Workers Power & the Russian Revolution

By Tom Wetzel

I was attracted to radical politics in the late 1960s/early ‘70s when I was in my twenties. Most of the people who were drawn to serious revolutionary politics back then ended up in Leninist organizations of some sort, if only for a time. Third World revolutions were one influence. Various Marxist-Leninist parties had come to power based on guerrilla struggles, in places like China and Cuba, and this augmented the claim of Leninism that it was “successful” in charting a way to a post-capitalist future.

But it seemed obvious to me that workers did not have power in production in the various Communist countries. They’re subordinated to a managerial hierarchy. Thus, I reasoned, workers must be a subjugated and exploited class in those countries.

A work I found particularly helpful in the ‘70s was Maurice Brinton’s The Bolsheviks and Workers Control. This clear-headed and well-researched little book was an indispensable source of arguments to explode the myth of the Bolshevik party building “proletarian power” in Russia. AK Press has now re-issued this booklet as part of an anthology, For Workers Power. Brinton was the main writer for the London libertarian socialist group Solidarity. This anthology collects in one place many of Brinton’s writings, including The Irrational in Politics and Paris: May 1968. In this review I’ll mainly focus on the Russian revolution.

Brinton believes that the working class cannot have power in society, cannot liberate itself from its condition as a subjugated and exploited class, unless it gains direct management power over production. He believes that the working class must also gain control over the whole structure of the society to ensure its liberation. But he rejects the idea that the working class could have power in society if it is subjugated in production. This is the heart of Brinton’s argument.

The Soviets and the Factory Councils

People sometimes say that “workers councils” were the organizational means for workers fighting for and attaining power in the Russian revolution.(1) But there were two different types of mass organization supported by workers in the Russian revolution that could be called “workers councils”: the soviets (soviet is Russian for council) and the factory committees. Let’s look at each.

The Petrograd soviet was formed during the tumultuous events in February, 1917 that led to the abdication of the czar. A group of radical and liberal intellectuals formed the soviet top-down when they constituted themselves as the “Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet” on February 27, 1917. They then sent out a call for election of delegates.(2) Moreover, the soviet assemblies were not where the real decisions were made. The executive made the real decisions in the backrooms. Some decisions were submitted to the assembled delegates for ratification, some were not. The soviet assembly tended to be just an open meeting, where anyone could speak. Soviets formed in other Russian cities were similar.

The factory committees, unlike the soviets, were initiated directly by Russian workers themselves, and these organizations became the main vehicle of self-organization of workers in the revolution. These committees were typically made up of elected worker delegates. The most important decisions were made in general assemblies of the rank and file.

On May 30, 1917 there was a meeting of over 400 representatives of factory committees in the Petrograd area. They described the situation they faced:

“From the beginning of the revolution the administrative staffs of the factories have relinquished their posts. The workmen of the factories have become the masters. To keep the factories going, the workers’ committees have had to take the management into their own hands. In the first days of the revolution, in February and March, the workmen left the factories and went into the streets…Later, the workmen returned to their work. They found that many factories had been deserted. The managers, engineers, generals, mechanics, foremen had reason to believe that the workmen would wreak their vengeance on them, and they had disappeared. The workmen had to begin work with no administrative staff to guide them. They had to elect committees which gradually re-established a normal system of work. The committees had to find the necessary raw materials, and…take upon themselves all kinds of unexpected and unaccustomed duties.”(3)

The factory committees were described as “fighting organizations, elected on the basis of the widest democracy and with collective leadership,” with the aim of creating “the organization of thorough control by labor over production and distribution.”

Russian workers found that neither the soviets nor the industrial unions could be used by them to solve their immediate economic problems or help to coordinate activities between different workplaces. The soviets were tightly controlled by their executive and were taken up with fighting the government over political issues such as continued Russian involvement in the world war.

The industrial unions weren’t much help either. Unions had been illegal under czarism. The unions had been formed top-down by the political parties and continued to be largely an appendage of the parties. Throughout most of 1917 most of the unions were controlled by the Mensheviks. Although union membership rose from 100,000 to over a million during 1917, this was largely an effect of the growth of the factory committees. Radical workers tended to join the industrial unions as a matter of principle, not because the unions had a real presence in the workplaces. Bill Shatov, an American IWW member who returned to his native Russia, described the Russian unions as “living corpses.”

From Soviets to State

By September, 1917 the Bolsheviks had gained majorities in the key Russian soviets. About half the delegates in the Petrograd soviet represented personnel in the Russian military. With the troops loyal to the soviets, Bolshevik control of the soviets enabled them to capture state power at the end of October.

The new governmental structure vested authority in the Russian parliament — the 350-member Central Executive Committee of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets. As in other parliamentary systems, the government was formed as an executive committee, or cabinet of ministers, of the parliament. This executive was the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom). Lenin, as chair of this committee, was premier or head of the government.(4) The local and regional soviets, which were little more than rubber stamps for their party-controlled executives anyway, came to function as an “electoral college” (in the American sense) for the indirect election of the parliament. The soviet structure provided legitimacy for the new Bolshevik government, based on the widespread support for the soviets among Russian workers and military personnel in 1917. But the indirect system of election and the tight centralization meant it could not be effectively controlled by rank-and-file workers or used by them to initiate and control decisions. By October 1917 a complex situation existed in Russian industry. “In practice the implementation of workers’ control took on a variety of forms in different parts of Russia,” Brinton writes. “These were partly determined by local conditions but primarily by the degree of resistance shown by different sections of the employing class. In some places the employers were expropriated forthwith, ‘from below.’ In other instances they were merely submitted to a supervisory type of ‘control,’ exercised by the factory committees.” This “supervisor control” included, for example, the right to veto management hiring decisions, to prevent employment of strikebreakers. After the coming to power of the Bolshevik Party, the situation would become even more complex with some enterprises “nationalized from above by decree of the Central Government.”

The Economy in the New State

At the end of 1917 Lenin did not favor immediate nationalization of the economy. Brinton believes that Lenin opposed expropriation of the capitalists “because of his underestimation of the technological and administrative maturity of the proletariat.” Lenin envisioned that the “dual power” situation of “supervisory control” which existed in many privately-owned enterprises would continue for some time. The right of the factory committees to engage in this supervisory control was legalized in November, 1917 by Lenin’s decree on “workers control.” Lenin was not advocating that workers take over management of production or expropriate capitalists on their own initiative.

