Psychology for Anarchism

Four Reasons for Humanistic Psychologists to Advocate Anarchism

Dennis R. Fox

1986 Transformations, 2(1), 17-23

I wrote this short paper for my first American Psychological Association conference in 1984. Eight people showed up for the early morning session. They smiled.

The paper was published by a now-defunct journal put out by the Society for Creative Anarchy at Kansas State University. A longer 1985 paper elaborates these themes in more detail: Psychology, Ideology, Utopia, and the Commons.

2004 interview touches on the general topic. More on anarchism and psychology is here.


Humanistic psychologists concerned about global issues have at least four reasons to act upon Maslow’s (1971) call to investigate philosophical anarchism:Summary

  1. An anarchist society is philosophically justified;
  2. it is the “natural” form of human society;
  3. it is psychologically healthy, conducive to fulfilling individual needs for both autonomy and a psychological sense of community; and
  4. it is ecologically necessary in order to avert global crisis without destroying freedom and dignity.

Rather than dismissing anarchist thought as utopian fantasy, psychologists should seek to establish as a long-range goal the creation of a stateless decentralized society composed of autonomous cooperative communities better suited to human needs and values.


The morning newspaper often brings us word of continuing chaos in Beirut, or tyranny in Iran, or bombings in any one of a number of places around the world. Whether the topic is faltering governments, mob rule, or terrorist violence, politicians, news commentators, and concerned citizens everywhere often come to describe these events with some variation of the sentence, “The situation has deteriorated into total anarchy!” The prospect of such anarchy, of course, is enough to send shudders through all those who have learned to equate a strong centralized government with peace and order.

This popular view of anarchy, however, is very different from the philosophy espoused by classical anarchists such as Petr Kropotkin (1902/1955) and modern anarchists such as Murray Bookchin (1971, 1982; see also Pennock & Chapman, 1978; Ritter, 1980; and Taylor, 1982). The anarchist literature is a large one, in fact, and when Abraham Maslow (1971) urged intellectuals to investigate it, he certainly had more in mind than mindless chaos.

As many anarchists have pointed out, “the issue for anarchists is not whether there should be structure or order, but what kind there should be and what its sources ought to be” (Barclay, 1982, p. 17). Anarchists, who by definition reject the legitimacy and the necessity of the political state, argue that the development of the hierarchical centralized state has increasingly complicated the fulfillment of human needs. And although Maslow considered anarchy to be the level of political and economic organization for those, as he put it, who have “transcended” self-actualization (pp. 275-276), others such as Erich Fromm, Paul Goodman, Noam Chomsky, and Seymour Sarason have found much in anarchist thought that is applicable even to those of us who have not yet reached the higher Maslovian stages. It is my purpose here not only to urge humanistic psychologists to investigate anarchism on a theoretical level but to suggest as well that we should actually advocate the creation of an anarchist society. Such a suggestion is in keeping with recent calls “to apply the skills and resources accumulated in humanistic psychology in the broad arena of social change” (Campbell, 1984, p. 26), with increased awareness that purely personal transformation does not “inevitably lead to social transformation” (Campbell, 1984, P. 12).

First, however, I would like to make it clear that although all anarchists maintain that society could proceed quite satisfactorily without the apparatus of the state, they do differ among themselves on a number of grounds, including the means that might be necessary to bring an anarchist society about. For example, although it’s true that violent political action has been considered acceptable by many anarchists, it has been rejected by many others, such as Tolstoy and Paul Goodman, and anarchists today continue to disagree about the place of violence in political change; the point here is that violence per se is not a necessary component of anarchist practice, and many would argue that in fact violence contradicts the essence of anarchism’s cooperative spirit (see Falk, 1983, for a discussion of the role of violence in anarchist thought).

In terms of the social-psychological implications of political philosophy, even more significant than the violence-nonviolence debate is the debate between anarchists on the political left and those on the political right. Although all anarchists reject state control of the individual, anarchists on the right (sometimes known as libertarians or anarchocapitalists) embrace unregulated free-market capitalism as the epitome of human freedom; those on the left, however (sometimes known as anarchocommunists or libertarian socialists), reject capitalism as well as the state and advocate instead the establishment of a decentralized, federated (but stateless) system of smaller autonomous cooperative communities, each directly and democratically managed by the people themselves through the face-to-face interaction that is possible only in smaller groups. It is this left-anarchist model of society that Maslow, Fromm, and other psychologists have found of interest, and the one that is being considered here.

