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

Bourdon & Varlin: Freedom of Education (1866)

The Geneva Congress 1866

The Geneva Congress 1866

This September marks the 150th anniversary of the first policy Congress of the International Workingmen’s Association in Geneva, Switzerland (from September 3 to 8, 1866). It was at the Geneva Congress that the Statutes of the International were officially adopted (with the French version fatefully referring to every “political movement” being subordinate to the “economic emancipation of the working classes,” whereas the English version referred to every political movement only being subordinate to economic emancipation “as a means”; Marx later used the English version to argue that anarchism was contrary to the International’s Statutes, which he wrote, no doubt with this arcane distinction in mind). The French delegates were largely Proudhonist in orientation. They presented a report to the Congress that quoted extensively from Proudhon’s General Idea of the Revolution, one of his most anarchist works. However, the majority of the French delegation agreed with Proudhon’s view that fathers should be in control of their children’s education. Two of the French delegates presented a “minority” report on this issue, Antoine-Marie Bourdon, a Fourierist, and Eugène Varlin, a radical socialist federalist, in which they argued that education is a social responsibility. During the debates at the Congress on the position of women, Varlin also argued in favour of equal rights for women, because the reality is that women must be allowed to earn a living by working, otherwise they would be condemned to prostitution or reliance on charity. Here, I reproduce Shawn Wilbur’s translation of Bourdon and Varlin’s minority opinion on education. I discuss the Geneva Congress in more detail in ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It”: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist movement.


Opinion of the Minority of the French Delegation

Finding ourselves in agreement on the obligation to be educated in a society where we profit each day from the insights of other; recognizing the necessity of education being at once scientific and professional, we are radically divided on the means of spreading it: some maintain that this responsibility falls on the family; the others, that it must be borne by society.

The convictions being equally profound on both sides, we believe that we should indicate here the principles that we have taken for a guide in the study of this question. These principles can be summarized in two words: Justice, Liberty. Justice in social relations, equality of rights and duties, equality in the means of action put by society at the disposition of the individual, equality for the individuals in the burdens of society.

Individual liberty, the right for each and the power to employ their faculties, and to use them according to their will.

As long as the individuals could only arrange unequal means of action, the tasks that fall to them will be unequal, and justice will not exist. As long as one constraint prevents the use of the self, liberty will not exist. That said, let us enter into the facts.

The complete incapacity of the human being, at their birth, requires in its favor an advance of services of which it will have to take account, when the development of its faculties will have put it, so to speak, in possession of itself, when it becomes a being capable of action.

With man in the state of nature, a comparatively small amount of services suffices for the child of:

That the mother directs his first step; that the father teaches him to hunt and gather the fruits with which he must nourish himself, and his education is complete. He can live freely and in conditions of complete equality with his fellows. The number of his brothers, even the loss of his parents would not be for him causes of inequality; the bit of demand for such an education is the guarantee that he will receive it from a strong being, whatever it may be.

In the civilized state, it is something else: Man being created for enjoyments, that habit has transformed into needs, in order to satisfy them, he must produce, produce a great deal; muscular strength no longer suffices, he must put intelligence to work. From then on, education becomes complicated; to the physical development is added the intellectual and moral development.

The more the faculties of man will be developed, the more and better he will produce, the more he will be useful and the more he should be happy. The less educated he will be, the less useful he will be and the more miserable, for inferiority is misery.

Now, the advance sum necessitated by an education capable of developing all the faculties of the child and to put him level with science and industry, being considerable, it is no longer a matter of indifference to ask who will furnish it.

It is just that this should be by those who must profit from it; but what is especially important is that all the children are assured of receiving it complete, so that none begin life in conditions of inferiority.

Some say that the responsibility for education falls on the family! Can the family furnish equal means of education to all children? No.

Depending on whether the family has more or less children, it will have more or less resources; and while the father of one could, without depriving himself, give them not only primary education, but also secondary and even higher education, the father responsible for many children will barely give them elementary instruction. The son of the first will become the manager of enterprises for which the children of the second will be the laborer. Inequality for the children in the results, inequality of burdens for the families, and thus no justice.

To shield themselves from these shocking inequalities, the partisans of education by the family propose to found some cooperative insurance societies in order to provide, in equal parts, for the costs of education of their children, whatever their number. That idea is certainly very laudable, but is it capable of guaranteeing the education of all the children? No.

There will always be improvident fathers. Unconcerned for their dignity and the interests of their children, they will not insure it; and, if education becomes too heavy a burden for them, they will neglect it.

Some quantity of children will still find themselves at risk of lacking education, or of only having due to the public or private charity that our opponents energetically reject, as it applies to men who have consciousness of their dignity. But if it is good to guarantee oneself against all protection, all charity, wouldn’t it be better still to destroy them by leaving them no place any longer, no void to fill?

As for us, we do not accept that a single child should be deprived of instruction, that charity finds a single child to instruct. Let society take education under its charge, and the inequalities cease, charity would disappear. Education becomes an equal right for all, paid for by all the citizens, no longer according to the number of their children, but according to their ability to contribute.

Incidentally, who will profit from the education of the child? Isn’t it the entire society, rather than the family? Now, if it is society, let it be society that covers the costs.

But there is not only the question of tasks and expenses; there is also, and especially, a question of direction, and it is to this that the partisans of education by the family cling most.

The fear of the absorption of the individual by the state, the terror of official education, makes them forget all the costs of education, all the social inequalities that inequality of instruction brings about.

