Kropotkin on the Russian Revolution

Peter Kropotkin

Continuing on with my posts relating to the 100th anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia, and in commemoration of Kropotkin’s birthday (December 21, 1842), today I present a relatively unknown letter that Kropotkin wrote in August 1920 about the Russian Revolution, in which he criticizes the centralism and authoritarianism of the Marxists, advocating instead an anarchist social revolution based on voluntary federation, decentralization and workers’ self-management. Kropotkin points out that the differences between the Marxists and the anarchists on these points date back at least to the time of the First International, where the anarchists argued that in order to prevent the creation of a socialist state that would establish new forms of exploitation and domination of the working classes, it was necessary that the workers themselves, through their own organizations, organize production, distribution and public services on a functional and geographical basis. I explore these issues in more detail in ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’ – The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement. I thank Iain McKay for posting Kropotkin’s letter on his Anarcho webpage, and Lee Dugatkin, author of a book on Kropotkin (The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics), for first posting it on his Kropotkin webpage. Kropotkin’s letter was originally published in the French anarchist paper, Le Libertaire, in July 1921.

A letter from Kropotkin

Introduction from Le Libertaire, 22 July 1921:

Kropotkin was visited in his residence in the environs of Moscow by numerous foreign delegates. He was often misled as to their quality and many who were just socialists assumed an anarchist label in front of him.

One of these, the Czechoslovak Hugo Sonnenschein, obtained from the great libertarian theorist the following few lines which [Sonnenschein] was to bring to the awareness of the revolutionaries of his country. He was one of those who deceived Kropotkin over their quality; he was a Bolshevik and [so] the letter, by the author of Autour d’une Vie [Kropotkin’s Memoirs of a Revolutionist] and so many other admirable books, [because it] did not sing the praises of the Bolshevik regime was suppressed for more than six months.

We have only known about it for a few days. We publish it in the hope that all our comrades will read it with pleasure and profit.

Comrades and Friends,

The last war has proven, beyond all doubt, that in today’s society it is absolutely mad to hope that a day will come when wars would become impossible as long as the present exploitation of labour by Capital and backward nations by nations more advanced in industry continues to exist. As long as this exploitation lasts, wars will devastate humanity and hinder its development. The four-year war (which still continues) has confirmed once again what socialists of every shade have repeatedly stressed: As long as Capital can buy the strength of Labour and enrich itself by the toil of others, there will be internal wars. And what is true for a nation is also true for the society of peoples. The nation which precedes other nations in its economic development (or else, only believes that they have preceded), will inevitably seek to enrich themselves by force of arms.

Under the present conditions wars will return; and their character, as we have seen recently, will be more and more ferocious, more and more abominable, and more and more disastrous for the generations to come. Under these conditions the need for a profound reconstruction of society upon new bases – that is to say, for a social revolution – becomes more and more obvious. The bourgeoisie itself is beginning to realize it. And that is why it is absolutely essential for those who are most interested in reconstruction to discuss thoroughly the essential features of the changes in the structure of society which it is a question of achieving.

So far, the workers have had little interest in this kind of discussion. They did not believe in the possibility of an impending social revolution. But they must now see that they were wrong. Life itself, and above all the war, has imposed reconstruction. The social revolution knocks at our doors. Furthermore, as you will undoubtedly learn when your delegates return from Russia, the attempt at a Jacobin social revolution which has been taking place on a large scale for nearly three years has not produced the results we were hoping to obtain.

They will explain this failure by the war, which is still on going. But the cause is much deeper.

The Revolution of November 1917 sought to establish in Russia a mixed regime of Babeuf’s highly centralized authoritarian Communism; with [Constantin] Pecqueur’s equally centralized Collectivism, which has been popularized in Europe for forty years under the name of Marxism. And this attempt – it must be acknowledged – has certainly not given the results hoped for.

The attempt to establish a highly centralized power, imposing the communist revolution by decrees and by armies of bureaucrats [employés] did not succeed. The usual vices of every centralized State gnaw away at this administration, the mass of the people is excluded from reconstruction, and the dictatorial powers of the communist bureaucrats [employés], far from alleviating the evils, only aggravate them.

It is therefore obvious that the workers of central and western Europe, particularly the Latin ones, when they know the results of the Revolution in Russia should look for more effective means of reaching their goals. Already in the First International, when they were studying “public services in the future society,” they sought the solution of the social problem by the socialization of production and exchange; but they wanted to get there not by the centralized State but by the federation of free Communes, the decentralization of production and exchange, and the awakening of the local initiative of groups of producers and consumers. In short, they studied the question of how to build the new society not by orders from the centre, but by construction from the simple to the complex, always encouraging local and individual initiative, instead of killing it by armies of functionaries who carry out the will of the centre as best they can.

The experiment conducted in Russia has confirmed the need to develop these tendencies of autonomy and federalism, and it is in this direction that without doubt the efforts of the workers will head, as soon as they delve into the great and difficult questions that confront every revolution, as had been done in the federalist International.

Brothers and friends of Western Europe, history has imposed a formidable task on your generation. It falls upon you to begin to apply the principles of Socialism and to find practical forms. And it is upon you that falls the task of developing the new structures of a society where the exploitation of man by man, as well as classes, will have disappeared and, at the same time, a society where, instead of the centralization which brings us oppression and wars, will develop a thousand centres of life and constructive forces in free Trade Unions and independent Communes.

History pushes us in this direction.

Well, let us courageously get to work!

Let us break with the two prejudices of benefactor-Capital and the providence-State! And in our groups and congresses, in our Trade Unions and in our Communes, we will find the necessary elements to build a new society, the Society of Labour and Liberty, free from Capital and the State, and from the cult of Authority.

Peter Kropotkin, Moscow, August 1920


Emma Goldman’s Disillusionment with Marxism-Leninism, Not the Russian Revolution

In the chapter on the Russian Revolution in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian IdeasI included excerpts from the Afterword to Emma Goldman’s My Further Disillusionment with Russia (originally published in 1924)But as Emma Goldman noted in a handwritten inscription to the book, what she was disillusioned with was the Bolsheviks (today known as “Marxist-Leninists”), who had strangled the Revolution, not with the Russian Revolution, which had begun with such great promise. In today’s post, I include the beginning of Goldman’s Afterword, where she refers to the Marxist dogma that a socialist revolution can only occur in advanced capitalist societies, which became an excuse for the Marxist dictatorship in Russia, as the Communists bludgeoned the Russian people into the 20th century. Far from representing the next stage in historical development, the Communist dictatorship in the Soviet Union represented a brutal process of forced industrialization that created a form of state capitalism, paving the way neither for socialism nor communism, but for the restoration of capitalism after the collapse of the Soviet Union (see the article by the the Russian anarcho-syndicalist group, the Interprofessional Workers’ Union, “Russian Capitalism,” in Volume Three of my Anarchism anthology).

Marxism v. the Russian Revolution

Non-Bolshevik Socialist critics of the Russian failure contend that the Revolution could not have succeeded in Russia because industrial conditions had not reached the necessary climax in that country. They point to Marx, who taught that a social revolution is possible only in countries with a highly developed industrial system and its attendant social antagonisms. They therefore claim that the Russian Revolution could not be a social revolution, and that historically it had to evolve along constitutional, democratic lines, complemented by a growing industry, in order to ripen the country economically for the basic change.

This orthodox Marxian view leaves an important factor out of consideration — a factor perhaps more vital to the possibility and success of a social revolution than even the industrial element. That is the psychology of the masses at a given period. Why is there, for instance, no social revolution in the United States, France, or even in Germany? Surely these countries have reached the industrial development set by Marx as the culminating stage. The truth is that industrial development and sharp social contrasts are of themselves by no means sufficient to give birth to a new society or to call forth a social revolution. The necessary social consciousness, the required mass psychology is missing in such countries as the United States and the others mentioned. That explains why no social revolution has taken place there.

In this regard Russia had the advantage of other more industrialized and “civilized” lands. It is true that Russia was not as advanced industrially as her Western neighbours. But the Russian mass psychology, inspired and intensified by the February Revolution, was ripening at so fast a pace that within a few months the people were ready for such ultra-revolutionary slogans as “All power to the Soviets” and “The land to the peasants, the factories to the workers.”

