7.1 The Legitimacy of Authority: Theoretical Anarchism


By the end of this section you will discover:

How theoretical anarchism differs from anarchism.

How theoretical anarchism provides a justification for the freedom of the individual within a government.

How States and other systems of human organization employ “coercion” in their efforts to limit individual freedoms.

How Leo Tolstoy championed “Christian Anarchism” as a form of theoretical anarchism and raised important questions for those who believe in Jesus.

Strengths and weaknesses of the theoretical anarchist position.

What right has a government to seek to control the lives of its citizens? Because we have lived our entire lives under one form of government or another we rarely take the time to ask this basic question. But if we think of ourselves as free individuals, shouldn’t we reject government controls over our lives?

Anarchism is the political philosophy that argues that any form of government coercion over individuals is not justified. The word anarchism comes from the Ancient Greek anarkhia, meaning “without a ruler.”  Philosophical or Theoretical Anarchism argues that a State has no moral legitimacy and that individuals have no moral duty to obey the State. However, theoretical anarchists do not advocate revolution to do away with the State, but instead, call for gradual changes to coercive laws and social constraints that minimize the State’s limits on human freedoms.

Anarchism has a long history, going back as far as ancient Greek philosophy. As Nation-States have come to dominate the lives of citizens and reduce civil liberties in the modern era, the concept has taken on more urgency. The term anarchism was first coined by the French thinker Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in the 18th century. Anarchist ideas would inform political discourse in many modern social movements, including the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the fight for women’s suffrage and later for feminist principles, the Russian Revolution, and contemporary anti-war, anti-capitalist, anti-nuclear, and pro-environmentalist movements.

The fundamental position of theoretical anarchism is that a State has no legitimate moral authority over individuals, and when it attempts to coerce individuals to its ends individuals have the moral duty to resist. Contemporary philosopher Robert Paul Wolff articulated this in his 1970 book In Defense of Anarchism. There Wolff posits the reality of two competing claims: the claim by a State to have authority over individuals, and the more primary claim by individuals that they have autonomy. Wolff argues that the freedom of the autonomous individual is always superior to any State’s claim to authority. Wolff does not call for revolution or active anarchy. He is instead asserting the moral superiority of the individual and that individual’s obligation to resist State coercion through peaceful measures.

The defining mark of the state is authority, the right to rule. The primary obligation of man is autonomy, the refusal to be ruled. It would seem, then, that there can be no resolution of the conflict between the autonomy of the individual and the putative authority of the state. Insofar as a man fulfills his obligation to make himself the author of his decisions, he will resist the state’s claim to have authority over him. That is to say, he will deny that he has a duty to obey the laws of the state simply because they are the laws. In that sense, it would seem that anarchism is the only political doctrine consistent with the virtue of autonomy (Wolff, In Defense of Anarchism, Ch. 3).

Wolff advocates a kind of theoretical anarchism that serves to remind us always that we are morally superior to any government or institution, and that the rights and freedoms of the individual are constantly in tension with a government’s claims to authority. He goes on to criticize all contemporary forms of government, including representative democracy, as coercive systems that impede individual freedoms and autonomy.

It is this tension between individual freedoms and the coercion of the state that is at the heart of political discourse. The individual claims that their autonomy and freedoms supersede the will of the state, and the state claims that the individual should cede power and freedom to the state. It is from this tension that the definitions of justice are drawn.

This concept of coercion – the practice of persuading someone to do something by using force or threats— is at the heart of anarchist arguments. Coercion can take many forms. Physical coercion simply employs brute force to compel another to comply. War is an obvious form of this kind of coercion, the use of armed men and women to forcibly oppose a rival militarily. In some societies, the military is also used to intimidate civilians and force their obedience and submission to the government.

Coercion can often take psychological forms. The mere threat of physical violence can establish a state of fear that compels compliance without needing to act in violence. An institution that has consistently threatened dark consequences for people has in many ways obtained its desired obedience without actually employing violence. Blackmail is one example. Here the mere threat of negative results is often enough to succeed. A more subtle form of psychological conversion may be seen in certain religious institutions which subtly though persistently threaten divine wrath or eternal penalties as a means of intimidating their congregations.

When it comes to government coercion, both options are on the table. Most governments “work” not because we love our political system but because we fear consequences for noncompliance. Take the income tax, for example. You may know some people who claim to be happy that the government compels us to give it annually a sizable part of our earnings, but I suspect those people are few. Instead, the government relies upon our compliance in this because of the psychological coercion associated with fear of an “audit.” This is but one example of the ways in which governments coerce. Another more drastic form of conversion is forced conscription when a government physically compels citizens to join the military, as our government did during the Vietnam War.

