From being taxed or fined, to filling out the census form or applying for licences - all of us have felt the presence of the state in our lives. For many of us, it seems logical to allow the state to restrict our freedoms in these small ways in exchange for the protections it offers us - from invaders, violent criminals or natural disasters. However, throughout history, there have been thinkers who have had moral or philosophical objections to the state and its influence on our lives. Together, these objections are known as anti-statism. 

Anti-statism Anti-statism

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Table of contents

    Anti-Statism definition

    Anti-statism is any social, economic or political philosophy which stands in opposition to statism.

    Statism is the idea that the state should exercise control or influence over the social, political and economic activities of its citizens.

    This broad definition makes anti-statism somewhat difficult to distil into a single ideological position, and in fact, we can see that a number of different political or philosophical positions have been labelled as anti-statist.

    Anti-statism is fundamental to anarchist political ideology in all its various forms. In anarchist thought, the state is seen as a form of hierarchical coercive authority that is wholly illegitimate, as it places morally unjustifiable constraints on the exercise of human liberty (however this may be understood) and the pursuit of human happiness (whatever this may look like). All anarchists oppose the existence of a state of any kind, although the different schools of thought under the anarchist umbrella differ greatly on how they believe a stateless society could - or should - be achieved.

    Anti-statism exists in various forms in other political ideologies too. Libertarians adopt a sort of anti-statist perspective by seeking ways to roll back the influence of the state over the lives of its citizens. Libertarianism, then, can be thought of as having adopted anti-statism as a philosophical approach - a sort of lingering, deeply-held scepticism of the state - rather than as having the total overthrow of any kind of state power as an end in itself.

    Communism contains a strong anti-statist element, since communist thought is highly critical of the role that states have played over the centuries in nurturing capitalism and fomenting class struggle. Karl Marx argued that the ruling classes have used the state to maintain their position at the top of the social hierarchy. Marx envisioned a worker's revolution that would replace capitalism with a "dictatorship of the proletariat" - a sort of transitional, socialist state - before the realisation of a fully communist society. This communist society would be classless and capable of ordering itself, therefore having no need for a state to govern it.

    Anti-statism Portrait of Henry David Thoreau StudySmarterFig. 1 Portrait of Henry David Thoreau

    There are others, too, who disapprove of the state and seek to live outside its sphere of influence, without necessarily pursuing the overthrow of the state. Henry David Thoreau was an influential American naturalist and philosopher who disapproved of state rule and advocated peaceful resistance to unjust laws. He opened his famous essay on Civil Disobedience (1849) with the words "that government is best which governs least" and actually sought to remove himself from the reach of the state by living in the wilderness for several years.

    Check out this article on Henry David Thoreau!

    Why is anti-statism a core principle of Anarchism?

    Below are the three main reasons why anti-statism is a core principle of anarchism.

    The state represents hierarchy

    Within anarchism, we find a rejection of all forms of hierarchy in favour of the organisation of society based on voluntary participation and cooperation. The state is an example of a hierarchical system in which those who govern exert their power and influence over those who are governed. Anarchism is concerned with true liberty, and one cannot be truly free whilst living in a hierarchical system. The state represents authority and has the ability to coerce individuals into behaving in ways they would not otherwise, which encroaches on one’s liberty. As previously mentioned, anarchists reject all forms of hierarchy, and not just the state. In anarchist movements we see the rejection of hierarchies such as capitalism, state-led communism, the monarchy, organised religion and even gender hierarchies.

    Anti-statism Stop the state StudySmarterFig. 2 Stop the state

    The state is a concentrated form of evil

    Anarchists view the state as being commanding, controlling and corrupt. The state is authoritarian and lacks a sense of humanity and warmth. In a speech at the International Working Men’s Association in 1937, anarchist thinker Emma Goldman described the state as a ‘cold monster’ and argued that the state itself was immoral. The state lives above us and controls us, it uses its authority and power to protect the ruling classes and those who own property. The state manipulates its populations through patriotism to engage in military operations with other nations to expand its territories. The state creates conflict and war and represents authority, as it can make its citizens do something they wouldn't otherwise have done, which results in a loss of individual autonomy.

    Anarchists reject the liberal idea of a social contract. In liberalism, the social contract is the idea that there is an often unwritten contract between the people and the state whereby individuals consent to being governed in exchange for certain protections from the state. Anarchists argue that this contract doesn't actually exist and that the state merely pretends to care for its citizens. If they act against the state, they are met with violence and oppression.

    The state affects human nature

    Many anarchists believe that human nature is both rational and altruistic. The state prevents humans from acting according to their nature and coerces individuals into behaviours not of their choosing. The state, therefore, corrupts human nature, affecting not just those who are governed: those in power also lose a sense of their true cooperative nature and become morally corrupt.

    Anti-state Activities

    Below are some actions that anarchists endorse in order to achieve the overthrow of the state.

