Gian Piero de Bellis

Roots of the anti-authoritarian conception




A brief excursus on those conceptions that are the foundations for all contemporary anti-authoritarian thinking and practices.



The anti-authoritarian attitude is old as humanity. From the beginning of life almost everybody has resented to be ordered about and has accepted an unfree situation and a subordinate position only in the presence of overwhelming force or recognized authority.

In the course of time anti-authoritarian struggles have eventually given rise to anti-authoritarian conceptions whose best synthetic expression has been probably found during the French Revolution in the form of three aspirations: liberté – egalité – fraternité. 

These aspirations are present in all the revolutionary ideas and movements that emerged after that Revolution, especially during the nineteenth century. Amongst them the most advanced has been the anti-authoritarian conception (anarchy) whose thinking and practice, based on that triadic formula, derives from three preceding currents/views of personal and social life.

  • Liberté: Liberalism

    The first and most natural aspiration of every human being, from the early infancy, is that towards liberty. Children like to move about, to explore, to experience. It is later that they learn to discipline themselves, not always for their own good in terms of creative activities and self-realization.
    With the Age of Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries) the idea of liberty intended as the end of aristocratic privileges and the development of rational humanistic practices in every field of life became condensed in a social philosophy called liberalism. All subsequent current of progressive thought have their roots in that philosophy.

  • Egalité: Socialism

    With the rise of the Industrial Revolution (1750 onwards) and the passing of the Enclosures Acts by the English Parliament, that led to the expropriation of large tracts of land to the benefit of a new aristocratic-bourgeois class, the problem of sharp inequalities (in wealth, rights, power) came to the forefront. This brought to the emergence of thinkers and activists advocating equality (i.e. equity), that is, absence of privileges conferred to individuals and groups colluded with the power. Besides that, solidarity in the form of mutual aid, was meant to replace the struggle for life and the neglect towards others.

  • Fraternité: Christianity

    The acts and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth form the basis of the conception known as Christianity. The pillars of that conception are the worthiness and the respect to be given to every human being irrespective of race, sex, social position, economic condition, etc. Within Christianity there is no place whatsoever for exploitation and domination (slavery, subjugation, discrimination, etc.). The values promoted by Christianity are universal brotherhood and reciprocal succor. For this reason, some view Christ as the living example of true humanitarian anti-authoritarian thinking and practice.

In the course of history, many of those holding these views became, from being persecuted or marginalized individuals, people holding positions of power. At that moment, the classic formulas that were underpinning those conceptions were turned upside down.

The liberal invocation “laissez-faire, laissez-passer » was transformed by the capitalist masters in the demand to the state for a privileged “laissez-nous faire, laissez-nous passer”. A demand eagerly taken on board by the state rulers because the collusion of these two powers (political & economic) was the recipe for making both stronger.

As for equality, while preaching it (all people are equal), it happened that some individuals (e.g. the leaders and the members of the communist party) considered themselves more equal than others. Communist in power (Stalin) had even the impudence of qualifying equality as "a petty-bourgeois deviation." (June 1931)

Regarding the practice of Christian fraternity, for the high hierarchies of the Church this meant simply to give to the poor some crumbles that were falling from the table of the rich and powerful. The alliance between throne and altar had nothing to do with the message of the Christ but all with the preservation of royal dynasties and of the Church apparatus.   

In the presence of this turn of events, the way forward is not to reject everything connected to liberalism, socialism and Christianity, but to recover the original concepts and formulations and to use them in a way appropriate to the XXI century. To make a few suggestions, we need to re-discover some authors and some ideas belonging to those conceptions and movements that are still valid in our times:

  • Liberalism

- Adam Smith. In Adam Smith, we find one of the best advocacies of the freedom of economic activities (production, exchanges) against the control imposed by the state and the machinations concocted by monopolistic authoritarian masters.
- John Stuart Mill. This author has penned down one of the best characterizations of freedom: "The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it." (Mill, 1859)

  • Socialism

- Karl Marx. Despite his authoritarian posture with respect to Bakunin and of his centralistic managing of the Workers International, Marx remains a genial thinker and an advocate of freedom from exploitation and domination.
- Rosa Luxemburg. Her critical analysis of the Russian Revolution reveals her anti-authoritarian stance in opposition to all the pretexts advanced by the Bolsheviks for saving the Revolution by crushing the dissent.  

  • Christianity

- Lord Acton. To Lord Acton we own one of the most revelatory condemnation of what is power. In a letter to Mandell Creighton (April 5, 1887) he wrote: "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely"; “[T]here is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”
- Lev Tolstoy. This author has been one of the sincerest advocates of anti-authoritarian thinking and practice. Many of his writings are still unsurpassed testimony of his willingness to abolish all forms of violence and domination. 

The worst thing should for some people belonging to the anti-authoritarian anarchist movement to think that the anti-authoritarian thinking and practice is the sole prerogative of their movement. This would be not just totally incorrect from the point of view of the history of ideas and practical attitudes, but also totally ruinous for any future progress towards a world society made of truly non-authoritarian and non-sectarian communities.




Adam Smith (1723-1790)
[1749] The Theory of Moral Sentiments
[1776] The Wealth of Nations

John Stuart Mill (1803-1873)
[1848] The Principles of Political Economy
[1859] On Liberty

Karl Marx (1818-1883)
[1844] Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts
[1875] Critique of the Gotha Program

Rosa Luxemburg
[1900] Social Reform or Revolution?
[1918] The Russian Revolution

Lord Acton (1834-1902)
Essays on Freedom and Power, Thames & Hudson, London, 1956

Lev Tolstoy (1828-1910)
On civil disobedience and non-violence, Bergman Publishers, New York, 1967
Government is Violence, Phoenix Press, London, 1990


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