Political Anarchism and Raz’s Theory of Authority


This article argues that using Joseph Raz’s service conception of authority to reject philosophical anarchism can be affected by political anarchism. Whereas philosophical anarchism only denies the authority of the state, political anarchism claims that anarchism is a better alternative to the state. Raz’s theory holds that an institution has authority if it enables people to better conform with reason. I argue that there are cases where anarchism is an existing alternative to the state and better fulfils this condition. Consequently, in these cases, anarchist groups and societies and not the state have legitimate authority. When anarchism is not an existing alternative to the state, the state will, under Raz’s theory, have some legitimate authority, but that authority will be limited because anarchism remains a better possible alternative to the state. To support the political anarchist claim I discuss the anarchist collectives during the Spanish civil war, which I argue are an example of anarchism as an existing alternative to the state that better fulfils Raz’s service conception and also provide suggestive evidence that anarchism is in general a better possible alternative. I also discuss the relationship between political anarchism and authority and I argue that despite some tension they are not irreconcilable. I conclude that the interesting anarchist challenge for political theorists is political not philosophical.

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  1. 1.

    Gordon (2005, pp. 147–149) has argued that while Raz’s argument might be a suitable response to philosophical anarchism it does not affect political anarchism.

  2. 2.

    Krehoff (2008, p. 294) also suggests that non-state actors (such as international courts and non governmental organizations) could have authority if they fulfilled the service conception better than the state.

  3. 3.

    I therefore do not engage with criticisms of the theory itself. These however include that it does not take into account the importance of democratic procedures to legitimate authority (Hershovitz 2003), skepticism about the role of exclusionary reasons (Darwall 2010), and that authoritative directives are not necessary for solving coordination problems (Green 1985). For an overview of Raz’s critics see Ehrenberg (2011).

  4. 4.

    Raz’s theory also applies to persons but I will henceforth only refer to the authority of institutions. I also understand institutions broadly so that it includes forms of social and political organisation. By legitimate authority I follow Raz (1986, p. 23) that it should be regarded as ‘centrally involving a right to rule, where that is understood as correlated with an obligation to obey on the part of those subject to the authority.’ I will occasionally say that an institution has ‘authority’ as a shorthand for ‘legitimate authority’.

  5. 5.

    Simmons (1999) has argued that we should distinguish between the justification and the legitimacy of the state. A state is legitimate if it has authority, whereas a state is justified if it is ‘rationally preferable to all feasible non-state alternatives’ (1999, pp. 742 & 746). A state can therefore, according to Simmons, be justified without being legitimate (in that it is all things considered preferable but there is no obligation to obey it). In Raz’s theory an institution cannot be legitimate if it is not justified, because (as I will show) if an institution is not better than its alternatives then it does not have authority. Raz (1989, pp. 1180–1181) however also says that an institution can be justified, because it passes the normal justification thesis, but is not a legitimate authority, because it fails the independence condition. In Raz’s theory then, justification is a necessary but not sufficient condition for legitimate authority. In terms of my argument we can see that political anarchism is primarily a claim about the justification of the state, since it claims that anarchism is a better alternative to the state. But the point of my argument is to show that, if we accept Raz’s theory of authority, political anarchism can also affect the legitimacy of the state.

  6. 6.

    See also Raz’s (1989, p. 1180) later remark that an institution has authority when it ‘makes compliance with its directives closer to reason than either compliance with a less efficient institution or acting independently’.

  7. 7.

    I do not of course expect the existing authority to respect or recognize that its authority is limited in this way. It is instead aimed at those subject to the authority who should see themselves as not obligated to follow the authority’s directives in these matters.

  8. 8.

    A more sophisticated account of philosophical anarchism is given by Simmons (1979), where his approach is to show that some of the main theories of authority (consent, tacit consent, fair play, duties of justice, and gratitude) all fail to establish the authority of the state.

  9. 9.

    I do not focus on an additional important idea associated with political anarchism that believing in this alternative obligates one to actively oppose the state because it is less relevant to the ensuing discussion.

  10. 10.

    It therefore does not cover right-wing ‘anarcho-capitalist’ varieties of anarchism. These varieties of anarchism are also anti-statist but want the means of production to remain in private hands. Though I cannot defend the view here, I believe that anarcho-capitalism reproduces the exploitative and dominatory economic and social structures of capitalism without the modest welfare provisions and legal protections of the state, and is consequently worse than the state. It therefore does not fulfil the political anarchist claim of anarchism being a better alternative to the state.

  11. 11.

