Anarchism and the Law


The author wrote this as part of his Dissertation in 2008 in Queens University titled ‘Anarchism and the Law’. The author firstly recalls a historical overview of the anarchism, its proponents and their position on laws and how society deals with anti-social behaviour and their vision for the future, from Godwin to the present especially during revolutions when anarchist ideas and movements flourished. He then moves on to the thorny subject of the meaning of “law” and its relationship anarchism, liberalism and authoritarian socialists.

The last few paragraphs examine case studies from Paris Communards 1871, Makhnovichna (the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army in the Ukraine) 1917-22, CNT-FAI militia in Spain 1936-39, Christiana in Denmark today, EZLN in Chiapas today. The response of anarchist groups in Ireland and abroad to crime and the law is also briefly discussed and reviewed.

Finally the author concludes which serves as a lesson to us all,

“Saying ‘no blueprints’ (detailed outlook) is a cop out for having no solution. The past always imposes itself on the present. For anarchism to have a future anarchists need to convince more people. If anarchists want to be taken seriously they have to be able to provide credible alternatives on the key issues that concern people including crime prevention.”

But generally the term “anarchist” is used in this work to refer to individuals, groups and movements who describe themselves as “anarchist”, including those who use the prefix “anarchy”. Sometimes, more generally, it may refer to individuals, groups and movements who have used the terms anarchism, anarchist or anarchy in a positive or supportive way. Other times it may even refer to persons who never considered themselves anarchist nor used the term positively but whose ideas are basically identical to those of anarchists.
A brief history of the use of these terms will suffice to demonstrate who and what I mean by such terms. The English word “anarchy” comes from the Greek anarkhia and anarkhos meaning without a ruler.

It was first used in English in the 16th century and, as in other languages, was used pejoratively to mean disorder, chaos, discord. the assumption made is that order requires a ruler or rulers, that order requires not only authority, but the ruler’s power of coercion, compulsion. It usually infers violence as well as confusion.

The term “anarchist” was first used in the 17th century when a Cromwellian pamphlet described the Levellers as “Switzerising anarchists”. Later use followed the French anarchisme and anarchiste.5

As the vast majority of political writers, educators, journalists and commentators, writers of dictionaries and encyclopaedia have, and still do, use these terms pejoratively so have most people. Usually it is only anarchists themselves who use the term differently.

This makes it very difficult for anarchists and their detractors to communicate. What some anarchists may think is intentional slander is more often misunderstanding and incomprehension. Despite this some anarchists have said that if the term anarchism ever became acceptable they would have to find another!

The first person ever to use the term ‘anarchy’ positively and to call himself an ‘anarchist’ was Pierre Joseph Proudhon (1809-65). In his work Qu’ est-ce que la propriété?, 1840, Proudhon denied being a democrat and wrote “I am an anarchist!” Proudhon claimed that “As man seeks justice in equality, so society seeks order in anarchy.” In 1848 another Frenchman, Anselme Bellegarrigue, wrote “Anarchy is order: government is civil war”. In 1850 Bellagarigue published the first periodical to adopt the anarchist label, L’anarchie: journal de l’ordre.
Those influenced by Proudhon in the 1840s, ‘50s and ‘60s were not so bold as to call themselves anarchists. They preferred to call themselves mutualists and socialists.

Even those inspired by Michael Bakunin (1814-76) only hesitantly began accepting the label anarchist that their detractors gave them. They preferred to be called social democrats or social revolutionaries, socialists or collectivists and later communists. In the 1870’s they were federalists. They began calling themselves anarchists in the 1880s and 90s.

The first organisation to call itself anarchist was the Revolutionary Community of Russian Anarchists which in 1873 had split away from Bakunin’s Russian Brotherhood. By the 1890s a discernable Anarchist movement existed. It exists today.

Many theoreticians, such as William Godwin, now described as anarchists did not describe themselves this way. Others are referred to as libertarians.
What they have in common is that they all envision a society with as little coercion or compulsion as possible, replacing government and the state with free agreement of free individuals.
William Godwin and Peter Kropotkin both made extensive critiques of law, as we shall see in part nine.

No blueprints?

Because anarchists stress the importance of freedom, individuality and creativity (whether as a result of free will or of innate behaviour coinciding with the free development of natural laws) some anarchists, such as Emma Goldman, have gone so far as to criticise, not only the ‘dead hand’ of written laws, constitutions, the Social Contract, but even blueprints, plans for the future, as the present/past restricting future generations.
Yet all these theoreticians do give accounts of their vision for a future society. Historians explain that what they reject is dogma, fixed, rigid, detailed, restrictive, exhaustive, Utopian plans of some imposed on others, in favour of suggestions, rough sketches of basic principles, considerations, a concrete and feasible alternative, the direction the future might and could take based on a realisation of definite trends.

The Social Causes of Crime and Crime Eradication.

Given the social causes of crime all the theoreticians expect crime to drop drastically if not disappear altogether in a libertarian society. With poverty eradicated, wealth shared, the burden of labour shared, coupled with libertarian social education, few crimes will remain. Even these are seen as the remnants of authoritarian society and, it is suggested, would in time occur less and less.

Unwritten Laws. Unfixed Laws. Natural Laws and Social Laws.

Godwin, Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Rocker, Bookchin, Chomsky all espouse the notion of fixed or immutable inbuilt natural laws which pre-dispose humans to be social and make artificial laws unnecessary. Yet at the same time they also espouse education, socialisation to complement and to encourage nature.
Malatesta disagreed. While solidarity is natural, so is compulsion and competition. But humans can struggle against nature with social laws. These social laws are not written down and imposed but appear due to the existence of society, our common struggle, which educates us in solidarity, mutual aid. Nor are they fixed but change with society.

Written Constitutions.

While Godwin and Proudhon never joined any political organisations, Godwin wrote a constitution for a proposed school and Proudhon wrote a constitution for his People’s Bank. As a self-employed printer Proudhon must have also wrote written contracts with his customers. Both envisioned social organisations in the future and suggested the possible constitution of future society.

Bakunin’s favourite past time was writing elaborate constitutions, often for fictitious organisations. But he and all the theoreticians that followed were members of organisations with written constitutions of rules of membership.

