Uri Gordon: Is Anarchy Democracy?

crimethinc democracy

As part of its series on anarchy and democracy, CrimethInc posted a piece by Uri Gordon, “Democracy: The Patriotic Temptation,” in which he highlights the perils of promoting anarchy as the only genuine form of democracy. I have left out the historical introduction, where Gordon summarizes the anarchist critique of democracy that goes back at least to Proudhon. However, I disagree that “the association between anarchism and democracy makes its appearance only around the 1980s, through the writings of Murray Bookchin.” While it is true that Bookchin made great efforts to associate anarchism with direct democracy (starting in the 1960s, in essays like “The Forms of Freedom,” excerpts from which are included in Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas), at times even 19th century anarchists, particularly Proudhon himself, associated anarchy with forms of direct democracy. Drawing on the heritage of direct democracy that came to the fore during the French Revolution and was carried on by workers’ associations well into the 19th century, Proudhon advocated voluntary federations of directly democratic functional groups, with the delegates to the various federations being subject to imperative mandates and recall should they violate their mandates, much the same sort of direct democracy that Bookchin advocated in the 1960s (although even then Bookchin put much more emphasis on community assemblies than Proudhon ever did).


Other anarchists, such as Joseph Déjacque, also advocated forms of direct democracy (I included selections from Déjacque’s writings in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas). The anarchists in the First International argued that the International should be organized on “federalist” lines, with the delegates to the International’s congresses, and the members of the General Council themselves, subject to imperative mandates from and recall by the sections of the International that had delegated them. Marx and his cohorts, despite the Marxist propaganda regarding his alleged support for direct democracy (based on the misconception that the government of the Paris Commune was some kind of direct democracy, when it was actually a representative form of government), opposed any attempts to require the members of the General Council to be delegated by the member sections of the International, and expressly attacked the anarchists’ advocacy of direct democracy within the International at the 1872 Hague Congress, where they ridiculed the anarchists’ insistence that delegates follow the mandates given to them by the sections that had delegated them to attend the Congress. I review this history in some detail in ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement.


Selling Anarchism as Democracy

Essentially, the association of anarchism with democracy is a two-pronged rhetorical maneuver intended to increase the appeal of anarchism for mainstream publics. The first component of the maneuver is to latch onto the existing positive connotations that democracy carries in established political language. Instead of the negative (and false) image of anarchism as mindless and chaotic, a positive image is fostered by riding on the coattails of “democracy” as a widely-endorsed term in the mass media, educational system, and everyday speech. The appeal here is not to any specific set of institutions or decision-making procedures, but to the association of democracy with freedom, equality, and solidarity—to the sentiments that go to work when democracy is placed in binary opposition to dictatorship, and celebrated as what distinguishes the “free countries” of the West from other regimes.

Yet the second component of the maneuver is subversive: it seeks to portray current capitalist societies as not, in fact, democratic, since they alienate decision-making power from the people and place it in the hands of elites. This amounts to an argument that the institutions and procedures that mainstream audiences associate with democracy—government by representatives—are not in fact democratic, or at least a very pale and limited fulfilment of the values they are said to embody. True democracy, in this account, can only be local, direct, participatory, and deliberative, and is ultimately achievable only in a stateless and classless society. The rhetorical aim of the maneuver as a whole is to generate in the audience a sense of indignation at having been deceived: while the emotional attachment to “democracy” is confirmed, the belief that it actually exists is denied.

Now there are two problems with this maneuver, one conceptual and one more substantive. The conceptual problem is that it introduces a truly idiosyncratic notion of democracy, so ambitious as to disqualify almost all political experiences that fall under the common understanding of the term—including all electoral systems in which representatives do not have a strict mandate and are not immediately recallable. By claiming that current “democratic” regimes are in fact not democratic at all and that the only democracy worthy of the name is actually some version of an anarchist society, anarchists are asking people to reconfigure their understanding of democracy in a rather extreme way. While it is possible to maintain this new usage with logical coherence, it is nevertheless so rarefied and contrary to the common usage that its potential as a pivot for mainstream opinion is highly questionable.

an open question

an open question

The second problem is graver. While the association with democracy may seek to appeal only to its egalitarian and libertarian connotations, it also entangles anarchism with the patriotic nature of the pride in democracy which it seeks to subvert. The appeal is not simply to an abstract design for participatory institutions, but to participatory institutions recovered from the American revolutionary tradition. Bookchin (1985) is quite explicit about this, when he calls on anarchists to “start speaking in the vocabulary of the democratic revolutions” while unearthing and enlarging their libertarian content:

That [American] bourgeois past has libertarian features about it: the town meetings of New England. Municipal and local control, the American mythology that the less government the better, the American belief in independence and individualism. All these things are antithetical to a cybernetic economy, a highly centralized corporative economy and a highly centralized political system… I’m for democratizing the republic and radicalizing the democracy, and doing that on the grass roots level: that will involve establishing libertarian institutions which are totally consistent with the American tradition. We can’t go back to the Russian Revolution or the Spanish revolution any more. Those revolutions are alien to people in North America.

