Anarchism and Freedom

March 31st 2001

Iain McKay

Why is freedom important?

In the words of Bakunin:

"What man, what group of individuals, no matter how great their genius, would dare to think themselves able to embrace and understand the plethora of interests, attitudes and activities so various in every country, every province, locality and profession."

Diversity of people

Simply put, everyone is different and so diversity is the rule in humanity. What is good for you is not necessarily good for someone else. What the majority think is not always right and minority viewpoints would not the best for all.

Pretty obvious, really.

Diversity of life

In this, anarchism respects and reproduces the fundamental law of nature -- namely that conformity is death. Diversity is the law of life.

The different needs of different areas and regions must be the starting point of any political theory, the basis on which we create specific programmes to improve our societies, eco-systems and world. If we do not recognise the diversity inherent in a world of billions of people, millions of eco-systems, thousands of cultures, hundreds of regions then we cannot improve our lives.

Again, pretty obvious.

Development of individuals and of society

Society and individuals, therefore, both need freedom. The freedom to experiment and to think is essential. It is the only way we can discover what the best ideas are, by discussing them and trying them out in practice. What may be good for one person or community may be bad for another. As Malatesta put it "Experience through freedom is the only means to arrive at the truth and the best solutions; and there is no

freedom if there is not the freedom to be wrong."

Only by the process of free debate can society develop and people's ideas change. Without freedom to discuss and debate, society and individuals will stagnate. Without the freedom to experiment and live your own life as you think is best for you (collectively and individually, I stress) no one will be happy -- which is the whole point, after all. Without freedom, we cannot be shown the errors of our ways or prove that our ideas and actions are valid and worthy of acceptance.

Kropotkin stressed the importance of discussion and debate in his history of the French Revolution:

"The 'permanence' of the general assemblies of the sections -- that is, the possibility of calling the general assembly whenever it was wanted by the members of the section and of discussing everything in the general assembly. . . will educate every citizen politically. . . The section in permanence -- the forum always open -- is the only way . . . to assure an honest and intelligent administration."

This process ensured the politicisation of those involved: "by degrees, the revolutionary education of the people was being accomplished by the revolution itself."

Any society will have an uneven level of political and social awareness. Only freedom can ensure this changes for the better. Only the power of truth, of argument, can ensure that ideas change.

When Emma met Peter...

Emma Goldman was in Europe attending an international anarchist gathering and she met such famous anarchists as Malatesta and Kropotkin. When she met Kropotkin, he said how good he thought Goldman's paper Mother Earth was but he thought it spent too long on the sexual issues. Goldman replied by stating that perhaps, once she was as old as Kropotkin, she would be less interested in the question of sex and sexual liberation, but not everyone is that age yet. Kropotkin could only laugh and agree with her.

By actually acting and defending her actions by free discussion, she showed Kropotkin that he was wrong.

Abstract liberty

Much nonsense has been written about freedom. First, I must stress that by freedom or liberty anarchists do not mean an abstract kind of freedom which ignores such trifles as time, circumstances and society. We seek social freedom, not the kind of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo which often gets spoken off.

Freedom a social relationship

This means that freedom is fundamentally a social relationship. A person is born into society and can become human within society. Isolation quickly drives people insane. This means that, as Bakunin argued, liberty is a "feature not of isolation but of interaction." This means that the links we make with other people determine our liberty. We can only be considered free in relation to how other people treated us.

Circumstances important

As freedom is a product of interaction, the basis on which individuals interact is important. If circumstances are such that one party has an advantage over another, then, clearly, any relationships formed between the two will benefit the stronger.

When social inequality prevails, questions arise about what counts as voluntary entry into a contract. People may be legally free and equal citizens, but, in unequal social conditions, the possibility exists that some or many contracts create relationships that bear uncomfortable similarities to a slave contract.

This means that free association, by itself, is not enough. In an unequal society, where a minority owns or controls the means of life, then free association will simply mean the many sell their liberty to the few.

Relationships within organisations important

As well as circumstances, the nature of organisations people join are important. Freedom only exists in time. This means that the social relationships people experience determines their liberty, not what happens when they are alone.

Freedom, to put it another way, is not an abstract legal concept, but the vital concrete possibility for every human being to bring to full development all their powers, capacities, and talents which nature has endowed them. A key aspect of this is to govern one own actions when within associations (self-management).

Therefore anarchists consider the circumstances in which a decision is reached as equally as important as the kind of association joined.

Social relationships shape people

Social relationships shape the individuals involved and effect those subject to them.

Anarchists argue that hierarchical social relationships will have a negative effect on those subject to them, who can no longer exercise their critical, creative and mental abilities freely. As Colin Ward argues, people "do go from womb to tomb without realising their human potential, precisely because the power to initiate, to participate in innovating, choosing, judging, and deciding is reserved for the top men." Anarchism is based on the insight that there is an interrelationship between the authority structures of institutions and the psychological qualities and attitudes of individuals. Following orders all day hardly builds an independent, empowered, creative personality.