Count Leo Tolstoy, half-length portrait, facing right
Count Leo Tolstoy, 1880 – 1886

A major focus of many anarchist philosophies since the late 18th century has been antiviolence and the immorality of a State sending citizens to war. Anarchists are strongly opposed to forced conscription, but many are opposed to war itself.

One particularly fascinating thread in the anarchist opposition to such violence has been the development of Christian Anarchism. Christian anarchists claim that they take literally the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament that command followers to not resist evil and to turn the other cheek. Among the most famous essays in this tradition is a book by the 19th-century Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy, entitled The Kingdom of God is Within You. Tolstoy argues that what passes for Christianity today is not at all the message of non-violence and separatism preached by Jesus. Instead, the powers of one coercive institution or another, at least since the third century A.D., have co-opted the essentially anarchist message of Jesus.

Excerpts from Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You.

In what follows, consider the arguments of Christian anarchists here expressed by the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy.

What arguments did Tolstoy find among American Quakers for why Christians should not support war?

The Doctrine of Non-resistance to Evil by Force has been Professed by a Minority of Men from the very Foundation of Christianity.

Among the first responses called forth by my book were some letters from American Quakers. In these letters, expressing their sympathy with my views on the unlawfulness for a Christian of war and the use of force of any kind, the Quakers gave me details of their own so-called sect, which for more than two hundred years has actually professed the teaching of Christ on non-resistance to evil by force, and does not make use of weapons in self-defense. The Quakers sent me also their pamphlets, journals, and books, from which I learned how they had, years ago, established beyond doubt the duty of a Christian of fulfilling the command of non-resistance to evil by force, and had exposed the error of the Church’s teaching in allowing war and capital punishment.

In a whole series of arguments and texts showing that war—that is, the wounding and killing of men—is inconsistent with a religion founded on peace and goodwill toward men, the Quakers maintain and prove that nothing has contributed so much to the obscuring of Christian truth in the eyes of the heathen, and has hindered so much the diffusion of Christianity through the world, as the disregard of this command by men calling themselves Christians, and the permission of war and violence to Christians.

“Christ’s teaching, which came to be known to men, not by means of violence and the sword,” they say, “but by means of non-resistance to evil, gentleness, meekness, and peaceableness, can only be diffused through the world by the example of peace, harmony, and love among its followers.”

“A Christian, according to the teaching of God himself, can act only peaceably toward all men, and therefore there can be no authority able to force the Christian to act in opposition to the teaching of God and to the principal virtue of the Christian in his relation with his neighbors.”

“The law of state necessity,” they say, “can force only those to change the law of God who, for the sake of earthly gains, try to reconcile the irreconcilable; but for a Christian who sincerely believes that following Christ’s teaching will give him salvation, such considerations of state can have no force.”

Further acquaintance with the labors of the Quakers and their works…showed me not only that the impossibility of reconciling Christianity with force and war had been recognized long, long ago, but that this irreconcilability had been long ago proved so clearly and so indubitably that one could only wonder how this impossible reconciliation of Christian teaching with the use of force, which has been, and is still, preached in the churches, could have been maintained in spite of it.

What is the doctrine of “non-resistance”?

The son of William Lloyd Garrison, the famous champion of the emancipation of the negroes, wrote to me that he had read my book, in which he found ideas similar to those expressed by his father in the year 1838, and that, thinking it would be interesting to me to know this, he sent me a declaration or proclamation of “non-resistance” drawn up by his father nearly fifty years ago.

This declaration came about under the following circumstances: William Lloyd Garrison took part in a discussion on the means of suppressing war in the Society for the Establishment of Peace among Men, which existed in 1838 in America. He came to the conclusion that the establishment of universal peace can only be founded on the open profession of the doctrine of non-resistance to evil by violence (Matt. v. 39), in its full significance, as understood by the Quakers, with whom Garrison happened to be on friendly relations. Having come to this conclusion, Garrison thereupon composed and laid before the society a declaration, which was signed at the time—in 1838—by many members.

What were the main positions of the 1838 Declaration of the Peace Convention?

Declaration of Sentiments Adopted by the Peace Convention, Boston, 1838

“We, the undersigned, regard it as due to ourselves, to the cause which we love, to the country in which we live, to publish a declaration expressive of the purposes we aim to accomplish and the measures we shall adopt to carry forward the work of peaceful universal reformation.

