Chilean Libertarian Communists on the Venezuelan Situation

Meet the new boss

On a more topical note, here is a statement from some Libertarian Communists in Chile regarding the current situation in Venezuela. Reprinted from Black Rose/Rosa Negra federation website.

A Public Statement on the Situation in Venezuela

Venezuela is going through a profound crisis of which it is impossible to exempt the responsibility of the leadership of Chavismo: the failure in opening a path that allows the country to overcome the dependence of oil, the inefficiency in implementing measures that better the economic situation of the country, the bureaucracy that is drowning the popular initiative and the cases of corruption that affect officials who move key aspects of the economy. These are some of the unresolved problems.

Nevertheless, this situation is within the framework of a polarization and conflict of classes where the Venezuelan right-wing, the loyal representative of the well-off sectors in the country in conjunction with diverse administrations from the U.S. government, has unfolded a destabilizing strategy intended to asphyxiate the Venezuelan economy contributing to the deterioration to the living conditions of millions of people. The objective of this effort is to undermine the popular support that has mainly sustained the process of change in Venezuela.

Even worse, this right-wing, which presents itself as a democratic alternative and which hides its despise for the working class behind a false language that appeals to justice and respect to a constitution they had once insulted, operates in a criminal manner sharpening the levels of violence. Behind the figure of [self-proclaimed interim President] Juan Guaidó and the Voluntad Popular or Popular Will party, hiding behind the high-flown speeches amplified by the media has been an insurrectionary strategy which unfolded with armed attacks on military barracks, [1] destruction of health centers, [2] the burning of warehouses with food destined to vulnerable, [3] among other multiple actions of sabotage went on during these years. It came to the point where social leaders were being killed by hired hitmen [4] and to the burning alive of people simply for being Chavistas. [5]

From what’s mentioned above we’ve learned that if the right gains power in Venezuela again, not only will it implement adjustment policies that include privatization of public enterprises, massive indebtedness with bodies like the IMF, and the opening of oil projects where private companies assume as principal shareholders, [6] but it will also be a government of revenge where the hate accumulated during these years will unfold brutally against organized sectors of the people who dared to dream of a country that would transition to non-capitalist ways of living together.

The realization of a profound balance between Latin American progressives and in particular from the Venezuelan experience,even with all its contradictions and potential is a pending task for the left. Suffice it to say that many of these experiences have given way to political processes that directly harm the working class. Nevertheless, and despite the legitimate differences that we openly express with those who lead the Venezuelan process, the left and the people have to be emphatic in rejecting this new coup attempt – the ominous interference of the U.S and the other countries related to the destabilizing strategy which includes the government of [Chilean President Sebastián] Piñera and the political sectors who support its foreign policy all the way from Chile. Along with this we must demand the governments who quickly squared with the position of the United States to respect the rights of the Venezuelan people to its own conflicts without the interference of other states establishing as a minimum floor the non-recognition of the diplomatic delegations won over by Guaído.

We manifest our solidarity with the people of Venezuela directly from our organization, especially with the fringes who even against the grain of the Chavista leadership and assuming all the contradictions of the change in process, protagonize [fight for] new experiences in building popular power that range from the takeovers of the land, the socialization of self-managed companies by its own workers or the government from below in rural and urban communities, [7] and obtaining spaces that prefigure the path of the people who fight against the ominous consequences of patriarchal capitalism we want to overcome.

Solidaridad, February 2019

Notes

[1]  https://www.eltiempo.com/archivo/documento/MAM-53579

[2]  https://www.hispantv.com/noticias/venezuela/408335/ataque-incendio-hospitales-opositores-violencia

[3]  https://actualidad.rt.com/actualidad/242996-50-toneladas-alimentos-quemadas-venezuela

[4]  http://www.resumenlatinoamericano.org/2018/08/03/asesinados-tres-voceros-de-la-lucha-campesina-en-venezuela/

[5]  https://red58.org/cr%C3%ADmenes-de-odio-derecha-venezolana-quema-viva-a-personas-en-sus-protestas-923cfc58012c

[6] https://www.elinformador.com.ve/2019/01/31/descargue-aqui-el-plan-pais-lo-que-viene-para-venezuela/

[7] For an idea about the concrete experiences in building popular power in Venezuela we recommend you visit the following article written in 2016 written by two comrades of Solidaridad, “Political Situation in Venezuela: Crisis, Trends, and the Challenge of Class Independence.”

All Out Against Bolsonaro: An Appeal from Brazil

Reprinted from: https://crimethinc.com/2018/12/27/all-out-against-bolsonaro-an-appeal-from-brazil


All Out Against Bolsonaro!

An Appeal from Brazil

On January 1, 2019, Jair Bolsonaro will assume the presidency of Brazil. His candidacy, his government, and his allies represent the worst in any society: authoritarianism, sexism, racism, homophobia, and xenophobia. Capitalism combined with strong fascist tendencies! We are calling on everyone to resist.

The new president has already shown that his government sees political minorities as their primary targets. He will attack the rights of workers, of women, of the poor, the black and suburban populations, the entire LGBTTIQ community, indigenous peoples, and immigrants, putting their lives put at risk.

Using fake news, rumors, and distortions of the facts, Bolsonaro and his supporters have influenced millions of people, evading debate about their intentions.

They are threatening the environment with their agenda of repealing ecological protections, their refusal to acknowledge global warming, and their plan to deliver ecological reserves and indigenous lands to agribusiness and the international market. The scandals involving his aides show that Bolsonaro’s administration will be just as corrupt as the previous governments.

Bolsonaro’s politics have been praised by white supremacists including David Duke of the Ku Klux Klan; his campaign received support from Steve Bannon, the strategist for Donald Trump—the American president to whom Bolsonaro promises total subservience.

So we can’t wait: 2019 must be a year of even more intense struggle for everyone who wants a world of justice and equality.

We invite all communities, movements, collectives, associations, students, workers, and unemployed people to organize a broad struggle outside and beyond any party. The false opposition of right and left parties functions as a distraction, obscuring everything these symmetrical institutions of power have in common while leaving the root of the problem intact: the domination of the state and the capitalist structure of of society.

Remember, the anti-terrorist laws that criminalize protests and social movements were introduced under the supposedly left-wing governments of Lula and Dilma Rousseff. Now, the Bolsonaro government hopes to use them to suppress any popular opposition on the streets.

Bolsonaro himself has promised to eliminate all forms of opposition and activism. Police violence will intensify even further and the mobs influenced by the hatred that emerged over the last five years will grow even more rabid. They too will be on the streets.

We must not back down.

Fight capitalism, destroy oppression, abolish fascism!

We were on the streets against the increase of bus tickets and the Confederations Cup in 2013, against the impact of the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. We were in the school occupations in 2015 opposing the education cuts. We occupied schools and cultural institutions against Michel Temer in 2016. We were in all the strikes, occupations, and marches of 2017 and 2018. Now we will take the streets again to resist, delegitimize, and expose the absurdities defended by Bolsonaro as a threat to all people, the environment, and future generations.

We will respond with protests, popular organization, and direct action. We call on everyone who has been systematically harmed by governments and capitalism throughout their lives, and will be impacted even more now; we call on everyone who recognizes that we have to fight the authoritarian, conservative, neo-liberal, and fascist groups that have sought to capture the streets and political institutions over the past several years.

From the day of his inauguration, January 1, we will take action against every measure imposed by his government. The struggles for land, for housing, for justice and equality, for our very existence will be more intense than ever. We must also turn out in force for the days that mark popular struggles:

March 8, International Women’s Day; April 19, the day of Indigenous Resistance; May First, International Workers’ Day; June 28, LGBTTIQ Pride Day; September 7, the Cry of the Excluded against so-called Independence Day; November 20, Black Consciousness Day.

We must seize every opportunity to demonstrate that there is no consensus. Most of the population did not vote for this authoritarian government that is opening the door for the further militarization of society—for fascism and for patriarchal white supremacy.

For those outside of Brazil who want to show solidarity, mobilize in front of Brazilian embassies! Support the struggles in Brazil with demonstrations, banners, and direct action. The new president’s xenophobic and nationalist policies will affect people outside Brazil as well. The rise of right-wing and fascist governments is an international phenomenon that demands a global response.

We will not stop fighting until the state and capitalism fall throughout the entire world!

No rest for Bolsonaro and his minions in 2019!