As the human brain is a bodily organ, it needs to be used regularly in order to be at its fittest. Authority concentrates decision-making in the hands of those at the top, meaning that most people are turned into executants, following the orders of others. If muscle is not used, it turns to fat; if the brain is not used, creativity, critical thought and mental abilities become blunted. Anarchists argue that to be always in a position of being acted upon and never to be allowed to act is to be doomed to a state of dependence and resignation. Those who are constantly ordered about and prevented from thinking for themselves soon come to doubt their own capacities and have difficulty acting on their sense of self in opposition to authority, societal norms, standards and expectations.

It is well know that a person's position in the social hierarchy affects their health. Poor people are more likely to be sick and die at an earlier age, compared to rich people. Moreover, the degree of inequality is important (i.e. the size of the gap between rich and poor). According to an editorial in the British Medical Journal "what matters in determining mortality and health in a society is less the overall wealth of that society and more how evenly wealth is distributed. The more equally wealth is distributed the better the health of that society,"

Capitalism and freedom

It is usually argued that capitalism equals freedom. Indeed, the term "economic liberty" seems to have been appropriated by the right as the usual term for "capitalism." However, such a term seems somewhat in contradiction to the experiences of the majority of the population. For the working class, capitalism means following orders 8 odd hours a day. A strange form of liberty. In fact, a far better description of capitalism would be "wage slavery."

I am sure you have heard of Nike and the sweatshops it operates in the Far East. They have this program called NIKE iD in which customers can get a specific message sown into their shoes (one customer asked for "sweatshop." Nike rejected the request). According to Nike, the program is "about freedom to choose and freedom to express who you are." How much "freedom and personal expression" do Nike's workers have during working hours? Not much. Even outside work, they live with the legacy of domination during working hours and, of course, may be fired if they are seen attending the wrong sort of meeting during their "free" time.

As mentioned, inequality distorts freedom. It makes bargaining power the key to understanding the lack of liberty under capitalism.

As Proudhon argued the "manufacturer says to the labourer, 'You are as free to go elsewhere with your services as I am to receive them. I offer you so much'. . . Who will yield? The weaker." He, like all anarchists, saw that domination, oppression and exploitation flow from inequalities of market/economic power and that the "power of invasion lies in superior strength."

The necessity, not the redundancy, of equality is required if the inherent problems of contract are not to become too obvious. If some individuals are assumed to have significantly more power than others, and if they are always self-interested, then a contract that creates equal partners is impossible -- the pact will establish an association of masters and servants. Needless to say, the strong will present the contract as being to the advantage of both: the strong no longer have to labour (and become rich, i.e. even stronger) and the weak receive an income and so do not starve.

Property is despotism

This is what Proudhon meant by his maxim that "property is despotism." By this he meant that the property owner is the master of their property and those who use it.

This means that freedom of association in an unequal society simply becomes the ability to pick a master, or (at best) become a master. Hence Proudhon's comments that "Man may be made by property a slave or a despot by turns" and the worker "is subordinated, exploited: his permanent condition is one of obedience."

Robert E. Wood, the chief executive officer of Sears, spoke plainly when he said "[w]e stress the advantages of the free enterprise system, we complain about the totalitarian state, but... we have created more or less of a totalitarian system in industry, particularly in large industry."

In short, workers are paid to obey. The structure of capitalist industry is basically fascistic. Hence the expression "wage slave." The freedom to pick a master is voluntary servitude, not freedom.

As the first generation of wage workers were well aware. They knew they were selling their liberty and hated it. Hence we find US workers arguing that "slaves in the strictest sense of the word" as they had "to toil from the rising of the sun to the going down of the same for our masters - aye, masters, and for our daily bread."

As historian E. P. Thompson noted, the "gap in status between a 'servant,' a hired wage-labourer subject to the orders and discipline of the master, and an artisan, who might 'come and go' as he pleased, was wide enough for men to shed blood rather than allow themselves to be pushed from one side to the other. And, in the value system of the community, those who resisted degradation were in the right."

We may think selling our liberty is natural, but the first generation of wage slaves considered it (to quote more American workers) "unnatural relations." And I must note that these unnatural relations of wage labour came about by "unnatural" means (i.e. by state action and support, not by economic evolution).

Property is theft

So the boss gives you a job: that is permission to work in a workplace and for which he gets to command you and you, in turn, get to enrich him. This is because you sell your labour power (liberty) for a period of time and the boss tries to get you to produce a greater output in money terms than he pays you in wages. The employment contract creates the capitalist as master and so he can determine how he worker will be used and, consequently, exploitation occurs.

In an unequal society, contracts benefit the stronger party. This means that those who have nothing but their labour to sell are at a disadvantage as compared to those who own. This in turn means that inequality would tend to increase in a market society, as the contracts tend to re-enforce the power and profits of the capitalist unless workers organise to resist.

