Robert Graham: Anarchy and Democracy

My most recent post was from a group of Brazilian anarchists advocating direct democracy in response to the current political crisis in Brazil. Whether anarchists are or should be advocates of direct democracy is a matter of long-standing debate, going back to the origins of anarchism as a political (or anti-political) movement in the 19th century. Previously, I have posted a number of contributions to this debate from both anarchist advocates of direct democracy and those who argue that anarchy dispenses with all forms of government, including directly democratic ones. The Center for a Stateless Society is currently hosting an online symposium on this subject. I have written on this topic over the years, advocating a form of what I call “associational” direct democracy that rejects simple majority rule, drawing on the ideas of the feminist political theorist, Carole Pateman (see for example, “The Role of Contract in Anarchist Ideology,” in For Anarchism (1989), ed. David Goodway). Recently, I contributed a piece to the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review, in which I discuss the historical origins of the debate and some of the more theoretical issues, including the development of anarchist conceptions of direct democracy that seek to transcend a simple majoritarian decision-making model.

Anarchy and Democracy

The relationship between anarchy and democracy has always been ambivalent. Both concepts have had many different interpretations, both positive and negative. Anarchy is equated with chaos, a “war of all against all,” and terrorism. Democracy is equated with “mobocracy,” one step away from tyranny, or simply as a sham. But when conceived in a more positive light, anarchy and democracy share some similar characteristics, particularly when democracy is conceived as a form of social organization that gives people the power to participate directly in the making of the decisions regarding their own lives, workplaces and communities, instead of that decision-making power being given to “representatives” who then make those decisions, allegedly on the people’s behalf. Anarchy and direct, as opposed to representative, democracy, both seek to realize a social form of freedom in equality and equality in freedom. Both therefore are subversive of the existing social order.

But the tension between anarchy, which seeks to reject all rule, and even direct democracy, which purports to provide for collective self-rule, remains. And this tension is something that anarchists have grappled with since the time of the 1789 French Revolution.

During the French Revolution, there was open conflict between the supporters of representative government, or “parliamentarianism,” and advocates of direct democracy, and between them and the advocates of revolutionary dictatorship. The proponents of parliamentary democracy advocated a system by which people (usually just male property owners) would elect representatives who would then form a government that would rule over everyone (including those without any right to vote, such as women and workers). The proponents of direct democracy advocated that everyone should be able to directly participate in political decision-making by voting on policy matters in their own assemblies, neighbourhoods, districts and communes. Both groups were inspired by the French political philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).

In his book, The Social Contract (1762), Rousseau developed two related arguments which both his later followers, and many of his critics, including anarchists, often conflated. His first purpose in the book was to provide a rational justification for authority by means of the notion of a “social contract” that everyone must be assumed to have entered into in order to create a system of government that would guarantee everyone’s rights and freedoms. Anarchists later denounced this argument on historical and theoretical grounds, because the social contract was entirely hypothetical, and because the system of government that everyone had purportedly agreed to did not and could not guarantee everyone’s rights and freedoms. In reality, governments acted in the interests of the small minority of the rich and powerful, guaranteeing the exploitation and domination of the masses.

But what many anarchists failed to fully appreciate was the second part of Rousseau’s argument, namely what sort of government would guarantee everyone’s rights and freedoms. And in this regard, Rousseau advocated a system of direct, not parliamentary, democracy, despite the claims of many of his so-called followers, including some of the Jacobins during the French Revolution. In a noteworthy passage regarding the English system of parliamentary government, Rousseau wrote that: “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. The use it makes of the short moments of liberty it enjoys shows indeed that it deserves to lose them.”

However, Rousseau’s notion of direct democracy was unitary, based on his notion of the “general will,” which led him (and his followers) to reject direct democracy conceived as a federation of directly democratic associations, and to the idea that you can “force people to be free,” by forcing them to conform to the “general will,” as expressed by the majority, which purportedly expressed their real wills. The Jacobins used these kinds of arguments to justify banning trade unions in France during the Revolution, and any other kind of association which could challenge their power.

