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Debate: Anarchism

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Is Anarchism a valuable political ideology?

This article is based on a Debatabase entry written by Richard Mott. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.


Background and Context of Debate:

On 1st May 2000, the London May Day Carnival against Capitalism, a peaceful demonstration against capitalism, turned into a riot that led to the defacing of the Cenotaph and millions of pounds worth of damage to City buildings. Similar violence has been seen at other large-scale anti-capitalism protests, such as at the World Trade Organisation’s talks in Seattle. In these circumstances, people have come to question the rhetoric and claims of the anarchists. So is anarchism a defensible policy ? Can it be supported both in theory and in practice?

Argument #1


Anarchism is essentially a fight for human freedom. Modern states, even those which claim to be democracies, stifle their citizens with oppressive and artificial machinery such as laws and taxes. These are imposed by the people who run the state - the elites, the governing classes. Anarchists believe it is better to live without such controls imposed by such people. This does not mean they stand for complete chaos though; they support co-operation and barter between individuals as profitable. Only without controls can humans truly live naturally and freely.

  • "Lord of the Flies" is not a study of how an anarchist society would fail, Jack became dictator over hunters. The book was a story of how struggles for power corrupt and destroy, how a state no matter what size is inherently violent (this is compounded by the ending of the novel when the boys are rescued from the war on their island and reprimanded by a naval captain who is in command of a warship searching to kill its own enemies), and how hierarchy and authority allow a seemingly good natured child i.e. Roger to turn into a cold-blooded killer and torturer because he was acting on the orders of a higher power.

Anarchists desire a decentralised society, based on free association. We consider this form of society the best one for maximising the values we have outlined above -- liberty, equality and solidarity. Only by a rational decentralisation of power, both structurally and territorially, can individual liberty be fostered and encouraged. The delegation of power into the hands of a minority is an obvious denial of individual liberty and dignity. Rather than taking the management of their own affairs away from people and putting it in the hands of others, anarchists favour organisations which minimise authority, keeping power at the base, in the hands of those who are affected by any decisions reached.

Free association is the cornerstone of an anarchist society. Individuals must be free to join together as they see fit, for this is the basis of freedom and human dignity. However, any such free agreement must be based on decentralisation of power; otherwise it will be a sham (as in capitalism), as only equality provides the necessary social context for freedom to grow and development. Therefore anarchists support directly democratic collectives, based on "one person one vote."

We should point out here that an anarchist society does not imply some sort of idyllic state of harmony within which everyone agrees. Far from it! As Luigi Galleani points out, "[d]isagreements and friction will always exist. In fact they are an essential condition of unlimited progress. But once the bloody area of sheer animal competition - the struggle for food - has been eliminated, problems of disagreement could be solved without the slightest threat to the social order and individual liberty." [The End of Anarchism?, p. 28] Anarchism aims to "rouse the spirit of initiative in individuals and in groups." These will "create in their mutual relations a movement and a life based on the principles of free understanding" and recognise that "variety, conflict even, is life and that uniformity is death." [Peter Kropotkin, Anarchism, p. 143]

Therefore, an anarchist society will be based upon co-operative conflict as "[c]onflict, per se, is not harmful. . . disagreements exist [and should not be hidden] . . . What makes disagreement destructive is not the fact of conflict itself but the addition of competition." Indeed, "a rigid demand for agreement means that people will effectively be prevented from contributing their wisdom to a group effort." [Alfie Kohn, No Contest: The Case Against Competition, p. 156] It is for this reason that most anarchists reject consensus decision making in large groups.

So, in an anarchist society associations would be run by mass assemblies of all involved, based upon extensive discussion, debate and co-operative conflict between equals, with purely administrative tasks being handled by elected committees. These committees would be made up of mandated, recallable and temporary delegates who carry out their tasks under the watchful eyes of the assembly which elected them. Thus in an anarchist society, "we'll look after our affairs ourselves and decide what to do about them. And when, to put our ideas into action, there is a need to put someone in charge of a project, we'll tell them to do [it] in such and such a way and no other . . . nothing would be done without our decision. So our delegates, instead of people being individuals whom we've given the right to order us about, would be people . . . [with] no authority, only the duty to carry out what everyone involved wanted." [Errico Malatesta, Fra Contadini, p. 34] If the delegates act against their mandate or try to extend their influence or work beyond that already decided by the assembly (i.e. if they start to make policy decisions), they can be instantly recalled and their decisions abolished. In this way, the organisation remains in the hands of the union of individuals who created it.