However, inequality also means market and social power. This allows the big to intimidate the rest. Big business has the resources to resist strikes, even moving location as required to defeat strikes. As Adam Smith put it:

"It is not difficult to foresee which of the two parties [workers and capitalists] must, upon all ordinary occasions... force the other into a compliance with their terms... In all such disputes the masters can hold out much longer... Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scare any a year without employment. In the long-run the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him; but the necessity is not so immediate. . . [I]n disputes with their workmen, masters must generally have the advantage." -

We live in a world in which companies, even individuals, are more wealthy than countries. This obviously skews consumption and so resource allocation towards the wealthy. It also skews freedom and social and political power. Economic inequalities dominate politics and society.

Statism and freedom

The state is marked by inequality. It is the delegation of power into the hands of a few who make the decisions for the rest of society. As such, the state means that the bulk of the population has no real say in the decisions that affect them. They are not free, even when the state is relatively liberal.

This delegation of power results in the elected people becoming isolated from the mass of people who elected them and outside of their control. In addition, as those elected are given power over a host of different issues and told to decide upon them, a bureaucracy soon develops around them to aid in their decision-making. However, this bureaucracy, due to its control of information and its permanency, soon has more power than the elected officials. This means that those who serve the people's (so-called) servant have more power than those they serve, just as the politician has more power than those who elected him. All forms of state-like (i.e. hierarchical) organisations inevitably spawn a bureaucracy about them. This bureaucracy soon becomes the de facto focal point of power in the structure, regardless of the official rules.

This marginalisation and disempowerment of ordinary people (and so the empowerment of a bureaucracy) is the key reason for anarchist opposition to the state. Such an arrangement ensures that the individual is disempowered, subject to bureaucratic, authoritarian rule which reduces the person to a object or a number, not a unique individual with hopes, dreams, thoughts and feelings.

Accountability of state

Being able to vote once every four years hardly amounts to much control or accountability for the citizen. The representative is given the power to vote as they like on any subject that takes their fancy. There is no way that person is accountable for the decisions they make on our behalf. Moreover, the state bureaucracy is unelected, making accountability even less.

And without accountability, liberty is in a dangerous position. We can get governments voting for numerous restrictive laws, which we have no say over and their replacements have no mandate to revoke.

Liberty and the state are opposites.

Class rule

Not that the state arose by accident. Far from it. It is, to use Malatesta's expression, the property owners policeman. It exists, primarily, to defend capitalist property rights and powers. Indeed, that is why the state is marked by centralisation of power. As Kropotkin argued:

"To attack the central power, to strip it of its prerogatives, to decentralise, to dissolve authority, would have been to abandon to the people the control of its affairs, to run the risk of a truly popular revolution. That is why the bourgeoisie sought to reinforce the central government even more"

This role of the state -- to protect capitalism and the property, power and authority of the property owner -- was also noticed by Adam Smith:

"the inequality of fortune . . . introduces among men a degree of authority and subordination which could not possibly exist before. It thereby introduces some degree of that civil government which is indispensably necessary for its own preservation . . . [and] to maintain and secure that authority and subordination . . . Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all."

This process of centralism, the centralisation of power, to explicitly exclude the bulk of the population from decision making was a feature of both the American and French revolutions. It was done explicitly to ensure elite control.

Money Talks

Money influences politics directly and indirectly. The wealthy have the funds to run for office or back those who do. This direct impact is obvious enough.

Indirect influence also exists. Without business "confidence" no government could last long. As Chomsky argues:

"In capitalist democracy, the interests that must be satisfied are those of capitalists; otherwise, there is no investment, no production, no work, no resources to be devoted, however marginally, to the needs of the general population"

Moreover, parliament is hardly sovereign. The state bureaucracy has the real power. We must always remember that there is a difference between the state and government. The state is the permanent collection of institutions that have entrenched power structures and interests. The government is made up of various politicians. It's the institutions that have power in the state due to their permanence, not the representatives who come and go. In other words, the state bureaucracy has vested interests and elected politicians cannot effectively control them.

Ultimately, the state is not a neutral machine. It exists to defend class society and cannot be used by working people for their own ends.

The Illusion of Reformism

As the state exists to defend capitalism, it means it looks after long term interests of capitalism. This role often brings it into conflict with individual capitalists and companies, even sections of the ruling class. This generates illusions of neutrality as the state can be seen to act in ways which apparently individual capitalists. However, such reforms exist to ensure the long term survival of the system. Once the danger is past, the reforms will be ignored or revoked.

As the last 30 years have shown, what the state giveth it can taketh away. Reformism flawed as reforms are revoked when the interests of the ruling class demand it.

Marxism and freedom

Before discussing the anarchist alternative, I have to say a few words on Marxism.

Engels' "On Authority" is usually trotted out (pun intended) to refute anarchism. It is a shame that it is liberal nonsense and without any form of class analysis. Ultimately, Engels argument implies that liberty itself is impossible.

Authority "presupposes subordination." But is it correct to say that any form of agreement and organisation means the subordination of the minority by the majority? Engels thinks that in democracy the individual must "subordinate" themselves and so it is "an authoritarian way." Indeed, he thinks that the "automatic machinery of a big factory is much more despotic than the small capitalist who employ workers ever have been." And so authority and liberty becomes detached from human beings! As if authoritarian relationships can exist independently of individuals! It is a social relationship we have in mind, not an abstraction.

