Anarchism: Recent Developments and Criticisms

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Anarchism: Recent Developments and Criticisms


Anarchism and the Modern World


The study of anarchism still revolves to a considerable extent around the ideas of classic anarchist theorists of the C18th, C19th and early C20th including Godwin, Stirner, Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Warren and Tucker. These writers wrote of times when new anarchist societies may potentially have been constructed based around small scale agriculture and relatively small scale industry although they did also speculate about how anarchist principles might be applied in a more heavily industrialised world.


No anarchist movement has ever had the opportunity to put its principles into practice on a large scale except in parts of Spain during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s and even there the movement was crushed by General Franco’s repressive authoritarian regime. In the aftermath of the 2nd World War as industrial countries experienced 20-30 years of relative prosperity and economic growth the possibility seemed limited that anarchist ideas would influence the development of national politics.


However supporters of anarchism have argued that from the late 1960s onwards anarchist ideas have again become increasingly important and relevant. New Left theorists of the 1960s developed increasingly powerful criticisms of both industrial capitalism and industrial state socialism. Industrial capitalism was generating economic growth which apparently resulted in rising living standards but New Left theorists argued that this economic growth was based upon the creation of false needs by the advertising industry; that  work was an increasingly alienating dehumanising experience; that apparently rising average living standards hid the existence of massive inequality and poverty especially when comparisons were made with the Third World; that racism and patriarchy were rampant and that mass entertainment industries simply deflected attention from all of the serious limitations of industrial capitalism. Meanwhile it had also become clear that the USSR had failed to deliver on the promise of real socialism.


New Left ideas certainly struck a chord among some of the well educated members of the younger generation but the 1960s passed and the 1970s and 1980s saw the rise of the New Right. According to its supporters New Right thinking amounted to a coherent set of ideas designed to increase the efficiency of capitalism and improve living standards for all. However it has also been criticised by one nation conservatives, liberals, social democrats and those on the further left of the political spectrum including some anarchists.


By the 1990s and 2000s there have occurred two wars in Iraq, increased fears of environmental degradation and global warming and an increasingly widespread belief that the new process of capitalist globalisation is the fundamental cause of both environmental damage and entrenched Third World poverty. Massive demonstrations have occurred against the globalisation movement and against the second war in Iraq and it is in this context that the enthusiastic supporter of anarchism, Peter Marshall writes that “in the 21st Century anarchism is not only an inspiring idea but part of a broader historical movement” and “at the beginning of the 3rd millennium anarchism is vibrant and more relevant than ever.”


Click here for a recent article by George Monbiot which expresses some current environmental concerns and thereby provides some useful background information for the understanding of anarchists’ involvement in the environmental movement.





It is difficult to summarise the strands of modern anarchism but we may include the following areas in which anarchism is relevant.

  • The American intellectual Noam Chomsky readily acknowledges the significant influence of anarchism on his thought. Chomsky is renowned for his opposition to what he sees as imperialistic USA foreign policy and also criticises the capitalist system as a whole using ideas similar to those of the New Left. He does emphasise that he believes states can serve some useful functions in the short term in that they reduce capitalist exploitation to some extent but he does believe in the abolition of states in the long run.
  • He has attracted criticism from some anarchists because of his short-term defence of the state and also from so-called primitivist anarchists who argue that if ecological catastrophe is to be averted we must turn our backs on urban technological living and return to a more natural state. Chomsky has argued that such a strategy would result in mass starvation and that it is necessary to utilise the benefits of technology in an environmentally friendly way rather than to turn our backs on technology. Many within the anarchist movement agree with him and support his criticisms of primitivist anarchism.
  • Anarchists have developed their own version of feminism known as anarcha –feminism which seeks to combine feminist demands with support for maximum possible individual freedom.
  • Anarchists are active in the Green and Anti-Globalisation Movements arguing that it is the continued activities of states and large corporations which are the ultimate causes of environmental damage and third world poverty.
  • Anarchist ideas overlap to some extent with the ideologies of liberalism and socialism and may therefore influence at least to a limited extent the content of these currently more popular ideologies.
  • Anarcho-capitalists also aim to publicise their ideas in support of free market capitalism without the state. Socialist anarchists deny that anarcho-capitalism is a form of anarchism.



