Geoffrey Ostergaard: The Relevance of Syndicalism

Geoffrey Ostergaard (1926-1990) was an English anarcho-syndicalist who also wrote about non-violence and direct action. His publications include The Gentle Anarchists, with Melville Currell, Nonviolent Revolution in India, and The Tradition of Workers’ Control. I included excerpts from his essay, “Fabianism and the Managerial Revolution” in Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas: The Emergence of the New Anarchism (1939-1977). In “The Relevance of Syndicalism,” originally published in Colin Ward’s Anarchy magazine, Volume 3, No. 6, June 1963, he argues for the relevance of syndicalism by connecting the syndicalists’ anti-statism and direct action tactics to the burgeoning peace movements of the 1960s. In the mid-1980s, he revised the article for inclusion in a book of articles on influential anarchist thinkers and movements that I was putting together (but for which I was unable to find a publisher). This is the first time that his revised version of the paper has appeared, in the first of two parts.

THE RELEVANCE OF SYNDICALISM

Geoffrey Ostergaard

Syndicalism, as a movement of significant size and influence, flourished in the two decades prior to 1917 and, since then, apart from a brief and cruel flowering in Spain during the Civil War, it has been largely a spent force. Avowedly syndicalist groups and organizations still exist in many countries but their memberships are numbered in the hundreds and thousands rather than in tens of thousands and millions; and a dispassionate observer would be forced to place them in that half-submerged world inhabited by ‘the socialist sects.’ Periodical1y attempts are made to regroup the scattered forces of syndicalism in preparation for a new offensive. But it seems unlikely that such attempts will lead to a revival of the movement in its classical form in the foreseeable future.

Why, then, should we bother our heads with syndicalism? Why not leave the subject to the historians? It is clearly one of the failures of history, a movement that did not ‘come off.’ With our eyes on the present and the future, why concern ourselves with the past, especially the unsuccessful past? As T.S. Eliot reminded us, ‘We cannot revive old factions or follow an antique drum’; and perhaps, even if we could, we ought not to do so.

There are at least two good reasons for not adopting the viewpoint implicit in such questions. One is that the present and possible future cannot be understood without an understanding of the past. And by ‘the past’ I mean not only the ‘successful’ past — that part of history which most obviously leads to the present; I include also the ‘unsuccessful’ past — that part of history which from the viewpoint of the present seems to have led nowhere. It is a point often overlooked, even by intelligent historians, that there is as much, if not more, to be learned from the failures as from the successes of history. This, as I shall try to show, is particularly true of syndicalism. An understanding of why syndicalism failed and a pondering of the implications of that failure can illuminate our understanding of the present in a way that no account of ‘successful’ movements could do.

A second reason for not dismissing syndicalism out of hand is perhaps more debatable, since it stems from the values inherent in my own political position. Looked at in the round, the world socialist movement since 1917 has been divided into two great camps the social democratic camp, on the one side, and the Bolshevik or Communist camp, on the other. Initially, what divided the two camps was the question of which road to take to the socialist society. The social democrats or (to avoid the ambiguity this term may now have for British readers) democratic socialists opted for the constitutional road, while the Communists chose the revolutionary road taken by their great hero, Lenin. In recent decades, however, the division between the two has become blurred.

‘Revisionists’ have been at work in both camps. In the Communist camp, failure to make much progress along the revolutionary road in advanced capitalist countries led to doubts which eventually expressed themselves in the form of ‘Eurocommunism.’ Essentially, what Eurocommunism boils down to is the reluctant acceptance of the basic idea of the first ‘revisionist’ of Marxism, Eduard Bernstein: the road to socialism, in some countries at least, must be constitutional and democratic. But at the same time as many Communists were re-routing themselves, democratic socialists engaged in a revisionism even more radical. In their case, the definition of socialism itself was involved. Henceforth, socialism was not to be defined as it once had been by every kind of socialist: the social ownership of all the means of production, distribution and exchange. So long as the State controls ‘the governing heights of the economy,’ it is not necessary, so it was argued, to abrogate capitalist ownership completely. Abrogation is necessary, if at all, only for certain ‘basic’ industries; in others, State regulation will suffice.

However, despite the curious cavortings of both Communists and democratic socialists, they have remained united in one underlying belief: the road to socialism lies through the acquisition by their respective parties of the political power of the State, the institution claiming, within its territory, a monopoly of the major means of physical coercion and, within its territory but also in relation to other States, the attribute of sovereignty. In this respect, both differ from the socialists of what may be called the third camp: the anti-state or non-state libertarian socialists.