To assume so implies a distinctly liberal view of freedom -- i.e. freedom from. Anarchists reject this. We see freedom as holistic -- freedom from and freedom to. To combine with other individuals is an expression of individual liberty, not its denial! We are aware that freedom is impossible outside of association. Within an association absolute "autonomy" cannot exist, but such "autonomy" would restrict freedom to such a degree that it would be so self-defeating as to make a mockery of the concept of autonomy and no sane person would seek it.

If we took Engels' argument seriously, then living makes freedom impossible! After all coming to this meeting means you have subordinated yourselves. Playing a game of football would be a denial of liberty.

If we are going to invent a dogma that to make agreements is to damage freedom, then at once freedom becomes tyrannical, for it forbids people to take the most ordinary everyday pleasures. I cannot make an agreement with others because to do so I must co-operate with someone else and that is against Liberty. It will be seen at once that this argument is absurd. I do not limit my liberty, but simply exercise it, when I agree to meet with my friends and play football.

Free love verses marriage

To say that authority just changes its form misses the qualitative differences between authoritarian and libertarian organisation.

As an example, look at the difference between marriage and free love. Both forms necessitate two individuals living together, sharing the same home, organising their lives together. The same situation and the same commitments. But do both imply the same social relationships?

The marriage vow is based on the wife promising to obey the husband. Her role is simply that of obedience (in theory, at least). We have a relationship based on domination and subordination.

In free love, the couple are equals. They decide their own affairs, together. The decisions they reach are agreed between them and no domination takes place. They both agree to the decisions they reach, based on mutual respect and give and take. Subordination does not meaningfully exist. Instead there is free agreement.

Both types of organisation apply to the same activities -- a couple living together. Has "authority" just changed its form as Engels argued? Of course not. There is a substantial difference between the two. The former is authoritarian. One part of the organisation dictates to the other. The later is libertarian. Each part of the organisation agrees to a decision. Engels is confusing two radically different means of decision making by arguing both involve subordination and authority.

Revolution and authority

Similarly, Engels argues that a "revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon-authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror its arms inspire in the reactionaries."

However, such an analysis is without a class basis and so will, by necessity, mislead the writer and the reader. Engels argues that revolution is the imposition by "one part of the population" on another. Very true -- but Engels fails to indicate the nature of class society and, therefore, of a social revolution. In a class society "one part of the population" constantly "imposes its will upon the other part" all the time. In other words, the ruling class imposes its will on the working class everyday in work by the hierarchical structure of the workplace and in society by the state. Discussing the "population" as if it was not divided by classes, and so subject to specific forms of authoritarian social relationships, is liberal nonsense. Once we recognise that the "population" in question is divided into classes we can easily see the fallacy of Engels argument. In a social revolution, the act of revolution is the overthrow of the power and authority of an oppressing and exploiting class by those subject to that oppression and exploitation. In other words, it is an act of liberation in which the hierarchical power of the few over the many is eliminated and replaced by the freedom of the many to control their own lives. It is hardly authoritarian to destroy authority! Thus a social revolution is, fundamentally, an act of liberation for the oppressed who act in their own interests to end the system in which "one part of population imposes its will upon the other" everyday.

And as the history of Marxism showed, bad politics lead to bad practice.

Centralism and Freedom

Marxists argue for centralisation to combat the centralised state. But, as noted above, centralisation was designed for minority rule. It was its function. To think it could be used for other pursues is crazy. It seems to be taken for granted that Capitalism and the workers' movement both have the same end in view. If this were so, they might perhaps use the same means; but as the capitalist is out to perfect his system of exploitation and government, whilst the worker is out for emancipation and liberty, naturally the same means cannot be employed for both purposes. Social structures do not evolve by chance. They arise and are shaped by specific class interests. This was the case of centralism. It was created explicitly to ensure minority rule.

In centralism, power is delegated into the hands of a few who then use that power as they see fit. This by necessity disempowers those at the base, who are turned into mere electors and order takers. Such a situation can only spell death of a social revolution, which requires the active participation of all if it is to succeed. It also exposes the central fallacy of Marxism, namely that it claims to desire a society based on the participation of everyone yet favours a form of organisation -- centralisation -- that precludes that participation.

Thus Kropotkin:

"The representative system was organised by the bourgeoisie to ensure their domination, and it will disappear with them. For the new economic phase that is about to begin we must seek a new form of political organisation, based on a principle quite different from that of representation. The logic of events imposes it."

True socialism cannot be worked by a handful of people sitting at the centre. It has to be the worked from below, by the people in every village, town and city.