Unfixed Constitutions. Changeable and Changing Laws. Flexibility and Free Growth.

All the theoreticians seem to agree that, while natural laws may or may not be immutable, social laws, social forms of organisation, and therefore, constitutions and rules, are only temporary, are forever changing, evolving, developing, because society is forever developing.
They argue that society, like nature, should be allowed to develop freely.


All the theoreticians place a great deal of emphasis on education. Education, socialisation and encouragement can strengthen solidarity and mutual aid. This will help to eradicate crime and selfishness, and make compulsion, the judicial system and its laws unnecessary.

No Laws?

There is some confusion over words such as ‘laws’, ‘rules’ and ‘rights’. These theoreticians oppose physical compulsion, and written fixed laws, but do espouse un-imposed unwritten fixed natural laws, and un-imposed unfixed social laws, whether written down or not.
Aware of the confusion, they often speak in favour, not of laws, rules and rights, but of morals, a moral code, ethics, usages, customs and taboos. Such morals are inbuilt innate, but also taught, socialised.
Goldman spoke, in Nietzschian terms, of doing away with the morality of the old order in favour of a new social morality. But Kropotkin and Rocker, like Tolstoy, were aware of the similarities between anarchist morality, values, principles and aspects of old religions, and new ideologies like liberalism and socialism. The difference was, they claimed, anarchists actually meant it.

Legislatures, Assemblies, Juries, Decisions and Decision-making.

As ‘law’ and ‘legislature’ are usually defined by these theoreticians as emanating from the state, while they endorse voting in direct democracy, these decisions are not ‘laws’ somehow, are not physically imposed and are subject to change.

In terms of administration, these theoreticians endorse elections of immediately revocable delegates whose tasks are purely functional, though Bookchin prefers rotation to election.

No Compulsion?

Can you compel decisions? Can you compel anyone in any situation? Godwin and Proudhon thought government necessary in the immediate future but later moral pressure would suffice to check abuse and later still even this would be unnecessary as antisocial behaviour would not occur.
Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta, Goldman, Rocker and Bookchin all seem to oppose coercive institutions but not self-defence or defence of others at a given moment. While they all profess to prefer moral pressure, given that they were all involved in wars, revolutions, attempted insurrections and rebellions, they all accept defensive institutions in the form of militia composed of the entire community and run by direct democracy. These restrain and even kill individuals if and when necessary.

Antisocial Behaviour in the Immediate Future.

Education may cure crime long-term, but how do we curb antisocial behaviour in the immediate future if not by physical compulsion? The answer given by these theoreticians is either by kindness and sympathetic treatment or by verbal condemnation, moral pressure, even ostracism.

Part 3

A historical overview of the Anarchist movement, unions, groups and militia and how the movement in practice dealt with anti-social behaviour during revolutions when anarchists briefly gained control of society, how anarchists relate to each other in communes, revolutionary co-operatives and squats and how they relate to the wider society.

In all the revolutions, communes, coops and squats that anarchists have been, and are, involved in, they have, of course, worked with many others who have not described themselves as ‘anarchists’, including those with different ideologies and those with none, those in different parties, unions, groups, and those in none.

No blueprints?

While anarchists have been happy to give their own organisations constitutions, aims and principles, they are often reluctant to describe their future alternative society in concrete detail. An example of this is the Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo-Federacion Anarquista Iberica (CNT-FAI) who, as syndicalists, had elaborate organisations, and even suggested this as the basic structures of a free society, post-revolution, but also spoke of the dead hand of the written word. They espoused the free creativity of life, work, action, reality as opposed to mere books where ideas become sterile.
Because of this attitude they failed to anticipate events, provide alternatives to state security, state police, state courts, and reality forced them to compromise their principles during the Spanish Civil War and Revolution, 1936-9.

Coops, collectives, communes and squats have, of course, their own structures. Modern anarchist organisations are happier to suggest concrete proposals, though not always in the area of crime prevention and detection as we shall see.

The Social Causes of Crime and Crime Eradication.

Because each of the insurrections and revolutions were fleeting there is no surviving statistics on crime, and their libertarian societies were hardly allowed time to see if the theories were right, and if a comparison with other societies would find in their favour. According to its supporters crime disappeared from Paris during the Commune of 1871 but this only lasted two months during which the citizens necessarily clung to each other.

Wars are criminal enterprises in themselves. This is not to excuse acts but helps to explain them. But after the rush of energy and outpouring of popular anger during the first weeks of the Spanish conflict atrocities on the Republican side seems to have ended though state sponsored executions continued. Revolutionary elán is how some historians explain the apparent disappearance of crime in the collectivised areas. This could also account for the Commune, though the Ukrainian and Spanish collectives lasted longer.

Trade is global. So are the state’s means of repression. No revolution or society can last in isolation. For this reason Chiapas in Mexico is still impoverished. Despite that rural community solidarity can only have been increased by the insurgency and the crime rate in Chiapas naturally favours well compared to Mexico City.

Though only a city district of a thousand residents Christiania in Copenhagen seems to bare out in practice the theory that collective society eradicates crime. Incidents have been rare here in the last thirty years and were caused by gangs from other areas infiltrating the community before being turfed out.6

Modern anarchist organisations make the same claims for their future society as their theoretical forebears.

Unwritten Laws, Unfixed Laws. Natural Laws and Social Laws. Written Constitutions.

All organisations, past and present, have constitutions, rules. The Commune had a constitution, the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army (RIA) in Ukraine had a constitution, the CNT, FAI, FIJL (Libertarian Youth), and Mujeres Libres (Free Women) each had a constitution, Christiania has a set of rules, and the Ejercito Zapatista Liberacion Nacional (EZLN) has a constitution.
Each commune and collective set up by the CNT-FAI, by the RIA and by the EZLN, or by workers and peasants in their confidence, had a constitution. Each of the modern anarchist groups and unions has a written constitution.

However, clearly the RIA and the CNT, under the influence of Bakunin, Kropotkin and others, also put their faith in spontaneous social laws and immutable natural laws. The modern Anarchist Federation (AF), under the influence of Malatesta, reject natural laws in favour of will power and creativity.

Unfixed Constitutions. Changeable and Changing Laws. Flexibility and Free Growth.