Certainly, we can only agree with their criticisms of university education, only applaud the blows struck by them against the monopoly of education, for it is not to us that all that is addressed. We even make this declaration, that if we only had to choose between the monopoly of education in the hands of a despotic, absolute power, of the government of one man or a few men, and the liberty of education as the responsibility of the family, we would opt for liberty.

But when we demand that education be the responsibility of society, we mean a truly democratic society in which the direction of the education would be the will of all.

It will doubtless be objected that everyone will never have the same will and that the minority must be subject to the majority. That will occur even with mutual insurance. But we are allowed to hope that the habits of liberty will lead the citizens to make some reciprocal concessions, and that the programs of study will be formulated according to generally accepted ideas, excluding above all affirmations without proof and accepting only the sciences and reasonable things.

In our mind, the central administration, having formulated a program of study including only the essential notions of universal utility, will leave to the communes the task of adding what seems good and useful to them in relation to the places, manners and industries of the country, and to choose their instructors, to open and direct their schools.

What is more, that education by society will find an excellent corrective in the liberty of education, in the natural right that the individual has to teach what they know, and learn what they don’t know. A right of which we are presently deprived, and that we are all resolved to demand with all our energy.

This right of education would not only allow some teachers to offer courses concurrently with the public schools, either for general studies or more often for specialized studies; but still, by leaving to each the ability to establish courses or conferences critical on the points found incomplete or on flaws in teaching, would permit the presentation of these objections to the students and the public who would [be the] judge. This would force the public educators to hold themselves to the level of science and to the improvements of teaching methods in order to leave the least possible foothold for criticism.

It seems to us that in this manner the parents would have as large a part as desirable in the direction of education; and the children would be assured of all receiving an education as complete as necessary.

But in order for all to be assured of receiving that instruction, there must be an obligation! Should it be real or simply moral? If the obligation is real, it is said, you strike at the liberty of the child and the authority of the father.

As for the liberty of the child, we respond: in order to be free, it must have the enjoyment of all its faculties to be able to suffice for its own existence; now, the child is not free, and to become free, has need precisely of education. In terms of paternal authority, a father does not have a right to refuse education to his child.

Now, society having the duty of safeguarding the interests of its members, in the name of the interest of the child when its father leaves it in ignorance, it should take it and instruct it. We conclude then for education by society, under the direction of the parents and compulsory for all children; but we also demand, whatever happens, the freedom of education.

Antoine-Marie Bourdon and Eugene Varlin

Geneva Congress of the International Workingmen’s Association, September 1866



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


We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It

we do not fear the book cover

AK Press now has a graphic for the cover of my forthcoming book, “We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It”: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement. I have already posted a few excerpts on this blog. The book should be out next Spring. Here, I set forth some excerpts from the Introduction, where I provide a definition of anarchism based on the way the anarchists in the International conceived it. The quote in the title, “We do not fear anarchy – we invoke it,” is from Bakunin.

goldman quote

Defining Anarchism

During his polemics within the International against the “authoritarians” and “bourgeois socialists,” Bakunin set forth six primary grounds for distinguishing his anarchism from the views of his opponents: first, his rejection of any kind of institutional, coercive authority (anti-authoritarianism); second, his opposition to the modern state, even as a “transitional” power to abolish capitalism (anti-statism); third, his opposition to any participation in existing systems of government or “bourgeois politics” (anti-parliamentarianism); fourth and fifth, his advocacy of voluntary federation during the struggle against capitalism and the state and in a post-revolutionary society (federalism), so that the revolutionary means were consistent with the revolutionary ends (libertarianism); and sixth, his call for the immediate abolition of the state and capitalism by means of direct action, including insurrection and the expropriation by the workers themselves of the means of production (social revolution).

In identifying Proudhon as an anarchist, Bakunin focused on Proudhon’s critique of the state and private property, Proudhon’s opposition to the authoritarian politics of the Jacobins and any sort of “revolutionary” dictatorship, and Proudhon’s concept of “agro-industrial federation,” a libertarian form of socialism wherein the state and capitalism are replaced by voluntary federations of agricultural, industrial and communal organizations with no central authority above them. Where he differed from Proudhon was in his advocacy of insurrection and expropriation and in his rejection of Proudhon’s view that capitalism and the state could be gradually supplanted through the creation and ever widening expansion of voluntary associations of workers, peasants, professionals and other functional groups with access to free credit through their own credit unions, or “people’s bank.”

Following Bakunin’s approach, anarchism, whether his, Proudhon’s or someone else’s, can be distinguished from other doctrines on the basis of its anti-authoritarianism, anti-statism, anti-parliamentarianism, federalism, libertarianism and advocacy of direct action. Bakunin included Proudhon in the anarchist camp despite Proudhon’s opposition to insurrection and expropriation and his gradualist approach. Bakunin recognized that despite these differences Proudhon was still an anarchist. Both advocated direct action, but with Proudhon emphasizing non-violent direct action that would gradually hollow out existing institutions and replace them with voluntary agro-industrial federations.

While Proudhon and Bakunin were both proponents of “social” revolution, Proudhon’s social revolution was conceived in gradual, pacific terms, not in insurrectionary terms, in contrast to Bakunin. Furthermore, all socialists of their era agreed on the need for some kind of “social” revolution, given the failure of the preceding “political” revolutions (the French Revolution and the European revolutions of 1848-1849). Consequently, advocacy of social revolution does not distinguish anarchism from other doctrines, such as socialism.

For the purposes of this study, therefore, I will proceed on the basis that anarchism can be defined as a view that rejects coercive authority, the state and participation in existing systems of government, and which advocates federalism (or voluntary association), libertarianism and direct action. This is consistent with Proudhon and Bakunin’s conceptions of anarchism and, as will be seen in the chapters which follow, the views of those members of the International who came to identify themselves as anarchists and to create an international anarchist movement.