The significance of these slogans should not be underestimated. Expressing in a large degree the instinctive and semi-conscious will of the people, they yet signified the complete social, economic, and industrial reorganization of Russia. What country in Europe or America is prepared to interpret such revolutionary mottoes into life? Yet in Russia, in the months of June and July 1917, these slogans became popular and were enthusiastically and actively taken up, in the form of direct action, by the bulk of the industrial and agrarian population of more than 150 million. That was sufficient proof of the “ripeness” of the Russian people for the social revolution.

As to economic “preparedness” in the Marxian sense, it must not be forgotten that Russia is preeminently an agrarian country. Marx’s dictum presupposes the industrialization of the peasant and farmer population in every highly developed society, as a step toward social fitness for revolution. But events in Russia, in 1917, demonstrated that revolution does not await this process of industrialization and — what is more important — cannot be made to wait. The Russian peasants began to expropriate the landlords and the workers took possession of the factories without taking cognizance of Marxian dicta. This popular action, by virtue of its own logic, ushered in the social revolution in Russia, upsetting all Marxian calculations. The psychology of the Slav proved stronger than social democratic theories.

That psychology involved the passionate yearning for liberty nurtured by a century of revolutionary agitation among all classes of society. The Russian people had fortunately remained politically unsophisticated and untouched by the corruption and confusion created among the proletariat of other countries by “democratic” liberty and self-government. The Russian remained, in this sense, natural and simple, unfamiliar with the subtleties of politics, of parliamentary trickery, and legal makeshifts. On the other hand, his primitive sense of justice and right was strong and vital, without the disintegrating finesse of pseudo-civilization. He knew what he wanted and he did not wait for “historic inevitability” to bring it to him: he employed direct action. The Revolution to him was a fact of life, not a mere theory for discussion.

Thus the social revolution took place in Russia in spite of the industrial backwardness of the country. But to make the Revolution was not enough. It was necessary for it to advance and broaden, to develop into economic and social reconstruction. That phase of the Revolution necessitated fullest play of personal initiative and collective effort. The development and success of the Revolution depended on the broadest exercise of the creative genius of the people, on the cooperation of the intellectual and manual proletariat. Common interest is the leit motif of all revolutionary endeavour, especially on its constructive side. This spirit of mutual purpose and solidarity swept Russia with a mighty wave in the first days of the October/November Revolution. Inherent in that enthusiasm were forces that could have moved mountains if intelligently guided by exclusive consideration for the well-being of the whole people. The medium for such effective guidance was on hand: the labour organizations and the cooperatives with which Russia was covered as with a network of bridges combining the city with the country; the Soviets which sprang into being responsive to the needs of the Russian people; and, finally, the intelligentsia whose traditions for a century expressed heroic devotion to the cause of Russia’s emancipation.

But such a development was by no means within the programme of the Bolsheviki. For several months following October they suffered the popular forces to manifest themselves, the people carrying the Revolution into ever-widening channels. But as soon as the Communist Party felt itself sufficiently strong in the government saddle, it began to limit the scope of popular activity. All the succeeding acts of the Bolsheviki, all their following policies, changes of policies, their compromises and retreats, their methods of suppression and persecution, their terrorism and extermination of all other political views — all were but the means to an end: the retaining of the State power in the hands of the Communist Party. Indeed, the Bolsheviki themselves (in Russia) made no secret of it. The Communist Party, they contended, is the advance guard of the proletariat, and the dictatorship must rest in its hands. Alas, the Bolsheviki reckoned without their host — without the peasantry, whom neither the razvyoriska, the Tcheka, nor the wholesale shooting could persuade to support the Bolshevik régime. The peasantry became the rock upon which the best laid plans and schemes of Lenin were wrecked. But Lenin, a nimble acrobat, was skilled in performing within the narrowest margin. The new economic policy was introduced just in time to ward off the disaster which was slowly but surely overtaking the whole Communist edifice.

Emma Goldman

Robert Graham: Anarchy and Democracy

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

Anarchy and Democracy

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

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

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

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

But what many anarchists failed to fully appreciate was the second part of Rousseau’s argument, namely what sort of government would guarantee everyone’s rights and freedoms. And in this regard, Rousseau advocated a system of direct, not parliamentary, democracy, despite the claims of many of his so-called followers, including some of the Jacobins during the French Revolution. In a noteworthy passage regarding the English system of parliamentary government, Rousseau wrote that: “The people of England regards itself as free; but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing. The use it makes of the short moments of liberty it enjoys shows indeed that it deserves to lose them.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Graham

The October Revolution and the Communist Party

Soviet poster

Soviet poster

It’s that time of year again – no, not Halloween, the World Series, or the return to “Standard Time” (in a regimented world, all time is “standard” time). It’s the anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia, which ultimately led to the creation of a brutal dictatorship cloaked in the ideological mantle of Marxism (“our friends, the enemy,” as the anarchist historian Max Nettlau used to say). For some reason, my posts regarding the 1917 Russian Revolution generate some of the most traffic. I have posted some of Alexander Berkman’s writings on the Russian Revolution before, and also included his critique of the “Bolshevik Myth” in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Here is a piece by Berkman, written around 1922, on the counter-revolutionary role of the Communist Party (formerly, the Bolshevik party).


The Russian Revolution and the Communist Party

The October Revolution was not the legitimate offspring of traditional Marxism. Russia but little resembled a country in which, according to Marx, “the concentration of the means of production and the socialisation of the tools of labor reached the point where they can no longer be contained within their capitalistic shell. The shell bursts…”

In Russia, “the shell” burst unexpectedly. It burst at a stage of low technical and industrial development, when centralisation of the means of production had made little progress. Russia was a country with a badly organised system of transportation, with a weak bourgeoisie and weak proletariat, but with a numerically strong and socially important peasant population. In short, it was a country in which, apparently, there could be no talk of irreconcilable antagonism between the grown industrial labor forces and a fully ripened capitalist system.

But the combination of circumstances in 1917 involved, particularly for Russia, an exceptional state of affairs which. resulted in the catastrophic breakdown of her whole industrial system. “It was easy for Russia”, Lenin justly wrote at the time, “to begin the socialist revolution in the peculiarly unique situation of 1917.”

The specially favorable conditions for the beginning of the socialist revolution were:

  1. the possibility of blending the slogans of the Social Revolution with the popular demand for the termination of the imperialistic world war, which had produced great exhaustion and dissatisfaction among the masses;

  2. the possibility of remaining, at least for a certain period after quitting the war, outside the sphere of influence of the capitalistic European groups that continued the world war;

  3. the opportunity to begin, even during the short time of this respite, the work of internal organisation and to prepare the foundation for revolutionary reconstruction;

  4. the exceptionally favorable position of Russia, in case of possible new aggression on the part of West European imperialism, due to her vast territory and insufficient means of communication;

  5. the advantages of such a condition in the event of civil war; and

  6. the possibility of almost immediately satisfying the fundamental demands of the revolutionary peasantry, notwithstanding the fact that the essentially democratic viewpoint of the agricultural population was entirely different from the socialist program of the “party of the proletariat” which seized the reins of government.

Moreover, revolutionary Russia already had the benefit of a great experience — the experience of 1905, when the Tsarist autocracy succeeded in crushing the revolution for the very reason that the latter strove to be exclusively political and therefore could neither arouse the peasants nor inspire even a considerable part of the proletariat .

The world war, by exposing the complete bankruptcy of constitutional government, served to prepare and quicken the greatest movement of the people — a movement which, by virtue of its very essence, could develop only into a social revolution.

Anticipating the measures of the revolutionary government, often even in defiance of the latter, the revolutionary masses by their own initiative began, long before the October days, to put in practice their Social ideals. They took possession of the land, the factories, mines, mills, and the tools of production. They got rid of the more hated and dangerous representatives of government and authority. In their grand revolutionary outburst they destroyed every form of political and economic oppression. In the deeps of Russia the Social Revolution was raging, when the October change took place in the capitals of Petrograd and Moscow.

