Anarchism and Education: An Anarchist Studies Review

By Abraham DeLeon
University of Texas at San Antonio
Anarchist Studies 19, no. 1(2011), pg. 107-109

Anarchist theory. The words alone are enough to strike fear in most that hear them, making anarchism often maligned and misunderstood. In education, radical theories have been centered in Marxism in the works of scholars like Paulo Freire and Peter McLaren. Interestingly, anarchism has been heavily invested with educational projects globally but has not been sufficiently theorized in the educational context.

Luckily, Judith Suissa explores what she calls a “social anarchist” engagement with anarchist theory and education. Originally published in 2006 (Routledge), this second edition has now been published by PM Press. There has been recent work since its initial publication, which should have been covered in a more thorough introduction that places the book within its historical conjuncture (see, for example, Antliff, 2007; DeLeon, 2008). Despite this, the book produces a critical and informative narrative about what social anarchism can mean for education. Suissa highlights five important claims that can be gleaned from the social anarchist literature: mutualism, federalism, collectivism, communism and syndicalism. It is through these that I will position this book and its implications.

Mutualism is an important feature of social anarchist thought, and supports the  notion that “society should be organized not on the basis of a hierarchical, centralist, top-down structure such as the state, but on the basis of reciprocal voluntary agreements between individuals” (p.11). Cooperation and the ideal of mutual community building lies at the heart of many anarchist projects, especially when we think about the role(s) that anarchists envision education to assume. According to Suissa, it can be the role of education to “systematically promote and emphasize cooperation, solidarity, and mutual aid,” which will “undermine the values underlying the capitalist state’ (p.32). Suissa speaks to several historical examples, specifically an excellent treatment of the Escuela Modernaproject of Francisco Ferrer in Spain (p.80).

She also points to anarchist conceptions of federalism. This is envisioned as a loosely organized series of communities and networked through councils—”established spontaneously to meet specific economic or organizational needs of the communities; they would have no central authority, no permanent bureaucratic structure, and their delegates would have no executive authority” (p.12). Federalism is an important concept in social anarchist thought because it eschews not only hierarchical State structures, but also positions anarchist communities to experiment with direct forms of self-governance. In the United States for example, an intense process of enculturation and coercion occurs at public schools that celebrate individual gains and standardization over collective forms of social organization. Because of this, anarchists continually maintain the “need for an ongoing educitional process” (p.38).

Collectivism and communism are integral to this process, and anarchists understand that the way(s) in which subjects are constructed occurs through complex forms of social reproduction. This puts education at the centre of many anarchist political projects because they understand the need to cultivate and encourage cooperation and community (p.66). This also matches with the anarchist conception of syndicalism, or unions, “as the ultimate expression of the working class,” and should comprise “the basic unity of social reorganization” (p.14). This is because social anarchists are concerned with “the concrete aspects of social justice, distribution of goods, and the material well being of the community,” and are “always at the forefront of educational thought and practice” (p.109).

Ultimately, this last point is what makes Suissa’s project unique and important because she recognizes the anarchist desire to challenge coercive relationships of power through education. “One can begin this process . . . on the smallest possible scale, by challenging dominant values and encouraging the human propensity for mutual aid, cooperation and self-governance” (p.118). Although some may be sceptical at what anarchist theory can offer those in education, Suissa’s book is a valuable reminder of the importance of this work, and the possibilities that education can offer anarchists and other radicals working towards social change.


Allan Antliff, “Breaking Free: Anarchist Pedagogy” in Mark Coté, Richard Day & Greig de Peuter (eds.), Utopian Pedagogy: Radical Experiments against Neoliberal Globalization (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), pp.248-65.

Abraham DeLeon, “Oh no, not the ‘A’ word! Proposing an ‘anarchism’ for education.” Educational Studies 44, no. 2 (2008), pp.122-41.

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