Social anarchism, also known as left-wing anarchism or socialist anarchism, is the branch of anarchism that sees liberty and social equality as interrelated.

It advocates for a social revolution to remove oppressive forms of hierarchy, such as capitalism and the state. In their place, social anarchists encourage social collaboration through mutual aid and envision non-hierarchical forms of social organization, such as voluntary associations.

Identified with the socialist tradition of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin, social anarchism is often contrasted with individualist anarchism, due to the latter's criticism of socialism.

Political principles

Social anarchism is opposed to all forms of social and political power, hierarchy and oppression, including (but not limited to) the State and capitalism.[1] Social anarchism sees liberty as interconnected with social equality,[2] and considers the maximization of one to be necessary for the maximization of the other.[3] Social anarchism therefore employs a utilitarian ethics, concerning itself with the well-being of all, as it considers each person's happiness to be equal to those of others.[4] As such, social anarchism seeks to guarantee equal rights to freedom and material security for all persons.[5]

Social anarchism envisions the overthrow of capitalism and the state in a social revolution,[6] which would establish a federal society of voluntary associations and local communities,[7] based on a network of mutual aid.[8]

The key principles that form the core of social anarchism include anti-capitalism, anti-statism and prefigurative politics.[9]


As an anti-capitalist ideology, social anarchism is opposed to the dominant expressions of capitalism, including the expansion of transnational corporations through globalization.[10] It comprises one of the main forms of socialism, alongside utopian socialism, democratic socialism and authoritarian socialism.[11] Social anarchism rejects private property, particularly private ownership of the means of production, as the principal source of social inequality.[12] As such, social anarchists typically oppose propertarianism, as they consider it to exacerbate social and economic inequality, suppress individual agency and require the maintenance of hierarchical institutions.[13]

Social anarchists argue that the abolition of private property would lead to the development of new social mores, encouraging mutual respect for individual freedom and the satisfaction of individual needs.[14] Social anarchism therefore advocates the breaking up of monopolies and the institution of common ownership over the means of production.[15] Instead of capitalist markets, with their profit motives and wage systems, social anarchism desires to organise production through a collective system of worker cooperatives, agricultural communes and labour syndicates.[16]

While social anarchism has rejected the statism of Orthodox Marxism, it has also drawn from Marxist critiques of capitalism, particularly Marx's theory of alienation.[17] Social anarchists have also been reluctant to adopt the Marxist centring of the proletariat as revolutionary agents, instead identifying the revolutionary potential of the socially excluded segments of society.[18]


As an anti-statist ideology, social anarchism opposes the concentration of power in the form of a State.[19] To social anarchists, the state is a type of coercive hierarchy designed to enforce private property and to limit individual self-development.[20] Social anarchists reject both centralised and limited forms of government, instead upholding social collaboration as a means to achieve a spontaneous order, without any social contract supplanting social relations.[21] Social anarchists believe that the abolition of the state will lead to greater "freedom, flourishing and fairness".[22]

In the place of a state structure, social anarchists desire anarchy, which can be defined as a society without government.[23] Social anarchists oppose the use of a state structure to achieve their goals of a stateless and classless society,[24] as they consider statism to be an inherently corrupting influence.[25] They thus have criticised the Marxist conception of the "dictatorship of the proletariat", which they consider to be elitist,[26] and have rejected the possibility of a "withering away of the state".[27]

However, some social anarchists such as Noam Chomsky sometimes hold state hierarchy to be preferable to economic hierarchy, and thus lend their support to welfare state programs like universal health care that can improve people's material conditions.[20]

Prefigurative politics

Alongside its opposition to political and economic hierarchies, social anarchism upholds prefigurative politics, considering it necessary for the means to achieve anarchy be consistent with that end goal.[28] Social anarchism prefigures itself through participatory and consensus decision-making, which are capable of generating the diversification of political values, tactics and identities.[29]

Social anarchism therefore promotes self-organization and the cultivation of a participatory culture, encouraging individuals to "do things for themselves".[1] Social anarchism upholds direct action as a means for people to themselves resist oppression,[30] without subordinating their own agency to democratic representatives or revolutionary vanguards.[31] Social anarchists thus reject the political party model of organization,[17] instead preferring forms of flat organization without any fixed leadership.[32]

Schools of thought

Characterised by its loose definition and ideological diversity,[33] social anarchism has lent itself to syncretism, both drawing from and influencing other ideological critiques of oppression,[34] and giving way to a number of different anarchist schools of thought.[35]