The Communist Party, which was aiming at the dictatorship, from the very beginning correctly judged the situation. Throwing overboard the democratic planks of its platform, it energetically proclaimed the slogans of the Social Revolution, in order to gain control of the movement of the masses. In the course of the development of the Revolution, the Bolsheviki gave concrete form to certain fundamental principles and methods of Anarchist Communism, as for instance: the negation of parliamentarism, expropriation of the bourgeoisie, tactics of direct action, seizure of the means of production, establishment of the system of Workers’ and Peasants’ Councils (Soviets), and so forth.

Furthermore, the Communist Party exploited all the popular demands of the hour: termination of the war, all power to the revolutionary proletariat, the land for the peasants, etc. This, as we shall see later, base demagoguery proved of tremendous psychological effect in hastening and intensifying the revolutionary process.

But if it was easy, as Lenin said, to begin the Revolution, its further development and strengthening were to take place amid difficult surroundings.

The external position of Russia, as characterised by Lenin about the middle of 1918, continued to be “unusually complicated and dangerous”, and “tempting for the neighboring imperialist States by its temporary weakness”’ The Socialist Soviet Republic was in an “extraordinarily unstable, very critical international position”.

And, indeed, the whole subsequent external history of Russia is full of difficulties in consequence of the necessity of fighting ceaselessly, often on several fronts at once, against the agents of world imperialism, and even against common adventurers. Only after the final defeat of the Wrangel forces was at last put an end to direct armed interference in the affairs of Russia.

No less difficult and complex, even chaotic, was the internal situation of the country.

Complete breakdown of the whole industrial fabric; failure of the national economy; disorganisation of the transportation system, hunger, unemployment; relative lack of organisation among the workers; unusually complex and contradictory conditions of peasant life; the psychology of the “petty proprietor”, inimical to the new Soviet regime; sabotage of Soviet work by the technical intelligentsia; the great lack in the Party of trained workers familiar with local conditions, and the practical inefficiency of the Party heads; finally, according to the frank admission of the acknowledged leader of the Bolsheviki, “the greatest hatred, by the masses, and distrust of everything governmental” — that was the situation in which the first and most difficult steps of the Revolution had to be made.

It must also be mentioned that there were still other specific problems with which the revolutionary government. had to deal. Namely, the deep-seated contradictions and even antagonisms between the interests and aspirations of the various social groups of the country. The most important of these were:

  1. the most advanced, and in industrial centers the most influential, group of factory proletarians. Notwithstanding their relative cultural and technical backwardness, these elements favored the application of true communist methods;

  2. the numerically powerful peasant population, whose economic attitude was decisive, particularly at a time of industrial prostration and blockade. This class looked with distrust and even hatred upon all attempts of the Communist government to play the guardian and control their economic activities;

  3. the very large and psychologically influential group (in the sense of forming public opinion, even if of a panicky character) of the common citizenry: the residue of the upper bourgeoisie, technical specialists, small dealers, petty bosses, commercial agents of every kind — a numerous group, in which were also to be found functionaries of the old regime who adapted themselves and were serving the Soviet government, now and then sabotaging; elements tempted by the opportunities of the new order of things and seeking to make a career; and, finally, persons torn out of their habitual modes of life and literally starving. This class was approximately estimated at 70% of the employees of Soviet institutions.

Naturally, each of these groups looked upon the Revolution with their own eyes, judged its further possibilities from their own point of view, and in their own peculiar manner reacted on the measures of the revolutionary government.

All these antagonisms rending the country and, frequently clashing in bloody strife, inevitably tended to nourish counter-revolution — not mere conspiracy or rebellion, but the terrific convulsion of a country experiencing two world cataclysms at once: war and social revolution.

Thus the political party that assumed the role of dictator was faced by problems of unprecedented difficulty. The Communist Party did not shrink from their solution, and in that is its immortal historic merit.

Notwithstanding the many deep antagonisms, in spite of the apparent absence of the conditions necessary for a social revolution, it was too late to discuss about driving back the uninvited guest, and await a new, more favorable opportunity. Only blind, dogmatic or positively reactionary elements could imagine that the Revolution could have been “made differently”. The Revolution was not and could not be a mechanical product of the abstract human will. It was an organic process burst with elemental force from the very needs of the people, from the complex combination of circumstances that determined their existence.

To return to tile old political and economical regime, that of industrial feudalism, was out of the question. It was impossible, and first of all because it were the denial of the greatest conquest of the Revolution: the right of every worker to a decent human life. It was also impossible because of the fundamental principles of the new national economy: the old regime was inherently inimical to the developement of free social relationship — it had no room for labor initiative.

It was apparent that the only right and wholesome solution — which could save the Revolution from its external enemies, free it from the inner strife which rent the country, broaden and deepen the Revolution itself — lay in the direct, creative initiative of the toiling masses. Only they who had for centuries borne the heaviest burdens could through conscious systematic effort find the road to a new, regenerated society. And that was to be the fitting culmination of their unexampled revolutionary zeal.

Lenin himself, replying in one of his works to the question, “How is the discipline of the revolutionary party of the proletariat to be maintained, how to be strengthened?” clearly and definitely replied: “By knowing how to meet, to combine, to some extent even to merge, if you will, with the broad masses of the toilers, mainly with the proletariat, but also with the non-proletarian laboring masses”.

However, this thought was and still remains, on the whole, in irreconcilable conflict, with the spirit of Marxism in its official Bolshevik interpretation, and particularly with Lenin’s authoritative view of it.

For years trained in their peculiar “underground” social philosophy, in which fervent faith in the Social Revolution was in some odd manner blended with their no less fanatical faith in State centralisation, the Bolsheviki devised an entirely new science of tactics. It is to the effect that the preparation and consummation of the Social Revolution necessitates the organisation of a special conspirative staff, consisting exclusively of the theoreticians of the movement, vested with dictatorial powers for the purpose of clarifying and perfecting beforehand, by their own conspirative means, the class-consciousness of the proletariat.

Thus the fundamental characteristic of Bolshevik psychology was distrust of the masses, of the proletariat. Left to themselves, the masses — according to Bolshevik conviction — could rise only to the consciousness of the petty reformer.

The road that leads to the direct creativeness of the masses was thus forsaken.

According to Bolshevik conception, the masses are “dark”, mentally crippled by ages of slavery. They are multi-colored: besides the revolutionary advance-guard they comprise great numbers of the indifferent and many self-seekers. The masses, according to the old but still correct maxim of Rousseau, must be made free by force. To educate them to liberty one must not hesitate to use compulsion and violence.

“Proletarian compulsion in all its forms”, writes Bukharin, one of the foremost Communist theoreticians, “beginning with summary execution and ending with compulsory labor is, however paradoxical it may sound, a method of reworking the human material of the capitalistic epoch into Communist humanity”.

This cynical doctrinairism, this fanatical quasi-philosophy flavored with Communist pedagogic sauce and aided by the pressure of “canonized officials” (expression of the prominent Communist and labor leader Shliapnikov) represent the actual methods of the Party dictatorship, which retains the trade mark of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” merely for gala affairs at home and for advertisement abroad. Already in the first days of the Revolution, early in 1918, when Lenin first announced to the world his socio-economic program in its minutest details, the roles of the people and of the Party in the revolutionary reconstruction were strictly separated and definitely assigned. On the one hand, an absolutely submissive socialist herd, a dumb people; on the other, the omniscient, all-controlling Political Party. What is inscrutable to all, is an open book to It. In the land there may be only one indisputable source of truth — the State. But the Communist State is, in essence and practice, the dictatorship of the Party only, or — more correctly — the dictatorship of its Central Committee. Each and every citizen must be, first and foremost, the servant of the State, its obedient functionary, unquestioningly executing the will of his master — if not as a matter of conscience, then out of fear. All free initiative, of the individual as well as of the collectivity, is eliminated from the vision of the State. The people’s Soviets are transformed into sections of the Ruling Party; the Soviet institutions become soulless offices, mere transmitters of the will of the center to the periphery. All expressions of State activity must be stamped with the approving seal of Communism as interpreted by the faction in power. Everything else is considered superfluous, useless and dangerous.

This system of barrack absolutism, supported by bullet and bayonet, has subjugated every phase of life, stopping neither before the destruction of the best cultural values, nor before the most stupendous squandering of human life and energy.

