Anarchy and Daoism: It Lives!

This is a review of five essays: Toward a New Anarchism: Anarcho-Daoism, Dark Virtue: Daoism and the Rejection of Civilization, Neither Lord nor Subject, The Theory of the Individual in Chinese Philosophy: Yang-Chou and A Chinese Sage. Each discusses Daoism and anarchy: the intersections, the similarities, and/or how one might find anarchy in Daoism. Here I look at these writings as works that are both isolated from and in conversation with each other, with a particular focus on how the different essayists source their arguments: what these sources can tell us about the authors’ backgrounds and who they are writing for.

Differences in Sources – Toward a New Anarchism: Anarcho-Daoism and Dark Virtue: Daoism and the Rejection of Civilization
In Toward a New Anarchism: Anarcho-Daoism (henceforth TaNA), the author, Jacques, argues that the Dao de Jing “advocates for a system of diluted anarchy,” provides an anarchist reading of the Dao de Jing, and defends that kind of reading. His argument hinges on the assertion that the Dao de Jing explicates principles that align with the principles of anarchism laid out by Richard Sylvan, a philosopher of deep green ethics and a social anarchist, in Sylvan’s article on anarchism in A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy, a collection of essays primarily used in college courses.

This source undercuts the rest of Jacques’ essay.

In the article Sylvan defines anarchism as “the theory, principle, or practice of anarchy” and “anarchy” as a lack of “authority, coercion and, normally comprehending both, the state,” in “societies or communities, territories or countries.” He further elaborates on what he calls “diluted anarchism.” one that is “prepared to endorse carefully controlled coercive authorities.” For Sylvan, a diluted anarchist will likely be opposed to existing states, however they are not principally opposed to coercion. These diluted anarchists are contrasted with “principled anarchists.” Sylvan’s engagement with anarchism is almost entirely etymological and philosophical: he discusses the literal meaning of the word anarchy, as well as possible arguments against the necessity of the state and coercive authority. Strikingly, this attempt to define anarchism never engages with anarchist writers. At one point he states that “It is sometimes difficult to ascertain whether historic anarchists are principled anarchists or merely de facto ones,” without ever mentioning any historic anarchists by name. He spends more time engaging with bastions of liberal political philosophy like John Rawls and Robert Nozick than engaging with any anarchists, past or present. There is a section of the article titled “Roads to Anarchy: Old Routes and New Inputs” where a comparative discussion of historic anarchism and contemporary anarchism would be completely appropriate. However what we get is a couple mentions of Nozick and a passing comment about the compatibility between social anarchism and contemporary environmental movements.

So then, what does this mean for Jacques to use Sylvan’s definition of anarchism? It reveals the same disengagement with the history of anarchism that exists in Sylvan’s article. There have been numerous attempts at broad and inclusive anarchisms, such as the anarchists-without-adjectives like Errico Malatesta and Voltairine de Cleyre, that provided more rigorous definitions of anarchism than Sylvan’s. More important than this is that the broadness of Jacques’ definition of anarchism renders almost meaningless the argument that Daoism is compatible with anarchism, as it means that any number of conflicting ideologies, such as Marxism or liberalism, are also compatible.

Jacques maintains the distinction that Sylvan makes between diluted and principled anarchism, though Jacques refers to “principled anarchism” as “pure anarchism.” Jacques’ argument hinges on this distinction, as he argues that the Dao de Jing “advocates for a system of diluted anarchy,” but he doesn’t maintain this distinction. For example, on page 2 of TaNA he says that a diluted anarchist believes that “certain governmental structures are permissible so long as they are careful to avoid exerting a coercive authority over the populace,” and later on that same page, he says that all anarchists, both diluted and pure, oppose coercive authorities such as the police. These statements contradict Jacques’ own definition of diluted anarchism as allowing for “carefully controlled coercive authorities.” According to his own definition, the diluted anarchist could in fact support coercive authorities such as the police, as long as they are carefully controlled. Furthermore, Jacques’ definition of diluted anarchism contradicts his own definition of anarchism as “opposing coercive authority.”