While early forms of anarchism were largely individualistic, the influence of Left Hegelianism infused anarchism with socialistic tendencies, leading to the constitution of social anarchism.[36] Over time, the question of the economic makeup of a future anarchist society drove the development of social anarchist thought.[37] The first school of social anarchism was formulated by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, whose theory of mutualism retained a form of private property,[38] advocating for enterprises to be self-managed by worker cooperatives, which would compensate its workers in labour vouchers issued by "people's banks".[39] This was later supplanted by Mikhail Bakunin's collectivist anarchism, which advocated for the collective ownership of all property, but retained a form of individual compensation.[40] This finally led to the development of anarcho-communism by Peter Kropotkin, who considered that resources should be freely distributed "from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs", without money or wages.[41] Social anarchists also adopted the strategy of syndicalism, which saw trade unions as the basis for a new socialist economy,[42] with anarcho-syndicalism growing to its greatest influence during the Spanish Revolution of 1936.[43]

The main division within social anarchism is over the means for achieving anarchy, with philosophical anarchists advocating for peaceful persuasion,[44] while insurrectionary anarchists advocated for "propaganda of the deed".[45] The former have upheld an anarchist form of education, free from coercion and dogmatism, in order to establish a self-governing society.[46] The latter have participated in rebellions in which they expropriated and collectivised property, and replaced the state with a network of autonomous and federally-linked communes.[47] The aim was to build a socialist society, without using the state, from the bottom-up.[47]

Principles of social anarchism, such as decentralisation, anti-authoritarianism and mutual aid, later held a key influence on the new social movements of the late-20th century.[48] It was particularly influential within the New Left and green politics,[49] with the green anarchist tendency of social ecology drawing directly from social anarchism.[50] Social anarchist strategies of direct action and spontaneity also formed the foundation of the black bloc tactic, which has become a staple of contemporary anarchism.[51] The social anarchist principle of prefiguration has also been shared by sections anti-state Marxism, particularly that of autonomism.[52]

In the contemporary era, anarcho-communism and anarcho-syndicalism are the dominant tendencies of social anarchism.[53]

Distinction from individualism

The social anarchist Murray Bookchin, who contrasted the tendency against individualist anarchism and claimed there to be an "unbridgeable chasm" that separated the two.

Social anarchism is commonly distinguished from individualist anarchism,[54] the latter of which favours individual sovereignty and property,[55] and can even oppose all forms of social organization altogether.[56] While individualists worry that social anarchism could lead to tyranny of the majority and forced collaboration, social anarchists criticise individualism for encouraging competition and atomizing individuals from each other.[57] Individualism was heavily criticised by classical social anarchists,[58] such as Bakunin and Kropotkin, who held that the liberty of a few individuals was potentially harmful to the equality of all mankind.[59]

However, this distinction is also contested,[60] as anarchism itself is often seen as a synthesis of liberal individualism and social egalitarianism.[61] Some social anarchists, such as Emma Goldman and Herbert Read, were even directly inspired by the individualist philosophy of Max Stirner.[62] Social anarchism generally attempts to reconcile individual freedoms with the freedom of others, in order to maximise the freedom of everyone and allow for individuality to flourish.[14] Individualists and social anarchists have even been able to cooperate by upholding "communal individuality", emphasising both individual freedom and community strength.[57] Some social anarchists have argued that the divisions between them and the individualists can be overcome, by emphasising their shared commitment to anti-capitalism and anti-authoritarianism.[63] But others draw the line at forms of individualism that uphold hierarchical power relations.[64]

In his 1995 book, Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism, Murray Bookchin defined social anarchism in contrast to what he called "lifestyle anarchism".[65] According to Bookchin, it was impossible for the two tendencies to coexist, claiming there to be an "unbridgeable chasm" that separated them from each other.[66] Bookchin held social anarchism to be the only genuine form of anarchism, considering individualism to be inherently oppressive.[67] But his separation of the two tendencies has been criticised and even rejected entirely by other anarchists.[68] His analysis has been criticised as "reductive" and "undialectical", due to his failure to recognise the many connections and interrelations between the two tendencies.[69]