But other people took Rousseau’s ideas in a more libertarian direction. During the French Revolution itself, the people of Paris created the “Commune of Paris,” based on general assemblies in each district, where people would vote directly on political matters. The anarchist communist, Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) later argued that this was an example of “the principles of anarchism” being put into practice. Jean Varlet (1764-1837), a French revolutionary who denounced the Jacobin dictatorship, argued that only the people in their directly democratic assemblies could express the “general will,” and that anyone delegated the task of representing the views of the assemblies must be subject to recall so that they could not substitute their “individual wills” for the will of the people.

Working people in Europe began to create their own nascent trade union organizations, such as mutual aid societies and societies of “resistance,” in order to pool their resources and to coordinate actions against their employers. In France, a practice of direct democracy developed within many of these organizations, with the general members directly voting on policy matters, and any elected officials being subject to recall if they did not act in accordance with the membership’s wishes.

By the 1840s, when Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) first gave explicit expression to anarchist ideas in France, there were numerous workers’ societies and associations that practiced some form of direct democracy. Although Proudhon distinguished anarchy, “no government,” from democracy, “self-government,” when he came to propose alternative forms of social organization as a positive form of “anarchy” to replace existing economic and political institutions, he included directly democratic forms of organization with recallable delegates subject to imperative mandates, such as the “People’s Bank” that was to replace the Bank of France. With respect to large scale enterprises, he advocated a form of workers’ self-management, where the workers would manage their workplaces on a directly democratic basis.

But Proudhon was aware of the problem of adopting a system of simple majority rule, even in directly democratic organizations. In contrast to Rousseau, he advocated voluntary association and federalism. Individual workers (or anyone else) could not be compelled to join an association, and both individuals and groups that federated with other groups would be free to secede from their respective associations and federations. Consequently, someone or some group that found themselves continually in the minority on votes within an association or federation would be able to leave the group and to form or join another one composed of people with more similar views. But a tension remained regarding whether within a particular group the minority could be forced to comply with a decision by the majority.

When followers of Proudhon (many of whom, admittedly, were not anarchists), began trying to organize an international association of workers in the 1850s and early 1860s, culminating in the founding of the International Workingmen’s Association in 1864, this practice of working class direct democracy had become well established in France. The Proudhonist members of the International saw it as a voluntary international association of workers’ organizations that should be based on Proudhon’s notion of federation, with no central governing power. The International’s so-called General Council was to be an administrative, not a governing body, and all policy matters were to be decided by recallable delegates subject to imperative mandates at the International’s annual congresses.

Karl Marx (1818-1883), who was on the General Council, fundamentally disagreed with this approach, which eventually led to the split in the International in 1872 between Marx and his supporters, and the “federalists,” “anti-authoritarians,” and “anarchists.” Marx tried to turn the General Council into a governing body that could impose policies on the members and groups belonging to the International, and expel anyone who did not comply with them. He opposed any attempts to turn the General Council into a council of delegates mandated by the member associations, such that the General Council became (at best) a representative body, not a directly democratic one. One of the policies Marx tried to impose, despite the opposition of the majority of the International’s member groups, was the requirement that they create working class political parties that would participate in existing systems of representative government, with the object of “conquering” political power.

It was through the conflict with the Marxist approach to the internal governance of the International, and Marx’s imposition of a policy committing the International’s member groups to participation in parliamentary politics, that many of Marx’s opponents in the International began to identify themselves as anarchists. In the process, they came to develop new, and sometimes diverging, ideas about the relationship between anarchy and democracy.

Michael Bakunin (1814-1876) is a case in point. Prior to joining the International in 1868, Bakunin had sketched out various revolutionary socialist programs advocating an anarchist form of direct democracy. For example, in his 1866 program for the “International Brotherhood” of revolutionary socialists, Bakunin advocated a federation of autonomous communes, within which individuals and groups would enjoy full rights to freedom of association, but envisaged these federations eventually being replaced by federations of workers’ associations “organized according to the requirements not of politics but of production.” These views were very similar to Proudhon’s and the more radical Proudhonist elements in the International, although they did not yet identify themselves as anarchists.

What some of them eventually came to share with Bakunin was a concept of anarchy as a form of what I would describe as “associational” direct democracy – direct democracy conceived as an association (or federation) of associations without any central authority or state above them, with the member groups, each with its own directly democratic decision-making procedures, coordinating their activities through voluntary federation with other associations, using recallable delegates subject to imperative mandates at the higher levels of federation in order to pursue common courses of action.