Cindy Milstein’s formulation in her article “Democracy is Direct” (Milstein 2000) works directly to fulfil this program by seeking to build on American origin myths:

Given that the United States is held up as the pinnacle of democracy, it seems particularly appropriate to hark back to those strains of a radicalized democracy that fought so valiantly and lost so crushingly in the American Revolution. We need to take up that unfinished project… Like all the great modern revolutions, the American Revolution spawned a politics based on face-to-face assemblies confederated within and between cities… Those of us living in the United States have inherited this self-schooling in direct democracy, even if only in vague echoes… deep-seated values that many still hold dear: independence, initiative, liberty, equality. They continue to create a very real tension between grassroots self-governance and top-down representation.

The appeal to the consensus view of the American polity as founded in a popular and democratic revolution, genuinely animated by freedom and equality, is precisely intended to target existing patriotic sentiments, even as it emphasises their subversive consequences. Milstein even invokes Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address when she criticises reformist agendas which “work with a circumscribed and neutralized notion of democracy, where democracy is neither of the people, by the people, nor for the people, but rather, only in the supposed name of the people.” Yet this is a dangerous move, since it relies on a self-limiting critique of the patriotic sentiment itself, and allows the foundation myths to which it appeals to remain untouched by critiques of manufactured collective identity and colonial exclusion. While noting the need not to whitewash the racial, gendered, and other injustices that were part of “the historic event that created this country,” Milstein can only offer an unspecific exhortation to “grapple with the relation between this oppression and the liberatory moments of the American Revolution.”

wells athenian democracy

Yet given that the appeal is targeted at non-anarchist participants, there is little if any guarantee that such a grappling would actually take place. The patriotic sentiment appealed to here is more often than not a component of a larger nationalist narrative, one that hardly partakes of a decolonial critique (which by itself would have many questions about the Western enlightenment roots of notions of citizenship and the public sphere). The celebration of democracy in terms that directly invoke the early days of the American polity may end up reinforcing rather than questioning loyalties to the nation-state that claims, however falsely, to be the carrier of the democratic inheritance of the colonial period. This is especially poignant in the context of the recent wave of mobilization, which displays precisely this mix of quintessentially anarchist-influenced means of organization and action, and distinctly patriotic and nationalist discourses—from the Egyptian revolution’s embrace of the military, through the Jeffersonian sentiments pervading the Occupy movement, and on to the outright nationalism of the Ukrainian revolution.

There is, indeed, one reason to question this concern—namely, the democratic and nationalist sentiments that have been expressed by movements with which anarchists have good reasons to sense an affinity. The most prominent of these are the struggles of communities in Chiapas linked to the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in southeast Mexico and the revolutionary movement in Rojava or Syrian Kurdistan. Both have not only employed the language of democracy to signify a decentralised and egalitarian form of society, but also an explicit agenda of national liberation. The Kurdish movement has publicly endorsed Bookchin as a source of inspiration. Does this mean that anarchists are wrong to maintain active solidarity with these movements? My answer is “No”—but due to a crucial difference that also vindicates the general argument above. It is not the same thing for stateless minorities in the global South to use the language of democracy and national liberation as it is for citizens of advanced capitalist countries in which national independence is already an accomplished fact. The former do not appeal to patriotic founding myths engendered by an existing nation state, with their associated privileges and injustices, but to the possibility of a different and untested form of radically decentralised and potentially stateless “national liberation.” To be sure, this carries its own risks, but anarchists in the global North are hardly in a position to preach on these matters.

Thus we return to the main point: for anarchists in the USA and Western Europe, at least, the choice to use the language of democracy is based on the desire to mobilize and subvert a form of patriotism that is ultimately establishment-friendly; it risks cementing the nationalist sentiments it seeks to undermine. Anarchists have always had a public image problem. Trying to undo it through the connection to mainstream democratic and nationalist sentiments is not worth this risk.

Uri Gordon



The URI to TrackBack this entry is: https://robertgraham.wordpress.com/2016/08/13/uri-gordon-is-anarchy-democracy/trackback/

RSS feed for comments on this post.

One CommentLeave a comment

  1. if, by democracy, it means the current, statist, form of “democracy” in which the masses put a cross on a bit of paper to elect a government, then obviously is not “democracy”. That was the sense Proudhon, Bakunin, etc. used the word — to elect an authority, in other words.

    But you are prefectly correct that Proudhon, Bakunin, etc. used words like democracy, republic, etc. to mean something else — namely self-managing associations and federations.

    I’m not sure the point of Uri’s article — if you discuss anarchist decision making then non-anarchists will probably conclude it is “democratic” in the sense that groups make decisions, usually by majority vote (or the minority stand aside in consensus, which is basically the same thing).

    There are issues with using terms in ways different to the mainstream but inventing new words is never a good idea — it will just sound like jargon to non-anarchists..

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: