Alan Ritter, "The Anarchist Justification of Authority" in J. Roland Pennock, & John W. Chapman, eds., Anarchism: Nomos XIX. New York: New York University Press, 1978.



We are in debt to Professor De George for his conclusive demonstration that anarchists endorse authority, despite what they say. Proof of this contention is long overdue, for anyone who reads the anarchists will note the conflict stressed by De George between their explicit denunciations of authority and their tacit use of it to help make their ideal society cohere. Since I agree with Professor De George that anarchists support authority, my comments will not bear on his claim's general validity. What I will question is its concrete application, for I shall argue that Professor De George has misdescribed the tests employed in anarchist theory to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate authority.

Before presenting this argument, I must indicate how far it will extend. Professor De George's investigation of authority in an anarchy is comprehensive. He asks how anarchists justify authority over belief as well as conduct, and in the private realm of groups and families, as well as in the public, social realm of life. My remarks will bear on Professor De George's findings only so far as they apply to public conduct. More precisely, I will limit myself to showing that he misreads how anarchists justify authority over the actions of individuals in their capacity as members of an ideal social order. Focusing on this narrow issue brings out what is distinctive about the anarchists' justification of authority, for their argument is not markedly original, so far as it applies to private action or belief. It is their way of justifying authority over public conduct that is unique.1


Authority, as applied to conduct, is a way to secure compliance with a directive, distinguished by the ground on which the directive is obeyed. You exercise authority over my conduct, if you issue me a directive, and I follow it because I believe that something about you, not the directive, makes compliance the proper course. This something about you that elicits my compliance is something I attribute either to your position or to your character. I may submit to your authority because I think your position (say as president) makes you an appropriate issuer of directives, or because I think you are personally equipped (perhaps by advanced training) to direct my acts with special competence.2 Anarchists never regard the personal character of an authority as entitling him to obedience; what gives him this title, in their view, are attributes of his position. Hence the answer to the question how anarchists justify authority depends on the specification of these attributes.

According to De George, anarchists make restrictions placed on the position of an authority by its subjects the mark of its legitimacy. If an authority's subjects put him in a position to direct their conduct, if they limit his directive power with rules, and if they can revoke it, then, says De George, anarchists consider the authority legitimate. Yet what the seminal nineteenth-century anarchists -- Godwin, Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin -- say about authority shows, I think, that they do not decide on its legitimacy in this way.

1 can find no statements in their writings that the ways of limiting authority mentioned by De George are conditions for its legitimacy, furthermore, these anarchists denounce even direct democracy as coercive and demeaning, though it limits authority as De George describes. But De George's thesis that anarchists endorse authority whose position is limited "from below" does not depend on their expressly saying so for its validity. For he backs his thesis with an a priori argument, which concludes from premises about the requisites for social order and about what anarchists mean by freedom that they must support authority, if its subjects limit it enough. Even if anarchists never state this conclusion, even if they deny it, De George could still be right to ascribe it to them, for they might have failed to reach it, though it is implicit in their thought. Hence the validity of his thesis about the character of authority under anarchy depends on the implications for authority of the fundamental premises of anarchism.

Of these premises, the one most crucial for the anarchists' justification of authority is their commitment to the overriding value of rational deliberation, understood as choosing and acting on the basis of evidence and arguments that one has systematically evaluated for oneself. Godwin regards "the conviction of man's individual understanding" as "the only legitimate principle imposing on him the duty of adopting any species of conduct." Bakunin insists that all man's actions be determined "by his own will and by his own convictions." The other anarchists resoundingly agree.3

Now authority, however limited, must interfere with rational deliberation so conceived. Whenever an authority issues a directive to a subject who concludes from his own assessment of arguments and evidence that the act the authority prescribes for him is wrong, the authority interferes with his deliberations by causing him to renounce them as his guide. For a subject cannot obey an authority and also follow his own deliberations when the courses prescribed by the authority and his deliberations conflict. It is of course possible to limit authority so that it interferes very little with deliberation. One effective way of doing this, identified by De George, is to give its subjects so much control over its power to issue directives that it prescribes the same conduct for them as they prescribe for themselves. But no matter how responsive to his subjects an authority may be, he must sometimes direct some of them to do what they think wrong, for otherwise, not receiving obedience because of who he is, he would not be an authority. Anarchists are usually thinking of unlimited authority when they denounce it for enslaving minds and brutalizing character.4 But their denunciation also applies to authority which has limits. For even the most limited authority impedes deliberation, thus damaging what anarchists most cherish as a source of human worth.5


Two arguments can be found in De George's paper to refute the finding that authority impedes deliberation. The first argument claims that if an authority responds enough to the wants of a subject so that he thinks obeying it is generally advantageous, he can do what it requires, without impeding his deliberations, even when (for whatever reasons he finds conclusive) he objects to an act the authority prescribes. For when he performs this objectionable act, he follows his deliberations, which lead him to conclude that since the act, though wrong, is prescribed by an authority meriting general obedience, it should be done. What this argument overlooks is that deliberation about general obedience to authority (over public conduct, at any rate) is viewed by anarchists as inadequate. Adequate deliberation involves making and following judgments about the merit of each of an authority's particular prescribed acts. Hence subjects who obey an authority on any general ground, such as general advantage, hinder their deliberations, because in giving him obedience they renounce their own conclusions about the specific merit of the act they carry out.