CrimethInc: Occupy ICE

Occupy ICE is a movement spreading across the USA to protest and oppose the Trump administration’s ongoing attacks on refugees and immigrants, resulting in mass incarcerations of adults and children, with the children often separated, most likely permanently, from their parents. As with the Occupy movement, there are sometimes heated disagreements over tactics, as this piece from CrimethInc. illustrates.

Portland and Tacoma: You Can’t Build a Movement Based on Shame

I spent time at both the blockade in Portland, Oregon and the Northwest Detention Center Occupation in Tacoma, Washington. I think it is so inspiring and exciting that these occupations and blockades are happening all over the country. I wish they were happening in every city, at every ICE facility.

At both of these occupations, there were many anarchists with whom I felt affinity; but there were also aspects of these occupations that reminded me of the worst parts of the 2011 Occupy movement—including an intense form of privilege politics that I had hoped we had learned from and moved on from in the past seven years.

One of the most exciting aspects of resistance during times of intense repression and authoritarianism such as the time we are experiencing now is the number of people who are radicalized and join anarchist struggles. It is a huge opportunity for us—a time to spread anarchist ideas. Newly radicalized people are looking for direction. Often, however, they will follow the loudest voices—and the loudest voices are often the liberals or self-appointed “leadership” of a movement. I have seen both new people and seasoned revolutionaries controlled by authoritarian privilege politics, accepting them out of fear of being seen as racist—even though most privilege politics are themselves racist, involving self-appointed white leaders claiming to speak for all people of color and claiming that people of color are always peaceful.

This is not to say that racism is not a problem in anarchist scenes. But adhering to reactionary privilege politics can be as bad as not addressing it at all.

At the occupation at the Northwest Detention Center, there were moments when the General Assembly was filled with anarchists; at these times, the assembly made consensus decisions to never talk to the police and to not have a police liaison or any sort of security force, and agreed that snitching and sexual assault were the only acceptable reasons to kick someone out of camp without discussion. There were other times when the General Assembly was full of liberals, self-appointed all-white leadership, and even a person who threatened to snitch if someone did anything illegal. These were the moments the camp felt most stifling. We were told by that all-white “leadership” that the only acceptable action was to build the camp, for example, by cooking and organizing supplies. They maintained that any other actions would harm the people inside the detention center—all of whom, apparently, did not want tactics to escalate beyond cooking and taking out the trash.

To be clear: the NWDC is one of the biggest immigration prisons in the country. How they asked all 1500 people trapped inside it what tactics they do and don’t support was never explained to us (and of course they could not and did not consult with all of these people).

At the Portland occupation, I saw some people aggressively shamed for tagging the Tesla showroom. They were screamed at and kicked out of the occupation at 3 am. I also saw those same people later being described as white, although half of them were people of color, because it didn’t fit into the leadership’s privilege politics narrative to admit that many people of color are invested in confrontational politics and escalation. As they were verbally assaulted and kicked out of camp, they were told that because they had tagged the Tesla showroom, it would be their fault if the police came to the blockade and took children away from their parents.

At the Tacoma blockade, one afternoon, a nonviolent direct action training took place. It began with two white people and one person of color aggressively shaming everyone in the space for the actions of the police. According to them, it was our fault that the ICE agents were torturing and raping people inside because demonstrators had been standing in the street the night before. It was our fault the ICE agents were torturing and raping people inside because a couple demonstrators had been drinking beer.

We must remember that the violence of the police is never our fault. The violence inflicted upon the migrants detained within the Northwest Detention Center, despite being escalated during the protest outside, is still entirely the fault of the police inflicting it.

Many of the people in the nonviolent direct action training were white folks who had never been to a protest before and were heavily influenced by being shamed and told how racist they were. This type of privilege politics, built on shaming people into inaction, is not how you build a movement. It doesn’t build momentum, it shuts it down. It doesn’t inspire people, it shuts them down. Shame is a feeling that does nothing but disempower people, which is the exact opposite of our goal—building power, together.

As I watched the people being kicked out of the Portland blockade that night, the “security team” evicting them repeatedly expressed the belief that if there was graffiti, the police would immediately come and shut down the camp. As if the police wouldn’t come to an illegal blockade if the building hadn’t been tagged! As if the police were allowing the camp to exist because of some morality that the police and the protestors shared, and the only reason the police would come would be if that morality were no longer shared. It was as if they believed that the protestors and the police had come to an agreement, in which as long as the police could trust the protestors to police each other, then the protestors could trust the police not to evict the camp.

But the police can never be trusted, and they will never share our ethics. We know, both from the logic of the state’s position as well as from our experience in past actions, that the police will always come—just as soon as they have the force to do so. However, the amount of force they need to evict a camp or shut down a demonstration often depends on how confrontational the demonstration is. The more confrontational the occupation, the more force the police will need to evict it and the longer it will take for them to amass that force.

One recent example of this is the Olympia blockade, which barricaded an active railroad for 12 days. The entire neighborhood was covered in anti-police graffiti. Cement was poured on the tracks. Security cameras were taken down. Parking meters in the area were broken. At any given time, the greatest number of people you might find at the blockade would be ~50-100. At night, it was down to 5-20 people. By contrast, if we count from the first day of the overnight occupation in Portland to the day the ICE building was reopened, the Portland blockade lasted 10 days—and the number of people at that blockade was often 1000 or more.

The graffiti—and the smashed parking meters, broken security cameras, and so forth—at the Olympia blockade did not cause the police to come sooner. It actually took them longer to come, despite the blockade being only a fraction of the size of the Portland blockade. At the Portland blockade, people were busy policing each other. The actual cops didn’t even need to come. The protestors themselves were protecting the property of the government and the showrooms of capitalism. (Never mind that both the Tesla showroom and the ICE facility are owned by a man who openly admitted to running his Mercedes into demonstrators.)

We are in a time of crisis, in which the overt white nationalist terror of the state is clearer than ever. In this moment, we should build autonomous spaces in which people can take action outside of the control of politicians and peace police. We believe this because of our political ethics of autonomy, but it is strategic as well. Confrontational tactics are a threat to the state, whereas any protest tactics that do not actually threaten the power of white supremacy can only reinforce it. The stronger we make the barricades, the longer we can hold off the police. The less we police each other, the less power we give to them.

As anarchists, how do we counter the politics of leadership, inaction and shame? How do we build our power even as the liberals and peace police are actively trying to strip it from us?

CrimethInc. July 2018

Thomas Spence: Pioneer of Anarchist Socialism

Thomas Spence

The recently formed London Anarchist Communist group (LAC) will be publishing a book on “Anarchist Communism in Britain.” Part One deals with precursors of anarchist socialism and communism in Britain. Below I have reproduced the section on Thomas Spence (1750-1814), who advocated a decentralized system of parish government based on the common ownership of land. From an anarchist perspective, it is Spence’s ideas on property that are of most interest. The LAC compares him to the French revolutionary, François-Noël “Gracchus” Babeuf (1760-1797), but as Brian Morris argues at the end of the excerpt, he was much closer in his approach to the enragés in the French Revolution, who were radical egalitarians and supporters of direct democracy based on neighbourhood sections and districts. I included excerpts from the writings of one of the enragés, Jean Varlet, in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in which Varlet denounces “revolutionary government” as a contradiction in terms: “To any rational being, government and revolution are incompatible, unless the people wishes to set its constituted authorities in permanent insurrection against itself.”

Prehistory of Anarchist Communism in Britain: Thomas Spence

In Britain there was a parallel figure to Babeuf in 1792 in London. This was Thomas Spence, who had developed advanced views in Newcastle on Tyne inside the Newcastle Philosophical Society. Within this rather genteel group, the plebeian Spence began to develop ideas of land communism expressed in his Plan. He first lectured on these ideas within the Society at the age of 25. “The land or earth, in any country or neighbourhood, with everything in it or the same, or pertaining thereto, belongs at all times to the living inhabitants of the said country or neighbourhood in an equal manner”. He believed that each parish should take the land back into their possession and form themselves into corporations. The land becomes the property of the parish.

Spence in no way envisages the end of the money system. He pictures people paying rent to the parish for usufruct rights to the land. This rent would be paid into a parish treasury to support the poor and unemployed, and for the maintenance of lands and highways etc. The government, a democratic assembly of representatives, and elected by secret ballot, was seen by Spence as having limited functions, and would not meddle in the functioning of the parishes.

