What is Anarchism?

“Anarchism, then, really stands for the liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion; the liberation of the human body from the dominion of property; liberation from the shackles and restraint of government. Anarchism stands for a social order based on the free grouping of individuals for the purpose of producing real social wealth; an order that will guarantee to every human being free access to the earth and full enjoyment of the necessities of life, according to individual desires, tastes, and inclinations.”

– Emma Goldman


Often mischaracterized, frequently demonized and otherwise obscured, anarchism exists as an incredibly misunderstood political ideology and social practice. Within the popular imagination the enduring image of the anarchist is that of a black clad terrorist. Sure, confrontation and violence have a place within anarchism, but this is a small and arguably misleading part of the picture! A revolutionary project of sweeping transformation, anarchism, in addition to its all-encompassing social critique and promotion of militant resistance, is also defined by ideals of radical equality, enduring solidarity, and meaningful freedom – a liberatory vision of individual autonomy and community self-management.

Given the prevalence of misperceptions surrounding anarchism, this article will offer a basic overview of some of the key ideas, concepts, and principles that define anarchism, and act to inform the practices of anarchists. This article is not intended to be exhaustive – it will not dive into the complexities of different schools or tendencies of anarchism, nor will it touch on any theoretical points of contention. It is simply intended to offer a bare bones introduction to anarchism, and provide a springboard for further exploration.


Anarchism, as a body of thought, and even more importantly, as a lived point of reference for action, is incredibly diverse. With a principled inclination towards open-endedness, anarchy is a project without a predetermined blueprint: a practice, movement, or rupture with neither a foreseeable end, nor clearly demarcated boundaries. Anarchist visions and preferred tactics vary, and there are different traditions, currents of thought, and strategic orientations. That said, there are basic tenets and non-negotiable principles that define anarchism across the contentious terrain on which it operates.


The most well known tenet of anarchism, and the idea that most often subjects anarchists to criticisms of being utopian, is its rejection of the state as a legitimate ruling body. This categorical rejection of government is one of the main features that distinguish anarchists from others who seek social change: we reject participation in electoral politics and have no desire to seize state power. The motivation for this stance is largely grounded in a twofold critique, related to an understanding of the state as both a condition or social relationship, and a material institution.

First and foremost, government in whatever form it takes, liberal democratic or otherwise, is regarded as innately repressive and alienating. People have little input in the decisions made, and even less say in shaping its organizational structure. Devoid of the substantive participation of those who fall under its jurisdiction, the state is a tool of elite rule that administers social control, and divides the minority who rule from the vast majority who are ruled. As a social condition, the state acts to impede and often destroy individual autonomy through the micromanaging of people’s lives. For example, consider the policing of gender, the criminalization of sexualities and sex work, or anti-drug legislation which all seek to control our interactions with our own bodies.

Moving on to the second component of the anarchist critique of the state, we arrive at the issue of violence. War is indeed the health of the state, and this includes war waged against those who fall within its own borders. The state, as an institution, implements a coercive regime of power. State rule is based on force and the ever-present threat of violence. It exists as the sole entity within our society that claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Central to its functioning are forces such as the police and military, and mechanisms such as the prison system that maintain government order.

It is within this context that anarchists are staunchly opposed to the police and are proponents of prison abolition. Police and prisons are concrete manifestations of state domination. Contrary to their ‘serve and protect’ rhetoric, the police maintain ruling class dominance, protect the private property of the rich, and entrench state control over the resolution of social conflict.


In addition to an anti-state perspective, a commitment to anti-capitalism is pivotal to anarchism. Our current economic system is seen as an impediment to meaningful freedom and community wellbeing. Capitalism commodifies every aspect of our lives, is systematically destroying our environment, and condemns the vast majority of the world’s population to destitution. In a similar vein to the state, capitalism acts to benefit a small elite at the expense of everyone else. It stratifies society along the line of class – an exploited majority (the working class) must sell their labour for a wage in order to survive, while a minority (the capitalist or ruling class) live off and profit from the exploitation of others.