The constitutions of the Commune, of Christiania, of the RIA, the CNT, the FAI, the EZLN, and of the communes and collectives set up by these, like their decisions, could/can all be changed by direct democracy or by delegate democracy, either by consensus or by majority vote. The same can be said for the modern anarchist organisations.


The Commune set up free schools. Under the influence of Francisco Ferrer, so too did the CNT. The EZLN and Christiania have done the same. At such schools values are taught as well as reading, writing and arithmetic. The RIA had plans to set up free schools also.
Solidarity Federation (SolFed) have an Education Network, and they, the AF and the Anarchist Black Cross (ABC) have written on the connection between free education and the crime rate.

No Laws?

The Commune passed laws which Marx describes as ‘decrees’ and ‘special measures’.
The RIA had ‘rules of discipline’ and the communal and regional assemblies, congresses and soviets made ‘decisions’, while the RIA spoke of law and order being upheld by the living force of the local community.
The CNT-FAI also made ‘decisions’, ‘agreements’ and ‘resolutions’ as did the Spanishcollectives which had a ‘moral dimension’ and ‘banned’ various products and institutions, followed the ‘Great Law of Nature’, and whose decisions included ‘sanctions’. The CNT-FAI militia accepted ‘orders’ provided they were discussed and voted on.

All the modern anarchist groups have Aims and Principles and speak of ‘decisions’. The Workers Solidarity Movement (WSM) accepts the need for a ‘few laws’. The AF speaks of ‘limits’ to freedom, ‘steps’ taken and of ‘rights’. The ABC Federation has ‘by laws’. The other ABC groups only speak of solutions to offences.

Legislatures, Assemblies, Juries, Decisions and Decision-making.

All the organisations past and present practised and practice direct democracy and delegate democracy. Most practised/practice majority rules while the ABC and Christiania insist on consensus. The FAI and the ABC as much as possible practice free association.
The Commune had elected court officials. The Ukrainian communes, and Spanish collectives, like Christiania and the Zapatista barrios today, had trials but rather than ‘juries’ the whole community assembly passed sentence.

Of the modern anarchist groups only Organise! (Even here the member was speaking in a personal capacity) admitted of the need for juries. The WSM and the ABC speak of democratically elected community forums trying criminals or councils of the whole community affected coming to mutual agreements but neither mention how guilt is found and who has the final verdict.

No Compulsion?

The Commune’s National Guard, the RIA, the CNT-FAI militia, and the EZLN were and are all military organisations so had/have military discipline, albeit following democratic procedures.
The Commune had police and courts but only executed one Imperial General. The RIA’s ‘voluntary mobilisation’ is alleged to have amounted to conscription, though the communes they invited the people to set up were not imposed. Some of the Spanish collectives were alleged by some to have been imposed on the ‘individualist’ minority, though others dispute this and most were happy to take part. When the collaboration set in the CNT-FAI involved itself in plenty of compulsion, compelling prisoners to forced labour and others to die. Christiania’s residents use verbal pressure to enforce their few rules and failing that forced eviction. The peasants of Chiapas compel no one as they are too busy surviving.

Organise! admit of the need for “closed environments” for repeat offenders. The WSM has supported and participated in Dublin community marches on heroin dealers homes to force them out, and say that ‘the mentally ill’ (I assume they only mean those prone to violence) must be removed from society for their own protection and that of others.
Solidarity Federation have taken part in Anti-Fascist Action’s endeavours to keep the far right of our streets. A link to the ABC Networks describes gradations of penalties for repeat offenders. Only the AF, despite speaking of our right to defend ourselves refuses to admit of the need of force. Though, as a revolutionary organisation the AF must realise social revolution compels the ruling class to relent.

Antisocial Behaviour in the Immediate Future.

Organise! and the WSM foresee the need to use investigative skills and forensics as well as some form of due process, albeit of a direct democratic nature unlike now. The WSM proritise compensation and rehabilitation rather than punishment, revenge or even prosecution. The WSM and Class War give qualified support to Community Restorative Justice.
The AF say that emotionally disturbed people should be cared for as far as possible in the community. ABC Network mentions restitution, community counselling, and community service. In extreme cases the AF, Class War and the ABC Network might support banishment/exile.

The problem with words, what is the meaning of “law” and the meaning of “anarchism”?

The Problem with Words

Almost every word in the English language has more than one meaning. Sometimes the differences are very subtle or they just indicate different uses of a word as a noun, verb, adjective or adverb.
But political, ideological, philosophical, and religious words are much more problematic. Whatever such words meant originally, they are used (some might say misused) by so many different people, in so many different ways, that each of them take on a Procrustean character.
Such terms have so many different meanings, some of which contradict each other, that, for the exasperated, they have become meaningless. For the more subtle mind, we can deduce what is meant by a term (which meaning is meant), if anything, by who is using it. The phrase “it depends what you mean” becomes very useful when such words are used. Cynicism regarding the motives of politicians in their use of words and slogans, for example, is nothing new. Long before Jesus of Nazareth denounced the Pharisees as hypocrites such an attitude existed, probably not long after we learned how to speak.


As already noted in Parts 2 and 3 the word law is used in different ways. It can mean simply the observed repetition and order of events in nature as in the laws of physics. It can mean principles of conduct conceived to be of natural origin as in the laws of decency. It can mean a way of life as in the law of the jungle. It can mean a rule or a body or code of rules established by society or custom and resulting in a condition of social order or justice. Finally, it can mean a rule or a body or code of rules established by authority, by government, by the State.

As we have seen anarchists accept natural laws (though they may argue as to whether or not such laws are innate and immutable/fixed). They also have said that they accept social laws, customs, morals (though they may argue as to whether or not such laws should be written down) provided these are not fixed and are not physically imposed.

In fact, anarchists, when pushed, do accept social laws being physically imposed as when individuals need to defend themselves and each other, or a community or society needs to defend itself against the violence of the State, and against the violence, the antisocial behaviour, of individual criminals at a given moment. They are just very reticent and cautious about admitting this. When they do admit it they quickly insist and reassure the listener that they prefer moral persuasion and kind treatment, and failing that ostracism and that physical force is only ever a last resort. Even then they insist that this is followed by sympathetic treatment not punishment.

