Anarchy & Democracy: Bookchin, Malatesta & Fabbri

Anarchy: Neither Dictatorship Nor Democracy

With the overthrow of dictatorships in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt and the continuing struggle for freedom throughout the Middle East, questions regarding what alternatives are available naturally come to the fore. Anarchy is one alternative that deserves more serious consideration. Anarchist ideas that retain their relevance today include workers’ self-management, libertarian socialism, voluntary association, federalism, decentralization and  direct democracy, ideas that are discussed in detail by a variety of writers in all three volumes of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. On this page I have reproduced three posts on the general theme of anarchy and democracy by Murray Bookchin, Errico Malatesta and Luce Fabbri.

Murray Bookchin

Murray Bookchin (1921–2006) began publishing essays on anarchism and ecology in the mid-1960s (Volume 2, Selections 48 & 62). In the following essay, “On Neo-Marxism, Bureaucracy, and the Body Politic,” reprinted in Toward an Ecological Society (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1980), Bookchin sets forth an anarchist conception of politics in which people are empowered to take control of their daily lives and communities through directly democratic popular assemblies. Bookchin sought to transcend the class-based perspectives of both the Marxists and the anarcho-syndicalists by developing a libertarian conception of democracy which includes all members of the community regardless of their role in the productive process, similar to the “libertarian democracy” found in the collectives in the Spanish Revolution documented by Gaston Leval. Bookchin was very familiar with Leval’s work and wrote an excellent history of the pre-Revolution Spanish anarchist movement. Bookchin sought to transcend the simple dichotomy between society and the state expressed by some anarchists by setting forth a conception of a nonhierarchical political sphere that will survive the abolition of the state and provide people with the collective means of determining their own destinies. Noteworthy in this essay, given his later writings, is Bookchin’s unabashed anarchism.

Murray Bookchin: Beyond Neo-Marxism

To some neo-Marxists who see centralization and decentralization merely as a difference of degree, the word “centralization” may merely be an awkward way of denoting means for coordinating the decisions made by decentralized bodies. Marx it is worth noting, greatly confused this distinction when he praised the Paris Commune as a “working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time.”(1) In point of fact, the consolidation of “executive and legislative” functions in a single body was regressive. It simply identified the process of policy-making, a function that rightly should belong to the people in assembly, with the technical execution of these policies, a function that could be left to strictly administrative bodies subject to rotation, recall, limitations of tenure and, wherever possible, selection by sortition. Accordingly, the melding of policy formation with administration placed the institutional emphasis of classical socialism on centralized bodies, indeed, by an ironical twist of historical events, bestowing the privilege of formulating policy on the “higher bodies” of socialist hierarchies and their execution precisely on the more popular “revolutionary committees” below.

Similarly, the concept of “representation” intermingled with “direct democracy” serves to obscure the distinction between popular institutions which should decide policy and the “representative” institutions which should merely execute them. In this connection, Rousseau’s famous passage on the constitutive nature of a “people” in The Social Contract applies even more to the “mass society” of our times than the institutionally articulated one of his era. “Sovereignty, for the same reason that makes it inalienable, cannot be represented” Rousseau declares; “it lies essentially in the general will and will does not admit of representation: it is either the same or other; there is no intermediate possibility. The deputies of the people, therefore, are not and cannot be its representatives: they are merely its stewards, and can carry through no definitive acts. Every law the people has not ratified in person is null and void — is, in fact, not a law. The people of England regards itself as free: but it is grossly mistaken: it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing.” However problematical Rousseau’s concept of “general will” may be, quite aside from his archaic concept of “law,” the premises that underly it cannot be evaded: “… the moment a people allows itself to be represented, it is no longer free: it no longer exists.”(2)

It is precisely in terms of a “general will” more libertarian and individuated than any conceived by Rousseau that reveals the workers’ councils, soviets, and the Räte to be socially one-sided and potentially hierarchical. Councils may be popularly constituted, but they are not constitutive of a “public sphere.” As the locus of the decision-making process in society, they absorb within executive bodies the liberties that more appropriately belong to a clearly delineable body politic and thereby subvert institutions such as communes, cooperatives, and popular assemblies that indeed constitute a people and express a popular will. Councils, in effect, usurp the political subjectivity that should be shared by all in social forms that express the individual’s claim to social sovereignty. That Bolshevism recognized this possibility and later cynically exploited it is revealed by the emphasis Lenin placed on the factory as the social basis of the soviets. Here, indeed, a “proletarian public sphere,” to use Oscar Neckt’s phrase, was acknowledged and hypostasized—not as a truly democratic arena, but as the locus for a “proletarian public” that could be strategically deployed against the great mass of “unreliable” peasants whose villages comprised the authentic “public sphere” of revolutionary Russia.

But the factory, far from being the strongest aspect of the “proletarian public sphere” is, in fact, its most vulnerable. However much its social weight is reinforced by revolutionary shop committees and the most democratic forms of self-management, the factory is in no sense an autonomous social organism. Quite to the contrary, it is a particularly dependent one that can only function — indeed, exist — in conjunction with other factories and sources of raw materials. The Bolsheviks were to astutely use this very limitation of the factory to centralize the “proletarian public sphere” to a point where they were to remove the last vestigial remains of proletarian democracy: first, by employing the soviets to isolate the factory from its place in the local community; then, by shifting power from the community to the nation in the form of national congresses of soviets. The use of soviets to interlink the proletariat from factory to factory across the entire breadth of Russia, literally amputating it as a social stratum from any comprehensible roots in specific localities where it could function effectively, served to hopelessly delimit its powers and to rigorously centralize it. In the immense, national congresses of soviets staged annually during the revolutionary years, the Russian proletariat had lost all power over the soviets even before the authority of the congresses had been completely usurped by the Bolshevik party.

