Robert Graham: Anarchy, Hierarchy and Democracy

anarchists assembling in Athens

Inspired by the recent online debate at Center for a Stateless Society (C4SS) on anarchy and democracy, I have been posting some material on anarchy and democracy, to complement earlier posts of material by Errico Malatesta, Luce Fabbri and Murray Bookchin. In 2004, I published an anarchist critique of Bookchin’s theory of “confederal democracy” under the title, “Reinventing Hierarchy: The Political Theory of Social Ecology” (Anarchist Studies, Vol. 12, No. 1). I thought now would be a good time to reproduce some excerpts.


The question which… arises is whether [the] face-to-face [non-mediated] political relationships [advocated by Murray Bookchin] are inherently libertarian and non-hierarchical. Certainly, there are many direct relationships that are neither libertarian nor non-hierarchical, for example master-slave and master-servant relationships, and patriarchal familial relationships. In Bookchin’s proposed community assemblies, it will still be possible for some members of the assembly to engage in domineering and manipulative behaviour. That the members of the assembly will know each other personally is no guarantee against that, as anyone involved in familial relationships can attest.

While manipulative and domineering behaviour may be incapable of elimination from social and political life, Bookchin would argue that the assembly remains non-hierarchical, with each member having equal voice and vote. However, policy decisions will ultimately be made by majority vote. If factions develop, as they invariably do, the very real possibility arises that some people will find themselves in the minority on many issues. Unable to marshal a majority in favour of their policy proposals, and against those of their political opponents, they will find their votes ineffective. This may in turn cause them to cease participating in the assembly or even to rebel against it, due to their lack of real decision-making power.

The majority may very well be placed in the position of having to enforce their decisions against a recalcitrant minority. The minority will have to decide whether to abide by the majority decision or face the consequences of disobedience. In either case, the majority will hold political authority over the minority. Whenever there is a lack of unanimity on a policy decision, or someone later decides the policy was mistaken, a hierarchical relationship will arise. That individual members of the assembly will sometimes be with the majority, sometimes not, does not change the fact that, with respect to the adoption and implementation of majority policy decisions, the majority on a particular issue will be in a position of authority over the minority on that issue. Hierarchical relationships will be created and recreated with every vote.

With respect to the so-called administrative functions to be performed by the various workplace and neighbourhood committees and councils, one of those functions will be the implementation of the majority decisions of the community assembly and, presumably, their enforcement, including the monitoring of compliance by community members with the policies adopted by the assembly. The various committees, councils, boards and tribunals will exercise authority over the individual members, associations and groups comprising the community.

The authority and power relationships between these administrative bodies and the individual members and groups in the community are a kind of hierarchical relationship, even if the alleged legitimacy of the authority and power exercised by these administrative bodies is based on policy-making functions being reserved to the community assembly. The fact remains that these administrative bodies will have the authority and the power to implement and enforce the policies adopted by the assembly, and the individual members and groups in the community will have an obligation to comply with these policies, and to abide by the administrative decisions of the administrative bodies delegated the responsibility of implementing and enforcing them.


Whether administrative bodies can limit their functions to strictly administrative ones, without engaging in any policy-making, is open to question. If administrative bodies must engage, at least to some extent, in policy-making, then one of the central bases for the legitimacy of the authority of the community assembly, namely that all policies are made directly by the members of the community in assembly will be undermined.

John Clark has argued that it is impossible for community assemblies to formulate policies with sufficient specificity `that administrators would have no significant role in shaping policy’ (`Municipal Dreams’, p41). The idea is that in applying general policies to specific cases, administrative bodies are themselves engaging in policy-making by giving general policies specific content. This is similar to arguments that conventional courts, in interpreting and applying the law to specific cases, are in reality creating law, a function that is supposed to be reserved to the legislature.

Clark suggests that administrative power can be kept in check by popular juries and citizens’ committees randomly selected from among the members of the community (`Municipal Dreams’, p42). In contrast, Bookchin has proposed that administrative bodies be kept in check by the community assembly itself (TE; p216).

Even if Clark were right that administrative bodies must engage in policy making at some level, creating yet more administrative bodies to oversee them is not a particularly attractive solution. That will simply create yet another level of political authority with which individual citizens will have to deal. In addition these supervisory bodies will themselves presumably have to be overseen by the community assembly or some other, higher, level of government, in which case the assembly or yet another level of authority will still be faced with what Clark believes to be the impossibly complex task of overseeing all administrative activity (`Municipal Dreams’, p47). Bookchin’s proposal that administrative bodies be overseen directly by the community assembly is at least more democratic.