It turns out that what anarchists really object to is State law because they oppose the State. They don’t object to law. They object to leaders. They don’t object to rules. They object to rulers separate from the ruled, to the ruling class. They object to State law, State courts, State judges, State lawyers, State police, State armies and State prisons.

If the ‘law’ is subject to direct democracy, made by direct democracy and executed by the people directly or by elected immediately revocable delegates/officers or rotated delegates/officers, then that is acceptable, provided that certain qualifications apply.

These qualifications are that direct democracy doesn’t override individual freedom except when it needs to, to protect equal freedom. In other words, when defence against violence requires temporary restraint. Even then, when a criminal has been overpowered, punishment or torture is never justified as this would be exploitation of the vulnerable.

Many anarchists even accept ‘courts’ (though they prefer terms like ‘tribunal’ or simply ‘meeting’) provided that the court is composed of the whole community affected, or elected immediately revocable delegates/officers or rotated delegates/officers.

Some anarchists even accept ‘judges’ provided these too are elected and immediately revocable or rotated. Most anarchists would prefer replacing judges with a chair of the court and leave all judgements and prescriptions to the jury. Some anarchists may prefer the entire community is the jury while others accept a jury chosen either by lot or by election. Many anarchists accept ‘barristers’ (although they prefer to call them ‘representatives’) provided that those representing the community are elected, immediately revocable or rotated, while others are chosen by the accused and chosen by the victims.

Anarchists even accept ‘police’ in the sense of all the people ‘policing’ themselves and each other, the ‘police’ or the ‘army’ composed of all the people as in popular militia with rotation of shifts, all the people looking out for each other and caring for each other and coming to each other’s aid when necessary.

Some anarchists even accept ‘prison’ in the sense of a ‘confined environment’ but insist this would mean a caring treatment centre, something very different than state prisons today.

So when most anarchists say that they desire to get rid of laws, law courts, judges, lawyers, police, armies and prisons what they actually mean is they desire to get rid of State laws, State courts, State judges, State lawyers, State police, State armies and State prisons.

Many anarchists even accept legislature. While rejecting a ruling class making laws, and insisting that elected immediately revocable delegates/officers or rotated delegates/officers only perform an executive/administrative function, they nonetheless reserve legislation for popular assembles composed of the entire community, making decisions by direct democracy, either by majority rules or by consensus.

Anarchists accept rules for their own organisations so long as these rules are unfixed, subject to change. But their most basic principles, for example equal freedom, seem very fixed.
Certainly, anarchists envisage a simplification of law, and getting rid of certain laws (laws related to the protection of class society), but they do not believe in getting rid of all law, or in getting rid of law.


Anarchism is the doctrine, the belief that an anarchist society, that ‘anarchy’, is both desirable and possible.

Anarchy does not mean 'without rules'. It means leaderless. Anarchy does not mean ‘no laws’. It means ‘no leaders’. Anarchy does not mean ‘no rules’. It means ‘no rulers’ or it means a society where we are all rulers who rule ourselves and each other. So it means laws without leaders, rules without rulers, rules without a ruling class separate from the people. This definition is borne out by the etymology of the word from ancient Greek.

Furthermore, anarchists insist that this implies ‘order’, the peaceful balanced order of free equals cooperating in the absence of competition, as opposed to the ‘chaos’ of violent wars caused by competition over who gets to be the government, and the ‘chaos’ of economic instability, insecurity, unemployment and famines amidst plenty caused by competition over who gets to own capital.

Anarchy would mean more freedom and less laws/restraints than exists for most people today. But it does not mean complete individual freedom from all laws/restraints to do whatever you like because that is impossible. Equal freedom means a limit on individual freedom in respect of the equal freedom of others. Of course, were it possible to live in a society where no one would like, would want, to hurt anyone, where it wouldn’t even enter their heads, then there would be no cause for restraint. But even then, such a desire is still philosophically possible and so the limit is still philosophically called for.

What is the meaning of “state”, “government”, and “police”? 1


Any system, structure or condition is a ‘state’ including an anarchist state, a state of anarchy. Anarchists oppose the State by which they mean the ruling class of some over others. Anarchists reject the sovereignty of the State in favour of individual sovereignty.

Anarchists are opposed to the idea that any person, any social group or class has the right or the authority to formally and continuously impose their decisions on others, ultimately by physical force. Anarchists are opposed to the continuation of the fact of this hierarchical centralised social coercion, compulsion, force.

Anarchists only accept compulsion, restraint at a given moment in self-defence or defence of others, or more formally and continuously by society for self-defence, only in so far as, and so long as, anyone and everyone’s equal freedom needs protected. Any such social organ for defence/protection would be organised by voluntary cooperation, free association, on the basis of decentralised local direct democracy.

Is this a ‘State’? Only if a society of respectful free and equal individuals are considered a ‘class’, an individual criminal or group of criminals is considered another ‘class’, and the act of self-defence/protection is considered a ‘State’ act. When I defend myself at a given moment am I being a State? Does it depend how formal it is? This seems to be stretching the meaning of the word State a bit far.

Anarchists oppose a minority of specific individuals being in a prolonged formal position to continuously compel others.


Any administration which guides and directs, which makes and implements decisions, is a ‘government’ including an anarchist government, local community self-government by free association, and individual self-government. Anarchists oppose the Government by which they mean the ruling class of some over others (as above).


Any group, force, body of persons established and maintained to maintain order, health, safety, general welfare, to prevent and detect crime, is a ‘police’ force in that they are involved in ‘policing’, keeping order, including a local community policing itself, community police, composed of everyone, a popular militia, a workers or residents militia, a neighbourhood watch composed of everyone looking out for, and protecting each other.

Anarchists oppose the hierarchy of the State police, and oppose the continuation of the State police as a force separate from, and used against, the community.

Anarchists desire that the rank and file of the police ‘switch sides’ and serve and protect the community instead of serving and protecting the state, by joining the rest of the community and allowing direct democratic control and use of their investigative and forensic skills.

Anarchists and liberals, anarchists and socialists, is the difference over law?

Anarchists and liberals

No, the difference is over the State and property rights. Liberals, like socialists and anarchists, are heirs of the ideas born out of the Enlightenment, and the English, the American, but especially the French, Revolutions.