Then Jacques defends his anarchist reading of the Dao de Jing against two scholars who have published papers arguing against such a reading of the Dao de Jing: Aleksandr Stamatov and Alex Feldt, two contemporary academics in political and eastern philosophy. Here Jacques is at his most compelling, as simple and concise arguments are where he does best. Contra Stamatov, he argues that “Government is not necessary to follow the Dao, and it detracts from the natural way of things. The institutions will always complicate some facet of living that was once simple.” Possibly his best argument is in response to Alex Feldt, who argues that instead of “making these frequent arguments for minimal government interference, the texts could have simply argued that the government or ruler is illegitimate or ought not to exist.” Jacques responds:

I think this is a bad reading of the Dao de Jing and a really unconvincing argument. Firstly, it ignores the poetic element of the Dao de Jing. The Dao de Jing’s obtuseness is intentional — it mirrors the chaos and harmony of the balancing Dao, also known as the yin and yang. When does the Dao de Jing “simply argue” anything? The fact that it has been translated so many different times demonstrates how multi-faceted the text is. I think Feldt is trying to hold it to the same standard as Western political philosophy, the likes of which are more straightforward and linear. Ultimately, this leads to a problematic reading of the Dao de Jing.

However successful Jacques’ essay may be, his choice to engage only with academic anarchists and academic essays on Daoism is telling. Perhaps Jacques is writing exclusively for an academic audience, or he is unaware of the vast landscape of anarchist works that exist outside of academia, not to mention other essays that deal exclusively with the compatibility of anarchism and Daoism. While there is nothing wrong with writing for an academic audience, this is a demonstration of the limitations of such writing. For topics like anarchism there are far better sources found outside of academia that would have strengthened his argument.

In Dark Virtue: Daoism and the Rejection of Civilization Ramon Elani argues that ancient Daoist philosophy is “completely consistent with contemporary anti-civilization and green anarchist critiques in its rejection of technology, domestication, agriculture, humanism, and morality.” He references numerous Daoist texts, including the foundational Dao de Jing and Zhuangzi, as well as writings of Ruan Ji, Bao Jingyan, Tao Qian, and Wu Nengzi, which span 1,300 years, approximately 400 BCE through 900 CE.

Elani begins with the Dao de Jing, and moves chronologically, detailing the critique of civilization to be found within each text. In the Dao de Jing: “Wisdom, justice, and virtue are names for the failure of humanity to live according to the dao. Impositions upon the world as it is, symptoms of humanity’s delusion that it is superior and exempted from the rest of creation.” In the Zhuangzi, the dualisms and moralizing that are central to the logic of civilization come under attack. Ruan Ji presents the ideal society as that which “existed in the distant hunter-gatherer past.” Bao Jingyan traces knowledge, the disruption of primitive unity with the Dao, to the use of force against nature. Tao Qian poetically describes the discovery of a happy and carefree human village with “no government, no money, and no technology.” The Wu Nengzi, which Elani describes as “the last significant work of classical Daoist philosophy” emphasizes the importance of living simply and in harmony with one’s surroundings. While these are but brief descriptions of the anti-civ critiques found within Daoist philosophy, there are already clear commonalities between these and contemporary anti-civ anarchy, including a rejection of the dualism central to the function of civilization, a critique of the belief in human superiority over the natural world, and looking back to the free and harmonious hunter-gatherer past as something to aspire to (though not necessarily replicate.)

The variety and historical scope of Elani’s references lends credence to his argument because the scope of his references makes it reasonable to say something about Daoism itself. Elani’s nuanced treatment of his references, along with the scope of these references, makes his argument convincing.

Early on in the essay, Elani stresses the importance of resisting a monolithic understanding of philosophical Daoism, recognizing that while there are certainly similarities in the ways that the referenced Daoist texts discuss the state and civilization, there are also significant differences. He emphasizes the issue of authorship, pointing out that both the Dao de Jing and the Zhuangzi probably had multiple authors. In reference to the former, “it is more or less accepted that the text that exists today is comprised of sayings from various village elders that were first presented during the Warring States period.” As for the Zhuangzi, he distinguishes between the core seven, or inner chapters, written by Zhuang Zhou, and the outer chapters written by a group that Elani (following Daoist scholar Angus Graham) calls the Daoist primitivists, who wrote some 200 years later than Zhuang Zhou. The multiple voices in these texts and in Daoism in general, do not deter Elani: “The anti-civilization trend, in other words, is there in the text and deserves to be taken seriously even if we concede that not every daoist was an anarchist and not every daoist anarchist was a primitivist.” The nuance with which Elani treats Daoism and its authorship strengthens his argument. If foundational Daoist texts consist of an amalgamation of writings from various authors from various times, it reinforces the idea that anarchy and anti-civ is a historical trend within Daoism. Conversely, if it were the case that the Dao de Jing and the Zhuangzi could be attributed to a single author, then the critiques of civilization and rulership made within these texts could be localized to a specific person, in a specific place, at a specific time.