Arguably, some of these six defining characteristics can be derived from the others. For example, the state and government can be seen simply as specific examples of coercive authority, so that anti-authoritarianism is the primary defining characteristic of anarchism. As Sébastien Faure (1858-1942) put it, “whoever denies Authority and fights against it is an Anarchist.”[i] Be that as it may, in historical terms I believe that it was on the basis of these six characteristics that anarchism came to be distinguished from other political orientations. These six criteria help to flesh out the content of anarchism in a more substantive sense, providing a more robust and “political” conception of anarchism as something more than mere “anti-authoritarianism.” To define anarchism simply on the basis of what it is that anarchists oppose fails to take into account the positive anarchist alternatives to authoritarian institutions and practices that also distinguish anarchism from other doctrines.

Robert Graham

[i] Woodcock, The Anarchist Reader, 1977: 62.

what is

1848: Anarchism and Revolution in Europe

1848 European Revolutions

This is the next installment from the Anarchist Current, the afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in which I survey the origins and development of anarchist ideas from ancient China to the present day. In this section, I discuss the role of anarchist ideas in the 1848 revolutions in Europe and their immediate aftermath, with a focus on Proudhon, his anarchist critic, Joseph Déjacque, Anselme Bellegarrigue, Carlo Pisacane, Ernest Coeurderoy and Pi y Margall.


Anarchism and the European Revolutions of 1848

In early 1848, revolution broke out in Sicily, quickly spreading throughout the Italian peninsula. The February 1848 Revolution soon followed in France, with the king being overthrown and a provisional republican government proclaimed. There were revolutions in various parts of Germany and Eastern Europe (with Bakunin somehow managing to take a part in most of them until his arrest in Dresden in May 1849). Anarchist ideas began to gain some currency, particularly in France, in no small part due to Proudhon’s own efforts.

The provisional government in France instituted universal male suffrage, which Proudhon referred to as “the counter-revolution” because the election of representatives, no matter how broad the electoral base, gives power to those representatives, not of the people, but of particular interests, legitimizing rule by those interests by making it appear that a government elected by universal suffrage represents the interests of the people. In fact, the Constituent Assembly elected in April 1848 was dominated by right-wing and bourgeois representatives. Rejection of and opposition to representative government and participation in parliamentary politics distinguished the anarchists from other socialist currents and helped lead to the split in the First International between Marx and his followers, who advocated the creation of national political parties to represent the interests of the working class, and the proto-anarchist anti-authoritarian federalists associated with Bakunin (Volume One, Chapters 5 & 6).

In Confessions of a Revolutionary (1849), Proudhon denounced the alliance between capital, religion and the state:

“Capital, which in the political field is analogous to government, in religion has Catholicism as its synonym. The economic idea of capitalism, the politics of government or of authority, and the theological idea of the Church are three identical ideas, linked in various ways. To attack one of them is equivalent to attacking all of them… What capital does to labour, and the State to liberty, the Church does to the spirit. This trinity of absolutism is as baneful in practice as it is in philosophy. The most effective means for oppressing the people would be simultaneously to enslave its body, its will and its reason.” (Nettlau: 43-44)

In The General Idea of the Revolution in the 19th Century, written from prison while Proudhon was incarcerated for having denounced Napoleon III as the personification of reaction, Proudhon wrote that the “fundamental, decisive idea” of the Revolution is this: “NO MORE AUTHORITY, neither in the Church, nor in the State, nor in land, nor in money” (Volume One, Selection 12). He described the law as “spider webs for the rich and powerful, steel chains for the weak and poor, fishing nets in the hands of the government,” advocating in their place a “system of contracts” based on the notion of equivalent exchange (Volume One, Selection 12). While subsequent anarchists were, for the most part, to reject Proudhon’s notion of equivalent exchange, they concurred with Proudhon that social relationships should be based on free agreements between individuals directly and between the various voluntary associations to which they may belong (Graham, 1989).

In Spain, anarchists referred to these agreements as “pacts” (pactos). In 1854, Francisco Pi y Margall (1824-1901), who introduced Proudhon’s ideas to a Spanish audience, argued that between “two sovereign entities there is room only for pacts. Authority and sovereignty are contradictions. Society based on authority ought, therefore, to give way to society based upon contract” (Volume One, Selection 15).

Not only in Spain, but throughout the nascent international anarchist movements, anarchists advocated contract, conceived as free agreement, as the means by which people would voluntarily federate into broader trade union, communal, regional and international organizations with no central authority above them, with each person and federated group being free to disassociate or secede from any federalist organization (Graham, 1989). They agreed with the argument put forward by Proudhon in his influential book, On the Political Capacity of the Working Classes (1865), that without the right of secession, federalism would be “merely an illusion, empty boasting, a lie” (Volume One, Selection 18).

In the aftermath of the 1848 French Revolution, Proudhon was not alone in advocating anarchy as a positive ideal. In 1850, the young journalist, Anselme Bellegarrigue, briefly published a newspaper, L’Anarchie, in which he argued that “anarchy is order, whereas government is civil war” (Volume One, Selection 13), echoing Proudhon’s comment in What Is Property that society “finds its highest perfection in the union of order with anarchy” (Volume One, Selection 8).

The Italian revolutionary, Carlo Pisacane (1818-1857), demanded the abolition of all hierarchy and authority, to be replaced by a form of socialism similar to Proudhon’s mutualism, based on voluntary contract and “free association”. Anticipating the doctrine of “propaganda by the deed,” Pisacane argued that the most effective propaganda is revolutionary action, for ideas “spring from deeds and not the other way around” (Volume One, Selection 16).