All power to Lenin

Yes, we all know that Lenin was not perfect, that he made mistakes and was only human. That is beside the point. The slogan of 1917 was "all power to the soviets" not "all power to Lenin." To discuss the Russian Revolution, as Tony Cliff did, he terms of "Lenin did this," "Lenin made hard choices", "Lenin made mistakes" is simply wrong. However, it makes sense if you are a believer in centralisation -- after all, it is the centre which makes the decisions and at the very centre was, of course, Lenin.

Bolshevism and soviets

That this is the case can be seen from the Russian Revolution. Bar very short periods, Lenin was dismissive of self-management (what he called "primitive democracy" in What is to be Done?). Bolshevism, inspired by Lenin's arguments, was also fearful of workers' democracy. In 1905, for example, Bolsheviks were arguing that "only a strong party along class lines can guide the proletarian political movement and preserve the integrity of its program, rather than a political mixture of this kind, an indeterminate and vacillating political organisation such as the workers council represents and cannot help but represent."

The soviet, in other words, could not represent the interests of the working class because it was elected by it! This perspective came to the fore after the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917. The party replaced the soviets as the ruling body. Indeed, the Bolsheviks disbanded soviets with elected non-Bolshevik majorities, eliminated workers self-management and elected officers in the armed forces. This destruction of workers' freedom was justified because the central power was made up of Bolsheviks.

Perhaps this explains why, for example, the SWP's Pat Stack did not list workers' freedom or power as a gain of the October Revolution in his dishonest and lying article on anarchism. Or why Trotsky argued in the 1930s that in Stalinist Russia the working class was still the Ruling class! Why? Because property was nationalised. A bit like saying you are in charge when the person beating you is using your stick.

Tony Cliff stated that he came by his theory of state capitalism by the "simple statement" that "you cannot have a workers' state without the workers having power to dictate what happens in society." By that definition, Russia was never a workers state -- nor could it ever be as a workers' state is a contradiction in terms.

Morrow verses Trotsky

The contradictions in Leninism can be best seen by comparing the populist accounts and what the leaders said (and, in Russia) did. Take for example Felix Morrow. Morrow's claim to fame is having written Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain, the standard Trotskyist account of the Spanish Revolution. Morrow defends the anarchist militia and self-management against Stalinist attacks. Ironically, the Stalinist attacks against these examples of anarchism in action were almost word for word the same as those of Lenin and Trotsky against the same institutions during the Russian Revolution.

Similarly, he attacks the Socialist Party for arguing that "the organ of proletarian dictatorship will be the Socialist Party" rather than soviets and that "this distorted notion of the lessons of the Russian Revolution" was "a fatal error" to make, "especially in Spain, with its anarchist traditions." They were "saying precisely what the anarchist leaders had been accusing both communists and revolutionary socialists of meaning by the proletarian dictatorship."

Morrow wrote this in 1937. In the same year Trotsky was explaining that "the dictatorship of a party belongs to the barbarian prehistory as does the state itself, but we can not jump over this chapter, which can open (not at one stroke) genuine human history." As if in reply to Morrow's assertion that the "road to the proletarian dictatorship . . . was to give the factory committees, militia committees, peasant committees, a democratic character . . . [and] send elected delegates to a national congress," Trotsky argued as followed:

"The revolutionary party (vanguard) which renounces its own dictatorship surrenders the masses to the counter-revolution . . .Abstractly speaking, it would be very well if the party dictatorship could be replaced by the 'dictatorship' of the whole toiling people without any party, but this presupposes such a high level of political development among the masses that it can never be achieved under capitalist conditions. The reason for the revolution comes from the circumstance that capitalism does not permit the material and the moral development of the masses."

Clearly, the Spanish Socialists were right and the only "distortion" of the "lessons" of the Russian revolution as taught by Lenin and Trotsky is by Morrow himself. Trotsky simply confirmed Bakunin's argument that Marxism meant "the highly despotic government of the masses by a new and very small aristocracy of real or pretended scholars. The people are not learned, so they will be liberated from the cares of government and included in entirety in the governed herd."

With the perception that the rule of the vanguard is essential due to the uneven development within the masses, any attempt to revoke Bolshevik delegates and elect others to soviets must represent counter-revolutionary tendencies. As the working class is divided and subject to "vacillations" due to "wavering and unstable elements among the masses themselves," working class people simply cannot manage society themselves. Hence the need (to quote Trotsky again) for "the Leninist principle" of "the dictatorship of the party." And, equally logically, to events like Kronstadt.

Ironically, Morrow's account of how to ensure a successful revolution has more in common with Bakunin than with Marx.

Which leaves us with anarchism (at long last).

Anarchism and Freedom

As freedom is a social relationship, this means that anarchists are aware that freedom can only exist when a society is organised on an appropriate basis. This means that society must be organised to ensure liberty, equality and solidarity. Unless we have all three, freedom will remain an illusion. Without equality, liberty becomes the freedom to pick a master (voluntary serfdom). Without solidarity, without working together as equals and practising mutual aid, some will dominant others and soon class society will develop again. An injury to one is an injury to all. By refusing to tolerate inequality, we all remain free.

This means that an anarchist society will be based on certain key ideas and these will be reflected in the organisations of a free society.