Quite likely, the centralization of the proletariat could have been achieved by the Bolsheviks in any case, without manipulating the soviet hierarchy. The very class nature of the proletariat, its existence as a creature of a national division of labour and its highly particularistic interests that rarely rise to the level of a general interest, belie Marx’s claims for its universality and its historic role as a revolutionary agent. These attributes, which hindsight clearly reveals today, explain the failure of all classical “proletarian revolutions” in the past. Neither the Paris Commune, which was really fought out by the last remnants of the traditional French sans culottes, nor the Spanish revolution, which was fought out by workers with rural roots, are exceptions…

If labour is the “steeling school” of the proletariat, as the young Marx was to emphasize, its locus, the factory, is a “school” based on “imperious, obedience,” as Engels was to add in later years — indeed, a “school” marked by the complete absence of “autonomy”(3)…

In whatever ways precapitalist societies differed from each other, they differed from capitalism in the fact that they were basically organic, richly articulated in forms and structures that were to be ultimately challenged and destroyed by bourgeois market relations. Even where the eye moves beyond the egalitarian world of the early human bands and clans, underlying all the bureaucratic and political formations that were to layer the surface of tribal, village, and guild-like societies were the extended families, tribal relationships, village structures, guilds, and even neighborhood associations that retained a subterranean autonomy of their own…

The most striking feature of the capitalist market is its ability to unravel this highly textured social structure, to invade and divest earlier social forms of their complexity of human relations. Even as capitalism seems to amplify the autonomy and claims of the individual, it does so by attenuating the content and structure of society. As Gemeinschaft theorists like Buber have pointed out:

“When we examine the capitalist society which has given birth to socialism, as a society, we see that it is a society inherently poor in structure and growing visibly poorer every day. By the structure of a society is to be understood its social content or community content: a society can be called structurally rich to the extent that it is built up of genuine societies, that is, local communes and trade communes and their step by step association. What Gierke says of the Co-operative Movement in the Middle Ages is true of every structurally rich society: it is ‘marked by a tendency to expand and extend the unions, to produce larger associations over and above the smaller associations, confederations over and above individual unions, all-embracing confederations over and above particular confederations.’ At whatever point we examine the structure of such a society we find the cell-tissue ‘Society’ everywhere, i.e. a living and life-giving collaboration, an essentially autonomous consociation of human beings, shaping and re-shaping itself from within. Society is naturally composed not of disparate individuals but of associative units and the associations between them.”

The capitalist economy and the centralized state “peculiar to it” begin to hollow out this highly articulated social structure until the modern “individualizing process” ends up as an atomizing process, a process that divests the individual of the social substance indispensable to individuality itself. Although the old organic forms retain “their outer stability, for the most part,” they become “hollow in sense and in spirit — a tissue of decay. Not merely what we call the ‘masses’ but the whole of society is in essence amorphous, unarticulated, poor in structure. Neither do those associations help which spring from the meeting of economic or spiritual interests — the strongest of which is the party: what there is of human intercourse in them is no longer a living thing, and the compensations for the lost community-forms we seek in them can be found in none. In the face of all this, which makes ‘society’ a contradiction in terms, the ‘utopian’ socialists have aspired more and more to a restructuring of society; not, as the Marxist critic thinks, in any romantic attempt to revive the stages of development that are over and done with, but rather in alliance with the decentralized counter-tendencies which can be perceived underlying all economic and social evolution, and in alliance with something that is slowly evolving in the human soul: the most intimate of all resistances — resistance to mass or collective loneliness”(4)…

To state the issue more broadly, the buyer-seller relationship of the market place, carried by the logic of the commodity relationship to the point of a market society, literally simplifies social life to the level of the inorganic… ecologically, the most significant problem we face today is not merely environmental pollution but environmental simplification. Capitalism is literally undoing the work of organic evolution. By creating vast urban agglomerations of concrete, metal, and glass, by turning soil into sand, by overriding and undermining highly complex ecosystems that yield local differences in the natural world — in short, by replacing a complex organic environment with a simplified inorganic one — market society is literally disassembling a biosphere that has supported humanity for countless millennia. In the course of replacing the complex ecological relationships, on which all complex living things depend, for more elementary ones, capitalism is restoring the biosphere to a stage where it will be able to support only simpler forms of life. If this great reversal of the evolutionary process continues, it is by no means fanciful to suppose that the preconditions for more complex forms of life will be irreparably destroyed and the earth will become incapable of supporting humanity itself.

This process of simplification, however, is by no means confined to ecology; it is also a social phenomenon, as sweeping in its implications for human history as it is for natural history. If the competitive nexus of market society, based on the maxim “grow or die” must literally simplify the organic world, so too must the reduction of all social relations to exchange relations literally simplify the social world. Divested of any content but the brute relationships of buying and selling, of homogenized, mass-produced objects that are created and consumed for their own sake, social form itself undergoes the attenuation of institutions based on mutual aid, solidarity, vocational affiliations, creative endeavour, even love and friendship. The “cell tissue ‘Society’” is thus reduced to the monadic ego; the extended family to the nuclear family and finally to disassociated sexual partners who enjoy neither the responsibilities of commitment nor emotional affinities but live in the vacuum of estranged intercourse and the insecurities of passionless indifference.

Indeed, the logic of market society is the market qua society: the emergence of objects, of commodities, as the materialization of all social relationships. No longer are we simply confronted with the “fetishization” of commodities or the alienation of labour, but rather with the erosion of consociation as such, the reduction of people to the very isolated objects they produce and consume. Capitalism, in dissolving virtually every viable form of community association, installs the isolated ego as its nuclear social form, just as clans, families, polis, guilds, and neighborhoods once comprised the nuclear social forms of precapitalist society.

