Against the State: Anarchist Meta-Politics and Meta-Strategy in the Twenty-First Century

By Keith Preston

This essay is included in the recently released National-Anarchism: Ideas and Concepts, edited by Troy Southgate and available from Black Front Press.

The State: Its Origins and Purpose

In the several million years that human beings and their ancestral evolutionary prototypes have been in existence, the Homo genus functioned socially within the context of stateless nomadic bands of hunters and gatherers. Indeed, at the time of the American and French revolutions of the late eighteenth century, the model of the hunter-gatherer remained the most prevalent form of social organization throughout most of the then-contemporary world. Statelessness continued in many post-hunter-gatherer societies even as larger and more complex forms of tribal organization emerged with pastoralism and horticulture and then agriculture replacing the hunter-gatherer model as the dominant mode of production. It has only been since the advent of the industrial revolution that the hunter-gatherer form of social organization has lost its dominance. Further, it was not until the apex of the era of colonialism in the late nineteenth century that the world came to be fully dominated by states. It is astounding to contemplate that the species of Homo has lived under the rule of states for much less than one percent of its history.1

The earliest states emerged concurrent to advancements in agriculture and literacy. The former made possible the development of a leisure class whose existence rose above the ordinary level of subsistence production and the latter allowed for the greater centralization of information. The evolution of these two social phenomena created the possibility for the ever greater centralization of power. The state had its beginnings in the civilizations of Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, the Indus Valley, China, and Central and South America. These early states came about through conquest and relied upon religious mythology or tradition (such as the belief in the divinity of the emperor) for their legitimacy. 2 In pre-modern societies political rule and ownership were typically synonymous. Land and resources were acquired through conquest, trade, or marriage and those in possession of a particular territory exercised personal political authority. 3

Though it was the Greeks who first began to both develop political philosophy and separate rulership from ownership, it was the increasingly centralized monarchies of the late medieval and early Renaissance eras that truly began laying the foundations for the state in its modern form through the development of bureaucratic administrative infrastructures. 4 These bureaucracies eventually eclipsed the power of the monarchy, the Church and other rival centers of authority. The taxation and information-gathering powers of the bureaucracies made it possible for the bureaucracy to gain a monopoly over the processes of raising armies and waging war. Eventually the bureaucracy assumed control of police, judicial and penal systems as well, thereby concentrating all political authority into the hands of the bureaucracy. By the end of the eighteenth century, the state bureaucracy began to assume a legal personhood of its own capable of maintaining a permanent, corporative, institutional life independent of that of its individual personnel.5 Hence, the beginnings of the modern state.

The Evolution of Anarchist Thought

As a political philosophy, anarchism has as its guiding principle its critique of the state as a uniquely and inherently parasitical institution. The earliest states of ancient times were rooted in conquest, subjugation and expropriation. The primary characteristic of modern states is their maintenance of a coercive political-bureaucratic apparatus with a centralized monopoly over the use of violence within a particular geographical region. Whether in their traditional personalized form or modern corporative form, states exist primarily to control territory, monopolize resources, protect an artificially privileged ruling class, exploit subjects, and expand their own institutional power and that of their individual members. 6 The historic rise of states has been accompanied by the development and evolution of schools of thought devoted to critiquing the state. Strands of proto-anarchist thinking can be found among the ancient philosophers of both China and the Greco-Roman world, and among dissenting Christian movements of the medieval and early modern era.7

The rise of classical liberalism during the Enlightenment period serves as something of a transitional phase between both traditional forms of political legitimacy and critiques of political authority found in the pre-modern era and the development of modern anarchist thought. In the early eighteenth century, the French explorer Louis Armand observed the social structures of the indigenous people of North America and described such systems as “anarchy.” Proto-anarchist thinkers influenced the revolutions of the late eighteenth century, including the Americans Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine and the Frenchmen Jean Varlet and Sylvain Marechal. Influenced by the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Edmund Burke, William Godwin developed the first systematic body of modern anarchist thought.