During 1917 many Russian workers envisioned a division of labor where the factory committees would take over the running of the economy while the soviets would become the new polity or governmental structure.(5) The Bolsheviks encouraged the factory committee movement to restrict its ambitions to “the economy.” The “workers party” would take political power.

Limiting their aspiration for power to the economy would prove to be the undoing of the Russian factory committee movement. Direct management of production may be necessary for worker power in society, but it is not sufficient. Workers need to also control the polity — the institutions for making the basic rules in society and enforcing them. If they don’t, they won’t be able to defend their power in production.

Russian workers assumed that the Bolshevik seizure of state power through the soviets would support their aspirations for economic control. The creation of the new Bolshevik government in October thus spurred a new burst of activity by the factory committee movement. Although Lenin’s “workers control” decree only legalized the degree of control the factory committees had already achieved, it encouraged workers to go farther because now they believed that their efforts would gain official sanction. Workers didn’t put too much stock in the boundary Lenin drew between control and management. Moreover, Lenin’s idea that the situation of “dual power” in the factories could be maintained indefinitely was unrealistic. Kritzman, a “left” Communist, criticized the workers control decree:

“Employers would not be inclined to run their businesses with the sole aim of teaching the workers how to manage them. Conversely, the workers felt only hatred for the capitalists and saw no reason why they should voluntarily remain exploited.”

“The spontaneous inclination of the workers to organize factory committees,” wrote historian E. H. Carr, “was inevitably encouraged by a revolution which led the workers to believe that the productive machinery of the country belonged to them and could be operated by them at their own discretion and to their own advantage. What had begun to happen before the October revolution now happened more frequently and more openly; and for the moment nothing would have dammed the tide of revolt.”(6)

Out of this upsurge of activity came the first attempt by the factory committee movement to form its own national organization, independent of the trade unions and political parties. In December the Central Soviet of Factory Committees of the Petrograd Area published a Practical Manual for the Implementation of Workers’ Control of Industry. The manual proposed that “workers control could rapidly be extended into ‘workers’ management’.” The manual also announced the intention of forming the factory committees into regional federations and a national federation.

Isaac Deutscher explains what then happened:

“The Factory Committees attempted to form their own national organization, which was to secure their virtual economic dictatorship. The Bolsheviks now called upon the trade unions to render a special service to the nascent Soviet State and to discipline the Factory Committees. The unions came out firmly against the attempt of the Factory Committees to form a national organization of their own. They prevented the convocation of the planned All-Russian Congress of Factory Committees and demanded total subordination on the part of the Committees.”(7)

However, the Bolshevik Party had only just taken state power — and their grip on power would become even more tenuous with the onset of the Russian civil war in May, 1918. This resulted in a compromise in which the party committed itself to trade union control of the economy.

This helped the party leadership to gain the cooperation of the party’s trade union cadres in suppressing the drive of the factory committee movement for direct worker management. The trade union control concept would be encapsulated in Point 5 of the program adopted at the 1919 Communist Party congress:

“The organizational apparatus of socialized industry must be based primarily on the trade unions…Participating already in accordance with the laws of the Soviet Republic and established practice in all local and central organs of industrial administration, the trade unions must proceed to the actual concentration in their own hands of all the administration of the entire economy, as a single economic unit.”

The first step in supplanting the workers’ drive for economic self-management with central planning from above was the decree on December 5, 1917, setting up the Supreme Economic Council (Vesenka), under the direct authority of Sovnarkom. Vesenka was made up of Bolshevik trade union officials, Bolshevik Party stalwarts and “experts” appointed from above by the government. Vesenka was assigned the task of creating “a plan for the organization of the economic life of the country” and was to “direct to a uniform end” the activities of all existing economic authorities. Here we have the beginnings of a central planning apparatus assuming managerial functions. The fate of the factory committee movement was fought out at the first All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions in January, 1918. Here the Bolsheviks put forward their plan to subordinate the factory committees to hierarchical union control. The main Russian political tendency with a vision for direct workers management were the anarcho-syndicalists. At the congress, the 25 anarcho-syndicalist delegates, representing Don Basin miners, Moscow railway workers and other workers, made a desperate effort to defend the factory committee movement and its drive for direct workers’ management. They proposed “that the organization of production, transport and distribution be immediately transferred to the hands of the toiling people themselves, and not to the state or some civil service machine made up of one kind or another of class enemy.” G.P. Maximov, a prominent anarcho-syndicalist, distinguished between horizontal coordination and hierarchical control of the economy:

“The aim of the proletariat was to coordinate all activity,…to create a center, but not a center of decrees and ordinances but a center of regulation, of guidance — and only through such a center to organize the industrial life of the country.”

However, the Bolsheviks got the decision they wanted. They had the majority of delegates, and Menshevik and Social Revolutionary Party supporters at the congress also voted for subordination of the factory committees to the trade unions.

With control over the government, the armed forces, the trade union apparatus, and majorities on many of the factory committees, the Bolshevik Party was able to tame the factory committee movement. Any factory committee that didn’t go along could be isolated; a factory could be denied resources it needed.

“Bolshevik propaganda in later years,” Brinton notes, would harp on the theme that the factory committees “were not a suitable means for organizing production on a national scale.” Deutscher, for example, says that “almost from their creation, the Factory Committees…aspired to have the…final say on all matters affecting their factory, its output, its stocks of raw materials, its conditions of work, etc. and paid little or no attention to the needs of industry as a whole.” The Leninist argument makes a false assumption: Either uncoordinated autonomy of each individual factory, or a central planning apparatus to create a plan and then issue orders through a hierarchy. Leninists “dismiss workers’ self-management with derogatory comments about ‘socialism in one factory’,” says Brinton, “or with profundities like ‘you can’t have groups of workers doing whatever they like, without taking into account the requirements of the economy as a whole.’” But there is a third alternative: A system of horizontal, self-managed planning and coordination. Why can’t workers and consumers themselves create the plan? Through their own experience the Russian workers themselves had come to realize the need for coordination and planning of the economy on a broader scale. This was the point to the proposals for regional and national federations of factory committees, and the convening of a national factory committee congress. The consumer cooperatives in the Russian revolution grew to 12 million members. When workers took over factories in 1917, they sometimes developed links with these organizations for distribution of the products of their factory. This relationship could have been systematized to provide consumer input to some sort of grassroots-controlled, participatory planning system.