Many of the points that anarchists have raised in defense of their point of view can be placed within four general categories, each of which should be of interest to humanistic psychologists. After briefly reviewing these four arguments for anarchism, I will return to the question of just how useful such supposedly “impractical” advocacy might be in the complex world of the late Twentieth Century.

Anarchism is Philosophically Justified

The first reason, accepted as a basic concept by anarchists of all political stripes, is that anarchism is philosophically justified. Although the debate within the field of political philosophy will never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, the anarchist view that state power can never be morally justified–even in its American representative majority-rule variant– finds impressive support within academic philosophy (see, for example, Wolff, 1970). Anarchists on the left and on the right agree that political arrangements such as the US Constitution, agreed upon by a small unrepresentative minority two centuries ago, can lay no moral claim on individuals today. That most philosophical anarchists do in fact conform to the demands of their political state is a matter of practicality, not ethics, in much the same manner that a decision to hand over one’s money to an armed mugger is often the wisest course of action.

The key point is that individuals are morally bound only by decisions that they themselves participate in making, and anarchists consequently approve of decisionmaking procedures that move towards consensus and direct local control while allowing dissenters to preserve their autonomy. Psychologists who are interested in the nature of personal values, in moral judgment, and in issues of freedom and authority and personal responsibility would find much in anarchism that is relevant to their concerns.

Anarchism is the “Natural” Form of Human Society

The second reason to consider advocating anarchism is that, in the view of many anthropologists, anarchism is the “natural” form of human society. Although the term “natural” may not deserve the quasimystical reverance in which some people hold it, it is important for psychologists in particular to be aware that, as anthropologist Harold Barclay (1982) noted, it is the small egalitarian anarchist community that is “the oldest type of polity and one which has characterized most of human history” (p. 12). Ashley Montagu (1981) cited the anarchist (and biologist) Kropotkin as one of the rare few who long ago recognized the importance of “love and cooperation” (p. 93) in the evolution of humanity, and anthropologists in general have concluded that a combination of tradition, communal interdependence, peer pressure, and direct intervention by the community as a whole has for the most part been enough to maintain order and provide for basic needs, without any strong hierarchical institutions. It’s clear to many anthropologists that early human society was vastly different from the Hobbesian image presented in Hollywood movies, wherein so-called “primitive” life is generally depicted as having been an eternal struggle dominated by all-powerful dictatorial chiefs.

The lesson here for psychologists is that the transition from small face-to-face egalitarian communities to large mass society has been extremely rapid in terms of human evolution, and the consequences of that transition need to be examined in more detail. Anarchist thinkers can make a reasonable case that human beings are still adapted only to a small-community existence, and that, simply, what we find around us today is clearly a maladaptive–and perhaps short-lived–deviation (see Crowe, 1969). It’s interesting to note that, perhaps because of their greater exposure to cultural variation, it is anthropologists more than psychologists who have proposed widespread alteration of global political and economic structures; both Sol Tax (1977) and Marvin Harris (1981), for example, have called for “radical decentralization” in one form or another.

Anarchism is Psychologically Healthy

The third reason that psychologists should advocate anarchism, which follows from the view than anarchism is natural, is that anarchism is psychologically healthy. This central psychological claim, called by Sarason (1976) “the anarchist insight,” holds that as the state becomes more powerful, people find it more difficult to fulfill their needs for both personal autonomy and a psychological sense of community. Anarchists such as Bookchin (1971), Chomsky (1973), and Goodman (in Stoehr, 1980) argue that only in a decentralized society of autonomous face-to-face communities can these often-contradictory individual needs be met (see Fox, 1985). The evidence from social, community, personality, and environmental psychology does support the view that people are generally more satisfied in small cooperative nonhierarchical groups that maximize individual controllability and predictability, where there is mutual trust and the development of communal bonds; this is clearly related to the recent increased concern with social networks and support groups, and with attempts to recreate communities for the benefit of their members (e.g., Edney, 1981; Stokols, 1977; Tyler, Pargament, & Gatz, 1983).