Spence chose to go beyond the gentlemanly hobbies of the Philosophical Society by disseminating his ideas through the publication of a halfpenny ballad in 1775-6. For this he was expelled from the Society, and subsequently lost his job as a teacher. Spence eventually resolved to go to London, because his radical ideas had little audience in Newcastle.

Spence’s arrival coincided with the founding of the London Corresponding Society, set up by the shoemaker Thomas Hardy, and which consisted of tradesmen, shopkeepers and mechanics. The Society’s aims were the discussion of parliamentary reform, and put forward demands for universal suffrage and annual parliaments.

Spence influenced members of the Society, among whom was Thomas Evans. He gathered a small group around him and began to propagandise the ideas contained within his plan. This included methods of propagation similar to those of the Babeuvists: chalk and charcoal notices on walls and public places, debates and public meetings, and the sale or distribution of handbills, broadsheets, tracts and pamphlets.

Spence was jailed several times for steadfast adherence to his ideas. His greatest period of activity was between 1792 and 1801 and he continued with intermittent publication of his ideas until his death in 1814. Evans and Allen Davenport formed a Spencean Society to propagate his ideas around 1807. With the death of Davenport, Evans founded the Society for Spencean Philanthropists which continued with the propagation of Spence’s ideas.

The Spenceans were at the forefront of the working class demonstrations in London between 1815 and 1820. Some Spenceans were implicated in the Cato Street conspiracy in 1820. The repression which followed led to the disappearance of the Society and the extinction of the Spencean current, although his continuing influence on British radicalism should not be ignored.

Spence’s emphasis was on land communism, and he saw “Private Property in land” as the main evil within society. The abolition of private property in land would of course mean the suppression of the aristocracy and “Lordship”. However goods, merchandise and cattle would not face similar communalisation.

Spence symbolises a radical current within the great movement that was emerging around Chartism and the demands for universal suffrage and annual parliaments. Spence expressly came to London to propagate his ideas there because he sensed that his ideas might have a certain resonance within this movement. The fact that he was not able to move beyond land communism to general communism is a result of the limits imposed by the class of artisans and “mechanics”, of which he was an advanced spokesman, which was yet to develop into the working class.

Alongside his advocacy of land communism was the concept of a federation of parishes administering the economic process and with a system of social welfare. In this Spence prefigures the notion of the commune or municipality as the basic unit of society as developed by anarchist communist thinkers. Spence sees the parishes as providing public grain stores, free schools, libraries, public baths and hospitals. Spence was very wary of centralised State solutions to economic inequality and he believed that a bottom-up revolution was necessary which might well involve the use of physical force to overthrow the old ruling class.

Brian Morris has been instrumental in rescuing the important figure of Spence from obscurity. As he notes: “Neither the sans-culottes nor the enragés nor that much-neglected socialist Thomas Spence fully and explicitly articulated anarchism as a political doctrine. What they had in common was that they stressed local and popular democracy and were hostile toward big capital, whether of the merchant class or of the capitalist landlords. Their social idea was that of an egalitarian society consisting of independent artisans and small peasant farmers. Even Spence, though he advocated communal property in land, parish democracy, and parish militias… allowed for a structure of provincial and national assemblies. Even so, like the sans-culottes, he tended to see the parish or local commune as the fundamental unit of society and sought any means to limit the power of the central government.” (“The sans-culottes and the enragés: libertarian movements within the French Revolution,” in Ecology and Anarchism, pp.101-102).

Spence needs to take his rightful place as one of the precursors within Britain of the libertarian communist current that was to emerge with the emergence of the working class.

From The Idea: Anarchist Communism, Past Present and Future

Gregory Maksimov: The Factory Committees and the October Revolution

During the 1917 Russian Revolution, anarchists were at the forefront of the anti-bureaucratic factory committee movement. While Boris Yelensky and his anarchist comrades were busy organizing factory committees in the Kuban region in southern Russia, anarchists took a leading role in the factory committee movements in other parts of Russia, Petrograd in particular. The anarchists initiated the factory committee movement before the 1917 October Revolution, seeing the factory committees as forming a more solid basis for genuine workers’ control, given the control of the Russian trade union movement by the political parties. Gregory Maksimov was one of the leading anarchist proponents of the factory committees, organizing the first conference of Petrograd Factory Committees in June 1917. As the name implies, the factory committees were based in the workplace, and organized on a directly democratic basis. In contrast, the Soviets, along with most trade unions, were dominated by political parties that in practice favoured a representative system of government. After the October Revolution, the Soviets became increasingly under the control of the Bolsheviks, causing Maksimov and other anarchists to seek to expand the factory committee movement as one that would achieve genuine workers’ control. By December 1917, Maksimov was already warning the Russian people that the Soviets were becoming organs of state power. In his article, “The Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies,” reprinted in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Maksimov called for a “Third Revolution” that, following the February and October Revolutions, would, through the factory committee movement, bring about genuine workers’ control, or worker self-management. The excerpts below are taken from Maksimov’s later pamphlet, Syndicalists in the Russian Revolution.

“Centralism via Federalism”

The influence of Anarcho-Syndicalism showed itself creditably in the struggle for supremacy waged by the Factory Committees against the trade unions. The Factory Committees were almost completely swayed by a unique sort of Anarcho-Syndicalism; this is attested by all the conferences of the Petrograd Factory Committees, and by the All-Russian conferences of these committees. Moreover, the Bolsheviks in their drive towards seizure of power and dictatorship, were forced to cast away (for the time being only, as subsequent events proved), their orthodox Marxism and to accept Anarchist slogans and methods.

Alas, this was but a tactical move on their part, not a genuine change of program. The slogans formulated by the Bolsheviks (Communists) voiced, in a precise and intelligible manner, the demands of the masses in revolt, coinciding with the slogans of the Anarchists: “Down with the war,” “Immediate peace without annexations or indemnities, over the heads of the governments and capitalists,” “Abolition of the army,” “Arming of the workers,” “Immediate seizure of land by the peasants,” “Seizure of factories by the workers,” “A Federation of Soviets,” etc. Wouldn’t the realization of these great slogans lead to the full triumph of Anarchist ideology, to the sweeping away of the basis and foundations of Marxism? Wasn’t it natural for the Anarchists to be taken in by these slogans, considering that they lacked a strong organization to carry them out independently? Consequently, they continued taking part in the joint struggle.

But reality soon proved that all the lapses by the Bolsheviks from the revolutionary position were no casual things, but moves in a rigorously thought-out tactical plan, directed against the vital interests and demands of the masses – a plan designed to carry out in life the dead dogmas of a disintegrated Marxism. The true face of the Bolsheviks was revealed by the Commissar of National Affairs~Stalin (Dzhugashvili), who in one of his articles (April 1918) wrote that their aim is, “To arrive at centralism via federalism.” Persistently, cautiously, the revolution was being forced into Marxist channels in accordance with a preconceived plan. Such a channel is for every popular creed a Procrustean bed.

Thus, during the period of the Bourgeois and Bourgeois Socialist Government, the Anarchists worked (not organizationally of course) hand-in-hand with the Bolsheviks. How were the Anarchists situated during that period? The listing of the cities where Anarchist publications came out shows that freedom of the press was of the most extensive kind. Not a single newspaper was closed, not a single leaflet, pamphlet or book confiscated, not a single rally or mass meeting forbidden. Despite the seizure of rich private houses, like the Durnovo Villa and other mansions in Petrograd; despite the seizure of printing shops, including the printing shop of Russkaya Volia, published by the Tsar’s minister Protopopov; despite open incitement to insubordination and appeals for soldiers to leave the fronts; despite all that, only a few cases where Anarchists were manhandled might be construed as connivance by authorities, or premeditated acts. True, the government, at that period, was not averse to dealing severely with both Anarchists and Bolsheviks. Kerensky threatened many times to “burn them out with red-hot irons”. But the government was powerless, because the revolution was in full swing.

After October

How did the position of the Anarchists change with the triumph of the October revolution, in the preparation and making of which they had taken such a prominent part? It has to be pointed out that during the Kerensky period the Anarchists had grown considerably and that towards the October days their movement had already assumed considerable proportions. This growth became even more accelerated after the October revolution, when the Anarchists took an active part in the direct struggle against both the counter-revolution and the German-Austrian troops. Not only did the voice of the Anarchists command attention, but the masses actually followed the appeals and directives of the Anarchists, having come to see in them the concrete formulation of their age-long aspirations. That is why they backed demands of an Anarcho-Syndicalist character, carrying them out in the teeth of hamstringing efforts, rather feeble at that time, by the Bolsheviks.