Criticisms of Anarchism


The main elements of anarchist ideology may be revised with the help of the introductory chart which you already have…somewhere. Among the criticisms made of anarchism are the following.


Anarchism and the State


Anarchists argue that states are the main sources of social disorder and that anarchy, the absence of rule, is the only means by which social order can be achieved. However it has been argued that the anarchist critique of the state is misguided and that other ideological arguments in support of the state are more convincing. Thus in the classical liberal view as developed, for example by John Locke, states are seen as necessary for the defence of social order which in turn is seen as necessary for individuals to be able to exercise their individual liberty. Whereas according to anarchists the state destroys individual liberty classical liberals claim that the state safeguards individual liberty by protecting them from the encroachments of others and that the scope of the state can be restricted so that individuals have the negative freedom from excessive state intervention.


Furthermore social liberals would argue that the state can both provide for social order and via a range of welfare expenditures create the positive freedom for individuals to develop their talents and abilities to the full. Social democrats and democratic socialists would accept the social liberal argument in favour of welfare state expenditure but argue that welfare state expenditure should be much greater than proposed by social liberals and combined with redistributive taxation and government ownership or at least control of the means of production in order to create a socially just society.


The socialist anarchist view of the capitalist state would be broadly accepted by Marxists but Marxists reject the anarchist notion that the state must be abolished in the first stages of the socialist revolution believing that it must initially be retained to prevent counter-revolution and then allowed to wither away at some time in the future… a scenario which has never occurred in practice


Finally as an approximation we might argue that conservative views of the state are not dissimilar to the classical liberal view [in the case of neo-liberal conservatives] and not dissimilar to the social liberal view [in the case of one nation conservatives] and that neo-conservatives support an especially strong state to guarantee social order. In each case conservatives reject the anarchist view of the state.


Anarchism and Utopianism


[Utopianism is an important concept in Politics. It could also be argued that Marxism and radical democratic socialism are to some extent utopian ideologies]


Anarchist theories are criticised on the grounds that they are utopian but in order to assess the validity of this criticism it is necessary to clarify the meaning of the term utopianism. It is usually argued that utopian thought or utopianism involves the following elements:

  • existing societies are criticised as fundamentally flawed in several respects, for example as unjust, unequal and exploitative;
  • it is assumed that human nature is fundamentally cooperative and community- centred rather than competitive and self-interested or that human nature has the potential to develop in this direction in a suitable environment;
  • it is assumed that societies can be organised in such a way as to bring about personal fulfilment in both the public and the private sphere.



Let us now assess the extent to which anarchist thought may be considered utopian in terms of the above three characteristics bearing in mind the variability of the ideology of anarchism.



  1. Criticism of existing societies


There are important variations among anarchists in their criticisms of existing societies, their views of human nature and their proposals for the transformation or reorganisation of existing societies. All anarchists oppose the state but anarchist attitudes to private property vary. Thus Godwin, Kropotkin and Bakunin are all critical of the institution of private property and propose the collective ownership of the means of production while Proudhon, Warren and Tucker all propose some limited ownership of property in order to protect individual liberty and the anarcho-capitalists favour significant inequality in the ownership of private property. The Anarchist critique of existing societies could itself be criticised as utopian from the perspective of other ideologies.


  1. Human Nature


It might be argued that it is the views on human nature of Godwin and Kropotkin which are most optimistic and perhaps therefore most utopian. Thus these theorists argue that individuals can decide of their own free will to act in accordance with the good of the community and that the allocation of goods and services can be according to social need with no necessarily adverse effect on work incentives. They claim also that in anarchist societies there will be very little crime and that criminals should simply be persuaded to see the error of their ways rather than punished which will result only in further criminality.


The thought of Bakunin, Proudhon, Warren and Tucker is less utopian in that they all argue for the allocation of goods and services according to work done and whereas Bakunin argues for collective ownership of the means of production the other theorists argue for limited private ownership of property as a means of protecting individual liberty suggesting a rather less optimistic view of human nature. Anarcho-capitalists could be seen as having an even less optimistic view of human nature.


We currently have no way of knowing the characteristics of human nature but current experience suggests that humans are currently motivated to a considerable extent by self-interest in which case Godwin’s and Kropotkin’s views of human nature could be described as utopian as could Marxist and some other socialist views.