Alexander Berkman


IWA-AIT, the CNT and the November Bilbao Conference


The International Workers Association (IWA-AIT), an association of anarcho-syndicalist and revolutionary syndicalist trade unions founded in 1922, was intended to be a successor to the International Workingmen’s Association, which was created in 1864 by European workers, predominantly English and French, to provide for international solidarity between the workers of the world in their struggle against capitalism. The original (or “First”) International split in 1872 between the Marxists, who advocated the creation of “working class” political parties whose purpose was to “conquer political power,” and the anti-authoritarian, federalist and anarchist sections of the International that sought to abolish the state and replace authoritarian organization and capitalism with the free association of free producers. I discuss these developments in “We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It”: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement and included many of the most important documents relating to the anarchist wing of the International in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas


After the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, creating the USSR, the renamed Communist Party sought in 1921 to enlist the world’s revolutionary trade unions in the so-called “Red International.” However, several union organizations of an anarcho-syndicalist and revolutionary syndicalist orientation, including the CNT in Spain, were concerned about the nascent Communist dictatorship and disagreed with any attempt to establish state socialism. These groups instead formed the IWA-AIT. The majority of the CNT now wants to “refound” the IWA, for reasons briefly summarized below. However, they are doing so in conflict with the IWA-AIT, which insists in the first statement below that the way to change the IWA-AIT is from within at a proper congress of the IWA-AIT, not by creating a new organization using the same name.



lt has come to our attention that various organizations have been invited to a conference ostensibly about “rebuilding the IWA” that is to be held in November in Spain. Due to the fact that this has caused some confusion as to the nature of said conference and to avoid any misunderstandings, we would like to clarify a few matters. —- The Congress of the lnternational Workers’ Association is to be held at the beginning of December in Poland. This Congress and only this Congress is where decisions about the proposals submitted to the Association can be made by the entirety of its member Sections. —- The conference being held in Spain, to which some organizations were invited, is not organized by the IWA, although it claims to be a “conference for the preparation of the IWA refoundation”. This initiative is thus a split where outside organizations are being invited to decide over the future of a federation to which they do not belong. It is held against the statutes, agreements and principles of the very federation it claims to be refounding and its aim is to exclude a dozen other member Sections from the process.

We refer to these facts since it has come to our attention that some comrades around the world may not have been informed to the nature of the conference and believe this is just an international “solidarity” event. However, the invitation sent to these organizations clearly state what the purpose is in the title. Therefore, those who are not members of the IWA Federation must really consider basic principles and ask how it is possible that anybody proposes to cut out the Members and give a voice to non-members.

The reason for holding this parallel conference before the legitimate one is to involve outside organizations in shaping the internal conflict. Instead of coming before the membership. Such a maneouvre is to make it look as if outside organizations are taking sides in an internal conflict and to place them on one side of a split. This is how the attendance of outside organizations will be treated, whether or not that was their intention.

With this clarification, we hope to inform the rank and file members of various organizations, who may not have seen the invitation or be aware of the circumstances. The IWA meets in December and it is at the Congress that the Member Sections must discuss and make decisions about the future of the federation, not any non-statutory meeting to which outside organizations are called to interfere and support the split faction. As stated before, time is needed to work things out in accordance with the procedures of our federation and we would appreciate it if outside organizations refrain from involvement in these matters which concern us directly and need to be resolved by ourselves.

We stress that in no way do we imply that any organizations avoid either the IWA or the split faction in matters such as international solidarity, which must continue even through this difficult time. It is possible that no resolution will be reached right away and that a longer conflict may exist, should the split faction continue to insist on acting in the name of the existing federation. The IWA has tried not to involve other organizations in these internal matters or ask them to take sides in the split. The split faction however has decided to do just that. We ask that people be cautious about such circumstances so that the situation not have new negative repercussions.

IWA Secretariat


CNT-ES: Open invitation to the Bilbao International Conference, 26-27 November, 2016 for anarcho-syndicalist and revolutionary syndicalist organizations

AIT/IWA Dear comrades: — CNT-E, FAU and USI are sections of the International Workers’ Association (IWA), founded in 1922. — We consider essential and urgent the existence of an active and inclusive anarcho-syndicalist International, which participates in and promotes struggles of workers worldwide and facilitates social improvements for them through this. Unfortunately, we have to admit that despite our best efforts the IWA has deviated from its principles and practices. Instead of concentrating on union activity, it has become bureaucratic, dogmatic and isolationist with regard to the labor movement. Considering this, we need to rebuild our International.

We believe that our International should restrict itself to general principles that express the commonalities that the members sections have, despite their different histories, traditions and social-economic situations. For us these general principles include:

– being an anarcho-syndicalist or revolutionary syndicalist organization as well as a bottom-up organization;

– not receiving economic funding from the state due to being a union or carrying out union activity;

– not supporting as an organization any electoral project, neither of a political party nor of individual candidates.

In addition, we believe that member sections should have at least 100 members nationally. We believe that smaller groups can carry out propaganda activities or local conflicts better and should concentrate on developing at the national level, before taking part in the complex decision-making process of an International. In order to support groups which have less than 100 members we will have the status “Friends”. We wish to help such groups grow and would be pleased to have them take part in our international solidarity campaigns.

At the same time, we do not presume to know or be aware of every other initiative worldwide that might fulfill these requirements. Therefore, we are issuing this open invitation to the International Conference, to be held in Bilbao (Spain) on November 26-27, 2016 during which we will be able to work towards a congress to rebuild an IWA. At the conference you will have a chance to present your organization and its work, get to meet other similar initiatives, assess the benefits of joining us in this endeavor, make contributions and proposals towards the congress agenda and the rebuilding of an IWA, and explore, in any case, the possibility of joint international actions and solidarity.

Even if your organization is not interested in joining this project on a more formal capacity, or ultimately decides not to, we still invite you to contact us to collaborate in international solidarity campaigns.

A proposal for the conference agenda and more practical info will be sent at a later date to those organizations that have expressed an interest in participating in it.

You can contact us on any of the following email addresses to express your interest, confirm your attendance, raise queries or concerns, etc.:






André Leo: Against Hierarchy – From the First Socialist Schism


Wolfgang Eckhardt’s comprehensive account of the split in the International Workingmen’s Association (the “First International” – IWMA) between the advocates of working class political parties (Marx and his followers) and the anti-authoritarian revolutionary socialists (anarchists), entitled The First Socialist Schism: Bakunin vs. Marx in the International Working Men’s Association, has finally been published by PM Press. Although more narrowly focused than my book, ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement, Eckhardt’s book meticulously documents how Marx and his relatively small coterie of supporters tried to turn the International from a pluralist association of workers’ organizations with differing views regarding social change into a monolithic organization committed to the formation of national “working class” political parties whose ultimate object was the conquest of state power. Instead, Marx only succeeded in splitting the International, with the majority of its members and sections re-establishing the International along anti-authoritarian lines, and the Marxist rump soon expiring, with its seat of power being nominally transferred to New York. In this excerpt from Chapter 8 of The First Socialist Schism, Eckhardt describes the attempts by the Marxist controlled General Council to disenfranchise the French Communard refugees in Switzerland who were regrouping after narrowly escaping France with their lives. Particularly noteworthy are the passages by André Leo (1824-1900), the French feminist socialist, denouncing the attempts by Marx, the “pontiff” of the IWMA, to turn the International into a hierarchical organization imposing ideological uniformity on its members.

André Leo

André Leo

Marx vs. the Communards

After the Paris Commune was crushed, thousands of Communards narrowly escaped abroad. A few hundred of them fled to Switzerland with the help of the Jura sections, among others. On 3 July 1871, Schwitzguébel smuggled a number of Swiss passports and documents of Swiss citizenship into Paris in a knapsack with a secret compartment. Several members of the Commune who had gone into hiding were able to flee abroad thanks to these papers: for example, the author Léodile Champseix (1824–1900) – famous under the pseudonym André Léo – arrived in Switzerland a half month later. Some Communards settled in Lausanne, Berne or Jura but most in Geneva.