Joseph Déjacque (1821-1864), the first person to use the word “libertarian” as a synonym for “anarchist,” conceived of anarchy as the “complete, boundless, utter freedom to do anything and everything that is in human nature” (Volume One, Selection 14). Exiled from France after the 1848 Revolution, he called for the abolition of religion, private property, the patriarchal nuclear family, all authority and privilege, and for the “liberation of woman, the emancipation of the child.”

Déjacque's Le Libertaire

Déjacque’s Le Libertaire

Déjacque’s Critique of Proudhon

Déjacque’s anarchist critique was much broader than Proudhon’s. Proudhon saw the patriarchal nuclear family as the basis of society, and argued that woman’s place was in the home. He did not advocate the complete abolition of property, arguing instead for a fairer distribution of wealth based on individual contribution and equivalent exchange.

Déjacque took Proudhon to task on both points, arguing for the complete abolition of “property and authority in every guise” (Volume One, Selection 17). He rejected Proudhon’s mutualism as a “system of contracts” for determining each person’s “allotted measure” of things instead of everyone having access to whatever their “nature or temperament requires.” Déjacque believed that everyone should be “free to consume and to produce as they see fit,” advocating a form of anarchist communism twenty years before similar views were to be adopted by anarchists associated with the anti-authoritarian wing of the First International (Volume One, Chapter 8).

Rejecting Proudhon’s views on women, Déjacque argued that “the issue of woman’s emancipation” must be placed “on the same footing as the issue of emancipation of the proletarian” (Volume One, Selection 17). He looked forward to “man and woman striding with the same step and heart… towards their natural destiny, the anarchic community; with all despotism annihilated, all social inequalities banished.”

Ernest Coeurderoy

Ernest Coeurderoy

Ernest Coeurderoy: Citizen of the World

Another French exile with anarchist sensibilities was Ernest Coeurderoy (1825-1862). In a passage from his Days of Exile, remarkably similar to comments made by Subcomandante Marcos in the 1990s, Coeurderoy identified himself with all of the oppressed, writing that:

“In every land there are folk who are kicked out and driven away, killed and burnt out without a single voice of compassion to speak up for them. They are the Jews.—I am a Jew.

Skinny, untamed, restless men, sprightlier than horses and as dusky as the bastards of Shem, roam through the Andalusian countryside… The doors of every home are barred to them, in hamlet and town alike. A widespread disapproval weighs upon their breed… Such men are known as Gitanos.—I am a Gitano…

In Paris one can see wayward boys, naked, who hide under the bridges along the canal in the mid-winter and dive into the murky waters in search of a sou tossed to them by a passing onlooker… Their trade consists in purloining scarves and pretending to ask for a light but swapping cigarettes. These are the Bohemians.—I am a Bohemian…

Everywhere, there are people banned from promenades, museums, cafes and theatres because a heartless wretchedness mocks their day wear. If they dare to show themselves in public, every eye turns to stare at them; and the police forbid them to go near fashionable locations. But, mightier than any police, their righteous pride in themselves takes exception to being singled out for widespread stigma.—I am one of that breed” (1854).

Robert Graham

1848 Horace_Vernet-Barricade_rue_Soufflot

Additional References

Graham, Robert. “The Role of Contract in Anarchist Ideology.” In For Anarchism: History, Theory and Practice. Ed. D. Goodway. London: Routledge, 1989.

Nettlau, Max. A Short History of Anarchism. London: Freedom Press, 1996.

European Anarchism Before 1848

Prelude to Revolution

Prelude to Revolution

This is the next installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterward to Volume Three of my anthology of anarchist writings, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Here, I discuss some of the revolutionary ideas that were emerging in Europe prior to the European revolutions of 1848-1849.


Revolutionary Ideas in Europe

In the 1840s there was an explosion of radical ideas and movements in Europe, culminating in a wave of revolutions that swept the continent in 1848-49. In Germany, radical intellectuals inspired by and reacting against the philosophy of Hegel, sometimes referred to as the “Young” or “Left Hegelians,” began developing a “ruthless criticism of everything existing,” as Marx put it in 1843. The previous year, Bakunin had published his essay, “The Reaction in Germany,” in which he described the revolutionary program as “the negation of the existing conditions of the State” and “ the destruction of whatever order prevails at the time,” concluding with the now notorious phrase, the “passion for destruction is a creative passion, too!” (Volume One, Selection 10). Max Stirner’s masterpiece of nihilistic egoism, The Ego and Its Own, came out in 1844 (Volume One, Selection 11). Arnold Ruge, one of the most prominent of the “Young Hegelians,” called for “the abolition of all government” in favour of “an ordered anarchy… the free community… of men who make their own decisions and who are in all respects equal comrades” (Nettlau: 53-59).

Three aspects of the Young Hegelian critique had a lasting impact on Bakunin, and through him on the development of anarchist ideas. The first was the Young Hegelian critique of religion. The second was the development of a materialist worldview, from which all “divine phantoms” were banished. The third, which followed from the first two, was atheism. Bakunin and later anarchists were to denounce the alliance of Church and State, particularly the role of religion in pacifying the masses and in rationalizing their domination and exploitation, advocating a materialist atheism that emphasizes human agency because there are no divine or supernatural forces to protect or deliver the people from their earthly misery. The people can only liberate themselves through their own direct action.


Max Stirner

Max Stirner (1806-1856) took the Young Hegelian critique of “divine phantoms” to its furthest extreme, attacking all ideal conceptions, whether of God, humanity, or good and evil, as “spooks” or “wheels in the head” which dominate the very consciousness of the unique individual, preventing him or her from acting freely.

