Fox Professing
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Dennis Fox


Early draft of entry for
International Encyclopedia of Critical Psychology (Thomas Teo, editor)
Springer Publishers.

This entry is relatively brief and general. See papers listed below for longer treatments.

Note: This version does not exactly match the published version!

Anarchism’s worldview, like those of other sociopolitical movements, reflects assumptions about the interplay between human nature and the social order. Notably, anarchists seek to transform themselves as well as society. Although most anarchists make little reference to psychology as a discipline beyond rejecting its individualist, status quo orientation, they often make psychological arguments to support their critique, goals, and methods. This anarchist psychopolitical project has had little influence among either mainstream or critical psychologists, but some have found it useful (e.g., Abraham Maslow, Paul Goodman, Noam Chomsky, Seymour Sarason), as have radical therapists and psychoanalysts (e.g., Otto Gross, a precursor to Wilhelm Reich, and Roberto Freire, creator of somatherapy. Anarchism’s focus on the intersection of autonomy and mutuality makes it particularly relevant to standard topics in mainstream social psychology (e.g., power, decision-making, cooperation/competition, obedience/resistance, persuasion, relationships) as well as to topics drawing critical attention (e.g., ideology, subjectivity, discourse) (Fox, 2011a).

Reinforced by sensationalist mainstream media coverage, the public’s negative view of anarchism, or more often of “anarchy” and “anarchists,” reflects widespread assumptions that existing sociopolitical structures or their equivalents are both necessary and inevitable. Political progressives and radicals more attuned to Marxism or other movements of the left often share similar assumptions about the need for hierarchy and political authority. Anarchism’s range of sometimes-inconsistent perspectives also adds to some confusion about what the movement is about. As Jamie Heckert (2010) noted, addressing anarchism’s relevance to ecopsychology,

Anarchism as a tradition is both controversial and diverse. Whereas the mainstream represents anarchists as “violent” or “mindless thugs,” my own experience has been very different. While anarchism does attract people whose idea of freedom is individualistic (arguably a notion more consistent with capitalism) and anarchist subcultures and movements frequently suffer from patterns of machismo and racism, these patterns of hierarchy are themselves challenged and transformed as an integral part of a movement which is a living tradition. (p. 20, citations omitted)

Most recently, the worldwide Occupy Wall Street movement arising in 2011 in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and subsequently spreading in many directions and forms has introduced protestors and observers to some of anarchism’s strengths as well as its many challenges.


Definitions of anarchism have changed over time and in recent years have become increasingly contested. My computer's dictionary defines anarchism as “belief in the abolition of all government and the organization of society on a voluntary, cooperative basis without recourse to force or compulsion.” The definition highlights anarchism’s opposition to the state but is silent about its opposition to capitalism and its contemporary rejection of hierarchy more generally. To clarify, the focus here is on anarchism on the left, its dominant historical form and the one most relevant to critical psychology’s concerns. Self-described “anarcho-capitalists” on the right prefer a state-focused definition. More about this below.

Rather than a specific definition, Uri Gordon (2008) proposes understanding anarchism simultaneously as a social movement, a political culture, and a collection of ideas centered around three themes: the rejection of all forms of domination; an ethos of direct action, which includes “prefigurative politics” (the incorporation of anarchist values in group activities and structures); and diversity (of people, projects, interactions, etc.). Gordon points out that many activists who embrace anarchist goals and methods refer to themselves with labels such as anti-authoritarian or autonomous because “anarchist” now has so many tendencies and associations that the term itself can be misleading.