Under the influence of Anarcho-Syndicalist propaganda, there began in Petrograd a spontaneous process of socialization of housing by the house committees. This extended to entire streets, bringing into existence street committees and block committees, when entire blocks were drawn in. It spread to other cities. In Kronstadt it started even earlier than Petrograd and reached even greater intensity. If in Petrograd and other cities, dwellings were socialized only on the triumph of the October revolution, in Kronstadt similar steps were taken earlier, under the influence of Yartchuk, who was enjoying great popularity in that town, and in face of the active resistance of the Bolsheviks. Measures of this kind were carried out in an organized way by the revolutionary workers and sailors throughout the town. The Bolshevik fraction left a session of the Kronstadt Soviet in protest against the socialization of dwellings.

Workers’ Control

In the field of revolutionary struggle towards immediate abolition of the institution of private property in the means of production, the influence of the Anarchists was even more pronounced. The idea of “workers’ control”, carried out through the Factory Committees, an idea advocated by the Anarcho-Syndicalists from the very outset of the revolution, took root among the city workers, gaining such a strong hold on them as to force its acceptance, in a distorted form, of course, by the Socialist parties. The Social Democrats and the right Social-Revolutionists twisted this idea of workers’ control into that of State control over industry, with the participation of workers, leaving enterprises in the hands of the capitalists.

As for the Bolsheviks, they were quite vague about the meaning of the term “workers’ control”, leaving it undefined, and making it a handy tool of demagogic propaganda. This is confirmed by [the Bolshevik writer] A. Lozovsky (S. A. Dridzo), who writes the following in his pamphlet Workers’ Control (Petersburg: Socialist Publishing House, 1918):

“Workers’ control was the fighting slogan of the Bolsheviks before the October days . . . but despite the fact that workers’ control figured in all resolutions, and was displayed on all banners, it had an aura of mystery about it. The party Press wrote very little about this slogan, still less did it try to implement it in a concrete way. When the October revolution broke out and it became necessary to say clearly and precisely what this workers’ control was, it developed that, even among the partisans of this slogan, there existed great differences of opinion on that score” (p. 19).

The Bolsheviks refused to accept the Anarcho-Syndicalist construction of the idea of workers’ control: namely, taking control of production, its socialization and instituting workers’ control over socialized production through the Factory Committees. This idea won out, workers having begun expropriating enterprises while the Bourgeois-Socialist government was still in power. The Factory Committees and various control committees were already taking over the managing functions at that time. On the eve of the October revolution this movement assumed a truly mass character.

Factory Committees

The Factory Committees and their Central Bureau became the foundation of the new revolutionary movement, which set itself the task of making the factories into Producer and Consumer Communes. The Factory Committees were to become the nuclei of the new social order gradually emerging from the inchoate elemental life of the revolution. Anarchistic in their essence, the Factory Committees made many enemies. The attitude of all political parties was restrained hostility, their efforts centering on reducing the Factory Committees to a subordinate position within the trade unions.

The Communists [Bolsheviks] from the outset showed their suspicion of this type of organization. It was only after they had become convinced that the trade unions were too strongly dominated by the Social-Democrats to lend themselves as instruments of Communist policy that, following the Anarcho-Syndicalists, they began to centre their attention on the Factory Committees, aiming to place them under their control and, through those committees, ultimately to gain control of the trade unions. Despite this attitude, the Bolsheviks were forced by the course of events to assume a position toward the Factory Committees which differed little from that of the Anarcho-Syndicalists. Only gradually did they assume this position. At first they combatted it.

“The Anarcho-Syndicalists entrenched themselves behind the Factory Committees. They created a veritable theory around it, saying in effect that the trade unions have died, that the future belongs to the Factory Committees, who will deliver the knock-out blow to capitalism, that the Factory Committees are the highest form of labour movement, etc. In a word, they developed in regard to the Factory Committees the same theory which the French Anarcho-Syndicalists developed in regard to the trade unions. Under these conditions the divorce between the two organizations (trade unions and Factory Committees) represents the greatest danger for the labour movement of Russia.”

“This danger is the greater, that even among active people of the Factory Committees who are not Anarcho-Syndicalists, we also see this tendency to oppose the trade unions to the Factory Committees and even to replace industrial unions and their local branches with respective organizations of the Factory Committee type” – Lozovsky, Workers’ Control (p. 37).

Seizure of enterprises

Characteristically, only the Anarcho-Syndicalist press correctly evaluated the role and significance of the Factory Committees. The first article in the revolutionary press on this problem, by the author of these lines, appeared in the first issue of Golos Truda. (Incidentally, the article did not express the opinion of Golos Truda as a whole on this problem.) At one of the conferences of the Factory Committees held in Petrograd, during August, 1917, the article was hotly contested by the Bolsheviks, notably Lozovsky and others. But this idea, sound in itself and answering the mood and needs of the workers, became dominant even in the Bolshevik Party. Even Lenin declared in his speech at the All-Russian Trade Union Convention (held in the spring of 1918) that “the factory is a self-governing commune of producers and consumers.”

The results of this Anarcho-Syndicalist propaganda soon bore fruit. There followed a wave of seizures of enterprises and the organization of Workers’ Management. These began when the provisional government was still in power and, it stands to reason, the Anarchists played the foremost role in them. The most talked-of event of the kind at that period was the expropriation under the direct influence of the Anarchist Zhuk, of the Shlisselburg gunpowder mills and agricultural estates, both of which were then organized on Anarchist principles. Such events recurred ever more frequently, and on the eve of the October revolution they came to be regarded as a matter of course. Soon after the triumph of the October revolution, the Central Bureau of the Factory Committees worked out extensive instructions for the control of production. These instructions proved to be a brilliant literary document, showing the triumph of the Anarcho-Syndicalist idea. The significance of this incident is the greater considering that the Bolsheviks were then predominant in the Factory Committees.

How greatly the workers were influenced by the idea of Factory Committees being the executive bodies of the Factory-Communes – the cellular bodies joining into a federative organization, which unites all workers and creates the necessary industrial administrative system – is shown by the uneasiness the Bolsheviks revealed after the October revolution.

“In place of a ‘Republic of Soviets’, we are led to a republic of producers’ co-operatives (artels), into which the capitalist factories would be metamorphosed by this process. Instead of a rapid regulation of the social production and consumption – instead of measures which, objected to as they may be on various grounds, do represent a genuine step toward a socialist organization of society – instead of that we are witnessing something which partakes somewhat of the Anarchist visionary dreams about autonomous industrial communes” – I. Stepanov, From Workers’ Control Towards Workers’ Administration in the Industries and Agriculture (Moscow: 1918, p. 11).

The predominance of the Bolsheviks makes even more remarkable the successes achieved by our comrades, especially that of W. Shatov, in their work carried on within the Factory Committees. (Shatov led the attack on the Winter Palace, Petrograd, in October 1917. He left the Anarcho-Syndicalist movement and became in fact a Bolshevik from the very moment when the capital was moved to Moscow early in 1918. He was arrested and probably shot without trial during the purges in the late 1930s.) Even though dominated by the Bolsheviks, the Factory Committees of that period were carrying out the Anarchist idea. The latter, of course, suffered in clarity and purity when carried out by the Bolsheviks within the Factory Committees; had the Anarchists been in the majority they would have tried to eliminate completely from the work of the committees the element of centralization and State principles.

Gregory Maksimov

Catalonia 2017

The Spanish government’s response to the Catalan independence vote brought back some painful memories regarding Franco’s dictatorship following the defeat of the anarchists in the Spanish Revolution. Here is a brief statement from the CNT – Catalonia-Balearic Islands that I thought summed things up very well. Respecting people’s right to collective self-determination, while recognizing that such self-determination can only truly be achieved through an anarchist social revolution, is a position that goes back to the beginnings of the anarchist movement, but that attained greater prominence after World War II, with the emergence of various national liberation movements across the globe, something that I have documented in Volume Two: The Emergence of the New Anarchism (1939-1977), in my trilogy, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

CTN – Catalonia-Balearic Islands Statement on the Catalan Independence Vote

The CNT local unions from Catalonia and the Balearic Islands publicly state our support for the self-determination of the Catalan people.

As anarcho-syndicalists, we don’t think that political reforms within a capitalist framework can reflect our desire for social transformation, a change that would place production and consumption means in workers’ hands. Because of this, our daily struggles do not focus on creating new states or backing parliamentary initiatives.