In The Ego and Its Own, Stirner argued that through upbringing, education and indoctrination, people internalize abstract social norms and values, putting the individual “in the position of a country governed by secret police. The spy and eavesdropper, ‘conscience,’ watch over every motion of the mind,” with “all thought and action” becoming “a matter of conscience, i.e. police business.” Anticipating radical Freudians like the anarchist psychoanalyst, Otto Gross (Volume One, Selection 78), Stirner observed that everyone “carries his gendarme within his breast.”

Stirner advocated freedom “from the State, from religion, from conscience,” and from any other power or end to which the individual can be subjected. He rejected any concept of justice or rights, arguing that the unique individual is free to take whatever is in his or her power. Whenever the egoist’s “advantage runs against the State’s,” he “can satisfy himself only by crime.” After Stirner’s writings were rediscovered in the late 1890s, this aspect of his critique was developed by individualist anarchists, such as Albert Joseph (“Libertad”), into the doctrine of “illegalism,” which was used by the Bonnot Gang as an ideological cloak for their bank robberies in the early 1900s in France (Perry, 1987).

Stirner denounced socialism for seeking to replace the individual capitalist with a collective owner, “society,” to which the individual will be equally subject, but nevertheless argued that the workers need only stop labouring for the benefit of their employers and “regard the product of their labour” as their own in order to bring down the State, the power of which rests on their slavery.

Another aspect of Stirner’s thought that was to have some influence on later anarchists is his distinction between insurrection and revolution. Revolutions seek to rearrange society into a new order. Insurrection or rebellion, by contrast, is “a rising of individuals… without regard to the arrangements that spring from it” (Volume One, Selection 11). In light of the defeats of the anarchists in the Russian and Spanish Revolutions, Herbert Read (1893-1968) sought to revive Stirner’s distinction, arguing that anarchists must avoid creating “the kind of machinery which, at the successful end of a revolution, would merely be taken over by the leaders of the revolution, who then assume the functions of government” (Volume Two, Selection 1). During the 1960s, many of the younger anarchists endorsed the notion of “spontaneous insurrection” (Volume Two, Selection 51). More recently, Hakim Bey has argued in favour of the creation of “temporary autonomous zones,” which can be seen as “an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it” (Volume Three, Selection 11).

Anarchy is Self-Management

Anarchy is Self-Management

Proudhon: Machinery and Worker Self-Management

In one passage in The Ego and Its Own, Stirner described individuals as mere cogs in the “State machine.” In Proudhon’s 1846 publication, The System of Economic Contradictions, he argued that the first and “most powerful of machines is the workshop” The workshop degrades “the worker by giving him a master.” The “concentration of forces in the workshop” and the introduction of machinery “engender at the same time overproduction and destitution,” rendering more and more workers redundant, such that in a capitalist economy it is continually necessary to “create new machines, open other markets, and consequently multiply services and displace other” workers. Industry and wealth, population and misery, “advance, so to speak, in procession, one always dragging the other after it” (Volume One, Selection 9).

This focus on and opposition to relationships of subordination in both the economic and political spheres sharply distinguished Proudhon and the anarchists from many of their socialist contemporaries. In his sarcastic attempt to demolish Proudhon, The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), Marx dismissed Proudhon’s critique of factory organization and machinery as a reactionary demand for a return to a pre-industrial utopia of skilled craft production. In the Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), co-written with Friedrich Engels, Marx called for the centralization of “all instruments of production in the hands of the State… to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible.” This would require the establishment of “industrial armies, especially for agriculture.”

Proudhon’s solution to this problem was neither to advocate a return to a pre-industrial craft economy nor the creation of industrial armies, “for it is with a machine as with a piece of artillery: the captain excepted, those whom it occupies are servants, slaves” (Volume One, Selection 9). While Proudhon argued that free credit should be made available so that everyone would have the opportunity to engage in whatever productive activity they chose, he recognized from the outset the advantages of combining one’s labour with the labour of others, creating a “collective force” that in existing society was being exploited by the capitalists who reaped the benefit of the resulting increase in productive power. “Two hundred grenadiers stood the obelisk of Luxor upon its base in a few hours,” Proudhon wrote in What Is Property, “do you suppose that one man could have accomplished the same task in two hundred days?” (Volume One, Selection 8).

Proudhon therefore advocated workers’ control or worker self-management of industry, later referred to in France as “autogestion,” an idea that became a major tenet of subsequent anarchist movements (Guérin, Volume Two, Selection 49). In Proudhon’s proposals, all positions in each enterprise would be elected by the workers themselves, who would approve all by-laws, each worker would have the right to fill any position, “unpleasant and disagreeable tasks” would be shared, and each worker would be given a “variety of work and knowledge” so as to avoid a stultifying division of labour. Everyone would “participate in the gains and in the losses” of the enterprise “in proportion to his services,” with pay being “proportional to the nature of the position, the importance of the talents, and the extent of responsibility” (Volume One, Selection 12).

Robert Graham

Additional References

Nettlau, Max. A Short History of Anarchism. London: Freedom Press, 1996.

Perry, Richard. The Bonnot Gang. London: Rebel Press, 1987.