Although sometimes considered a form of individualist anarchism,[70] anarcho-capitalism is typically rejected as a legitimate anarchist school of thought by social anarchists, who uphold anti-capitalism as a central principle.[71] The two have engaged in a contested debate over the term "libertarian", which was initially a synonym for the "left-libertarian" social anarchism but was later also claimed by "right-libertarian" anarcho-capitalists, with each rejecting the "libertarian" credentials of the other.[72] In contrast, social anarchists accept American individualist anarchists like Benjamin Tucker and Lysander Spooner as genuine, due in part to their opposition to capitalism.[73] In turn, modern anti-capitalist individualists like Kevin Carson have drawn inspiration from social anarchism, while retaining their pro-market views.[74] Libertarian scholar Roderick T. Long has thus suggested that left-wing market anarchists could use their position to mediate between social anarchists and anarcho-capitalists, arguing for an ecumenical view of anarchism and libertarianism.[75]


The social anarchist model for building socialism from the bottom-up was opposed by Marxists, who instead advocated for a "dictatorship of the proletariat".[76] Marxists considered social anarchism to be an ideology of the petite bourgeoisie and the lumpenproletariat, criticising it particularly for its anti-statism, which it considered to be a politically sectarian impulse.[77] Individualist anarchists such as David Morland have also criticised social anarchism as "incoherent", due to the disconnect between its "realistic" approach to human nature and its "optimistic" view of future anarchist societies.[78]

Post-structuralists have criticised social anarchism for its narrow analysis of power.[79] To the post-structuralist Todd May, power is irreducible and dispersed, arising from many different places.[80] Whereas social anarchists such as Mikhail Bakunin focus on the concentration of power within the hands of the ruling class or the bourgeoisie, which they hold to be the principal source of social issues.[81] Critical theorists have also criticised the social anarchist understanding of power for focusing too much on the state, without considering power dynamics inherent to racism, sexism and even some interpersonal relationships.[82]

