Introduction to Philosophy/Anarchism

What is Anarchism?


Anarchism is a critique of the authority exercised by the state regardless of whether that state is a democracy, oligarchy, aristocracy. theocracy or dictatorship. Anarchism recognizes that the state exists for the benefit of its members but questions whether authority, regardless of form, should be violent, coercive, destructive, and unequal. It refers to a proposed state consisting of political relationships that would negate those aspects of authority that deny freedom and purpose to the individual's life. The anarchist tenet "my freedom ends when your freedom begins" defines political relationships as compromise. Anarchism is not a state free of laws but is a state with laws that allows no abuse of authority.

Anarchism has had a direct influence uponː

  • Leo Tolstoy whose On Anarchy proposes pacifism as the most meaningful direct action against the state.
  • William Godwin whose daughter Mary Shelley wrote the novel Frankenstein.
  • Gandhi who drew upon Tolstoy.
  • Martin Luther-King who drew upon the theories of non-violent opposition to the state proposed by Gandhi which had proved so effective against unjust rule.

The supranational nature of Anarchism is based on the assumption that authority has an inherent flaw which is independent of cultural factors. It is for this reason that institutions of the state are viewed with suspicion. Anarchism is universal and claims no superiority or cause since these are the spurious moral precepts given for war and conflict. The state is a body of people for which the state exists to serve. If the institutions of the state choose to favour one group over another and uses violence or coercion to maintain that power than the state is not a body of equals. The flaw in authority is inequality and this is the major theme of Anarchist criticism. How this inequality is maintained and the reason for its existence forms the core of Anarchist theory.

Authority exists in estate and state. Estate being the natural authority exercised for the needs of the family and the state an extension of that authority that allows families to live together in large beneficial communities. The early Anarchist theorists imagined that the dissolution of state institutions would arise when the estate of each family was secured. The criticism leveled by opponents of Anarchism is that the state is the only authority that can bind estates to the law and that the dissolution of the state is counter-productive for it is the only constitution capable of regulating competing estates to mutual benefit. The terms idealistic, utopian, dangerous, and unrealistic are often applied to early Anarchist theorists and not without justification. The ruins of once great cities point to material decline regardless of the reasons for their dissolution.

The early Anarchists, many of whom were witnesses to increasing industrialization and urbanization, could not help but be moved by the plight of the workers. At a time of rapid industrialization that drew the rural poor in their millions to urban centers is it any wonder that a rural ideal lingered in their minds especially with regards to the ownership of property of estate. Their pacifism was reinforced by the technological advances that increased the destructive power of arms aligning positive progressive industrialization with constant warfare.

That the feudal system was being dismantled everywhere modernity touched, not always to the benefit of the poor who exchanged rural tenancy for slum tenancy, only increased the Anarchist aversion to centralized urban State authority. This prompted the early Anarchists to call for a return to the land without tenancy. A panacea based on the land being held in common with no ownership or tenancy. An idea that could only arise when a large section of the population could still trace their original rural abode and one that presupposes that title and deed should have their origin in past occupation. The hereditary privilege that allowed vast estates to be held by one family to be abolished turning the tenant farmer into lord, or landlord if you wish, of his own domain.

In a post-modern world the idea of a return to rural life still holds the imagination but with a more realistic appraisal of the conditions that restrict such a return. Modern urban centers have improved beyond anything the early Anarchists envisaged especially in countries where the movement of rural people to urban centers is complete or near completion. Romantic notions of agricultural self-sufficiency still finds expression but no outlet in modern urban society. To completely live this way in an industrial urbanized society is to withdraw to the periphery. The altar, treasury and crown that the early Anarchists opposed have been transformed into different institutions. In a post-modern world the Anarchist critique of authority is now directed towards new institutions - the corporation, the bank, the elected government. Post-modern Anarchism is not a rural utopia that will arise from the destruction of modern society. Anarchism is a critique of authority in whichever period it exists and in whatever form it chooses to take.