Both Clark’s and Bookchin’s schemes entail a hierarchical structure of authority. In implementing and enforcing the policies adopted by the assembly, the firsl level administrative bodies endorsed by Bookchin exercise authority over individual community members. In supervising the exercise of this authority, the popular juries and citizens’ committees proposed by Clark exercise authority over the first-level administrative bodies and, indirectly, over the individual community member. In both cases the highest authority, at least at the community level, remains the assembly of all community members based on majority vote.

If individual members of the community are also members of the governing authority, then how can it be said that there is a hierarchy of authority? Bookchin goes so far as to say that `the self that finds expression in the assembly and community is literally, the assembly and community that has found self-expression – a complete congruence of form and content’ (PSA, p 167, fn.). Yet this would only be the case if the assembly always spoke in one voice. However, when decisions are made by majority vote, this often may not be the case. The minority on an issue will be subject to the authority of the majority and to the derivative authority of the administrative and supervisory bodies charged with implementing, interpreting, applying and enforcing the policies adopted by the assembly by majority vote.


The question that naturally arises is whether or not any properly political relationship can be non-hierarchical. It may be that Bakunin was right when he wrote, `whoever talks of political power talks of domination’ (The Anarchist Reader, p109). How is it possible to create political relationships that are truly non-hierarchical? Can there be such a thing as non-hierarchical political authority?

These are questions to which Bookchin has never provided satisfactory answers. To critics of majoritarian direct democracy, Bookchin has responded that the majority `could hardly “dictate” to anyone. The minority would have every opportunity to dissent, to work to reverse that decision through unimpaired discussion and advocacy’ (AMFL, p147). This response ignores the fact that unless and until the minority is able to reverse the decision (thereby creating yet another dissenting minority, unless unanimous agreement is reached), it remains subject to the decision, and the authority, of the majority.

The feminist political theorist, Carole Pateman, has proposed a model of direct, participatory democracy that is non-hierarchical and anti-authoritarian. To give substantive recognition to the freedom and equality of all citizens, Pateman argues, one must give practical recognition to `the right of minorities to refuse or withdraw consent, or where necessary, to disobey’ majority decisions (PPO, p162). Political relationships remain non-hierarchical, because the majority does not exercise institutional power over the minority. The minority is free to decide `whether or not they ought to consent to, or comply with’, majority decisions (PPO, p137). Direct democracy conceived in these terms is compatible with a social ecological and anarchist conception of non-dominating, non-hierarchical community.

Bookchin does not consider this alternative, but appears to believe that the only real alternative to majority rule is decision-making based on consensus, or unanimous agreement. The important difference between consensus-based decision-making and the kind of direct democracy advocated by Pateman, is that only in the former can a `minority of one’ prevent the rest of the community from adopting a policy or deciding on some collective action (Bookchin, AMFL, p147). This does give the dissenters their own kind of de facto authority over the majority because their refusal to consent to a proposal governs the outcome of the decision making process. However, under Pateman’s proposal, the majority can adopt policy and act on it despite minority dissent, although they may decide not to in the face of such dissent. What the majority cannot do is force the minority to obey its decisions, which is different from a minority being able to force the majority act in accordance with its wishes. This kind of political `authority’ does not legitimize the exercise of `power over others’ but rather gives `citizens collective power to, or the ability to, act for themselves’ (PPO, p136).

Bookchin himself proposed a kind of non-dominating authority as a means of undermining the authority of existing, statist political institutions in The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship (RUDC). Neighbourhood assemblies are to elect mandated, recallable delegates to municipal and state councils assembly delegates, creating a parallel moral authority to oversee and influence the legal, civic and state governments (pp271-273). Although these municipal statewide councils of neighbourhood assembly delegates would not exercise and official political power, they would `function as the popular voice of the citizenry articulated into communities rather than anonymous voters’ (p273). Through this process, `governance by legislative command, with its panoply of penalties an coercion, would begin to yield to governance by moral suasion, with its evocation of public responsibility and individual probity’ (p274).

If councils of neighbourhood assembly delegates can, through moral suasion, influence the exercise of political power by existing institutions, then one would think they would be able to exert an even more powerful influence over the individual members of the community for whom the councils would be providing a voice, without resorting to the `panoply of penalties and coercion’ upon which existing political institutions and governments depend. If majority rule is ultimately upheld by the use of coercive sanctions, the focus of political activity will be on mobilizing majority support instead of achieving mutual understanding, cooperation and agreement by rational persuasion. Bookchin’s `vision of community life as an ethical compact’ will be seriously, if not fatally, undermined if the community assembly must ultimately resort to coercive measures in order to maintain its authority (RUDC, p274)…

Robert Graham (2004)

Noir et Rouge: Majority and Minority (1958)