Free association -- individuals must be able to join and leave associations. In that way, people will find the communities and workplaces that suit them best. By finding surroundings that fit them, they will be free and happy. Being ordered to go certain places and join certain groups is the way of the army and the capitalist workplace (or of Trotsky). These associations include self-governing communities (communes) and productive groups (i.e. workers associations in workplaces).

Self-management -- Within the association, individuals must take part in the running of it. Freedom to associate is hardly freedom if you are simply taking orders within the association. Therefore, associations "will be anarchist within [them] as they will be anarchist outside it." Groups must manage their own fates. By governing themselves collectively, they exclude others doing so. And by having a say in the association, individuals can shape it as they want. They govern themselves.

"As a unique individual," Stirner argues, "you can assert yourself alone in association, because the association does not own you, because you are one who owns it or who turns it to your own advantage." The rules governing the association are determined by the associated and can be changed by them (and so a vast improvement over "love it or leave") as are the policies the association follows. Thus, the association "does not impose itself as a spiritual power superior to my spirit. I have no wish to become a slave to my maxims, but would rather subject them to my ongoing criticism."

When people first get a chance to run their own lives they will undoubtedly make lots of mistakes; but they will soon discover and correct them. Self-management does not guarantee that people will always make the right decisions; but any other form of social organisation guarantees that someone else will make the decisions for them.

Decentralisation -- Given that centralism means minority rule, an anarchist society must be decentralised. This will place power at the base of society, empowering all. No more rulers and ruled. Decisions will be made by those affected by them. This does not mean we will make every decision. Rather it means a group shall make the key decisions (policy) and they shall mandate recallable delegates to carry them out. In the workplace, for example, everyone will decide upon key questions (like investing in new technology) while an elected group will make the day to day administrative decisions, subject to ratification by everyone and within the norms set by all. What is considered a key question will, of course, be up to the group in question.

Federalism -- For some reason people seem to think decentralisation means isolation. It does not. Decentralisation means dissolving power back into society. It does not mean that workplaces and communities will not have common problems and projects. Anarchists propose federalism, co-ordination from the bottom-up, to replace centralism. Each group in a federation elects mandated and recallable delegates to a federal assembly. This assembly makes decisions based on these mandates and so expresses the wishes of the base, unlike representative democracy. In this way co-ordination is achieved without delegating power.

Different levels of federation will be required for different tasks. Every community may have a doctor, but hospitals would be associated with a federation. Similarly, certain industries have certain scale that necessitates a certain size. A federation would be responsible for these while the local communities would manage the smaller workshops. Anarchists propose a rational system of decentralisation and federalism, regardless of what Marxists assert.

Diversity -- Such a decentralised and federal system cannot help being diverse. Communities will change and develop based on local needs and circumstances (social and ecological). Anarchism will aid innovation as advanced groups will forge ahead and experiment (every new idea is a minority idea). New ideas will be tried out and shown to work and then spread by the force of example and discussion. Society will become as diverse as it should be, integrating itself into the diversity of nature. Each community will find and express itself, enriching itself by its contacts with others but no longer dominated by the economically powerful. Instead of the standardised bland culture of corporate capitalism, each community and region will enrich the world with its uniqueness just as every person will do so.

Social ownership -- Social ownership will replace private property. Economic (and so social) inequality will be replaced by the sharing of resources. Possession (i.e. Occupancy and Use) will be the basis of the economy. Personal possession remains only in the things you use. Thus, your watch is your own, but the watch factory belongs to the people. Land, machinery, and all other public utilities will be collective property, neither to be bought nor sold. Actual use will be considered the only title -- not to ownership but to possession. No more wage slavery, people involved in productive activity would manage it themselves. No more economic power being used to blackmail communities into accepting ecological and social disruption.

Liberated Individuals

Only self-determination and free agreement on every level of society can develop the responsibility, initiative, intellect and solidarity of individuals and society as a whole. Only anarchist organisation allows the vast talent which exists within humanity to be accessed and used, enriching society by the very process of enriching and developing the individual. Only by involving everyone in the process of thinking, planning, co-ordinating and implementing the decisions that affect them can freedom blossom and individuality be fully developed and protected. Anarchy will release the creativity and talent of the mass of people enslaved by hierarchy.

In summary, a free society of free individuals.

How to get there

Anarchists have always been clear how an anarchist society would come about. It would not just appear from nowhere. The organisational framework would arise from the class struggle, by the self-activity and self-organisation of working class people. This should come as no surprise. Malatesta once said that "[o]nly freedom or the struggle for freedom can be the school for freedom." Oppression and exploitation has the effect of creating opposition and resistance. The struggle of workers against their boss or citizens against the state is, fundamentally, a struggle for freedom. As such people would create a free society by their own actions. Their acts of direct action would liberate themselves as well as society.

For Kropotkin anarchism "originated in everyday struggles." For Marie-Louise Berneri "anarchists emphasise over and over that the class struggle provides the only means for the workers [and other oppressed groups] to achieve control over their destiny."