There they were soon confronted with the simmering conflict surrounding the split in the Romande Federation and the underlying debate about political-parliamentary or social-revolutionary socialism, which they were unable to keep out of for long. It is not surprising that very few Communards – with the memories of the greatest revolution of the century still fresh – would be sympathetic to the tame line of the Geneva fabrique, which was integrated in local politics. Just as Bakunin and his friends in the Alliance had two years before, the Commune refugees soon came to realise that the spokesmen of the fabrique – who set the agenda of the Geneva International – were primarily following their political ambitions (electoral alliance with the bourgeois parti radical, Grand Council elections of 12 November 1871, etc.).

The work of organising the sections was left by the wayside. Even the Geneva central section was much too involved in local politics to organise educational initiatives or the exchange of ideas between workers in the different trades as was its duty. The Communards thus began toying with the idea in July 1871 of forming their own section in order to create propaganda for France. It took until 6 September 1871 for the Geneva Communards to form the Propaganda and Socialist Revolutionary Action Section (Section de propagande et d’action révolutionnaire-socialiste) –section of propaganda in short. On 8 September, their Administrative Committee (Comité d’Administration) sent an application for membership along with their programme and section rules to the General Council.

The spokesmen of the Geneva fabrique quickly saw the section of propaganda as unwelcome political competition and thwarted their admission in the International: two weeks after the membership application was sent, Perret –secretary of Committee of the Romande Federation in Geneva – proposed a resolution at the London Conference ‘in order to avoid new conflicts’: it called to mind art. 5 of the Basel administrative resolutions which stated that the General Council must consult with the corresponding Federal Council before it decides on the membership application of a section. The message was received – the minutes state: ‘The General Council takes note of this recommendation.’ And so the section of propaganda didn’t even receive a reply even though it applied to the General Council a second time on 4 October and third time of 20 October 1871.

Perret was perhaps also responsible for the General Council’s continued silence: he sent a perturbing letter to Marx on 8 October 1871 saying that the members of the then dissolved Alliance section were supposedly behind this new section; according to Perret, the section of propaganda was ‘the rebirth of this sect under another name’. In reality there were only two or three former members of the Alliance among the 62 members of the section of propaganda.

So the situation was already quite tense when Égalité published an authorised advanced copy of various resolutions of the London Conference on 21October 1871. The Communards finally found out that effective immediately it was ‘no longer allowed […] to form separatist bodies under the names of sections of propaganda, Alliance de la Démocratie socialiste, etc.’ in the International according to resolution no. 16. By being lumped together with the dissolved Alliance and defamed as a separatist body, the section of propaganda was confronted with resentment that they had never before thought possible. It became immediately apparent that the General Council had been purposely delaying accepting the Communards’ section because of political reservation. For the Communard André Léo, these reservations flew in the face of the established mores of the International. On 2 November 1871, she wrote the following in the Révolution Sociale, the newspaper of the Commune refugees in Geneva:

“And I, who have until now believed that the International Association was the most democratic, the broadest, the most fraternal association one could dream of; the great mother, with immense breasts, of whom every worker of good will is the son. […] may the goddess Liberty help us! For we have violated the last papal bull in divulging these things to the Gentiles24 and in debating the infallibility of the supreme council. Now, we too are threatened with excommunication, and we have no other course than to yield our soul to the demon of Anarchy for what remains for us to say.”

In the week after the advanced copy of the conference resolution appeared in Égalité, the section of propaganda held a meeting where the decision was made to publicly protest against the resolutions of the London Conference and to invite other sections and federations to join this protest. Zhukovsky was given the mandate to go to Jura to inform the sections there of this initiative. The meeting in Neuchâtel held upon his arrival on 29 October 1871 called for a joint letter of protest to be adopted at the next congress of the Jura sections and circulated internationally. A circular on 31 October announced that a federal congress would be held on 12 November 1871 in Sonvillier.

The need for public protest became more apparent after all of the resolutions of the London Conference were released the week before the federal congress. In a further article for the Révolution Sociale, André Léo wrote:

“From the beginning of the International Association to this day, when we heard the good bourgeois refer to it as a secret society, constructed after their manner, i.e. hierarchically, with a watchword, a secret council, the old pyramid, finally, with God the Father, an Old Man of the Mountain or a Council of Ten at its summit, we shrugged our shoulders and told them, not without pride: – all of this is a bunch of old tales! You know nothing of the new spirit; your worn molds cannot contain it. We who want to destroy your hierarchies are not about to establish another. Each section is sovereign, as are the individuals who compose it, and what binds them all is the profound belief in equality, the desire to establish it, and the practice of our Rules: the emancipation of the workers by the workers themselves; no rights without duties, no duties without rights. Everything is done in the broad daylight of freedom, which alone is honest and fruitful; we have no leaders, for we do not recognise any, only an administrative council. But now, alas! – now we bow our heads before the accusations of Mr Prudhomme, or rather, we deserve his admiration; we suffer this supreme insult, because the resolutions published here construct the old pyramid in the International as elsewhere: ‘It is forbidden,’ ‘it will not be allowed,’ ‘the General Council has the right to admit or to refuse the affiliation of any new section or group’, ‘the General Council has the right of suspending, till the meeting of next Congress, any section of the International’. I beg your pardon; are we mistaken, here, as to the code? This is an article of the law on the general councils of France, made by the Assembly of Versailles: ‘The executive power shall be entitled to suspend the council that …’ – No, that’s right, but the article is the same in both laws, – ‘henceforth the General Council will be bound to publicly denounce and disavow all newspapers …’ – By our holy father the Pope, where are we? Bismarck has turned the heads of everyone from the Rhine to the Oder, and at the same time that Wilhelm I made himself emperor, Karl Marx consecrated himself Pontiff of the International Association.”

The strong words shocked Guillaume and his friends, however, the manner in which Léo concluded her article was irreproachable:

“We have just begun to understand that true unity does not consist in the absorption of all into one, that strange equation, that fatal delusion which has mystified humanity for so many centuries! And if asked how else to establish unity, most of us would hesitate to answer, because it is not only a matter of finding new means but of changing the ideal itself. – The new unity is not uniformity, but its opposite, which consists in expanding all initiatives, all freedoms, all conceptions, bound only by the fact of a common nature that gives them a common interest, upon which – on their own, and by different routes, however winding they may be – free forces converge. This is natural and universal harmony in place of the narrowness, the vicious unfairness of the personal plan. It is this autonomy of the citizen, achieved through the autonomy of the primary social group, the commune, that France has just tentatively sketched out with a hand wounded by the sword of despotic unity. This is the second act of the great Revolution that is beginning, the realisation after the revelation, the performance after the promise. And the International Association, a natural agent for this task, would, following these mad and narrow minds, repeat the experiments that were made, and made so badly, between 1802 and 1871! This cannot be. Let all the old world’s politics go that way; socialism has nothing to do with it, for it must take the opposite path, that of the freedom of all in equality.”

Wolfgang Eckhardt, The First Socialist Schism (Oakland: PM Press, 2016), pp. 103-106


Uri Gordon: Is Anarchy Democracy?

crimethinc democracy

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


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


Selling Anarchism as Democracy

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

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

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

an open question

an open question

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

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

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

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

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

wells athenian democracy

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

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

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

Uri Gordon


Direct Democracy & Ecology: Castoriadis and Bookchin


Below I reproduce a recent piece on Cornelius Castoriadis and  Murray Bookchin by Yavor Tarinski, who emphasizes the similarities in their ideas regarding direct democracy and ecology (I have taken the liberty of correcting various grammatical and typographical errors). It is interesting that both Castoriadis and Bookchin were young Marxists during the 1940s who took seriously Leon Trotsky’s remark at the beginning of World War II that if the war was not succeeded by a world revolution, Marxists would have to rethink everything, an intellectual project that Castoriadis and Bookchin soon embarked on. Castoriadis, under the name Paul Cardan, helped found the Socialism or Barbarism group in France, which was very influential in the “New Left” of the 1960s, and helped inspire the events of May 1968. Bookchin began drawing the connections between ecological crisis, capitalism, hierarchy and domination in the early 1960s, in a series of essays, some of which I included in Volume 2 of  Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. While Bookchin rejected Castoriadis’ ideas regarding the constitution of the “social imaginary,” their concrete political proposals were very similar.