From Fourier to Proudhon

Charles Fourier

Charles Fourier

This is the next installment from the Anarchist Current, my survey of the origins and development of anarchist ideas from ancient China to the present day, which appears as the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

Charles Fourier and the Liberation of Desire

A younger contemporary of William Godwin was to have a noticeable influence on the development of anarchist ideas, the French writer, Charles Fourier (1772-1837). Fourier had lived through the French Revolution. Imprisoned for a time, he almost became another victim of the Terror. He witnessed the hoarding and profiteering that occurred during the Revolution and sought to develop a libertarian alternative by which everyone would not only be guaranteed their means of subsistence but would be able to engage in productive work which they themselves found fulfilling. “Morality teaches us to love work,” Fourier wrote, “let it know, then, how to render work lovable” (Volume One, Selection 7).

Fourier recognized that in order to survive in the emerging capitalist economy, workers were compelled to take whatever work they could find, regardless of their personal talents, aptitudes and preferences. They had to work long hours under deplorable conditions, only to see their employers reap the fruits of their labours while they continued to live in poverty. The new economy was “nothing but… a league of the minority which possesses, against the majority which does not possess the necessaries of life.”

Fourier, however, did not advocate revolution. He hoped to attract financial benefactors to fund the creation of communes or “phalanxes” where each person would rotate through a variety of jobs each day, free to choose each task, doing what they found to be enjoyable, giving expression to their talents and passions. Each member of the phalanx would be guaranteed a minimum of material support and remunerated by dividends from the phalanx’s operations. While later anarchists agreed that work should be freely undertaken, enjoyable and fulfilling, rather than an onerous burden, they found Fourier’s more detailed plans regarding the organization of society to be too constrictive and his idea that wealthy benefactors would bankroll the abolition of their own privileged status naïve.

Fourier was an early advocate of sexual liberation. Foreshadowing the work of Wilhelm Reich (Volume One, Selection 119; Volume Two, Selection 75), Fourier argued that people should be free to satisfy their sexual needs and desires, and that the repression of such desires is not only harmful to the individual but one of the foundations of a repressive society (Guérin, Volume Two, Selection 76).

A Phalanstery

A Phalanstery

Proudhon: The Self-Proclaimed Anarchist

In 1840, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) declared himself an anarchist in his groundbreaking book, What is Property? An Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government. Karl Marx (1818-1883), later Proudhon’s scornful opponent, at the time praised Proudhon’s book as “the first resolute, pitiless and at the same time scientific” critique of private property (Marx, 1845: 132). To the question posed by the title of the book, Proudhon responded that “property is theft” (Volume One, Selection 8). According to Proudhon, the workers should be entitled to the full value of their labour, not the mere pittance the capitalists doled out to them while keeping the lion’s share for themselves. By arguing that, in this sense, “property is theft,” Proudhon was not giving expression to bourgeois notions of justice, as Marx later claimed (Marx, 1867: 178-179, fn. 2), but was expressing a view of justice held by many workers, that people should enjoy the fruits of their own labours.

That the capitalists were parasites exploiting the workers by depriving them of what was rightfully theirs was to become a common theme in 19th century socialist and anarchist propaganda. In the 1883 Pittsburgh Proclamation of the International Working People’s Association (the so-called “Black International”), the then anarchist collectivist Johann Most (1846-1906) put it this way: “the propertied (capitalists) buy the working force body and soul of the propertyless, for the mere cost of existence (wages) and take for themselves, i.e. steal, the amount of new values (products) which exceeds the price” (Volume One, Selection 55).

Besides declaring property theft, Proudhon boldly proclaimed himself an anarchist, denouncing “the government of man by man” as “oppression.” It is government, through its laws and coercive mechanisms, that protects the property of the capitalists, condemning the workers to lives of servitude and misery. The only just form of society is one in which workers are free to associate, to combine their labour, and to exchange what they produce for products and services of equivalent value, instead of receiving wages “scarcely sufficient to support them from one day to another.” In a society based on equivalent exchange there would no longer be any need for government because those things which make government necessary, such as “pauperism, luxury, oppression, vice, crime and hunger,” would “disappear from our midst” (Volume One, Selection 8). Proudhon described this form of socialism as “mutualism.”

Proudhon was not the first to have drawn the connection between economic exploitation and political servitude. Bao Jingyan, Winstanley, Maréchal, Godwin and Fourier all made similar arguments. But Proudhon was the first to describe himself as an anarchist. Others were soon to follow.

Robert Graham


Additional References

Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1 (1867). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976; and The Holy Family (1845). In Selected Writings. Ed. D. McLellan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.


Blasting the Anarchist Canon


The current online issue of Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies (ADCS) is called “Blasting the Canon,” with articles debating the whole concept of an “anarchist canon,” that is whether anarchism can be defined in terms of foundational or “canonical” texts. I don’t think so. Anarchism is not like Marxism, which must relate somehow to the writings and theories of Karl Marx. It is a collective and evolving product of countless individuals in a wide variety of circumstances.

As I wrote in the conclusion to my three volume anthology of anarchist writings, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, “what I hope to have demonstrated in the material included in this anthology is that there is indeed an anarchist current running throughout human history, from the nonhierarchical sensibilities and social relationships found among people living in stateless societies, to the nonhierarchical and anti-authoritarian worldviews of the Daoists and various religious sects, heretics and free thinkers, to literary and popular utopias with their visions of freedom and well-being, to the radical egalitarianism of the anarchist currents in the English and French revolutions, to landless peasants and indigenous peoples, to artisans and workers resisting industrialization and factory discipline, to artists seeking freedom of expression, to students and draft resisters, to women, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people struggling against patriarchy and heterosexism, to the discriminated, dispossessed and all manner of people seeking sexual and social liberation.”