Unsurprisingly, anarchists have continually pointed to the self-activity of workers as providing the framework of a free society.

For Proudhon, "the proof" of his mutualist ideas lay in the "current practice, revolutionary practice" of "those labour associations . . . which have spontaneously . . . been formed in Paris and Lyon . . . [which show that the] organisation of credit and organisation of labour amount to one and the same."

Bakunin pointed to the labour movement. The "organisation of the trade sections and their representation in the Chambers of Labour . . . bear in themselves the living seeds of the new society which is to replace the old one. They are creating not only the ideas, but also the facts of the future itself."

He saw strikes as the basis of forming new workers associations and their federation into communes (councils). In this his ideas predicted many features of the soviets of 1905 and 1917:

"the federative alliance of all working men’s associations . . . [will] constitute the Commune . . . [the] Communal Council [will be] composed of . . . delegates . . . vested with plenary but accountable and removable mandates. . . all provinces, communes and associations . . . by first reorganising on revolutionary lines . . . [will] constitute the federation of insurgent associations, communes and provinces . . . [and] organise a revolutionary force capable defeating reaction . . . [and for] self-defence . . . "

"[The] revolution everywhere must be created by the people, and supreme control must always belong to the people organised into a free federation of agricultural and industrial associations . . . organised from the bottom upwards by means of revolutionary delegation. . ."

Kropotkin pointed to the directly democratic sections of Paris in the French Revolution to show that "the principles of anarchism . . . dated from 1789, and that they had their origin, not in theoretical speculations, but in the deeds of the Great French Revolution." He stressed the importance of collective class struggle as the means of creating a revolution and the necessary mass organisations would spring from the needs of the class struggle. As he wrote, "to make the revolution, the mass of workers will have to organise themselves. Resistance and the strike are excellent means of organisation for doing this."

So the framework of a free society will be created in the struggle against this one. Strike assemblies will be the basis for workers' councils, for example. Community assemblies created to resist state attacks would be the basis of communes. The actual specific forms cannot be fully predicted, but how they arise and their general nature can be. Moreover, the means we use will influence the end. How can we expect a libertarian society to emerge from an authoritarian one? It is impossible. Therefore, even in pre-anarchist society anarchists try to create, as Bakunin puts it, "not only the ideas but also the facts of the future itself." We can do so by creating alternative social relationships and organisations, acting as free people in a non-free society. The organisations created in the class struggle must be libertarian if we want the end to be.

Once these alternative forms of organisation spring up via the class struggle, the ideas of anarchism will become less and less utopian sounding. The experience of self-management in struggle will make, as Kropotkin stressed, the idea that we, working class people, can run society seem not only plausible but essential. The process of struggle will create a process of radicalisation and self-liberation and by changing society, people will change themselves. The struggle, as Bakunin put it, means emancipation through practical action.

And this process is another reason why freedom is important. Only by encouraging the active participation of working class people in their own organisations, struggles and revolution can the political development of the working classes be ensured. By discussing and debating the needs of the class struggle and revolution, by organising from the bottom up and using federated workers' councils to co-ordinate struggle, the political awareness of the majority will be increased. By centralising power in a state, this process is aborted as the working class is divested of its power to manage its own revolution and its organisations just become fig leafs for party power.

This is not to deny the importance of anarchist organisation. Many struggles have taken place and they have not resulted in a free society. While creating a possible framework for a free society, these revolts have been defeated. Most have failed, others have just replaced one set of bosses with another ("socialist") set. Spontaneity, as anarchists have always stressed, is not enough. The role of anarchists and anarchist organisations is important. We need to stress the need for anarchist politics and the need to transform society from top-to-bottom and we need to organise to do this. Ultimately, a revolution depends on people wanting a free society and that means that the current minority who does must be in a position to promote liberation ideas in the mass of the population. I hope you will join us in this task.

A new world is possible!


1) In What is to be Done? Lenin discussed "the confusion of ideas concerning the meaning of democracy." He dismisses the idea of self-management as "Primitive Democracy." He uses the example of the early British unions, where workers "thought that it was an indispensable sign of democracy for all the members to do all the work of managing the unions; not only were all questions decided by the vote of all the members, but all the official duties were fulfilled by all the members in turn." He considered "such a conception of democracy" as "absurd" and saw it as historical necessity that it was replaced by "representative institutions" and "full-time officials". In other words, the Leninist tradition rejects self-management in favour of hierarchical structures in which power is centralised in the hands of "full-time officials" and "representative institutions."

In contrast, Bakunin argued that trade unions which ended "primitive democracy" and replaced it with representative institutions became bureaucratic and "simply left all decision-making to their committees . . . In this manner power gravitated to the committees, and by a species of fiction characteristic of all governments the committees substituted their own will and their own ideas for that of the membership." The membership become subject to "the arbitrary power" of the committees and "ruled by oligarchs." In other words, bureaucracy set in and democracy as such was eliminated and while "very good for the committees . . . [it was] not at all favourable for the social, intellectual, and moral progress of the collective power" of the workers' movement. Who was correct can quickly be seen from the radical and pro-active nature of the British trade union leadership. Ironically, the SWP always bemoan trade union bureaucracies betraying workers in struggle yet promote an organisational structure that ensures that power flows to the centre and into the hands of bureaucrats.

