Monday, January 10, 2011

Overthrowing the State (Without Using the State): Political Opportunity for Anarchist Movements

[A co-author and I are trying to get this article published somewhere... it previously got tripped-up due to methodological concerns, now the length is a bit unwieldy. But, it's a damn good study, we think. We're trying another venue at present. Here's the introduction.]

Routine social movement behaviors that petition, protest, or lobby governments to change or adopt certain laws or policies are familiar to most in modern societies. However, these now-regular patterns of movement-state interaction are premised on the assumption that movements want something from the state that states are able to give. Some movements—anarchism, for example—have no interest in anything that states are willing to offer, nor do such radical movements attempt to convince states to quit and dissolve themselves through targeted lobbying efforts. What does movement activity and protest mean for such movements, under these conditions? This article answers this question from a political opportunity perspective using the case histories of country-level anarchist movement activity.

As a political tradition, anarchism dates back to the mid-nineteenth century. Influenced by the most radical currents of the Enlightenment, anarchism emerged as a revolt against the solidifying nation-state, early capitalism, and still-present influence of religious authority. Anarchists not only critiqued the centralizing and bureaucratic qualities of these institutions, but advocated the creation of horizontal, egalitarian, and cooperative institutions in their place. Even though “anarchism” literally refers to “without rule” (Gordon 2006), and thus an opposition to all forms of domination and control by others, it has historically been summarized as an opposition to the state (Ehrlich 1996, Joll 1964, Ward 1996). Herein, we understand anarchism’s antagonism toward authority in the sense meaningful to anarchist movements, rather than the limited, popular understanding: as a broad challenge to all forms of domination, not just that of the state.

Anarchists have never been able to rid society of the state, although not for lack of trying. Anarchism, as a radical ideology, appears to possess a near child-like naivety towards the possibility of social change. Accordingly, resistance and change are not only possible in the darkest moments of human history, but are also potentially present in everyday life. Anarchists tend to advocate seizing the opportunities within these moments and helping to encourage others toward a more liberatory future. Thus, while acknowledging the power, influence, and limitations of existing political and social structures, anarchists also implicitly emphasize the capacity for human agency.

Politically, the anarchist movement argues that opportunities always exist to resist the present social order and to create a new world. Consequently, “Revolution now!” would be an applicable anarchist slogan. Anarchism differentiates itself from other revolutionary ideologies such as Marxism by rejecting any delay in revolution. Waiting for “the people” to be ready or to trust that the state will “wither away” eventually is not seen by anarchists as an excuse for inaction. In fact, state participation in the pursuit of revolution is inherently problematic. For example, the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin wrote: “No state, however democratic—not even the reddest republic—can ever give the people what they really want, i.e., the free self-organization and administration of their own affairs from the bottom upward, without any interference or violence from above” (Dolgoff 1971: 338).

Strategy in the anarchist movement is radical and multi-faceted. Anarchism focuses on the web of relationships between not only individuals and society, but also amongst major institutions, such as the state, capitalism, military, patriarchy, White supremacy, and heterosexism. Within each relationship, people may act to create a society less encumbered by hierarchy, domination, and authority. Thus, opportunities always exist to create egalitarian, horizontal, and cooperative relationships. This article investigates the anarchist movement within these spaces and moments, both past and present. Yet, some opportunities have been more conducive to the anarchist movement and some of these moments have been more fruitfully exploited.

This article addresses the following interrelated questions. Can the theory of political opportunities (as summarized by McAdam 1996) be used—or at least re-packaged—to understand the anarchist movement? We focus on a half-dozen country case studies to better understand the varied experiences of mobilization and decline for anarchist movements throughout the world, seen through the lens of a modified political opportunity theory. What major opportunities has anarchism recently seized upon (and sometimes unintentionally benefited from) to expand its ranks and advance its goals? Our analysis of the narratives of anarchists discovers a variety of country-specific and global opportunities that assisted in the growth and decline of movements. In particular, an authoritarian or partisan Left’s success reduced anarchist opportunities, while supportive non-anarchist milieus—such as the labor and punk movements—served as fruitful grounds for inspiration, personnel recruitment, and accelerated anarchist movement mobilization. Curiously, anarchist narratives viewed increased state repression as having divergent effects on different country’s movements.


Dolgoff, Sam. 1971. Bakunin on Anarchy: Selected Works by the Activist-Founder of World Anarchism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Ehrlich, Howard J. 1996. Reinventing Anarchy, Again. Edinburgh: AK Press.

Gordon, Uri. 2006. “Research Note: Avαρχία -- What Did the Greeks Actually Say?”. Anarchist Studies, 14 (1): 84-91.

Joll, James. 1964. The Anarchists. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press.

McAdam, Doug. 1996. “Conceptual Origins, Current Problems, Future Directions”. Pp. 23-40 in Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Cultural Framings, edited by D. McAdam, J. D. McCarthy, and M. N. Zald. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ward, Colin. 1996. Anarchy in Action. London: Freedom Press.

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