The proposal for union management of the economy, endorsed by the Communist Party congress in 1919, was never implemented. In exchange for their efforts to suppress the independent initiative of factory committees, Communist Party trade union cadres had been appointed to various government and management bodies, but this was combined with government appointment of managers and control from above. As early as November 9, 1917, the Central Soviet of Employees that had taken over the postal system during the revolution was abolished. The new minister in charge decreed: “No…committees for the administration of the department of Posts and Telegraphs can usurp the functions belonging to the central power and to me as People’s Commissar.”

Dangerous Slogans and Syndicalist Deviations

By 1921 worker discontent was widespread and strikes broke out in Petrograd and Moscow. The immediate danger posed by foreign embargo and civil war had ended and now the trade union base of the party was pushing for a greater say in the running of the economy. This debate would come to a head at the Communist Party congress in March, 1921. The Workers Opposition charged that the party leaders had failed to carry out the promises in the 1919 program, and had “reduced to almost nil the influence of the working class.” With “the Party and economic authorities having been swamped by bourgeois technicians,” they argued that the solution was union management of the economy. They thus proposed to invoke an All-Russian Producers Congress to elect the management of the national economy, with the various industrial unions electing the management boards of their respective industries.

Lenin denounced the push for union management as a “syndicalist deviation.” “It destroyed the need for the Party. If the trade unions, nine-tenths of whose members are non-Party workers, appoint the managers of industry, what is the use of the Party?”, Lenin asked. Here we see Lenin’s view of the party as managers, implementing their program through a top-down hierarchy. He assumes that the workers themselves are somehow incapable of running the economy, that the party intelligentsia must be in charge.

Trotsky denounced the Workers Opposition for raising “dangerous slogans”:

“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.”

The party congress ended not only with the defeat of the Workers Opposition but with the party banning internal dissent. The officers of the Russian metalworkers union were leaders of the Workers Opposition. When the party fraction in the union refused to go along with party orders to kick them out of office, the party-state leaders imposed a trusteeship (as the AFL-CIO would say). The union’s elected officers were replaced with party appointees. This was not the first time this tactic had been employed. In 1920, Trotsky, as Commissar of Transport, had broken the railway workers union by appointing new leaders.

Shortly after the 1921 party congress Bogdanov and his Workers Truth group (of Bolshevik origin) were to declare that the revolution had led to “a complete defeat for the working class.”

Probably the most important condition that made victory difficult for the workers revolution in Russia was the fact that the working class in Russia was a small minority of the population, no more than 10 percent. Russia in 1917 was still semi-feudal. The vast majority of the population were peasants whose concern in the revolution was mainly to expropriate the big landlords and gain control of their small farms. Peasants produced largely for their own consumption; productivity was low. The poverty, disorganization and illiteracy of the Russian peasantry prevented them from imposing their own solution on Russian society. In Russia there didn’t exist the sort of widespread worker unionism in agriculture that enabled the Spanish agricultural workers to play an important role in the Spanish revolution in 1936.

Did the minority status of the working class doom it to defeat? G.P. Maximov, who was an agronomist, had hoped that czarist war industry could be converted to the manufacture of tractors, electrical generating equipment and other things to exchange with the peasantry for their products. He hoped that a strategy of investing in the agricultural economy would encourage collective organizational methods, a collectivist outlook, and increased productivity in the peasant communities. This was Maximov’s libertarian socialist path for Russian agriculture.(8)

Even if the Bolsheviks had wanted to pursue this peace conversion strategy, the onset of the Russian civil war in May, 1918 would have gotten in the way. Virtually the whole of Russian industry was converted into a supply organization for the Red Army. The cities produced virtually nothing that could be traded to the peasants for their products. So, the Bolsheviks resorted to forced requisitions, seizing agricultural products at the point of a gun. This strategy was not very effective. The peasants resisted and the cities starved. The urban population of Russia was reduced by at least half during the civil war. Workers moved in with their country cousins. At least they wouldn’t starve in the countryside.

Conjunctural Factors and New Classes

Lenin’s solution to the growing peasant discontent was the New Economic Policy, enacted in 1921. This policy encouraged capitalist development and free trade in agricultural products. Eventually it was Stalin who “solved” the problem of low agricultural productivity through forced collectivization and mechanization. This allowed much of the rural population to be moved to work in urban industry. The state hierarchy could then capture the efficiency gains from agricultural investment to build up Russian industry.

Bolshevik apologists usually point to various “conjunctural” factors to explain the defeat of the workers revolution in Russia — foreign invasion and civil war, failure of the revolution in Germany and other European countries, and so on. But neither these factors nor the minority status of the working class in Russia are sufficient to explain why the Russian workers’ revolution was defeated in the peculiar way it was. Worker revolutions have at times been defeated by a violent reaction that saves the property system of the capitalist class, as in Italy in the ‘20s, Spain in the ‘30s, and Chile in the ‘70s.

But the capitalist class was expropriated in Russia, and a new economic system emerged, based on public ownership, and subordination of the economy to central planning, not market governance.

A new class emerged as the rulers of this economic system. Unlike the capitalist class they were hired labor, employees of the state. Brinton refers to this class as “the bureaucracy.” But there are “bureaucracies” in all kinds of organizations. A class, however, is distinguished by its particular role in social production.

I think it is helpful here to look at the sort of hierarchy that was being developed in capitalist industry in the U.S. in the early 20th century. The emergence of the large corporations gave the capitalists sufficient resources to systematically re-design jobs and the production process to their advantage, destroying the skill and autonomy of workers that had been inherited from the artisan tradition. “Efficiency experts” like Frederick Taylor advocated concentration of conceptualization and decision-making in the hands of a managerial control hierarchy, removing it from the shopfloor. The point to Taylorism was to shift the balance of power on the shopfloor to the advantage of management. This attempt to gain greater control over what workers do was justified to the owners in terms of the ability of the firm to ensure long-term profitability, but it also empowers a new class. The period between the 1890s and 1920s saw the emergence of a new class of professional managers, engineers, and other expert advisors to management. These were the cadres who made up the new control hierarchies in the corporations and the state. As hired employees, the power of this techno-managerial or coordinator class(9) is not based on ownership of capital assets, but on concentration of expertise and decision-making authority.

The coordinator class was only in its early stages of development in the Russian economy in the early 20th century. In the actual situation the Bolshevik party intelligentsia were thrown into the breach, along with technicians and managers inherited from the capitalist regime. The Russian revolution showed that it was possible to use the state to build an economy where the coordinator class was the ruling class. Bolshevik ideology and program are an essential part of the explanation for the emergence of this new class system.