However, as a result of Marx’s attempts to turn the International into a top-down organization with the General Council acting as its executive power, Bakunin and some other Internationalists began to develop a critique of federalist organization that raised issues regarding associational direct democracy, both in terms of the manner in which the federated groups could coordinate their activities while preserving their autonomy, and in terms of the internal organization and decision-making procedures within the associated groups.

Bakunin and others argued that the only way to prevent a higher level coordinating body, such as the General Council, from being transformed into an executive power, is to do away with such coordinating bodies altogether. Instead, the various associations would communicate directly with each other in order to coordinate their activities, including the organization of policy conferences or congresses, where delegates from the various groups would debate the issues of the day, such as the revolutionary general strike v. the revolutionary commune, anarchist communism or anarchist collectivism, propaganda by the deed and insurrection.

When the anti-authoritarians, federalists and anarchists reconstituted the International, they compromised on this issue, agreeing to have a coordinating correspondence bureau, but the seat of the bureau was to rotate from one federation to another each year. More importantly, the anti-authoritarian International decided that any policies endorsed at an International congress would not be binding on the member groups. It was up to each group, and its members, to ultimately determine which policies they were to adopt. This was meant to ensure that it was the members themselves, through their own directly democratic organizations, who would make the policies they were to follow, rather than delegates at international congresses, even if the latter were supposed to be subject to imperative mandates (which the delegates could violate, as had happened at the 1872 Hague Congress, when some delegates from federalist sections sided with the Marxists, contrary to their mandates).

But if policies endorsed at a congress of delegates subject to imperative mandates, and to recall if they violated their mandates, could not be binding on the member groups, whose own members were to decide these issues, then how could policies adopted by the members of the constitutive groups be binding on other members of these groups who did not vote in favour of them? Bakunin, for one, began to develop a critique of binding policies, or legislation, even if they were decided by a directly democratic vote. This led to the idea that voting should be replaced by “free agreement,” and to the development of anarchist theories of organization based more on notions of voluntary association than on notions of direct democracy. Anarchy and democracy began again to be conceived as distinct, rather than complimentary, concepts, mainly by anarchist communists, such as Elisée Reclus (1830-1905), Errico Malatesta (1853-1932) and Kropotkin.

Writing about the Paris Commune of 1871, Kropotkin suggested that the Commune had no more need for an internal government than for a central government above it, with the people instead forming “themselves freely according to the necessities dictated to them by life itself.” Rather than a formal structure of even directly democratic assemblies federated into a commune or city-wide organization, then regional, national and international federations, there would be “the highest development of voluntary association in all its aspects, in all possible degrees, for all imaginable aims; ever changing, ever modified associations which carry in themselves the elements of their durability and constantly assume new forms which answer to the multiple aspirations of all.”

While some of the anarchists and socialists in the anti-authoritarian International began to move toward a “communalist” position, such as Paul Brousse, Gustave Lefrançais and Adhemar Schwitzguébel, advocating participation in municipal elections and the creation of socialist communes, Elisée Reclus and other anarchist communists rejected that approach, reminding everyone that they were “no more communalists than statists; we are anarchists. Let us not forget that.” As Malatesta later put it, “anarchists do not recognise that the majority as such, even if it were possible to establish beyond doubt what it wanted, has the right to impose itself on the dissident minorities by the use of force.”

In various parts of Europe, some of the anarchist communists opted for small groups of anarchist militants with no formal networks or federations, with decisions being based on the free agreement of each member. In Spain, the majority of the anarchists continued to advocate the use of revolutionary trade unions and to utilize a directly democratic federalist structure with recallable delegates subject to imperative mandates at the higher levels of the federations. According to the anarchist historian Max Nettlau (1865-1944), the anarchist communist groups in France, which today would be described as “affinity groups,” remained isolated from the people; there was a “fine flowering” of anarchist ideas, “but little concern for the fruit that should issue from the flower.”