In the first forty years after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, not much was heard from this camp. The notable exception was in Spain; but, even there, the victory in 1939 of Franco’s fascist forces appeared to mark for most socialists the final liquidation of libertarian socialism. Historically, this third camp has comprised a variety of groups and movements, both constitutional and revolutionary. These include the so-called pre-Marxian ‘utopian socialists’; the cooperative movement; anarchists of all hues other than ‘individualist’; the guild socialists; and, of course, the syndicalists. Apart from the doubtful exception of the cooperators, the list may look like a catalogue of history’s ‘failures.’ Twenty years ago, certainly, that is how most historians would have read the list. But things have changed in the third camp as well as in the other two camps.

In the late ‘fifties and the ‘sixties, under the umbrella of ‘The New Left,’ libertarian socialism resurfaced. The starting point of New Left thinking was disillusionment with both democratic socialism and Marxian Communism as then extant in the shape of Welfare Statism and Stalinism, respectively. As New Left movements proliferated, various themes, theories and actions, all distinctly libertarian, began to come to the fore: anti-militarism, nonviolent direct action, the rediscovery of community, community action and politics, radical decentralism, participatory democracy, the organization of the poor and oppressed inter-racially, and the building of a counter culture and counter-institutions (such as new co-ops, collectives and communes). For many youthful New Leftists all these were novel ideas which they believed they themselves had invented. But it was not long before the more historically-minded among them began to realize that the ‘new’ ideas were essentially a rediscovery of old insights and a reassertion of a once-honoured but submerged tradition. As a consequence, there was a revival of serious study of old masters and old movements. In Academia, even anarchism became a respectable subject of enquiry and discussion.

For a brief moment in 1968 it looked as though forces ranged behind the New Left banner might succeed in making a spectacular breakthrough in the heartlands of advanced industrial capitalism. But, for a variety of complex reasons, the prospect (or dream) of a libertarian revolution speedily vanished, and by the early ‘seventies the New Left – ‘a movement of movements’ rather than a single movement – had dissolved into disputatious rival fragments. Libertarian socialism had been reasserted and today, in the mid-eighties, it remains a lively current of thought, infecting in some degree socialists from the other two camps. But it has not yet succeeded in firmly establishing itself as a distinctive third camp with a coherent analysis of the contemporary world and a clear strategy for achieving the classical socialist goal of a free, egalitarian, classless and transnational society.

This is unfortunate, since there is no doubt that at the present time we are witnessing the continuing decomposition of both democratic socialism and Marxian communism. The democratic socialist road, it is now clear, leads not to socialism as traditionally understood but to the managerial-bureaucratic Welfare-cum-Warfare State. It is equally clear that the Communist road leads to a variant of the same end. Overall, in the period since 1917, Communism has gained ground at the expense of democratic socialism. In relatively undeveloped countries, usually in alliance with the old enemy of nationalism, Communism has demonstrated in a way that democratic socialism has never done its capacity to make a revolution, to establish a new social order. What, alas, it has not demonstrated, and shows no signs of demonstrating, is its capacity to create a new social order remotely resembling that of the classical socialist ideal. If the future does, indeed, lie with Communism, so much the worse for the socialist dream! For, if one has to choose between them, a managerial-bureaucratic State run on the basis of a state socialist economy is even more tyrannical than one run on the basis of a capitalist  or mixed economy.

From this perspective, the libertarian socialist tradition takes on a special significance for the present generation of socialists. It may be — we have cause enough to be skeptical — that there is no road to the truly socialist society. The whole ideology of socialism over the last 175 years may come to be seen in the future — if humanity has any future — as yet one more ideology preparing the ground for the rise of yet one more historic ruling class. But, if there be a road, I am convinced that it is the third road which the syndicalists among others helped to pave. It is for this reason that syndicalism remains a subject of continuing relevance.