I was given a maximum of 1000 words in the “Blasting the Canon” issue of ADCS to respond to the claim of Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt in Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism, that there is an anarchist canon, which consists of nothing other than the class struggle anarchism that can be traced back to Michael Bakunin and his Alliance of Socialist Democracy. Van der Walt wrote a rejoinder that was over twice as long, which he has now posted online, in what can only be described as an ongoing campaign not only to redefine anarchism to exclude any anarchist currents which cannot trace their lineage back to Bakunin and the Alliance, but to discredit any contrary views.

Unfortunately, the online version of my brief piece contained some typographical errors. Accordingly, I am posting the original version here.


The Anarchist Tradition

In their critique of the so-called “seven sages” approach to anarchism in Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism, Counter-Power, Volume 1, Schmidt and van der Walt claim that there “is only one anarchist tradition, and it is rooted in the work of Bakunin and the Alliance” of Socialist Democracy (2009: 71). This is the tradition of “class struggle” anarchism, which for Schmidt and van der Walt is not merely “a type  of anarchism; in our view, it is the only anarchism” (2009: 19). This is an extraordinary claim, based upon a historicist definition of anarchism which excludes even Proudhon, the originator of the doctrine and the first self-proclaimed anarchist, from “the broad anarchist tradition,” by which Schmidt and van der Walt really mean the more narrow tradition of class struggle anarchism (2009: 18). According to this approach, the “broad anarchist tradition” is really nothing more than a form of socialism, one which is libertarian and revolutionary (2009: 6). Anarchism, as a distinct doctrine, disappears, subsumed under the socialist rubric.

That there are different schools of anarchist thought does not mean that only one of them qualifies as “anarchist,” no more than the fact that there are many different schools of socialist thought means that only one of them qualifies as “socialist,” although the Marxists used to think so. Schmidt and van der Walt argue that their narrow definition of anarchism makes anarchism a coherent doctrine because differing conceptions of anarchism with contrary ideas are now excluded from the very definition of anarchism. But if anarchism is just a form of socialism, and there are differing conceptions of socialism, then any definition of socialism that encompasses these competing and sometimes contradictory conceptions of socialism is similarly deficient. If only one body of thought can qualify as anarchist, to avoid charges of “incoherence,” then only one body of thought can qualify as socialist.

But Schmidt and van der Walt accept that there are competing and contrary conceptions of socialism, including anarchism and Marxism. If both anarchism and Marxism can be considered forms of socialism, despite their many differences, then there is no reason why there cannot be different forms of anarchism. Just as Marxism may be an internally coherent theory of one kind of socialism, without that entailing that contrary conceptions of socialism, such as “class struggle” anarchism, cannot be “socialist,” so can different conceptions of anarchism be internally coherent, even though they may be contrary to each other to greater and lesser degrees, and still remain “anarchist.”

Marx and Bakunin

Marx and Bakunin

Schmidt and van der Walt then conflate anarchism with self-described anarchist movements, so that anarchism cannot but be the ideas expressed and embodied by these movements, which they claim all trace their lineage back to Bakunin and the First International (2009: 44-46). Anyone who cannot trace his or her ideological roots back to this family tree does not qualify as an “anarchist.” This is a completely circular argument, and a problematic way to approach the study of anarchist ideas and movements.

If anarchism is whatever Bakunin and his associates said it was, then of course Bakunin and his associates qualify as anarchists. But if other people develop conceptions of anarchism contrary to that of Bakunin and the Alliance, then they don’t qualify as anarchists,  even if they did so around the same time as Bakunin, or even before him, as in the case of Proudhon (2009: 83-85). Gustav Landauer, whose communitarian anarchism was heavily influenced by Proudhon and Tolstoy, both of whom Schmidt and van der Walt exclude from the anarchist canon, cannot be considered an anarchist because he was not a Bakuninist. Anarchism then becomes a much more narrow body of thought, from which no significant departures or modifications can be made without risking one’s status as an “anarchist,” much as what happened with Marxism, inhibiting any significant innovation as anarchism must remain within the general confines of its “original” formulation. This turns anarchism from a living tradition into an historical relic.

While Schmidt and van der Walt exclude Proudhon from the “broad” anarchist tradition, Bakunin and Kropotkin certainly did not do so. Bakunin praised Proudhon for “boldly [declaring] himself an anarchist,” and described his own revolutionary anarchism as “Proudhonism widely developed and pushed right to these, its final consequences” (Lehning, Selected Writings of Michael Bakunin, 1974: 100 & 198). Kropotkin similarly observed that Proudhon “boldly proclaimed Anarchism and the abolition of the State” (Kropotkin, Evolution and Environment, 1995: 56).

Proudhon the Anarchist

Proudhon the Anarchist

There are other ways of defining anarchism, including recognizing that there may be different “anarchisms,” which allow for anarchism to be conceived as a truly “broad” tradition of thought comprising different schools, currents and tendencies, something which Kropotkin acknowledged, having participated in the formulation and refinement of anarchist views, including the movement away from Bakunin’s collectivism to anarchist communism, the debates between the insurrectionists and the syndicalists, the disagreements over direct action and propaganda by the deed, the role of technology and the nature of post-revolutionary society.

Later anarchists, such as Landauer, were aware of these debates and participated in some of their own, developing new ideas and approaches incorporating elements from the anarchists who preceded them, often in a very conscious manner, but also departing from them in significant respects. For them, anarchism was a broad and living tradition, always subject to change, not restricted to the general form initially developed in the particular historical circumstances of the First International.

