An Introduction to Anarchism

by Liz A. Highleyman

This essay was written in 1988 by Liz for the Black Rose Collective in Boston, MA, and revised in 1995.

What Is Anarchism?

Anarchism is a political philosophy that is shrouded in misconception. This is largely due to the fact that anarchism is a truly diverse way of thinking, one which cannot be characterized by simple slogans or party lines. In fact, if you ask 10 anarchists for their description of anarchism, you are likely to get 10 different answers. Anarchism is more than just a political philosophy; it is a way of life that encompasses political, pragmatic and personal aspects.

The basic tenet of anarchism is that hierarchical authority -- be it state, church, patriarchy or economic elite -- is not only unnecessary, but is inherently detrimental to the maximization of human potential. Anarchists generally believe that human beings are capable of managing their own affairs on the basis of creativity, cooperation, and mutual respect. It is believed that power is inherently corrupting, and that authorities are inevitably more concerned with self-perpetuation and increasing their own power than they are with doing what is best for their constituents. Anarchists generally maintain that ethics are a personal matter, and should be based upon concern for others and the wellbeing of society, rather than upon laws imposed by a legal or religious authority (including revered laws such as the U.S. Constitution). Most anarchist philosophies hold that individuals are responsibile for their own behavior. Paternalistic authorities foster a dehumanized mindset in which people expect elites to make decisions for them and meet their needs, rather than thinking and acting for themselves. When an authority arrogates to itself the right to overrule the most fundamental personal moral decisions, such as what is worth killing or dying for (as in military conscription or abortion), human freedom is immeasurably diminished.

Anarchists acknowledge the connection between various forms of oppression -- including sexism, racism, heterosexism, classism, and national chauvinism -- and recognize the futility of focusing opposition on one form of injustice while others continue to exist. Anarchists believe that the means one uses to transform the world must be in accord with the ends that one hopes to achieve. While anarchists disagree about strategies and tactics, including the need for formal organizations and the use of violent action to overthrow existing violent institutions, most agree that the focus must not be on merely destroying the current order, but on fashioning new, more humane and more rational alternatives to take its place.

Anarchists in History

Anarchists have played a part in revolutionary movements throughout history. The French Revolution begun in 1789 had a strong proto-anarchist element. Anarchists such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Peter Kropotkin, Mikhail Bakunin, and Errico Malatesta played an essential part in the development of revolutionary anarchist theory in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Anarchists played a substantial role in the revolutionary movements in Russia in 1905 and 1917, but were suppressed, often ruthlessly, once the Bolsheviks had consolidated power. The Spanish Revolution of 1936-1939 set the stage for the most widely known large-scale manifestation of anarchist practice, in which anarcho-syndicalist organizations (the FAI and CNT) successfully created workable, non-hierarchical social and economic alternatives. In the United States, as well as in Mexico and Latin America, there was an anarcho-syndicalist influence within the trade union movement (for example the Industrial Workers of the World). Prominent anarchists such as Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman participated in a variety of radical causes throughout the early 1900s. There was a strong anarchist current in many of the social change and alternative lifestyle movements of the 1960s (including parts of the feminist movement, the gay liberation movement and the anti-war and free speech movements), although in many cases these were overshadowed, if not frankly repressed, by Marxist/Leninist/Maoist currents.

What Anarchism Is Not

In an effort to clarify what anarchism is, it is useful to examine what anarchism is not:

Communism: While many anarchists value communalism and collectivism, anarchists reject the totalitarianism of the existing and recently fallen communist, or more accurately Marxist-Leninist, states. The rift between anarchists and Marxists developed as early as the 1870s as anarchists perceived that the Marxists were perpetuating authoritarianism under a different name. Marxist-Leninists groups have traditionally emphasized the need for a vanguard party and the dictatorship of the proletariat, ideas which are fundamentally opposed to the anarchist focus on anti-authoritarianism and maximum individual freedom. Although orthodox Marxism predicts that the state will "wither away" with time, we have repeatedly seen in communist regimes a consolidation of state power and its attendant repression and insistence on conformity.

