Anarchists such as Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin advocate federalism. As far as I understood from their works, this entails an organizational structure in which power flows "upwards" and is expressed through agreements made by delegates at consecutively wider/higher levels.

The Wikipedia article on federalism mentions that this conception of federalism differs from what is normally understood when talking about federalism. It cites a passage from An Anarchist FAQ:

Since not all issues are local, the neighborhood and community assemblies will also elect mandated and re-callable delegates to the larger-scale units of self-government in order to address issues affecting larger areas, such as urban districts, the city or town as a whole, the county, the bio-region, and ultimately the entire planet. Thus the assemblies will confederate at several levels in order to develop and co-ordinate common policies to deal with common problems.

This sounds like council democracy, and doesn't look like it would differ significantly from "state federalism". I couldn't find a more detailed explanation of where exactly the difference lies between an anarchist and state interpretation of federalism, and would be grateful if someone here could provide that.

  • I have noticed that most versions of anarchy that seem like they could actually be workable adopt concepts that are characteristic of other systems and not particularly anarchic. Case in point, a federalist system not terribly different from that used in many democratic capitalist or socialist countries.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Mar 23, 2021 at 18:47
  • It’s more confederalism than federalism. A key concept is voluntary association, so constituent units/entities/councils can withdraw at any time. Another is subsidiarity, so the confederations only do what a single community cannot. But really, the most important part of anarchism is not what institutions are created but the political culture that springs up around them. The same institutions can act very differently in different political cultures.
    – H Huang
    Commented Mar 23, 2021 at 22:32

2 Answers 2


Anarchism is a political philosophy more than a system of governance. You can think of it as a philosophy of radical equality, in which no person or group is obligated to obey any other person or group. People can (obviously) willfully agree or come to mutual consensus about issues that affect them collectively, but anarchism holds that in a society of rational people, achieving consensus is both possible and paramount.

Small group dynamics are often noticeably anarchic in this sense. Small groups of people usually make decisions through informal, ad hoc, consensus-driven discussion: the "What shall we have for dinner tonight?" process. The larger the group, the more demand there is for formal political decision-making institutions: the pragmatics of organizing large groups of people defy those kind of small group interactions. Sometimes these formal institutions develop along democratic lines, sometimes along socialist lines, sometimes along representative or syndicalist models, sometimes even along implicit social hierarchies; all are still anarchistic so long as the individual is never constrained to go along with the group decision, but must overtly and freely choose to do so.

A large anarchist nation could have a federal structure — some structure is necessary for organizing large civic projects, and a federal bureaucracy is as good a structure as any — with the caveat that such federalism would never have the kind of explicit power over citizens such typically have. For example, an anarchist equivalent of the FBI would have no power to arrest or punish citizens; it would be a purely investigative organization with the task of informing the citizenry of crimes and their perpetrators, so that citizens at large could deal with the problem. It is an odd conception, but one with some interesting merits.


The main difference is that an anarchist federation would not have a monopoly on violence: the concept that the state alone has the right to use or authorize the use of physical force. As I pointed out before, some anarchists like anarcho-syndicalist Noam Chomsky support a night-watchman state: a state that does not have a monopoly on violence and meets the minimum requirement set by John Locke in his book Two Treatises of Government to be considered a government. In a traditional federal state, some people with elevated legal status and power enforce the state through a monopoly on violence and a vertical hierarchy (pyramid-like top-down power structure) that separates them from the average person. In anarchism, there is little to no monopoly on violence and, if there is any hierarchy at all, a general horizontal hierarchy (an organizational structure with few or no levels of middle management between the average person and those in charge) where no one has any legal power that doesn't belong to other citizens in general.

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