There was a return to more federalist forms of organization based on directly democratic base groups when anarchists again turned their focus on working class movements for self-emancipation, leading to the rise of revolutionary and anarchist syndicalist movements prior to the First World War. During revolutionary upheavals, workers began to create their own political structures, many of which had directly democratic structures, in opposition to existing governments.

Anarchists participated in the first soviets during the 1905 Russian Revolution, and again in the soviets that arose during the 1917 Russian Revolution. But there were concerns that the soviets functioned more like workers’ parliaments, with many of their members representing the platforms of their respective political parties rather than the views of the workers they were supposed to represent. This led some of the Russian anarcho-syndicalists to advocate a new form of directly democratic organization: the factory committee or council. Anarchists in Italy and Germany also supported the factory and workers’ council movements there. During the Spanish Revolution (1936-1939), yet another directly democratic form of self-governance arose under anarchist impetus, the libertarian “collectives,” in which all members of the community participated regardless of their role in the production and distribution process.

Anarchists critical of the notion of majority rule, even in directly democratic organizations, such as Malatesta, nevertheless participated in these movements, seeking to push them as far as they could go. This was also the approach advocated by Kropotkin. Despite having anarchy as their goal, where social relations and collective decision-making would be based on free agreement and voluntary association, they recognized that directly democratic popular organizations were a step toward that goal.

In the 1960s, Murray Bookchin argued for directly democratic community or neighbourhood assemblies, that would enable everyone to participate directly in policy making, as the political basis for a decentralized ecological form of anarchism. But he also saw a positive role for both affinity groups, which would act as revolutionary “catalysts” and would also form the “cell tissue” of an eco-anarchist society, and factory or workplace councils through which workers would manage their own workplaces. Later he became more narrowly focused on the concept of directly democratic municipal government, which he called “communalism,” and eventually rejected the anarchist label altogether.

During the anti-nuclear movements of the 1970s and 80s, among the more radical “second wave” feminist movements of the same era, and then the so-called “anti-globalization” and “Occupy” movements of more recent years, anarchists have sought to create affinity group based social movements that coalesce into broader networks or webs, creating an amalgam of social forms that combine affinity based small group organization with various forms of direct democracy and voluntary federation, similar to what Bookchin had advocated in the 1960s.

But contemporary anarchists, such as David Graeber, conceive of direct democracy in broader terms than Bookchin, recognizing that there are “Non-Western” forms of direct democracy that are more consensus based, in contrast to systems where decisions are ultimately based on a majority vote. Feminist political theorists, such as Carole Pateman, have also criticized simple majority rule within directly democratic forms of organization, arguing that those in the minority cannot be forced to obey, as this would reintroduce domination within the groups.

Yet the debate about whether anarchy and democracy are compatible continues. One can argue for more sophisticated decision making processes that are more inclusive and which are meant to prevent the domination of directly democratic groups by powerful personalities, or simply by those who are more active or have greater stamina; or one can argue that the concept of “democracy” has become so corrupted that anarchists should no longer make any use of it.

But one could just as well argue that the concept of “anarchy” has become so twisted in the popular imagination that its negative connotations now outweigh the positive to such an extent that the concept should simply be abandoned. It really depends on the concrete circumstances in which you find yourself. Rather than arguing about which labels to adopt or promote, perhaps it would be better to work with others in creating non-hierarchical organizations in which everyone really does have an equal voice, and then see where they can take you.

Robert Graham

Anarchy and Democracy

Anarchy: Neither Dictatorship Nor Democracy

I have created a new page, Anarchy and Democracy: Bookchin, Malatesta and Fabbri, which consolidates three previous posts on anarchy and democracy by Murray Bookchin, Errico Malatesta and Luce Fabbri. With the overthrow of dictatorships in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, Occupy movements everywhere, the continuing disaster of “unrepresentative” capitalist democracy and struggles for freedom across the globe, 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.

Malatesta: Democracy and Anarchy

Errico Malatesta

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: Transforming Democracy

With the overthrow of dictatorships in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt and the continuing struggle for freedom throughout the Middle East, as the “Arab Spring” carries on into the fall of 2011, 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. Recently, I have been posting on my blog articles focusing on these topics to supplement the material included in the printed volumes of the Anarchism anthology.

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.

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)