The most striking feature of syndicalist thought and action is the importance attached to the class struggle. Classical syndicalism, it should be noted, emerged at about the same time as the first revisionist controversy within Marxism at the turn of the century. Led by Bernstein, the revisionists questioned, among other things, Marx’s analysis of class development and his theory of the State. They argued, in effect, for what I have called the democratic socialist position — the view that socialism could be achieved gradually by a broad democratic movement acquiring, peacefully and constitutionally, control of the existing machinery of the State. This amounted to a right-wing revision of Marxism. Syndicalism, in contrast, was a revision of Marxism to the left. The struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie was seen by the syndicalists as the very essence of Marxism — ‘the alpha and omega of socialism’, as Sorel put it. All their energies were directed toward the relentless pursuit of this struggle: the class war was to be fought to a victorious finish with no compromise given or taken. Any form of class collaboration was seen as anathema. Like orthodox Marxists, the syndicalists regarded the existing State as an instrument of coercion for maintaining bourgeois domination. Where they parted company from the orthodox, however, was in their opposition to any form of the State. Marx had argued that the task of the proletariat was to destroy, in the course of the revolution, the bourgeois State and to put in its place a proletarian State. The new State would socialize the means of production, distribution and exchange, thereby abolishing social classes, and this would be the prelude to the eventual liquidation of the coercive apparatus of society. The State, as Engels put it, would ‘wither away.’. The syndicalists, in contrast, and influenced in this respect by the anarchists, insisted that the State as such must be destroyed in the course of the revolution: to build a new State on the ruins of the old would simply result in the perpetuation of class rule over the proletariat in a new, possibly more vicious, form.

This view implied a rejection not only of parliamentary action — the contesting of elections for bourgeois parliaments — but also of political action in the narrow Statist sense of the term. The syndicalists insisted that the class war must be waged, as the French put it, on the terrain de classe by direct action. Fighting the class war involves, of course, political action in the wider sense of a struggle for social power. What distinguished the syndicalists was the view that this struggle for social power, the struggle to achieve proletarian ascendancy, did not involve setting up a specialized political organization, to wit, a political party. Quite the contrary. To try to achieve socialism through such an organization, argued the syndicalists, would be fatal to the very aims of the proletariat.

It is important to grasp this point and the reasoning behind it if we are to begin to understand syndicalism. To Communists rejection of party organization appears as the fatal error of the syndicalists. The Marxist revolutions of our century, they would argue, have all been carried through only by means of the highly disciplined form of the proletarian party perfected by Lenin. As Lenin put it to some syndicalists who visited Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution: ‘You cannot lead the proletariat without a Party.’ No Communist Party means no revolution; at best, only revolt that stops short of revolution. How, it might be asked, could the syndicalists have made such a stupid mistake?

This, of course, is to beg the question. But leaving aside for the moment the suggestion that the syndicalists were in error, and noting as we do so that some syndicalists, such as Tom Mann, did admit to error and joined the Communist Party, it is relatively easy to see how the classical syndicalists arrived at their position. In a sense, they did so because they were more Marxist than Marx himself, and perhaps less heretical Marxists than Lenin. (There is a strong case for arguing that Bolshevism is the greatest Marxist heresy, turning the materialist conception on its head and, by its political success, invalidating the theory.) The classical syndicalists accepted wholeheartedly the materialist conception of history, and deduced from it the conclusion that political power is essentially a derivative from economic power. As James Connolly put it, ‘It is an axiom, enforced by the experience of the ages, that they who rule industrially will rule politically.’ A class that possesses economic power will thus necessarily, sooner rather than later, acquire political power. If, then, the proletariat, like the bourgeoisie before it, sets about acquiring economic power and is able to do so, it need not worry overmuch about political power. For the proletariat, as for the industrial bourgeoisie, economic power means power over and within industry. So, if the workers can win control of industry, the battle for proletarian ascendancy will have been won. James Connolly, again, expressed the point succinctly in these words ‘The workshop is the cockpit of civilization…. The fight for the conquest of the political state is not the battle, it is only the echo of the battle. The real battle is being fought out every day for the power to control industry.’

