Another way of saying that anarchism takes freedom as its ultimate goal is to claim that it opposes authority. ‘All anarchists’, George Woodcock insists, deny authority'.34 Certainly many anarchists have argued this to be the case. Bakunin, who called himself an 'anti-authoritarian', advocated theabsolute rejection of every authority’ while Kropotkin maintained that anarchism works ‘to destroy authority in all its aspects’. 35 Malatesta also defined anarchy as ‘society organized without authority’, meaning by authority ‘the power to impose one’s will’.36 More recently, Colin Ward has called an anarchist society ‘a society which organizes itself without authority’.37

This definition of anarchism as an opposition to authority comes from the common definition of the State as the supreme authority within a given territory, and since all anarchists are opposed to the State, it is inferred that they are opposed to authority. Authority however is more fundamental and exists prior to the foundation of the State. In addition, it might be misleading to define anarchy as an absence of authority fo’r strictly speaking it would appear that a society without some form of authority is virtually inconceivable.”

Nevertheless, it is true to say that all anarchists are opposed to political authority in the sense that they deny anyone the legitimate right to issue commands and have them obeyed. As Robert Paul Wolff has argued, since the state is authority, the right to rule', anarchism which rejects the State is the only political doctrine consistent with autonomy in which the individual alone is the judge of his moral constraints.39 Anarchists also reject legal authority as defined by Max Weber as 'a belief in the "legality" of enacted rules and the right of those elevated to authority under such rules to issue commands'.4° Communist anarchists further reject what they calleconomic authority% as Faure pointed out, ‘Authority dresses itself in two principal forms: the political form, that is the State; and the economic form, that is private property’.41

Anarchists however are less clear-cut about traditional authority resting on a belief in ancient traditions and the legitimacy of the holders of the tradition. Kropotkin, for instance, stressed repeatedly that customs precede man-made laws to regulate human affairs, and thought they could replace them again in the future. Proudhon even accepted the need for patriarchal authority within the family while opposing it in wider society. Anarchists are also prone to being influenced by charismatic authority, that is by the exemplary character of an exceptional person. Godwin appeared to Shelley as a wise mentor and did not reject the role. Bakunin undoubtedly possessed enormous charisma and exploited it to influence his comrades. Many were also affected by Kropotkin’s saintly aura and were prepared to be his followers. Apart from Bakunin, they all saw the dangers of unthinking obedience to or slavish imitation of a leader.

It has been argued that anarchism does not preclude the legitimacy of every type of authority and that anarchists are really opposed only to `imposed authority, or authoritarianism’.42 Again, it has been asserted that libertarians reject ‘command-authority’ in coercive institutions, but are willing to accept ‘belief-authority’ in which a person voluntarily legitimizes the influence- any other person may have upon them. 43

There is some evidence to support this view. Some anarchists have accepted certain attenuated forms of authority. Bakunin, while rejecting the government of science, accepts the authority of superior or technical knowledge. However, while recognizing the authority of technical competence, he insists that the advice of an expert should only be accepted on the basis of voluntary consent: if I am to accept the authority of the cobbler in the matter of shoes, my decision to act on his advice is mine and not his. Malatesta also believes that it is inevitable that a person who has greater understanding and ability to carry out a given task will succeed more easily in having his opinion accepted, and that it is all right for him to act as guide in his area of competence for those less able than himself.

It is also the case that many anarchists look to some kind of censure in the shape of public opinion or social pressure as a means of influencing the behaviour of others in the absence of positive laws. Such censure can be extremely authoritarian by making people comply with threats. Indeed, in a society without public authority, Godwin wrote that ‘general inspection’ could provide a force ‘not less irresistible than whips and chains’ to reform conduct.” Bakunin also argued that the ‘only great and all powerful authority … we can respect is the collective and public spirits”45

More recently, Giovanni Baldelli has followed Bakunin in arguing that the ‘rule of authority’ is acceptable if it is based on competence as well as consent.46 David Wieck has gone even further to defend delegated authority if it does not entail power over persons.47 Alan Ritter has also tried to elaborate an anarchist justification of authority by claiming that it is legitimate if it is shared by all and if it is ‘intimate, particular and internal and cannot issue directives of a legal sort’.48 And Miller argues that anarcho communists accept a form of authority, although it is ‘non-compulsory, non-coercive, functionally specific, and exercised collectively in a particular locality or shares a particular interest’ .”