This self-management by the members of a group at the base and the power of recall are essential tenets of any anarchist organisation. The key difference between a statist or hierarchical system and an anarchist community is who wields power. In a parliamentary system, for example, people give power to a group of representatives to make decisions for them for a fixed period of time. Whether they carry out their promises is irrelevant as people cannot recall them till the next election. Power lies at the top and those at the base are expected to obey. Similarly, in the capitalist workplace, power is held by an unelected minority of bosses and managers at the top and the workers are expected to obey.

In an anarchist society this relationship is reversed. No one individual or group (elected or unelected) holds power in an anarchist community. Instead decisions are made using direct democratic principles and, when required, the community can elect or appoint delegates to carry out these decisions. There is a clear distinction between policy making (which lies with everyone who is affected) and the co-ordination and administration of any adopted policy (which is the job for delegates).

These egalitarian communities, founded by free agreement, also freely associate together in confederations. Such a free confederation would be run from the bottom up, with decisions following from the elemental assemblies upwards. The confederations would be run in the same manner as the collectives. There would be regular local regional, "national" and international conferences in which all important issues and problems affecting the collectives involved would be discussed. In addition, the fundamental, guiding principles and ideas of society would be debated and policy decisions made, put into practice, reviewed, and co-ordinated. The delegates would simply "take their given mandates to the relative meetings and try to harmonise their various needs and desires. The deliberations would always be subject to the control and approval of those who delegated them" and so "there would be no danger than the interest of the people [would] be forgotten." [Malatesta, Op. Cit., p. 36]

Action committees would be formed, if required, to co-ordinate and administer the decisions of the assemblies and their congresses, under strict control from below as discussed above. Delegates to such bodies would have a limited tenure and, like the delegates to the congresses, have a fixed mandate -- they are not able to make decisions on behalf of the people they are delegates for. In addition, like the delegates to conferences and congresses, they would be subject to instant recall by the assemblies and congresses from which they emerged in the first place. In this way any committees required to co-ordinate join activities would be, to quote Malatesta's words, "always under the direct control of the population" and so express the "decisions taken at popular assemblies." [Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, p. 175 and p. 129]

Most importantly, the basic community assemblies can overturn any decisions reached by the conferences and withdraw from any confederation. Any compromises that are made by a delegate during negotiations have to go back to a general assembly for ratification. Without that ratification any compromises that are made by a delegate are not binding on the community that has delegated a particular task to a particular individual or committee. In addition, they can call confederal conferences to discuss new developments and to inform action committees about changing wishes and to instruct them on what to do about any developments and ideas.

In other words, any delegates required within an anarchist organisation or society are not representatives (as they are in a democratic government). Kropotkin makes the difference clear:

   "The question of true delegation versus representation can be better understood if one imagines a hundred or two hundred men [and women], who meet each day in their work and share common concerns . . . who have discussed every aspect of the question that concerns them and have reached a decision. They then choose someone and send him [or her] to reach an agreement with other delegates of the same kind. . . The delegate is not authorised to do more than explain to other delegates the considerations that have led his [or her] colleagues to their conclusion. Not being able to impose anything, he [or she] will seek an understanding and will return with a simple proposition which his mandatories can accept or refuse. This is what happens when true delegation comes into being." [Words of a Rebel, p. 132] 

Unlike in a representative system, power is not delegated into the hands of the few. Rather, any delegate is simply a mouthpiece for the association that elected (or otherwise selected) them in the first place. All delegates and action committees would be mandated and subject to instant recall to ensure they express the wishes of the assemblies they came from rather than their own. In this way government is replaced by anarchy, a network of free associations and communities co-operating as equals based on a system of mandated delegates, instant recall, free agreement and free federation from the bottom up.

Only this system would ensure the "free organisation of the people, an organisation from below upwards." This "free federation from below upward" would start with the basic "association" and their federation "first into a commune, then a federation of communes into regions, of regions into nations, and of nations into an international fraternal association." [Michael Bakunin, The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 298] This network of anarchist communities would work on three levels. There would be "independent Communes for the territorial organisation, and of federations of Trade Unions [i.e. workplace associations] for the organisation of men [and women] in accordance with their different functions. . . [and] free combines and societies . . . for the satisfaction of all possible and imaginable needs, economic, sanitary, and educational; for mutual protection, for the propaganda of ideas, for arts, for amusement, and so on." [Peter Kropotkin, Evolution and Environment, p. 79] All would be based on self-management, free association, free federation and self-organisation from the bottom up.

By organising in this manner, hierarchy is abolished in all aspects of life, because the people at the base of the organisation are in control, not their delegates. Only this form of organisation can replace government (the initiative and empowerment of the few) with anarchy (the initiative and empowerment of all). This form of organisation would exist in all activities which required group work and the co-ordination of many people. It would be, as Bakunin said, the means "to integrate individuals into structures which they could understand and control." [quoted by Cornelius Castoriadis, Political and Social Writings, vol. 2, p. 97] For individual initiatives, the individual involved would manage them.

As can be seen, anarchists wish to create a society based upon structures that ensure that no individual or group is able to wield power over others. Free agreement, confederation and the power of recall, fixed mandates and limited tenure are mechanisms by which power is removed from the hands of governments and placed in the hands of those directly affected by the decisions.

Anarchy, however, is not some distant goal but rather an aspect of current struggles against oppression and exploitation. Means and ends are linked, with direct action generating mass participatory organisations and preparing people to directly manage their own personal and collective interests. This is because anarchists see the framework of a free society being based on the organisations created by the oppressed in their struggle against capitalism in the here and now. In this sense, collective struggle creates the organisations as well as the individual attitudes anarchism needs to work. The struggle against oppression is the school of anarchy. It teaches us not only how to be anarchists but also gives us a glimpse of what an anarchist society would be like, what its initial organisational framework could be and the experience of managing our own activities which is required for such a society to work. As such, anarchists try to create the kind of world we want in our current struggles and do not think our ideas are only applicable "after the revolution." Indeed, by applying our principles today we bring anarchy that much nearer.


Views on Anarchism

The fact that anarchism is even a viable ideal in anyone's mind is absurd. Those that claim that governmental restraints hinder the true human form fail to look at the facts before them. It is notable that throughout history, human soceity that drifts away from laws and boundaries spirals into an uncontrollable free fall. A classic example can be found in the "Lord of the Flies" by Golding. These supposedly well groomed boys descended into a state of almost inrecognizable insanity. Jack's band of savages, (anarchists, hmmm, ponder that) eventually evolve to commit murder and general unrest throughout the subculture. Anarchism frees its self from supposed governmental red tape and policy making. This defies the very order of society which has spawned the intellectual feats of the past 800 years.

Anarchism is marked by exactly this sort of utopian, unrealistic argument - a diatribe based on the principle that the grass is always greener on the other side. Far from freeing humans, anarchy allow them to be dominated by primitive forces that a controlling state has eliminated, such as the use of physical force by the strong to oppress the weak. Laws and a police force are necessary to prevent this. What is more, a state allows industries to be organised and crops to be grown so as to support its citizens, and without these high-intensity techniques there is no way that all the population could be fed. All advances in art and science have been made possible by a state that brings people and resources together. Anarchism is merely a backward and dreamy approach to serious political matters.

Argument #2


Anarchists believe in a classless society. Modern democracies are divided into classes that continually fight each other; states have created barriers between men that cause hatred and misery. Anarchy removes these barriers, by removing the apparatus that makes economic subjection of others possible.


This is impossible. Some men and women achieve dominance over others due to natural intelligence, skill, cunning, attractiveness or any other advantage. This is nothing to do with a state, and anarchism would not make everyone equal.

Argument #3


States also repress their citizens by removing their ability to govern themselves. Most ‘democracies’ are in fact nothing of the sort; is a general election every 5 years really fully representative of individual’s opinions ? The existence of ‘spin-doctors’ and other such practices shows how governments are misleading the people, not being controlled by them.


Granted, there are many problems with democracy. But these can all be solved within the state structure, by devolving power downwards into regional government, and by holding more frequent referenda. There is no need to do away with the state altogether.

Argument #4


Anarchism has nothing to do with violent organisations that hijack anarchist events for their own reasons. The vast majority are peaceable protesters who would never use violence, and it is lowering the tone of the debate to try and condemn anarchism by association in this way. Anarchism is a viable and fair way of life, that allows humans to live and interact naturally, without a Big Brother controlling us.


As can clearly be seen from recent violent act, such as the May Day riots, anarchy is largely a front for organised terrorists gangs and violence-seeking thugs. Their activities are also cover for other civil trouble-makers, such as violent animal rights activists. Their calls for ‘pacifism’ belie their true nature, and their arguments smack of dangerous utopianism. Anarchists seek to subvert all the advances made my mankind over the last millennium.



  • This House believes that anarchy rules
  • This House would bring down the state

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