The well-dressed anarchist

How does an anarchist dress? One image is the hippy, with long hair, sandals and sloppy, colourful, unkempt clothes. Another image is the punk, with nose rings and pink hair. Yet another image is the subversive, wearing all black.

And what is this mythical anarchist doing? A common idea is shouting and making threatening gestures, perhaps throwing bricks or maybe even a bomb.

Portrait of a young attractive business woman.An anarchist?

Is it possible for an anarchist to be well dressed in a conventional sense? Imagine an anarchist wearing a fashionable dress, or suit and tie, in smart casual clothes with a stylish haircut, almost indistinguishable from an advertisement for trendy garments.

Could an anarchist talk politely, be friendly and always avoid the slightest hint of violence? If so, how can anyone tell whether a person walking down the street is an anarchist? Maybe anarchists are in disguise, looking just like other people!

Anarchism as a political philosophy has been seriously misunderstood for most of its existence. In the media, “anarchy” is treated as a synonym for “chaos.” The word is used to suggest that order has broken down, and people are doing all sorts of things — violence and mayhem, perhaps — that are normally forbidden. This meaning leads to images of anarchists being strange and threatening in appearance and behaviour.


But what is anarchism really? Just looking at dictionary definitions gives a different picture. For example, the online Oxford Dictionary gives this definition: “belief in the abolition of all government and the organization of society on a voluntary, cooperative basis without recourse to force or compulsion.”

Among anarchist groups, especially those familiar with anarchist writings and theory, anarchism has several dimensions. One is opposition to all forms of rule or domination. Anarchists historically have opposed the state, namely systems of government with rulers at the top, whether popularly elected or dictators. Anarchists are opposed to government as a system. But they oppose more than just government; they reject other forms of domination, including capitalism, state socialism, patriarchy, organised religion, bureaucracy, heterosexism and human chauvinism (domination of nature and non-human animals).

If this is what anarchists are against, what are they for? The short answer is “self-management,” which means people organising their own lives through cooperative processes. Self-management occurs when members of a string quartet decide for themselves what music to play. It occurs when students help decide what and how they will learn. It occurs when workers collectively make decisions about what to produce and how to do the job. Self-management can also be called participatory democracy, a type of democracy not requiring elections of officials, but instead using methods involving everyone’s participation to reach agreements.

LON08 - 19990618 - LONDON, ENGLAND; UNITED KINGDOM : A rioter shows hist fist in the City of London after a march to "reclaim the streets" turned violent, Friday 18 June 1999. The protest, which was called to mark the opening of the G8 sumit in Cologne, turned violent having seen a carnival-like morning with protesters involved in running street battles with riot police. AFP PHOTO EPA PHOTO AFP/SINEAD LYNCH
An anarchist?

So, anarchists are against domination and instead want people to cooperate to make decisions about social arrangements. This sort of participatory decision-making is found within many families, groups of friends, some clubs and some workplaces. But it is not common within governments, large corporations or militaries.

Anarchism or anarchy, as properly understood, is not chaos at all. It is not the absence of order, but rather is a different sort of order. Rather than a social order involving hierarchy and authority, it is a social order involving respect, cooperation, and struggle over priorities that tries to avoid creating new forms of domination.

The popular image of anarchism is thus almost the opposite of what it should be. It is easy to see the source of the image. Anarchists are opposed to domination, which means they are a threat to powerful groups. Government leaders do not like anarchism, because it means the loss of their power and status. For them, anarchism is a threat to order, namely the traditional order of hierarchy and authority. It is a short step from thinking that anarchism threatens the system of government to thinking that it causes chaos — because, for those who think government is order, any different sort of order is almost impossible to imagine.


Corporate leaders also do not like anarchism. If workers can run workplaces themselves, in a cooperative fashion, then owners and managers are not needed. This is the reason why, when workers try to take control, they are so fiercely opposed by owners and their government allies. For capitalists, workers’ self-management feels like chaos, because the familiar order of managerial control is lost. A different type of order, organised by workers, is almost impossible to imagine.

Many socialists and Marxists do not like anarchism. In socialism, the government has more power. It is said to be exercised in the name of the workers and the people, but it is still government, and government leaders often have great privilege and power. For many socialists and Marxists, anarchism seems like chaos, because their idea of social organisation is undermined. A different sort of order, without parties and party leaders, is almost impossible to imagine.

Anarchism has been caught in a pincer movement, attacked by the traditional authorities in the state and corporations and attacked by socialists. Karl Marx was just as opposed to anarchists as were factory owners. So perhaps it is not surprising that anarchists have been so misrepresented.

Anarchists do not seek to take power and to impose their own views on others — that would be a perversion of the idea of self-management. This has meant that anarchists have never had the resources or desire to mount propaganda on their behalf, and therefore have been at the mercy of misleading descriptions from corporate and government leaders, whether neoliberal or socialist, and mass media serving government and corporate agendas.