However, we can’t look the other way when regular people are being attacked and repressed by any state. A state that has, in this case, removed its mask and revealed itself as an authoritarian rule, the true heir of the Franco regime. This is something that could be glimpsed before through many instances, such as labour law reforms, bank bail-outs, cuts on health and education, mass evictions of out-of-work families…many of which were implemented by the Catalan government itself.

CNT Catalonia and the Balearic greet this spirit of disobedience against a dictatorial state, a discriminatory and fascist state, and want to assert our strongest denunciation of repression against workers and of those who carry it out.

The men and women in CNT will stand as one to defend their neighbours and townsfolks, as couldn´t be otherwise with an anarcho-syndicalist, and henceforth revolutionary, organisation.

Originally published by CNT L’ Hospitalet.

Alex Kolokotronis: Municipalist Syndicalism

I always found Murray Bookchin’s perennial critiques of anarcho-syndicalism to be misdirected. It’s not as if there was a burgeoning anarcho-syndicalist movement in the United States that was steering the revolutionary masses in the wrong direction. Bookchin also misrepresented the revolutionary politics of historic anarcho-syndicalist movements, which never narrowly focused on the workplace as the one and only revolutionary arena. The first anarcho-syndicalists, although they referred to themselves as federalists, anarchists, and collectivists, were the anti-authoritarian activists in the First International associated with the anarchist revolutionary, Michael Bakunin. And when they first put forward an anarcho-syndicalist program at the 1869 Basle Congress of the International, they advocated organizing for the revolution through the workers’ autonomous organizations and on a communal (or municipal) basis, a combination of revolutionary trade unions and revolutionary communes that would together provide the basis for a stateless federation of directly democratic associations for production, distribution and consumption in conjunction with more geographically based federations of communes, which together would create a socialist society. Although Bookchin claimed that he did not ignore the importance of working class organizations in achieving an ecological society, his focus on municipal politics and continual sniping at the anarcho-syndicalists left the impression that he did not see class based organizations playing much of a role. 

In Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included a piece by Bookchin advocating “municipal” as opposed to “workers’ control” of the means of production. As I’ve argued elsewhere, this creates serious problems regarding the realization of Bookchin’s social ecological vision of a stateless future without hierarchy and domination in which people live in harmony with themselves and with nature if people, in their capacity as workers, are subject to the authority of the municipal assemblies. I also included a piece by Graham Purchase under the heading “Green Anarcho-Syndicalism,” in which he argued that revolutionary trade unions would have to play a role in the creation of an ecological society, which does not mean giving them a privileged role or power over others.

Alex Kolokotronis takes another approach in his article from Roar magazine, “Municipalist Syndicalism,” which differs significantly from Purchase’s “green anarcho-syndicalism,” primarily in that it is not an anarchist form of municipalism or syndicalism. I’ve reproduced a portion of Kolokotronis’ article below.  Kolokotronis advocates the democratization of existing trade unions, rather than the creation of revolutionary trade unions, which can then provide organizational and financial support for a municipalist political program in multiple locations.

Municipalist Syndicalism

The strength of municipalism lies in its locality, in its attention to the particular — an attention that some of the best unions have and harness. But to offset against at least some pressures, it must also find strength in its multiplicity. That is to say, not just the multiplicity that lies within a given locale, town or city, but the multiplicity that is at the core of notions of confederalism.

I call this type of politics municipalist syndicalism because, although it is socialistic and premised on multi-tendency coalitions, different chief agents will arise in different contexts. In the context of unionized “eds & meds” metropolitan regions, the unionized “new” working class can be that agent. Where will the meetings be held? Who will have resources to establish an effective communications system? Who will do the canvassing (whether for candidates or as part of a participatory process)? Unions can do a substantial part of this work. And in that way, it is syndicalist: unions deploying their self-organized power and resources towards a political end. Yet, it is municipalist in that organized labor’s eyes are turned for more far-reaching transformation. A transformation beyond the point-of-production.

Before this can take place, however, there must be a democratization of unions themselves.

Community-Focused Union Democracy

As I noted in a previous piece for ROAR Magazine, concepts and designs of union democracy have remained quite thin. Participatory budgeting for union dues can be part of a union’s democratized design. I have argued that participatory budgeting can help stimulate class consciousness, serve as a means for worker education (particularly in the area of self-management), and help transform bureaucracy into a collaborative iterative form of administration.

Participatory budgeting also has an intersectional character. It has been a forum for including and empowering immigrants. It has also increasingly become a staple of the Movement for Black Lives. Public Agenda’s research of PB in North America finds that “black residents were overrepresented or represented proportionally to the local census among voter survey respondents.” In an official statement addressed to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Black Youth Project 100 called “for a participatory city budget in which the public has the power to defund the Chicago Police Department and invest those dollars and resources in Black futures by setting a living wage with union representation.”

BYP 100 member Rossanna Mercedes writes that she has “witnessed first hand the organizing power of black people in participatory budgeting.” Mercedes recounts that “formerly incarcerated persons, mostly Black men, organiz[ing] together through a local community based organization and decide how to spend tax dollars in their neighborhoods. Black youth let[ting] their neighbors know about the process by knocking on doors, taking the vote to them to build support for projects they’ve proposed for their communities.” Mercedes goes further, imagining “what we could do with Community Development Block Grants, the billions in federal funding for those of us in low income communities.”

Participatory budgeting for a labor union could potentially help ground and scale this work, and also connect to it. It can be an organizational form that materially connects labor unions to community groups, with the backing and creative leadership of membership. It can create the necessary alliances for a real municipalist program and movement. There can even be cross-union and cross-local participatory budgeting processes, reminiscent of the regional assemblies once held by the Knights of Labor in the nineteenth century.

Unions can even help community groups achieve their targets, by deploying both their fiscal capital as well as social capital. A labor union participatory budgeting process, for example, could include a budget category of external or “community relations.” Union members could propose ideas and craft projects that directly benefit or work together with the larger community.

This dimension of a union participatory budgeting process could then flow into a democratized “Bargaining for the Common Good” initiatives (partnerships between labor unions and community-based organization that pursue “broad based campaigns that demand common good solutions to win progressive revenue and advance community fights such as affordable housing, universal pre-k and expanded after school programs, and improved city services, as just a few examples”). Such Common Good Bargaining frameworks would be more thoroughly co-designed, which itself would flow out of experiences of co-design and co-production practiced in project development phase of the labor union participatory budgeting process.

There are other ways that democratic union processes can be designed for intersectional ends. One way of explicitly doing this could be through a participatory mapping process. Here members themselves bring their “local situated knowledges” and “standpoints” to the mapping of a workplace or work-location. For example, a number of public schools in the United States fall short of meeting requirements prescribed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Even when accessibility grievances are lodged through unions, such grievances either fall through the union’s bureaucratic cracks or are simply ignored. Participatory mapping processes could be formally linked to what ends up on the bargaining table between unions and employers. Member participation would achieve results by substantively reorienting unions towards intersectional concerns, while also informally pressuring union leadership to act accordingly.

Participatory budgeting and mapping processes within labor unions would also prepare unionized workers to take part in municipal-level participatory budgeting processes. Beyond cultivating trust, this would train union members to operate large-scale participatory budgeting processes in preparation for significant scaling and expansion of participatory democratic processes. Competencies developed within unions would be readily available for transference and scaling at the municipal level. With all of these initiatives being inclusive of non-labor community groups, coalitions would be in place and there would be a backlog of trust-generating experience of having worked together.

Working with this variety of community groups and associations — such as retirees — unions can also streamline the creation of a sector of workers’ controlled enterprises. Soon-to-be retirees hold a stock of businesses that could be converted to democratic employee-ownership. Retiree associations possess networks that could connect those seeking to convert their enterprise with those who can help carry out the conversion. Retirees are also a significant segment of the voting base. Through lending legal and fiscal capacity for converting businesses to democratic employee-ownership (this itself is a tremendous opportunity considering that nearly 25 million workers are employed in businesses susceptible to conversion), soon-to-be-retirees will have found an exit-option.

Municipalist takeover by unions would then enable redeployment of this legal capacity — with greater resourcing, staffing and generalized support. With an autonomous federation of workers’ controlled businesses, democratized unions would have another ally possessing extensive fiscal resources — an ally operating according to socialist relations of production.