  1. Organisation of Anarchist Societies


If” anarchist” communities were successfully introduced critics have argued that they would not necessarily result in the high levels of individual liberty which anarchists support. Anarchists are unwilling to provide detailed blue-prints for future societies arguing that it will be for future generations to decide how they wish to organise themselves.


However they do provide some broad suggestions for the organisation of future anarchist societies. Such societies will be small scale; they will be based on direct democracy and linked to other small communities via representative assemblies which will only need to meet rarely; there will be no central state to control the overall organisation of these small communities.


In the social anarchist approach property will be owned collectively and it is assumed that individuals will decide freely to act in accordance with the needs of the community as a whole and will be prepared to work hard in the interests of the community rather than in accordance with their own self-interest.  When disagreements do arise these will be resolved via direct democracy in which decisions are arrived at via consensus following rational argument rather than through majority voting which would undermine the individual freedom of the minority. Conversely Warren and Tucker support the limited ownership of private property and wish to restrict the scope of community decision making to a minimum as a means of protecting individual freedom.


The dangers are that social anarchist schemes in practice will mean that commune based decisions will restrict the freedom of the individual just as much as they are restricted by state laws and that individualist anarchist schemes will restrict excessively community cooperation in the attempt to safeguard individual liberty.


Anarchists themselves would argue that their theories may well be utopian in the positive sense that they hold out the prospect of a much better future which should be an ideal for individuals to aim at. However critics of anarchism claim in the negative sense that it is pointless to aim for a utopian ideal if it is unattainable in practice.



Anarchist Methods and the Transition to Anarchism


Various criticisms have been made of anarchist methods. It is argued that the method of gradual, rational, peaceful persuasion of the validity of the anarchist cause as suggested for example by William Godwin has shown itself to be ineffective .Furthermore this is especially likely to be the case because anarchists may oppose in principle participation in organised political parties and/or pressure groups designed to advance their cause in the belief that the organisations themselves will undermine the individual freedom which anarchists support.


Anarchist- influenced individuals such as Tolstoy and Gandhi have recommended the creation of small scale rural communities based on anarchist principles but only a small minority of individuals have sought to follow this example in modern anarchist-influenced communes.


Other anarchists such as Bakunin and Kropotkin have argued that capitalism is a powerful and deeply entrenched system of economic and political domination which must be abolished via revolution. However critics have argued that the anarchist distaste for revolutionary political parties and their unrealistic belief in the spontaneous uprising of the people means that their aim of revolution is unlikely to be achieved.


Revolutionary activity of all kinds may in any case be criticised because of the violence that it will inevitably entail. Nevertheless outbreaks of anarchist violence have been relatively rare and many anarchists argue that violence alienates public support and that it will not be possible to introduce a peaceful, harmonious society via violent methods.


Anarchist principles have been introduced on a large scale only briefly in parts of Spain during the Spanish Civil War but contemporary anarchists believe that they have an important role to play in the evolution of modern societies. They therefore participate actively in the environmental, anti-globalisation, feminist, gay rights and animal liberation movements hoping to emphasise the relevance of anarchist principles within these movements. Participation may involve peaceful, demonstration, non-violent direct action and simple attempts through rational argument to persuade others of the validity of anarchist ideas.


However anti-globalisation demonstrations and some forms of direction by anarchist-inspired animal rights groups have sometimes led to violence [not always necessarily caused by the anarchists themselves] but as mentioned above many anarchists are in any case entirely opposed to violence. According to anarchists it is states themselves and not small anarchist groups that are responsible for all major forms of violence.


The prospects for anarchism may appear limited because many individuals living in capitalist societies seem content with the standards of living generated in such societies and they are more likely to be influenced by more popular mainstream ideologies of conservatism, liberalism and socialism. However anarchist principles do, to some extent feed into the ideologies of liberalism and socialism [and even into conservatism in the form of anarcho-capitalism.]


Also it is conceivable that as awareness increases of the possibly negative consequences of globalisation for Third World and the environment the limitations of the above criticisms of anarchism will come to be recognised. However it also continues to be claimed that globalisation can be a beneficial  force for Third World development or that even if the criticisms of globalisation are accurate anarchist theory can contribute little to the solution of the problems caused by globalisation. Political controversy continues!