Social regression on this scale imparts a new function to bureaucracy. Under capitalism, today, bureaucratic institutions are not merely systems of social control; they are literally institutional substitutes for social form. They comprise the skeletal framework of a society that, as Greek social thought would have emphasized, edges on inherent disorder. How ever much market society may advance productive forces, it takes its historic revenge not only in the rationalization it inflicts on society, but the destruction it inflicts on the highly articulated social relations that once provided the springboard for a viable social opposition. The most disturbing feature of modern bureaucracy is not merely the coercion and control it imposes on society, but the extent to which it is literally constitutive of modern society: the extent to which it validates itself as the realm of “order” against the chaos of social dissolution. Just as the ancient city — its temples, gardens, political institutions, and well-cultivated environs — represented human order as against the ever-menacing encroachment of natural “disorder,” so bureaucracy emerges as the structural sinews and bones that sustain the dissolving, decaying flesh of market society. Precapitalist societies have resisted or simply side-stepped bureaucratic formations that were imposed upon them with the highly articulated internal life they developed on their own or inherited from the past. Capitalism becomes bureaucratized to its very marrow precisely because the market can never provide society with an internal life of its own.

This fact expresses both the possibilities of bureaucracy as a social infrastructure and its historical limits. The very anonymity of bureaucracy reveals the authority of the system over personality, of the social framework over its “personnel.” The ease with which Stalinism reproduced itself structurally as a grotesque persistence of bureaus amidst a chronic execution of bureaucrats is testimony to a total depersonalization of social control today — the appalling asociality that bourgeois society finally achieves in its mythic “socialization” of humanity. Together with the “denaturing” of humanity, capitalism creates a synthetic society so completely divested of organic attributes that its social relations are literally mineralized into objects. The bureaucrat is truly faceless because he or she has no protoplasmic existence; the depraved notion that administrative decision-making can be taken over by computers and public expression by electronic media — a notion seriously considered as a step in the direction of “direct democracy” by theoretically sophisticated radical groups like the French Situationists, not only zany science-fiction “utopians” — increasingly renders the flesh-and-blood bureaucrat and citizen an anachronism. As in Platonic metaphysics, the immediate world of perception becomes the imperfect, transient “copy” of an eidos that transcends the uncertain and chaotic materiality of life itself. If bureaucracy represents the culmination of social order, capitalism totally belies the historic destiny Marx imputed to it as the means for universalizing humanity and providing it with the means for controlling its own destiny. Bureaucracy, as a system perfected to the point of voiceless depersonalization, now represents a mute society even more divested of self-articulation than “mute nature.” In the structureless void to which capitalism has reduced society, the public realm literally becomes a public space, public only in the sense that it is occupied by interlinking bureaus. Flow diagrams and systems theory become the language of corporate entities that, lacking even the presence of the lusty “robber barons,” consist of objects moving through depersonalized agencies. The homeostasis of these corporate entities depends not upon personal judgments but the corrective power of deviations. Contemporary language unerringly calls this “feedback,” “input,” and “output,” not discourse, dialogue or judgment.

There is a moral that must be drawn from this massive regression to the inorganic: capitalism has not performed the historic function of “disembedding” humanity from nature. Over and beyond the haunting power of archaic tradition over the present is an “embeddedness in nature” itself… that found expression in the organic consociation of human beings: initially, a consociation expressed in clannic ties, a sexual division of labour, the eminence of the elders, and a “nature idolatry” that slowly cemented human ties into ever-expansive forms of association. Doubtless, these were primarily biological facts, not social; organic, not synthetic. But the price humanity has paid for its socialization — for the “denaturalization” of blood groups into territorial units, tribes into towns, and the stranger into citizenship — has taken the form of capitalism, a rapacious society that has carried through human socialization by “tearing down all the barriers which hem in the development of the forces of production, the expansion of needs, the all-sided development of production, and the exploitation and exchange of natural and material forces.”(5)

If it is true, as Jeremy Shapiro has argued, that for Marx capitalism creates the conditions for removing human beings from their “immersion” in archaic traditions and in nature by “(1) setting abstract labour free as a force of production through the process in which labour creates its own conditions, and (2) freeing individuals from their identification with particular social roles allotted to them by the social division of labour…,” it is no less true that capitalism removes them from organic nature only to “reembed” them in inorganic nature.(6) It removes them from a “concrete labour” that knows nature in all its wealth of forms and immerses them in an abstract labour that knows only abstract matter; it removes them from their personal identification with a social division of labour by divesting them of the very subjective apparatus required for personality. Although capitalism may seem to free labour as a force of production in the organic sphere, it enslaves it to the inorganic, transporting it from the world of living materiality to the world of dead materiality. Capitalism may have freed humanity from the archaic “idolatry of nature,” but it did so only by committing humanity to the modern idolatry of quantity. In Marxism itself, it may well be that the present releases the hold of the archaic past on itself, but the present holds the past captive to fictive conceptions of history that divest human consociation of all human attributes but “interest,” “productive power,” domination, and the values of the bourgeois Enlightenment conceived as a project of rationalization and control.

If the “dialectic of history,” as Shapiro tells us, is to be “resolved through completion of the self-transcendence of nature that occurs when embeddedness in nature is overcome and human beings bring the historical process under control,” then this “control” must involve the re-absorption of nature into society as a “retribalized” humanity in which the archaic solidarity based on kinship is replaced by free choice of association, shared concerns, and love.(7) Communes, cooperatives, and assemblies — in fact, new poleis — must replace the poverty of social forms created by the void we call “capitalism.” Let there be no mistake about the fact that we are never “disembedded” from nature. Indeed, it has never been a question of whether we were “embedded” in nature or not, but rather the kind of nature we have always been “embedded” in — organic or inorganic, ecological or physical, real or mythic, whole or one-sided, subjectivized or “mindless.” Only the absence of a nature philosophy that reveals the natural history of mind from the very inception of the organic world to the present, a philosophy that can reveal the changing gradations of a natural dialectic into a social [dialectic], that can relate the realm of “instrumental action” to “communicative” [action], and ultimately human society with nature as the voice of a “mute nature” resubjectivized by human consciousness —only by virtue of this lacuna in the interface between nature and society is it possible to speak of “disembeddedness” in disregard of the meaning of a truly organic society.

