The usual treatment that anarchism receives is one where it’s either a total Utopian fantasy that can be easily dismissed or otherwise it’s an absolutely pragmatic tradition that has no serious objections whatsoever. As is typical for politics, any discussion about anarchism gets couched in a jargon which makes it less than appealing to many people. It tends to be characterized as a myriad of lists of isolated statements about what it is and what it isn’t, which can make it confusing and give people the impression that it’s incoherent. Anarchism often gets defended from the weaker arguments against it, but it’s much more rarely defended from the stronger ones. There’s tons of introductory information about anarchism online so, the intent here is to make a kind of addendum to that.

Here, it’ll be shown that anarchism can be defended reasonably from even strong objections. The case will be made that anarchism is not to be easily dismissed. In order to do this, there’ll be careful consideration of a handful of the strongest objections to anarchism. Particular attention will be paid to reconstructing the objections in good faith, so as to not shield anarchism by misrepresenting or weakening the arguments of its detractors. In doing so, it will be seen that anarchism holds up particularly well even against the strongest objections to it.

Among the goals here is to add some perspectives and put anarchism into some kind of context. To start off, this essay will cover what anarchism is, in the broadest and most basic sense. Along the way, it’ll identify and reproduce the strongest objections, then respond to those in turn. It will also briefly reconstruct an argument for “anarcho-capitalism” as a form of objection to anarchism’s incompatibility with capitalism and then respond to that argument. From there, the discussion will move on to cover how anarchism came about as an idea. Finally, it will briefly mention some of the early and also recent influential anarchists.

So, what is anarchism? The shortest and maybe the most obvious answer is: anarchism is a kind of political philosophy. Now, sometimes we use terms when it’s taken for granted that everyone has a shared understanding of them. That’s not always the case so, in order to mitigate that here, there needs to be something said for what is meant by the terms politics and philosophy.

Politics simply means; making or enforcing decisions, either for or about society (Lawrence Cahoone, The Modern Political Tradition: From Hobbes To Habermas, Lecture 1). The word philosophy comes from the meaning, “love of wisdom”. Now, the nature of wisdom is a big philosophical question that goes all the way back to the ancients, but what tends to be meant by wisdom can be characterized by the kinds of thoughts that can be said to be accurate about what’s good for people’s lives. So, philosophy in a political form takes the shape of the ideas that people favor, but at the same time find to be truly good-natured decisions for society as a whole. All of political philosophy is concerned with how decisions about society should be made.

In contrast, political science is concerned with observing how societal decisions are affected. There’s a lot of overlap and interaction between political science and political philosophy and the two can complement each other, but there’s also a tendency to confuse or conflate the two. In general philosophy, this kind of problem is highlighted by the discussions of “normative vs. descriptive” claims or judgments. It’s sometimes called the “is/ought” distinction. That’s just something to keep in mind when thinking about politics.

So, anarchism is a political philosophy, because it’s concerned with making good decisions about society. Specifically, its concern is for a principle that there shouldn’t be a special exclusive set of people who make decisions for society. It’s been pointed out many times before, but it’s worth repeating, that the etymology of the word anarchism comes from the Greek “anarkhos” meaning “without rulers”. In the broadest possible sense this what anarchism is about.

Anarchism is traditionally seen as incompatible with states. When anarchists talk about states they sometimes mean the parts that make up a federal republic like in the U.S., but more often they’re talking about the older meaning for states. This usage of “state” means any politically authoritative, formal arrangement or organization of a community. That’s what anarchism is rejecting in principle.

Someone clever might say that this implies that anarchism must also be in opposition to the authority of decisions made by any majority opinion, in a given population. But here, there is a very subtle mistake being made. The mere quantities of differences or agreements among people’s given choices about society, does not necessarily bestow on them a quality whereby the individual becomes “the ruler” if they happen to be in the majority opinion or otherwise “the ruled” in the case that they end up in the minority opinion on a decision. Put another way; just because someone disagrees with most of everybody else in a group, it doesn’t automatically mean that the group is in charge of the person who disagreed. Suffice to say, anarchism does not necessarily conflict with decision making by a simple majority opinion.

Anarchism is widely accepted to be incompatible with capitalism. Capitalism is the organization of society whereby decisions about workable land, resources, infrastructure, and tools are made exclusively by private owners in the interest of benefiting those owners. That’s what it means to have a political system in which trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit. In this way, capitalism creates and bolsters a kind of special exclusive set of people that make decisions for society. That’s why anarchism would necessarily conflict with capitalism in principle.

There are some, who controversially identify with the label anarchist, that don’t find anarchism to be in conflict with capitalism. They point to a perspective known as anarcho-capitalism and argue that it’s possible for private owners to not rule over other people in society. One anarcho-capitalist argument is that—the mere fact of owners engaging in exclusive decision making about the important things that society needs to flourish, doesn’t mean that these kinds of owners are in positions of authority. However, a traditional anarchist would argue that insofar as the decision making impacts society, the decisions’ exclusive nature, render them authoritative.

Another supporting argument that comes from anarcho-capitalists takes the form of individualism. The point often conveyed about this is—their decisions are made in the interest of what’s best for them as individuals and any society that denies them their capacity to do exactly that, in this particular respect, can be described as coercive. After all, why shouldn’t they be allowed to categorically reject all social agreements? That is the line of reasoning often followed by anarcho-capitalists.

This sort of individualism is a variety of objection to what’s called Social Contract Theory. In the middle of the 17th century, Thomas Hobbes came out with a book called Leviathan that made the case that the reason why people live under the authority of an absolute monarch is that they want to be protected from what he called the “state of nature”. Hobbes was witnessing the English Civil War when he was writing the book and that’s what he had in mind when he was thinking about the state of nature. He thought that what’s natural in the absence of an authoritarian ruler, based on what he was seeing at the time, is a sort of all against all situation. This is what prompted Hobbes to put forth the idea that civil society was always engaged in a sort of tacit agreement to be Royal subjects so that they wouldn’t have to face a life that was “nasty, brutish and short”. Even setting aside the question of whether the tacit agreement must be to live under a monarch instead of a liberal democracy, anarcho-capitalists would still question whether there really is any kind of agreement. Some may even have an attitude of skepticism towards any argument that wasn’t individualist in nature.

On the face of it, the idea that there isn’t really a Social Contract sounds like a fairly compelling reason to discard all government, popular or not. The problem is, humans are social animals and we’ve built our existence on our sociality. As it happens, society is unavoidable. We couldn’t actually live in isolation of one another. So, even if we think that individuals should in principle, be able to opt out of all societies, it turns out to be logically impossible. And because that’s the case, the best that anyone can possibly do is negotiate the nature and scope of social agreements, while taking for granted the fact that they will inevitably occur.

An anarchist would ask at this point—what about forms of social caste? What about discrimination against people for their cultural identities? What about the idea of race? Or traditional gender? Or ability? Haven’t I forgotten those? It’s true. Anarchism is necessarily incompatible with all forms of social inequality, which serve as a basis for political inequality.

It’s often objected that anarchism is impractical if not impossible. There’s a conception that anarchism is fine in theory, but it couldn’t work in the real world. There’s a common claim that anarchy would be undesirable because it would be violent and chaotic.

There are historical examples of anarchism working on large scales. The early kibbutzim of the 1940’s and ‘50’s were examples (see James Horrox, A Living Revolution 2009). People lived and worked together without a social or governmental hierarchy. Spain in the late 1930’s during and after its revolution was one of the most well-known examples of anarchism working on a large scale. Workers had councils and trade federations where they made enormously complex decisions together.

While there were many merits to both of those examples, neither entirely escape the allegations of violence and chaos. During the Spanish Revolution, there were tens of thousands of people killed. Both sides of the fight bear the responsibility for the loss of life, but during the Red Terror, many thousands of people were executed without trial. That’s to say—revolutionaries, many of whom would describe themselves as anarchists, carried out executions without allowing the accused any kind of trial. The autonomous and radically democratic planning was prolific but incredibly unaccountable.

The kibbutzim were nowhere near as bloody as the Spanish Revolution, but again it does not entirely escape the accusation. Noam Chomsky had experience visiting the area and considered living there in the 1950’s. He noted something that he thought was unsettling in one of his interviews with David Barsamian. He recounted walking a patrol with one of the people living in the kibbutz that he was visiting. Chomsky pointed to some rocks that had been piled in the distance and asked the patrolman what it was. After some prying, the patrolman reluctantly admitted that it was a grave for part of a settlement that had gotten too close to the kibbutz. The kibbutz killed the other settlement for what was felt as an encroachment.

The French Revolution is seldom seen as an example of anarchism in practice. That’s because there were many ideas that came out of the era of the French Revolution and anarchism was only one of them. Perhaps the closest to anarchism that one could claim was under the very short-lived control of the Jacobins. The Jacobins were a party to the “Reign of Terror” along with the deceptively named Committee of Public Safety. Many people were executed without trial for mere suspicion of “counter-revolutionary activities”. The whole of the French Revolution was an experiment in dismantling authority and having the public control their own lives. Few would deny the chaotic nature of Paris in the 1790’s.

The charges against anarchism are uncomfortable to acknowledge for anyone who holds the belief that people can behave responsibly and fairly without an authoritarian government. There are good reasons to take the charges seriously without dismissing them. Violence and chaos are not the ends of an anarchist society and they cannot solely be the means. Nevertheless, comparing periods of revolution and war to times of peace seems unfair. The American Revolution was bloody, but few people would make the argument today that Federal Republicanism is inherently violent and chaotic. So, the violence and chaos of revolutions and wars are something that ought to be minimized, but that is not an indictment of the kinds of societies that result from them. That’s not an endorsement of the violence of revolution, because there isn’t a necessity for revolution in order to bring anarchism to fruition (e.g. the early kibbutzim). In practice, anarchism is brought about by endowing ordinary people with the faculties that are necessary to make good decisions for themselves. Our capacity for liberty is tethered to our capacity for responsibility.