But it would be wrong to infer from this that despite their alleged claims to the contrary, anarchists in fact all accept some form of authority. Bakunin’s defence of the authority of superior knowledge, for instance, would be anathema to Godwin as an infringement of the right of private judgement. Any reliance on someone with superior knowledge is for him the most pernicious form of authority since it prevents independent thought and encourages a spirit of dependence. Again, while accepting that the influence of public opinion is preferable to the tyranny of the law, Godwin rightly insists that ‘coercion cannot convince, cannot conciliate, but on the contrary alienates the mind of him against whom it is employed’.” People may advise and admonish an individual, but he should act by his own deliberation and not theirs.

In general, anarchists reject the use of physical force or even manipulation by unconsciously changing beliefs and actions. They deny anyone the right to issue orders and have them obeyed. They are highly critical of political and bureaucratic authority and do not wish to become dominating leaders, even within small, informal groups. Instead, they prefer to influence others through persuasion, offering rational arguments for their anarchist beliefs and practices. Some may accept a temporary form of leadership based on competence, but most believe in leaderless groups and have no time for bosses or masters. Even if in practice anarchists have voluntarily followed charismatic leaders, they are aware of the dangers of such a form of leadership.

Michael Taylor argues that if we get a person to do something he would not otherwise have done by using convincing reasons, we are still exercising authority.5′ But this would seem to confuse persuasion with authority. What distinguishes authority from persuasion and influence is its claim to legitimacy, a claim which all anarchists deny. Authority is also invariably exercised in a clearly defined hierarchy in which superiors assert the right to issue commands and subordinates are obliged to obey. Of the classic anarchist thinkers, only Bakunin was ready to resort to manipulation through his ‘invisible dictatorship’ and his secret societies.

If they do not reject all forms of authority outright, all anarchists are suspicious of authority, especially that imposed from above, and seek to minimize its influence in society. They certainly do not want to erect an `anarchist authority’, even if all participate in it.52 What distinguishes anarchists from other socialists is the precise fact that they are ‘anti-authoritarian’. Unlike Engels, they believe it is quite possible to organize production and distribution without authority. For anarchists, organization without compulsion, based on free agreement and voluntary co-operation, is the only cure for authority. To this end, anarchists call for the decentralization of authority and finally for its maximum dissolution.


Authority is clearly a manifestation of power, but they are not identical. Power may best be defined as the ability to impose one’s will. Power is different from authority for where the latter asserts the right to command and the right to be obeyed, the former is the ability to compel compliance, either through the use or threat of force. A society without political authority can still have coercive power relationships.

In general, anarchists believe not only that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, but that power destroys both the executioner and victim of power. Their awareness of the corrupting nature of power is the basis of their criticism of concentrated power and their reluctance to relinquish any power to leaders and rulers. The State consists of nothing more than a small elite who have more power than the rest of society. Anarchists therefore call for the decentralization of political power in the short term and would like to see it dissolved as much as possible in the long term.

But power is not only political. Bertrand Russell defines power as ‘the production of intended effects’.53 Power in this sense in existing society is ubiquitous, diffuse and often concealed. Power over human beings may usefully be classified by the manner of influencing individuals or by the type of organization involved. An individual may be influenced by direct physical power over his body, (army and police); by rewards and punishments which act as inducements (economic organizations); by the sway of opinion or propaganda (schools, churches, political parties). Indeed, the distinctions between the organizations are not always so clear cut as they often use different forms of power at the same time.

Within society, there is also traditional power (an ancient form based on custom); newly acquired power (such as law based on coercive power of the State or ‘naked’ military power); and revolutionary power (of party or group). Anarchists would condemn all three, though some like Kropotkin would accept the first as the least pernicious, and others like Bakunin would accept the last in the form of a mass uprising. All however would oppose any centralization of power, which, as Alex Comfort has argued, leads to psychopathic leadership: ‘The greater the degree of power, and the wider the gap between governors and the governed, the stronger the appeal of office to those who are likely to abuse it, and the less the response which can be expected from the individual’.54 Even `anarcho-capitalists’ like Murray Rothbard assume individuals would have equal bargaining power in a market-based society.

At the same time, while opposing power over others, anarchists are not necessarily averse to power over oneself in the form of self-discipline, self-management, or self-determination. Given the unequal distribution of power between the rulers and the ruled, Bookchin has borrowed the language of liberation movements and made out a case for ’empowering’ the weaker members of society.” And they are not merely concerned with political power in the form of the State and government, but with economic power in society and patriarchal power in the family.

Anarchists are opposed to all power which is coercive and nonreciprocal, especially in the sense of domination which involves force and conflict between two parties. But they sometimes wield a form of power in trying to influence others by making things unpleasant. Indeed, in the place of law, Godwin and Kropotkin both look to public censure to reform wrongdoers. Tucker might well reduce ethics to the sole moral law of ‘Mind your own business’, but he is ready to exert ‘the influence of reason; the influence of persuasion; the influence of example; the influence of public opinion; the influence of social ostracism; the influence of unhampered economic forces; the influence of better prospects . . 2 56 The two principles would seem to be contradictory, and the latter form of influence undoubtedly involves a form of coercive power.

The desire to have power over oneself is quite compatible with the anarchist position. But as Paul Goodman has pointed out, people live quite happily without ‘power’ that manages or coerces from outside. Most human activities moreover do not need external motivations in the form of reward or punishment.57

Anarchists are well aware that an authoritarian upbringing and education produce people who are either submissive or imperious types. As Alfred Adler observed, ‘the servile individual lives by the rules of others, and this type seeks out a servile position almost compulsively’.58 At the same time, they recognize with Hobbes and Adler that the will to power over others is a common tendency amongst human beings. They are aware that, given the opportunity, not only do ex-slaves often try to become masters, but oppressed men try to find weaker beings to lord it over. But anarchists do not see that this tendency is intrinsic in human nature, but rather a product of our authoritarian and hierarchical society. They reject the view that the only possible human relationship is that in which one issues orders and the other obeys, one asserts himself and the other cringes. Such an unequal distribution of power enslaves both the ruler and the ruled.

Anarchists look to a time when there will no longer be masters and servants, leaders and followers, rulers and ruled. Anarchists have therefore principally been concerned with the way in which organizations and individuals have acquired power over people’s lives. In the past, anarchists rejected power over each other, but still thought it was necessary to increase power and control over nature. Kropotkin not only entitled one his books The Conquest of Bread but argued like Marx that industrial progress required ‘conquest over nature’.59 Despite this, Malatesta still criticized Kropotkin for his view of natural harmony, and insisted that men must combine to harness the ‘hostile forces of Nature’. He even went so far as to define anarchy as ‘the struggle, in human society, against the disharmonies of Nature’.69

More recently however anarchists have been increasingly concerned not only with the unequal distribution of power between human beings, but man’s power over nature. Indeed, Murray Bookchin has traced the origin of man’s destructive domination of nature to man’s domination over man and woman and calls for the dissolution of hierarchy.6I Breaking with the historical Western anarchist tradition, he has developed an organicist view which see man as an integral part of nature. Working within a similar framework of social ecology, John Clark has also argued that a thoroughgoing anarchist critique is ‘a critique of all forms of domination’ that block the attainment of the goal of ‘universal self-realization’. 62

Anarchism as a philosophy wishes to dissolve all forms of authority and power, and if possible, seeks their complete abolition. All anarchists reject political authority in the form of the State and government, and most reject the moral authority of exceptional individuals. Where some allow the authority of competence, they stress that it must be based on accountability and consent. The ideal still remains for all people to judge and act for themselves and not to rely on experts.

Given the present unequal distribution of power, they would prefer it to be spread more evenly. They recognize the right of the individual to have power over his or her own person, but ultimately they prefer a situation where no one has the possibility or desire to impose his or her will on others. More recently, anarchists have gone beyond traditional humanism and called for an end to power over nature itself. In a condition of anarchy, there would be no State and thus no concentration of force or political specialization.63 Human beings would be equal partners in a non-hierarchical world without domination. And while it may be impossible to realize in practice, the ultimate goal would be to achieve the complete absence of imposed authority and coercive power.


What distinguishes the democratic ideal from other political ideals is its attempt to combine liberty and equality. Anarchists are democratic in a broad sense. They would agree with Plato that the ends of democracy are liberty, equality and variety, and most would add like the French revolutionaries, fraternity. But it is a commonplace of liberal political theory that liberty and equality are incompatible. Anarchists are as aware as De Tocqueville and J. S. Mill of the potential dangers of the tyranny of the majority and the triumph of mediocrity. They do not want to submerge the individual in the community or level all society to one common standard of grey uniformity. They reject all rulers, whether one man, a few, or the `people’. Government, even in Abraham Lincoln’s definition as ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, is inadmissible. Nevertheless, unlike socialists and liberals, they seek a genuine resolution of liberty and equality, and believe that everyone has an equal claim to be free.