Today, any meaningful project for the reconstruction of a revolutionary theory and practice must take its point of departure from three basic premises: the reconstitution of the “cell tissue ‘Society’” in the physical sense of the term, as a body politic, that is bereft of the institutions of delegated authority; the abolition of domination in all its forms — not merely economic exploitation; and the obvious precondition for the latter achievement, the abolition of hierarchy in all its forms — not merely social classes. The reductionist attitude of Marx that defines a body politic in the ambiguous terms of a “public sphere,” of domination in terms of economic exploitation, and hierarchy in terms of economic classes, masks and dissolves the differences between these concepts. That we could easily achieve a “public sphere” that professes to be free of class rule and economic exploitation, yet is riddled by patriarchy, bureaucracy, and a system of ruled and ruler based on professional, ethnic, and age differences, is painfully evident if we are to judge from the experiences of the “socialist orbit.” To speak to the needs of an organic society — the formation of an authentic body politic and a socially active citizenry — is to restore society as genuine “cell tissue.” Society, in effect, must become a body politic in the literal sense that the citizen must be physically in control of the social process, a living presence in the formation and execution of social policy.

Rousseau is only too accurate in recognizing that a body politic, divested of embodiment as a citizen assembly, is the negation of a people. The term “people” has no meaning if it lacks the institutional structure for exhibiting its physical presence and imparting to that presence a decisive social meaning — if it cannot assemble to debate, formulate, and decide the policies that shape social life. To the degree that the formulation of these policies is removed by mediated and delegated institutions, from the face-to-face decision-making process of the people in assembly, to that degree is the people subverted as the only authentic constitutive force of social life and society, vested in the sovereignty of the few, reduced to an abstraction, an unpeopled “public sphere” or a mere “public space.” Underlying every enterprise for the dissolution of the body politic into the faceless sovereignty of delegated authority is the hidden belief in an “elect” that is alone endowed with the capacity to rule and command. Ultimately, this view amounts to a denial of the human potentiality for self-management, to the spark within every individual to achieve the powers of social wisdom that a privileged few claim for themselves. That circumstances, be they resolved into the denial of education, free time, access to culture, and even an enlightened familial background, not to speak of material and occupational circumstances, have concealed this spark to the “masses” themselves is no argument for the fact that social life, particularly as it concerns the individual, could be otherwise.

Delegated authority, in effect, not only negates a people but the claims of selfhood… underlying the notion of popular self-management… [A] society that professes to be based on self-management is inconceivable without self-activity. Indeed, revolution can be defined as the most advanced form of self-activity, as direct action raised to a level where the land, the factories, indeed the very streets, are directly taken over by the autonomous people. In the absence of this level of activity, social consciousness remains mere mass consciousness that can easily be manipulated by hierarchies. Delegated authority vitiates the individuation of the “masses” into self-conscious beings who can take direct, unmediated control of society into their own hands. It denies not only the constitution of a “public sphere” into a body politic, but the individual into a social agent — into a “citizen” in the Athenian sense of the term.

We live today under the tyranny of a present that is often more oppressive than the past… Our social “models” for freedom have been the Russian Revolution and the so-called “revolutions” of the Third Word, of the councils, soviets, and shop committees that are so seductive to many neo-Marxists as forms of social administration…

It is ironic that we must turn to John Stuart Mill, rather than his socialist contemporaries, for an insightful evaluation of how direct participation in social life and the development of selfhood mutually reinforce each other to form the civic virtues and commitments of the citizen — that make active citizenship the highest expression of selfhood. The defects of Athenian democracy notwithstanding, the practices of the dicastery and popular assemblages, Mill was to observe, “raised the intellectual standard of an average Athenian citizen far beyond anything of which there is yet an example in any other mass of men, ancient or modern.” The Athenian citizen was obliged “to weigh interests not his own; to be guided, in case of conflicting claims, by another rule than his private partialities; to apply, at every turn, principles and maxims which have for their reason of existence the common good…” He accordingly found himself associated “in the same work with minds more familiarized than his own with these ideas and operations” which supplied “reason to his understanding and stimulation to his feeling for the general interest.”(8)

Hannah Arendt was to formulate this educative process — an integral feature of what the Greeks called paideia, the spiritual forming of the individual — as an “enlarged mentality” that renders authentic judgment possible.(9) The polis was not only an end but a means that made political practice (“participation” is a feeble term) a mode of self-formation. At this level, a people not merely arrives at a “general interest” but begins to transcend “interest” as such…

Endowed with this [enlarged] mentality, “even when I shun all company or am completely isolated while forming an opinion, I am not simply together only with myself in the solitude of philosophic thought,” Arendt observes, “I remain in this world of mutual interdependence where I can make myself the representative of everyone else. To be sure, I can refuse to do this and form an opinion that takes only my own interest, or the interests of the group to which I belong, into account… But the very quality of an opinion as of a judgment depends upon its degree of impartiality.”(10) “Impartiality” must be taken literally if Arendt’s point is to have meaning — as a condition that rises above the “partial,” or one-sided, and the “partiality” of a predetermined commitment. The emergence of a “general interest” is, in effect, the abolition of the “partiality” of a self rooted in “interest” and in a one-sided society.