Brinton makes a convincing case that neither Lenin nor Trotsky ever believed in or advocated workers’ management of production. After the Bolshevik takeover in October, 1917, Lenin’s “whole practice,” Brinton notes, “was to denounce attempts at workers’ management as ‘premature,’ ‘utopian,’ ‘anarchist,’ ‘harmful,’” and so on.

Much of the debate within the Communist Party in 1920-21 was over “one-man management.” As early as April, 1918 Lenin wrote:

“Unquestioning submission to a single will is absolutely necessary for the success of labor processes that are based on large-scale machine industry…today the revolution demands, in the interests of socialism, that the masses unquestioningly obey the single will of the leaders of the labor process.”

But the “one-man management” debate was somewhat misleading since the real issue is not whether there is a committee in charge or one person but the relationship of the mass of workers to the authority of management. Would they possess this authority themselves or not?

As long as the ‘workers party’ controls the state

Nonetheless, the logic of central planning does favor having one person in charge. If plans are crafted by an elite group of planners and then implemented as a set of orders that must be carried out by the workforce, the planning apparatus will want to have the ability to enforce their orders. And this is easier if there is just one person who is answerable to those above rather than a whole collective.

The Bolshevik leaders assumed that the sort of hierarchical structures in industry evolved by capitalism were class-neutral. They maintained that the managerial hierarchy could be wielded in the interests of the working class as long as the “workers party” controlled the state that owned the economy.

This idea was not unique to Bolshevism but was common among social-democratic Marxists prior to World War I. For example, in The Common Sense of Socialism, published in 1911, John Spargo, a member of the American Socialist Party, argues that control of the state by the labor-based socialist political party is sufficient to ensure working class control of a state-owned economy. In Brinton’s view, the commitment to the persistence of hierarchy — the division of society into those who give orders and those who are expected to obey them — is as rooted in social-democracy as it is in Leninism.

When Marx drew up the statutes of the first International Workers Association in 1864, he included Flora Tristan’s slogan: “The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the workers themselves.” Brinton’s analysis of the Russian revolution shows how the Bolsheviks failed to take this principle seriously. Brinton agrees with Marx that the class struggle is a process that drives social change, and that through this process the working class can liberate itself. The fact that workers must work, not to fulfill their own aims, but are forced to act as instruments for the aims of others — our situation in capitalist society — is what Marx called “alienated labor.” Brinton believes this condition of “alienation” is pervasive in existing society, not just in work. Liberation presupposes that this condition be replaced by self-determination in production and all aspects of life. In order to work out a path to liberation, Marx believed it was necessary to be realistic, to “see through” all phony ideology, like the rhetoric in bourgeois liberalism about “freedom” and “democracy.”

The emphasis upon self-activity, class struggle, and realism about society are the good side of Marx, the part that Brinton retains in his own thinking. But in the Marxist political tradition this is combined with hierarchical aspects. Why? In Marx’s theory of “historical materialism,” social formations become vulnerable to instability and replacement when they “fetter the development of the productive forces.” Marx assumes that a drive for ever-increasing productive output is a trans-historical force that is the gauge of social progress. If Taylorism and the development of hierarchy in industry are the particular way that capitalism increases productive output, these must be “progressive,” some Marxists infer. “We must raise the question of applying much of what is scientific and progressive in the Taylor system,” Lenin wrote in 1918. Lenin thus supported the adoption of Taylor’s piecework schemes. “The Soviet Republic…must organize in Russia the study and teaching of the Taylor system.” The fallacy in this argument is the assumption that productive effectiveness could not be achieved through the development of the skill and knowledge of workers, under workers’ self-management.

In Marx’s analysis of capitalism the division between labor and capital takes center stage. Because the working class does not own the means of production, we must sell our time to employers. The class power of the owners enables them to rip off the working class, accumulating surplus value as private capital.

But there is another systematic rip off of the working class that becomes entrenched once capitalism reaches its mature corporate form. The logic of capitalist development then systematically under-develops worker potentials, as expertise and decision-making is accumulated as the possession of another class, the coordinator class. But Marxism doesn’t “see” this class.

This failure makes Marxism self-contradictory. The hierarchical dimension of Marxism converts it into a coordinator class ideology, a program for the continued subordination of the working class. The concept of the “vanguard party” as managers of the movement for social change, concentrating expertise and decision-making in their hands; the idea that “proletarian power” consists in a particular party leadership controlling a state, implementing its program top-down through the state hierarchy; control of the economy by a central planning apparatus — these things don’t empower the working class.

Hierarchies of the state, like the similar hierarchies in the private corporations, are based on the concentration of professional expertise and decision-making power into the hands of a coordinatorist elite. A statist strategic orientation that thinks in terms of a party leadership capturing a state and then implementing its program top-down through the state hierarchy is a stategy that empowers the coordinator class. This contradicts the liberatory and egalitarian rhetoric that socialism traditionally appeals to to motivate activists.

I’m not here arguing that the empowerment of the working class would not presuppose the taking of political power. The working class can’t liberate itself from subordination to dominating classes if it doesn’t take over both the running of industry and the governing of the society. This presupposes that it control the polity — the structure through which the basic rules in society are made and enforced. But a hierarchical state is not the only possible form of polity. We can also envision a self-managed polity, based on institutions of grassroots democracy. The point is that it must be the mass of the people themselves who “take power,” through mass democratic institutions that the people create and directly control.


(1) For example, Alan Maas of the International Socialist Organization writes: “…the October revolution of 1917 won power for the workers’ councils, or soviets, establishing the basic institution of a socialist society.” Maas reply to Michael Albert. Maas therefore identifies “the basic institution of a socialist society” not with a particular economic institution or workers direct management of industry but with the Soviet polity, that is, a state controlled by the Bolshevik Party.

(2) Oscar Anweiler, Les Soviets en Rusie, 1905-1921, cited in Rachleff (see note (5)).

(3) Paul Avrich, The Russian Anarchists, pp. 140-141. John Reed provides descriptions of some worker takeovers in the article cited in note (4).

(4) John Reed, “The Structure of the Soviet System,” Liberation, July, 1918 (reprinted in Socialist Viewpoint, Sept. 15, 2002).

(5) Peter Rachleff, Soviets and Factory Committees in the Russian Revolution.

(6) E. H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, Vol. II, p. 69, cited in Rachleff.

(7) Quoted in Brinton, p. 320.

(8) G. P. Maximov, Constructive Anarchism.

