Anarchism v the State: a hidden history of the West

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘anarchy’? Chaos, violence, disorder – most probably. What if someone was to tell you that there is a political philosophy founded on the idea of ‘anarchy’ that stands for something exactly the opposite of these ideas? Philosophical anarchism.

The philosophy of anarchism is fundamentally one that begins with the idea that human beings are, by nature, peaceful and cooperative – as ironic as that might sound! This is in stark contrast to the Hobbesian idea of ‘war of all against all’ used to justify a strong, powerful state which can keep fundamentally violent, selfish and cruel people in check – through its own brute force, if needed, disguised as the authority of the law.

The idea that a society of human beings due to their very nature is violent and chaotic was used as a justification for strong, authoritarian states, from the beginning of what scholars call the Westphalian Age.

the world after Westphalia: new global order

The Westphalian Age was launched by the Peace of Westphalia, negotiated in 1648, which brought to an end a 30 year long period of war in Europe. An era historians refer to as, well, the Thirty Year War, witnessed an ‘anarchy’ of various religious factions within Christiandom, backed by various princes and kingdoms, big and small, warring with each other. (An era not dissimilar to the period of Warring States in China; the Peloponnesian Wars in Ancient Greece; or the era of Mahabharata in India – in terms of significance for world civilisational history.)

The Ratification of the Treaty of Münster, one of the three treaties referred to as the Peace of Westphalia, 15 May 1648(1648) by Gerard ter Borch (Source:Wikipedia)

The blame for the Thirty Years Wars was assigned to, what we would now call, non-state actors; that is, religious factions with their base of support among the common masses, implicitly supported by this or that foreign state. The solution, to prevent anything like this from happening again, was weaken the people, strengthen the state and forbid interference in domestic affairs of one state by another. This was the broad accomplishment of the Treaty of Westphalia.

In the Westphalian Age that followed, powerful states emerged in Europe – the predecessors of most European states of today. Encumbered by foreign interference and capable of drawing more resources from their people than ever – through taxation, military recruitment, mercantilist trade – these European states over the next centuries went on to create pan-global empires.

A map of 1884 showing European borders in 1648. (Source:Wikipedia)

Empires were synonymous with order. Just like the Westphalian model had brought ‘order’ within Europe, these European states would bring order to the world. At least, that was the explicit logic of empire.

the challengers of imposed orders

Now we come to the part about ‘hidden histories’. All the while the European State was growing more and more powerful and wealthier and well-organised, there were forced operating below the surface. These were in the form of ideas, strange ones such as freedom and rights. While traditionally it is to the umbrella category of Enlightenment values we ascribe these ideas, we will see, it might be better to call them anarchist ideas.

Map by By Maximilian Dörrbecker (Chumwa) – Own work, based on (1), (2), (3), CC BY-SA 2.0,

Even as early as the 16-17th Century transition, groups we might call ‘religious anarchists’ had proliferated across Europe. These groups – such as the Anabaptists in the larger German regions and the Diggers in Britain – built their own smaller societies founded on the principles cooperation while wars ravaged their countries. These groups were often persecuted as they rejected the authority of organised power – of the king or the church. As persecution grew, many similar groups chose to leave Europe for the New World of the Americas. There, groups such as the Quakers, founded their own, small, cooperative societies.

The single unifying theme of these groups was the rejection of authority and the freedom of belief. Such ideas began to develop in more non-religious contexts in Europe too, especially in England and France, inspired by great thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau who argues for freedom of the conscience. By the late 1700s an initial theory of anarchism was beginning to (formally) appear. Edmund Burke’s (often dismissively satirical) book ‘A Vindication of Natural Society’ further made the case for morally a free society while exposing the hypocrisy of organised religion and the state. This was the beginning of ‘philosophical anarchism’ which with its focus on freedom of individuals called for a gradual erosion of state power.

The winds of change that were brewing in cloistered chambers of scholars broke across Europe in the storm of the French Revolution. Again, while nominally proposing a society founded on Enlightenment values there remained strong undercurrents of anarchist ideas. As the 18th century turned into the 19th, Europe witnessed the full flourish of philosophical anarchism, led by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in France and Peter Kropotkin, in Russia. Anarchism began to develop into a full fledged philosophy and practice, geared towards demanding the retreat of the state and the assertion of individual rights. In the United States, Henry David Thoreau wrote prolifically questioning the authority of the state in imposing exorbitant taxes, demanding the abolition of slavery, even developing an early theory of environmentalism. Gradually, philosophers like Emma Goldman used anarchist ideas to demand rights for women.

the philosophy of anarchism: challenge to the State

The core theme in the philosophy of anarchism is to challenge the arbitrary imposition of authority. Those in positions of power, naturally, framed anarchism as a threat to society, to the natural order of things. No wonder anarchy as a word came to be associated with disorder and chaos.

The question is: is the weakening or even breakdown of a fundamentally unjust order not something that ultimately benefits both individuals and society? In this essay, we’ve seen how the philosophy of anarchism was used to challenge unjust social and political systems in the West. This ultimately led to a retreat of the state and a gradual increase in individual rights. Supporters of philosophical anarchism such as William Godwin, in 18th century England, saw this as the ultimate goal – the emergence of a gradual balance between power and rights. Arguably, the regime of human rights protected by the law in our age, is a consequence of these ideas – which often go unrecognised in popular history. Thus, we call it, a ‘hidden history’.

In the next essay in this series we will see how ideas similar to philosophical anarchism were used by freedom fighters in across the world during the age of European Imperialism.