It is a truism that “opinion” and judgment so formed have material preconditions and a historical background that has received sufficient emphasis not to require discussion here. Arendt’s “enlarged mentality” must emerge from a terrain that is materially incompatible with the formation of “class interest” and its ideological expression as “class consciousness.” But once these material preconditions are emphasized, we must add that a “proletarian public sphere” is an anachronism because the proletariat as a proletariat, as the fictive expression of a public sphere, is an “interest” that opposes the universalization and abolition of “interest” and the formation of a public. It is not accidental that Marx follows in the wake of bourgeois reality by denuding the proletariat of the social and personal forms without which it cannot develop its public existence as part of a universalized humanity. Marx’s writings “hollow out” the proletariat as ruthlessly as capitalism hollows out the “cell tissue ‘Society’”. Just as abstract labour confronts abstract matter, so abstract classes confront each other in a conflict of “interests” that exists beyond their will or even their clear comprehension. That Marx conceives the proletariat as a category of political economy — as the “owner” of labour power, the object of exploitation by the bourgeoisie, and a creature of the factory system — reflects and ideologizes its actual one-sided condition under capitalism as a “productive force,” not as a revolutionary force. Marx leaves us in no doubt about this conception. As the class that is most completely dehumanized, the proletariat transcends its dehumanized condition and comes to embody the human totality “through urgent, no longer disguisable, absolutely imperative need…” Accordingly: “The question is not what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat at the moment considers as its aim. The question is what the proletariat is, and what, consequent on that being, it will be compelled to do.”(11) (The emphasis throughout is Marx’s and provides a telling commentary on his de-subjectivization of the proletariat.) I will leave aside the rationale that this formula provides for an elitist organization. For the present, it is important to note that Marx, following the tradition of classical bourgeois political economy, totally objectifies the proletariat and removes it as a true subject. The revolt of the proletariat, even its humanization, ceases to be a human phenomenon; rather, it becomes a function of inexorable economic laws and “imperative need.” The essence of the proletariat as proletariat is its non-humanity, its creature nature as the product of “absolutely imperative need” — of brute “interest.” Its subjectivity falls within the category of harsh necessity, explicable in terms of economic law. The psychology of the proletariat, in effect, is political economy.

The real proletariat resists this reduction of its subjectivity to the product of need and lives increasingly within the realm of desire, of the possibility to become other than it is. Concretely, the worker resists the work ethic because it has become irrational in view of the possibilities for a non-hierarchical society. The worker, in this sense, transcends her or his creature nature and increasingly becomes a subject, not an object; a non-proletarian, not a proletarian. Desire, not merely need, possibility, not merely necessity, enter into her or his self-formation and self-activity. The worker begins to shed her or his status of workerness, her or his existence as a mere class being, as an object of economic forces, as mere “being,” and becomes increasingly available to the development of an “enlarged mentality.”

As the human essence of the proletariat begins to replace its factory essence, the worker can now be reached as easily outside the factory as in it. Concretely, the worker’s aspect as a woman or man, as a parent, as an urban dweller, as a youth or elderly person, as a victim of environmental decay, as a dreamer (the list is nearly endless), comes increasingly to the foreground. The factory walls become permeable to the development of an “enlarged mentality” to the degree that personal and broadly social concerns begin to compete with the worker’s “proletarian” concerns and values. No “workers group” can become truly revolutionary unless it deals with the individual worker’s human aspirations, unless it helps to de-alienate the worker’s personal milieu and begins to transcend the worker’s factory milieu. It is indeed doubtful that, in the event of truly revolutionary change, workers will want to control production and bask in the glories of an economy based on “worker’s control.” They will probably want to alter production, indeed sever society’s technical commitment to the factory as such. This kind of working class will become revolutionary not in spite of itself but because of itself, literally as a result of its awakening selfhood…

If we are not merely at the end of capitalism but at the end of “civilization” as Fourier might have observed — of hierarchy and domination — it is not enough to speak any longer of class and exploitation but rather of rank as such at the most molecular levels of human consociation…

A new “revolutionary subject” exists in the social vacuum left by society and the centralized power at its summits. The system turns everyone against it — be it the conservationist or the small struggling entrepreneur, the worker or the intellectual, women, blacks, aged, or the seemingly privileged suburbanite. The denuding of the individual from “brothers” and “sisters” into “citizens” and finally “taxpayers” expresses the common lot of every individual who is burdened by a terrifying sense of powerlessness that is so easily mistaken for apathy. Bureaucracy can never blanket this open, unoccupied social domain. This domain can eventually be filled by neighborhood assemblies, cooperatives, popular societies, and affinity groups that are spawned by an endless array of social ills — above all, decentralized groups that form a counterweight and a radicalizing potential to the massive centralization and concentration of social power in an era of state capitalism…

The simplification of the “social problem” into issues like the restoration of local power, the increasing hatred of bureaucratic control, the silent resistance to manipulation on the everyday level of life holds the only promise of a new “revolutionary subject” on which resistance and eventually revolution can be based. It is to these issues that revolutionary theory must address itself, and it is to a reinstitutionalization of a conscious body politic that revolutionary practice must direct its efforts.

Murray Bookchin, April 1978


1. Karl Marx: “The Civil War in France,” Selected Works, Vol. II (Progress Publishers, 1969), p. 220.

2. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Social Contract (Everyman Edition, 1959), pp. 94, 96. Rousseau’s influence on Hannah Arendt is almost as great as Aristotle’s. Compare these remarks with Arendt’s in On Revolution (Viking Press, 1965), pp. 239-40.

3. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: The Holy Family (Progress Publishers, 1956), pp. 52-53; Frederick Engels: “On Authority” in Marx, Engels, Lenin: Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism (International Publishers, 1972), p. 102.

4. Martin Buber: Paths in Utopia (Beacon Press, 1958), pp. 13-14 [see Anarchism, Volume Two, Selection 16].

5. Karl Marx: Grundrisse (Random House, 1973), p. 410.

6. Jeremy J. Shapiro: “The Slime of History,” in On Critical Theory, ed. J O’Neill, (Seabury Press), pp. 147-48.

7. Ibid, p. 149.

8. John Stuart Mill: Considerations on Representative Government (World Classics Edition, 1948), pp. 196-98.

9. Hannah Arendt: “Truth and Politics” in Philosophy, Politics and Society (edited by Peter Laslett and W.G. Runciman (Blackwell & Co., 1967), p. 115.

10. Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” Op. cit., p. 115.

11. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: The Holy Family, op. cit., pp. 52-53.