Anarchists go beyond the liberal concept of equality as equality before the law. Equality before the law, they point out, does not mean the end of injustice, for all people could be treated with equal unfairness under unjust laws. Moreover, if structural inequalities exist in society, the application of the law is likely to be unequal: one law for the rich, and another for the poor. Since they reject man-made law as an interference with personal freedom, clearly any legal concept of equality is inadequate.

As for the doctrine of equal opportunity to develop one’s talents, anarchists do not deny that everyone should have an equal claim to selfdevelopment. But they recognize that the principle of equal opportunity is fundamentally conservative since existing society with its hierarchy of values only supports the opportunity to develop those talents and abilities which it considers worth developing. The application of the principle will also increase inequalities by creating a society ruled by a meritocracy. Above all, it is founded on an antagonistic, competitive model of society in which there are more losers than winners in the race for goods and status.

In general, then, anarchists go beyond the liberal concept of equality as equality before the law or equality of opportunity. Like the socialists, they have a commitment to economic and social equality. But different anarchist thinkers try to combine equality with liberty in very different ways.

Godwin, for instance, believed that humanity had a common nature and advocated sexual and racial equality, but did not think all people should be treated equally. By defining justice as utility and linking it with the principle of impartiality, he maintained that we should give preferential treatment to those most likely to increase human happiness: in a fire where I could only save one person, I should save a benevolent philosopher who might contribute to the happiness of thousands before his vicious maid, even if she happened to be my mother.

Proudhon, on the other hand, accepted that men and women had equal rights and duties, but he believed that ‘done compares sex with sex, women are inferior’ 64 His notion of justice involved the idea of equality of respect, but his insistence on exchange of equal shares based on labour time meant that he tolerated economic inequality. One of his principal criticisms of authoritarian communism is that it would produce an equality of slaves. The individualist Tucker was even more willing to countenance economic inequalities which might result from the superiority of muscle or brain. As for the ‘beautiful world’ in which absolute equality had been achieved, ‘who would live in it?’, he asks. ‘Certainly no freeman‘.65

Bakunin had an entirely different approach. He asserted that all humanity was physically and socially equal, and insisted that since man is truly free only among equally free men, the ‘freedom of each is therefore realizable only in the equality of all. The realization of freedom through equality, in principle and in fact, is justice.'” Yet by retaining a collectivist system of distribution according to work done he endorsed like Proudhon economic inequality.

Kropotkin went one step further than Bakunin. He shared his belief in human equality but adopted a communist definition of justice: from each according to ability, to each according to need. Clearly this is also an unequal principle, since under a system of voluntary communism the distribution of burdens and rewards will depend on different abilities and needs. In practice, the communist idea of just distribution according to need is more concerned with fair shares than equal shares.

Malatesta was a communist like Kropotkin, but he tried to bring equality and freedom together in his definition of social freedom as ‘equal freedom for all, an equality of conditions such as to allow everybody to do as they wish, with the only limitation, imposed by inevitable natural necessities and the equal freedom of others’.67 More recently, Bookchin has been inspired by the concept of the ‘irreducible minimum’ practised by organic societies in which everyone has their basic needs satisfied. He also calls for an ‘equality of unequals’ which recognizes differences between human beings within an overall framework of social equality and economic communism.

In general, anarchists see no contradiction between freedom and equality, but believe that one reinforces the other. Over the last two centuries, they have extended the principle of equality to embrace all humanity. At the same time, their concern with individuality has prevented them from calling for absolute economic equality. While advocating the impartial consideration of everyone’s worth and need, they do not insist on equal treatment and equal shares. They would accept John Rawls’ principle in his definition of justice as fairness that each person has ‘an equal right to the most extensive liberty compatible with a like liberty for all’, although they would add the proviso that any inequalities in a free society would ideally be the result of voluntary agreement.” But they go beyond Rawls who believes that citizens of a country do not object to there being different offices of government. Because they adopt a principle of justice that everyone has an equal claim to a maximum of freedom they reject all political authority as an illegitimate interference with freedom. As Tucker put it, they seek the ‘greatest amount of liberty compatible with equality of liberty‘.69