(9) “Coordinator class” is the term that Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel use for this class. Albert and Hahnel, “A Ticket to Ride: More Locations on the Class Map,” in Between Labor and Capital, Pat Walker, ed.

3 Problems of the Revolution-Daniel Guerin

3 Problems of the Revolution [LINK]

Voline, libertarian chronicler of the Russian revolution, after having been an actor in and an eye-witness to it, writes:

“We have been bequeathed a fundamental problem by preceding revolutions: I am thinking of the one in 1789 and the one in 1917 especially: largely mounted against oppression, animated by a mighty breath of freedom and proclaiming freedom as their essential objective, how come these revolutions slid into a new dictatorship wielded by other ruling, privileged strata, into fresh slavery for the popular masses? What might the conditions be that would enable a revolution to avoid that dismal fate? Might that fate be due to ephemeral factors and even quite simply to mistakes and shortcomings which might from now on be averted? And in the latter case, what might the means be of eradicating the danger threatening revolutions yet to come?”

Like Voline, I think that the two great historical experiences of the French revolution and the Russian revolution are indissolubly linked. Despite the time differences, the differences in their contexts, and their differing “class content”, the issues they raise and the pitfalls they encountered are essentially the same. At best the first revolution displays them in a more embryonic state than the second. Also, men today cannot hope to discover the path leading to their definitive emancipation unless they can distinguish in these two experiences what was progress and what was backsliding, so that they can draw lessons for the future.

The essential cause of the relative failure of history’s two greatest revolutions does not reside, as I see it, to borrow Voline’s words, either in “historical inevitability” nor in mere subjective “errors” by the revolutionary protagonists. The Revolution carries within itself a grave contradiction (a contradiction which, happily, let it be said again, is not beyond remedy and lessens with the passage of time): it can only arise and it can only win if it springs from the depths of the popular masses and their irresistible spontaneous uprising.

But, though class instinct impels them to break their chains, the masses of the people lack education and consciousness. And as they surge with redoubtable energy, but clumsily and blindly, towards freedom, bumping into privileged, astute, expert, organized and experienced social classes, they can only triumph over the resistance they encounter if they successfully acquire, in the heat of battle, the consciousness, expertise, organization and experience in which they are deficient. But the very act of forging the weapons just listed, which are the only ones that can ensure that they get the better of their adversary, carries with it an enormous danger: that it might kill the spontaneity which is the heart of the revolution, that it might compromise freedom inside the organization, or allow the movement to be taken over by a minority elite of more expert, more aware, more experienced militants who, to start with put themselves forward as guides, only to end up imposing themselves as leaders and subjecting the masses to some new form of man’s exploitation of his fellow men.

Ever since socialism ever considered this problem and ever since it clearly perceived this contradiction, which is to say, since, roughly, the mid-19thcentury, it has not ceased weighing up the odds and hovering between the two extreme poles of freedom and order. Every one of its thinkers and actors has striven labouriously and tentatively, amid all sorts of hesitation and contradictions, to resolve this fundamental dilemma of the Revolution.

In his celebrated Memoir on Property (1840), Proudhon figured that he had worked out a synthesis when he optimistically wrote: “The highest perfection of society lies in the union of order with anarchy”. But a quarter of a century later, he noted glumly: “These two ideas, freedom… and order, are back to back… They cannot be separated, nor can the one absorb the other: we must resign ourselves to living with them both and striking a balance between them… No political force has yet come up with a true solution in the reconciling of freedom and order.”

Today a vast empire built under the aegis of “socialism” is seeking tiresomely and empirically and sometimes convulsively to escape from the iron yoke of an “order” founded upon constraint and rediscover the road to the freedom to which its millions of subjects, growing coarser and more alive to the fact, aspire.

The problem thus remains posed acutely, and we have not yet heard the last of it.

If we examine it more closely, this problem boasts three relatively distinct but closely connected facets:

  1. In the period of revolutionary struggle, what should the proper ratio be between spontaneity and consciousness, between the masses and the leadership?

  2. Once the old oppressive regime has been overthrown, what form of political or administrative organization should replace the one overthrown?

  3. Finally, by whom and how should the economy be administered following the abolition of private property (a problem posed in full measure as far as the proletarian organization is concerned but which the French revolution faced only in embryonic form)?

On each of these counts, the 19th century socialists hesitated and dithered, contradicted one another and clashed with one another. What socialists?

Broadly, we can identify three main currents among them:

  1. the ones whom I would term the authoritarians, the statists, the centralists, the heirs — some of them to the Jacobin and Blanquist tradition of the French revolution — and others to the German (or, to be more precise, Prussian) tradition of military discipline and the State with a capital ‘S’.

  2. the ones I would term the anti-authoritarians, the libertarians, heirs, on the one hand, to the direct democracy of 1793 and the communalist, federalist idea: and, on the other, to Saint-Simonian apoliticalism aiming to replace political governance with the “administration of things”.

  3. finally, the so-called scientific socialists (Marx and Engels), striving labouriously and not always successfully or in a coherent way, and often for merely tactical reasons (for they had to make concessions to the authoritarian and libertarian wings of the workers movement alike), to reconcile the two afore-mentioned currents and come up with some compromise between the authoritarian idea and the libertarian one.

Let us attempt to summarize briefly the attempts made by these three currents of socialist thinking to resolve the three fundamental problems of the Revolution.

1. Spontaneity and consciousness

Authoritarians have no confidence in the masses’ ability to attain consciousness unaided, and, even when they claim otherwise, they have a panic-stricken terror of the masses. If they are to be credited, the masses are still brutalized by centuries of oppression. They are in need of guidance and direction. A tiny elite of leaders has to stand in for them, teach them a revolutionary strategy and lead them to victory. Libertarians, on the other hand, contend that the Revolution has to be the doing of the masses themselves, of their spontaneity and free initiative, their creative potential, as unsuspected as it is formidable. They caution against leaders who, in the name of higher consciousness, seek to overrule the masses so as to deny them the fruits of their victory later on.

As for Marx and Engels, sometimes they place the accent on spontaneity and sometimes on consciousness. But their synthesis remains lame, unsure, contradictory. Moreover it ought to be pointed out that the libertarians too were not always free of the same afflictions. In Proudhon, alongside an optimistic paean to the “political capacity of the working classes”, one can find pessimistic strains casting doubt upon that capacity and lining up with the authoritarians in their suggestion that the masses ought to be directed from above. Likewise, Bakunin never quite managed to shake off the “48′er” conspiratorialism of his younger days and, right after he has honed in on the masses’ irresistible primal instinct, we find him advocating covert “penetration” of the latter by conscious leaders organized in secret societies. Hence this queer criss-crossing: the people whom he berated, not without good grounds perhaps, for their authoritarianism catch him red-handed in an act of authoritarian Macchiavellianism.