See also


  1. ^ a b Morland 2004, p. 26.
  2. ^ Adams 2001, p. 120; Franks 2018a, p. 557; Jun 2018, pp. 51–56; Marshall 2008, pp. 653–654; Ostergaard 1991, p. 21; Ostergaard 2006, p. 13; Suissa 2001, pp. 629–630.
  3. ^ Jun 2018, pp. 51–56; Ostergaard 1991, p. 21; Ostergaard 2006, p. 13.
  4. ^ Franks 2018a, p. 554.
  5. ^ Marshall 2008, pp. 653–654.
  6. ^ Firth 2018, p. 495; Suissa 2001, pp. 637–638; Ostergaard 2006, p. 13.
  7. ^ Adams 2001, p. 120; Firth 2018, p. 495; Suissa 2001, pp. 637–638; Ostergaard 2006, p. 13.
  8. ^ Marshall 2008, pp. 655–656; Ostergaard 2006, p. 13; Suissa 2001, pp. 629–630; Thagard 2000, pp. 148–149.
  9. ^ Franks 2013, p. 390.
  10. ^ Morland 2004, pp. 24–25.
  11. ^ Busky 2000, p. 2.
  12. ^ Franks 2013, pp. 389–390; Jun 2018, p. 52; Long 2020, p. 28; Ostergaard 1991, p. 21.
  13. ^ Franks 2018a, pp. 557–558.
  14. ^ a b Marshall 2008, p. 651.
  15. ^ Jun 2018, p. 52.
  16. ^ Marshall 2008, p. 653.
  17. ^ a b Morland 2004, p. 25.
  18. ^ Morland 2004, pp. 25–26.
  19. ^ Morland 2004, pp. 23–24; Thagard 2000, pp. 148–149.
  20. ^ a b Franks 2013, p. 391.
  21. ^ Suissa 2001, p. 639.
  22. ^ Thagard 2000, pp. 150–152.
  23. ^ Morland 2004, pp. 23–24.
  24. ^ Morland 2004, pp. 23–24; Suissa 2001, pp. 630–631.
  25. ^ Morland 2004, p. 25; Suissa 2001, pp. 630–631.
  26. ^ Morland 2004, pp. 23–25; Suissa 2001, pp. 630–631.
  27. ^ Suissa 2001, pp. 630–631.
  28. ^ Franks 2018a, p. 551.
  29. ^ Franks 2018b, pp. 34–35.
  30. ^ Franks 2013, p. 390; Morland 2004, p. 26.
  31. ^ Franks 2013, p. 390; Morland 2004, pp. 25–26.
  32. ^ Franks 2013, pp. 390–391.
  33. ^ Morland 2004, p. 23.
  34. ^ Franks 2013, p. 400.
  35. ^ Franks 2013, p. 400; Morland 2004, p. 23.
  36. ^ McLaughlin 2007, p. 116.
  37. ^ Busky 2000, p. 5; Marshall 2008, p. 6; Ostergaard 2006, p. 13.
  38. ^ Adams 2001, pp. 120–121; Busky 2000, p. 5; Marshall 2008, p. 7.
  39. ^ Busky 2000, p. 5; Marshall 2008, p. 7.
  40. ^ Adams 2001, pp. 121–123; Busky 2000, p. 5; Marshall 2008, pp. 7–8.
  41. ^ Adams 2001, pp. 123–124; Busky 2000, p. 5; Marshall 2008, p. 8.
  42. ^ Adams 2001, pp. 125–126; Busky 2000, p. 5; Marshall 2008, pp. 8–9; Ostergaard 2006, p. 13.
  43. ^ Adams 2001, p. 126; Marshall 2008, pp. 9–10; Ostergaard 2006, p. 13.
  44. ^ Busky 2000, p. 6.
  45. ^ Adams 2001, pp. 124–125; Busky 2000, p. 6.
  46. ^ Suissa 2001, p. 638.
  47. ^ a b Ostergaard 2006, p. 13.
  48. ^ Morland 2004, pp. 30–31.
  49. ^ Busky 2000, pp. 5–6.
  50. ^ Franks 2013, pp. 397–398; Marshall 2008, pp. 692–693; Morland 2004, p. 23; Morris 2017, pp. 376–377.
  51. ^ Morland 2004, pp. 32–33.
  52. ^ Franks 2018b, p. 31.
  53. ^ Franks 2013, p. 394.
  54. ^ Busky 2000, p. 4; Franks 2013, pp. 386–388; Jun 2018, p. 51; Long 2020, p. 28; Marshall 2008, p. 6; McLaughlin 2007, pp. 17–21, 25–26, 116; Ostergaard 1991, p. 21; Ostergaard 2006, p. 13; Suissa 2001, pp. 629–630.
  55. ^ Jun 2018, pp. 51–52; Long 2020, pp. 28–29; Marshall 2008, p. 10; Ostergaard 1991, p. 21; Ostergaard 2006, p. 13.
  56. ^ Busky 2000, p. 4.
  57. ^ a b Marshall 2008, p. 6.
  58. ^ Franks 2013, p. 388; Long 2020, p. 29; Suissa 2001, pp. 629–630.
  59. ^ Franks 2013, p. 388; Suissa 2001, pp. 629–630.
  60. ^ Franks 2013, pp. 386–388.
  61. ^ Franks 2013, pp. 386–388; Jun 2018, p. 52; Ostergaard 2006, p. 13.
  62. ^ Marshall 2008, p. 221; McLaughlin 2007, pp. 162, 166–167.
  63. ^ Franks 2013, p. 393.
  64. ^ Franks 2013, pp. 393–394.
  65. ^ Davis 2018, pp. 51–52; Firth 2018, pp. 500–501; McLaughlin 2007, p. 165; Morland 2004, p. 24.
  66. ^ Davis 2018, p. 53; Marshall 2008, p. 694.
  67. ^ Franks 2013, p. 388.
  68. ^ Marshall 2008, pp. 692–693.
  69. ^ Davis 2018, pp. 53–54; Long 2020, p. 35.
  70. ^ Busky 2000, p. 4; Long 2020, pp. 30–31; Ostergaard 1991, p. 21; Ostergaard 2006, p. 13.
  71. ^ Davis 2018, p. 64; Franks 2013, p. 393; Franks 2018a, pp. 558–559; Long 2017, pp. 286–287; Long 2020, pp. 30–31; Marshall 2008, p. 650.
  72. ^ Long 2020, pp. 30–31.
  73. ^ Long 2017, pp. 287–290; Long 2020, pp. 31–33.
  74. ^ Long 2017, p. 292.
  75. ^ Long 2020, pp. 33–35.
  76. ^ Ostergaard 2006, pp. 13–14.
  77. ^ Ostergaard 1991, p. 22.
  78. ^ McLaughlin 2007, pp. 17–19.
  79. ^ Morland 2004, p. 27.
  80. ^ Morland 2004, pp. 27–28.
  81. ^ Morland 2004, p. 28.
  82. ^ Franks 2013, p. 397; Suissa 2001, pp. 640–641.


Further reading