Anarcho-pacifism (also pacifist anarchism or anarchist pacifism) is a tendency within the anarchist movement which rejects the use of violence in the struggle for social change[1][2]. The main early influences were the thought of Henry David Thoreau[2] and Leo Tolstoy[2][3]. It developed "mostly in Holland, Britain, and the United States, before and during the Second World War".[4]



The main precedent was Henry David Thoreau, who, through his work Civil Disobedience, influenced both Leo Tolstoy and Mohandas Gandhi's advocacy of nonviolent resistance.[2]

The development of anarcho-pacifism was closely linked to Christian anarchism. The first large-scale anarcho-pacifist movement was the Tolstoyan peasant movement in Russia. This was a predominantly peasant movement that set up voluntary anarchist pacifist communes based on their interpretation of Christianity as requiring absolute pacifism and the rejection of all coercive authority. They were active throughout Russia and followed a strict vegetarian diet. Because of their refusal to recognize the authority of the Tsarist state they were targeted for severe repression and many were killed outright or relocated to Siberia. After the Bolshevik Revolution they were again targeted for repression because they refused to recognize the authority of the new socialist state, just as they had refused to recognize the authority of its predecessor.

Violence has always been controversial in anarchism. While many anarchists during the 19th century embraced “propaganda of the deed”, including assassinations, bombings, and other forms of terrorism, Tolstoy and other anarcho-pacifists directly opposed violence as a means for change. Tolstoy argued that anarchism must be nonviolent since it is, by definition, opposition to coercion and force, and that since the state is inherently violent, meaningful pacifism must likewise be anarchistic. His philosophy was cited as a major inspiration by Mohandas Gandhi, the Indian independence leader and pacifist. Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis was also instrumental in establishing the pacifist trend within the anarchist movement.[5] In France anti-militarism appeared strongly in individualist anarchist circles as Émile Armand founded "Ligue Antimilitariste" in 1902 with Albert Libertad and George Mathias Paraf-Javal.

“Dutch anarchist-pacifist Bart de Ligts 1936 treatise The Conquest of Violence (with its allusion to Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread) was also of signal importance.”[6] “Gandhi’s ideas were popularised in the West in books such as Richard Gregg’s The Power of Nonviolence (1935), and de Ligt’s The Conquest of Violence (1937). The latter is particularly important for anarchists since, as one himself, de Ligt specifically addressed those who lust for revolution. ‘The more violence, the less revolution,’ he declared. He also linked Gandhian principled nonviolence with the pragmatic nonviolent direct action of the syndicalists. (The General Strike is an expression of total nonco-operation by workers, though it should be added that most syndicalists believed that the revolution should be defended by armed workers.)”[7]

Internationally, anarchist pacifism emerged shortly before World War II in Holland, Great Britain and the United States, and was a strong presence in the post-war campaigns for nuclear disarmament. A leading British anarcho-pacifist was Alex Comfort, an archive member of the CND, who considered himself “an aggressive anti-militarist,“ and who believed that pacifism rested “solely upon the historical theory of anarchism.”[8][9]

Among the works on anarchism by Comfort is Peace and Disobedience (1946), one of many pamphlets he wrote for Peace News and the Peace Pledge Union, and Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State (1950).[8] He exchanged public correspondence with George Orwell defending pacifism in the open letter/poem “Letter to an American Visitor” under the pseudonym “Obadiah Hornbrooke.”[10]

“In the 1950s and 1960s anarcho-pacifism began to gel, tough-minded anarchists adding to the mixture their critique of the state, and tender-minded pacifists their critique of violence.“ [2] Within the context of the emergence of the New Left and the African-American Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968) “several themes, theories, actions, all distinctly libertarian, began to come to the fore and were given intellectual expression by the American anarcho-pacifist, Paul Goodman.”[2]

Among late 20th-century anarcho-pacifists was autarchist Robert LeFevre, who based his pacifism on his belief in the inviolability of property rights.[11][12] LeFevre also spoke out against war, which he considered to be a product of the state, and was convinced of the power of non-violent resistance.[13]

Other notable anarcho-pacifist historical figures include Ammon Hennacy and, for a brief period between 1939 and 1940, Jean-Paul Sartre.[14] Ursula K. Le Guin has identified pacifist anarchism as the major utopic element in her novel The Dispossessed.[15]


Anarcho-pacifists tend to see the state as ‘organised violence’ and so they see that “it would therefore seem logical that anarchists should reject all violence”[2].. Anarcho-pacifism criticizes the separation between means and ends. “Means,...must not merely be consistent with ends; this principle, though preferable to ‘the end justifies the means’, is based on a misleading dichotomy. Means are ends, never merely instrumental but also always expressive of values; means are end-creating or ends-in-the making”[2].