Libertarianism: Libertarians are often confused with anarchists and do, in fact, overlap in many respects. Both share an emphasis on individual freedom and the desire to do away with the state. Many libertarians assign primary importance to the individual and emphasize the principle of enlightened self-interest. Many anarchists tend to focus more on mutual aid and efforts to improve the circumstances of all members of the community. Libertarianism is most often characterized by its economic viewpoint, which places maximum value on unimpeded free market capitalism (some proponents call themselves "anarcho-capitalists"), condones the use of force in the defense of private property, opposes any governmental interference that impedes efforts to maximize personal economic gain, and discounts values that can not be measured in economic (typically monetary) terms. While libertarians are anti-state, they often are not opposed to domination and hierarchy in all its forms (there is often a strain of "survival of the fittest" or "[economic] might makes right" in the libertarian philosophy), and do not seek to radically alter societal power relations, especially those based on economic power. Anarchists tend to have a more socialist perspective, and favor doing away with any system in which the wealthy can achieve disproportionate benefit while the less fortunate suffer undue hardship. While anarchists value individual initiative, intelligence, and creativity, it is recognized that those who possess such talents to a lesser degree should still be treated with respect and justice. Objectivists are an extremist type of libertarian. The Libertarian Party is relatively moderate, and tends to focus on issues like electoral reform, abolishing drug laws, and reducing governmental regulation. Many libertarians are "minarchists" who believe that some form of government is necessary but that it should be as minimal and unobtrusive as possible. The question of what type of economic system would exist in an anarchist society is an open one. Some anarchists believe that all forms of capital and the market economy must be abolished, others favor a system that promotes worker ownership and full participatory democracy within a market economy, and still others believe that a variety of economic systems can co-exist as long as they do not try to impose their systems and values on each other.

"Liberalism": The prevailing political notions in this country equate anarchism with leftism, and leftism with liberalism, but there are real differences, both quantitative and qualitative. The idea of "the left" is problematic in the 1990s, since much of modern politics tends to fall outside the traditional left (liberal)/right (conservative) spectrum. Although most anarchists do support "progressive" causes, anarchism does not really have a place within the traditional political spectrum. Some theorists have proposed a matrix that looks at degree of economic authoritarianism and degree of social authoritarianism as two separate axis; often those who favor economic liberty oppose social liberty and vice versa. Much of modern progressive politics is based on "identity politics," the idea that one's primary concerns and alliances should be made on the basis of race, gender and/or sexual orientation. Although many anarchists are heavily invested in identity politics, a more comprehensive anarchist philosophy looks forward to a time when people will not need to focus so much on such categorizations. While liberals tend to advocate efforts to reform the existing system (through such means as voting, lobbying, and organized demonstrating), anarchists have a more radical view, and wish to replace corrupt institutions entirely, and refashion a more humane society by means of direct action, without reliance on any form of statist intervention. While anarchists generally recognize the validity of evolutionary as well as revolutionary change, they acknowledge that in order to achieve a true reordering of society it is necessary to eradicate hierarchical dominance relations wherever they exist; this has not historically been a priority of liberals. Anarchists recognize that the structures of power themsleves (be they capitalist or communist, "democratic" or totalitarian) are the root of the problem, and as such, cannot be the basis for a solution. Although some anarchists engage in voting and organized protest in the belief that even small localized improvements are worthwhile, they recognize that such activities are merely interim steps, which one must go beyond in order to achieve real and lasting change.

Nihilism: In contrast to the "anti-everything" credo of nihilism, anarchists do not promote random violence, destruction, and "every man for himself" lawlessness (although there are always a few with this philosophy who call themselves "anarchists"). The common perception that anarchy is equivalent to chaos is an unfortunate misconception arising from the widespread belief, instilled by those in power, that authority is necessary to maintain order. Anarchists believe that an efficient, organized, and just society can be achieved on a non-hierarchical, decentralized, and participatory basis.

Some Issues of Contention

Anarchists hold disparate views on many issues. One of the major areas of disagreement is the question of the individual versus the community. Individualist anarchists place primary importance on the freedom of the individual, while anarcho-communists (and anarcho-syndicalists) focus on the benefit of the social group at large, and mutualists lie somewhere in between. In an ideal anarchist society, it is hoped that the needs of the community as a whole can be met in a just manner without unduly impinging on the free will and self-determination of the individuals within it.

Another debate within the anarchist movement concerns the issues of ecology and technology. Classical anarchism displays similarities to the traditional Marxian notions of the value of science and rationalism, and the belief that technological progress generally benefits society. Many modern anarchists believe that technology is inherently neither good nor evil, but that it must be scrutinized and applied in a socially responsible manner in order to best serve those who use it and are affected by it. Other contemporary anarchists have an anti-technology, ecology-centered perspective (the most extreme being primitivists and neo-Luddites), and believe that an anarchist society can only be achieved by abandoning technological advances and returning to a more primitive, localized and ecologically harmonious way of life.

The issue of nationalism is also important. In general, anarchists advocate the idea of internationalism (or rather, `no-nation'alism) and view nationalism and patriotism as manifestations of the state's attempt to increase its power by promoting artificial divisions among people. The nation-state is a construct that serves the interests of various elites, while the lower strata of the population remains in similar deplorable circumstances throughout the world. Despite this, some anarchists maintain that it is worthwhile to support certain national liberation struggles (such as the efforts of the Palestinians in the middle east, Black nationalists in the U.S., and oppressed indigenous peoples everywhere) in the belief that smaller independent nations, albeit authoritarian, are preferrable to exploitive, monolithic empires.

Currents within the Modern Anarchist Movement

Today's "anarchist movement" can more accurately be viewed as a collection of different movements that have various political and philosophical features in common. Building on, and sometimes diverging from, the principles of classical anarchism, there are a variety of groups that are enlarging the scope of contemporary anarchism and redefining traditional notions of anarchy.

Anarcha-feminists meld the ideals of feminism and anarchism. Anarcha-feminists focus on the liberation of women and the role of the patriarchy more than classical anarchists, but not to the exclusion of other forms of oppression (as some other types of feminism have done). Not all women anarchists consider themselves anarcha-feminists, nor must an anarcha-feminist be female -- the distinction is largely a matter of how "woman-centered" one's values are and which aspects of domination are emphasized. As is the case with many present day political movements, the issue of gender separatism remains unresolved. On one hand, the perpetuation within the anarchist movement of the same artificial gender divisions that have been imposed by the hierarchical and patriarchal social order may be inimical to the creation of true equality and to the breaking down of barriers which anarchists hope to accomplish. On the other hand, many women feel the need to maintain a women's space within a movement that has traditionally been male-dominated, and believe that the validity of women's concerns must be recognized and integrated into the anarchist philosophy before unity can be achieved. Anarcha-feminists generally reject statist solutions to women's problems (such as the censorship of pornography in an attempt to reduce violence against women) in favor of self-empowerment and direct action. Anarcha-feminist organizing can be characterized by an emphasis on decentralization, participatory decision making and action on a grassroots level. Anarcha-feminists generally believe that the fulfillment of human potential can best be achieved by moving beyond traditional gender roles and encouraging the development of beneficial "masculine" and "feminine" qualities in all people, and equality in all relationships.