    Direct Action and Propaganda of the Deed

    Direct action means using strikes, demonstrations, or other forms of public protest to achieve goals instead of negotiating. Direct action is also referred to as ‘propaganda of the deed’. Direct action can take the form of protests, such as the Extinction Rebellion protests in London in April 2022, which disrupted transport through the central districts of the city. These protests sought not to seize government buildings or telecommunications, but instead used alternative forms of insurrection to disrupt daily life in the British capital.

    Direct Action doesn't have to be violent, but on occasion, anarchists have used violent means against the state. One example of this is the case of Alexander Berkman - a Russian-American anarchist who attempted the assassination of Henry Frick. Berkman believed this assassination would inspire the working classes to unite and rise up and reject the capitalist state.

    Fun Fact

    Whilst Alexander Berkman’s attempt to assassinate Frick failed, there is a connection between Berkman and the anarchist thinker Emma Goldman mentioned previously in this article. She was his lifelong friend and she was actually in on the plot to assassinate Frick!

    Emerging revolution

    Anti-statism Symbol for Anarchy StudySmarterFig. 3 Symbol for Anarchy

    Emerging revolution refers to the construction of parallel institutions in order to reject state-run institutions. For example, anarchists are opposed to the banking systems of capitalist societies, arguing that, in an economic crisis, the state will always privilege the needs of the banks over those of ordinary citizens.

    A good example of this was the 2008 financial crisis, in which banks were bailed out by the state. Instead of using state-regulated banks, anarchists propose setting up a people's bank, which is more equitable and outside the control of the state. The idea is that diverting citizen's money into parallel institutions with lead to the shrinking and eventual death of the main institutions of the state. This is a form of non-violent rejection of these institutions and the state that supports them.

    Anti Statism Books

    Below are a few examples of books that been influential in anti-statist thought.

    Henry Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, 1849

    In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau (who in his youth enthusiastically supported the act of war and violence perpetrated by the state) develops a more pacifist and anti-statist viewpoint. Thoreau critiques the unjustness of the state and was particularly horrified by the US government's participation in slavery. In this text, Thoreau spreads the idea that government in itself is inherently harmful and therefore this cannot be reconciled through things such as the adoption of democracy. The state has been created by man and has no real legitimacy except that it is supported by those who hold power, individuals must not feel obliged to follow the government when they are endowed with their own sense of morality which they should follow instead.

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

    Leo Tolstoy was a Russian Christian Anarchist who promoted anti-statism and non-violence through the use of the teachings in the Bible. In his book, Tolstoy envisions a stateless society in which love was the organising principle. According to Tolstoy violence was promoted and encouraged by the state through acts of war. As a Christina Tolstoy denounces the use of all violence even the defensive uses of violence and therefore the state must also be rejected as it was a promoter of violence.

    Marx and Engels - The Communist Manifesto

    The Communist Manifesto is arguable one of the most well-known texts in political studies. Whilst Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels are not anti-statist in the anarchist sense. Engels and Marx are opposed to the capitalist state and seek a working-class revolution in order to rid society of the oppressions of capitalism. In this text, Marx and Engel set forth the end goal of communism as well as outline the history of society that has serves to establish the inequality that persists today. According to Marx and Engels, the class struggles that exist in the capitalist society will birth a revolution (led by the working class) in which society will radically be restructured in line with communist ideals.

    Anti-statism - Key takeaways

    • Anti-Statism is a fundamental principle in anarchism.
    • Anarchism rejects the state because it is hierarchical, coercive and corrupts human nature.
    • The state interferes with human nature and does not allow humans to express their true nature.
    • Anarchists promote direct action in order to reject the state.
    • Elements of anti-statism appear in other political ideologies, including Libertarianism, which advocates for as small a role for the state as possible.
    • Emerging revolution refers to the construction of parallel institutions in order to reject state-run institutions.


    1. Fig. 1 Benjamin D. Maxham - Henry David Thoreau Restored greyscale straightened ( by Benjamin D Maxham ( licensed by CC01.0 (
    2. Fig. 2 Stop the State ( by A.Person ( licensed by CC0 1.0 (
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Anti-statism

     What is anti-statism?

     Anti-statism refers to any social, economic, or political philosophy that rejects the state. 

    What does it mean to be Anti-state?

    Anti-statism refers to any social, economic, or political philosophy that rejects the state. An anti-statist can be described as an individual who is opposed to state interference in their personal, social, and economic life.

    What is an example of anti-statism?

    All forms of anarchism take anti-statism as their starting point, and so all anarchists are anti-statists. Emerging revolutions are an example of anti-statism. Emerging revolution refers to the construction of parallel institutions in order to reject state-run institutions.

    What are the features of anti-statism?

    Anti-statism can take many different forms, but the key feature of anti-statism is a rejection of the presence and interference of the state in any social, economic or political matter. 

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