Anarchism and the State

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Anarchism and the State


States have varied both historically and geographically such that for example David Held distinguishes between traditional states, feudal states,the polity of estates ,absolutist states and modern states while Richards and Smith distinguish between liberal states, social democratic states, collectivist states, totalitarian states and developmental states. Such distinctions are extremely important but I shall be concentrating in the following documents on the modern liberal democratic and social democratic states and later on important more recent changes in the nature of the modern British State.

A very useful brief definition of the state has been provided by Andrew Heywood. He states that " the state can most simply be described as a political association that establishes sovereign jurisdiction within defined territorial borders and exercises authority through a set of permanent institutions.” Using this definition let us isolate the key features of the state follows:

  1. States aim to ensure that citizens comply with their laws and they may do so by engineering the consent of the citizens and or by the use of force. The monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force is central to Max Weber's definition of the state. He states that "a compulsory political organisation with continuous operations will be called a "state" insofar as its administrative staff successfully upholds the claims to the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order."
  2. It has also been argued by the French Marxist Louis Althusser that institutions such as the family, the church, the education system and the mass media should be seen as part of the state since they are ideological state apparatuses which function to legitimise the continued existence of the capitalist state. However other theorists would claim that these institutions are part of civil society rather than the State.


  1. Modern states are organised on the basis of their Constitutions. A state's constitution may be defined as a system of rules and conventions by which the state is governed. Most importantly the Constitution specifies the relative powers of and relationships between the various political institutions of the state, most notably the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary and the rights and obligations of the citizen in relation to the state.


Anarchism literally means “without rule” or “without government”. It has traditionally been associated with chaos, social disorder, destruction, violence and even terrorism. For example in the latter stages of the French Revolution the so-called Enrages who were critical of the Jacobin government for their failure to do more to help the poor and the disadvantaged were described by the government as “anarchists” in this pejorative sense and since then the word “anarchist” has often been used, particularly by moderates as a term of political abuse. However increasingly from the late C18th political theorists building on long standing political criticisms of authority developed an altogether more positive interpretation of the term anarchism.


The case for Anarchism has come to rest essentially on the idea that political arguments in support of political authority and particularly arguments in support of the state are flawed. In the anarchist view the state does not guarantee social order, nor protect individual liberty, nor create the economic conditions for the improvement of working class life as conservatives, liberals and non-anarchist socialists would argue: rather the state constrains the individual and creates social disorder. Conversely the anarchists claim it is only individual freedom and the abolition of the state which will result in real human self-development and social harmony.  To see this let us discuss the Anarchist logo.


We must recognise that although the ideology of Anarchism contains important core elements there are also major divergences within this ideology. Anarchists are committed to the cause of individual liberty. They believe that individuals are the best judges of their own best interests and that they should therefore possess the high degree of liberty necessary to enable them to think and act as they see fit. The exercise of individual liberty will result also in social order and social harmony whereas if individuals are constrained by other individuals and organisations and especially if they are constrained by the State the result will be social disorder and social disharmony.


All anarchists of all types are united in their opposition to authority and in particular to the authority of the State. Whereas Liberals, Conservatives and non-Anarchist Socialists advance various justifications for the existence of the State Anarchists argue that States destroy individual liberty and in doing so undermine social order and harmony


All anarchists oppose all forms of the State. They obviously reject dictatorships as tyrannical but they also reject liberal democratic states and the theories which seek to justify them and they are perhaps particularly critical of so-called state socialist states which according to anarchists have perverted the aims of anarchist libertarian socialism.

Anarchists criticise liberal democratic states on the following grounds.


  • Liberal democratic states, like all states, interfere with individual freedom which is essential to promote human self-development and social order.
  • Constitutional governments have evolved over several generations but there is no logical reason why members of the present generation should have their political freedoms restricted by the decisions of past generations. The liberal claim that limited states protect our freedom is a myth which helps to legitimise governments and hide the fact that they govern in their own interests and not in the interests of the citizens. Liberals such as John Locke argued in the C17th that states were necessary to maintain the social order without which individual liberty would be impossible but also that individuals should be free [in a negative sense] from excessive state intervention and that they also had the right to rebel against the state and to remove tyrannical governments. Anarchists reject such theories on the grounds that even limited liberal “night watchman” restrict individual freedom and undermine opportunities for personal self-development through the use of individual judgement.
  • C17th Century liberals were not especially committed to liberal democracy based upon universal suffrage but Anarchists are critical also of the liberal democratic state which is also seen as restricting individual freedoms in various ways such that as Pierre Joseph Proudhon expressed it, “Universal suffrage is the counter–revolution” or as we hear sometimes in everyday conversation, “Don’t vote: it only encourages them.”  Anarchists criticise liberal democratic states on the following grounds.
  • Conservative and non-anarchist socialist arguments in support of the state are also invalid
  • We cannot rely on parliamentary representatives to govern in our interests since they will be corrupted quickly by their proximity to state power and in any case we can develop our individuality to the full only by participating personally in politics and relying on our own judgement, not by relying on the judgement of others.
  • Political parties cannot be trusted: they over-simplify issues and rely on misleading political slogans and demagoguery thereby misleading people and preventing them from thinking for themselves.
  • Even in a highly participatory democracy if decisions are taken on the basis of majority voting there are dangers involved in the possibility of the tyranny of the majority as some early liberal theorists also recognised. Decisions taken on the basis of majority voting are not necessarily correct decisions and anarchists argue that it is entirely justifiable for individuals to rely upon their own individual judgement and to disobey laws with which they disagree. [In anarchist societies to be discussed below it is hoped that communal decisions can be made on the basis of a social consensus constructed through rational discussion rather than on the basis of majority voting.]
  • Anarchists may also use arguments influenced by radical socialism [and possibly Marxism] to claim that even apparently democratically elected governments govern in the interests of the rich and powerful. Thus not only is our own freedom restricted when governments pass laws which we are forced either to obey or to risk punishment for non-compliance but these laws also defend the interests of the rich via the perpetuation of exploitation, economic inequality and poverty.
  • Exactly similar arguments apply to government taxation and spending: taxation takes away our freedom to spend our own money while the government spends money in accordance with the interests of the rich and /or in accordance with its own interests.
  • States are involved in economic competition with other states which may lead to wars in which citizens are misled by spurious appeals to nationalism into killing and maiming in the interests of the state.
  • Whereas social anarchists argue that the state is to be abolished partly because it is an instrument of capitalist oppression, anarcho-capitalists argue that the state is to be abolished because it inhibits the operation of laissez-faire capitalism which alone can protect individual freedom and generate rising living standards for all. In this respect anarcho-capitalism may be regarded as an extreme variant of neo-liberalism but its defence of economic inequality leads some social anarchists to deny that it is to be regarded as a form of anarchism. Again, more on anarcho-capitalism later.



Anarchism and Other Forms of Authority


Anarchists are likely to oppose other forms of authority as well as the authority of the state. Thus for example patriarchal family structures may inhibit individual freedom of women and children; schools may encourage an unthinking respect for authority among children which encourages them to accept monotonous and poorly paid work in later life without complaint; religion may encourage a fatalistic acceptance of economic inequality rather than a readiness to rebel against it and all forms of authority prevent individuals from developing their own individual judgement which alone can provide a basis for social harmony in anarchy.


As we shall see in more detail later the issue of authority does present some problems for anarchists.

  • Should they accept the authority of experts?
  • If they set up communes will it be necessary to choose representatives who, in some ways use their authority to undermine the individual freedom of the rest of the members?
  • Is there a danger that within anarchist communities the majority opinion will restrict the freedom of individuals opposed to the majority opinion?