The word anarchy, like a lot of words, has multiple meanings, some of them complete opposites. Chaos and disorder were the definitions of anarchy I grew up with, and was a word I always thought sounded cool for fantasy stories – the climactic, often violent scenes that defined the story as the protagonist(s) world (literally or figuratively) was thrown into disarray. It’s been used to define warzones and protests, a single word that carries a lot of weight. But as someone interested in anarchist ideas – the sort of anarchist ideas that preceded the chaos definition – I see very little to support people painting it as synonymous with violence.
I have not read any anarchist thinker or activist’s thoughts on the matter of violence (except a brief clip of Noam Chomsky talking on the subject), although I probably should just to see what other views there are out there. This is purely how I look at violence through the lens of what I believe anarchism to be, as well as a few other factors that I feel are relevant to such a discussion. The simple answer to the question is that, in the ideal anarchist world, violence would not exist. Ideal and reality rarely converge, sadly, and we are left with a world overflowing with immense human suffering. How should the anarchist – or any human, really – approach this?
There are undoubtedly those who, in their efforts to protest or pursue any kind of activism, will resort to violence, either out of anger or to generate controversy and attention to their cause. With very, very few exceptions, I feel that is an inappropriate path to follow, and is nothing more than delusion or, in extreme cases, terrorism. Worthy ends do not justify violent means unless you can strictly prove that there were no alternatives available to you. Any protestors who go out of their way to instigate violence betrays the cause they are attempting to champion.
The simplest definition of anarchy is to oppose all forms of authority, to increase the freedoms of the individual and promote the wellbeing of communities. Is violence not just a brutal, oppressive expression of authority against a fellow human being? Your actions are directly causing harm and limiting another’s freedoms. Taking someone’s life is the ultimate harm, but in all circumstances, it is one person imposing their will and their power onto another.
And so it follows that an anarchist, who strives to reject authority, ought to similarly reject violence as a means for implementing their vision or expressing their ideas. Anyone who does use violence as a means to an end, who is not a pacifist, cannot consider themselves anarchist.
Unless the circumstances are beyond the control of the individual and/or all alternative options are exhausted. As someone utterly opposed to violence in any form, be it physical or psychological, I do not suggest that there are ‘exceptions’ to using violence, in a legitimate way, lightly. The onus is on the individual to prove that they are indeed correct and just in their actions.
The obvious example is self-defence, proportionate to the attack. If someone were to try to hit you on the street, then defending yourself and, if possible, restraining them, should trying to diffuse the tension not work. If you can overpower them, then how you proceed is important. If your reaction is to become the aggressor and strike them while they are, in a sense, under your physical authority, then are you now at fault? While to many such a reaction could be justified, in that moment there are alternatives – why intensify something you can keep calm? I’m not going to say any action is right or wrong here, just offering food for thought.
Another exception is one I heard Noam Chomsky talk about, which is if you and/or the community faced something that is objectively ‘evil’, such as Nazi Germany under Hitler in World War 2. While, at all times, other diplomatic, peaceful, and educational alternatives should be explored and attempted, violence, even from the anarchist perspective, is justified in my view. Existential threats or major war aggressors must be opposed, and the victims of such crimes should be protected.
A note on the existential threat point, however, is that any violence must be towards the direct threat. Climate change is one of the greatest existential threats in human history, but if you were to be violent at a protest, unless it were in self-defence you are doing environmental causes a disservice. Alternatives, like peaceful protests and civil disobedience, are still available to us, and violence at a protest would only affect those in the immediate area, doing nothing more on a global or systemic level than giving ammunition to those who try to crush us with faux moral superiority.
I refuse to believe it is in our nature as humans to be violent, and one shouldn’t need to take the anarchist stance of viewing it as an oppressive form of authority to realise this. At the very least, even if you are still unsure about the role of violence and where it could justifiably be used, it should be obvious, I hope, that anarchism and violence are not synonymous, but in fact are polar opposites.
Liked this? Read Why Anarchism?
Previous piece: Addressing Modern Slavery: A Reflection Pt.2