Histories of anarchism generally trace the etymology of the term to its Greek origins (variously “without a ruler” or “without authority”), typically used derogatorily though some Greek philosophers and Chinese Taoists considered it a positive ideal. After a sprinkling of efforts over the millennia to create alternatives to state control in both Europe and North America (e.g., Anabaptists, Diggers, early Rhode Island and Quaker Pennsylvania), anarchism’s modern genesis occurred in 18th-19th century Europe. Anarchists debate the role of various writers of the period but typically emphasize political philosopher William Godwin (“the first anarchist”) and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (“the first self-proclaimed anarchist”), with the latter’s work particularly influential during the revolutions of 1848 and beyond. Modern anarchists, who ponder whether Proudhon was a consistent anarchist by today’s standards, often refer to Petr Kropotkin, a Russian zoologist whose book Mutual Aid (1902) rejected capitalist-friendly Social-Darwinian notions and provided justification for a society based on cooperation rather than competition. Overall, “the years between 1848 and 1914 were seething with revolutionary activity, and gave anarchist struggle their dynamism and sense of urgency” (Gordon, 2008, p. 29).

During that revolutionary period, anarchist concerns ranged from collectivizing property and instituting the eight-hour day to women’s rights and free love. Anarchists often worked with Marxists, who eventually ejected the anarchists for criticizing efforts to replace existing rulers with new ones rather than abolish centralized rule entirely. Anarchist projects continued, especially through labor unions in Europe and Latin America, most successfully in Spain where the National Confederation of Labor was a major political force until the Spanish Civil War. Still, by mid-20th century anarchism was in decline. “The physical elimination of most of the European anarchist movement by the Bolshevik and Fascist dictatorships, and the repression and deportation of the American Red Scare of 1918-21, had left the international movement in ruins” (Gordon, 2008, p. 29).

Anarchist energy revived in the 1960s and escalated in the 1970s when the movement against nuclear power developed along decentralist, direct-action lines. Many organizers were reading anarchist writers, including Murray Bookchin (1971), who participated intermittently in the first anti-nuclear direct action group, the New England Clamshell Alliance, and a breakaway faction, the Coalition for Direct Action at Seabrook. Both groups sought to prevent construction of a New Hampshire nuclear plant by occupying the site. The movement’s principles, terminology, and styles spread throughout the anti-nuclear movement, extended into the anti-globalization movement sparked by 1999’s Seattle protest against the World Trade Organization, and now permeate the Occupy movement. Today, anarchism’s numerous tendencies are reflected in organizations as varied as Food Not Bombs (FNB, which was started by former Clamshell activists, distributes free food at protests and to the homeless), the Anarchist Black Cross (advocates prison abolition), Anarchists Against the Wall (opposes Israel’s Separation Wall), and academic groups such as the North American Anarchist Studies Network.

This brief account stresses anarchism as a political movement, but other literatures are also relevant. Intentional and utopian communities have a long history, from ad hoc communes to the Israeli kibbutz movement (Horrox, 2009) to more than a thousand current communities of various types and sizes, often explicitly or implicitly anarchist (Fellowship for Intentional Community, 2010). Similarly, influential work by anthropologists emphasizes that our ancestors lived in stateless “primitive anarchies” for most of human history (Barclay, 1982). Common assumptions that prehistoric societies must have been hierarchical, inequitable, dangerous, or otherwise unpleasant fly in the face of evidence to the contrary. The anarchist sense that people can live and work together without hierarchy is strengthened by knowing that states, urbanization, organized religion, and other developments we take for granted are relatively recent and that people have often created communities departing from mainstream norms. It may be no coincidence that the Occupy movement’s catchphrase “We are the 99 percent!” was coined by an anarchist anthropologist and organizer, David Graeber (2007).

Traditional Debates

Anarchists differ among themselves in many ways. Although they oppose domination in its many forms, long-standing disagreements persist over definitions, origins, methods, scope, and goals. The Wikipedia article on Anarchist Schools of Thought describes some two dozen tendencies, including mutualism, anarchist communism, anarcho-syndicalism, Christian anarchism, anarcho-pacifism, anarcha-feminism, social ecology, anarcho-primitivism, insurrectionary anarchism, post-anarchism, and, finally, “anarchism without adjectives.” As a practical matter, these differences have not generally prevented anarchists from different traditions from working together.