The two competing tendencies within the First International took each other to task, each with good reason, for subterranean manoeuvres designed to capture control of the movement. As we shall see, we would have to wait for Rosa Luxemburg before a fairly viable modus vivendi between spontaneity and consciousness would be advanced. But Trotsky compromised this painstakingly struck equilibrium in order to take the contradiction to its extreme: in some respects he was “Luxemburgist”: as his 1905 and History of the Russian Revolution particularly testify, he had a feel and an instinct for revolution from below: he placed the accent upon the autonomous action of the masses; but he comes around in the end — after having argued brilliantly against them — to Lenin’s Blanquist notions of organization and, once in power, he came to behave in a manner even more authoritarian than his party leader. Finally, in the tough struggle from exile, he was to shelter behind a Lenin who had become unassailable in order to bring his indictment against Stalin: and this identification with Lenin was to deny him, until his dying day, the opportunity to give free rein to the Luxemburgist element within him.

2. The Problem of Power

Authoritarians maintain that the popular masses, under the direction of their leaders, must replace the bourgeois State with their own State decked out with the description “proletarian” and that in order to ensure the survival of the latter, they must take the coercive methods employed by the former (centralization, discipline, hierarchy, police) to their extremes. This prospect drew cries of fear and horror from libertarians — a century and more ago. What, they asked, was the use of a Revolution that would make do with replacing one apparatus of oppression with another? Implacable foes of the State, any form of State, they looked to the proletarian revolution for the utter and final abolition of statist constraints. They aimed to replace the old oppressive State with the free federation of combined communes, direct democracy from the ground up.

Marx and Engels sought a path between these two extremes. Jacobinism had left its mark on them, but contact with Proudhon around 1844 on the one hand, and the influence of Moses Hess on the other, the critique of Hegelianism, the discovery of “alienation” had left them a touch more libertarian. They repudiated the authoritarian statism of the Frenchman Louis Blanc and that of the German Lassalle, declaring their support for the abolition of the State. But in good time. The State, that “governmental hotchpotch”, is to endure after the Revolution, but for a time only. As soon as the material conditions making it dispensable have been achieved, it is to “wither away”. And, in the interim, steps must be taken to “lessen its more vexatious effects as much as possible”. This short term prospect rightly worries libertarians. Survival of the State, even “temporary” survival, has no validity in their eyes and they prophetically announced that, once reinstalled, this Leviathan will doggedly refuse to go quietly. The libertarians’ unremitting criticism left Marx and Engels in a bit of a pickle and they eventually made such concessions to these dissenters that at one point the quarrel among socialists over the State seemed to hinge upon nothing more and indeed to amount to nothing more than quibbling over words. This blithe agreement lasted no longer than a morning.

But 20th century Bolshevism revealed that it was not simply a matter of semantics. Marx’s and Engels’s transitional State, became, in embryo under Lenin and much more under Lenin’s posterity, a many-headed hydra bluntly refusing to wither away.

3. Management of the economy

Finally, what form of ownership is to take the place of private capitalism?

The authoritarians have a ready answer to that. As their chief shortcoming is a lack of imagination and as they have a fear of the unknown, they rely upon forms of administration and management borrowed from the past. The State is to throw its huge net around the whole of production, all of exchange, and all of finance. “State capitalism” is to survive the social revolution. The bureaucracy, already enormous under Napoleon, the king of Prussia or the Tsar, will, under socialism, no longer make do with collecting taxes, raising armies and increasing its police: its tentacles will now extend into the factories, the mines, the banks and the means of transportation. Libertarians shrieked with horror. This extravagant extension of the State’s powers struck them as the death knell for socialism. Max Stirner was one of the first to rebel against the statism of communist society. Not that Proudhon was any less vocal, and Bakunin followed suit: “I despise communism”, he declared in one speech, “because it necessarily results in the centralization of ownership in State hands, whereas I… want to see society organized and property held collectively or socially from the bottom up, through free association, and not from the top down through any sort of authority.”

But the anti-authoritarians were not unanimous in formulating their counter-proposals. Stirner suggested a “free association” of “egoists”, which was too philosophical in its formulation and too unstable as well. The more down to earth Proudhon suggested a somewhat backward-looking petit bourgeois combination appropriate to the outmoded-stage of small industry, petty commerce and artisan production: private-ownership would be safeguarded; the small producers, retaining their independence, would favour mutual aid; at best he would agree to collective ownership in a number of sectors, regarding which he conceded that large-scale industry had already taken them over: transport, mining, etc. But Stirner like Proudhon, each after his fashion, was leaving himself wide open to the sound birching which Marxism was about to inflict upon them, albeit somewhat unfairly.

Bakunin made a point of parting company from Proudhon. For a time, he made common cause with Marx inside the First International against his mentor. He repudiated post- Proudhonian individualism and took notice of the consequences of industrialization. He whole-heartedly advocated collective ownership. He presented himself as being neither communist, nor mutualist, nor collectivist. Production had to be run at one and the same time locally, through a “solidarization of communes”, and in trade terms by the workers’ companies (or associations). Under the Bakuninists’ influence, the Basle congress of the First International in 1869 decided that in the society of the future, “government will be replaced by the councils of the trades bodies”. Marx and Engels shuttled and hovered between the two extremes. In the 1848 Communist Manifesto inspired by Louis Blanc, they had opted for the all too convenient pan-Statist solution. But later, under the influence of the 1871 Paris Commune and pressure from the anarchists, they were to temper this statism and spoke of the “self-government of producers”. But such libertarian nuances were short-lived. Almost immediately, in the struggle to the death which they waged against Bakunin and his disciples, they reverted to a more authoritarian and statist vocabulary.

So it was not entirely without reason (although not always in complete good faith either) that Bakunin charged the Marxists with dreaming of concentrating the whole of industrial and agricultural production in the hands of the State. In Lenin’s case, statist and authoritarian trends, overriding an anarchism which they contradicted and extinguished, were present in germ, and under Stalin, as “quantity” became “quality”, they degenerated into an oppressive State capitalism which Bakunin appears to have anticipated in his occasionally unfair criticisms of Marx.