By requiring deliberation about the merit of particular acts, the anarchists also defeat the second of the arguments suggested by De George for viewing deliberation and authority as compatible. This (Kantian) argument claims that I deliberate freely, though subject to an authority, if I obey him because his directive can be universally applied. Deliberation is only unobstructed, in this view, when its upshot is a course of action everyone can take. Since I am sure to perform such an action when I obey a universally applicable directive, obedience to an authority because he issues one guarantees that my deliberation is free.

Whatever the force of this argument, it is unacceptable to anarchists, for whom free deliberation depends, not on verifying the universal applicability of an authority's directive, but on approving °i the action it prescribes. Even Proudhon, most sympathetic of the anarchists to Kantian universalizability, asks, "what difference does that abstraction make to me?"6 As already noted, I deliberate freely, for the anarchists, only if I obey an authority on the ground that the specific merit of his prescribed act makes it right. Since I cannot obey an authority for this reason while also obeying him because his directives are universalizable (except when I believe that he deserves obedience on both grounds), obedience to an authority's universalizable directives must sometimes make my deliberations incomplete.

The anarchists' commitment to rational deliberation seems to prevent them not only from backing the limited authority De George says they favor but from backing authority of any kind. For any authority, however limited, sometimes keeps its subjects from following their own deliberations about the merit of the action it prescribes. If anarchists really do oppose all kinds of authority, they make the task of maintaining peace in their ideal society extremely difficult, because authority is an effective and reliable method of behavioral control. Physical coercion is obviously unacceptable to anarchists as a way to control behavior. If authority too is inadmissible, there remains one recourse for preventing harmful acts: reasoned argument to convince the potential wrongdoer that his contemplated conduct is incorrect.7 Reasoned argument of this type is the only way to control behavior that unquestionably leaves deliberation free. For someone who convinces me with reasons to change my conduct, far from interfering with my deliberation, actually supports it, by supplying arguments and evidence which help me reach and follow my own conclusion concerning how to act. But though reasoned argument is much relied on by anarchists as a method of control, and though it can protect society to some extent from harm, it is a hazardous guarantee of security, even in an anarchy, where the temptation to misbehave would be much weaker than in the world we know. Because anarchists fear the danger of relying on nothing but reasoned argument to control behavior, they admit that under anarchy some authority is legitimate. Because they want anarchy to protect rational deliberation fully, they seek an authority that interferes with it the least. It is thus the conflict in the anarchists' perspective between their desire to protect rational deliberation and their mistrust of reasoned argument as a behavioral control that shapes their test for legitimate authority. An authority, to be legitimate for anarchists, must allow as much rational deliberation as possible, while also successfully protecting peace.


The authority that anarchists think satisfies these conditions is like the authority from below that De George claims they favor in being wielded from a position hemmed in by restraints. But whereas De George defines these restraints by who applies them, anarchists define them by what they say. What makes an authority legitimate for anarchists are restraints on his position, which, owing to their content, and regardless of their origin, compel him to direct conduct in ways which, without causing disorder, leave deliberation most free. One of the restraints which anarchists think does this determines who fills positions of authority; another regulates its exercise; a third prescribes its sanctions. In the search to clarify how anarchists justify authority, identifying these restraints is the crucial step.

Authority is usually conceived as attached to specially designated positions, which individuals must occupy to have their directives obeyed. Anarchists reject authority conferred by designated positions. "The only great and all powerful authority . . . we can respect," writes Bakunin, is "the collective and public spirit."8 Legitimate authority, for Godwin, is "exercised by every individual over the actions of another." 9 Proudhon would "eliminate the last shadow of authority from judges" and "submit decisions to the scrutiny and sanction of opinion."10 And Kropotkin welcomes authority "when we see anti-social acts committed," so long as it is exercized by saying "aloud in anyone's presence what we think of such acts."11 What anarchists are here stating is the distinctive proposition that justified authority must be shared by all. Specialized positions, however widespread and numerous, confer no nght to obedience. All members of society must exercise authority before its directives can deserve support.