But there is more to the syndicalist case than this. Taking seriously, indeed, the theory of the class struggle, the syndicalists worked for a clean-cut, uncompromising proletarian victory. Socialism for them meant the replacement of bourgeois culture and institutions by proletarian culture and institutions. Their whole conception of socialism was, in the words of a Freedom editorial of the time, a thoroughly ‘working class conception.’ They had no time at all for middle class socialists. They had little patience even for the guild socialists whose ideas were closest to their own. Because guild socialists retained in some form the institution of the State, conceived in a Fabian-way as representing the interests of consumers, the syndicalists thought, as one of them put it, that they were ‘incapable of conceiving a commonwealth which is not designed on the canons of bourgeois architecture.’ Designing and building a commonwealth on the canons of proletarian architecture was what the syndicalists were about. When Marx in his Address to the First International had said that the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the workers themselves, the syndicalists thought he meant it. They did not think he meant that emancipation would come through the organization of a self-styled proletarian party led principally by people of bourgeois origins who, for one reason or another — and not always, they suspected, for creditable reasons — had taken up the cause of the workers. Bourgeois socialist intellectuals — professors, students, publicists and the like — had, the syndicalists thought, only a strictly limited and auxiliary role to play in the workers’ movement. The task of such people was to make explicit what was implicit in the social relations of capitalist society. Most definitely, it was not their task to instruct the proletariat, to guide the workers, and to lead them into correct courses of action. A workers’ movement which allowed itself to be directed by bourgeois intellectuals, even déclassé intellectuals, would, they believed, end up either compromising with the status quo or establishing a new form of class rule over the proletariat.

From this perspective, the syndicalists proceeded to juxtapose the concept of class against the concept of party. As social formations, the two are quite different. A class is a natural product of historical development, comprising individuals who occupy essentially the same position in the economic order of society. A party, in contrast, is an artificial aggregate, a consciously contrived organization, a social artifact, composed of heterogeneous elements drawn from all or, at least, a variety of classes. A class is based on a homogeneity of origin and conditions of life, and the bond of unity between its members is primarily economic. A party, however, represents essentially an intellectual unity: the bond uniting its members is primarily ideological. When individuals are approached on the basis of their class, the focus is on their role in the economic order, a role which sharply separates them from members of other classes. Thus the opposition of class interests is highlighted. But when individuals are approached on the basis of party, the focus is on their role as citizens and electors in the political order, and this role they share with members of all classes. Inevitably, on this approach, the opposition of class interests is muted. Parties may, and often do, express particular class interests — hence the view, held by political sociologists, that elections are the democratic expression of the class struggle. But parties also serve to moderate and to contain class antagonism. And, whatever the function of particular parties may be, the party system as a whole works to mitigate class conflicts and to preserve the existing socio-economic and political system.

The syndicalists, of course, appreciated that classes as such do not act. Social action involves the action of individuals in and through organizations. Organization of the proletariat, therefore, was an admitted necessity. In this respect, the syndicalists differed from those among the classical anarchists who minimized the importance of organization and who pinned their hopes on spontaneous revolutionary uprisings, stimulated by catalytic agents like Bakunin.

But, if the class struggle was the basic reality, why, asked the syndicalists, set up a special organization — a political party — which from its very nature would inevitably undermine the struggle? Why, indeed, when the proletariat already had an organization of its own: the trade or labour union — an organization based on the working class, confined (at that time) to the working class, and set up by the workers for the purpose of defending their interests in the daily struggle against their capitalist masters? True, the trade unions had been conceived, even by their creators, as mainly ameliorative instruments, as a means to win concessions for the workers within the social framework of capitalism. But there was no a priori reason why the role of unions should be so limited. Given proper direction, it was argued, they could be transformed into revolutionary instruments.

A single-minded emphasis on the potentialities of the trade union is in fact the most distinctive single feature of classical syndicalism. Syndicalists differed among themselves about how unions should be organized, many favouring industrial rather than craft unions, but all agreed that they had a dual role to perform: first, the traditional role of defending the interests of the workers under capitalism; and, secondly, the revolutionary role of overthrowing capitalism and constituting themselves as the basic units of the succeeding socialist society. Referring to this second role, James Connolly put it thus: ‘to build up an industrial republic with the shell of the political state, in order that, when the industrial republic is fully organized, it may crack the shell of the political state and step into its place in the scheme of the universe.’ As these words suggest, the more important second role became operative at once and not simply during and on the morrow of the revolution. In other words, syndicalism was not just a blueprint of the future socialist society in which unions would be the basic units of all social organization and would federate at the local, regional, national and transnational levels in order to carry out all the useful functions presently performed by bourgeois organizations. The task of the unions was to struggle here and now to divest the existing organizations of capitalist society of all life and to transfer whatever value they might have to the proletarian organizations. This part of the syndicalist strategy was summed up in Sorel’s words: ‘to snatch from the State and from the Commune, one by one, all their attributes in order to enrich the proletarian organisms in the process of formation.’