This brief historical review is of no interest other than the extent to which it can help us to find our bearings in the present. The lessons we draw from it make us understand, startlingly and dramatically, that, despite many notions which today appear archaic and infantile and which experience has refuted (their “apoliticism”, say), the libertarians were in essence more correct than the authoritarians. The latter showered insults upon the former, dismissing their program as a “collection of ideas from beyond the grave”, or as reactionary, obsolete, moribund utopias. But today it turns out that, as Voline emphatically underscores, it is the authoritarian idea which, far from belonging to the future, is merely a hangover from the old, worn-out, moribund bourgeois world. If there is a utopia involved here, it is in fact the utopia of so-called State “communism”, the failure of which is so patently obvious that its own beneficiaries (concerned above all else with salvaging their interests as a privileged caste) are presently busily and blindly on the look out for some means to amend and break free from it.

The future belongs neither to classical capitalism, nor, despite what the late Merleau-Ponty would have had us believe, to a capitalism overhauled and corrected by “neo-liberalism” or by social democratic reformism. The failure of both of those is every whit as resounding as that of State communism. The future belongs still, and more than ever, to socialism, and libertarian socialism at that. As Kropotkin prophetically announced in 1896, our age “will bear the imprint of the awakening of libertarian ideas… The next revolution is not going to be the Jacobin revolution anymore”.

The three fundamental problems of revolution which we sketched earlier should and can be resolved at last. No more the dithering and groping of 19th century socialist thinking. The problems are now not posed in abstract terms, but in concrete ones. Today we can call upon an ample crop of practical experiences. The technique of revolution has been enriched beyond measure. The libertarian idea is no longer etched on the clouds but derives from the facts themselves, from the (even when repressed) deepest and most authentic aspirations of the popular masses.

The problem of spontaneity and consciousness is much more easily resolved today than a century ago. The masses, though they are, as a consequence of the very oppression under which burden they are bent, somewhat out of touch as far as the bankruptcy of the capitalist system is concerned, and still lacking in education and political clear-sightedness, have regained much of the ground by which they lagged historically. Throughout the advanced capitalist countries, as well as in the developing countries and those subject to so-called State “communism”, they have made a prodigious leap forward. They are a lot less easy to dupe. They know the extent of their rights. Their grasp of the world and of their own fate has increased considerably. While the deficiencies of the French proletariat before 1840, in terms of its lack of experience and its numerical slightness, gave rise to Blanquism, those of the pre-1917 Russian proletariat to Leninism, and those of the new proletariat exhausted and in disarray after the civil war of 1918 — 1920, or recently uprooted from the countryside, engendered Stalinism, today the toiling masses have much less need to vest their powers in authoritarian and supposedly infallible tutors.

Then again, thanks especially to Rosa Luxemburg, socialist thinking has been penetrated by the idea that even if the masses are not yet quite ripe, and even if the fusion of science and the working class envisioned by Lassalle has not yet been fully realized, the only way to combat this backwardness and remedy this shortcoming is to help the masses educate themselves in direct democracy directed from the bottom up: to imbue them with a feeling for their responsibilities — instead of maintaining in them, as State communism does (whether it be in power or in opposition), the age-old habits of passivity, submission and the inferiority complex bequeathed to them by a past of oppression. Even though such an apprenticeship may sometimes prove labourious, even if the rate of progress is sometimes slow, even if puts additional strain upon society, even it can only proceed at the cost of a degree of “disorder”, these difficulties, these delays, these added strains, these growing pains are infinitely less harmful than the phoney order, phoney dynamism, phoney “efficiency” of State communism, which reduces man to a cipher, murders popular initiative and ultimately brings the very idea of socialism into disrepute.

As far as the problem of the State goes, the lesson of the Russian revolution is written on the wall for all to see. To eradicate the masses’ power right after the success of the revolution, as was done, rebuilding on the ruins of the old state machinery a new machinery of oppression even more refined than its predecessor, and to pass this off fraudulently as the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, and, in many instances, absorbing into the new system “expertise” from the late regime (and still imbued with the old Fuhrerprinzip) leads gradually to the emergence of a new privileged class that tends to regard its own survival as an end in itself and to perpetuate the State which assures that survival — such is the model it now behooves us not to imitate. Moreover, if we take literally the Marxist theory of the “withering away” of the State, those material circumstances which had given rise to and (according to Marxists) legitimized the reconstruction of a state apparatus ought to allow us today increasingly to dispense with the state, which is a meddlesome gendarme greedy for survival.

Industrialization is proceeding by leaps and bounds the world over, albeit at different rates in different countries. The discovery of new, inexhaustible sources of energy is accelerating this process prodigiously. The totalitarian state engendered by poverty and deriving its justification from that is growing daily a little more superfluous. As far as the management of the economy goes, all experience, both in quintessentially capitalist countries like the United States and in the countries in thrall to “State communism”, demonstrates that, as far as broad segments of the economy at least are concerned, the future no longer lies with giant production units. The gigantism that once bedazzled both the late Yankee captains of industry and the communist Lenin is now a thing of the past: Too Big is the title of an American study of the damage which this blight has done to the US economy. For his part, Khrushchev, wily old boor, eventually realized, albeit belatedly and falteringly, the need for industrial decentralization. For a long time it was believed that the sacrosanct imperatives of planning required State management of the economy. Today we can see that planning from above, bureaucratic planning, is a frightful source of disorder and waste and that, as Merleau-Ponty says, “plan it does not.” Charles Bettelheim has shown us, in a book which was unduly conformist at the time when it was written, that it could operate efficiently only if directed from the bottom up and not from the top down, only if directions emanated from the lower echelons of production and were continually monitored by them — whereas in the USSR this supervision by the masses is startlingly absent. Without any doubt, the future belongs to autonomous management of undertakings by workers associations. What has yet to be clarified is the assuredly delicate mechanism by which these federate and the various interests are reconciled in an order which is free. In the light of which, the attempt by the Belgian Cesar de Paepe, who is today unjustly forgotten, to work out a modus vivendi between anarchism and statism, deserves to be exhumed.

Elsewhere, the very evolution of technology and of labour organization is opening up a route to socialism from below. The most recent research into the psychology of work has pointed to the conclusion that production is only truly “efficient” provided that it does not crush man and that it works with him instead of alienating him, and relies upon his initiative and whole-hearted co-operation, turning his toil from obligation into joy, something which cannot be fully achieved either in the industrial barracks of private capitalism or those of State capitalism. Moreover, the acceleration of transport is a singular boon to the operation of a direct democracy. To take but one example: thanks to the aeroplane, in a few hours the delegates from local branches of the most modern of the American labour unions (let us say, the automobile workers’ union) can readily be brought together.