A number of unions in eds & meds already see the municipality as a key site of political engagement. In New Haven, a number of current or former UNITE-HERE organizers or officers have been elected to the Board of Alders (effectively, the City Council). There, a coalition of unions and community groups successfully called on Yale University to hire five-hundred residents from communities of color. The Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) has run multiple teachers as candidates for the city’s Board of Alders and mayorality. It has also publicly forged ties with community groups, earning the CTU’s reputation for practicing “social movement unionism.” Power is being leveraged in these cities not only for organized labor as it stands, but the city as a whole. Labor unions are already heading this way. The key is imbuing this movement with a democratized form, imperative and character.

DSA as Potential Platform for Municipalist Syndicalism

There is another question: through what inter-union platforms could this be coordinated. One potential organization is Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the fastest growing socialist organization with 25,000 members. Countless members have demonstrated a commitment to an intersectional socialism as well as one focused on the labor movement. As shown by the intersectional character of participatory budgeting and other processes above, municipalist syndicalism gives content to this commitment.

Thus, as DSA turns towards creating a Democratic Socialist Labor Commission (DSLC), it would be wise to consider how union democracy can help flow into the construction of a municipalist socialism. Subsection 3 of the priorities resolution states that “DSA is committed to building democratic labor unions that empower and activate their rank-and-file members.” Putting forward a mix of reforms that include union dues participatory budgeting and common good bargaining adds programmatic weight to this statement.

A DSLC that “coordinates chapter-based labor branches” can do so along such lines, on the premise that if democratic socialism is to be implemented on the national level it must be first experimented with within our unions and within our cities. DSLC can help materially articulate a municipalist syndicalism. A socialism in which democratized unions take leadership, by constructing intersecting layers of self-governance and self-management at the municipal and regional level. Democratization of unions — and union capacity deployed-today towards democratization of the workplace — would remake unions into a “bridgehead” to a participatory society.

The seeds of a municipalist program already lie within the labor movement’s capacity. Once planted, the seeds of municipalism can grow from a democratization of the union to a democratization of the city itself — along direct and participatory lines. It is not the only pathway to radical municipalism, but it is the promise of the new working class. It is the promise of socialist-led union democracy in the twenty-first century.

Alexander Kolokotronis

Green Anarcho-Syndicalism

Luigi Fabbri – Reflections on Fascism

As fascist, neo-nazi, white supremacist and right-wing paramilitary groups continue to pursue their agenda in the United States with relative impunity, egged on by a racist and authoritarian President, one can only think of how fascists in the past have used the same sort of demagoguery, violence and terrorism to claw their way to power. But always behind them are very powerful interests who benefit from what the Italian anarchist, Luigi Fabbri, described as the fascist “preventative counter-revolution.” Capitalists will always hang the threat of fascism over ordinary people’s heads in order to keep them in line and to stop them from impeding the ruling classes’ own agendas. Here, I reproduce Fabbri’s introduction to his ground breaking analysis of fascism, Fascism: The Preventative Counter-Revolution. I included lengthier excerpts in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Even then (1921), Fabbri was able to identify the elements of a racist fascism in the United States.

Reflections on Fascism

In spite of all the good intentions to the contrary which I brought to this essay, I have in fact failed, in examining the dark issue of fascism, to stand “above the fray”.

Many a time I have tried to suppress the pain and outrage that stirred my hand, but immediately thereafter wounded feelings surged back to offer me counsel in tune with a disturbed and aggravated state of mind. The fact is that I do not really stand above the fray. If only for personal reasons, as a matter of temperament and custom and, to a slight extent – confined to the climate in which I live – out of a professional obligation, I stand slightly apart from the active, militant movement, which is to say that my involvement in the bitter social struggle is all too slight and almost exclusively confined to my writing, even though I too am in this fight with all of my heart and mind.

For around thirty years now I have been an anarchist and revolutionary and I regard myself as another obscure soldier in the proletarian army fighting the old world: and whereas this was something in which I took pride, when fortune was smiling upon us and the working class looked, after victory upon victory, to be on the verge of the ultimate victory, I was all the more proud to feel that I was one of its own come the grey and yellow hour of disappointment and defeat. And I cherished the hope of fairly imminent revenge, since, while troops easily enthused about the prospect of imminent excitement were disappointed, I stood firm in my belief in the inevitable victory of an egalitarian, libertarian justice for all.

Maybe we needed this harsh lesson from reality. For some time past too much detritus had been building up along the way, too many thoughtless things had been said and done and unduly easy successes had attracted to our side insincere and self-seeking persons out to turn our ideal into a cloak or a kiosk. And upstarts eager to use it for self-advancement. Maybe it was good luck that made many of them less kindly and less fair, or overly complacent and indulgent of the onset of the sort of degeneration that always besets movements that look to be the strongest and on the verge of success. And, when the storm struck, and the gale swept away the detritus and all the trivia, it also swept away the insincere self-seekers. We may well lament the fact that the lightning also struck the old sturdy, fruitful tree that had borne good crops, but on the other hand, the soil will have become more fertile under the plough of pain and the whirlwind will have left the air purer and fresher.

However, while it is true that it is an ill wind that blows no good, evil is always evil and as such, must be resisted. To resist it we need to look it in the face and take the measure of it. And the modest pages that follow may prove of service to that end. They make no claim to the prize of impartiality and the most Olympian serenity, for I too am parti pris, committed to the ranks in which I march and I identify profoundly with all the oppressed, whatever their particular political background, against those who beat, murder, torch and destroy in such cavalier fashion and with such impunity today. But, however much passion may have prompted me to speak thus, I hope that I have not done any injury to the truth.

What I have written here is not a history of fascism; I have merely made the occasional reference to certain specific facts, more in support of my thesis than with any real narrative intent. So many of my assertions may appear unduly absolute and axiomatic. However, not one of those assertions does not have precise corresponding facts, many specific facts with which the newspapers have been replete for the past year or so; and I do not mean just the subversive press. One can draw up the harshest and most violent indictment of fascism on foot of documentation drawn from the conservative papers most well-disposed towards fascism and from the fascist press proper.

Moreover, the fascist phenomenon is not peculiar to Italy. It has surfaced in even more serious form in Spain and has raised its head in Germany, Hungary, the Americas and elsewhere. Nor were persecution and unlawful reaction mounted by private citizens unknown prior to the World War. In certain respects, they had precedents in the pogroms in Russia and the lynchings in the United States. What is more, the United States has always had a sort of private police in the service of the capitalists, acting in cahoots with the official police, but independently of government, in troubled times and during strikes.

Italian fascism has its own characteristics, motley origins, positions, etc. In some instances it is an improvement upon its brothers or precursors beyond the mountains or across the seas, and in some cases worse than these. But it is not entirely a novelty. From a detailed reading of Italian history from 1795 and 1860, we might well be able to trace its historical ancestry. Take, for example, the Sanfedisti: in the context of the secret societies, these seem to have begun as a patriotic, reform-minded sect, albeit sui generis; but later they turned reactionary and pro-Austrian establishment against the “red” conspirators from the Carbonari and Young Italy.

Especially in the Papal States, in Faenza, Ravenna, etc., the Sanfedisti warred with the Carbonari: but the government heaped all the blame exclusively upon the Carbonari. De Castro (Mondo Secreto, Vol. VIII) recounts: “An armed, bloodthirsty rabble wrought havoc and looted throughout the city and countryside of Frosinone in the name of defending the throne and hunted down liberals: and the government dispatched the liberals to the gallows and acquitted the brigands.”

There is nothing really new under the sun, or so it seems! And if, in the past, the most violent conspiracies against freedom and against the people proved unable to fend off new ideas, prevent the downfall of old institutions and the emergence of new ones, then today too, they will not succeed and they will not succeed in the future.

The living step into the shoes of the dead,
Hope follows mourning,
The army is unleashed and goes marching
Blithely lashing out at the vanquished.

Luigi Fabbri

Bologna, 15 October 1921

 

CrimethInc. – Direct Democracy or Self-Determination?

The people in assembly

The relationship between anarchy and democracy in anarchist discourse continues to be a matter of great debate. Shawn Wilbur has argued in favour of anarchy conceived as a form of self-government based on free agreement, where reliance on democratic decision-making procedures represents at best a compromise of anarchist principles, and at worst a failure to apply those principles in practice. David Graeber, Murray Bookchin and many others have argued for direct democracy without the state. The CrimethInc. Ex-Workers’ Collective has now published its contribution to this debate in book form: From Democracy to Freedom: The Difference Between Democracy and Self-Determination.