This introduction has been written as an appraisal of historical Anarchism. A warning against the dogma of doctrine. There can be no heretics in Anarchism for doctrine is denied supremacy. The following chapter outlining the main Anarchist theories illustrate how varied the strains of Anarchism are - yet all admit of organization which despite claims to the contrary is the definition of state. The dissolution of the state has elements of a religious paradise, a promised land, the end of suffering. It must be borne in mind by the reader that the teaching of Evolutionary theory was and is still a contentious issue. At the time that Proudhon and others were writing there would have been a much stronger religious undercurrent of metaphysical tenets. The idea that society could be formed on the basis of innate justice has religious overtones for the innate is natural and forever present - the eternal and unchanging. Maybe it is time to guard against Anarchist dogma lest we find ourselves so enthralled by the revolutions of the past that we forget what sort of weapons we possess now. Let Anarchism have state and let authority be exerted without abuse.

Classic Expositions Of The State


Expositions of the state vary according to time or place but all treat of political relationships. Whether the author is Machiavelli or Aristotle, Marx or Plato, the analysis or proposals will always be concerned with political authority and how that political authority should be applied. The Republic by Plato still occupies a central place in expositions regarding the state. Plato was a member of the Athenian aristocracy and the Republic is the classic argument for an aristocratic state ruled by a military elite. This exposition has a high degree of pessimism about human nature and assigns political authority on that basis. Democracy is dismissed as aimless and the general population is considered to be enslaved by their own ignorance. Plato's condescending attitude towards those not of the type he praises seeps through the text. Plato, in common with most aristocratic thinkers, believes it is an aristocratic duty to exercise authority upon the citizens. Some of the policies Plato proposes are conservative to say the least. In Plato's Republic music will only admit of those musical modes that inspire conformity with licentious modes banned. The polis is to expel the poets for their power to move others for this is a danger to the state. Political power will belong to an elite called the Guardians who will be trained in combat and educated in philosophy. The ultimate authority to reside in the Philosopher King whose wisdom guides and protects all the members of the state without thought of personal gain.

The Athenian Constitution by Aristotle gives an account of the origins of the Athenian institutions. The Archons were one of the three institutions that formed the political authority of the ancient Athenian polis. The others being the King and Polemarch. We know from Aristotle that the magistracy of the Archons existed before the time of Draco the Law-giver. We derive the term draconian from the harshness of the Law Code set down by Draco which prescribed the death penalty for many crimes. Aristotle tells us that this code was repealed by Solon the Law-giver who made the Archons publicly swear on oath to uphold the freedoms of the Athenian citizen. The Athenian Constitution opens with Cylon, the Olympic winner of 640 BCE, who had tried to seize power and failed. His supporters had taken refuge in a sanctuary and were granted safe passage but were put to death by the Archon Megacles. Aristotle describes the situationː

After this event there was contention for a long time between the upper classes and the populace. Not only was the constitution at this time oligarchical in every respect, but the poorer classes, men, women, and children, were the serfs of the rich. They were known as Pelatae and also as Hectemori, because they cultivated the lands of the rich at the rent thus indicated. The whole country was in the hands of a few persons, and if the tenants failed to pay their rent they were liable to be haled into slavery, and their children with them. All loans were secured upon the debtor's person, a custom which prevailed until the time of Solon, who was the first to appear as champion of the people. But the hardest and bitterest part of the constitution in the eyes of the masses was their state of serfdom. (Translation by Sir Frederic G. Kenyon 1891)

Machiavelli was a diplomat for the state of Florentine and the driving force for the formation of the Florentine Militia. Machiavelli was a powerful man in Florentine politics yet ended his career under suspicion and in exile. The Prince was written during his exile and was dedicated to Lorenzo de Medici. Machiavelli views that the state is best when it has good laws and good arms and is defended by its own citizens. He recognizes only a republic or princedom as the forms of state that have existed. For the purpose of clarity the republic Machiavelli is describing is one where the citizens elect a sole ruler who has the duty of a prince though he may not be of royal or hereditary lineage. Though Machiavelli describes the conquests of other lands he states that unless the conqueror takes up permanent residence or establishes colonies it is only natural for the conquered to revert back to their previous constitution. The Prince is a manual for aristocratic rule of a local population. Machiavelli proposes that the French parliament under the King, as it was when he was writing, was an aristocratic institution in which the King disposed of the unpopular acts and tasks of ruling. The Nobles were used for the express purpose of maintaining order in the lower classes while maintaining the King's reputation. Machiavelli advises that if a prince can disarm the general population while retaining an armed force loyal to himself then his power will be secure though he points out that this is easier for hereditary rulers to achieve than a new prince of a republic.