Many modern anarchists concentrate on applying the ideals of free will and self-determination to their personal lives. Within this tendency there is an emphasis on the acceptance of a variety of options in the realm of sexuality, family, and interpersonal relationships. Relationships should be based on the free choice and consent of all individuals involved, and not constrained by governmental, religious or societal restrictions. There are many queer anarchists -- gay, lesbian, transgendered, and perhaps especially bisexual; anarchism's promotion of the breakdown of traditional categorization schemes seems particularly relevant to those with non-traditional and/or marginalized sexual and gender identities. As with feminists, some gay/lesbian/queer groups embrace anti-authoritarian principles and direct action (for example, AIDS activists who organize underground needle exchange programs and buyer's clubs for non-FDA-approved drugs). Recognizing that traditional mandates such as marriage, the patriarchal nuclear family, and enforced reproduction have been devised to serve the interests of those in positions of power and authority, anarchists emphasize the exploration of creative, voluntary relationship alternatives such as nonmonogamy, extended families, and communal child rearing, in addition to the more common traditional options. Anarchists generally want to get government out of the business of approving personal relationships, rather than extending such approval to same-sex relationships. Anarchist queers also typically oppose efforts to increase the gay presence in oppressive institutions such as the military.

In contrast to classical anarchism's adherence to atheism (largely in response to the destructive influence of traditional authoritarian religious institutions), many modern anarchists emphasize spirituality, both the neo-pagan variety and liberation theology within traditional religions. This reflects the belief that the maximization of human potential necessitates a recognition of the spiritual and transcendental aspects of human personality and culture as well as the rational. In the realm of morality, such anarchists rely on personal responsibility and concern for others rather than on the pronouncements of legal or moral authorities. Spiritual anarchists generally emphasize the interconnectedness of all life, and their beliefs commonly coincide with those of ecologically oriented, nature-centered anarchists. Yet there remains a substantial atheist element among anarchists who believe that the idea of "sacredness" and a reliance on a "higher order" reinforce traditional hierarchical notions and are inimical to the achievement of full human freedom.

Anarchist ideals are often espoused by youth within the punk, alternative art, rave, "deadhead" and radical student cultures. These young people attempt to escape the injustice and alienation of life in the prevailing consumer society by forming communities of resistance based on direct action and means of self-reliance such as collective living, squatting, info shops and the creation of economic alternatives such as food cooperatives and independent, non-corporate music production and distribution. While these young people accept many of the tenets of classical anarchism (although commonly not under that label), they are typically more concerned with applying the principles of anti-authoritarianism and self-determination in a practical way to their resistance activities and their daily lives. Some contemporary anarchists, however, eschew such "lifestylism," and instead focus on building more formalized groups and networks that can organize for broader social change.

Anarchists are involved with a wide array of publishing projects, from informal one-time `zines to established newspapers and book publishers with long histories. Anarchists are increasingly making use of the Internet and other means of electronic communication. The Internet has often been described as an example of anarchy in action, and it has indeed grown and prospered with no central governmental authority. Electronic communications provide a way to transcend national borders, and may minimize the importance of cultural barriers such as race and gender as well. However, there is a definite danger that increasing reliance on electronic communication will reinforce economic barriers, creating a society of information-age "haves" and "have nots." Anarchists have used electronic communication to plan events, spread important news items, and exchange information; there are mailing lists and Usenet newsgroups devoted to anarchism and anti-authoritarianism, as well as more ambitious projects such as the Spunk Press electronic archives. Clearly governments fear the freedom of the net, and are increasing their efforts to crackdown on the free flow of informations (in the guise of anti-obscenity and anti-terrorism). Other anarchists oppose electronic communications, both because they resist "mediated," non-face-to-face interaction and because of the detrimental environmental effects of technology.


In summary, anarchism is a diverse, broadly defined philosphy that has been adopted in one form or another by a wide range of individuals and groups, many of whom do not explicitly label themselves as "anarchist." Anarchism can have relevance to all facets of one's existence. In emphasizing freedom, self-determination, personal responsibility, direct action, and the creation of voluntary, cooperative alternatives, anarchism has the vision and the flexibility to provide a viable way to transform one's own life, while working for the radical and lasting social change that will transform the world.

Liz A. Highleyman --
Last updated: 10 July 1995