Errico Malatesta

Errico Malatesta: Democracy and Anarchy

The most recent protests and military massacres in Egypt, in the midst of “democratic elections,” bring to mind the differences between democratic reforms and social revolution. In the following piece from 1924, Errico Malatesta, while agreeing that democracy is preferable to dictatorship, offers an anarchist critique of democracy, and explains why anarchy is better. As with Kropotkin in his 1919 Postscript to Words of a Rebel, Malatesta emphasizes that for the social revolution and anarchy to succeed, anarchists must offer practical solutions to the urgent problems that confront the people.

Democracy and Anarchy

The rampant dictatorial governments in Italy, Spain and Russia, which arouse such envy and longing among the more reactionary and timid parties across the world, are supplying dispossessed ‘democracy’ with a sort of new virginity. Thus we see the creatures of the old regimes, well-accustomed to the wicked art of politics, responsible for repression and massacres of working people, re-emerging — where they do not lack the courage — and presenting themselves as men of progress, seeking to capture the near future in the name of liberation. And, given the situation, they could even succeed.

There is something to be said for the criticisms made of democracy by dictatorial regimes, and the way they expose the vices and lies of democracy. And I remember that anarchist, Hermann Sandomirski, a Bolshevik fellow-traveller with whom we had bittersweet contact at the time of the Geneva conference, and who is now trying to couple Lenin with Bakunin, no less; I say I remember Sandomirski who, in order to defend the Russian regime, dragged out his Kropotkin to demonstrate that democracy is not the best imaginable form of social structure. His method of reasoning, as a Russian, put me in mind and I think I told him so — of the reasoning made by some of his compatriots when, in response to the indignation of the civilised world at the Tsar’s stripping, flogging and hanging of women, they argued that if men and women were to have equal rights they should also accept equal responsibilities. Those supporters of prison and the scaffold remembered the rights of women only when they could serve as a pretext for new outrages! Thus dictatorships oppose democratic governments only when they discover that there is a form of government which leaves even greater room for despotism and tyranny for those who manage to seize power.

For me there is no doubt that the worst of democracies is always preferable, if only from the educational point of view, than the best of dictatorships. Of course democracy, so-called government of the people, is a lie; but the lie always slightly binds the liar and limits the extent of his arbitrary power. Of course the ‘sovereign people’ is a clown of a sovereign, a slave with a papier-maché crown and sceptre. But to believe oneself free, even when one is not, is always better than to know oneself to be a slave, and to accept slavery as something just and inevitable.

Democracy is a lie, it is oppression and is in reality, oligarchy: that is, government by the few to the advantage of a privileged class. But we can still fight it in the name of freedom and equality, unlike those who have replaced it or want to replace it with something worse.

We are not democrats for, among other reasons, democracy sooner or later leads to war and dictatorship. Just as we are not supporters of dictatorships, among other things, because dictatorship arouses a desire for democracy, provokes a return to democracy, and thus tends to perpetuate a vicious circle in which human society oscillates between open and brutal tyranny and a false and lying freedom.

So, we declare war on dictatorship and war on democracy. But what do we put in their place?

Not all democrats are like those described above — hypocrites who are more or less aware that in the name of the people they wish to dominate the people and exploit and oppress them.

There are many, especially among the young republicans, who have a serious belief in democracy and see it as the means of obtaining full and complete freedom of development for all. These are the young

people we should like to disabuse, persuade not to mistake an abstraction, ‘the people’, for the living reality, which is men and women with all their different needs, passions and often contradictory aspirations.

It is not the intention here to repeat our critique of the parliamentary system and all the means thought up to have deputies who really do represent the will of the people; a critique which, after fifty years of anarchist propaganda is at last accepted and even repeated by those writers who most affect to despise our ideas (e.g. Political Science by Senator Gaetano Mosca).

We will limit ourselves to inviting our young friends to use greater precision of language, in the conviction that once the phrases are dissected they themselves will see how vacuous they are.

‘Government of the people’ no, because this presupposes what could never happen — complete unanimity of will of all the individuals that make up the people.

It would be closer to the truth to say, ‘government of the majority of the people.’ This implies a minority that must either rebel or submit to the will of others.

But it is never the case that the representatives of the majority of the people are all of the same mind on all questions; it is therefore necessary to have recourse again to the majority system and thus we will get closer still to the truth with: ‘government of the majority of the elected by the majority of the electors.’

Which is already beginning to bear a strong resemblance to minority government.

Anarchists in London

And if one then takes into account the way in which elections are held, how the political parties and parliamentary groupings are formed and how laws are drawn up and voted and applied, it is easy to understand what has already been proved by universal historical experience: even in the most democratic of democracies it is always a small minority that rules and imposes its will and interests by force. Therefore, those who really want ‘government of the people’ in the sense that each can assert his or her own will, ideas and needs, must ensure that no one, majority or minority, can rule over others; in other words, they must abolish government, meaning any coercive organisation, and replace it with the free organisation of those with common interests and aims.

This would be very simple if every group and individual could live in isolation and on their own, in their own way, supporting themselves independently of the rest, supplying their own material and moral needs.

But this is not possible, and if it were, it would not be desirable because it would mean the decline of humanity into barbarism and savagery.

If they are determined to defend their own autonomy, their own liberty, every individual or group must therefore understand the ties of solidarity that bind them to the rest of humanity, and possess a fairly developed sense of sympathy and love for their fellows, so as to know how voluntarily to make those sacrifices essential to life in a society that brings the greatest possible benefits on every given occasion.

But above all it must be made impossible for some to impose themselves on, and sponge off, the vast majority by material force.

Let us abolish the gendarme, the man armed in the service of the despot, and in one way or another we shall reach free agreement, because without such agreement, free or forced, it is not possible to live.

But even free agreement will always benefit most those who are intellectually and technically prepared. We therefore recommend to our friends and those who truly wish the good of all, to study the most urgent problems, those that will require a practical solution the very day that the people shake off the yoke that oppresses them.