Wealth does not ‘trickle down’ – workers create goods and provide services, generating profits of which they receive very little. Wealth and resources are concentrated in, and continuously funneled back into the hands of capitalist elites. Individual freedom (you’re hardly free if you must spend every waking hour selling your labour) is stripped away as people are essentially left with the choice between wage slavery or starvation. Work consumes our time, destroys our bodies and mental health, and forces us to submit to our bosses in order to pay the landlord.

The foundation of this brutal system is private property – the individual ownership of land, resources and the means of production. The logic of private property and, in turn, capitalism, dictates that everything can be owned and commodified regardless of use. Within this framework, a single person can own hundreds of houses and leave the houses empty if they so desire, while countless people remain homeless. Mass amounts of food can be owned and considered the property of a single corporation, while people starve. Anarchists consider this theft, and reject the institution of private property, proposing instead collective or communal ownership, and the generous sharing of goods and resources based on need and potential use.


Anarchism’s opposition to oppressive structures does not begin and end with the state and capitalism. The anarchist project is infinitely more ambitious – it seeks to eradicate all systems of oppression and exploitation, and is committed to the task of attacking all forms of domination. Here domination is understood in reference to many intersecting forms, relationships and structures, in which a person’s social location in terms of gender, race, sexuality, ability, status, class, etc. inform hierarchies that correspond to systemic oppressions. Within this context, anarchists strive to dismantle any and all social relations and corresponding institutions that allow people to exercise mastery over, exclude, or control people.

The idea is that we must act against hierarchy itself, and cannot rely on any form of oppression to just wither away if we address a ‘main’ oppression. For example, the abolition of capitalism would not necessarily entail the destruction of patriarchy or white supremacy. The notion of a primary oppression is thus rejected, and the complexity and the uniqueness of different systems of oppression is acknowledged. Working to address domination as it manifests in our daily lives and experiences, emphasis is placed on making the connections between both personal realities and larger structures and institutions.

The personal is indeed political, and anarchists are committed to addressing oppressive dynamics within our own spaces and relationships. However, anarchism is a revolutionary undertaking, meaning that anarchists we fight for the fundamental transformation of society as a whole, and realize that oppression cannot be reformed away. As such, anarchists engage in a wide range of struggles at a variety of levels, including those against queer and trans* phobia, colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, ableism, and patriarchy to name only a handful. The all-encompassing social critique of anarchism means that there is no one point of entry to engaging in struggle, and no shortage of opportunities.hierarchy


Forget petitions and fuck parliamentary process. Don’t waste your time asking politely or begging for scraps from the master’s table. Another key tenet of anarchism is a rejection of the politics of demand, and an embrace of direct action. Eschewing strategies of social change that involve appeals to external bodies or the abdication of power to an agency, anarchists instead propose direct action — that is, forms of action that cut out the middle person to directly address an issue without petitioning to an external authority (be it government, corporation or group). Unlike symbolic forms of action, direct action seeks to not only bring attention to an issue, but also to directly remedy it.

Direct action tactics vary, and examples include everything from squatting to a general strike, to blockades and sabotage, to a community kitchen. It can take on destructive/preventative forms or constructive/constitutive forms. From social centres to free skools, the constructive or constitutive use of direct action concerns addressing a pressing issue in the here and the now. For example, if poverty and access to fresh food is an issue in your community, you might start a communal garden in the neighbourhood. That garden would address an immediate need, as well as contribute to building grassroots power.

Direct action can also include more confrontational acts. Destructive or preventive direct action tactics can best be understood as actions aimed at halting an injustice. For example, a person opposed to the clear-cutting of an old-growth forest might intervene in the situation by destroying the logging company’s equipment. Or a group concerned with the gentrification of their city may engage in vandalism and targeted property destruction in attempt to hinder rising real estate prices.

It is important here to note that this distinction between forms of action is not mutually exclusive. Different approaches make sense in different contexts, and all are necessary. A crucial component of anarchism is the acknowledgment that we need it all – we need destruction as well as creation. We need people to tear down that which oppresses and alienates us, just as we need people to be building counter-institutions and inspiring alternatives.