Direct Democracy: Government without the State?

[…] Africa and Asia are witnessing new movements in favor of democracy; meanwhile, many people in Europe and the Americas who are disillusioned by the failures of representative democracy have pinned their hopes on direct democracy, shifting from the model of the Roman Republic back to its Athenian predecessor. If the problem is that government is unresponsive to our needs, isn’t the solution to make it more participatory, so we wield power directly rather than delegating it to politicians?

But what does that mean, exactly? Does it mean voting on laws rather than legislators? Or toppling the prevailing government and instituting a government of federated assemblies in its place? Or something else?

“True democracy exists only through the direct participation of the people, and not through the activity of their representatives. Parliaments have been a legal barrier between the people and the exercise of authority, excluding the masses from meaningful politics and monopolizing sovereignty in their place. People are left with only a façade of democracy, manifested in long queues to cast their election ballots.”

– Mu’ammer al Gaddafi, The Green Book

On one hand, if direct democracy is just a more participatory and time-consuming way to pilot the state, it might offer us more say in the details of government, but it will preserve the centralization of power that is inherent in it. There is a problem of scale here: can we imagine 219 million eligible voters directly conducting the activities of the US government? The conventional answer is that local assemblies would send representatives to regional assemblies, which in turn would send representatives to a national assembly—but there, already, we are speaking about representative democracy again. At best, in place of periodically electing representatives, we can picture a ceaseless series of referendums decreed from on high.

One of the most robust versions of that vision is digital democracy, or e-democracy, promoted by groups like the Pirate Party. The Pirate Party has already been incorporated into the existing political system; but in theory, we can imagine a population linked through digital technology, making all the decisions regarding their society via majority vote in real time. In such an order, majoritarian government would gain a practically irresistible legitimacy; yet the greatest power would likely be concentrated in the hands of the technocrats who administered the system. Coding the algorithms that determined which information and which questions came to the fore, they would shape the conceptual frameworks of the participants a thousand times more invasively than election-year advertising does today.

Electronic democracy

“The digital project of reducing the world to representation converges with the program of electoral democracy, in which only representatives acting through the prescribed channels may exercise power. Both set themselves against all that is incomputable and irreducible, fitting humanity to a Procrustean bed. Fused as electronic democracy, they would present the opportunity to vote on a vast array of minutia, while rendering the infrastructure itself unquestionable—the more participatory a system is, the more ‘legitimate.’”

Deserting the Digital Utopia

But even if such a system could be made to work perfectly—do we want to retain centralized majoritarian rule in the first place? The mere fact of being participatory does not make a political process any less coercive. As long as the majority has the capacity to force its decisions on the minority, we are talking about a system identical in spirit with the one that governs the US today—a system that would also require prisons, police, and tax collectors, or else other ways to perform the same functions.

Real freedom is not a question of how participatory the process of answering questions is, but of the extent to which we can frame the questions ourselves—and whether we can stop others from imposing their answers on us. The institutions that operate under a dictatorship or an elected government are no less oppressive when they are employed directly by a majority without the mediation of representatives. In the final analysis, even the most directly democratic state is better at concentrating power than maximizing freedom.

On the other hand, not everyone believes that democracy is a means of state governance. Some proponents of democracy have attempted to transform the discourse, arguing that true democracy only takes place outside the state and against its monopoly on power. For opponents of the state, this appears to be a strategic move, in that it appropriates all the legitimacy that has been invested in democracy across three centuries of popular movements and self-congratulatory state propaganda. Yet there are three fundamental problems with this approach.

“Democracy is not, to begin with, a form of State. It is, in the first place, the reality of the power of the people that can never coincide with the form of a State. There will always be tension between democracy as the exercise of a shared power of thinking and acting, and the State, whose very principle is to appropriate this power… The power of citizens is, above all, the power for them to act for themselves, to constitute themselves into an autonomous force. Citizenship is not a prerogative linked to the fact of being registered as an inhabitant and voter in a country; it is, above all, an exercise that cannot be delegated.”

Jacques Rancière

First, it’s ahistorical. Democracy originated as a form of state government; practically all the familiar historical examples of democracy were carried out via the state or at least by people who aspired to govern. The positive associations we have with democracy as a set of abstract aspirations came later.

Second, it fosters confusion. Those who promote democracy as an alternative to the state rarely draw a meaningful distinction between the two. If you dispense with representation, coercive enforcement, and the rule of law, yet keep all the other hallmarks that make democracy a means of governing—citizenship, voting, and the centralization of legitimacy in a single decision-making structure—you end up retaining the procedures of government without the mechanisms that make them effective. This combines the worst of both worlds. It ensures that those who approach anti-state democracy expecting it to perform the same function as the state will inevitably be disappointed, while creating a situation in which anti-state democracy tends to reproduce the dynamics associated with state democracy on a smaller scale.

Finally, it’s a losing battle. If what you mean to denote by the word democracy can only occur outside the framework of the state, it creates considerable ambiguity to use a term that has been associated with state politics for 2500 years. The objection that the democracies that govern the world today aren’t real democracies is a variant of the classic “No true Scotsman” fallacy. If, upon investigation, it turns out that not a single existing democracy lives up to what you mean by the word, you might need a different expression for what you are trying to describe. This is like communists who, confronted with all the repressive communist regimes of the 20th century, protest that not a single one of them was properly communist. When an idea is so difficult to implement that millions of people equipped with a considerable portion of the resources of humanity and doing their best across a period of centuries can’t produce a single working model, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

Give anarchists a tenth of the opportunities Marxists and democrats have had, and then we may speak about whether anarchy works! Most people will assume that what you mean by democracy is reconcilable with the state after all. This sets the stage for statist parties and strategies to regain legitimacy in the public eye, even after having been completely discredited. The political parties Podemos and Syriza gained traction in the occupied squares of Barcelona and Athens thanks to their rhetoric about direct democracy, only to make their way into the halls of government where they are now behaving like any other political party. They’re still doing democracy, just more efficiently and effectively. Without a language that differentiates what they are doing in parliament from what people were doing in the squares, this process will recur again and again.

“We must all be both rulers and ruled simultaneously, or a system of rulers and subjects is the only alternative… Freedom, in other words, can only be maintained through a sharing of political power, and this sharing happens through political institutions.”

– Cindy Milstein, “Democracy Is Direct”

When we identify what we are doing when we oppose the state as the practice of democracy, we set the stage for our efforts to be reabsorbed into larger representational structures. Democracy is not just a way of managing the apparatus of government, but also of regenerating and legitimizing it. Candidates, parties, regimes, and even the form of government can be swapped out from time to time when it becomes clear that they cannot solve the problems of their constituents. In this way, government itself—the source of at least some of those problems—is able to persist. Direct democracy is just the latest way to rebrand it.

Even without the familiar trappings of the state, any form of government requires some way of determining who can participate in decision-making and on what terms—once again, who counts as the demos. Such stipulations may be vague at first, but they will get more concrete the older an institution grows and the higher the stakes get. And if there is no way of enforcing decisions—no kratos—the decision-making processes of government will have no more weight than decisions people make autonomously. Without formal institutions, democratic organizations often enforce decisions by delegitimizing actions initiated outside their structures and encouraging the use of force against them. Hence the classic scene in which protest marshals attack demonstrators for doing something that wasn’t agreed upon in advance via a centralized democratic process. This is the paradox of a project that seeks government without the state.

These contradictions are stark enough in Murray Bookchin’s formulation of libertarian municipalism as an alternative to state governance. In libertarian municipalism, Bookchin explained, an exclusive and avowedly vanguardist organization governed by laws and a Constitution would make decisions by majority vote. They would run candidates in city council elections, with the long-term goal of establishing a confederation that could replace the state. Once such a confederation got underway, membership was to be binding even if participating municipalities wanted to withdraw. Those who try to retain government without the state are likely to end up with something like the state by another name.

The important distinction is not between democracy and the state, then, but between government and self-determination. Government is the exercise of authority over a given space or polity: whether the process is dictatorial or participatory, the end result is the imposition of control. By contrast, self-determination means disposing of one’s potential on one’s own terms: when people engage in it together, they are not ruling each other, but fostering cumulative autonomy. Freely made agreements require no enforcement; systems that concentrate legitimacy in a single institution or decision-making process always do.