    This understanding and history of anarchism is indebted to the approach taken by Schmidt and van der Walt (2009). For an overview of anarchism’s less well-known influence outside of Western Europe during this period see the edited volume by Hirsch and van der Walt (2010).

  12. 12.

    Though the Zapatista communities thus display many anarchist features it is important to note that their ideas and practices are influenced by a number of traditions including, Indigenous philosophies and autonomous Marxism.

  13. 13.

    Because Raz (1979) has denied that there is a general duty to obey the law he is sometimes thought of as a philosophical anarchist. However because Raz maintains that the state has ‘piece-meal’ authority he rejects the philosophical anarchist claim that the state has no authority.

  14. 14.

    The state’s authority might be even further limited by anarchist groups within the state, which, provided they perform better than the state, will have authority in the relevant areas rather than the state.

  15. 15.

    Similarly Simmons (2008, p. 64) claims that ‘some existing states clearly do enough good (and refrain sufficiently from unwarranted coercion) that they should not be opposed or undermined. Political anarchism…is for that reason false.’

  16. 16.

    Communist opposition was the result of Joseph Stalin’s orders to conceal the social revolution. The communists went so far as to defend private property against worker and peasant control, in order to attract the support of the middle-class and small landholders (Beevor 2007, pp. 122; Preston 1986, pp. 119-120).

  17. 17.

    Even if they had been less economically efficient, Cohen (2009, pp. 73–74) is, I believe, right to say that some reductions in efficiency that could result from more egalitarian communities can be justified by the other values they realize.

  18. 18.

    Raz raised this worry in his response to the argument. He questioned whether anarchist groups and societies can perpetuate themselves over time, which he argued is a vital test for whether an institution is feasible. He accepted that while the collectives were not to blame for their short period of existence, it means that they do not show that anarchism can pass this test. He further thought that the collectives were relying on a state of revolutionary ‘euphoria’ to ensure compliance, which was neither possible nor desirable to sustain in the long term. The experience of the Zapatistas would be particularly relevant in countering this argument, since they have managed to perpetuate themselves for the last twenty years.

  19. 19.

    Indeed the destruction of the collectives is said to have removed the ‘one great and unique weapon the Republic possessed…popular enthusiasm’ (Preston 1986, p. 115), which meant that the ‘morale of the population was mortally stricken’ (Beevor 2007, p. 123).

  20. 20.

    This is corroborated by de George (1978, p. 92): ‘it is not authority as such that the anarchist attacks, his words to the contrary notwithstanding. Rather he implicitly and rightly attacks authoritarianism, which anarchists have tended to equate with established authority.’.

  21. 21.

    See Egoumenides (2014) for a recent attempt to outline a theory of ‘critical philosophical anarchism’, which combines insights from both philosophical and political anarchism.

  22. 22.

    I think that a theory of authority that is based on inclusive and participatory democratic structures is a more promising way for anarchists to theorize authority. Pateman’s (1979, p. 163) account of political obligation is suggestive in this regard, where she argues that a ‘relationship of political obligation is possible only in the context of a participatory or self-managing democracy’. For an in-depth survey of anarchism’s relationship to authority see also McLaughlin (2007).

  23. 23.

    One referee questioned whether the collectives could really be considered non-hierarchical since there will have been some level of hierarchy in the general assembly and administrative council. This is certainly true; hierarchies would have resulted from gender, age, education and profession. The collectives were to that extent less anarchist. But while the collectives may not have fully lived up to the anarchist principles that they aspired to, real political practices and institutions are always an imperfect attempt to realize these principles. As White (2007, p. 24) notes ‘Other ideological families, liberal and socialist, have their utopias, but critics do not necessarily dismiss them on grounds of the utopias they project, it being well-understood that action and achievement can be true to an ideology’s core values and yet reasonably fall short of the relevant utopian vision.’

  24. 24.

    For a typical example of this kind of stereotypical portrayal see Dahl (1989 pp. 37-51).


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For helpful comments on earlier versions of the article I would like to thank Svenja Ahlhaus, Puneet Dhaliwal, Mirjam Müller, Rob Jubb, Tom Parr, Laura Valentini, Andrew Walton and the anonymous referees for Res Publica. I am also grateful to the organisers and participants of the graduate political theory conferences at Warwick and Science Po, and I was particularly fortunate to receive feedback from Joseph Raz at Science Po.

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Leipold, B. Political Anarchism and Raz’s Theory of Authority. Res Publica 21, 309–329 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11158-015-9266-1

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  • Anarchism
  • Authority
  • Joseph Raz
  • Legitimacy
  • Spanish collectives