Anarchy: Definition, Types, Schools of Thought

What Is Anarchy?

Anarchy, derived from a Greek word meaning "having no ruler," is a belief system that rejects governmental authority in favor of self-governing or community consensus that has become a synonym for chaos and the breakdown of civil order.

Key Takeaways

  • Anarchy, derived from a Greek word meaning "having no ruler," is a belief system that rejects governmental authority in favor of self-governing or community consensus that has become a synonym for chaos and the breakdown of civil order.
  • Individualist anarchists believe in the freedom of the self and oppose the authority of government while social anarchists believe that political power and resources should be shared equally by all in a community.
  • Most anarchists fall on the far-left end of the political spectrum.
  • Different types of anarchism include anarchist communism, anarchist socialism, green anarchism, and crypto-anarchism.
  • Critics of anarchism contend that it is unrealistic, idealistic, and potentially chaotic.

Understanding Anarchy

Anarchism is a political philosophy in opposition to the rule of government and the establishment of hierarchies.

It developed fully in the 20th century, but its roots as an epithet for extremism go back further, at least to the French Revolution. Self-described anarchists have formed fringe groups in tumultuous political times, such as the Russian Revolution and the Spanish Civil War.

As a political belief system, anarchy breaks roughly into two separate schools of thought. One rejects all government authority in favor of a belief in the individual's liberty and the right to self-govern. The other rejects government authority in favor of a belief in collectivism or the primacy of the group over the individual.

Anarchy is also used colloquially as a term denoting societal breakdown and collapse. While the common critique of anarchy is that it results in lawlessness and chaos, anarchist philosophy's adherents suggest that societies can remain intact and even thrive under alternatives to traditional hierarchies.

Some advocates of bitcoin currency would describe themselves as crypto-anarchists.

Anarchist Schools of Thought

As noted, there are two major schools of thought in anarchism, the individualist anarchists and the social anarchists. Anarcho-capitalism, meanwhile, represents a surprising variant of anarchism.

The Individualist Anarchists

The individualist tradition is strongly influenced by classical liberalism, as well as the beliefs of later writers such as Henry David Thoreau. Although this type of anarchism shares many threads with libertarian forms of socialism, it also rejects the emphasis on state power promoted by Karl Marx and his ideological descendants.

One of the leading thinkers of the individualist movement was Benjamin Tucker, who published the newsletter Liberty from the 1880s until 1908. Individual anarchism has influenced many bohemian movements, including the "Yippies" of the 1960s and the punk rockers of the 1980s.

The Social Anarchists

Social anarchists, by contrast, focus on the concept of positive liberty, which identifies freedom as not merely liberty from outside interference but the fulfillment of the individual's full potential when power and resources are shared equally among all members of a community.

They favor direct democracy along with common ownership of the means of production. This school of thought has a number of branches, including collectivist anarchism, also referred to as revolutionary socialism; anarcho-communism, also known as libertarian communism; and anarcho-syndicalism, which promotes collectivist labor unions with no union bosses to speak of.

The Anarcho-Capitalists

Anarcho-capitalists, or laissez-faire capitalists, see free-market capitalism as the basis for a free society.

Unlike many anarchists, they believe in some version of private property. If unhampered by the government, they maintain that private enterprise would provide all of the services that people need. That includes things like road construction and police protection. In this case, the group is similar in ideology to libertarians, although at the extreme edge, as they reject all state involvement in economic and personal matters.

Types of Anarchism

Throughout the years, people have applied anarchism in a wide variety of ways. They include:

  • Anarchist communism. The primary goal of anarchist communism is social equality. But unlike traditional communism where the state owns the means of production, the collective economy is self-governed under anarchist communism.
  • Anarchist socialism. Anarchist socialism seeks to combine the general concepts of anarchism and socialism. Its goal is a self-governed society that places the needs of the group over those of the individual.
  • Green anarchism. Green anarchism extends the basic principles of anarchism to environmental and animal rights issues. In other words, they believe in the liberation of both humans and of non-humans.
  • Crypto-anarchism. By supporting digital currency to sidestep the government's control and taxation of fiat money, crypto-anarchists believe that governmental authority can be weakened.

Criticisms of Anarchy

There are several criticisms of anarchy, including:

  • Unrealistic. Currently, there are no developed countries in the world that operate as 100% self-governed anarchies. While anarchist principles may work on a small regional scale, history has shown that anarchism is unfeasible on a large national scale.
  • Idealistic. Critics also suggest that it is basically impossible for individuals to either destroy governmental structure or establish some form of governmental structure.
  • Chaotic. Since anarchism rejects government-imposed structured order, critics suggest that anarchism inevitably leads to chaos and destruction.

Anarchist Influence on Present-Day Economics 

Anarchist philosophy was embraced by some of those who joined anti-war, anti-capitalist, and anti-globalization movements in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Anarchists were involved in the protests against the meetings of the World Trade Organization, Group of Eight, and the World Economic Forum, which led to the confrontations at the WTO conference in Seattle in 1999.

Crypto-anarchists support decentralized currency such as bitcoin. Some advocates of Bitcoin claim that cryptocurrency was created as a reaction against corrupt governments and financial institutions, and to undermine the authority of both.

Is Anarchy a Crime?

Having anarchist beliefs is not a crime, although seeking change through violent or illegal activity is. In the United States, authorities have not always recognized the distinction and anarchist activists have been subject to persecution or even deportation. According to the FBI, the majority of anarchists in the U.S. support change through non-violent, non-criminal means.

What Is the Difference Between Anarchy and Communism?

Anarchists believe that society should exist without a coercive government to rule the thoughts and actions of citizens. Communists, meanwhile, believe that the state should play a key role in redistributing resources and power.

What Is the Difference Between Antifascism and Anarchy?

Anarchy rejects any form of governmental authority, while antifascism specifically opposes fascist, authoritarian ideologies.

Correction–March 27, 2022: This article has been edited to clarify the influences on the individualist school.

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  1. Spartacus Educational. "Benjamin Tucker."

  2. Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford University Press, 1969, Pages 118-172.

  3. Federal Bureau of Investigation. "Domestic Terrorism, Anarchist Extremism: A Primer."