Classical liberalism accepted the property rights of capitalists, denied workers the right to combine as interference in the ‘free market’, and accepted the State as guarantor of those property rights, as security. Classical liberals argued that the State was necessary to protect individuals from murderers and thieves. Indeed, some suggested this as the reason for the State’s origin.

When they spoke of ‘property’ they didn’t just mean personal property like items of clothing, jewellery, the food in one’s hand. They also meant capital, land and businesses. So, by ‘thieves’ they didn’t just mean petty thieves but anyone or social group who would deprive them of their capital.

They looked to Parliament and the poor to help them defend these property rights against interference by absolute monarchy and aristocracy. They looked to the State to defend these same property rights against the poor, the organised labour movement, but especially against the more extreme demands of socialists, communists, utopians, Marxists and anarchists.

Social liberalism accepted the contention of the left that freedom was freedom to, positive freedom, as well as freedom from, negative freedom.Whereas aristocrats and conservatives have spoken of the duty of the wealthiest to look after the poorest, social liberals spoke of the poor’s positive right to sustenance, and rather than looking to private charity to provide it, accepted taxation and State expansion to provide it. In this they were joined by social democrats and even ‘Tory democrats’ in the consensus which emerged after the founding of the welfare state.

Modern liberalism, like anarchism, argues for the notion of equal freedom. These liberals argue with anarchists over the level of coercion necessary to maintain equal freedom. They also argue over the necessity of hierarchy. This hierarchy, as well as the greater level of coercion, is what constitute ‘the State’. Some of the more idealist liberals approach the ideas of the libertarian left with talk of ‘participatory democracy’, but such ideas remain experimental and reformist.

Such liberals also cling to the notion of capitalist property rights. Even those who agree with state socialists on the need for state ownership, only do so on the understanding that capitalists will be financially compensated to the tune of any capital’s estimated worth. So much so that state ownership is written off when it’s believed that the State ‘can’t afford it’.

Anarchists and socialists

Many anarchists call themselves ‘socialists’ or ‘communists’, social anarchists, anarchist socialists, anarchist communists, libertarian socialists and libertarian communists. The anarchist movement was historically part of, and came out of, the workers movement, the socialist movement, the International.These call other socialists state socialists or authoritarian socialists or even state capitalists. They differ with these other socialists over the need for the State, for central government, for hierarchy. Utopian socialists tended to have hierarchies, leaders and followed the plans of these leaders.

Marxists believe that it is necessary to take over the State and use the State in a transitional period before it will ‘wither away’ in free communism. The Leninist states of the twentieth century were extremely authoritarian and, far from withering away, became further entrenched until they were removed by popular movements. They replaced private capitalists and their managers with state capitalism and state managers.

Social democrats became the same as liberals and conservatives once in government, mixing state capitalism with private capitalism, but not altering the class structure. Ultimately, they have abandoned state capitalism in favour of private capitalism with a weakened welfare state, and further entrenched the State in other areas.

Liberals and state socialists scoff at anarchists as either criminal wreckers or delusional utopian dreamers. Meanwhile, the State project goes on as the State becomes bigger and more centralised. Continental superstates like the EU, the US, Russia, China, India, the African Union, the OAS and ASEAN become the norm. The decision making process is more distant than ever. While the State and State regulation is cut back from industry and welfare provision, State security, police and military become more invasive.

Is the anarchist vision completely utopian, is it realistic or realisable?

This is relevant because if anarchism is, is to grow in strength whether it means lawlessness or not is not important. Also, one of the main charges against anarchism is that it is an impossible dream. But this charge is normally based on the idea that anarchy is lawlessness. Anarchists have been asked for over a hundred years what they would do about crime. It is assumed by anarchism’s detractors that this question is a fatal blow to the anarchist argument.

Some anarchists haven’t helped with their refusal to describe ‘blueprints’, their vagueness on the future, their ‘all critique and no alternative’, and their apparent assumption that crime will indeed vanish after the State is gone. However, this is not true of most anarchists. They have developed sophisticated arguments for those prepared to listen. But if anarchists made a clear statement that no, they do not believe in lawlessness, that they believe in moral laws being executed directly by the people themselves, in protection, defence, policing, being conducted by the people themselves, then this would clear away all the confusion. It would also stun many critiques into silence. They would have to readjust their form of attack. It may even help anarchists convince more of the undecided. After all, a core principle of anarchism is the importance of education, of propaganda.

Is anarchism, as leaderless equal freedom, an impossible dream anyway?

Certainly the State and capital are both getting bigger, more centralised, while the worker’s movement is in retreat. But, as Marx predicted, globalization is clearing away many of the things that divide us. Modern secularisation deals fatal blows to religious fanaticism. All worship mammon. Immigration means, in time, we get used to our different cultures and learn tolerance. Superstates like the EU make nationalism look outdated. In our workplaces men and women from various backgrounds join together. There are still incidents of prejudice and reaction, but they become less and less common and, therefore, more out of place, and so are condemned as crimes.

More people are becoming cynical about the motives of political parties. The bureaucratic trade unions have lost their power and their mass membership. Many don’t vote. Unfortunately all that these same cynics have replaced political parties and trade unions with is apathy. Lower class people don’t vote so all parties court the affluent middle class. Frankly, it would be better if people did vote if the only alternative is apathy. And trade unions are better than no union at all.

There are signs of an alternative however. While turning away from the ideologies of Leninism and social democracy, many people have carried on the tactic of direct action. As well as strikes, lorry drivers blocked roads over fuel hikes, eco-activists ruined GM crops, communities organised mass non-payment of poll tax in Britain, and of water tax and bin tax in Ireland. Community councils and workers cooperatives have been set up in Argentina, Venezuela and Bolivia. Strikes and occupations are the norm in France, and there was nearly a workers revolution in Albania in 1997.

Communities continue to experiment with ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ and, in Northern Ireland, with Community Restorative Justice. The internet provides an alternative to TV as a source of ideas. The future is unpredictable but just as there are economic upturns and downturns so working class creativity and struggle comes and goes. But the next time the people will be free of the baggage of the last century, the false promises of state ideologies of left and right.