A main component of anarcho-pacifist strategy is civil disobedience as advocated by the early anarchist thinker Henry David Thoreau in the essay of the same name from 1849[2]. Leo Tolstoy was influenced by it and he saw that a “great weapon for undermining (rather than overthrowing) the state was the refusal by individuals to cooperate with it and obey its immoral demands”[2]. Also the concepts of passive and active resistance have relevance as they were developed later by Mohandas Gandhi[2].

For anarchist historian George Woodcock “the modern pacifist anarchists,...have tended to concentrate their attention largely on the creation of libertarian communities – particularly farming communities – within present society, as a kind of peaceful version of the propaganda by deed. They divide, however, over the question of action.”[16]. Anarcho-pacifists can even accept “the principle of resistance and even revolutionary action (Nonviolent revolution), provided it does not incur violence, which they see as a form of power and therefore nonanarchist in nature. This change in attitude has led the pacifist anarchists to veer toward the anarchosyndicalists, since the latter’s concept of the general strike as the great revolutionary weapon made an appeal to those pacifists who accepted the need for fundamental social change but did not wish to compromise their ideal by the use of negative (i.e., violent) means.”[17]

Ideological variance

While anarcho-pacifism is most commonly associated with religious anarchism such as Tolstoyan Christian anarchism and Buddhist anarchism, irreligious or even anti-religious tendencies have emerged. The anarcho-punk band Crass polemicised a variant of anarcho-pacifism whilst at the same time explicitly rejecting all religions, especially the symbols of ‘establishment’ Christian mythology.[18] Opposition to the use of violence has not prohibited anarcho-pacifists from accepting the principle of resistance or even revolutionary action provided it does not result in violence; in fact it was their approval of such forms of opposition to power that lead anarcho-pacifists to endorse the anarcho-syndicalist concept of the general strike as the great revolutionary weapon.[5]


  1. George Woodcock. Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements (1962)
  2. "Resisting the Nation State, the pacifist and anarchist tradition" by Geoffrey Ostergaard
  3. George Woodcock. Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements (1962)
  4. Woodcock, George (1962). Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements. "Finally, somewhat aside from the curve that runs from anarchist individualism to anarcho-syndicalism, we come to Tolstoyanism and to pacifist anarchism that appeared, mostly in Holland, Britain, and the United states, before and after the Second World War and which has continued since then in the deep in the anarchist involvement in the protests against nuclear armament." 
  5. Woodcock, George (2004). Anarchism: a History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements. Peterborough: Broadview Press. ISBN 1551116294. 
  6. "Anarchism and the Movement for a New Society: Direct Action and Prefigurative Community in the 1970s and 80s" by Andrew Cornell
  7. Resisting the Nation State. The pacifist and anarchist tradition by Geoffrey Ostergaard
  8. Rayner, Claire (28 March 2000). "News: Obituaries: Alex Comfort". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-08-23. 
  9. For discussions of Comfort's political views, see Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism (1992) by Peter Marshall, and Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow (2006) by David Goodway.
  10. Complete Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell volume II, pg. 294-303
  11. Doherty 2007, p. 312
  12. Doherty 2007, p. 316
  13. Doherty 2007, p. 319
  14. Taylor, John, "Abandoning Pacifism: The Case of Sartre", Journal of European Studies, Vol. 89, 1993
  15. Le Guin, Ursula K. (1989). "A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be", Dancing at the Edge of the World. New York: Grove Press. ISBN 978080211105
  16. George Woodcock. Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements (1962)
  17. George Woodcock. Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements (1962)
  18. Aitch, Iain (2007-10-19). "'Why should we accept any less than a better way of doing things?'". Guardian Unlimited Arts (London: The Guardian).,,2193622,00.html. Retrieved 2007-12-26. 

Related topics in the Connexions Subject Index

Anarchism  –  Civil Disobedience  –  Left History  –  Non-violence  –  Pacifism  –  Passive Resistance  –  Political Violence  –  Satyagraha

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