Gustav Landauer

Gustav Landauer

Post Script

Van der Walt’s claim that Landauer does qualify as an anarchist because he was martyred during the 1919 Bavarian Revolution cannot go unanswered. Landauer certainly qualifies as an anarchist under my approach, but he was not a “class struggle anarchist,” in which case, under the Black Flame approach, despite his martyrdom he does not qualify as an anarchist. His economic views were based on Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s mutualism. Black Flame excludes both Proudhon and mutualism from the anarchist canon. With respect to the means of action, Landauer was a proponent of non-violent or “passive” resistance, inspired by the political writings of Leo Tolstoy, who is also excluded from Schmidt and van der Walt’s “anarchist canon.” Landauer did not think much of Marx’s “class analysis” and rejected his theory of historical materialism, which provided the basis for Marx’s claims, rejected by Landauer, that the working class was destined to abolish capitalism and class society as part of the process of technological and economic development spurred on by capitalism (see the selections from Landauer in Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE-1939)).

anarchism volume 1


Power to the People: For Direct Action and Direct Democracy

Power to the People

Within the Paris Commune there were numerous groups which advocated and practiced direct action and direct democracy, pushing the Commune towards the social revolution. These sorts of ideas had been advocated by a variety of anarchists during the revolutions of 1848 (see Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One, Chapter 4), such as Proudhon, Dejacques, Pisacane and Coeurderoy, and were championed within the International by people like Bakunin, Varlin and the revolutionary collectivists associated with them.

The following excerpts are taken from a wall poster and newspaper article by the “Communal Club of the Third Arrondissement,” published at the beginning of April and May 1871 respectively. In the wall poster, the Club urges others to follow their example of taking direct action by using the churches as gathering places for the people. In the newspaper article, the Club emphasizes the need for the people to govern themselves directly, as had Proudhon and other anarchists. The idea that direct democracy is a kind of direct action was developed further by Murray Bookchin.

Anarcho-Syndicalism: For Direct Action and Direct Democracy

Wall Poster of the Communal Club of the Third Arrondissement


A great revolutionary act has just occurred: the population of the Third Arrondissement has at last taken possession—to serve the political education of the People—of a building that has until now served only the caste that is inherently hostile to any kind of progress.

The coming to power of the Commune has restored all their rights to the citizenry. It is for these citizens to exercise them both to serve the Commune and when necessary, to remind our delegates that their mandate is to save the Nation. This means that they should act energetically and temporarily leave aside much too great a respect for considerations of ‘legality’ — which in effect aids only the forces of reaction.

It is to you, citizens of all arrondissements, that we make this appeal.

Follow our example: open Communal clubs in all the churches. The priests can conduct services in the daytime and you can provide the people with political education in the evenings.

Govern Yourselves! Long Live the Commune!

The Communal Club, constituted at the beginning of May 1871, professes the following aims…

To fight the enemies of our communal rights, of our freedom and of the republic.

To uphold the rights of the people, to accomplish their political education, so that they may be able to govern themselves.

To recall our representatives to first principles, were they to stray from them, and to aid them in all their efforts to save the Republic.

But above all else, to insist on the sovereignty of the people; they must never renounce their right to supervise the actions of their representatives.

People, govern yourselves directly, through public meetings, through your press; bring pressure to bear on those who represent you; they will never go too far in the revolutionary direction.

If your representatives procrastinate or cease to move, push them forward, that we may reach the objective we are fighting for: the acquisition of our rights, the consolidation of the Republic and the victory of Justice.

Long live the Commune!

The Paris Commune

The Social Revolution in France (1870)


In the summer of 1870, despite the imprisonment or forced exile of many of the most outstanding militants of the International in France, the Paris Sections continued to organize French workers in order to achieve the “Social Revolution,” a phrase coined by Proudhon, and adopted by Bakunin, to distinguish a socialist revolution, which transforms social and economic relationships by abolishing capitalism and the state, replacing them with a federation of workers’ associations and free communes, from the political revolutions of the past, which resulted in the substitution of one ruling class for another.

The ascendancy of these ideas of social liberation within the French sections of the International is demonstrated by the following excerpts from pamphlets published by Paris sections of the International around the summer of 1870. The Paris sections took to heart the admonition in the Preamble to the Statutes of the International that “the emancipation of the working class is the task of the workers themselves” (Anarchism, Volume One, Selection 19). They sought to abolish classes and to establish a libertarian socialism “based upon equality and justice,” the “mutualist organization” of society that Proudhon had long advocated. For the majority of Parisian Internationalists, this was “the Social Revolution.”

The Workers Themselves

The International and the Social Revolution

All sincere socialists have a common aim: to secure the highest possible well-being for all human beings through an equitable distribution of labour and of all it produces.

However, they are far from agreeing on the means for attaining this objective.

Thanks to its organization and congresses, the socialism of the International is not like the older forms, that is, solely the result of the thinking of a few individuals. It is above all the synthesis of the aspirations of the proletariat of the entire world, and represents the considered expression of the will of organized workers.

It is this kind of socialism that has given rise to the only serious battle of the moment, namely, international resistance to the tyranny of capital. The ultimate result of this struggle will be the establishment of a new social order: the elimination of classes, the abolition of employers and of the proletariat, the establishment of universal co-operation based upon equality and justice.

It is this kind of socialism that has struck a mortal blow at the old principle of private property, whose existence will not last beyond the first day of the coming revolution…

Hence it is necessary, citizens, to eliminate wage labour, the last form of servitude.

The distribution of what is produced by labour, based upon the principles of the value of the work and a mutualist organization of services, will realize the principles of justice in social relationships…

Social and political emancipation depend upon achieving the united action of the workers.

Has it not always been evident that the art of governing peoples has been the art of exploiting them?

…Following the example of our fathers, who made the Revolution of ‘89, we must accomplish the Democratic and Social Revolution.

Château-Rouge section (Paris) of the International