Anarchist FAQ/What is Anarchism?/1.1

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A.1.1 What does "anarchy" mean?[edit]

The word "anarchy" is from the Greek, prefix an (or a), meaning "not," "the want of," "the absence of," or "the lack of", plus archos, meaning "a ruler," "director", "chief," "person in charge," or "authority." Or, as Peter Kropotkin put it, Anarchy comes from the Greek words meaning "contrary to authority." [1]

While the Greek words anarchos and anarchia are often taken to mean "having no government" or "being without a government," as can be seen, the strict, original meaning of anarchism was not simply "no government." "An-archy" means "without a ruler," or more generally, "without authority," and it is in this sense that anarchists have continually used the word. For example, we find Kropotkin arguing that anarchism "attacks not only capital, but also the main sources of the power of capitalism: law, authority, and the State." [2] For anarchists, anarchy means "not necessarily absence of order, as is generally supposed, but an absence of rule."[3] Hence David Weick's excellent summary:

"Anarchism can be understood as the generic social and political idea that expresses negation of all power, sovereignty, domination, and hierarchical division, and a will to their dissolution. . . Anarchism is therefore more than anti-statism . . . [even if] government (the state) . . . is, appropriately, the central focus of anarchist critique."[4]

For this reason, rather than being purely anti-government or anti-state, anarchism is primarily a movement against hierarchy. Why? Because hierarchy is the organisational structure that embodies authority. Since the state is the "highest" form of hierarchy, anarchists are, by definition, anti-state; but this is not a sufficient definition of anarchism. This means that real anarchists are opposed to all forms of hierarchical organisation, not only the state. In the words of Brian Morris:

"The term anarchy comes from the Greek, and essentially means 'no ruler.' Anarchists are people who reject all forms of government or coercive authority, all forms of hierarchy and domination. They are therefore opposed to what the Mexican anarchist Flores Magon called the 'sombre trinity' -- state, capital and the church. Anarchists are thus opposed to both capitalism and to the state, as well as to all forms of religious authority. But anarchists also seek to establish or bring about by varying means, a condition of anarchy, that is, a decentralised society without coercive institutions, a society organised through a federation of voluntary associations." [5]

Reference to "hierarchy" in this context is a fairly recent development -- the "classical" anarchists such as Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin did use the word, but rarely (they usually preferred "authority," which was used as short-hand for "authoritarian"). However, it's clear from their writings that theirs was a philosophy against hierarchy, against any inequality of power or privileges between individuals. Bakunin spoke of this when he attacked "official" authority but defended "natural influence," and also when he said:

"Do you want to make it impossible for anyone to oppress his fellow-man? Then make sure that no one shall possess power." [6]

As Jeff Draughn notes, "while it has always been a latent part of the 'revolutionary project,' only recently has this broader concept of anti-hierarchy arisen for more specific scrutiny. Nonetheless, the root of this is plainly visible in the Greek roots of the word 'anarchy.'" [7]

We stress that this opposition to hierarchy is, for anarchists, not limited to just the state or government. It includes all authoritarian economic and social relationships as well as political ones, particularly those associated with capitalist property and wage labour. This can be seen from Proudhon's argument that "Capital ... in the political field is analogous to government ... The economic idea of capitalism, the politics of government or of authority, and the theological idea of the Church are three identical ideas, linked in various ways. To attack one of them is equivalent to attacking all of them ... What capital does to labour, and the State to liberty, the Church does to the spirit. This trinity of absolutism is as baneful in practice as it is in philosophy. The most effective means for oppressing the people would be simultaneously to enslave its body, its will and its reason." [8] Thus we find Emma Goldman opposing capitalism as it meant "that man [or woman] must sell his [or her] labour" and, therefore, "that his [or her] inclination and judgement are subordinated to the will of a master." [9] Forty years earlier Bakunin made the same point when he argued that under the current system "the worker sells his person and his liberty for a given time" to the capitalist in exchange for a wage. [10]

Thus "anarchy" means more than just "no government," it means opposition to all forms of authoritarian organisation and hierarchy. In Kropotkin's words, "the origin of the anarchist inception of society ... [lies in] the criticism ... of the hierarchical organisations and the authoritarian conceptions of society; and ... the analysis of the tendencies that are seen in the progressive movements of mankind." [11] For Malatesta, anarchism "was born in a moral revolt against social injustice" and that the "specific causes of social ills" could be found in "capitalistic property and the State." When the oppressed "sought to overthrow both State and property - then it was that anarchism was born." [12]

Thus any attempt to assert that anarchy is purely anti-state is a misrepresentation of the word and the way it has been used by the anarchist movement. As Brian Morris argues, "when one examines the writings of classical anarchists. . . as well as the character of anarchist movements. . . it is clearly evident that it has never had this limited vision [of just being against the state]. It has always challenged all forms of authority and exploitation, and has been equally critical of capitalism and religion as it has been of the state." [13]

Anarchy is not synonymous with chaos; nor do anarchists seek to create chaos or disorder. Instead, they wish to create a society based upon individual freedom and voluntary co-operation. In other words, order from the bottom up, not disorder imposed from the top down by authorities. Such a society would be a true anarchy, a society without rulers.

While we discuss what an anarchy could look like in section I, Noam Chomsky sums up the key aspect when he stated that in a truly free society "any interaction among human beings that is more than personal -- meaning that takes institutional forms of one kind or another -- in community, or workplace, family, larger society, whatever it may be, should be under direct control of its participants. So that would mean workers' councils in industry, popular democracy in communities, interaction between them, free associations in larger groups, up to organisation of international society."[14] Society would no longer be divided into a hierarchy of bosses and workers, governors and governed. Rather, an anarchist society would be based on free association in participatory organisations and run from the bottom up. Anarchists, it should be noted, try to create as much of this society today, in their organisations, struggles and activities, as they can.


  1. Kropotkin, Peter, Anarchism: A Collection of Revolutionary Writings, Roger N. Baldwin (Ed.), Dover Press, New York, 2002. p. 284.
  2. Kropotkin, Peter, Anarchism: A Collection of Revolutionary Writings, Roger N. Baldwin (Ed.), Dover Press, New York, 2002. p. 150.
  3. Tucker, Benjamin R., Instead of a Book, by a man too busy to write one: a fragmentary exposition of philosophical anarchism culled from the writings of Benj. R. Tucker, Haskell House Publishers, New York, 1969. p. 13.
  4. [Ehrlich, Howard J, Carol Ehrlich, David De Leon, Glenda Morris (eds.), Reinventing Anarchy: What are Anarchists thinking these days?, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1979. p. 139.
  5. "Anthropology and Anarchism," pp. 35-41, Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, no. 45, p. 38.
  6. The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, G.P. Maximov (ed.), The Free Press, New York, 1953. p. 271.
  7. Draughn, Jeff, Between Anarchism and Libertarianism: Defining a New Movement, available at [1]
  8. Nettlau, Max, A Short History of Anarchism, Freedom Press, London, 1996. pp. 43-44].
  9. Red Emma Speaks, Alix Kates Shulman (Ed.), Wildwood House, London, 1979. p. 50.
  10. The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, G.P. Maximov (ed.), The Free Press, New York, 1953. p. 187.
  11. Kropotkin, Peter, Anarchism: A Collection of Revolutionary Writings, Roger N. Baldwin (Ed.), Dover Press, New York, 2002. p. 158.
  12. Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, 3rd Edition, Vernon Richards (Ed.), Freedom Press, London, 1993. p. 19.
  13. Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, no. 45, p. 40
  14. Anarchism Interview: Noam Chomsky interviewed by Ziga Vodovnik, available at: [2]