We might have in our minds an image of a typical anarchist - a young person, perhaps masked with a bandana, throwing a molotov cocktail at rows of riot police during a violent demonstration. It’s difficult to reconcile this stereotypical image of anarchists with the idea of pacifism and non-violence. However, throughout the history of anarchist thought, there have always been individuals who have advocated peaceful, non-violent ways of rejecting the state. In this explanation, we’ll look at the key ideas within anarcho-pacifist thought and how they compare with other expressions of anarchism

Anarcho-Pacifism Anarcho-Pacifism

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Table of contents

    Anarcho-pacifism: definition

    Although there is a great deal of ideological variance within anarcho-pacifist thought, all anarcho-pacifists subscribe to two core principles

    • The rejection of the state
    • The rejection of the use of violence

    Beyond these two core beliefs, anarcho-pacifists may adhere to various ideological positions. They may be motivated by religious beliefs, or they may be atheists. They may also be socialists, collectivists or communitarians, or closer to individualist or mutualist positions.

    Communitarianism is a philosophical outlook that emphasises the links between the individual and community. Communitarians privilege social organisation into communities rather than individual or family units.

    Anarcho-pacifism and anarchism

    In this series of articles on anarchism, we have used this tree image to illustrate how various forms of anarchism relate to each other. However, it’s not easy to find a logical place for anarcho-pacifism on this tree.

    Anarcho-pacifism  Illustration of forms of Anarchism StudySmarterFig. 1 - Illustration of forms of anarchism, StudySmarter original

    Adherents of anarcho-pacifism can be influenced by Marxist or socialist ideas or by liberal and libertarian ones. Additionally, many anarcho-pacifist thinkers are influenced by elements of religious philosophy, whilst many other forms of anarchist thought are hostile to religion. Anarcho-pacifists belong somewhere in the middle of this tree, with adherents falling along a spectrum between left-wing and right-wing ideas.

    Anarcho-pacifism and violence

    Anarchism is not a violent ideology in itself, and the majority of anarchists are opposed to violence; however, some anarchists accept that violence is sometimes necessary. This can be seen within branches of anarchism such as anarcho-syndicalism which often adopts the idea that the means justify the end. Anarcho-syndicalists in the tradition of Georges Sorel (1847-1922) would argue that violence is an acceptable part of revolutionary change. The Italian anarchist writer Errico Malatesta (1853-1932) also argued in favour of revolutionary violence.

    It is our aspiration and our aim that everyone should become socially conscious and effective; but to achieve this end, it is therefore necessary to destroy with violence, since one cannot do otherwise, the violence which denies these means to the workers. 1

    By contrast, anarcho-pacifists view violence as a form of coercion and therefore see it as incompatible with anarchism. The only legitimate revolutionary methods in anarcho-pacifism are non-violent ones, such as civil disobedience.

    Anarcho-pacifism and religion

    Many forms of anarchist thought view religion with scepticism or even hostility. Many anarchists are also anti-clericalists, who oppose the undue privilege they believe is exercised by representatives of organised religion.

    By contrast, anarcho-pacifist thought doesn't automatically equate religious belief with coercion and some anarcho-pacifists have been strongly motivated by their religious beliefs. Religions like Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism all have strong traditions of resisting unjust laws or persecution through peaceable means. Leo Tolstoy profoundly influenced anarcho-pacifist thought and was deeply inspired by his Christian pacifist faith. American philosopher Henry David Thoreau's thought was shaped both by his Unitarian Christian background and his interest in Hindu spirituality. These figures inspired Mohandas K Gandhi (later called Mahatma Gandhi) in his non-violent struggle against British colonial rule in India.

    Anarcho-pacifism principles and theory

    Below are a few key principles in anarcho-pacifism.


    The 19th century was hardly the most peaceful period in modern history, with wars, upheavals and conflicts around the world. Naturally, some objected to the use of violence to solve political or social conflicts, and many felt that the considerable advances in science and technology that had defined the 19th century should be matched by a refinement of human nature, away from violence and towards peace and stability. This was the context in which the French anti-war writer Émile Arnaud first started using the term pacifisme in French (from the word pacifique, which means ‘peaceful’). Delegates also adopted the term pacifism at the 10th International Peace Conference held in Glasgow in 1901.

    The core argument running through all pacifist thought is that there is no justification for the use of violence or physical force. Following this, pacifists believe that any form of social change or conflict resolution should be achieved only by peaceful means. One of these non-violent means is civil disobedience, which means disobeying laws or rules that are believed to be unjust.


    Anarchism is fundamentally a revolutionary doctrine. All schools of anarchist thought agree on the basic principle that the state is oppressive and places unjust limits on human freedom. In order to replace the state and create an anarchist society, some form of revolution must take place. The different schools of anarchism disagree on what that revolution should look like, whether violence is necessary to achieve it and what form of social organisation should replace the state. For anarcho-pacifists, revolution must only come about peacefully without resorting to violence.

    In anarcho-pacifist thought, the two core principles of anti-statism and pacifism are mutually-dependent and mutually reinforcing. For the anarcho-pacifist, violence means one individual exercising power over another. The difference in power distributed between these two individuals results in a hierarchy, which is fundamentally at odds with the core anarchist principles of equality and liberty. Likewise, by their very nature, states require the use of at least some form of violence and coercion in some form to create and sustain themselves, which is clearly not reconcilable to the pacifist position. Therefore, for the anarcho-pacifist, anarchism leads logically to pacifism, and pacifism leads logically to anarchism.