Murray Bookchin

Cornelius Castoriadis

Cornelius Castoriadis

Castoriadis and Bookchin on Direct Democracy and Ecology

The primary threat to nature and people today comes from centralizing and monopolizing power and control.
Vandana Shiva

Nowadays constantly we are being told “from above” that we don’t have a choice but to conform to the status quo. The dominant power institutions are doing everything they can to convince us that the solution to our social and environmental problems is going to be found in the very same policies that have created them in the first place. The T.I.N.A. [There is No Alternative] narrative continues to dominate the mainstream discourse; and the widespread consumerist culture, in combination with the long-lasting representative crisis, is infecting people’s imaginary with cynicism, general conformism and apathy.

But germs of other ways of thinking and living are trying to break their way through the passivity of present day logic. New significations that are going beyond the contemporary bureaucratic capitalist discourse, offering new sets of reasons and values, which to navigate societal life away from the destructiveness of constant economic growth and cynical apathy.

With popular dissatisfaction of the present order of things on the rise we can distinguish two significations that offer a radical break with the present normality:

On the one hand, there is growing interest in political participation and direct democracy. Nowadays it is becoming almost unthinkable to think of popular unrest outside of the general frame of democracy: first, the demands almost always revolve around more citizen involvement in one form or another; second, the way of organizing popular struggle for a long time has [surpassed] the centralism of the traditional political organizations, insisting instead on self-organization and collaboration.

On the other hand, ecology is emerging as major concern and as an answer to the contemporary growth-based politico-economic model that is responsible for the creation of a tangible environmental crisis and rapidly unfolding climate change. It is being expressed in the form of popular struggles against capitalist extractivist projects, harmful to the environment, human health, as well as to local autonomy. It also takes the form of resistance to consumerist culture, both of which boost innovative new theories like de-growth.

Amongst the diverse spectrum of thinkers that nowadays are developing these new significations we can distinguish Cornelius Castoriadis and Murray Bookchin as two of the most influential. Both emerged from the Left and through their thought, as well as activist practices, managed to overpass ideological dogmas and to develop their own political projects, incorporating and advancing further direct democracy and ecology. It’s not surprising that they collaborated in the journal Society & Nature, and later in its successor Democracy & Nature, until 1996, when a bitter conflict between the two emerged [].

Nowadays their legacy is being carried on by social movements and struggles that place these two significations at the heart of their political activities. Castoriadis’s thought was revitalized with the popular uprisings across Europe of the last years and especially with the so called “Movement of the Squares” (also known as The Indignados), that was driven not by “pure” ideologies but by passion for political action and critical thinking, while Bookchin’s project is being partially implemented in practice by the kurdish liberation movement in the heart of the Middle East (most notably in Rojava), influencing it to such a degree that it completely abandoned its marxist-leninist orientation.

It must be noted that the target of the present text is not the development of a deep comparative analysis between the works of both of them, but instead an effort at underlining two elements of their thought that are especially actual for our current context and are charged with huge potential for change.

Direct Democracy

Both Castoriadis and Bookchin saw great liberatory potential in direct democracy and placed it at the heart of their political projects. They devoted a great part of their writings to that matter, developing this notion beyond the frames set by traditional ideologies. In stark difference with authoritarian views, mistrusting society and thus calling for its subjection to hierarchical, extra-social mechanisms, on the one hand, and on the other, with such views that reject every form of laws and institutions, the two thinkers proposed the establishment of structures and institutions that will allow direct public interaction, while maintaining social cohesion through horizontal flows of power.

According to Castoriadis, the majority of human societies were established on the basis of heteronomy, which he describes as a situation in which the society’s rules are being set by some extra-social source (such as the party, god, historic necessity, etc.). The institutions of the heteronomous societies are conceived as given/self-evident and thus, unquestionable, i.e. incompatible with popular interaction. For him the organizational structure of the modern western world, while usually characterized as “democracy”, is actually a liberal oligarchy, with some liberties for the people, but the general management of social life is situated in the hands of tiny elites (Castoriadis, 1989).

For Castoriadis democracy is an essential element of the social and individual autonomy (the people to set their own rules and institutions), which is the opposite of heteronomy. What he called the project of autonomy entailed direct-democratic self-instituting by the society, consisting of conscious citizens, who realize that they draw their own destiny and not some extra-social force, either natural or metaphysical (Castoriadis, 1992). I.e. in the hands of society lies the highest power that is: to give itself the laws and institutions under which it lives.

Castoriadis derives his understanding of democracy from the classical meaning of the term, originating from Ancient Athens (demos/people and kratos/power). Thus on the basis of this he denotes today’s liberal regimes as non-democratic, since they are based on the election of representatives and not on direct citizen participation. According to him democracy can be only direct, thus incompatible with bureaucracy, expertism, economic inequality and other features of our modern political system (Castoriadis, 1989).

On a more concrete level he suggested the establishment of territorial units with populations of up to 100,000 people, which [were] to self-manage themselves through general assemblies. For coordination between different such units he proposed the establishment of councils and committees to which the local decision-making bodies [would] send revocable short-term delegates (Castoriadis, 2013: pp.42-43). Thus power remains in the hands of the demos, while allowing non-statist coordination on a larger scale.

For Bookchin too, the characterization of the today’s system as a democracy was a mistake, an oxymoron. He reminds us that two centuries ago the term democracy was depicted by rulers as “mob rule”, a prelude to chaos, while nowadays [it] is being used to mask one representative regime, which in its essence is republican oligarchy since a tiny clique of a chosen few rules over the powerless many (Bookchin, 1996).

Bookchin, like Castoriadis, based his understanding of democracy on the experience of the ancient Athenian politia. That is one of the reasons he placed so much attention on the role of the city (Bookchin, 1964). He describes how with the rise of what he called statecraft, the active citizens, deeply and morally committed to their cities, were replaced by passive consumers subjected to parliamentarian rule, whose free time is spent shopping in retail stores and mega malls.

After many years of involvement in different political movements, Bookchin developed his own political project, called Communalism. Based on direct democracy, it revolves extensively around the question of power, rejecting escapist and lifestyle practices. Communalism focuses instead on a center of power that could potentially be subjected to the will of the people – the municipal council – through which to create and coordinate local assembles. He emphasized the antagonistic character towards the state apparatus that these institutions have and the possibility of them becoming the exclusive sources of power in their villages, towns and cities. The democratized municipalities, Bookchin suggested, would confederate with each other by sending revocable delegates to popular assemblies and confederal councils, thus challenging the need of centralized statist power. This concrete model Bookchin called libertarian municipalism (Bookchin, 1996), which has influenced to a big degree Abdullah Öcalan and the Kurdish struggle for social liberation.

A distinguishing feature of Bookchin’s vision of direct democracy in his communalism was the element of majority voting, which he considered as the only equitable way for a large number of people to make decisions (Bookchin, 2002). According to him consensus, in which a single person can veto every decision, presents a danger for society to be dismantled. However, according to him, all members of society possess knowledge and memory, and thus the social collectivity does not have an interest in depriving “minorities” of their rights. For him the views of a minority are a potential source of new insights and nascent truths, which are great sources of creativity and progress for society as a whole.


Ecology played major role in the thought of the two big philosophers. Both of them however viewed it in stark contrast from most of the environmentalists of their time (and of today as well). Unlike the widespread understanding of nature as a commodity, as something separated from society, Castoriadis and Bookchin viewed it in direct link with social life, relationships and values, thus incorporating it in their political projects.

Castoriadis argues that ecology is, in its essence, a political matter. It is about political choices for setting certain limits and goals in the relationship between humanity and nature (Castoriadis, 1993). It has nothing to do with science, since the latter is about exploring possibilities and giving answers to specific questions and not about self-limitation. However, Castoriadis urges mobilizing science’s resources for exploring nature and our impact on it, but he remains firm that the choice that will be made in the end will be in its essence a political one.

Therefore the solutions that should be given to every ecological crisis should be political. Castoriadis remains critical of the green parties and the parliamentary system in general, since through the electoral processes it strives at “liberating” the people from politics, [leaving] it instead solely in the hands of professional “representatives”. As a result of this the people are left to view nature in a de-politicized manner, only as a commodity, because of which many contemporary ecological movements deal almost exclusively with questions about the environment, unconcerned with social and political matters.

