, this critique of the arché goes all the way down. If there is no arché or foundation, then we are left with a proliferation of possibilities.
Emerging trends in globalization, cyber-space, and post-humanism make the anarchist critique of “the state” more complicated, since anarchism’s traditional celebration of liberty and autonomy can be critically scrutinized and deconstructed
Traditional anarchists were primarily interested in sustained and focused political activism that led toward the abolition of the state. The difference between free-flowing post-anarchism and traditional anarchism can be seen in the realm of morality. Anarchism has traditionally been critical of centralized moral authority
—but this critique was often based upon fundamental principles and traditional values, such as autonomy or liberty. But post-structuralism—along with critiques articulated by some feminists, critical race theorists, and critics of Eurocentrism—calls these values and principles into question.
The broad critical framework provided by the anarchist critique of authority provides a useful theory or methodology for social critique. In more recent iterations, anarchism has been used to critique gender hierarchies, racial hierarchies, and the like—also including a critique of human domination over nature.
Thus anarchism also includes, to name a few varieties: anarcha-feminism or feminist anarchism (see Kornegger 1975), queer anarchism or anarchist queer theory (see Daring et al. 2010), green anarchism or eco-anarchism also associated with anarchist social ecology (see Bookchin 1971 ),
and even anarcho-veganism or “veganarchism” (see Nocella, White, & Cudworth 2015). In the anarcho-vegan literature we find the following description of a broad and inclusive anarchism:
Anarchism is a socio-political theory which opposes all systems of domination and oppression such as racism, ableism, sexism, anti-LGBTTQIA, ageism, sizeism, government, competition, capitalism, colonialism, imperialism and punitive justice, and promotes direct democracy, collaboration, interdependence, mutual aid, diversity, peace, transformative justice and equity.
A thorough-going anarchism would thus offer a critique of anything and everything that smacks of hierarchy, domination, centralization, and unjustified authority.
Anarchists who share these various commitments often act upon their critique of authority by engaging in nonconformist practices (free love, nudism, gender disruption, and so on) or by forming intentional communities that live “off the grid” and outside of the norms of mainstream culture.
In extreme forms this becomes anarcho-primitivism or anti-civilizational anarchism (see Zerzan 2008, 2010; Jensen 2006). Alternative anarchist societies have existed in religious communes in post-Reformation Europe and in the early United States,
in Nineteenth Century American utopian communities, the hippy communes of the Twentieth Century, anarchist squats, temporary autonomous zones (see Bey 1985), and occasional gatherings of like-minded people.
Given this sort of antinomianism and non-conformism it is easy to see that anarchism also often includes a radical critique of traditional ethical norms and principles.
Thus radical ethical anarchism can be contrasted with what we might call bourgeois anarchism (with radical anarchism seeking to disrupt traditional social norms and bourgeois anarchism seeking freedom from the state that does not seek such disruption). And although some argue that anarchists are deeply ethical
—committed to liberty and solidarity—others will argue that anarchists are moral nihilists who reject morality entirely or who at least reject the idea that there could be a single source of moral authority (see essays in Franks & Wilson 2010)
Anarchism in Political Philosophy
—even for those who are not anarchists—as the a-political background condition against which various forms of political organization are arrayed, compared, and justified.
Anarchy is often viewed by non-anarchists as the unhappy or unstable condition in which there is no legitimate authority. Anarchism as a philosophical idea is not necessarily connected to practical activism.
There are political anarchists who take action in order to destroy what they see as illegitimate states. The popular imagination often views anarchists as bomb-throwing nihilists. But philosophical anarchism is a theoretical standpoint.
In order to decide who (and whether) one should act upon anarchist insight, we require a further theory of political action, obligation, and obedience grounded in further ethical reflection.
Simmons explains that philosophical anarchists “do not take the illegitimacy of states to entail a strong moral imperative to oppose or eliminate states”
Some anarchists remain obedient to ruling authorities; others revolt or resist in various ways. The question of action depends upon a theory of what sort of political obligation follows from our philosophical, moral, political, religious, and aesthetic commitments>
Anarchism in the History of Political Philosophy
There is a long history of political anarchism. In the ancient world, anarchism of a sort can be found in the ideas of the Epicureans and Cynics. Kropotkin makes this point in his 1910 encyclopedia article.
Although they did not employ the term anarchism, the Epicureans and Cynics avoided political activity, advising retreat from political life in pursuit of tranquility (ataraxia) and self-control (autarkeai).