Anarchy & Organization: The Debate at the 1907 International Anarchist Congress

I have now created a separate page which includes the previously posted speeches by Amédée Dunois, Errico Malatesta, Emma Goldman and Max Baginsky from the debate on anarchy and organization at the 1907 International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam. Despite his membership in the revolutionary syndicalist CGT in France, whose slogan was “syndicalism is sufficient unto itself,” Dunois advocated the creation of a dual, explicitly anarchist organization, similar to those Spanish anarchists who later created the FAI in Spain to work alongside and within the anarcho-syndicalist CNT. While Malatesta disagreed with the claim that syndicalism is sufficient unto itself and argued against the creation of specifically anarchist trade unions (Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One, Selection 60), he was also in favour of separate anarchist organizations through which anarchists could coordinate their activities. However, he was opposed to the Platformists and other like-minded anarchists who sought to create a single anarchist organization which required adherence to its policies and programs because this would inevitably lead to disagreements and schisms (Anarchism, Volume One, Selection 115). Neither Emma Goldman nor Max Baginski was opposed to syndicalist or anarchist organization, but both were careful to emphasize the need for individual autonomy, as was Malatesta. More recently, anarchists as diverse as latter-day Platformists, with their doctrine of especifismo, student anarchists during the May-June 1968 events in France (Anarchism, Volume Two, Selection 51), eco-anarchists such as Murray Bookchin in the 1960s and 70s (Volume Two, Selection 62), Colin Ward (Volume Two, Selection 63), the Open Road anarchist newsjournal in the  1970s and 80s, anarcha-feminists (Volume Two, Selections 78 & 79) and anarchists involved in global justice and indigenous movements against neo-liberalism have moved toward a position which emphasizes the self-organization of the people instead of the creation of separate anarchist organizations, raising questions regarding the utility of or need for the latter.

Colin Ward (1924-2010)

Colin Ward, one of the most interesting anarchist writers of the post-Spanish Revolution/Second World War time period, died on February 11, 2010 at the age of 85. I included excerpts from his 1966 article, “Anarchy as a Theory of Organization,” in Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. His three best known anarchist books were Anarchy in Action (1973),  Talking Anarchy (2003) and Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction (2004). A selection of his writings is available online at the Anarchy is Order website. He wrote many books and articles on a wide variety of topics, from children, education and social policy to water resources, transportation and housing. The following paragraphs from the Introduction to Anarchy in Action aptly summarize Ward’s approach:

How would you feel if you discovered that the society in which you would really like to live was already here, apart from a few little, local difficulties like exploitation, war, dictatorship and starvation? The argument of this book is that an anarchist society, a society which organises itself without authority, is always in existence, like a seed beneath the snow, buried under the weight of the state and its bureaucracy, capitalism and its waste, privilege and its injustices, nationalism and its suicidal loyalties, religious differences and their superstitious separatism.

Of the many possible interpretations of anarchism the one presented here suggests that, far from being a speculative vision of a future society, it is a description of a  mode of human organisation, rooted in the experience of everyday life, which operates side by side with, and in spite of, the dominant authoritarian trends of our society. This is not a new version of anarchism. Gustav Landauer saw it, not as the founding of something new, ‘but as the actualisation and reconstitution of something that has always been present, which exists alongside the state, albeit buried and laid waste.’ And a modern anarchist, Paul Goodman, declared that: ‘A free society cannot be the substitution of a ‘new order’ for the old order; it is the extension of spheres of free action until they make up most of social life.’

One of Ward’s favourite quotes was Landauer’s comment that the “state is a relationship between human beings, a way by which people relate to one another… one destroys it by entering into other relationships, by behaving differently to one another” (Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE-1939), page 165). Goodman’s statement that a free society is the extension of spheres of free action is taken from his 1945 publication, The May Pamphlet, included in Volume Two of Anarchism, The Emergence of the New Anarchism (1939-1977), Selection 11, under the heading, “Reflections on Drawing the Line.”

Emma Goldman & Max Baginski: Individuality, Autonomy & Organization (1907)

EmmaGoldmanAt the 1907 International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam, Emma Goldman (1869-1940) and Max Baginski (1864-1943) spoke on the relationship between individualism, autonomy and organization, supporting a conception of anarchist organization which respects individual autonomy. Goldman and Baginski had traveled from the United States to attend the Congress. As Baginski makes clear, their argument that individuality and autonomy can and must be respected in anarchist organizations in no way signified opposition to such organizations, such as those favoured by the anarcho-syndicalists, whose views were represented by Amadée Dunois in his previously posted speech at the Congress. Emma Goldman’s positive assessment of anarcho-syndicalism, “Syndicalism: Its Theory and Practice,” is reproduced as Selection 59 in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

The translation is by Nestor McNab and is taken from Studies for a Libertarian Alternative: The International Anarchist Congress, Amsterdam, 1907, published by the Anarchist Communist Federation in Italy (Federazione dei Comunisti Anarchici – FdCA); paperback edition available from AK Press.