Anarchists don’t reject all state functions. They seek to replace the State with direct democracy and thereby to carry on the running of not only welfare provisions but also protection, security against criminals. Organise and the WSM accept certain police roles, investigators, forensics. the syndicalist approach is to convince all workers including those in the State sector. It is a tremendous task. Is it possible?

The stock answer is that they said it was impossible to abolish slavery and absolute monarchy. They said representative democracy, capitalism, industrialisation, civil liberties, surplus growth, were all impossible but they came to pass. As have all the technological, medical and scientific wonders of the modern world. Anything is possible. Everything is impossible until it happens.

Spontaneity - the trouble with the anarchists belief in the free creativity of future generations, of the masses, is it lazily provides an excuse to leave out detailed plans or visions for the future so allowing anarchists to avoid awkward questions, all critique and no alternative (except vague principles).

As we have seen regarding blueprints of a future society, some anarchists are reluctant to spell out in detail concrete proposals regarding an alternative to existing society apart from espousing free growth, free development. This then includes a reluctance to spell out an alternative to present institutions for, and methods of, crime prevention.

Some anarchists they are so committed to individual freedom, to individual creativity, some have even opposed making any plans at all as this would be one individual dictating to others or the present generation dictating to future generations.

Others, while denying that they made rigid, detailed, fixed plans or orders for others to follow, have, nevertheless, made suggestions, and fairly detailed descriptions of a possible future order.

Others have gone even further and made, and joined, organisations, movements, unions, federations, groups, societies, coops, collectives, communes and squats with their own structures, including constitutions of rules and their own aims and principles.

Others have even managed to take part in revolutions where such organisations briefly prospered, and which gave society new structures, constitutions, aims and principles.

Despite this, the suggestions of theoreticians and organisations as to how we deal with antisocial behaviour in a free society in the future, post-revolution, is at best vague or hopelessly optimistic. At worst, it contradicts freedom, equality and justice and therefore anarchism.

Revolutions have often been lost in corruption. This has included indiscriminate violence. It also included very discriminate victimisation, cruelty without any pretence of a fair trial. It also included trials where prisoners were tortured to extract confessions, and where the end result was execution.

Of course, violence in revolutions in no way compares to the violence of the state generally. Also, such cruelties were mostly perpetuated by others, not anarchists. Indeed, anarchists have more often been the victims of such violence. But some ‘anarchists’ were responsible for some of the outrages in the Spanish Civil War.

This is the fault of making no credible plans to replace authoritarian structures with libertarian structures that deal with violence, war, antisocial behaviour without contradicting anarchist principles. The excuse of ‘no blueprints’ is a copout.

To pass this off as unimportant or belittle it as inevitable is to make it inevitable. I am not suggesting that pacifism is credible. Everyone has a right to defend themselves and each other. It is especially to be hoped that we would defend the vulnerable, which cannot defend themselves. Also, if workers, residents, taxpayers, really did seize ownership of their workplaces, homes, lives, and refused to pay taxes to the state or broke its laws, having failed to persuade the owners, landlords, mortgage companies, banks to just ‘give up’ their property, having failed to persuade the state to give up its sovereign claims, it is extremely likely violence would result.

In fairness, some modern anarchist organisations have realised this and have begun to present credible suggestions for dealing with antisocial behaviour.

Case studies (theoreticians): Godwin, Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta, Goldman, Rocker, Bookchin, and Chomsky.

William Godwin (1756-1836)2

For Godwin society should not make laws for the moral laws are already made by nature, by reason, by justice. Nor should society follow any man-made laws which contradict these moral laws, these principles of justice.

Local administration, popular assemblies and juries should merely interpret these immutable laws and declare that which has already been decreed by natural law. Each person’s private judgement will coincide with these laws when left to develop independently.

These popular juries and assemblies will execute the law (following reason not votes); issue commands and restrain anti-social individuals. Later, they will merely make recommendations. Eventually as freedom and equality establishes universal reason restraint can be replaced with persuasion, the mutual censor of public opinion.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865)
Like Godwin, Proudhon believed in immanent immutable innate natural moral laws of justice that are continually discovered by humanity through reason.

Often Proudhon denounced government, the state, authority and all man-made laws. However, Proudhon threatened capitalists with popular tribunals. In the same paragraph that he claimed his scheme would replace laws with contracts also said that cities and industrial unions would make their own laws. Arbitration would replace law courts and identity of interests would replace police.

To begin with Proudhon’s contracts were not legally enforceable, carrying no sanction except that no one would form contracts with a known serial contract breaker. In 1848 Proudhon admitted he wanted liberty unlimited except in respect of liberty of others.

Later he allowed for public opinion to enforce moral rules, that while we should respect individual choice we have a duty to ensure that each of us behaves morally. Finally, he accepted the authority of an independent arbiter, a federal government, a state and consigned anarchy to a future following his gradualist scheme.

Michael Bakunin (1814-1876)4

Like Proudhon, Bakunin was not always consistent. Despite denouncing constitutions, legislators, courts and universal suffrage his own organisation’s constitutions and plans included legislative assemblies and executives, judges and tribunals elected by universal suffrage.
He really meant that current laws, assemblies and courts would be replaced by new laws (which would mirror natural social law), assemblies and courts created by the instinctive will of the people, by life, by the force of events, elected by the people with right of immediate recall, and right of secession.

Antisocial individuals would be dealt with by public opinion rather than physical force, education, medical treatment, “social law” and the “justice of the people”. Eventually, due to education, the development of “socialist morality”, antisocial disorders would disappear.

Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921)5

Kropotkin was more genuine and consistent in his anarchism then Godwin, Proudhon or Bakunin. He too believed in natural laws and that human social customs, habits, usages, moral principles, taboos and free agreements would reflect natural laws of mutual aid in a free society. Ever changing they would develop as society develops. Such invisible laws would never be recorded, written down but emerge as a perpetually revisable free contract between free individuals.

Despite this he defined the moral code or ethic for a free society, not imposed but innate, as ‘Do to others as you would want them do to you in the same circumstances.’ He occasionally defined these as ‘customary laws’ or ‘customary rules’, as ‘laws’ or ‘rules’ or ‘regulations’, using the same words for what he condemned. He claimed customs were not man-made but natural.