An anarchist thinking continued to evolve throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, anarchist movements tended to splinter into multiple directions representing different types of focuses or emphasis among anti-state radicals. In some ways anarchism is comparable with Christianity with its historic processes of perpetually dividing and subdividing into an ever greater number of both major traditions and lesser sects derived from those traditions. 8 Francois Richard identified three major traditions within anarchism: the leftist-socialist tradition, the extreme individualism of the German thinker Max Stirner which overlaps with the Anglo-American libertarian tradition, and an elitist form of aristocratic-individualism that in French political culture has been called “anarchism of the right.” The first of these traditions is represented by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, Errico Malatesta, and Emma Goldman. The second by Stirner, John Henry MacKay, Josiah Warren, Benjamin Tucker, Karl Hess and Murray Rothbard; and the third by H.L. Mencken, Louis Ferdinand Celine, Ernst Junger, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Salvador Dali.

Classical socialist-anarchism has as its principal focus an orientation towards social justice and uplifting the downtrodden. The radical individualism of Stirner and the English and American libertarians posits individual liberty as the highest good. The Nietzsche-influenced aristocratic radicalism of the anarchists of the Right places its emphasis not only on liberty but on merit, excellence, and the preservation of high culture. It would seem that each of these perspectives has its place within the context of an effective anti-state radicalism. The ideals advanced by each of these strands of anarchist thought-social justice, liberty, meritocracy-would seem to be such that no functional or durable civilization can dispense with.

The Variety and Complexity of Anarchist Movements

The number and variety of anarchist movements or tendencies has grown exponentially over the course of the last century, particularly since the end of World War Two. The anarchists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were primarily divided into the mutualist, collectivist, communist, syndicalist, and individualist camps with occasional outliers such as the rationalist Christian pacifist anarchism of Leo Tolstoy. The cultural upheavals and radical political movements of the 1960s and 1970s along with broader economic, cultural, technological, and demographic changes in Western societies during the same period brought with them not only a renewed interest in the anarchist movements of the past but an immense diversity of new schools of anarchist or anarchist-influenced thought with their own unique emphasis. These include Green anarchism, primitivism, anarcha-feminism, anarcho-capitalism, market anarchism, agorism, voluntarism, queer anarchism, situationism, national-anarchism, platformism, Islamic anarchism, indigenous anarchism, black anarchism, post-left anarchism, geo-anarchism, insurrectionary anarchism, and others too numerous to mention.

Given the scattered nature of these various anarchist trends and their widely divergent and sometimes even conflicting goals, the first question any serious student of anarchist movements has to first ask is whether anarchism will ever evolve into a movement that is large enough and well-organized enough to pose a credible threat and alternative to the modern state. Virtually all of the contending schools of anarchism have something of value to add to a wider anti-state movement. Some are oriented toward the achievement of socioeconomic justice, others towards preservation of the natural environment, still others towards the defense of individual liberty and economic prosperity. Some are focused on the defense of historic outgroups traditionally subject to persecution, others towards the promotion of alternative lifestyles, others towards the defense of traditional cultures, still others towards the perceived needs of particular cultural, religious, or ethnic identities. Many of these objectives would seem to complement each other and provide balance in areas where others fall short. These contending schools of anarchist thought in many ways reflect the natural diversity of humanity. Each represents a necessary building block in the wider project of creating a future civilization where anarchism is the prevailing political, economic, and social philosophy.

Indeed, if anarchism were to be compared to Christianity, then it might be said that anarchism and Christianity both represent broad meta-philosophical paradigms. Christianity has three major traditions-Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism-with many contending smaller sects or denominations. Likewise, anarchism has three major traditions-socialist-anarchism, liberal-libertarian anarchism, and aristocratic-individualist anarchism. Each of the particular trends within anarchism represents yet another anarchist denomination. The most important question that emerges from this analysis is to ask whether the various schools of anarchism can ever be unified for the purpose of attacking the common enemy in the form of the state.