EMMA GOLDMAN: I, too, am in favour of organization in principle. However, I fear that sooner or later this will fall into exclusivism.

Dunois has spoken against the excesses of individualism. But these excesses have nothing to do with true individualism, as the excesses of communism have nothing to do with real communism… I, too, will accept anarchist organization on just one condition: that it be based on the absolute respect for all individual initiatives and not obstruct their development or evolution.

The essential principle of anarchy is individual autonomy. The International will not be anarchist unless it wholly respects this principle.

Max Baginski: An error that is too often made is believing that individualism rejects organization. The two terms are, on the contrary, inseparable. Individualism more specifically means working for inner mental liberation of the individual, while organization means association between conscious individuals with a goal to reach or an economic need to satisfy. We must not however forget that a revolutionary organization requires particularly energetic and conscious individuals.

The accusation that anarchy is destructive rather than constructive and that accordingly anarchy is opposed to organization is one of the many falsehoods spread by our adversaries. They confuse today’s institutions with organization and thus cannot understand how one can fight the former and favour the latter. The truth is, though, that the two are not identical.

The State is generally considered to be the highest form of organization. But is it really a true organization? Is it not rather an arbitrary institution cunningly imposed on the masses?

Industry, too, is considered an organization; yet nothing is further from the truth. Industry is piracy of the poor at the hands of the rich.

We are asked to believe that the army is an organization, but careful analysis will show that it is nothing less than a cruel instrument of blind force.

Public education: are not the universities and other scholastic institutions perhaps models of organization, which offer people fine opportunities to educate themselves? Far from it: schools, more than any other institution, are nothing more than barracks, where the human mind is trained and manipulated in order to be subjected to the various social and mental phantoms, and thus rendered capable of continuing this system of exploitation and oppression of ours.

Instead, organization as we understand it is something different. It is based on freedom. It is a natural, spontaneous grouping of energies to guarantee beneficial results to humanity.

It is the harmony of organic development that produces the variety of colours and forms, the combination that we so admire in a flower. In the same way, the organized activity of free human beings imbued with the spirit of solidarity will result in the perfection of social harmony, which we call anarchy. Indeed, only anarchy makes the non-authoritarian organization of common interests possible, since it abolishes the antagonism that exists between individuals and classes.

In the current situation, the antagonism of economic and social interests produces an unceasing war between social units and represents an insurmountable obstacle on the road to collective well-being.

There exists an erroneous conviction that organization does not encourage individual freedom and that, on the contrary, it causes a decay of individual personality. The reality is, however, that the true function of organization lies in personal development and growth.

Just as the cells of an animal, through reciprocal co-operation, express latent powers in the formation of the complete organism, so the individual reaches the highest level of his development through co-operation with other individuals.

An organization, in the true sense of the word, cannot be the product of a union of pure nothingness. It must be made up of self-conscious and intelligent persons. In fact, the sum of the possibilities and activities of an organization is represented by the expression of the single energies.

It follows logically that the greater the number of strong, self-conscious individuals in an organization, the lesser the danger of stagnation and the more intense its vital element.

Anarchism supports the possibility of organization without discipline, fear or punishment, without the pressure of poverty: a new social organism that will end the terrible struggle for the means of subsistence, the vicious struggle that damages man’s best qualities and continually widens the social abyss. In short, anarchism struggles for a form of social organization that will ensure well-being for all.

The embryo of this organization can be found in the type of syndicalism that has freed itself from centralization, bureaucracy and discipline, that encourages autonomous, direct action by its members.