Pensiero e Volontà, March 1924

(English translation by Gillian Fleming and Vernon Richards, from Errico Malatesta, The Anarchist Revolution: Polemical Articles 1924-1931, Freedom Press, 1995).

Luce Fabbri

Luce Fabbri (1908-2000) was an Italian born anarchist writer who spent most of her life in Uruguay, where her family eventually emigrated after being forced to flee Fascist Italy. Her father was the great anarchist critic of fascism and totalitarianism, Luigi Fabbri (Volume One, Selection 113). Luce Fabbri experienced dictatorship both in Italy and, for a time, Uruguay. In the following excerpts from her article, “More on the Matter of Democracy,” translated by Paul Sharkey, she argues that anarchy and democracy are not incompatible, but that anarchy represents a further step forward in the struggle for human liberation.

Luce Fabbri: From Democracy to Anarchy

Anarchists are the eternal opposition: it will always be their task to combat governments and they must never consider mounting opposition from the governing heights. They are the vanquished of history as commonly understood and yet, with every added dose of freedom and fairness, they score little victories, but are never happy with that victory and are forever winding up in jail. Their ideal is forever “on the horizon” as [Eduardo] Colombo so pungently puts it in a recent article (“Anarchy is the horizon rather than the end of history”, in Volontá, 1982, No. 2, p. 98). And we know that the horizon is the immeasurable circumference of which we are the centre and which changes position the moment we change ours. Embracing this way of thinking about anarchism is the precondition for any realistic view of our position and our task in the changing times in which we do and are destined to live…

Democracy and anarchy are not mutually contradictory but the one represents an advance upon the other. In fact, there is no diametrical opposition between the rights of the majority upon which democracy is built and the free consent that is characteristic of libertarian solutions; the difference is, instead, a difference of degree, since we see the point as trying to manage conflicts through tolerance, acknowledgment of the rights of the minority and of individuals, federal coordination and freedom of initiative. But the obsession with avoiding the violent ascendancy of the minority is one that we all share. And the traditional democratic mentality in the broadest sense always represents a defence against that danger…

[D]emocracies are particularly vulnerable, precisely because they persist in having power as their organizing factor.  The telling factor in the initial defeat of Franco (which is to say, up until all the governments lined up, through action or omission, against the Spanish people) was the anarchists who naturally formed the backbone of popular spontaneity. They operated more or less well outside the parameters of democratic institutions, except at the point when CNT representatives took their places in the government, something they deemed necessary on account of the desperate needs of the war, but a move made in knowing contravention of their own principles and looked upon more as a defeat than as a victory. And, beyond the narrow parameters of democracy, they so successfully breathed life into their revolution that it took the combination of a totalitarian stab in the back plus the onslaught of Franco’s armies, abetted by half of Europe, plus the complicit indifference of the other half, for it to be crushed. But all of this was feasible thanks to the organizing, propaganda, idea and program-generating efforts (Congress of Zaragoza [Volume One, Selection 124]) made against a democratic backdrop prior to July 1936. And it all began that July 19th with the anarchists rallying to the defence of basic freedoms alongside all the other antifascist forces against the rebel army. For us, the advantage of democracy, however limited, is precisely the fact that defence of certain facets of it (against a totalitarian regime) does not imply indiscriminately buying into the whole package…

Those who figure that all State-based regimes… are substantially the same, look upon anyone prepared to draw distinctions and operate in accordance with them as espousing a reformist line, defined as a readiness to adapt to existing society, a retreat to superseded positions on the basis of a convenient, pragmatic approach to the “lesser evil“. Now, where I myself am concerned at any rate, this is anything but the case. It is a matter of occupying what spaces there are that are still free (and which must, with our help, be kept free) in order to nurture an overhaul that should start with ourselves and then radiate out from us, placing all problems on a new footing, breaking with the authority and violence which are characteristic of the world today. It is a matter of rediscovering that all men are brothers and equals, though not the same, that their lives are dependent on one another, that each one has his own personal world to defend: it is a matter of not recognizing the power (be it political or economic) of one man over another, in a context changing faster than the human mind can keep pace with. Man himself does not change as readily as he can change the things surrounding him, and in the turmoil a diffuse violence surfaces, ideas become confused and the unwary individual, fearing that there is worse to come, surrenders to the omnipotence of the State the way he once would have surrendered to the omnipotence of God. This is a slippery slope that leads to the abyss. In order to resist, one has to act and one has to be constructive: at the same time, one has to be familiar with this incandescent world, a participant in its lightning quick process of change, and one has to do so from as autonomous a position as possible. The situation is such as to require a new mind-set if the species is to survive, a mind-set that is not tied to traditional models. And, for a start, we have to break out of the vicious circle of violence that cries out for further violence and which is always authoritarian. In a society like this, that means embracing whatever there is in this world that is neither violent nor authoritarian and making that the starting point for a libertarian-inclined future by breathing a new spirit into it…

Now, the creative fight against the state has become a very complicated affair, due to the huge array of agencies hitched to the machinery of state which (however poorly) oversees social welfare, health care, meteorological services, the struggle against pollution, the distribution of power and drinking water supplies, the organization of transport services, postal services, telegraph communications, telephone services, radio and television services, schooling for all, retirement schemes… Socializing all of this without undue bureaucratization and ensuring that nothing falls into private hands, or, worse still, into the hands of agencies or parties that might use them in order to exercise power, is a difficult undertaking requiring not just the strength that flows from consensus and the power of numbers, but also proficiency in every one of those spheres (not to mention a good sprinkling of patience and tolerance, which goes without saying, but the Spanish revolution has shown these to be eminently revolutionary qualities). It involves an effort to decentralize along federal lines a mechanism with which one needs to be comprehensively familiar and that prior to the advent of any opportunity to tinker with it.