Authority and Office


Authority is expressed by office. In the view of Aristotle every inquiry, action or pursuit is directed towards some good and this can be taken as the definition of office. The highest office is that of head of state which will be held by a single individual though history does record dual leaderships many of which are given to prove the ineffectiveness of such an office. The head of state will receive his authority in a symbolic ritual which regardless of form will reiterate the Aristotle view enshrining the principle in title and duty.

The second highest office is the legislative body of the state. It matters very little whether it is called a Parliament, Council or Forum for this office exists solely for the purpose of legislation. The legislative office can take any form as long as the duty of legislation is fulfilled. The authority to legislate may be given in any way the state sees fit but it will always be based on some qualification that the state views as best for this office. It is for this reason that the Tribune of the Plebians was created as the Patricians gave way to Plebian demands for representation in the Senate. The legislative body may change form but its primary purpose to legislate remains.

The third office is that of the courts where arbitration or judgment may be considered in relation to the legislation of the two highest offices. It is in the courts that civil disputes are resolved or punishments for transgression of legislation are given. The individual invested with authority to judge must have knowledge of the legislation with regards to its purpose. It is for this reason that judges are appointed for life except when the two highest offices limit the tenure for some reason. When there is to be a jury vote on the issue a judge will preside over whether the legislation has been complied with in full and will give legal authority to the jury decision. Sentencing will either be based on guidelines or be the sole decision of the judge. The authority to pass sentence is rarely given to a jury or the public. It is common practice in many cultures to have more than one judge to offer opinions on the legislation and sentencing.

Regardless of whether the state is a democracy, oligarchy, aristocracy. theocracy or dictatorship, these offices must exist to bind competing estates to mutual benefit. The instruments of authority are brought into existence by the three highest offices.



Equality is that which does not differ. That people differ is self-evident. This natural inequality is immutable. In the book The Revolution Betrayed by Trotsky, which decries the failures of Communism, it is stated that certain crimes that existed before the revolution should disappear when society is ordered on socialist principles. Trotsky seeing that these crimes still existed laid the fault at those people who he believed had betrayed the revolution. In this case Stalin. This mode of thinking about individuals can also be found in the legislation of Augustus who in horror at the salacious life of his daughter, Julia, banished her. The reason I have opened this section on inequality with these two examples is to highlight the mistake of defining equality between members of a society as something that can be simply achieved through economic or legislative means. Crime did not lessen under the economic conditions imposed by Communism and the legislation of Augustus to encourage marriage and faithfulness did not diminish the divorce cases heard in the Roman courts.

The true equality between individuals that we seek is called free will. It is this free will that defies attempts to create an all encompassing economic system that will make us all equal. It is this free will that defies attempts at an all encompassing moral system of legislation that will rid us of crime. The offices of authority must preserve this one true equality for all the members of society. It is for this reason that a slave is denied the right to free will. Many anarchists consider free will to be the issue that defines equality.

Since there exists a natural inequality that is based on the differences that exist between individuals and a natural equality that is based around the concept of the individual's free will in relation to the free will of others - we must now investigate how the three offices and all that pertains to them either succeeds or fails in their duties with regards to both.

The three highest offices areː

  • a head of state
  • a representative body that passes legislation
  • a judiciary that enforces the legislation

All societies are based on cultural values and customs. The three highest offices are themselves an expression of the common customs and values of the estates which make up a community. The natural inequality between individuals that forms the division and hierarchy common to all societies should not be considered as contrary to our being.

Anarchist Schools of Thought




Anarcho-syndicalism is based around the concept of the trade union. The Confederación Nacional del Trabajo was the largest labour union with an anarchist agenda. Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War was divided between the CNT who favoured anarcho-syndicalism and the Communists who wished to align themselves with Stalin. The divisions between the CNT and the Spanish Communists would play a part in their eventual defeat to the forces of General Franco. Key principles of syndicalism include worker's solidarity, direct action, and worker's self-management. Anarcho-syndicalist theorists include Rudolf Rocker and Noam Chomsky.



Mutualism was formulated by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in his 1840 treatise, "What is Property?". Mutualism is a society where credit is free of punitive contracts and the exchange of goods is administered by contracts without a monetary value based on usury or tenancy. Notable mutualist theorists include Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Kevin Carson.

Post-left anarchy


Post-left anarchy is based on the concept that anarchism transcends left-right politics, and is closely associated with post-structuralist, primitivist and insurrectionary ideas. Notable post-left theorists include Hakim Bey and Wolfi Landstreicher.

Reference and further readings