To defend the legitimacy of authority exercised by all, anarchists show how it serves deliberation. Wielders of authority who hold specially designated positions, being few in number, and so unable to know the details of their subjects' situations, must treat them as an undifferentiated group. Such treatment must often seem mis- taken to the subjects, who, more familiar with their situations are apt to conclude that circumstances unknown to the authorities make it wrong to act as they direct. But if everybody has authority it can obstruct deliberation less, because its wielders, intermingled with its subjects, can intimately know the circumstances to which its directives apply. Equipped with this knowledge, they can bring these directives and the deliberations of their subjects into closer accord.12

Besides requiring that legitimate authority be exercised b) all, anarchists insist that its directives be concrete. Rather than being bound by or embodied in general rules, they must be flexible and specific, formed, "not according to maxims previously written, but according to the circumstances of each particular cause."13 The anarchists' argument for thus restraining authority appeals again to effects on deliberation. Authority which issues general directives impedes deliberation, no matter how numerous its wielders are, because general directives, applying to broad classes of action, and hence unable to adjust much to specific circumstances, are often opposed by subjects for failing to take these circumstances into account. An authority whose directives are particular, being more able to consider individual situations, can better avoid contradicting the deliberations of its subjects about the merit of its prescribed acts.

The third restraint imposed by anarchists on legitimate authority requires it to enforce directives with public rebuke. That anarchists make rebuke the sanction for authority is evident from passages already cited, in which Proudhon and Bakunin mention "opinion" and "public spirit" as methods to enforce authority's decrees. Godwin is more specific about how anarchist rebuke works. Most participants in anarchy "readily yield to the expostulations of authority," being convinced that its position entitles it to respect. But sometimes an authority's title to obedience is challenged. If the challengers disobey the authority's directive, they are made to comply with it by being openly rebuked. So "uneasy" are they "under the unequivocal disapprobation and observant eye of public judgment" that they are "inevitably obliged . . . either to reform or to emigrate."14

In arguing for authority sanctioned by rebuke, the anarchists first consideration is social peace. Authority needs a sanction, even under anarchy, where its title to obedience receives unusually strong support. For an anarchist authority, though perhaps less than any other, confronts subjects who refuse to do what it directs. Unless it can use sanctions to exact obedience from these recalcitrants, they will break domestic peace. Thus, regard for social order leads anarchists to acknowledge that even their authority needs a sanction of some sort.

If concern for order convinces anarchists to legitimize some sanction, regard for deliberation leads them to legitimize the specific sanction of rebuke. All sanctions impede deliberation by overpowering it with fear. But rebuke differs from other sanctions in a way which anarchists think makes it impede deliberation less. Rebuke, being a psychological sanction, is readily internalized; it is easily incorporated into minds. Now anarchists believe that internalized sanctions, far from blocking deliberation, are one of its essential parts. They "are not imposed by an external legislator; . . . but are immanent in us, inherent, they constitute the very basis of our being."15 When a subject who has internalized a sanction acts as the authority who imposes it directs, he reaches and follows his own conclusion. He issues "a sort of secret commandment from himself to himself with which the authority's directive coincides.16 Thus anarchists, persuaded that rebuke, compared to other sanctions, is benign, naturally choose it for their authority to invoke.


The main evaluative issue raised by the foregoing analysis is whether anarchists are right to endorse the authority they favor, rather than endorsing authority from below. It is easy to show, if we accept their theory as valid, that their preference for their authority is correct. Anarchist theory directs us to evaluate authorities by choosing the one which (among those that protect order) hinders deliberation least; and it tells us what attributes of the authorities we are comparing are relevant for the making of this choice. Now the authority from below envisaged by De George carries none of the attributes favorable to deliberation which anarchist theory recommends. It is neither conferred on everyone, nor concretely w'elded, nor sanctioned solely by rebuke. Rather, special officials xercise it, by issuing general directives, whose ultimate sanction is physical force.17 Lacking the restraints that anarchist theory says protect deliberation, and burdened by others that it counts as impediments, authority from below is hardly of a type that one who accepts this theory can endorse.

It is true that authority limited from below impedes deliberation less than most. For its subjects, being able to restrain its power, can make it prescribe actions they deem right. But the subjects of an anarchist authority, being the same persons who wield it, can also make it prescribe what they approve. Hence the responsiveness to its subjects of authority from below gives it no advantage, so far as anarchist theory is concerned. Assessed from that standpoint, its general directives and physical sanctions make it less conducive to deliberation, and less legitimate, than the authority anarchists in fact support.

Even though the anarchists are warranted by their theory to endorse their authority rather than authority from below, perhaps their theory is incorrect. In that case, though their justification of authority would be internally consistent, as a convincing argument it would fail. Among the more dubious of their theory's elements that would need to be vindicated before their case for authority could carry weight are its claims that rational deliberation has overriding value, that internalized sanctions leave deliberation free and that the authority they favor, despite its mildness, is strong enough to safeguard peace.

