Definition of Anarchy

Sarah asks “Sorry if I missed this somewhere on your site, I’ve only skimmed through a couple of the questions, but what is your general definition of anarchy? And, what are you imagining that a world with anarchy would look like? I’m not sure if your definition of anarchy is the one I typically imagine when I hear the word (it sounds like probably not 🙂 Thanks! Interesting site!”

The greek origin of the word “Anarchy” means “without ruler.” Anarchists today generally think of it more generally as “without any hierarchies of power” so that also includes being against forms of oppression that give some groups more power like racism, sexism, classism, ablism, etc.
We at Ask an Anarchist believe in one broad branch of anarchism generally called “social anarchism” that has a few principles describing what it is for:

Social Anarchism – A vision of shared resources and community support built around the empowerment of the individual and the decentralization of power.

  • Individual Sovereignty – You are the exclusive controller of your body, energy, and life. You contribute your energy on your own terms.
  • Mutual Aid – Acting together for shared benefit through the voluntary exchange of resources and services.
  • Distributed Power – No one has more power than anyone else. People work together on equal footing.
  • Direct action – Creating change or highlighting issues in a community without relying on government or other indirect methods to accomplish goals.

Where has anarchy been practiced?

Ruth Asks:

“Where has anarchy been practiced in the world on a large scale? For how long? And to what end?”


The largest population and longest time Anarchism has been practiced was in the Catalonia region of Spain during the Spanish Civil War. For over 30 years before the civil war, the anarchist had done a very good job organizing and educating the workers and peasants. So when the military coup by Francisco Franco overthrew the government, the Anarchists were able to immediately take over many of the institutions and run them collectively. They collectivized farms and factories, redistributed land, and organized militias to fight the fascists. Many say that without the early anarchist militias, it would have just been a quick coup and not a two year civil war.

Unfortunately, the anti-fascist forces (anarchists, communists, and democratic capitalists) were ultimately defeated by Franco who had major support from Germany and Italy (who later went on to defeat many western democracies as well). The anti-fascist forces had almost zero support from the western democracies because they feared the radical Anarchist presence. The only outside forces who did help against the fascists was the USSR. However, the Communists turned on the Anarchists near the end of the war, which helped lead to their defeat.

There are many “scholarly tomes” about the Spanish Civil War. But if you’d like to read something more interesting, I’d recommend reading Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. It’s a memoir of his time as an international volunteer in an Anarchist militia in the war. He paints an excellent picture of what revolutionary Barcelona was like and how the Anarchist militias functioned with minimal hierarchy.

There is also a very thorough BBC documentary about the Spanish Civil War. They interview anarchists, communists, and fascists who were there at the time. Most of the documentary is about the war in general, but there is one section (Part 5: Inside the Revolution) that is about the revolution and it is very interesting.
Know of other times anarchy has been practiced? Write about it in the comments!

Sexual assault and calling the police

Johnny asks:

In our present system what should an anarchist do if (possible worse case) she/he is raped or a loved one is raped. Is it right to call the police? I’m baffled with scenarios like this. 


When a violent crime is committed against you or someone you know, and you’re an anarchist, the question of calling the police is never a simple answer.

If your loved one was sexually assaulted and does not want you to call the police, you shouldn’t. Ultimately, they are the person affected and what they want to have happen should be honored by their family, friends, and community.

Should they call the police? Can they? Sexual and personal violence is an unfortunate and devastating truth in all communities. Often in anarchist spaces the police are not called. We generally do not believe that state sanctioned justice is true justice, nor is it the first option we should consider.

Most people who rape know the person they are assaulting and so they are often part of the same community. Different communities/individuals have tried various responses:

  • They have asked the perpetrator to leave the community (ostracized)
  • They have retaliated with self determined retributive violence (though it can be argued that while this may feel cathartic in the moment, it may not truly be justice)
  • They have asked the perpetrator to seek support in counseling, therapy, and other restorative measures,
  • They have established accountability systems so that both the assailant and the assaulted can heal safely.

These are different responses that do not involve the police, are plausible, and point toward a future where we can use our own power to solve problems in society/communities.

It is difficult to know how to act when the only legitimized “justice” is carried out by the state. Calling the police should be a last resort after you’ve considered your own power and your community’s power in the situation and have realistically exhausted them. Even if our power has not been exhausted, there are times when our current society prevents or makes it dangerous for us to exercise it.

Though the above outlines different responses to sexual violence, I think the question is relevant to all types of personal violence and this becomes even more difficult to answer when a life is taken or a child is harmed. We may seek justice/restoration/correction but we are also limited in how we can act/make decisions in our current society. Because we don’t live in an ideal anarchist world, we will occasionally have to compromise in order to maintain/create safe communities. This will sometimes mean calling the police. You’re not betraying your ideals/principles if that is the decision you have to make.

We have to consider our goals when seeking justice and how the choices we make contribute to our long term goals. Police are a part of the system that made it impossible for you and your community to seek true justice and create a solution through your own power, so we don’t have to be thankful for the police or happy that they are there. But in the meantime, we should think critically about alternatives to our current “justice” system and take full advantage of our own power as sentient and capable beings.

I recommend the following resources for anyone interested in learning more in depth how to confront intimate violence in their communities:

  1. The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Partner Abuse in Activist Communities
  2. The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities
  3. Generation 5s (G5) Toward Transformative Justice: A Liberatory Approach to Child Sexual Abuse and other forms of Intimate and Community Violence. A Call to Action for the Left and the Sexual and Domestic Violence Sectors
  4. The Community Accountability website for more resources about community accountability and toolkits.