Anarchism Explained: Why Should the State be Abolished?

What do anarchists ask for? Do they necessarily want to use violence to get there? And what are the main differences between anarchist groups such as mutualists and anarcho-capitalists?

Aug 23, 2023By Joseph T F Roberts, PhD Political Philosophy

anarchism explained


We all have some preconceptions of what “anarchism” means. But what is the actual political philosophy that anarchists argue for? In some senses, there are as many forms of anarchism as there are anarchists. Some anarchists advocate the abolition of property rights, others argue they should be strengthened. Some anarchists are strict individualists, others champion more communal forms of living. What all anarchists agree on, however, is that the state ought to be abolished. In this article, we explore both the common features of anarchism and the points of contention between different schools.


The Origins of Anarchism


The anarchist symbol, Via Wikicommons


The term anarchism derives from the ancient greek term arché, meaning both “first principle from which others are derived” and “ruling power.” Anarchism is the negation of the existence of an arché: the rule of no one, or non-rule. As self-described anarchists use the term, it does not mean chaos, or disorder, or civil war, even if this is the meaning that it has acquired in the popular imagination (Kinna, 2009, p. 7).


Although Pierre Joseph-Proudhon was the first person to actively describe themselves as an anarchist, the historical precedents can be traced back to the Epicureans and Cynics. Both groups of philosophers argued that achieving tranquility and self-control required abstaining from politics. Where they differed, however, is in the methods they believed should be used to achieve this. Whereas Epicurus advocated attempting to go unnoticed by living a simple life outside the city-state, Diogenes the Cynic took a more “in-your-face” approach, arguing we ought to actively disrespect political authority and the norms of behavior they uphold.


Painting of Diogenes the Cynic by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1860, via the Walters Art Museum.

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The anarchist historical tradition is not limited to ancient Greece. Historians of anarchism are keen to draw connections with previous movements, arguing that anarchist beliefs played a key role in motivating the leveller and digger movements during the English Civil War, the digger movement during as well as featuring in the works of 18th-century philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and William Godwin.


What Are the Core Anarchist Beliefs?

Stop the State poster, by A Person. Via Wikimedia commons.


The first core anarchist belief is that the state (and other forms of political authority) is unjustified. The main reason for this belief is the value of human freedom (Honderich, 1995, p. 30). State institutions, by their very nature, restrict freedom by imposing obligations to follow the law (and imposing punishments for those who fail to comply). Anarchism is a social philosophy that seeks to free people from both the political domination and economic exploitation of the state (Kinna, 2009, p. 3). In the words of Pierre Joseph Proudhon:


“To be governed is to be kept in sight, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, estimated, valued, censured, commanded. To be governed is to be at ever operation, at every transaction, noted, registered, enrolled, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorised, admonished, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under the pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, trained, ransomed, exploited, monopolised, extorted, squeezed, mystified, robbed: then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, despised, harassed, tracked, abused, clubbed, disarmed, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed.”
(Proudhon, What Is Property?, quoted in Kinna 2009, p. 74).


Portrait of Al Capone in 1930. Via Wikicommons


The state, for anarchists, is no different from protection rackets of the sort run by the mafia. They are both based on coercion, fear, violence, and intimidation and are thus equally illegitimate.


Precisely what this entails in practice, however, is not always clear for anarchists. Some anarchists argue that given the illegitimacy of the state, we ought to take practical steps to abolish it, including through violent revolution if necessary. Others, such as the Agorists, take a more measured approach, arguing that we ought to seek to try and live our lives outside the authority of the state as much as possible by engaging in counter-economic activities such as black-market (and therefore tax-free) exchange.


Kill the Black Market Poster from WWII, via the US National Archives Catalog.


Importantly, anarchist objections to the state should not be taken to be objections to social organization (Honderich, 1995, p. 31). Despite the fact that the term “anarchy” is often used to describe situations of chaos, disorder, and the breakdown of society, the anarchist movement does not repudiate all forms of social organization. The argument is, rather, that the coerced membership in a political society should be replaced with voluntary membership in communities that individuals are free to leave, and in which the rules of cooperation are agreed upon through consensus-building. If there is unanimity, there is no need for hierarchical structures of command and obedience. Organization can thus be achieved without domination.


Do The (Statist) Means Justify the (Anarchist) Ends?

Anarchist Jacket, by Mugli, Via Wikimedia commons.