Following this line of thought it comes as no surprise that Castoriadis remains critical towards the rare occasions when big green movements and parties come up with proposals of a political nature for resolving the environmental crisis (Castoriadis, 1981). This is so, because most of the time, although their political proposals revolve around more popular participation – for example green parties that have come up with proposals for sortition and rotation of their M.P.’s, more referendums, etc. – they are still embedded in the contemporary parliamentary regime. Being anadvocate of direct democracy, Castoriadis believes that single elements of it, being embedded in the representative system, will lose their meaning.

Similarly, Bookchin also links the ecological sphere with the social one and politics in general. For him nearly all of the present ecological problems result from problems deeply rooted in the social order – because of which he spoke about social ecology (Bookchin, 1993). Ecological crises couldn’t be either understood nor much less resolved if not linked to society, since economic, cultural, gender and other conflicts in it were the source of serious ecological dislocations.

Bookchin, like Castoriadis, strongly disagreed with environmentalists who looked to disconnect ecology from politics and society, identifying it instead with preservation of wildlife, wilderness or malthusian deep ecology, etc. (Bookchin, 1988). He insisted on the impact on nature that our capitalist hierarchical society is causing (with its large scale, profit-driven, extractivist projects), thus making it clear that unless we resolve our social problems we cannot save the planet.

For Murray Bookchin the hierarchical mentality and economic inequality that have permeated society today are the main sources of the very idea that man should dominate nature. Thus the ecological struggle cannot hope for any success unless it integrates itself into a holistic political project that challenges the very source of the present environmental and social crisis, that is, to challenge hierarchy and inequality (Bookchin, 1993).


Despite the differences and disagreements between them, Castoriadis and Bookchin shared a lot in common – especially the way they viewed direct democracy and ecology. Their contributions in these fields provided very fertile soil for further theoretical and practical advance. It is not by chance that in a period in which the questions of democracy and ecology are attracting growing attention, we listen ever more often about the two of them.

These concepts are proving to be of great interest to an increasing number of people in an age of continuous deprivation of rights, fierce substitution of the citizen by the consumer, growing economic inequalities and devastation of the natural world. Direct democracy and ecology contain the germs of another possible world. They seem as two of the best significations that the grassroots have managed to create and articulate as a potential substitute for the rotting ones of hierarchy and commodification which dominate and destroy our world today.

Yavor Tarinski


Bookchin-Öcalan correspondence
Bookchin, Murray. Ecology and Revolutionary Thought (1964)
Bookchin, Murray. The Communalist Project (2002)
Bookchin, Murray. The Crisis in the Ecology Movement (1988)
Bookchin, Murray. What is Communalism? (1996)
Bookchin, Murray. What is Social Ecology (1993)
Castoriadis, Cornelius. Democracy and Relativism (2013)
Castoriadis, Cornelius. From Ecology to Autonomy (1981)
Castoriadis, Cornelius. The Project of Autonomy is not Utopia (1992)
Castoriadis, Cornelius. The Problem of Democracy Today (1989)
Castoriadis, Cornelius. The Revolutionary Force of Ecology (1993)
Castoriadis, Cornelius. Worker Councils and the Economy of the Self-managed Society (1972)

Republished from:


We Still Do Not Fear Anarchy

we do not fear the book cover

This month marks several noteworthy anniversaries: the suppression of the Paris Commune, the Haymarket affair, and Bakunin’s birthday (May 18 on the old Russian calendar; May 3o on the modern calendar), among others. It has also been about a year since the publication of ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement (AK Press). I discussed the roles of both Bakunin and the Paris Commune in the emergence of self-proclaimed anarchist movements in Europe and the Americas in that book. The quote in the title is taken from Bakunin himself, who first publicly identified himself as an anarchist in 1868, around the time that he joined the International. It is surprising then that in another book along similar lines, Social Democracy & Anarchism in the International Workers’ Association 1864 – 1877, René Berthier argues that the anarchist movements that emerged from the struggles within the International regarding the proper direction of working class and socialist movements constituted a break with rather than a continuation of “Bakuninism,” and that Bakunin is better described as a revolutionary socialist or syndicalist than as an anarchist. I think my book provides a good counter-argument to that position. I also included several selections from Bakunin’s anarchist writings in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas But this is a blog, not a book, so today I thought I would just present some quotations from Bakunin in which he identifies himself as an anarchist and describes what he is advocating as a form of anarchism, in terms of tactics, methods, means and ends.

bakunin on anarchism

Bakunin’s Anarchism

“We do not fear anarchy, we invoke it. For we are convinced that anarchy, meaning the unrestricted manifestation of the liberated life of the people, must spring from liberty, equality, the new social order, and the force of the revolution itself against the reaction. There is no doubt that this new life—the popular revolution—will in good time organize itself, but it will create its revolutionary organization from the bottom up, from the circumference to the center, in accordance with the principle of liberty, and not from the top down or from the center to the circumference in the manner of all authority.” [Program of the International Brotherhood]

“Outside of the Mazzinian system, which is the system of the republic in the form of a State, there is no other system but that of the republic as a commune, the republic as a federation, a Socialist and a genuine people’s republic — the system of Anarchy. It is the politics of the Social Revolution, which aims at the abolition of the State, and the economic, altogether free organization of the people, an organization from below upward, by means of a federation.” [Circular Letter to My Friends in Italy]

“I am the absolute enemy of a revolution by decrees, which is the application of the idea of a revolutionary State and a sequel of it; that is, a reaction disguised by revolutionary appearances. As against the system of revolutionary decrees I oppose the system of revolutionary action, the only effective, consistent, and true system. The authoritarian system of decrees, in seeking to impose freedom and equality, destroys them. The Anarchist system of action evokes and creates them in an infallible manner, without the intervention of any official or authoritarian violence whatever. The first leads inevitably to the ultimate triumph of an outspoken reaction. The second system establishes the Revolution on a natural and unshakable foundation.” [Letters to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis]

“Let us turn now to the Socialists, who divide into three essentially different parties. First of all, we shall divide them into two categories: the party of peaceful or bourgeois Socialists, and the party of Social Revolutionists. The latter is in turn subdivided into revolutionary State Socialists and revolutionary Anarchist-Socialists, the enemies of every State and every State principle.” [World Revolutionary Alliance of Social Democracy (Berlin: Verlag, 1904)]

“To the Communists, or Social Democrats, of Germany, the peasantry, any peasantry, stands for reaction; and the State, any State, even the Bismarckian State, stands for revolution… Altogether, the Marxists cannot even think otherwise: protagonists of the State as they are, they have to damn any revolution of a truly popular sweep and character especially a peasant revolution, which is anarchistic by nature and which marches straightforward toward the destruction of the State. And in this hatred for the peasant rebellion, the Marxists join in touching unanimity all the layers and parties of the bourgeois society of Germany.” [Statism and Anarchy]

“Since revolution cannot be imposed upon the villages, it must be generated right there, by promoting a revolutionary movement among the peasants themselves, leading them on to destroy through their own efforts the public order, all the political and civil institutions, and to establish and organize anarchy in the villages.”

“When the peasants have felt and perceived the advantages of the Revolution, they will give more money and people for its defense than it would be possible to obtain from them by ordinary State policies or even by extraor­dinary State measures. The peasants will do against the Prussians what they did in 1792. For that they must become obsessed with the fury of resistance, and only an Anarchist revolution can imbue them with that spirit.”

“But in letting them divide among themselves the land seized from the bourgeois owners, will this not lead to the establishment of private property upon a new and more solid foundation? Not at all, for that property will lack the juridical and political sanction of the State, inasmuch as the State and the whole juridical insti­tution, the defense of property by the State, and family right, including the law of inheritance, necessarily will have to disappear in the terrific whirl­wind of revolutionary anarchy. There will be no more political or juridi­cal rights—there will be only revolutionary facts.”