In Volume 2 of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included several selections from the French anarchist journal, Noir et Rouge (1956-1970), including material on national liberation and anti-colonialism, draft resistance against the French war against Algerian independence (Selection 31), and new directions in anarchist theory (Selection 47). Noir et Rouge (Black and Red, the traditional colours of class struggle anarchism) was published by the Groupes Anarchistes d’Action Revolutionaire (Revolutionary Action Anarchist Groups), one of the many French anarchist groups that emerged following the split in the French anarchist movement between Georges Fontenis and the Libertarian Communist Federation, which tried to unite anarchists and other ultra-leftists into a more conventional revolutionary party, and those anarchists who felt the Fontenis approach was dogmatic and authoritarian (see the previous post from Giovanna Berneri). In the following excerpts from Noir et Rouge, translated by Paul Sharkey, the GAAR sets forth its position on the debate regarding majority rule, defending the right of the minority to follow its own path. Noir et Rouge, with its more fluid conception of anarchist organization, influenced the student revolutionaries of May 1968 in France.

Majority and Minority

Can a majority claim to speak for on organization? Are its decisions binding upon the organization? How is the minority treated in terms of its expression, its conduct, its very existence within the ranks of that organization?

At first glance, all these questions appear to be of secondary interest, but in fact they are of considerable significance when one wishes to live inside an organization and wants that organization to live. And there can be no “laissez-faire, time will tell, every case is a case apart, with a little good will…” approach, for often experience is very convincing but by the time it is noticed it is too late to change anything and everything has to be embraced or allowed to fall by the wayside. Right from the very first steps taken together, we must devise a theoretical and practical line of policy acceptable to all and, in this context, the minority-majority issue can tilt the balance in one direction or the other.

As we see it, the operation of a federalist organization is incompatible with retention of the principle of majority rule. There is a real majority in the form of a freely conceived, freely accepted unanimity. Any other majority, be it a two thirds majority, an absolute or simple majority, with all manner of implications, constitutes a majority only as far as those who accept it are concerned; as far as others are concerned, it is worthless and cannot be considered binding.

Every time an attempt is made to foist a policy upon others, on one ground or another, one arrives at a contrived, fragile, unstable unity. Of course, in every case one finds and is going to find “special circumstances, historical necessities” — but then, what moment in humanity’s march towards its happiness is not historical? And it is not hard for those in need of that majority to prate on about special circumstances.

But… “without a majority, no decision can be arrived at and in the absence of decisions, an organization is worthless, a shambles.” This is the chief charge levelled at libertarians by authority lovers and, it has to be said, by certain libertarians. But experience flies in the face of such reasoning. Not only are there organizations in existence that are built on this foundation, but there have been instances where, without any votes being counted, there was a real majority… 19 July 1936, the May events in Barcelona in 1937… but there was no majority when the anarchists were “obliged” to collaborate with the government, at which point our adversaries started to roil about the existence of an opposition and a minority and to carp about the anarchists’ weakness and lack of discipline. Yet it was the existence of that very minority that salvaged the movement’s honour, including the honour of those who had consented to compromise.

The majority principle derives from the practice of the political struggle, from universal suffrage, from parliamentarianism. There, it is necessary, nay, the only indispensable factor in the smooth running of the system. The struggle to win a majority has never been and never will be open and honest. In order to win votes, no one shows his true face, the mechanisms of his game or the real aims he has in mind. The most revolutionary appeals are merely vague propositions likely to attract a brood swathe of individuals: the most po-faced sermons are only the ravings of rabble-rousers trying to stir the basest sentiments of the mob, be it selfish or sham-humanitarian. This grand parade of fine talkers is well orchestrated from behind the scenes through the use of intimidation, economic and other threats, as well as promises and special advantages. In authoritarian regimes, this backstage activity is even more transparent and the real agents of the majority (the official and political police, direct or indirect oppression) tread the boards, flourishing their “arguments”; they do not even trouble to mount a few minor displays against the recalcitrant so as to make an example for the rest, and to arrive at the ideal majority… 99.99%. But that danger lurks even within non-authoritarian, democratic, indeed, libertarian organizations, when the principle of majority rule is embraced along with the competition to win a majority. We have seen supposedly libertarian congresses hatched behind the scenes, with the parts and the speeches allocated in advance and even propaganda tailor-mode for each delegate, and we have also witnessed the outcome.

This “Fontenis-style” phenomenon ought not to be repeated.

But there will always be some who are not convinced, some who hold back, even if only for strictly personal reasons: we know about the unconfessed role that has been played by personal relations, even in strictly political, economic or ideological organizations. We cannot make it a requirement that everyone hits it off with everybody else. So we will run into nonsensical, unsolicited obstruction which can paralyze and stymie the organization just when it ought to be acting with the greatest speed — and what, then, are we to do? It happens.

But this argument is founded upon two mistakes: the notion of a homogeneous specific organization and the notion of anarchist morality.