Kropotkin was confident that morality had developed such that when a revolution swept away unequal property and power, and with it poverty, most antisocial crime would disappear. He advocated the moral pressure (even moral compulsion) of public opinion to deal with any remaining minority of layabouts.

He opposed punishment and favoured abolition of prisons. He believed that violent individuals should be treated with kindness, care and understanding. Disputes would be settled by arbitrators.

As crime is caused by either socialisation or disease it can eventually be limited if not eradicated by education, medical care and cures.

Errico Malatesta (1853-1932)

Malatesta was one of the most genuine and consistent anarchists. He rejected the idea of rigid natural laws and emphasised the role of human will-power in creating an alternative morality of solidarity, which for him meant overcoming natural law. This will includes education where education means stimulating people’s minds to think and act for themselves. He opposed education as imposing views, denied that people need educating for freedom, stating that only liberty fits one for liberty.

Malatesta sought the abolition of the judiciary, prisons, the police, the army, legislature and government. He sympathised with individual police constables and tried to convert them. He opposed individual acts of violence or terror, seeking a society without the intervention of the gendarme, but he justified violence in self-defence or in defence of others at a given moment.

He accepted that crime, though diminished, would still occur in a libertarian society. He believed that people would have to defend themselves directly against criminals and delinquents by treating them as strayed brothers or sick people in need of treatment.

Malatesta favoured free agreement between free associations and free individuals, but he acknowledged that equal freedom of all, and society, implies a limitation of freedom. Differences should be solved by mutual agreement and compromise.

He eventually felt that after the insurrection/social revolution ‘pure anarchy’ would only emerge gradually. He spoke of moral and spiritual values, rules of behaviour, the law of solidarity but opposed these being written down or physically imposed on others.

Emma Goldman (1869-1940)

In her youth ‘Red Emma’ called for a transformation of all accepted moral values beyond good and evil to forge a new morality for a free society. She declared that all laws were against the people and envisioned liberty unrestricted by man-made laws. She believed it was possible for people to live peaceful, ordered, productive lives without the ‘violence’ of laws which she felt were wrong, harmful and unnecessary.

Goldman refused to give an account or a programme for her alternative society believing it was wrong for present generations to oppose their ideas on the future hindering its free creativity. She also thought it was impossible to predict how a free society would operate. She at first supported individual acts of violence against capitalists but later dropped this position while continuing to excuse the desperate acts of individuals as victims of society.

Later still she felt all violent means were suspect and began to call for a morality which recognised the sanctity of life, arguing for internal moral change as well as external social revolution. This would be brought about by example and education without rules or regulations but encouraging free growth of social values.

Goldman opposed prisons believing that not only did they fail to redress crime but by dehumanising prisoners through torture and foul conditions made prisoners more antisocial than they were before. She explained crime as miss-directed energy. She felt that most crimes were caused by society and would disappear in a free society and the remainder were caused by mental illness which could be treated with care.

Rudolf Rocker (1873-1958)

Rocker, like Godwin and Kropotkin, believed in ‘natural law’ mirrored in social laws. For him it is the State that creates evil. He was confident that we were progressing toward a society where real justice would replace law and real freedom would replace liberties (those written down and enforced by the state).

Rocker advocated the abolition of all coercive institutions and proposed federation on the basis of free agreement on common aims.

Political rights and liberties do not exist because of parliaments or because they are legally written down on a piece of paper. They exist because they have become the ingrown habits of the people who respond with violence when their rights and liberties are curtailed. It was parliaments who tried to curtail these rights and liberties and were forced to concede them by mass pressure, revolutions, direct action.

Murray Bookchin (1921- 2006)

Bookchin presents a vision of local face-to-face direct democracy where citizen’s assembles empower the weak and instil autonomous selfhood, self-discipline, self-control, solidarity and civic virtue. The result is social harmony and order reflecting natural harmony and order - a moral economy of care, responsibility and obligation.

Human behaviour results partly from nature, from socialisation/education and from free will. As well as human reason and ethics reflecting nature humans have the capacity to create our own ethics based on reason. He claims this ethic should be based on unhindered volition, on freedom more than justice.

Modern material abundance allows us to develop a morality based on mutual aid and respect. However, Bookchin believes a long period of enlightenment is needed before the revolutionary project can be realised.

He first rejected the idea of rights, laws, customs, equity and contracts in favour of free choice, desire but later accepted rights. He accepts majority rule and non-consensual decision making.

Noam Chomsky (1928- )

Chomsky also argues that we need freedom to develop self-control. He also emphasises the role of education. However, he too argues that we have an innate human nature whose latent natural laws could develop in each person without the external restraint of legislators. Such natural laws do not limit humans but are the conditions for their freedom. Authority and control limit and distort human capacities and needs.

Chomsky is not opposed to laws and rights demanded by labour unions and community groups for their protection. He just doubts the governments will or desire to implement them. He opposes pro-business lawyers and their laws. He points out also that purely punitive laws do not solve crime as they ignore the causes.

Case studies (movements): Paris Communards 1871, Makhnovichna (the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army in the Ukraine) 1917-22, CNT-FAI militia in Spain 1936-39, Christiana in Denmark today, EZLN and Chiapas today.

Paris Communards, 1871

According to Marx, the Paris Commune abolished the standing army and police, replaced these with a popular workers militia, each militiaman serving on a temporary basis and then the responsibility being rotated among all the citizens.

This militia was headed by a committee which like court officials, magistrates and judges were directly elected and recallable at short notice by the workers who elected them. The general committee combined the roles of legislature and executive and was also composed of elected and recallable delegates. This passed laws or ‘measures’. Committee members and public servants were paid at a rate closer to that of other workers.

According to Marx, during its two month existence no murders, assaults or night-time burglaries occurred and almost no robberies. According to Kropotkin the only execution was of one hated general.

Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army in the Ukraine, 1917-222

The towns and villages liberated by the RIA set up autonomous communes with workers and peasants soviets (councils) being elected on a temporary basis to help coordinate production. The soviets executed the decisions made by the peasants and workers directly such that delegate democracy married direct democracy. The delegates were revocable at any time. These soviets in turn elected regional congresses.