    Some anarcho-pacifists believe there are 5 types of people these are: Active antagonists - a person/body (usually viewed as villainous) who is hostile to someone or something in anarchism this would be the state Passive antagonist Neutral agent Passive protagonist Active protagonist - a person/body that takes action in direct conflict with the people and the world around him this would refer to those actively rising up in rebellion against the state. Anarcho-pacifists argue that passive antagonists, neutral agents and passive protagonists are merely cogs in the machine whilst revolutionaries are active protagonists and the state is an active antagonist.

    Non-violent protest and civil disobedience

    Since they are fundamentally opposed to bringing about a revolution by violent means, anarcho-pacifism tends to stress the use of non-violent protests and civil disobedience.

    One of the most famous examples of civil disobedience is when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white person when the law in the US had outlined the segregation of black and white people.

    Civil disobedience is also called passive resistance and refers to the refusal of a citizen to abide by certain laws, however in order for it to be deemed civil disobedience this refusal must be non-violent.

    One of the most influential thinkers on civil disobedience was the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) who wrote an essay arguing for mass public disobedience in an unjust state. Thoreau himself was not an anarcho-pacifist, but his writings have inspired and shaped anarcho-pacifist thought.

    Anarcho-Pacifism Henry David Thoreau bust StudySmarterFig. 2 - Henry David Thoreau bust

    Anarcho-pacifism symbol and flag

    Like many other schools of anarchist thought, the anarcho-pacifist movement also has a set of symbols to identify itself. Firstly, the anarcho-pacifist flag consists of a diagonally-divided space, with white - the colour of pacifism - in the upper-right part and black - the colour of anarchism - on the lower-left side. Anarchists also use the five-pointed star, which is divided - in the case of anarcho-pacifists - into a white half and a black half. Other anarcho-pacifist symbols include the black-and-white 'A' symbol within a circle, like the international symbol for peace. Anarcho-pacifists Christians might also use the biblical imagery of a dove carrying an olive twig in its beak. Another common anarcho-pacifist symbol is a broken rifle.

    Anarcho-Pacifism Anarcho Pacifist flag StudySmarterFig. 3 - Basic Anarcho Pacifist flag

    Anarcho-pacifism books

    The following books are from key thinkers in the field of anarcho-pacifism.

    Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You, 1894

    Leo Tolstoy was a novelist and Russian Christian Anarchist who promoted non-violence based on the teachings of the Bible. The title of this book comes from a phrase that appears in the 17th chapter of the Gospel of Luke. In his book, Tolstoy criticises the church and its use of biblical texts to justify violence, emphasising instead Christ's voluntary subjection to capture, trial and crucifixion.

    Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, 1849

    In Civil Disobedience Thoreau argues that government is an evil and unjust government is evil and unjust, using the US government as an example and citing war and slavery as evidence for his viewpoint. Thoreau argues that the power of the government is derived from the support it has gained from the majority as opposed to moral authority. Thoreau opposes collaboration with governments, even if individuals are trying to achieve reform from within.

    Bart de Ligt, The Conquest of Violence: an Essay on War and Revolution, 1937

    In his famous essay, the Dutch anarcho-pacifist Bart de Ligt addresses the historical examples of non-violence, including Mahatma Gandhi's protests against British rule in India. Whilst de Ligt praises some of Gandhi's actions he also criticises his opportunism in not opposing conscription into the British army. The central argument in this essay is that violence and revolution are fundamentally irreconcilable concepts.

    Anarcho-pacifism quotes

    How can you kill people, when it is written in God's commandment: 'Thou shalt not murder?2

    - Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You, 1894

    Laws are rules made by people who govern by means of organised violence.3

    - Leo Tolstoy, The Slavery of Our Times, 1900

    That Government is best which governs least.4

    - Henry Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, 1849

    The more of violence, the less of revolution.5

    - Bart de Ligt, The Conquest of Violence: an Essay on War and Revolution, 1937

    Anarcho-Pacifism - Key takeaways

    • Anarcho-pacifism (sometimes referred to as AnPac or pacifist anarchism) is concerned with non-violent forms of resistance in order to bring about social changes and revolution in line with anarchist ideology.
    • Pacifism comes from the French word pacifique which means 'peacable'.
    • According to anarcho-pacifist thought, violence is in fundamental opposition to the key ideas of anarchism.
    • Anarcho-pacifism is a revolutionary ideology, meaning it is concerned with the overthrow of the state.

    • Anarcho-pacifists argue that non-violent means are the only legitimate way to bring about change.

    • The two main non-violent methods that anarcho-pacifists use to achieve revolutionary change are non-violent protests and civil disobedience.


    1. Errico Malatesta, The Revolutionary "Haste", Umanità Nova, n. 125, September 6, 1921
    2. Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You: Easy read Edition (2009), pp. 368. (Originally published in 1894).
    3. Leo Tolstoy, The Slavery of Our Times (2021). (Originally published in 1900).
    4. Henry Thoreau, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (2019). (Originally published in 1849).
    5. Bart de Ligt quoted by Karrin Henshaw, Terror and Democracy in West Germany (2012), pp. 248.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Anarcho-Pacifism

    What is Anarcho-pacifism?

    Anarcho-pacifism is concerned with non-violent forms of resistance to bring about social changes and revolution in line with the anarchist ideology.

    What are examples of anarcho-pacifism?

     Extinction Rebellion is an anarchist-pacifist example. 

    What is the anarcho-pacifism ideology?

    Anarcho-pacifism is concerned with non-violent forms of resistance to bring about social changes and revolution in line with the anarchist ideology.

    What is voice of anarcho-pacifism all about?

     Non-violence and anti-state authority. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What word did pacifism originate from?

    Who coined the word pacifism?

    Which one of these is NOT one of the 5 types of people in society according to anarcho-pacifists?


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