Though I cannot here give these claims the scrutiny that a definitive appraisal of the anarchists' argument for authority needs, I can at least point to a startling conclusion entailed by acceptance of their case. If anarchists are right to say that rational deliberation is better served by their authority than by any other kind, they overturn the commonplace that deliberation proceeds most rationally under the rule of law. The essential marks of law, such as the official source of its directives, their general form, and their external sanction, are ordinarily said to aid deliberation by allowing subjects, within known, fixed limits, to choose and act as they see fit. Now, anarchist authority, being intimate, particular and internal, cannot issue directives of a legal sort. In fact, it must reject them, and for the very reason they are usually praised. For the official, general, and external attributes of legal regulation, which are the ordinary grounds for calling it an aid to rationality, are precisely what make anarchists denounce it as a threat. If anarchists are right in how they justify authority, the traditional alliance between law and rationality rests on a mistake.


1. Proudhon, for instance, takes a patriarchal stand reminiscent of Filmer on the issue of domestic authority, while Godwin and Bakunin follow Plato in defending the authority of experts over private action and belief. William Godwin, Political Justice (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1946), I, 236; Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, De la Justice dans la Revolution et dans l'Eglise (Paris: Riviere, 1930-35), IV, 322; Michael Bakunin, Oeuvres (Paris: Stock, 1895-1913), III, 55.

2. The anarchists, De George, and most recent writers on authority all define it in about this way. For some anarchist analyses see Godwin, Political Justice, I, 121; Proudhon, De la Justice, II, 312; Peter Kropotkin, Revolutionary Pamphlets (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1968), p. 217. Two especially helpful contemporary essays are Richard Friedman, "On the Concept of Authority in Political Philosophy," in Concepts in Social and Political Philosophy, ed., Richard Flathman (New York: Macmillan, 1973), pp. 121-45, and Kurt Baier, "The Justification of Governmental Authority," Journal of Philosophy (Fall 1972), pp. 200-216.

3. Political Justice, I, 181; Oeuvres, V, 313; cf. Proudhon, De la Justice, I, 326, IV, 350; Kropotkin, Pamphlets, pp. 167, 285.

4. Eg. Godwin, Political Justice, I, 237; Proudhon, De la Justice, II, 312; Proudhon, Idee generate de la Revolution au dix-neuvieme siecle (Paris: Riviere, 1924), p. 207, Bakunin, Oeuvres, III, 52; Kropotkin, Pamphlets, p. 284.

5. Carl Friedrich has defined a type of authority which may seem to escape the anarchists' charge that all authority hinders deliberation. According to Friedrich, what makes an issuer of directives an authority is his capacity to argue for his directives with reasons. "Authority, Reason and Discretion," reprinted in Flathman, Concepts, p. 179; Man and His Government (New York, Macmillan, 1963), p. 223. Why must someone who give reasons for his directives hinder the deliberations of the persons he directs? The answer to this question becomes clear once one sees that even for Friedrich the obedience of an authority's subjects is not conditional on their own assessment of its prescribed acts. All I need to be an authority in Friedrich's sense is the capacity to defend my directives with plausible reasons. I need not exercize this capacity; nor need I convince my subjects that my arguments are right. Hence the same conflict, unacceptable to anarchists, between an authority's directives and the deliberations of his subjects arises even with authority limited as Friedrich suggests.

6. De la Justice, I, 430, cf. Kropotkin, Ethics (New York: The Dial Press 1924), pp. 216-17.

7. It is perhaps because De George ignores coercive and rationale controls that he thinks "all organization involves some kind of authority" (p. 98). Organizations held together by reasoned argument, by coercion or by some combination of these (as in the state ruled by Hume's sultan and mamelukes) are at least possible.

8. Oeuvres, III, 69n.

9. Political Justice, II, 496.

10. De la Justice, II, 218.

11. Pamphlets, p. 143.

12. Godwin, Political Justice, II, 352-53.

13. Godwin, Political Justice, II, 294, 399-400; Bakunin, Oeuvres, IV, 261.

14. Political Justice, II, 211, 340. It might seem that anarchists, by giving a sanction to issuers of directives, deprive them of authority. For an authority receives obedience not by imposing sanctions, but out of respect for who he is. Yet anarchists are on firm logical ground in giving authority a sanction. An issuer of directives who imposes sanctions still has authority, so long as some of his subjects sometimes obey him because of who he is. Since issuers of directives in an anarchist society usually receive obedience on this ground, despite their use of sanctions, they are still authorities.

15. Bakunin, Oeuvres, IV, 249.

16. Proudhon, De la Justice, I, 325.

17. Cf. p. 104 on specialized officials and on general rules; pp. 105-06 on sanctions. Though De George is vague about how authority from below enforces its directives, he implies that it sometimes resorts to physical force.