The key element in the anarchist view of healthy psychological functioning is the desirability of attaining a balance between what Bakan (1966) called agency and communion; this view lies also at the core of the notion of androgyny (see Deaux, 1984). Anarchists advocate a decentralized society in which both autonomy and a psychological sense of community would be attainable, and they argue that only such a society can provide for that balance on a large scale. The analysis of anarchist philosophy by Alan Ritter (1980) makes it clear that, despite its popular “do-your-own-thing” image, the ultimate goal of classical anarchism is not simply unlimited “freedom” but instead what Ritter calls “communal individuality.” Psychologists who take notions of such balance seriously, who seek to specify the kind of society that would best meet human psychological needs and values, have little choice but to consider the anarchist claims, following the example of Maslow (1971) and, even more clearly, of Erich Fromm (1955), who argued three decades ago that in order to create a “sane society,” we need to choose between what he called the “robotism” of both capitalism and state communism on the one hand and “humanistic communitarian socialism” on the other.

Anarchism is Ecologically Necessary

Finally, psychologists who are concerned about global problems related to world peace, resource scarcity, and other manifestations of widespread disequilibrium will find that an examination of the anarchist literature has much to offer. A strong case has been made by Bookchin (1971) and others that anarchism is ecologically necessary: Only a federated, decentralized society that places a greater emphasis on local autonomy, regional resource development, and face-to-face communication and decisionmaking can enhance both the level of cooperation and the transformation of individual materialistic values that are necessary to ensure that global resources are not depleted. Yet, all too often, psychologists have fallen into the trap of advocating more centralization and stronger state control as a solution to tragedies of the kind discussed by Garrett Hardin (1968; see Fox, 1985). Greater attention needs to be placed on the anarchist argument that only radical decentralization can avert global catastrophe without making things worse for individuals and, also, on data that do show that small, local, interacting groups are in fact better able to manage limited resources (e.g., Stern & Gardner, 1981).

Anarchism is Possible (?)

I have so far very briefly outlined four arguments: that anarchism is philosophically justified; that it is the natural form of human society; that it is psychologically healthy; and that it is ecologically necessary. I have tried to point out that there is a large literature that comprehensively if somewhat unsystematically argues that only an anarchist society can resolve world-wide problems while enhancing individual fulfillment of needs for autonomy and a sense of community in a morally defensible manner that is in keeping with the evolutionary path of human development. Yet despite all this, you may be excused for wondering what the point is. Surely anarchism is not possible. Isn’t all this just utopian fantasy?

Perhaps. Yet dismissing anarchist views because they are “utopian” may be a luxury we can no longer afford. Moos and Brownstein (1977) point out that utopia has now become a necessity if we are to resolve environmental crises, and advocates of widespread social change who are concerned with the dissemination of humanistic values would do well to consider anarchist approaches. Political scientist Richard Falk (1983) in fact argues in a series of essays on the possible forms of world order that, despite its obvious difficulties, a move toward an anarchist world is one that is more likely to bring about lasting peace than are any of the alternatives.

Although it is true that even “impractical” utopian speculation is useful, as Maslow and many others have insisted, it is important to get beyond mere speculation as an intellectual exercise and begin to actually attempt to change society. Nelson and Caplan (1983), for example, discuss “enlightenment” approaches to social change that have the look of anarchism: The methods proceed from the bottom up rather than from the top down, and they stress individual autonomy, egalitarian relationships, and decentralization of control. Combined with a general systems approach that examines complex interrelationships among different aspects of society, Nelson and Caplan’s model offers a basis for social change that should be useful to psychologists and others who seek to preserve humanistic values in an era of increasing centralization and isolation.