Gordon (2008) emphasizes four areas of contention among anarchist activists in the anti-globalization and similar movements: the nature of decision-making in groups that oppose power imbalance and hierarchy; degree of acceptance of various forms of violence and property destruction; attitudes toward technology and other hallmarks of civilization; and anarchist connections to movements for national liberation, particularly in Palestine. Anarchist groups have devised a wide array of responses to these and other differences.

Critical Debates

Perhaps most relevant to critical psychology is the debate between anarchists on the left, who seek to replace hierarchy and power imbalance with egalitarian, mutually supportive alternatives, and individualists on the right, who claim to be anarchists because they reject the political state but who insist individuals should be free to pursue their own economic path even when the result under capitalism is concentration of power and resources. This individualist argument developed most strongly in the United States, where adherents successfully shifted the word “libertarian” from its identification with the anarchist left (“libertarian socialism”) toward the political right, where it is used today by anarcho-capitalists (who generally see either no role for the state or a minimal one of protecting private property) and by members of the Libertarian Party and related tendencies, including many in the Tea Party and the libertarian wing of the Republican Party. US libertarians, often influenced by Ayn Rand and other individualist writers, oppose not only government interference in speech, drug use, consensual adult sexuality, and so on but also interference in capitalism.

This effort to equate traditional civil liberties with an unhindered free market flies in the face of anarchism as a political movement, which traditionally has emphasized not just individual autonomy but also the centrality of community (Fox, 2011a). Mutual aid – mutuality, solidarity, cooperation, and more – is a core anarchist value, as important as individuality. Anarchists may want to do their own thing, but they want to do it in a supportive community, seeking the benefits of “communal individuality” (Ritter, 1980). Anarchist writers have long recognized the tension between these two goals. Emma Goldman wrote more than a century ago that “the problem that confronts us today, and which the nearest future is to solve, is how to be one’s self and yet in oneness with others, to deeply feel with all human beings and still retain one’s characteristic qualities” (cited in Shukaitis, 2008, p. 12). And today, Cindy Milstein (2009) says, anarchism remains “the only political tradition that has consistently grappled with the tension between the individual and society” (p. 92). This tension between self and other, the reflection of other in the self, forms the heart not just of anarchism’s energizing potential but also of much that interests critical psychologists. By defining anarchism more narrowly, individualists on the political right eliminate this tension from their concerns.

Practical Relevance and Future Directions

Anarchism challenges not just defenders of the status quo but also critics of the mainstream who seek to transform one societal element or another while leaving intact hierarchy, competition, or other system bulwarks. Non-anarchist efforts typically set aside the “anarchist insight” described by community psychologist Seymour Sarason: reliance on the state leads to diminished personal autonomy as well as diminished sense of community. “That is to say, the more the lives of people are a consequence of decisions made by Kafkaesque officialdom, the more they are robbed of those communal bonds and responsibility upon which the sense of rootedness is built” (Sarason, 1976/1982, p. 140). Anarchists, not surprisingly, fault both liberal and radical agendas that enhance state control. Rejecting the assumption that changing the identity of those in power will improve society, they experiment to see what else might work, putting into practice Paul Goodman’s description of “the anarchist principle” as “a social-psychological hypothesis with obvious political implications” (1966/1979, p. 176).

As a new academic field, anarchist studies attracts contributions across a range of disciplines (Amster, Deleon, Fernandez, Nocella, & Shannon, 2009), though very few from psychology. Unlike Marxist psychologies, no influential anarchist psychology exists (Cromby, 2008). Brown (2008) suggested that an anarchist psychology “will not emerge from a different model of the person but rather from a simultaneous rethinking of person and collective together” (p. 2). “Indeed the very thought of creating such a disciplinary division seems inimical to anarchism. But what we might say is that psychology in an anarchist register must take ‘life’ as its object rather than ‘subjectivity‘ or ‘the individual‘” (Brown, 2008, p. 10).