As well as being fervently anti-state, anarchists tend to be apolitical in that they do not see the institutions of the state as means of achieving change (Kinna, 2009, p. 4). Anarchist groups tend to abstain from creating political parties, and many anarchists personally abstain from voting (Kinna, 2019, p. 19).


It is this aspect of anarchism which led to the split between the anarchists (led by Bakunin) and the Marxists at the First International; an international federation of working men’s group founded in London in 1864, which aimed to abolish capitalist states in favor of a federation of socialist communities. Bakunin objected to Marx’s plan for achieving change, “believing that involvement with lawmaking institutions would likely dampen the revolutionary ardour of the oppressed and mesh it in the very systems that regulated their exploitation and oppression.” (Kinna, 2019,p. 15).


Although anarchists tend not to engage in traditional forms of political activity, such as voting, they do participate in other forms of political activity, such as protests, civil disobedience, political education, squatting, boycotts, and the creation of voluntary communities which operate outside the law as far as is practicable. The goal of these activities is generally to explain and illustrate the desirability of anarchist ideals (Kinna, 2019, p. 101).


Anarchist Protest in 2017, by Fibonacci Blue. Via the author’s Flickr.


The reason for preferring the forms of activism over others is often justified by the view that direct action should exemplify a unity of means and ends. That is, the methods used to achieve the goal of a stateless, free, society should themselves celebrate the value of freedom and should avoid relying on the statist institutions they aim to abolish.


For some anarchists, this commitment to the unity of means and ends implies that violence should be avoided. Anarcho-capitalists, for example, base their philosophy on a principle of non-aggression, which forbids the initiation violence or threats of violence against people or their property. Violence is permissible, on this view, only if it is defensive. Other anarchists are less scrupulous about avoiding violence. Take Bakunin as an example. Famous for his dictum that “the passion for destruction is a creative passion too” (Kinna, 2009, p. 9), Bakunin was a fervent supporter of multiple revolutionary uprisings across Europe, which ultimately led to his incarceration in Siberia. Other anarchists have also engaged in acts of terrorism, including the bombing of the Liceu opera house in Barcelona in 1893.


Visions of an Anarchist Society

Schools of Anarchism, Via Wikimedia commons.


As is to be expected from a group of thinkers who make freedom their central value, different anarchists envision different ideal societies. This has led to anarchists appending “a dizzying array of prefixes and suffixes to ‘anarchism to describe their particular beliefs. Anarchism has been packaged in anarcho-syndicalist, anarcho-feminist, eco-anarchist, and anarcho-communist, christian, social, anarcho-capitalist, reformist, and primitivist varieties.” (Kinna, 2009, p. 18)


In a sense, there are as many anarchisms as there are anarchists. However, most anarchists fall into either collectivist or individualist camps.


On the collectivist side we have, for example, Pierre Joseph Proudhon, who advocates a society based on small enterprises and independent craftsmen joined together by a loose federation. Other collectivist anarchists include anarchs-communists such as Peter Kropotkin, who favor the abolition of property and the organization of society into small communes in which the means of subsistence and production are held in common. These more communal forms of anarchism place great importance on mutual aid. Those who can give more than they take should strive to do so. Those who need to take more than they can give should feel no shame in doing so.


Anarcho-capitalist flag, via Wikimedia Commons.


On the more individualistic side of the spectrum we have, for example, the Anarcho-capitalists Murray Rothbard and Milton Friedman, who are both staunch defenders of private property and free markets. Their objection to the state stems not from the fact the state imposes private property, but from the fact that it does not uphold it. Taxation, in their view, is theft, and the reason for abolishing the state is to reduce this theft.


Unlike their more collectivist brethren, individualist anarchists do not place much importance on mutual aid. Whilst they are not opposed to the creation of collectives in which individuals give over control over their property to the group, this is not an obligation everyone can be held to. Those who wish to live in communities that uphold individual property rights should be free to create those communities with like-minded others.




Honderich, Ted. (1995) The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford University Press, Oxford.


Kinna, Ruth. (2009) Anarchism: A Beginner’s Guide. Oneworld, Oxford.


Kinna, Ruth. (2019) The Government of No One: The Theory and Practice of Anarchism. Pelican books, London.

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By Joseph T F RobertsPhD Political PhilosophyI am currently a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Law and Philosophy at the University of Birmingham. Prior to this, I completed my Ph.D. in Political Theory at the University of Manchester, where I wrote a thesis on the moral permissibility of Body Modification Practices and, specifically, whether or not we have the right to pursue them without being interfered with by others. My current research focuses on the limits of consent, embodiment, and the regulation of recreational drugs.