Malatesta on Anarchism, Individualism and Organization (1907)

Errico Malatesta (1853-1932) was one of the founders of the international anarchist movement. He was a member of the Italian Federation of the First International, which sided with Bakunin in his dispute with Karl Marx (Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE-1939), Chapter 6). The Italian Federation was one of the first of the anti-authoritarian sections of the International to adopt an anarchist communist position. The Italian Federation supported the creation of revolutionary trade unions and called for open insurrrection against the State and the expropriation of the capitalists through the direct action of the people. Malatesta spent much of his time in exile, notably in Argentina, the US and England, where he helped turn the European anarchist movement that arose from the First International into a truly international movement. Malatesta was always in favour of organization, for reasons which he sets forth below in his speech on anarchism and organization at the 1907 International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam. He refers in his speech to the recent release from a Spanish prison of the libertarian pedagogue, Francisco Ferrer (Anarchism, Volume One, Selection 65). Unfortunately for Ferrer, neither the international anarchist movement nor his bourgeois supporters were able to save him from execution by the Spanish State in 1909. His support for the anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists in Spain, his powerful advocacy of libertarian education, and his attacks on a reactionary Catholic Church, earned him the lasting enmity of the rich and powerful.

Anarchism, Individualism and Organization

I have listened attentively to everything that has been said before me on the problem of organization and I have the distinct impression that what separates us is the different meaning we give words. Let us not squabble over words. But as far as the basic problem is concerned, I am convinced that we are in total agreement.

All anarchists, whatever tendency they belong to, are individualists in some way or other. But the opposite is not true; not by any means. The individualists are thus divided into two distinct categories: one which claims the right to full development for all human individuality, their own and that of others; the other which only thinks about its own individuality and has absolutely no hesitation in sacrificing the individuality of others. The Tsar of all the Russias belongs to the latter category of individualists. We belong to the former.

Ibsen writes that the most powerful man in the world is the one who is most alone! Absolutely absurd! Doctor Stockmann himself, whom Ibsen has pronounce this maxim, was not even isolated in the full sense of the word; he lived in a constituted society, not on Robinson Crusoe’s island. Man “alone” cannot carry out even the smallest useful, productive task; and if someone needs a master above him it is exactly the man who lives in isolation. That which frees the individual, that which allows him to develop all his faculties, is not solitude, but association.

In order to be able to carry out work that is really useful, co-operation is indispensable, today more than ever. Without doubt, the association must allow its individual members full autonomy and the federation must respect this same autonomy for its groups. We are careful not to believe that the lack of organization is a guarantee of freedom. Everything goes to show that it is not.

An example: there are certain French newspapers whose pages are closed to all those whose ideas, style or simply person have the misfortune to be unwelcome in the eyes of the editors. The result is: the editors are invested with a personal power which limits the freedom of opinion and expression of comrades. The situation would be different if these newspapers belonged to all, instead of being the personal property of this or that individual: then all opinions could be freely debated.

There is much talk of authority, of authoritarianism. But we should be clear what we are speaking of here. We protest with all our heart against the authority embodied in the State, whose only purpose is to maintain the economic slavery within society, and we will never cease to rebel against it. But there does exist a simply moral authority that arises out of experience, intelligence and talent, and despite being anarchists there is no one among us who does not respect this authority.

It is wrong to present the “organizers”, the federalists, as authoritarians; but it is equally quite wrong to imagine the “anti-organizers”, the individualists, as having deliberately condemned themselves to isolation.

For me, I repeat, the dispute between individualists and organizers is a simple dispute over words, which does not hold up to careful examination of the facts. In the practical reality, what do we see? That the individualists are at times “organizers” for the reason that the latter too often limit themselves to preaching organization without practicing it. On the other hand, one can come across much more effective authoritarianism in those groups who noisily proclaim the “absolute freedom of the individual”, than in those that are commonly considered authoritarian because they have a bureau and take decisions.

In other words, everyone organizes themselves — organizers and anti-organizers. Only those who do little or nothing can live in isolation, contemplating. This is the truth; why not recognize it.

If proof be needed of what I say: in Italy all the comrades who are currently active in the struggle refer to my name, both the “individualists” and the “organizers”, and I believe that they are all right, as whatever their reciprocal differences may be, they all practice collective action nonetheless.

Enough of these verbal disputes; let us stick to action! Words divide and actions unite. It is time for all of us to work together in order to exert an effective influence on social events. It pains me to think that in order to free one of our own people from the clutches of the hangman it was necessary for us to turn to other parties instead of our own. Ferrer would not then owe his freedom to masons and bourgeois free thinkers if the anarchists, gathered together in a powerful and feared International, had been able to conduct themselves the worldwide protest against the criminal infamy of the Spanish government.

Let us ensure that the Anarchist International finally becomes a reality. To enable us to appeal quickly to all our comrades, to struggle against the reaction and to act, when the time is right, with revolutionary initiative, there must be an International!