ANTH 423, Dr. Maximilian Forte, Dept. of Sociology & Anthropology, Concordia University


Robert Majewski, 2013, Version 1

(Preliminary editing by Maximilian Forte)

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The word “anarchy” derives from the Greek anarkhia meaning “lack of a leader, the state of people without government” (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2013). It is a system of political organization, a philosophy, a way of thinking and acting, that has made its way into anthropology in the 20th-century where it was both frowned upon and idealized.

Anarchist theory has many founding writers, yet those more interesting to anthropologists are Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a French 19th-century political writer, was the first to readily call himself an anarchist. Proudhon anticipated a world where there would be no more authority and where natural order would reign (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2013). His social and political doctrine consisted of the destruction of doctrines existing at his time, and the development of a scientific socialism that would in turn bring the self management of the working class that would subsequently liquidate capitalism (Gurvitch, 1965, p. 47). Though Proudhon was mostly prominent in France, it was Mikhail Bakunin who formulated the basic social philosophy of anarchism in Russia during the 19th-century. Bakunin’s inspiration sprang from his divergent views with Karl Marx and his supporters who believed that it was through the means of the state that socialism would be achieved. Anarchism was a big part of the socialist movement before the First World War (Morris, 2005, p. 7). Anthropologists used Bakunin’s distinction between authority and power in their theories: Bakunin argued that while specialists have knowledge and authority, an individual has the right to be critical of it, consult the views of different specialists, and choose the view that seems the soundest. A more controversial theorist who had a great impact on the world of anthropology is Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin and his theory of mutual aid, originally published in 1902. In his book, Kropotkin shows how it is through mutual aid that all species have survived through time, and not through ruthless competition as was suggested by Charles Darwin (Kropotkin, 1972). This book would put into question Darwin’s work, one that was fundamental in explaining human evolution (Graeber, 2004, p. 16). Kropotkin himself disbelieved that a theory such as evolution could have followers, stating that “it would sound unfeasible that humans engaged in reckless competition for personal advancement” (Kropotkin, 1972, p. 51). His theories also place voluntary association as the basis of anarchic mode of organization (High, 2012, p. 96). In his description of mutual aid among what he characterises as savages, Kropotkin described them as “societies knowing no kind of authority besides the authority of public opinion” (Kropotkin, 1972, p. 55).

Moving more specifically into the disciline of anthropology, one comes to notice that very few anthropologists willingly called themselves “anarchists” in the 20th-century. One of the first accounts of anarchy can be found in E.E. Evans-Prichard’s book The Nuer, in which he characterized the Nuer political system as “ordered anarchy,” stating the they had no government, no organized political life and no leadership. Leadership, he says, would be unconceivable among these people; it is only through the kinship system that one can understand Nuer organization (Evans-Pritchard, 1940, p. 181). Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, an anthropologist prominent in constructing structural- functionalist theory, was named by his student peers “Anarchy Brown,” though this label quickly faded as he advanced through Oxford (Morris, 2005, p.2), though we are not told what the label meant to those who used it and what provoked its usage. Radcliffe-Brown’s main ethnographic interests were the maintenance of social order outside the state (Graeber, 2004, p. 16). Of the 20th-century anthropologists, it is Pierre Clastres and Marcel Mauss that have been known to contribute the most to theory on anarchy. Pierre Clastres was a French anthropologist who wrote the influential book Society against the state, originally published in 1974. Based on his fieldwork with the Brazilian Amazonian Guayaki, he showed how these indigenous people have an anarchistic political organization. He was critical of the cultural evolutionary theory by stating that these people are not a mere image of the past destined to one day reach the western and civilized form of political organization, but rather that they actively resist power and domination (Clastres, 1987, p. 199). He explained that there was no accumulation of resources because the Guayaki see no sense in overproduction and diminishing their leisure time, preferring to devote their free time to warfare and festivities (Clastres, 1987, p. 198). He explains that a state was impossible in these societies because of the knowledge of its disadvantages, such as the creation of inequalities and control, and traces of active resistance to the state can be found in such communities (Clastres, 1987, p. 205). Even though there is presence of a chief, he has no actual power; he is simply a representative of the community (Clastres, 1994, p. 88). Though the chief does not possess power, he possesses prestige, giving him a more influential voice during conflict (Clastres, 1994, p. 90). As Clastres explained, “stateless societies know no division between the dominating and the dominated, they are homogenous because they are not divided. They do not have a separate organ of power, power is not separate from society” (1994, p. 88). There are many critiques of Clastres, including that he romanticized the political structure of the people he was working with (Colchester, 1982; Graeber, 2004, p. 33). Nevertheless, his work occupied a unique position for 40 years and his descriptions also match other accounts of aboriginal people living in the regions in which he worked (Nugent, 2012, p. 210). Though Clastres’ work can be clearly categorized as anarchistic, Marcel Mauss’ The gift is not so clear cut. This French anthropologist depicted how in various societies, such as the Maori, exchanges take place that do not involve money but objects of various nature that take on a symbolic and ascribed value (Mauss, 1990). Though Mauss himself never self-identified as an anarchist, his work was nevertheless considered by some as a theory that ran counter to capitalist principles (Robinson & Tormey, 2012, p. 145). The gift is considered as a fundamental work in anthropology and in some sense as an anarchist tract (Morris, 2005, p. 2). Some consider Mauss to have been a revolutionary socialist working to comprehend the market and find feasible alternatives for capitalism, believing in mutual aid and self-organization (Graeber, 2004, p. 17). As a precursor to the arguments advanced by Clastres, Mauss believed that the societies he studied lived without monetary exchange by choice, being fully conscious of the existence of the capitalist market (Graeber, 2004, p. 21).

A branch of classical anarchist theory, one that is based on ethnographic data, is anarcho-primitivism. It is characterized by the rejection of everything that came after humans started agriculture. The belief is that with agriculture came class and gender division, thus oppression, and that the ideal subsistence method for humans is hunting and gathering (Anonymous, 2005, p. 3). Anarcho-primitivists agree “that civilization was a mistake that has had disastrous consequences for human and non-human life, and it will continue to wreak havoc until people decide to stop it or until it collapses under its own weight” (Anonymous, 2005, p. 10). Anarcho-primitivists hold that civilization will lead to the demise of humanity (Smith, 2007, p. 472). An important character in this movement is John Zerzan who is a strong advocate of this school of anarchist thought. In his writings Zerzan argues that, prior to agriculture, there was gender autonomy and equality, with leisure time and no violence (Zerzan, 2002, p. 7). His belief is that this shift caused modern diseases of humanity such as homicide, depression, contamination of water and anxiety, among others (Zerzan, 2002, p. 2). He advocates that we go back, stating that there is no anthropological data contradicting “pre-agricultural harmony” (Zerzan, 2002, p. 4). On the contrary, anthropological texts show intimacy with nature, no centralized political authority, sharing in foraging and egalitarian social organization (Zerzan, 2002, p. 3).

Using anthropological data to validate a claim is not particular to anarcho-primitivists but a common practice among many anarchists who seek in ethnography the proof that theory is established in practice (Graeber, 2004; High, 2012; Martin, 2012; Nugent, 2012; Robinson & Tormey, 2012). In fact, Graeber (2004) states that anthropology shares a particular affinity with anarchist theory because of its history with working within “stateless” societies and “its keen awareness of the very range of human possibilities” (p. 13). In his Fragments of an anarchist anthropology, he calls for the need to create a body of social theory gravitating around anarchism (Graeber, 2004, p. 38). His fieldwork took place in Madagascar, where he worked among the Tsimihety, who actively work to maintain their egalitarian society and reject authority (Graeber, 2004, p. 54). He concludes his book by stating that anthropologists should not fear their potential: they are the ones best positioned to make generalizations about humanity (Graeber, 2004, p. 97). Robinson & Tormey (2012, p. 145) describe how anarchists use anthropological theory: generation of critique; generation of techniques for sustaining stateless relations; generation of reflexivity; and, generation of solidarity. Theory is used by anarchists to present alternative ways of life, economies, and farming techniques (among others) that work to the detriment of capitalism (Robinson & Tormey, 2012, p. 147). There is a more pragmatic side of the usage of theory, notably in mobilizing support for indigenous people. Anarchists find affinities with indigenous groups seeing them in a way as being anarchistic due to their anti-colonial sentiments, and anthropologists play a mediating role between indigenous peoples and colonizing societies (Robinson & Tormey, 2012, p. 152). Anthropologists also look for instances where the state has been unsuccessful in implanting itself (High, 2012, p. 95).

“Anarchy” can also provoke feelings of disdain in some quarters. Societies with an “anarchistic” organization were long viewed as an image of the western past. For Lewis Henry Morgan, anarchy was the most rudimentary stage of organization (Kurtz, 2001, p. 140). There have been many accounts of “anarchist” societies that were criticized for being described in a romanticized way, such as those described by Clastres or in James C. Scott’s work, The art of not being governed: an anarchist history of southeast Asia, where he depicts a society that has rejected the state (High, 2012, p. 97). Critics argue that because Scott is himself an American anarchist, he simply projects American fantasies of freedom on the people he worked with (High, 2012, p. 99). On the other hand, High addresses Peter Sutton’s work on Australian Aboriginals; Sutton uses “anarchy” to demonstrate the complete chaos and disorganization of these people, using the term for its negative connotations to justify governmental intervention (2012, p. 100). It is therefore to be concluded that “anarchy” has both positive and negative connotations associated with it, and both are used as arguments to promote and discredit anarchy.

Amidst all these debates, scholars seem to argue that “anarchy” already exists, not only being the utopia imagined by Kropotkin, but that it also exists in actions and habits around the world, manifesting itself among different groups and communities (High, 2012, p. 105; Robinson & Tormey, 2012, p. 154). Ultimately, anarchists look for solutions in ethnographic work, to validate their claims, and in turn, “Anthropological accounts of peoples and societies in struggle, promote calls to action, to solidarity, to resistance…providing a source of support and assurance to those pockets of statelessness that are able to survive within the always encroaching global state system” (Robinson & Tormey, 2012, p. 155).

There is yet another perspective that considers the link between anarchy and anthropology. This very association between the two has been questioned, and critiqued as being dissonant. Anthropology being a scholarly science, producing certified products and concepts, relies on authorities who must earn a PhD to make valid claims that are in turn reviewed by their peers. As for anarchism, it cannot rely on such a structure: one is part of the group through actions and thoughts, not accreditation (Nugent, 2012, p. 212). According to Nugent, anthropology cannot be a trustworthy source of critique and dissent against the “dominant system,” due to its roots in western thought (Nugent, 2012, p. 214). “Anarchy” is still being debated today as it was in the 20th-century, its advocates and opponents continuously contending each other’s ideas.


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Colchester, M. (1982). Les yanomami, sont-ils libres? les utopies amazoniennes, une critique. A look at french anarchist anthropology. Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford, 13(2), 139-146.

Clastres, P. (1987). Society against the state: essays in polytypical anthropology. New York, NY: Zone Books.

Clastres, P. (1994). Archeology of violence. New York, NY: Semiotext

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Smith, M. (2007). Wild-life: Anarchy, ecology, and ethics. Environmental Politics, 16(3), 470-487.

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