The Cynics are also known for advocating cosmopolitanism: living without allegiance to any particular state or legal system, while associating with human beings based upon moral principle outside of traditional state structures. Diogenes the Cynic had little respect for political or religious authority. One of his guiding ideas was to “deface the currency”.
This meant not only devaluing or destroying monetary currency but also a general rejection of the norms of civilized society (see Marshall 2010: 69). Diogenes often mocked political authorities and failed to offer signs of respect.
While Diogenes actively disrespected established norms, Epicurus counseled retreat. He advised living unnoticed and avoiding political life (under the phrase me politeuesthai—which can be understood as an anti-political admonition).
The assumption that anarchy would be unhappy or unstable leads to justifications of political power. In Hobbes’ famous phrase, in the stateless—anarchic—condition of “the state nature” human life would be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.
Hobbes’ social contract—as well as other versions of the social contract theory as found for example in Locke or Rousseau—are attempts to explain how and why the political state emerges from out of the anarchic state of nature.
Anarchists respond by claiming that the state tends to produce its own sort of unhappiness: as oppressive, violent, corrupt, and inimical to liberty.
Discussions about the social contract thus revolve around the question of whether the state is better than anarchy—or whether states and state-like entities naturally and inevitably emerge from out of the original condition of anarchy.
One version of this argument about the inevitable emergence of states (by way of something like an “invisible hand”) is found in Nozick’s influential Anarchy, State, Utopia (1974).
While Nozick and other political philosophers take anarchy seriously as a starting point, anarchists will argue that invisible hand arguments of this sort ignore the historical actuality of states, which develop out of a long history of domination, inequality, and oppression.
Murray Rothbard has argued against Nozick and social contract theory, saying, “no existing state has been immaculately conceived”
Different versions of the social contract theory, such as we find in John Rawls’s work, view the contract situation as a heuristic device allowing us to consider justice from under “the veil of ignorance”
But anarchists will argue that the idea of the original position does not necessarily lead to the justification of the state—especially given background knowledge about the tendency of states to be oppressive. Crispin Sartwell concludes:
Even accepting more or less all of the assumptions Rawls packs into the original position, it is not clear that the contractors would not choose anarchy.
The author of the present essay has described anarchism that results from a critique of the social contract tradition as “liberal social contract anarchism”
An important historical touchstone is William Godwin. Unlike Locke and Hobbes who turned to the social contract to lead us out of the anarchic state of nature, Godwin argued that the resulting governmental power was not necessarily better than anarchy. Locke, of course, allows for revolution when the state becomes despotic.
Godwin builds upon that insight. He explained, “we must not hastily conclude that the mischiefs of anarchy are worse than those which government is qualified to produce” (Godwin 1793: bk VII, chap. V, p. 736). He claimed,
It is earnestly to be desired that each man should be wise enough to govern himself, without the intervention of any compulsory restraint; and, since government, even in its best state, is an evil, the object principally to be aimed at is that we should have as little of it as the general peace of human society will permit.
Like Rousseau, who praised the noble savage, who was free from social chains until forced into society, Godwin imagined original anarchy developing into the political state, which tended on his view to become despotic. Once the state comes into being, Godwin suggests that despotism is the primary problem since “despotism is as perennial as anarchy is transitory”
Anarchism is often taken to mean that individuals ought to be left alone without any unifying principle or governing power. In some cases anarchism is related to libertarianism (or what is sometimes called “anarcho-capitalism”). But non-rule may also occur when there is unanimity or consensus
—and hence no need for external authority or a governing structure of command and obedience. If there were unanimity among individuals, there would be no need for “ruling”, authority, or government.
The ideas of unanimity and consensus are associated with the positive conception of anarchism as a voluntary association of autonomous human beings, which promotes communal values. One version of the anarchist ideal imagines the devolution of centralized political authority, leaving us with communes whose organizational structure is open-ended and consensual.
Given this emphasis on communal organization it is not surprising that political anarchism has a close historical association with communism, despite the connection mentioned above with free market capitalism. Authors such as Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Goldman developed their anarchism as a response to Marx and Marxism.
One of the first authors to explicitly affirm anarchism, Pierre Proudhon, defended a kind of “communism”, which he understood as being grounded in decentralized associations, communes, and mutual-aid societies. Proudhon thought that private property created despotism. He argued that liberty required anarchy, concluding,
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