Critical psychologists could help address a significant problem: Anarchists want to live by values they have not grown up with and don’t always know how to pursue. Barclay (1982) pointed out that “individual members [of anarchist intentional communities] … have been reared in the cultural traditions and values of th[e] state and have only the greatest difficulty divesting themselves of their deleterious effects” (p. 103). Addressing the tension between the political and the personal, Milstein (2009) agrees “it’s going to be an ongoing struggle to find the balance” (p. 15). Anarchists too experience “dynamics of racist, sexist, ageist or homophobic behavior” (Gordon, 2008, p. 52). Yet despite recognizing the difficulty of changing themselves along with the world, anarchists have not always explored ways to resolve personal and interpersonal complexities that hinder, and sometimes stem from, their political efforts (Fox, 2011a).

Some of those complexities are evident in the Occupy movement. Although not explicitly anarchist, and although most participants are not anarchists, the movement’s norms and styles reflect the influence of anarchist activists as well as, arguably, the general appeal on the left of anarchist values when separated from the anarchist label (Fox, 2011b). Horizontal democracy, refusal to appoint official leaders, General Assemblies and other forms of consensus or consensus-seeking decision-making, direct action such as site occupations and marches without asking state permission, free distribution of food, clothing, and shelter, reliance on voluntary labor – all of these came directly from anarchist theory and practice. As de facto experiments in anarchist community, Occupy sites exemplified prefigurative politics, acting today as we hope to live in the future. They demonstrated impressive successes as well as unsurprising difficulties, some of which reflect strained interactions between anarchists and non-anarchists. But while public attention has often focused on masked anarchists pushing the edges, many occupiers have learned how to enact anarchist principles on the ground and have come to see anarchists as constructive participants. As a result, regardless of whether Occupy continues to expand or ultimately splinters, anarchism as a movement of its own will likely grow.


Amster, R., Deleon, A., Fernandez, L., Nocella, A. J., & Shannon, D. (Eds.). (2009). Contemporary Anarchist Studies: An Introductory Anthology of Anarchy in the Academy. New York: Routledge.

Barclay, H. B. (1982). People Without Government: An Anthropology of Anarchism. London: Kahn.

Bookchin, M. (1971). Post-scarcity Anarchism. Palo Alto, CA: Ramparts.

Brown, S. D. (2008). The thought of immanence and the possibility of an anarchist psychology. In Possibilities for An Anarchist Psychology, panel at First Anarchist Studies Network Conference, Loughborough, UK.

Cromby, J. (2008). Political psychologies and possibilities. In Possibilities for An Anarchist Psychology, panel at First Anarchist Studies Network Conference, Loughborough, UK.

Fellowship for Intentional Community. (2010). Communities Directory. Rutledge, MO: Author.

Fox, D. (2011a). Anarchism and psychology. Theory in Action, 4, 31-48. doi:10.3798/tia.1937-0237.11029.

Fox, D. (2011b). Reflections on Occupying. Journal for Social Action in Counseling and Psychology, 3, 129-137.

Goodman, P. (1979). Reflections on the anarchist principle. In T. Stoehr (Ed.), Drawing the line: The political essays of Paul Goodman (pp. 176-177). New York: Dutton. (Original work published 1966)

Gordon, U. (2008). Anarchy Alive! Anti-Authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory. London: Pluto Press.

Graeber. D. (2007). Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Hamilton, A. (2008). Anarchism and the Psychology of Motivation. Retrieved December 24, 2010, from

Heckert, J. (2010). Anarchist roots & routes. European Journal of Ecopsychology, 1.

Horrox, J. (2009). A Living Revolution: Anarchism in the Kibbutz Movement. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Kropotkin, P. (1902/1955). Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. Boston: Extending Horizons.

Milstein, C. (2009). Anarchism and Its Aspirations. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Ritter, A. (1980). Anarchism: A Theoretical Analysis. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Sarason, S. B. (1982). Community psychology and the anarchist insight. In S. B. Sarason (Ed.), Psychology and Social Action: Selected Papers (pp. 135-149).  New York: Praeger. (Original work published 1976)

Shukaitis, S. (2008). Questions for aeffective resistance. In Possibilities for An Anarchist Psychology, panel at First Anarchist Studies Network Conference, Loughborough, UK.

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