When the members of an organization are bound together not only by reasonably friendly personal relations, but also and primarily by a given number of ideological and tactical principles — enough common ground to justify the claim that that organization is homogeneous — the dangers of significant differences of opinion are minimal. This is one of the reasons why we stick to the views and practice of a “specific anarchist group” which we refuse to dilute or see diluted for us. Just let a new practice be adopted — “come all ye who are for freedom” or “against the State,” or even “anarchism generally” — and the next day, friction on some issue will be inevitable. Heterogeneity carries another consequence: the existence of groups of “initiates” (with a foot in several groups at once, maybe) which are, most of the time, secret or semi-secret: and every one them aims to make the running) their consciences clear that they are “leading others along the righteous path”… which will very quickly degenerate into internecine squabbling, into an OPB*, into leaders and masses. Thus there are not just a majority and a minority but a number of concentric circles, most often revolving around some “master-mind” (which releases the others from any requirement to think), each suspicious of the other, each of them pursuing his own little schemes behind the scenes or in the open, trying to win others over to his faction, and all of this overlaid with a blithe semblance of unity. This is an unwholesome climate that neither educates nor builds upright, honest individuals. It is a “den of parliamentarianism” in miniature.

Even so, though, and in spite of the variety of the views, differences of opinion and debates that may emerge, we should be overly•starry-eyed. Ideas themselves are not set in stone and are liable to evolve. So if the differences of opinion are of a significantly theoretical order, it would be better for the organization if it were to fall apart and for there to be two or several new more or less homogeneous organizations, than for one heterogeneous organization to be retained. This is inevitable, and if any attempt is made to stem this trend, it is at that point that there is a risk of everything coming to a halt and grinding to a standstill, through the quest for anodyne compromises that forestall disintegration but also prevent movement in any direction at all.

The other factor mentioned earlier — anarchist morality — if properly understood and implemented in life will help greatly to smooth over minor frictions, and also the disintegration of the organization should it come — through acceptance of an opinion that differs from one’s own, without writing it off as the opinion of an enemy or taking up arms against it. Provided, of course, that we are not dealing with a view completely outside the parameters of anarchism. The history of anarchism has had only a few specific instances of this sort to show and this latter likelihood can virtually be discounted.

There is a considerable part to be played in anarchist organizations by an internal bulletin wherein there can be an open forum for all matters of concern to the organization, including dissenting viewpoints.

There is a further factor tied to the organization: comrades joining this organization must freely embrace its necessity and its role. That much is self-evident. Anybody who cannot see beyond the narrow confines of the individual, who cannot imagine social structures beyond scattered, isolated individuals, will be better advised to stay isolated, helping others as and when he sees fit, but not hampering the organization through uncompromising, maverick practices. Some other designation will have to be devised for comrades of this sort, who are often very good comrades in fact, and they will have to be accepted for what they are.

A genuinely democratic organization can be identified on the basis of its behaviour vis-a-vis its own opposition. This is all the more true of a libertarian organization which aims to lay the groundwork for the society of the future. Every time that a majority discusses and enforces the majority-prescribed parameters within which the opposition has to operate, there can be two reasons far this: either the membership was very widely based, or, inside that organization, there are persons itching to play the parts of leaders. These two possibilities are not mutually exclusive: such and such a member keen to take charge of the organization will draft in new members in order to boost his chances of winning majority support.

Outside our own organizations, can we require and practice rejection of majority rule? This is a thornier issue, for circumstances differ, and the aim is primarily to promote our ideas without betraying them. But here too, we must ensure that even the victorious majority does not crush the spirit of the minority, not just because of the danger of finding ourselves in the same position someday (revolutionary movements being most often minority movements) but also because of our anti-totalitarian outlook and tolerance. Every time that a leader or panel of leaders starts to claim absolute mastery, they end up turning on one another and will arrive at a dictatorship, camouflaged or brazen. The first sign of a future “head of State” or “people’s leader’ is the hatred he bears his own comrades who cannot stand him in that role. After which there is no stopping his appetite for authority, the parameters of which become increasingly broadened and boundless.

Every organization, no matter what it may be, is a compromise between one person and the rest vis-a-vis the imperatives of social life. Meaning that every individual must inevitably renounce certain tendencies or habits which are unacceptable or harmful to society. And as a result, inside every organization, there is a risk of the sacrifices required of individuals for society’s sake going beyond the needs of society per se and turning an abstraction like the State, the bureaucracy, the leader, historical necessity, etc… One barrier against this threat is for the individual to have the option to dissent from certain things or certain tendencies which he deems inappropriate and of no social utility, the chance of switching across to the opposition, which is to say, the minority. There are other barriers as well: federalist organization per se, direct and limited election of officers, genuine participation by ordinary members of the organization, the struggle being economic rather than political, etc…

* Organisation Pensée Bataille

Noir et Rouge, No. 10, June 1958