Towards a New Synthesism

To date, the most successful anarchist movement was that organized by the Spanish anarchists during the early to middle twentieth century and which briefly attempted to create an experimental society based on classical anarchist principles during the midst of the Spanish Civil War. The Spanish anarchists have been criticized for varying reasons by subsequent generations of anarchists but the fact that remains is they were one of the few anarchist movements in history that managed to not only win the support of a significant portion of the population of a major country but also provide a fascinating case study of anarchist participation in an actual revolutionary situation and civil war.

Whatever successes the Spanish anarchists were able to achieve seem rooted in several important factors. First, the role of the Iberran Anarchist Federation in acting as the principled militants leading mass organizations that Bakunin had insisted would be necessary during any actual revolutionary struggle. The ability of the National Confederation of Workers to win the support of substantial sectors of the Spanish working class was particularly important. Third, there was the leading role played by the anarchists in organizing the resistance to the uprising by the army against the Republic. Last, there was the compatibility of anarchism with the traditional communal peasant life of rural Spain.

The question that emerges is how these efforts can be replicated in contemporary nations and under contemporary cultural and economic circumstances. Given the immense variation and complexity of contemporary anarchist thought, and the even greater complexity and diversity of modern societies, it would seem that a theoretical framework identified in the past with such terms as “anarchism without adjectives” or “synthesis anarchism” would be the most appropriate. These represented efforts within classical anarchism to unite all of the contending anarchist factions into a comprehensive alliance and which criticized those anarchists who had adopted a Marxist-like class determinism. Among the prominent supporters of this position were Voltairine de Cleyre, Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Errico Malatesta, Max Nettlau, Sebastian Faure, Mollie Steimer, Gregori Maximoff, and Voline. Some of these issued a statement saying: “To maintain that anarchism is only a theory of classes is to limit it to a single viewpoint. Anarchism is more complex and pluralistic, like life itself. Its class element is above all its means of fighting for liberation; its humanitarian character is its ethical aspect, the foundation of society; its individualism is the goal of mankind.9

The Contributions of National-Anarchism

National-Anarchism is a relatively new tendency within anarchism, yet it has grown rather rapidly in recent years. It also remains one of the most controversial strands within contemporary anarchist thought. However, national-anarchism brings to the table an interesting set of ideas which may be quite helpful in the long-term development of a more effective anarchist movement. The principal weaknesses of the present day anarchist movement are its scattered and fragmented nature which prevents it from exercising a concentrated assault on the state, its lack of a coherent strategy for achieving revolutionary goals, and its failure to develop a more thorough critique of the state as it actually exists in modern societies. The ideas found within national-anarchism make important contributions towards the creation of a new theoretical model that is fully capable of effectively addressing these questions.

At the core of the national-anarchist philosophy is the concept of decentralized particularism. Conceptually, this overlaps very well with the insights of neo-tribalism which postulates that humans are hard-wired by evolutionary biology to exist within tribal forms of social organization as opposed to the mass societies of modernity which are increasingly dominated by omnipresent states. 10 Like neo-tribalism, national-anarchism advocates replacing modern mass societies and their all-encompassing states with autonomous, stateless tribes reflecting an open-ended plethora of cultural orientations as opposed to the model of homogenized universalism endorsed by both the left-wing establishment and the forces of global capitalism. This theoretical framework helps to address certain problems faced by modern anarchist movements in several ways.

First, such a framework provides a comprehensive paradigm that is capable of generating a reconciliation and accommodation between contending anarchist factions. While the many sub-tendencies within modern anarchism in many ways complement each other and even serve as correctives to the other’s weaknesses, it is also true that the variations in focus found among the scattered anarchist sects will inevitably be the source of irreconcilable conflicts as well. The national-anarchist concept of tribe allows for the many diverse tribes within anarchism to achieve sovereignty and autonomy within the context of their own independent communities. The model of decentralized particularism means that within the general context of an anarchist civilization some of the component communities will be anarcho-communist, syndicalist, anarcho-capitalist, primitivist, traditionalist, feminist, queer, vegetarian, Christian, Islamic, pagan, etc. according to the preferences of the local community in question and its inhabitants. The model of a confederation of anarchist tribes with each of these reflecting their own particular values fits well with the need to forge a pan-anarchist front that unites anti-state radicals as the leadership corps of a larger libertarian-populist movement that creates alternative infrastructure towards the goal of pan-secession as its primary strategic vehicle. Tribal anarchism provides a framework where both contending anarchist tribes and stateless tribes of non-anarchists can peacefully co-exist and unify against the state.