No civil ‘authority’ existed, the RIA declaring to the people that they were now free without restrictions. Basic liberties were declared and the traditional courts replaced with the proposal that law and order be left to the “living force of the community” and not left to “police specialists”.

The RIA itself was meant to be answerable to the Congress of Workers, Peasants and Insurgents. In fact it was run by Makhno and his clique. Officers were meant to be elected by the soldiers. In practice they were nominated by Makhno who held veto power. Unpopular commanders were transferred. Makhno was genuinely popular among the RIA.

Whether voluntary enlistment or conscription operated is debatable. Within the RIA a rough-and-ready discipline included swift punishments. Apart from the demand for food and men the RIA did not interfere, as a separate organ, in the affairs of the commune.

CNT-FAI in Spain, 1936-39

Both the CNT and the FAI had and have constitutions of rules. The CNT is organised on the basis of direct democracy and delegate democracy. Decisions are made and executed by the rank and file members/workers at the base. Both officers and delegates are recallable, unpaid and elected on a temporary basis only. Officers beyond the base are kept to a minimum with specific roles. Delegates meet only to coordinate agreed policy. The FAI was founded on the basis of free association of affinity groups though in practice operates the same way as the CNT.

Just before the war and revolution in Jan/Feb 1936 at their congress the FAI insisted that after the revolution the defence of the new regime could not be entrusted to professional soldiers or police corps but only to the ordinary people themselves, the workers themselves. No mention was made of antisocial behaviour as they believed this would not arise in a free society with a socialised economy.

During the revolution the CNT-FAI joined the Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias, effectively a government which shared power with the Catalan government. They replaced the state police behind the front lines with the popular militia (composed of the ordinary people themselves, workers and peasants) where they were called ‘Patrols of Control’ charged with security and public order. They replaced the state courts with ‘Tribunals of the People’, with elected judges.

In the communes and collectives popular assembles established direct democracy with committees of recallable delegates implementing their decisions. These assemblies and committees had ultimate power to expel antisocial individuals. Apparently, this never happened, as due to the revolutionary élan of 1936-7 crime and idleness didn’t occur. Moral persuasion was used instead of force when it came to collectivisation and those who chose to remain individual farmers were tolerated.

However, like all factions, the CNT-FAI took part in executions of political prisoners, prisoners of war and those charged with spying, sabotage, and treason. A minority of the FAI executed those they suspected of fascist sympathies without even the pretence of a trial. This minority, apparently, also executed monks, priests, pimps, and male prostitutes.

The CNT-FAI joined the Catalan government in September and the Madrid government in November 1936. They were pushed out of these seats in May-June 1937, some of their people were murdered, and their communes and collectives, their control patrols, militia committees and Tribunals were broken up. Despite this they continued to collaborate with the authorities and their militia, with elected officers, were co-opted into the army of the Republic. The state courts they collaborated with made and enforced laws, and executed prisoners.

Christiana Commune, Copenhagen, 1970-today

Christiania is a partially self-governing district of Copenhagen. It operates on the basis of complete community consensus agreed at general meetings of its 850 residents. This has produced rules prohibiting violence, guns, bulletproof jackets, knives, cars, hard drugs, and violent gangs, photos being taken on the main street, and the private selling or renting of property.

The rules are enforced by social pressure, persuasion, and, failing that, forced expulsion. Residents have also given the names of hard drug dealers to the police. People who play music too loud constantly or who profit from business without giving toward the community may also be asked to leave. However, antisocial behaviour is extremely rare (unless you consider selling and smoking cannabis to be antisocial) so such measures have rarely been used or needed.

The EZLN and Chiapas, 1994-today

Much of Chiapas and the surrounding areas are unofficially autonomous thanks to the collaboration of the EZLN and the local people who have become one in the same. Their guns and the presence of human rights groups keep the state police and army out of these areas.

These towns and villages practice direct participatory democracy and delegate democracy. Everyone is consulted and their voice heard. Everyone over 12 can vote. There are Revolutionary Laws/Zapatista Laws. Obviously, the poor of Chiapas cannot afford to keep prisoners, but antisocial criminals are put to work or banished rather than executed.

Interview with Organise! And the WSM (Ireland’s anarchists) on the subject of law. Response of other anarchists groups, unions around the world on same topic (via e-mail).


Organise! believe that the function of the state courts, state police, state army, state prisons, state civil service, is to defend the interests of the bosses. Beyond that, they don’t have an agreed policy on an alternative.

However, the personal opinion of one of the members whom I interviewed and who later e-mailed me, was that we should support institutions where necessary provided that they were established by direct democracy, and not by any form of government or the state, and not bound to capitalism or acting as the state’s enforcer.

These could include due process, trial by jury of one’s peers, and make use of investigatory skills, forensics, and prisons (or a “closed environment”) for repeat offenders, to tackle whatever antisocial crime will still remain after the crime that is capitalist exploitation has been eradicated. All of which is preferable to “mob-rule”. A strong, confident and militant working class will be able, and must, take on the responsibility for tackling antisocial crime in our own communities.

Workers Solidarity Movement

The WSM believe that current laws are made to protect the property of the rich. However, they also believe that people should be free to the extent that they respect the freedom of others. They oppose punishment and revenge in favour of rehabilitation and restitution/ compensation/reparations to the community or the victim.

They support community restorative justice independent of the state, but claim this is only possible during and after a revolution when most crimes will disappear. They support residents forcibly evicting heroin dealers by marching on their homes.

After the revolution there will be few crimes (as most people have enough common sense to follow agreed conventions such as the traffic code, and the end of poverty will mean no property crimes). Therefore, there will be few ‘laws’, but those that there are will be agreed to by local direct democracy to deal with ‘crimes of passion’ and those caused by illness.

The WSM support a community justice system, community (self) policing and public trials, providing they include fair, open and democratic procedures where evidence is given and weighed and the accused given the chance to defend themselves or be defended by a representative, tried by elected representatives of the community. Such community forums would have nothing in common with the current police but may include elected investigators using those with forensic expertise. They claim criminals will not be ‘prosecuted’ yet accept that, in some cases, the guilty will have to be removed from society for their own protection and that of others.

Solidarity Federation

SolFed has no specific position on law and crime. Broadly, they see current police, law courts and politicians as having an agenda to preserve the