2) Zinoviev versus Zinoviev!

In 1920 leading Bolshevik Zinoviev wrote the IWW a letter in which he stated, among other things, that as well as being "the MOST HIGHLY CENTRALIZED GOVERNMENT THAT EXISTS" (no denying that!) the Bolshevik state was "also the most democratic government in history. For all the organs of government are in constant touch with the working masses, and constantly sensitive to their will." In the same year he wrote "that soviet rule in Russia could not have been maintained for three years -- not even three weeks -- without iron dictatorship of the Communist Party. Any class-conscious worker must understand that the dictatorship of the working class can only be achieved by the dictatorship of its vanguard, i.e. the Communist Party." Who to believe?

Lenin and Trotsky argued the same, of course. And both stressed that party dictatorship was essential to combat the "wavering and unstable elements among the masses themselves." Trotsky argued in 1921 that the "Party is obliged to maintain its dictatorship . . . regardless of temporary vacillations even in the working class . . . The dictatorship does not base itself at every moment on the formal principle of a workers' democracy."

The Platform of the Left Opposition just repeates these "lessons" with its "Leninist principle" ("inviolable for every Bolshevik") that "the dictatorship of the proletariat is and can be realised only through the dictatorship of the party."

3) I should stress that if we consider the goals of the Russian revolution, we can safely say that Bolshevism was not successful. Did the Russian Revolution actually result in soviet democracy? Far from it. The Kronstadt revolt was repressed because it demanded soviet power. Nor was this an isolated example. The Bolsheviks had been disbanding soviets with elected non-Bolshevik majorities since early 1918 (i.e. before the start of the Civil War).

It will, of course, be argued that the Civil War caused the degeneration of the revolution. Let us ignore that this had begun before it started (as well as Trotsky's arguments) and instead assume that the Civil War was the cause of party dictatorship. Lenin argued in 1917 that "not a single great revolution in history has escaped civil war." If Civil War is inevitable and Bolshevism cannot survive it without degenerating then, clearly, Bolshevism failed in the Russian Revolution. Bolshevism, with its centralism, party power and statism did not work in the past, as Russia proved.

4). Unlike Leninists, who seek political power for their own parties, anarchists seek to ensure that power lies in the hands of the working class. Our influence is due to the power of our ideas, not due to hierarchical structures. According to Trotsky "the proletariat can take power only through its vanguard." Thus, rather than the working class as a whole seizing power, it is the "vanguard" which takes power -- "a revolutionary party, even after seizing power . . . is still by no means the sovereign ruler of society."

5) This is the very essence of Bolshevism. Trotsky is clearly arguing that the working class, as a class, is incapable of making a revolution or managing society itself -- hence the party must step in on its behalf and, if necessary, ignore the wishes of the people the party claims to represent. To re-quote Trotsky's comments against the Workers' Opposition at the Tenth Party Congress in early 1921: "They have made a fetish of democratic principles! They have placed the workers' right to elect representatives above the Party. As if the Party were not entitled to assert its dictatorship even if that dictatorship clashed with the passing moods of the workers' democracy!" He stressed that the "Party is obliged to maintain its dictatorship . . . regardless of temporary vacillations even in the working class . . . The dictatorship does not base itself at every moment on the formal principle of a workers' democracy."

In 1957, after crushing the 1956 workers' revolution, the Hungarian Stalinists argued along exactly the same lines as Trotsky had after the Bolsheviks had crushed Kronstadt. The leader of the Hungarian Stalinist dictatorship argued that "the regime is aware that the people do not always know what is good for them. It is therefore the duty of the leadership to act, not according to the will of the people, but according to what the leadership knows to be in the best interests of the people."

6) Self-liberation is a product of struggle, of self-organisation, solidarity and direct action. Direct action is the means of creating anarchists, free people, and so "Anarchists have always advised taking an active part in those workers' organisations which carry on the direct struggle of Labour against Capital and its protector, -- the State." This is because "[s]uch a struggle . . . better than any indirect means, permits the worker to obtain some temporary improvements in the present conditions of work, while it opens his [or her] eyes to the evil that is done by Capitalism and the State that supports it, and wakes up his [or her] thoughts concerning the possibility of organising consumption, production and exchange without the intervention of the capitalist and the state," that is, see the possibility of a free society. Kropotkin, like many anarchists, pointed to the Syndicalist and Trade Union movements as a means of developing libertarian ideas within existing society (although he, like most anarchists, did not limit anarchist activity exclusively to them). Indeed, any movement which "permit[s] the working men [and women] to realise their solidarity and to feel the community of their interests . . . prepare[s] the way for these conceptions" of communist-anarchism, i.e. the overcoming the spiritual domination of existing society within the minds of the oppressed.