Second, this model is one that is capable of addressing and accommodating the very real fault lines found among the general population of any real world society. The early proponents of synthesis anarchism recognized in their 1927 manifesto “the difficulty of getting a large part of the population to accept our ideas. We must take into account existing prejudices, customs, education, the fact that the great mass of people will look for an accommodation rather than radical change.” Indeed, anarchists are as aware as anyone of the deep-rooted social conflicts involving class, race, religion, culture, nationality, gender, sexuality, regional identities, occupation, social status, age, and so forth. Some anarchists have misguidedly sought to address such matters by agitating for even greater demographic conflict the result of which is to unfortunately cooperate with the “divide and conquer” strategy typically employed by states as a means of preventing unified resistance to itself on the part of subjects by playing different population groups off against one another.

The neo-tribal position advanced by national-anarchism and its endorsement of self-determination for all is in many ways a necessary corrective to the over-developed universalist internationalism derived from liberalism and Marxism typically espoused by many present day anarchists. Instead, the national-anarchist concept of tribe creates a framework in which a healthy balance can be achieved between traditionalism and postmodernism, cultural preservation and social progress, endogamy and assimilation, ecumenicalism and fundamentalism, puritanism and hedonism, elitism and egalitarianism, individualism and community. Conflicts of this type will likely always exist and tend to play themselves out in the divisions between rural and urban life, waterway-adjacent communities and landlocked communities, densely and sparsely populated communities.

Third, the neo-tribal model of national-anarchism allows anarchists to become the true champions of and cultivate as allies and constituents the many different subcultures, countercultures, ethno-cultures, religious cultures, drug cultures, sex cultures, gang cultures, lumpenproletarian castes and other such social undercurrents which currently find themselves under attack by the state. Likewise, the national-anarchist paradigm allows for anarchists to become the champions and allies of subjugated indigenous peoples, outcast communities and local and regional cultures subsumed by states throughout the world such as the Basques, San, Hmong, Tibetans, Palestinians, Pashtuns, Tibetans, Dalits, Australian aboriginals and so many others.

Finally, such an outlook places anarchists in a position on the cultural and ideological spectrum that is polar opposite of the legitimizing ideology of modern states.

Critiquing the Liberal Democratic State

At several intervals throughout history, the foundations of political legitimacy have been severely challenged and subsequently overturned. In the ancient pagan world, rulers justified their position by claiming divine status. With the advent of Christian and Islamic monotheism, earthly rulers could no longer claim divinity but had to resort to an appeal to the divine right of kings. With the rise of the Enlightenment, theological sources of political legitimacy lost their potency and were replaced by secular doctrines invoking popular sovereignty and the natural rights of man. The anarchist project of de-legitimizing the modern liberal democratic state and replacing it with decentralized associational liberty would involve a political, cultural, and intellectual revolution every bit as far reaching as the overthrow of the Greco-Roman civilization by Christianity and the displacement of the monarchy, Church, and aristocracy by the liberal philosophy of the Enlightenment.

Anarchism properly understood is a polar opposite political philosophy to the hegemonic totalitarian humanist ideology of the existing Western ruling classes. The institutional foundations of the modern state are the military and police organizations under the state’s control, the legally privileged corporate infrastructure, the managerial bureaucracy, the apparatus of the regulatory/welfare state, the institutional framework of mass democracy and compulsory ethno-cultural integration, the legal caste, the components parts of the therapeutic state, and the ideological superstructure maintained by the mass media and educational institutions. This dominant superstructure of totalitarian humanism legitimates the state by appealing to the state’s ostensible role as the enforcer and upholder of progressive values against non-state institutions, regions and localities, and so-called “rogue states” on the international level.