Contrary to claims stating otherwise, anarchism is not solely a project of negation and critique. Constructive principles, including mutual aid and voluntary association, are fundamental to anarchism. As foundational principles upon which to build a future anarchist society, they guide anarchist organizing efforts and help construct supportive communities in the present.

Based on the idea that human evolution and social interaction is best served through cooperation and not competition, mutual aid can best be understood as social solidarity. It encompasses the ideal to give and take freely, from each according to their ability, and each according to their need. Intimately connected to the notion that ‘no one is free unless everyone is free’, mutual aid is rooted in the idea that individual freedom and well-being are necessarily connected to collective freedom and well-being. Acts of mutual aid are considered mutually beneficial to all involved, and are an ever-present possibility.

Studies observing natural disasters and human behaviour constantly find that in the context of such a crisis, solidarity and cooperation between people is the norm. More often than not, it is everyday people and not the government who perform rescues, share vital resources and take care of each other though disasters. Beyond these spontaneous manifestations, intentional projects of mutual aid also exist – neighbourhood childcare cooperatives, community health clinics, prisoner support networks, and free stores are just a handful of examples.

As a complement to mutual aid, anarchists are also proponents of voluntary association. Highlighting the importance of autonomy, voluntary association consists of a commitment to consensual relationships and organizations. As its name implies, it entails the formation of groups or associations that are created by the free choice of those involved. The idea is that people and communities should be able to freely associate, and by extension disassociate with each other as they see fit in the process of building non-coercive social bonds.anarchy

Prefiguration & Horizontalism

Connected to an emphasis on voluntary association, anarchism is lastly defined by a commitment to prefigurative politics. Rooted in the assertion that the means and ends of struggle cannot be separated, prefiguration entails a commitment to forms of action and organization that prefigure, or anticipate, the type of society anarchists hope to build. For example, if we desire a future free of hierarchical social relations, it follows then that we will organize non-hierarchically in the present. If we desire a stateless future, it then follows that we must work to organize outside of, and build alternatives to, the state in the here and now.

Prefiguration thus concerns utilizing tactics, strategies and organizational forms that are consistent with and promote anarchist values – forms that build counter-power to state institutions, and encourage self-organization, are structured horizontally and foster autonomy. In practice, this entails constructing groups, projects, and organizations so that power is shared among participants. Rejecting static positions of official authority or fixed power (i.e. no presidents, no managers, no bosses etc.), the goal is to create infrastructure and ways of interacting with each other that embolden relations of power-to and power-with, rather than power-over.

In terms of models of organization, neighbourhood councils, non-hierarchical community organizations and affinity groups are examples at the local level. At a regional or even national level, examples include federations, spokescouncils, and decentralized networks. The ongoing emphasis is on creating social models that are reflective of and further our values.


The basic tenets of anarchism as presented in this article are intended points of departure for further exploration. The beauty of anarchism necessarily includes the tensions and areas of debate that contribute to its vibrant diversity. Fissures exist in anarchist praxis – strategic, tactical, and theoretical differences underscore contemporary anarchism.

Some of the areas of the debate include (but definitely aren’t limited to): the role of class struggle and movement building in anarchist organizing; the appropriate response to ecological crisis; the usefulness of anti-oppression theory and its compatibility with revolutionary organizing; the use of formal vs. informal models of organization; the role of anarchists in national liberation, as well as indigenous sovereignty struggles; and the value of strategies that emphasize attack and individual acts of revolt vs. those of community organizing and the building of alternatives.

This is a mere snapshot of the complexities that anarchists are currently grappling with. Anarchist ideas only matter to the extent that they are relevant to people, contributing to and ideally intensifying struggle. This means that anarchist ideas are always being debated and reworked to take account of changing contexts, needs and desires. In any case, these tensions, experiments and debates, in addition to the general principles, are valuable points to consider for those interested in engaging with anarchy.

One thought on “What is Anarchism?

  1. Pingback: Call Out for March Event Proposals | 38 Blood Alley Anarchist Space

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