Now, decentralization of utilities, the struggle to have grassroots forces take them in hand, are feasible only in a democratic society and represent positive partial goals, even should these be “reformist”. And, let me say it again, they require specific competencies. Which brings us back to the theme of education again. One can only transform that with which one has a familiarity and the tools of transformation are becoming increasingly complex, so complex that the present generation is even now losing out in terms of affective life. Ignorance is no defence for us against what Alvin Toffler has termed “Futureshock“. Mankind can grapple with that only if it ceases being a mass and if every individual comes into his own and familiarizes himself with the world around him so that he can devise his own, individual response. And at present this can only be achieved through knowledge and conscious collaboration with his fellows. I figure that libertarian socialism (however little self-awareness and however much unselfconsciousness there may be) is the only thing that can occupy that ground today…

It is not exactly a matter of being a supporter of this or that state (East versus West, North against South, industrialized nations versus the Third World etc., etc.). It can happen, and in fact is a certainty, that, as someone once said, there is more of a revolutionary mind-set in Poland than in some democratic states. All I am saying is that among the demands made by [the Polish independent trade union movement] Solidarity in a struggle dear in terms of sweat and blood, there are many which are already extant, albeit imperfect and in peril, in countries more or less governed by democracy. It is to be desired that the yearning for socialism should not disappear from the struggle for freedom. Should it disappear, the fault will lie, not with democracy but with the totalitarian rule that has emblazoned a phony socialism on its banner, barring the way to genuine socialism. So it is not a matter of “playing the democratic card” and repeating [Alexander] Solzhenitsyn’s tragic mistake (albeit that Solzhenitsyn is no socialist). The point is, and I apologize for repeating myself here, not to defend a democratic system but rather to defend the fundamental freedoms existing within it from the assaults from totalitarian forces and, under their aegis, bolster all collective bodies not linked to the state or which are susceptible to a process of de-statification, decentralization in a libertarian and socialist sense (hence the focus I think there should be on cooperatives, for all their shortcomings, and my advocacy of participation in trade union activity at grassroots levels). More important still is creative activity in this sphere: urban communities, rural collectives, operationally coordinated neighbourhood groups, etc.

Plainly I will meet objections to the effect that we should not be relying on a mentality other than our own, but rather trying to turn it libertarian. Naturally we will never give up on our efforts at persuasion and we should never be slow to set an example (which carries more weight but is also harder to do). But — aside from the party political game and the powers-that-be — the democratic mind-set is, after all, not that far removed from our own. What divides us is the apocalyptical insurrectionism of one segment of our movement on the one hand, and, on the other, people’s faith in the traditions of representative democracy, essentially in the ballot-box, two hurdles that have been losing their impact (voting having lost much of its credibility).

In any event, since the essence of the libertarian mind-set is tolerance and since we represent a minority force, our relations with others are dictated by how much or how little affinity there is between us. So I believe that our starting-point and the focus of our efforts are located among the masses who regard themselves as democrats. We should aim to socialize and federalize democracy and turn it into a direct, socialist democracy. Surrender to the State does not come into it. Our role is to represent the anti-statist axis. Which is a difficult role to fill unless we get away from the simplistic view of the all or nothing, “pull it out by the roots!” approach, but it is worth the effort. It is an ongoing vocation that does not hold out the prospect of “total” victory, but is worthwhile for all that.

Revolution is a magical word, one of which we ought to be mistrustful, as we should be of all magic. But it is a cherished term not yet ready to be consigned to the archives. But we need to be careful about how it is used. And, above all, I think it should never be used as a synonym for “insurrection”. I count myself a revolutionary. But as I see it, revolution is thoroughgoing change in consciousnesses and in things. I think the big mistake is to think that it should necessarily happen first in the realm of things. Out of this latter belief comes the very significant role assigned in the revolution to the act of insurrection which readjusts the power relationships. Sometimes that insurrection fails to materialize and sometimes it comes later, after the change has taken place and the situation has reached a breaking point, triggering violent resistance from wounded interests and thereby rendering counter-violence inevitable. Thus the insurrectionist phase was not present in the Spanish revolution… it was the outcome of a reactionary, conservative insurrection. From which revolution ensued, it being ripe in people’s minds and indeed in the reconstruction plans of the CNT unions, which were the strongest ones.

In actual fact, no change is of any value and endures unless it is the product of a sufficiently widespread determination. The more widely shared the determination, the less violent and thus less authoritarian the change. Far from adapting to capitalist democracy, such a revolutionary determination wants to reach the deepest recesses and is not content with “reforms”… Let us take note — at the risk of stating the obvious — that… someone who does not reject power can achieve nothing in terms of the creative: he may win through the insurrection or the coup d’état, but he will lose the revolution by dint of the very exercise of power, and the more absolute his power, the more radically will he be defeated…

What is to become of socialism? It has a saviour role to fulfill in today’s world, but can only perform it through a freedom devoid of compromises with the State, which is to say, where independent trade unions and cooperatives can be organized that shift basic control of production and consumption into different hands. And here, by way of conclusion, let us return to the core argument of this essay as indicated by its title: democracy. The… [1956] Hungarian revolution was made in the name of factory councils, the agencies of a free trade unionism, and was crushed by a totalitarianism characterized by, among other things, state-controlled trade unionism. Where the right to strike is non-existent, where economic power and the police are in the same hands, all creative endeavour along socialist lines becomes desperately hard and the only thing possible is rebellion in order to secure that essential space which, albeit imperfectly and at the cost of much strife, survives in countries where basic freedoms have not been done away with. The fact is that only by moving onward can man save himself: but it is equally a fact that no forward movement is possible unless he manages to hold on to what he has achieved.

Revista Anarchica, No. 104 (1983)

Published on January 13, 2012 at 12:02 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] Malatesta, Errico. 1924. Demokrati och anarki, trans. Gillian Fleming och Vernon Richards. I Den anarkistiska revolutionen: Polemiska artiklar 1931 – 1937 (London: Freedom, 1995). (Uppkopplad) […]

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