“We do not acknowledge allegiance to any human government. We recognize but one King and Lawgiver, one Judge and Ruler of mankind. Our country is the world, our countrymen are all mankind. We love the land of our nativity only as we love all other lands. The interests and rights of American citizens are not dearer to us than those of the whole human race. Hence we can allow no appeal to patriotism to revenge any national insult or injury…

“We conceive that a nation has no right to defend itself against foreign enemies or to punish its invaders, and no individual possesses that right in his own case, and the unit cannot be of greater importance than the aggregate. If soldiers thronging from abroad with intent to commit rapine and destroy life may not be resisted by the people or the magistracy, then ought no resistance to be offered to domestic troublers of the public peace or of private security.

“The dogma that all the governments of the world are approvingly ordained of God, and that the powers that be in the United States, in Russia, in Turkey, are in accordance with his will, is no less absurd than impious. It makes the impartial Author of our existence unequal and tyrannical. It cannot be affirmed that the powers that be in any nation are actuated by the spirit or guided by the example of Christ in the treatment of enemies; therefore, they cannot be agreeable to the will of God, and therefore their overthrow by a spiritual regeneration of their subjects is inevitable.

“We regard as unchristian and unlawful not only all wars, whether offensive or defensive, but all preparations for war; every naval ship, every arsenal, every fortification, we regard as unchristian and unlawful; the existence of any kind of standing army, all military chieftains, all monuments commemorative of victory over a fallen foe, all trophies won in battle, all celebrations in honor of military exploits, all appropriations for defense by arms; we regard as unchristian and unlawful every edict of government requiring of its subjects military service.

“Hence we deem it unlawful to bear arms, and we cannot hold any office which imposes on its incumbent the obligation to compel men to do right on pain of imprisonment or death. We therefore voluntarily exclude ourselves from every legislative and judicial body, and repudiate all human politics, worldly honors, and stations of authority. If we cannot occupy a seat in the legislature or on the bench, neither can we elect others to act as our substitutes in any such capacity. It follows that we cannot sue any man at law to force him to return anything he may have wrongly taken from us; if he has seized our coat, we shall surrender him our cloak also rather than subject him to punishment.

“We believe that the penal code of the old covenant—an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth—has been abrogated by Jesus Christ and that under the new covenant the forgiveness instead of the punishment of enemies has been enjoined on all his disciples in all cases whatsoever. To extort money from enemies, cast them into prison, exile, or execute them, is obviously not to forgive but to take retribution.

“The history of mankind is crowded with evidences proving that physical coercion is not adapted to moral regeneration and that the sinful dispositions of men can be subdued only by love; that evil can be exterminated only by good; that it is not safe to rely upon the strength of an arm to preserve us from harm; that there is great security in being gentle, long-suffering, and abundant in mercy; that it is only the meek who shall inherit the earth; for those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.

“Hence as a measure of sound policy—of safety to property, life, and liberty—of public quietude and private enjoyment—as well as on the ground of allegiance to Him who is King of kings and Lord of lords, we cordially adopt the non-resistance principle, being confident that it provides for all possible consequences, is armed with omnipotent power, and must ultimately triumph over every assailing force.

“…If we abide by our fundamental principle of not opposing evil by evil we cannot participate in sedition, treason, or violence. We shall submit to every ordinance and every requirement of government, except such as are contrary to the commands of the Gospel, and in no case resist the operation of law, except by meekly submitting to the penalty of disobedience.

“But while we shall adhere to the doctrine of non-resistance and passive submission to enemies, we purpose, in a moral and spiritual sense, to assail iniquity in high places and in low places, to apply our principles to all existing evil, political, legal, and ecclesiastical institutions, and to hasten the time when the kingdoms of this world will have become the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ. It appears to us a self-evident truth that whatever the Gospel is designed to destroy at any period of the world, being contrary to it, ought now to be abandoned. If then, the time is predicted when swords shall be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, and men shall not learn the art of war anymore, it follows that all who manufacture, sell, or wield these deadly weapons do thus array themselves against the peaceful dominion of the Son of God on earth….”

According to Tolstoy, how should Christians approach War?

People will ask, perhaps: How ought a subject to behave who believes that war is inconsistent with his religion while the government demands from him that he should enter military service?

This question is, I think, a most vital one, and the answer to it is especially important in these days of universal conscription. All—or at least the great majority of the people—are Christians, and all men are called upon for military service. How ought a man, as a Christian, to meet this demand? This is the gist of Dymond’s answer:

“His duty is humbly but steadfastly to refuse to serve.”

…And therefore, we consider it the duty of every man who thinks war inconsistent with Christianity, meekly but firmly to refuse to serve in the army. And let those whose lot it is to act thus, remember that the fulfillment of a great duty rests with them. The destiny of humanity in the world depends, so far as it depends on men at all, on their fidelity to their religion. Let them confess their conviction, and stand up for it, and not in words alone, but in sufferings too, if need be. If you believe that Christ forbade murder, pay no heed to the arguments nor to the commands of those who call on you to bear a hand in it. By such a steadfast refusal to make use of force, you call down on yourselves the blessing promised to those “who hear these sayings and do them,” and the time will come when the world recognizes you as having aided in the reformation of mankind.

What two realities should Christian pacifists always keep in mind?

Whatever names we dignify ourselves with, whatever uniforms we wear, whatever priests we anoint ourselves before, however many millions we possess, however many guards are stationed along our road, however, many policemen guard our wealth, however many so-called criminals, revolutionists, and anarchists we punish, whatever exploits we have performed, whatever states we may have founded, fortresses and towers we may have erected—from Babel to the Eiffel Tower—there are two inevitable conditions of life, confronting all of us, which destroy its whole meaning;

(1) death, which may at any moment pounce upon each of us; and

(2) the transitoriness of all our works, which so soon pass away and leave no trace.

Whatever we may do—found companies, build palaces and monuments, write songs and poems—it is all not for a long time. Soon it passes away, leaving no trace. And therefore, however, we may conceal it from ourselves, we cannot help seeing that the significance of our life cannot lie in our personal fleshly existence, the prey of incurable suffering and inevitable death, nor in any social institution or organization. Whoever you may be who are reading these lines, think of your position and of your duties—not of your position as landowner, merchant, judge, emperor, president, minister, priest, soldier, which has been temporarily allotted you by men, and not of the imaginary duties laid on you by those positions, but of your real positions in eternity as a creature who at the will of Someone has been called out of unconsciousness after an eternity of non-existence to which you may return at any moment at his will. Think of your duties—not your supposed duties as a landowner to your estate, as a merchant to your business, as emperor, minister, or official to the state, but of your real duties, the duties that follow from your real position as a being called into life and endowed with reason and love….

However commonplace and out of date it may seem to us, however, confused we may be by hypocrisy and by the hypnotic suggestion which results from it, nothing can destroy the certainty of this simple and clearly defined truth. No external conditions can guarantee our life, which is attended with inevitable sufferings and infallibly terminated by death, and which consequently can have no significance except in the constant accomplishment of what is demanded by the Power which has placed us in life with a sole certain guide—the rational conscience.

That is why that Power cannot require of us what is irrational and impossible: the organization of our temporary external life, the life of society or of the state. That Power demands of us only what is reasonable, certain, and possible: to serve the kingdom of God, that is, to contribute to the establishment of the greatest possible union between all living beings—a union possible only in the truth; and to recognize and to profess the revealed truth, which is always in our power.

“But seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Matt. vi. 33.)

The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity by contributing to the establishment of the kingdom of God, which can only be done by the recognition and profession of the truth by every man.

“The kingdom of God cometh not with outward show; neither shall they say, Lo here! or, Lo there! for behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke xvii. 20, 21.)

(Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You, 1894, translated by Constance Garnett, Project Gutenberg)

Ponder if you will…

Should Christians be pacifists? Is war antithetical to Christianity? Consider some of the following quotes from the Bible.

You shall not murder. (Exodus 10:13)

Turn from evil and do good, seek peace, and pursue it. (Psalms 34:14)

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:44)Blessed are the Peacemakers. (Matthew 5:9)

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you,

Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5:38-39)

Repay no one evil for evil but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” On the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21)

If someone has done you wrong, do not repay him with a wrong. Try to do what everyone considers to be good. Do everything possible on your part to live in peace with everybody. Never take revenge, instead, let God’s anger do it. If your enemies are hungry, feed them. Do not let evil defeat you; instead, conquer evil with good. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.” (Colossians 3:15)

Strengths and Weaknesses of Theoretical Anarchism

Theoretical anarchism aligns with ideals of maximizing human freedom and autonomy and argues for the removal of coercive hierarchies.

It argues for the elimination of concentrations of power that tend towards corruption and oppression.

It allows for decentralization and diversity in social and economic organization.

It promotes direct action over bureaucratic processes often subservient to special interests.

It demands justification and accountability for any constraints on individual liberty.

On the other hand,

The practical feasibility of theoretical anarchism is hugely questionable for modern complex societies.

Anarchists run the risk of social instability or power vacuums, thereby opening doors to despotism and new coercive systems.


Works Cited

“Count Leo Tolstoy, Half-Length Portrait, Facing Right.” Library of Congress, 1880, http://loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3c28302/.

Garrison, William Lloyd. “Declaration of Sentiments Adopted by the Peace Convention.” Teaching American History, 28 Sept. 1838, https://teachingamericanhistory.org/document/declaration-of-sentiments-adopted-by-the-peace-convention/.


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PPSC PHI 1011: The Philosopher's Quest by Daniel G. Shaw, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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