The Left fails to recognize the degree to which self-proclaimed cultural progressivism has become the basis of a new authoritarianism. Unfortunately, much of the anarchist milieu has fallen into the trap of becoming obsessed with the cultural libertinism of the left-wing of the middle-class. Yet at some point the endorsement of “cultural libertarianism” has to be balanced with the need to advance the struggle against the state, ruling class, and empire. Likewise, on the question of “hierarchy,” a necessary distinction needs to be made between coercive and voluntary hierarchies and between organic and inorganic ones.

The process of overcoming some of these failures within the general anarchist milieu involves transcending to some degree the conventional divide between left and right. This means among other things recognizing the valid claims of the Right in terms of grievances and the valid insights of rightist thought. There is plenty of room for both rightist and leftist anarchists and fair hearing for all points of view. Independence of mind is, or ought to be, a primary anarchist value. The core anarchist values of freedom of opinion and free association must necessarily be upheld as inviolable. The great advantage of anarchism is its ability to accommodate conflicting ways of life and worldviews without oppression and violence: a system of municipal-town-neighborhood-village-provincial sovereignty and where communities practice self-determination and unhappy individuals can find a home for themselves.


1 Harold Barclay, People Without Government: An Anthropology of Anarchism (London: Kahn & Averill, 1982); Robert L. Carneiro, “Political expansion as an expression of the principle of competitive exclusion”, p. 219 in: Ronald Cohen and Elman R. Service (eds.), Origins of the State: The Anthropology of Political Evolution. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1978; Ingold, Tim (1999). “On the social relations of the hunter-gatherer band”. In Lee, Richard B. & Daly, Richard Heywood. The Cambridge encyclopedia of hunters and gatherers. Cambridge University Press.

2 Yoffee, Norman (2005). Myths of the archaic state: evolution of the earliest cities, states and civilizations. Cambridge University Press. p. 102.

3 Martin Van Creveld, The Rise and Decline of the State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 1-58.

4 Ibid., pp. 127-154.

5 Ibid., pp. 184-188

6 Dubreuil, Benoít (2010). Human Evolution and the Origins of Hierarchies: The State of Nature. Cambridge University Press. p. 189. Gordon, Scott (2002). Controlling the State: Constitutionalism from Ancient Athens to Today. Harvard University Press. P. 4. Hay, Colin (2001). Routledge Encyclopedia of International Political Economy. New York, NY: Routledge. pp. 1469–1474. Donovan, John C. (1993). People, power, and politics: an introduction to political science. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 20. Shaw, Martin (2003). War and genocide: organized killing in modern society. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 59.

7 Harold Barclay, People Without Government: An Anthropology of Anarchism (London: Kahn & Averill, 1982). Peter Kropotkin, “Anarchism,” Encyclopædia Britannica, 1910 (accessed June 6, 2005). Iliad II, 703 Histories IX, 23 Malcolm Schofield, (1991), The Stoic Idea of the City. Cambridge University Press. Max Nettlau, A Short History of Anarchism (London: Freedom Press, 1996), p.8. Russell, Bertrand (2004). History of Western Philosophy. New York: Routledge. p. 8. Foster, William E. (1886). “Town government in Rhode Island”. [1]. Retrieved 2008-12-23. Rothbard, Murray N. (2006). “The Origins of Individualist Anarchism in America” Retrieved 2008-07-02. Rothbard, Murray N. (2005). “Pennsylvania’s Anarchist Experiment: 1681–1690” Retrieved 2008-07-02.

8 Richard, François. Les Anarchistes de droite . [1991]. Paris : PUF, 1997.

9 “Reply by Several Russian Anarchists to the Platform” Archived at Retrieved on July 1, 2012.

10 Maffesoli, Michel (1996). The Time of the Tribes: The Decline of Individualism in Mass Society.

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