Elani’s choice of, and engagement with, his sources obviously contrasts with Jacques’. Most clearly, Elani engages exclusively with primary sources, whereas Jacques engages with one primary source, the Dao de Jing, and multiple secondary sources. Jacques was also more concerned with countering popular beliefs in academia about the compatibility of anarchism and Daoism, while Elani seeks to find a strand of anti-civ anarchy running through Daoist literature. We can say then that where Jacques was writing for the academy, Elani was writing as much for anarchists and Daoists. If Elani had also referenced non- or anti-anarchist readings of the Daoists that he used his argument would have been strengthened even more.

Neither Lord nor Subject: Anarchism and Eastern Thought

This pamphlet consists of three essays:. Neither Lord nor Subject (NLnS) by Bao Jingyan, The Theory of the Individual in Chinese Philosophy: Yang Chou (TTotI) by Alexandra David-Neel, and A Chinese Sage (ACS) by Oscar Wilde. The first is a primary Daoist text from around 300 CE while the latter two are more recent essays written about specific Daoist thinkers, Yang Chou and Chuang Tzu respectively. These essays don’t argue for anarchist readings of their respective thinkers or even that these thinkers were anarchists. Rather they demonstrate the anarchy that can be found within Daoism: the ways in which Daoists have, throughout the years, embraced positions that are very similar to those of some modern anarchists.

Bao Jingyan details how hierarchy, profit, and competition disturbed the “mystic unity” of early humans who lived in harmony with the Dao. He criticizes civilization as being responsible for greed, violence, oppression, and unfettered desire for material goods. TTotI focuses on the thought of the enigmatic Yang Chou, about whom very little is known, though today he might be called an individualist. He vehemently opposed the constraints that morals and conventional wisdom placed on individual development. In ACS Oscar Wilde points out the anti-government, anti-competition, and amoral positions of Chuang Tzu, views of some anarchists today.

These essays give us some insight into how it is possible to live as an anarchist and as a Daoist. Importantly, all three express their disdain for hierarchy, morality, and being governed, values that extend beyond the realm of politics, and tell us something about how these Daoists might have lived. Yang-chou’s call for us to “live our life completely, to walk ‘as our heart guides us,’” and Jingyan’s condemnation of holding power over others are examples of the overlap between living as an anarchist and as a Daoist.
NLNS is also an outline of the Daoist critique of civilization. According to Jingyan, the way of life pre-civilization–in which “there was neither lord nor subjects. Wells were dug for drinking-water, the fields were plowed for food, work began at sunrise and ceased at sunset; everyone was free and at ease; neither competing with each other nor scheming against each other, and no one was either glorified or humiliated” –was far preferable to the life of a person living in 300 CE China. This life in mystic unity with the Dao was interrupted by decadence, knowledge, and cunning. “The Way and its Virtue (Tao te) having fallen into decay, a hierarchy was established.” ACS gives us a glimpse of Chuang Tzu’s criticisms of government. For Chuang Tzu “There is such a thing as leaving mankind alone: there has never been such a thing as governing mankind.” Wilde expands on this, explaining that for Chuang Tzu, government is unnatural, immoral, ignorant, and self-destructive. According to Chuang Tzu, even well-meaning government has its negative consequences: “the Yellow Emperor first caused charity and duty to one’s neighbor to interfere with the natural goodness of the heart of man.” NLnS brings together disparate essays according to a theme: the similarities between ancient Daoist thinkers and modern anarchist sentiments, and the relevance of Daoism to modern anarchists.
Despite the overall value of NLnS there are certain parts that must be treated carefully. Both David-Neel and Wilde draw direct comparisons between their subjects and more modern western thinkers. David-Neel refers to Yang-Chou as “the Chinese Stirner,” while Wilde refers to Chuang Tzu as a “Darwinian before Darwin.” There is some merit to this. Clearly David-Neel and Wilde were writing for a western audience unfamiliar with Daoism, and the direct comparisons demonstrate why Daoism is relevant to their readers. This can be helpful, however it also serves to distort our understanding of the thinkers in their own time and context. This style of comparative writing leads to a sort of backwards projection, in which ideas of these modern thinkers are implicitly projected back onto Yang Chou and Chuang Tzu and turns their arguments into something they are not. Reading Yang-chou, for example, with the assumption that he is “the Chinese Stirner” will lead us to read him as a Chinese Stirner, denuding both Stirner and Yang-chou of important distinctions and both over-simplifying and mystifying both thinkers.


In this review I sought to make two major points. The first is that there is anarchy in daoism. The Daoist rejection of capitalism, law, conventional wisdom and civilization will resonate with many contemporary anarchists. This rejection comes from the Dao, a natural harmony that undercuts the necessity of state and civilization.
The second point is that investigating sources is useful for understanding an author’s perspective. By examining sources we can discern who they are writing for, where they are writing from, and position the strengths and limitations of their arguments.

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