“Once the wealth of the rich people is not guaranteed by laws, it ceases to be a power. Rich peasants are now powerful because they are specially protected and courted by the functionaries of the State and became they are backed up by the State. With the disappearance of the State, this backing and power also will disappear. As to the more cun­ning and economically stronger peasants, they will have to give way before the collective power of the peasant mass, of the great number of poor and very poor peasants, as well as the rural proletarians—a mass which is now enslaved and reduced to silent suffering, but which revolutionary anarchy will bring back to life and will arm with an irresistible power.” [Letters to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis]

“We revolutionary anarchists who sincerely want full popular emancipation view with repugnance another expression in this [Social Democratic] program – it is the designation of the proletariat, the workers, as a class and not a mass. Do you know what this signifies? It is no more nor less than the aristocratic rule of the factory workers and of the cities over the millions who constitute the rural proletariat, who, in the anticipations of the German Social Democrats, will in effect become the subjects of their so-called People’s State.” [Letter to La Liberté]

“The road leading from concrete fact to theory and vice versa is the method of science and is the true road. In the practical world, it is the movement of society toward forms of organization that will to the greatest possible extent reflect life itself in all its aspects and complexity.

Such is the people’s way to complete emancipation, accessible to all—the way of the anarchist social revolution, which will come from the people themselves, an elemental force sweeping away all obstacles. Later, from the depths of the popular soul, there will spontaneously emerge the new creative forms of social life.”

“We, the revolutionary anarchists, are the advocates of education for all the people, of the emancipation and the widest possible expansion of social life. Therefore we are the enemies of the State and all forms of the statist principle. In opposition to the metaphysicians, the positivists, and all the worshippers of science, we declare that natural and social life always comes before theory, which is only one of its manifestations but never its creator.”

“Such are our ideas as social revolutionaries, and we are therefore called anarchists. We do not protest this name, for we are indeed the enemies of any governmental power, since we know that such a power depraves those who wear its mantle equally with those who are forced to submit to it. Under its pernicious influence the former become ambitious and greedy despots, exploiters of society in favor of their personal or class interests, while the latter become slaves.”

“Our polemic had the effect of making them [the Marxist Social Democrats] realize that freedom or Anarchy, that is, the free organization of workers from below upward, is the ultimate aim of social development, and that every State, their own people’s State included, is a yoke, which means that it begets despotism on one hand and slavery on the other.”

“They say that this State yoke—the dictatorship—is a necessary transi­tional means in order to attain the emancipation of the people: Anarchy or freedom is the goal, the State or dictatorship is the means. Thus to free the working masses, it is first necessary to enslave them.”

“While the political and social theory of the anti-State Socialists or Anarchists leads them steadily toward a full break with all governments, and with all varieties of bourgeois policy, leaving no other way out but a social revolution, the opposite theory of the State Communists and scientific authority also inevitably draws and enmeshes its partisans, under the pretext of political tactics, into ceaseless compromises with governments and political parties; that is, it pushes them toward downright reaction.” [Statism and Anarchy]

“Between the Marxists and ourselves there is an abyss. They are the governmentalists; we are the anarchists, in spite of it all.” [Letter to La Liberté]

“In accepting the Anarchist rev­olutionary program, which alone, in our opinion, offers conditions for a real and complete emancipation of the common people, and convinced that the existence of the State in any form whatever is incompatible with the freedom of the proletariat, and that it does not permit the international fraternal union of nations, we therefore put forth the demand for the abolition of all States.” [Program of the Slav Section (Zurich) of the International]

“The lack of a government begets anarchy, and anarchy leads to the destruction of the State, that is, to the enslavement of the country by another State, as was the case with the unfortunate Poland, or the full emancipation of the toiling people and the abolition of classes, which, we hope, will soon take place all over Europe.” [Science and the Urgent Revolutionary Task]

“In a word, we reject all legislation- privileged, licensed, official, and legal — and all authority, and influence, even though they may emanate from universal suffrage, for we are convinced that it can turn only to the advantage of a dominant minority of exploiters against the interests of the vast majority in subjection to them. It is in this sense that we are really Anarchists.” [God and the State]

bakunin on freedom

The Poverty of Historicism

daring future

Continuing with the installments from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in which I survey the historical development and evolution of anarchist ideas, here I summarize the anarchist critique of theories of history, such as Marx’s theory of historical materialism, which posit stages of historical development culminating in the achievement of socialism, with the working class being the agent of this historical process of revolutionary transformation.

poverty of statism

The Poverty of Historicism

The Impulso group remained committed to an essentially Marxist view of progressive historical development, the kind of view that Dwight Macdonald argued had literally been exploded by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Volume Two, Selection 13). One can no longer claim that from “out of present evil will come future good,” wrote Macdonald, when “for the first time in history, humanity faces the possibility that its own activity may result in the destruction not of some people or some part of the world, but of all people and the whole world for all time” (Volume Two, Selection 13).

The Impulso group clung to the view that as the result of an objective historical process, the working class developed “unitary, ongoing interests,” impelling it to fulfill its “historical role” of abolishing capitalism (Volume Two, Selection 38). That the working class has unitary interests is a concept that has been criticized by other anarchists since at least the time of Bakunin, who argued against Marx that city workers “who earn more and live more comfortably than all the other workers,” by virtue of their “relative well-being and semibourgeois position” form a kind of “aristocracy of labour… unfortunately only too deeply saturated with all the political and social prejudices and all the narrow aspirations and pretensions of the bourgeoisie” (1872: 294).

Macdonald pointed to the post-War “failure of the European masses to get excited about socialist slogans and programs,” suggesting that the “man in the street” feels “as powerless and manipulated vis-à-vis his socialist mass-organization as… towards his capitalistic employers and their social and legal institutions” (Volume Two, Selection 13). For Louis Mercier Vega (1914-1977), social stratification within the “working class” makes it necessary “to speak of several working classes,” each with conflicting interests. “Wage differentials,” for example, “make class consciousness that much harder to achieve… encouraging collusion between (private or state) management and privileged brackets of wage-earners. They accentuate rather than curtail the tendency to retain a sub-proletariat reduced to low wages and readily disposed of in the event of a crisis or economic slow-down, alongside groups of workers, employees and officials locked into complex [regulatory] arrangements wherein their docility and diligence are reflected in their wage levels” (Volume Two, Selection 45).

Marx's theory of history

Marx’s theory of history

The Impulso group implicitly accepted the Marxist view of historical stages of development which other anarchists, from Bakunin onward, have also challenged. Even before Bakunin’s conflict with Marx in the First International, one of the points of disagreement between Marx and Proudhon was whether an anarchist form of socialism could be achieved before capitalism created the technology that would produce an abundance of goods allegedly necessary to sustain a socialist society (Marx, 1847). Anarchists promoted peasant revolutions in a variety of circumstances, rather than waiting for the development of an urban proletariat as suggested by the Marxist view of history.

Gustav Landauer rejected that “artifice of historical development, by which—as a matter of historical necessity—the working class, to one extent or another, is called by Providence to take for itself the role of the present day ruling class” (Volume One, Selection 40). For Landauer, “the miracle that materialism and mechanism assume—that… fully-grown socialism grows not out of the childhood beginnings of socialism, but out of the colossal deformed body of capitalism—this miracle will not come, and soon people will no longer believe in it” (Volume One, Selection 49). Huang Lingshuang and Rudolf Rocker later put forward similar critiques of the Marxist theory of history.

popper poverty of historicism

In the 1950s, some anarchists were influenced by the contemporaneous critique of Marxist “historicism” that was being developed by philosophers such as Karl Popper (1957). Writing in the early 1960s, the Chilean anarchist Lain Diez urged anarchists to reject all “historicist systems” based on “the supremacy (in terms of decision making in men’s affairs) of History… which, unknown to men, supposedly foists its law upon them,” for this “new and jealous divinity has its intermediaries who, like the priests of the ancient religions, interpret its intentions, prophesying as they did and issuing thunderous anathemas against miscreants refusing to be awed by their revelations” (Volume Two, Selection 47). More recently, Alan Carter has presented a thoroughgoing anarchist critique of Marxist “technological determinism” (1988), emphasizing the role of the state in creating and enforcing “the relations of production that lead to the creation of the surplus that the state requires” to finance the “forces of coercion” necessary to maintain state power, turning Marx’s theory of history on its head (Volume Three, Selection 19).

Robert Graham

Alan Carter's anarchist critique of Marxism

Alan Carter’s anarchist critique of Marxism