In spite of all of this, someone could still object that anarchism is only one point of view in political philosophy. What gives advocates of anarchism the confidence to declare their principles to be what’s good for people who live in societies that are vastly different? Aren’t the principles that people live by dependent on cultural and historical contexts?

This is a kind of general philosophical objection that addresses the dichotomy of relativism and realism. Relativism is the idea that all knowledge, truth, and morality is essentially social and temporal. This is how someone might say that the principles which are good for society, are determined by who accepts them and when. The other view is realism. In this kind of philosophical sense, realism posits that there are principles that are universal across social contexts. However, anarchism is neither relativist nor realist. It’s prescribing something that should be not describing something that is. Anarchism is open to all societies that will have it but closed to those that will not. Although, it should be said that if the assumption is that all societies which are different from each other, should remain without anarchist principles, then the exact same kind of normative judgment has been made about what’s good for societies generally. The logic works in both directions.

So, just to sum up: anarchism is a political philosophy that aims at approximate socioeconomic equality without private or state ownership of capital or other means of production.

Where does anarchism come from, as a philosophical tradition? The first anarchist text came out in the late 18th century during the French Revolution. In 1793, William Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice was first published. Godwin had read A Vindication of Natural Society by Edmund Burke which was intended as a satirical argument against government. Godwin actually recognized the satirical intent of Burke, but nevertheless was moved by the arguments. This was what became the inspiration for anarchism. Incidentally, Godwin was married to Mary Wollstonecraft and they had a daughter, Mary Shelley who was the author of the classic novel Frankenstein. Shelley was married to the poet, Percy Bysshe-Shelley. Wollstonecraft is widely regarded for writing the first feminist text, titled A Vindication of the Rights of Women published in 1792. So that says something about why anarchism and feminism have always had a very close-knit relationship going right back to their origins.

A couple of generations later Pierre-Joseph Proudhon became the first writer to refer to himself as an anarchist. Oddly enough, even though Proudhon was French like Godwin, it’s not apparent that he was directly influenced by Godwin. Proudhon was very influential, even amongst his contemporaries, such as Mikhail Bakunin (another early anarchist writer) and Karl Marx. In turn, Marx exchanged ideas with Proudhon. Notably, Marx’s idea of the labor theory of value is integral to Proudhon’s Mutualism. Mutualism, in a nutshell, is an economic model where market exchanges are not made in the interest of the benefit of one party over another, but instead for an even exchange that benefits both parties mutually and equally. Proudhon called it a “synthesis of communism and property”, which hints at the influence of Friedrich Hegel’s and later Marx’s dialectics.

Dialectics are a kind of mode of reasoning in Hegel’s sense or a kind of force of nature in Marx’s sense. Dialectics move from thesis to antithesis and then synthesis. In the works of Plato dialectics were portrayed as a dialog between two people. Typically, Plato would present Socrates as one of the two people in conversation with each other. Socrates would respond to a statement made by the other person, first by clarifying the statement, then by presenting something that conflicts with the statement. At the end of the dialectic, the other person would have to revise or reject their initial statement. Marx felt that history can be shown to operate on a function that is analogous to a dialectic. Marx’s partner, Friedrich Engels tried to make an analogy between the physical forces of nature and dialectic progression. Anarchist thinkers, while recognizing the significance of Marx’s critique of capitalism, have typically not accepted the rigid framework of Marxism.

There have been many influential anarchists over the years. Rather than trying to catalog them, here are a couple of recent ones that have served as a conduit to anarchist ideas in recent years. The most obvious one to name is Noam Chomsky who made his professional career about repudiating B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism in favor of something like brain modularity while focusing on the implications for language acquisition. The thing that Chomsky is more famous for is being a public intellectual who gives analyses of “elite culture” among other things.

The other major academic that comes to mind is David Graeber. Graeber is an anthropologist who is best known for writing about the history of debt. But he’s also written texts about historical anarchist cultures as well as recent ones. He’s somewhat of a public intellectual in his own right, though not nearly as influential as Chomsky.

Anarchism takes the stance that the best kinds of decisions about what’s good for society should come from including as many people in the process as possible and giving equal sway to everyone. This kind of political philosophy without hierarchy could be carried out by giving people the ability to make good decisions for themselves as well as a proficiency in making decisions with groups. Any forms of decision making that unjustifiably restrict the process to particular groups or individuals are in conflict with anarchist principles insofar as the decisions impact society at large. Hence, capitalism and states necessarily conflict with anarchism.

Although anarchism has its roots in a revolution, there isn’t anything about the idea which suggests a call for violence or war. Rather, it calls for a radical growth in the use of reason and political participation. It calls for a sense of personal responsibility and the cultivation of improved self-direction and cooperation. For anyone who might be concerned about the corruption of authority and recognizes that society must be organized in one form or another, anarchism should seem reasonable, if not practical.

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About Brent

I'm an essayist with an enthusiasm for intellectual curiosity. I'm also a musician and a blue collar worker.

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