Elizabeth Campbell (1984) recently proposed an eight-point approach for humanistic psychologists that is compatible with anarchist philosophy and anarchist methods of organization. Among her other points, she called for a healthy, personal self-examination, including “looking at the effects of our actions collectively” (p. 25); she pointed out the need to “address structural issues that are basic to human survival” (p. 25), including peace and world order, human rights, redistribution of world resources, and environmental issues; she cited the need to build support systems in order to create a sense of community and to work collaboratively with others; and she urged us to “hold a positive vision of the possible future, while grappling with hard realities” (p. 26).

The challenge before us, as Campbell recognized, is to create a better world. As psychologists concerned both with individuals and with society as a whole, we cannot simply dismiss calls for radical change that do happen to be in accord with psychological knowledge. It would be to all our benefit if we could first agree on the long-range goal of a humanistic anarchist society–a goal that is clearly desirable on psychological grounds–and then begin to work together to determine which methods will help us bring such a society about. Perhaps examples such as the Israeli kibbutz system, a federated network of small, democratically managed collective communities with a history of both successes and failures, would be relevant as we begin our work.

In any event, the time has come to advocate a positive anarchy while there is still a chance of avoiding total chaos. Although the media may confuse the two, it is important for us to be aware of the difference.


Bakan, D. (1966). The duality of human existence: An essay on psychology and religion. Chicago: Rand McNally.

Barclay, H. (1982). People without government: An anthropology of anarchism. London: Kahn & Averill.

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

Bookchin, M. (1982). The ecology of freedom: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy. Palo Alto, CA: Cheshire Books.

Campbell, E. (1984). Humanistic psychology: The end of innocence (a view from inside the parentheses). Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 24(2), 6-29.

Chomsky, N. (1973). For reasons of state. New York: Vintage Books.

Crowe, B. (1969). The tragedy of the commons revisited. Science, 166, 1103-1107.

Deaux, K. (1984). From individual differences to social categories Analysis of a decade’s research on gender.American Psychologist, 39, 105-116.

Edney, J. J. (1981). Paradoxes on the commons: Scarcity and the problem of equality. Journal of Community Psychology, 9, 3-34.

Falk, R. (1983). The end of world order: Essays on normative international relations. New York: Holmes & Meier.

Fox, D. R. (1985). Psychology, ideology, utopia, and the commonsAmerican Psychologist, 40, 48-58.

Fromm, E. (1955). The sane society. New York: Holt, Rinehart.

Hardin, G. (1968). The tragedy of the commons. Science, 162, 1243-1248.

Harris, M. (1981). America now: The anthropology of a changing culture. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Kropotkin, P. (1955). Mutual aid: A factor in evolution. Boston: Extending Horizons Books. (Original work published 1902)

Maslow, A. H. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature. New York: Penguin.

Montagu, A. (1981). Growing young. New York: McGraw Hill.

Moos, R., & Brownstein, R. (1977). Environment and utopia: A synthesis. New York: Plenum.

Nelson, S. D., & Caplan, N. (1983). Social problem solving and social change. In D. Perlman & P. C. Cozby (Eds.),Social psychology (pp. 503-532). New York: Holt, Rinehart.

Pennock, J. R., & Chapman, J. W. (Eds.). (1978). Anarchism. New York: New York University Press.

Ritter, A. (1980). Anarchism: A theoretical analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sarason, S. B. (1976). Community psychology and the anarchist insight. American Journal of Community Psychology, 4, 243-261.

Stern, P. C., & Gardner, G. T. (1981). Psychological research and energy policy. American Psychologist, 36, 329-342.

Stoehr, T. (Ed.). (1979). Drawing the line: The political essays of Paul Goodman. New York: Dutton.

Stokols, D. (Ed.). (1977). Perspectives on environment and behavior: Theory, research, and applications. New York: Plenum.

Tax, S. (1977). Anthropology for the world of the future: Thirteen professions and three proposals. Human Organization, 36, 225-234.

Taylor, M. (1982). Community, anarchy, and liberty. Cambridge: Cambridge University press.

Tyler, F. B., Pargament, K. I., & Gatz, M. (1983). The resource collaborator role: A model for interactions involving psychologists. American Psychologist, 38, 388-398.

Wolff, R. P. (1970). In defense of anarchism. New York: Harper.


Leave a Reply