The result is that anarchism is more misunderstood than just about any other major political philosophy or body of theory. The basic ideas of socialism, atheism, racial equality and feminism are widely understood, even if in a distorted sense. For example, many people do not like feminism, for example, and may misunderstand it, but they generally know it has something to do with women’s equality. Feminists have been more effective in spreading their ideas than anarchists — or perhaps anti-feminists have been less successful than anti-anarchists.

An anarchist?

So to return to the vision of a well-dressed anarchist: there is nothing inherent in anarchist theory to say that an anarchist has to dress a particular way. Some do decide to dress alternatively, as hippies, punks or members of the black bloc. But others may use other dress codes, including conventional ones.

Some types of clothes involve exploitation or other undesirable consequences. Perhaps shoes are produced in sweatshops. Leather products may involve harm to animals. Maybe clothes manufacture causes environmental damage. Very expensive clothing might involve diverting resources away from human needs into fashion houses and advertising. Choosing clothing does have political implications. A sensitive dresser pays attention not only to personal appearance but to human and environmental impacts.

Still, it is possible to dress in an attractive fashion without spending huge amounts of money. Attention to colour and style can compensate for high prices. Second-hand clothes sometimes look as good as those for sale in regular shops.

The issue of clothes is not really all that important, but it points to a deeper question concerning anarchism: can a person be an anarchist and work or live in a hierarchical institution, for example in a corporation or government? Somehow it is assumed that being against domination means being outside the systems of domination — so an anarchist has to be out in the streets, not in the boardroom.

An anarchist?

But this isn’t the way other liberation theories are treated. Feminists can join male-dominated workplaces. Some try to rise in governments and corporations. Marxists get jobs in factories or join social democratic political parties. They try to take their views into the system and to bring about change. There is no requirement that someone who wants the world to be better has to avoid interacting or participating in systems that need to be changed or abolished.

It is good that some people try to live a pure and principled life, but others make compromises in order to help create their ideal. That means that you might find an anarchist — or a person with anarchist sentiments, though unfamiliar with anarchist theory — just about anywhere. Maybe in an army or a small business or a government bureaucracy.

Can an anarchist be well behaved? A common image of anarchists is of throwing bricks through shop windows and forcibly clashing with police, like some members of the black bloc at alter-globalisation demonstrations. The stereotype of the violent anarchist has some historical basis: some anarchists supported assassination of rulers, and in the 1930s anarchists fought for the revolution in Spain against fascists.

But there has always been another side to anarchism, a side based on refusal to use violence. It includes resistance to conscription. It also includes commitment to nonviolent methods of struggle, using strikes, boycotts, rallies, sit-ins and a host of other methods that do not involve physical violence against opponents. Gandhi, the pioneer leader of nonviolent struggle, can be considered an anarchist: he opposed all forms of domination and advocated a type of village democracy that fits the model of self-management.


A classic anarchist principle is that the means should embody the ends or, in other words, the methods used should be compatible with the goal sought. Anarchists reject the Marxist-Leninist approach of destroying the capitalist state and creating a socialist state as a step on the road to a truly communist society (without a state), because the means, a socialist state, is not compatible with the goal of a society in which the state has withered away. Likewise, if the goal is a society without organised violence, then the most suitable means will not involve violence.

The stereotype of the anarchist as violent is hard to break. When there is a vigil, strike, boycott or occupation, not many viewers think, “Ah, a nonviolent protest — anarchists must be involved.” Not only is it possible to be an anarchist and reject violence, but many anarchists fit this picture.

What about an anarchist working in an organisation, maybe in an office? A common image might be of a person shouting at a meeting and rudely challenging the boss. This stereotype reflects an assumption that opposing domination means breaking the rules — in this case, the rules of polite behaviour. But it is quite possible to be a well-behaved anarchist.

What does an anarchist do inside an organisation? Promote self-management, of course! This can be in small ways, hardly noticed, such as helping less confident workers to assert themselves, resisting managerial impositions, advocating greater participation in decision-making and supporting organisational responsibility to the wider community. Lots of workers do these sorts of things, helping to make organisations more socially responsible and more tolerable to work in. Few of these workers would think of themselves as anarchists, but some of their commitments and efforts are compatible with anarchist principles.

smiling people

So it is possible for anarchists to be well-dressed, well behaved and committed to nonviolence. In fact, there are quite possibly more anarchists like this than the number who fit the dishevelled, shouting, brick-throwing stereotype. Perhaps the respectable anarchists are just as effective too, or more so, by achieving change without drawing much attention to themselves. Maybe some of them are modest too.

Brian Martin

Further reading

London Edinburgh Weekend Return Group, In and Against the State (London: Pluto, 1980).

Pierre Guillet de Monthoux, Action and Existence: Anarchism for Business Administration (Chichester: Wiley, 1983).

Geoffrey Ostergaard and Melville Currell, The Gentle Anarchists: A Study of the Leaders of the Sarvodaya Movement for Non-Violent Revolution in India (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971).

Acknowledgement Jørgen Johansen provided valuable comments on a draft.