It is strange to use the word democracy for the idea that the state is inherently undesirable. The proper word for that idea is anarchism. Anarchism opposes all exclusion and domination in favor of the radical decentralization of power structures, decision-making processes, and notions of legitimacy. It is not a matter of governing in a completely participatory manner, but of making it impossible to impose any form of rule.

CrimethInc. Ex-Workers’ Collective

June 2017

Shawn Wilbur: Anarchy and Self-Government

Here are some excerpts from Shawn Wilbur’s final contribution to the Center for a Stateless Society’s forum on anarchy and democracy. It begins with a reference to David Graeber’s social anarchist approach to democracy, which emphasizes alternative conceptions of participatory democracy, drawing on various peoples’ actual practices of non-hierarchical collective decision-making, and then discusses a Proudhonian approach to anarchy and democracy, which provides a place for certain “democratic practices” within the context of Proudhon’s concepts of “self-government” and voluntary federation. I included several selections from Proudhon on workers’ self-management, anarchy and federalism in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. I discuss the historical development of anarchist approaches to anarchy, democracy, organization and federalism in ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement.

Anarchy and Self-Government

As the market advocates among us are almost certainly aware, it is a common trope among Graeber-inspired anarchists that people only turn to counting and calculation as a means of organizing themselves when society (characterized in this view by a basis in communism and informal democracy) begins to break down. And that reading seems generally faithful to Graeber’s variety of social anarchism, at the core of which is a faith that people can work things out without recourse to mechanisms like market valuation or vote-taking…

I then want to undertake a limited defense of democratic practices, including voting, in a way that draws on Proudhon’s later works and, in a sense, completes the argument against the democratic principle

I would simply like to pick out one aspect of Proudhon’s theory—his frequent use of the English term self-government among the synonyms for anarchy—and propose the bare outline how anarchic self-government might function in practice.

Let’s figure out how we might build a road, or undertake similar projects, using the principle of federation and the sociology of collective force. Readers can then determine whether the distinctions that I have been proposing do or do not actually make a difference.  I’ll structure the sketch around four basic observations about social organization:

  1. The importance of specific decision-making mechanisms or organizational structures to the organization of a free society is almost certainly overestimated. If we are considering building a road, then there are all sorts of technical questions to be answered. We need to know about potential users, routes, construction methods, ecological impacts, etc.—and the answers to all of these questions will significantly narrow the range of possible proposals. We need to make sure that the plans which seem to serve specific local needs can be met with local resources, which will further narrow the possibilities. And in a non-governmental society, there can be no right to coerce individuals in the name of “the People,” nor can there be any obligation for individuals to give way to the will of the majority—and this absence of democratic rights and duties must, I think, be recognized, if the society is to be considered even vaguely anarchistic—so new limitations are likely to appear when individuals feel that their interests are not represented by proposals.

The simplest sort of self-government, where individuals simply pursue a combination of their own interests—including, of course, their interests as members of various social collectivities—and the knowledge necessary to serve them, will either lead to proposals that are acceptable to all the interested parties or they will encounter some obstacle that this sort of simple self-government appears unable to overcome. This second case is presumably the point at which a vote and the imposition of the will of the majority might seem useful. But what is obvious is that such a resolution does not solve the problem facing this particular polity. This sort of democracy is what happens when the simplest sort of self-government—which is probably not worth calling government at all—breaks down, and it involves relations that seem difficult to reconcile with the notion of self-government.

But perhaps this very simple self-government revolves around the wrong sort of self.

  1. The “self” in anarchic self-government is neither simply the human individual, nor “the People,” understood abstractly, but some real social collectivity. The vast majority of Proudhon’s sociological writings actually relate to the analysis of how unity-collectivities, organized social groups with a unified character, emerge and dissolve in society, but what is key for us to note here is that we are not talking about abstract notions like “the People.” Instead, if we are talking about a sort of social self-government, it would seem that the avoidance of exploitation and oppression is going to depend on carefully identifying real collectivities to which various interested parties belong. While “the People” may find their mutual dependence a rather abstract matter, the more precisely we can identify and clarify the workings of specific collectivities, the less chance there should be that purely individual interests undercut negotiations among the members of those collectivities.

One of the important elements of Proudhon’s sociology is his recognition that collectivities may have different interests than the strictly individual interests of the persons of which they are composed. That means that individuals may find themselves forced to recognize their own interests as complex and perhaps in conflicts, depending on the scale and focus of analysis. This may mean, for example, that there will be hard choices between the direct satisfaction of individual desires and various indirect, social satisfactions. But it should also mean that the more strictly individual sorts of satisfaction cannot be neglected when members are thinking about the health and success of the group.

To the extent that real collectivities can be identified, and decisions regarding them limited to the members of those collectivities, negotiations can be structured quite explicitly around the likely trade-offs. To the extent that the health and success of the collectivity depends on lively forms of conflict among the members (and Proudhon made complexity and intensity of internal relations one of the markers of the health—and the freedom—of these entities), then the more conscious all members must be of the need to maintain balance without resorting to some winner-take-all scenario.

It will, of course, not always be possible to resolve conflict by bringing together a single collectivity. There will be issues that can be resolved through additional fact-finding or compromises within the group, but there will be others that call for the identification of other groups of interested parties, whether in parallel with the existing groups, addressing different sorts of shared interests, at a smaller scale, addressing interests that can be addressed separately from the present context, or on a larger scale, addressing issues shared by the given group and other groups as well. We can already see how this analysis leads to federalism as an organizing principle, but perhaps it is not quite clear how and why these various groups might be constituted.

  1. The “nucleus” of every unity-collectivity is likely to be a conflict, problem or convergence of interests. One of the consequences of breaking with the governmental principle ought to be the abandonment of the worldview that sees society always present as “the People,” a fundamentally governmental collectivity always present to intervene in the affairs of individual persons. While there might be a few institutions of self-government that enjoy a perpetual existence, anarchists should almost certainly break with the notion that that each individual is obliged to stand as a citizen of some general polity whenever called to account for themselves.

Instead, the principle of voluntary association and careful attention to real relations of interdependence ought to be our guides. And the rich sort of self-interest we’ve been exploring here ought to serve us well in that regard. To abandon the assumptions of governmentalism and take on the task of self-government is going to be extremely demanding in some cases, so we might expect that individuals will desire to keep their relations simple where they can, coming together to form explicit associations only when circumstances demand it—and then dissolving those association when circumstances allow.

Where existing relations seem inadequate to meet our needs and desires, then some new form of association is always an option—and with practice hopefully we will learn to take on the complex responsibilities involved. Where existing relations seem to bind us in ways that stand in the way of our needs and desires, we’ll learn to distinguish between those existing associations which simply do not serve and those of a more fundamental, inescapable sort—and hopefully we will grow into those large-scale responsibilities from which we cannot extricate ourselves. Conventions for the use of property, the distribution of revenue and products, the mechanics of exchange, etc. can probably be approached in much the same way we would approach the formation of a new workgroup, the extension of a roadway, the establishment of sustainable waste or stormwater disposal, etc.

  1. Organization, according to the federative principle, is a process by which we identify—or extricate—specific social “selves,” on the one hand, or establish their involvement in larger-scale collectivities, on the other, and establish the narrow confines within which various “democratic” practices might come into play. If we are organized in anarchistic federations, then we can expect that organization to be not just bottom-up, but very specifically up from the problems, up from the local needs and desires, up from the material constraints, with the larger-scale collectivities only emerging on the basis of converging interests. Beyond the comparatively temporary nature of the federated collectivities, we should probably specify that we are talking about a largely consultative federalism, within which individuals strive to avoid circumstances in which decision among options is likely to become a clear loss for any of the interested parties. If we are forced by circumstances to resort to mechanisms like a majority vote, then we will want to contain the damage as much as possible. But I suspect we will often find that the local decisions that are both sufficiently collective and divisive to require something worth calling “democratic practices,” but also sufficiently serious to push us to confrontations within local groups may find solutions through consultation with other, similar groups. Alternately, if the urgency is not simply local—if, for example, ecological concerns are a factor—they may find themselves “solved,” not by local desires at all, but by consideration of the effects elsewhere.

Taking these various observations together, it should be clear that I do indeed believe that sometimes we will be required to fall back on familiar sorts of democratic practices, but I hope it is also clear why, in very practical terms, I believe that this will constitute a failure within an anarchist society.

Shawn Wilbur