But if we wish to regenerate a socialism which has been stood on its head by the authoritarians, and get it the right way up again, we have to act quickly. Back in 1896, Kropotkin was forcefully stressing that as long as socialism presented an authoritarian and statist face, it would inspire a measure of distrust in the workers and would, as a result, find its efforts compromised and its further development frustrated.

Private capitalism, condemned by history, only survives today thanks to the arms race on the one hand, and the comparative failure of State communism on the other. We cannot ideologically rout Big Business and its supposed “free enterprise”, behind which lurks the rule of a handful of monopolies, and we cannot dispatch back to the prop room the nationalism and fascism which are ever ready to rise again from their ashes, unless we can in fact offer a hard and fast substitute for State pseudo-communism. As for the socialist countries (so-called), they will not emerge from their current impasse unless we help them, not to liquidate, but rather to rebuild their socialism from the foundations up.

Khrushchev finally came to grief for having dithered so long between past and future. For all their good intentions and essays in de-Stalinization or loosening state controls, the Gomulkas, Titos and Dubceks run the risk of standing still or slipping from the tightrope where they balance unsteadily, and, in the long run, risk ruination, unless they acquire the daring and far-sightedness that would enable them to identify the essential features of a libertarian socialism.

Breaking the Waves Interview



A radio interview on feminism, anarchism and building a movement

Romina Akemi of Black Rose/Rosa Negra is interviewed by “Free Flow” on KCHUNG Radio broadcasting from Chinatown, Los Angeles discussing “Breaking the Waves: Challenging the Liberal Tendency within Anarchist Feminism” written by Romina and Bree Busk for the Institute for Anarchist Studies (IAS).

The interview covers many of the topics of the article and beyond: experiences of what a working class feminism would look like in practice, discussing the uses and destructiveness of call out culture, the cult of the individual that exists in the US and how this effects our movements, the idea of making revolutionary politics relevant to every day people, the relationship and practice of feminism within anarchism and discussion on the recent election and victory of Trump.

“What’s causing a lot of people anxiety is the anxiety of not knowing what exactly will be in play [under a Trump presidency] and how this will pan out economically or with social rights. I think this is the point where we can decide, an important juncture, are we going to organize to defend the little stuff that we have now against attack – or can we use it, can this be a political opening to create an offensive?”

What Could the Social Structure of Anarchy Look Like?

I.5 What could the social structure of anarchy look like?

The social and political structure of anarchy is similar to that of the economic structure, i.e., it is based on a voluntary federation of decentralised, directly democratic policy-making bodies. These are the neighbourhood and community assemblies and their confederations. In these grassroots political units, the concept of “self-management” becomes that of “self-government”, a form of municipal organisation in which people take back control of their living places from the bureaucratic state and the capitalist class whose interests it serves. Bakunin’s comments are very applicable here:

“[A] truly popular organisation begins from below, from the association, from the commune. Thus starting out with the organisation of the lowest nucleus and proceeding upward, federalism becomes a political institution of socialism, the free and spontaneous organisation of popular life.” [The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, pp. 273-4]

“A new economic phase demands a new political phase,” argued Kropotkin, “A revolution as profound as that dreamed of by the socialists cannot accept the mould of an out-dated political life. A new society based on equality of condition, on the collective possession of the instruments of work, cannot tolerate for a week . . . the representative system . . . if we want the social revolution, we must seek a form of political organisation that will correspond to the new method of economic organisation . . . The future belongs to the free groupings of interests and not to governmental centralisation; it belongs to freedom and not to authority.” [Words of a Rebel, pp. 143-4]

Thus the social structure of an anarchist society will be the opposite of the current system. Instead of being centralised and top-down as in the state, it will be decentralised and organised from the bottom up. As Kropotkin argued, “socialism must become more popular, more communalistic, and less dependent upon indirect government through elected representatives. It must become more self-governing. [Anarchism, p. 185] In this, Kropotkin (like Bakunin) followed Proudhon who argued that “[u]nless democracy is a fraud, and the sovereignty of the People a joke, it must be admitted that each citizen in the sphere of his [or her] industry, each municipal, district or provincial council within its own territory, is the only natural and legitimate representative of the Sovereign, and that therefore each locality should act direct and by itself in administering the interests which it includes, and should exercise full sovereignty in relation to them.” [Propert is Theft!, p. 595] While anarchists have various different conceptions of how this communal system would be constituted (as we will see), there is total agreement on these basic visions and principles.

The aim is “to found an order of things wherein the principle of the sovereignty of the people, of man and of the citizen, would be implemented to the letter” and “where every member” of a society “retaining his independence and continuing to act as sovereign, would be self-governing” and any social organisation “would concern itself solely with collective matters; where as a consequence, there would be certain common matters but no centralisation.” This means that the “federative, mutualist republican sentiment” (as summarised these days by the expression self-management) will “bring about the victory of Labour Democracy right around the world.” [Proudhon, Op. Cit., p. 574 and p. 763]

This empowerment of ordinary citizens through decentralisation and direct democracy will eliminate the alienation and apathy that are now rampant in the modern city and town, and (as always happens when people are free) unleash a flood of innovation in dealing with the social breakdown now afflicting our urban wastelands. The gigantic metropolis with its hierarchical and impersonal administration, its atomised and isolated “residents,” will be transformed into a network of humanly scaled participatory communities (usually called “communes”), each with its own unique character and forms of self-government, which will be co-operatively linked through federation with other communities at several levels, from the municipal through the bioregional to the global.

This means that the social perspective of libertarian socialism is as distinctive as its economic vision. While mainstream socialism is marked by support for centralised states, anarchists stay true to socialism as equality and argue that means decentralisation. Thus socialism “wears two distinct faces. When it is said that a man is a Socialist, it is implied that he regards the monopoly of private property in the means of production as the cause of the existing unequal distribution of wealth and its attendant ills . . . Socialists are divided into the centralising and decentralising parties, the party of the State and the party of the federatic commune.” [Charlotte M. Wilson, Anarchist Essays, p. 37] Only such a federal, bottom-up, system can ensure people can manage their own fates and ensure genuine freedom and equality through mass participation and self-management.

Of course, it can (and has) been argued that people are just not interested in “politics.” Further, some claim that this disinterest is why governments exist — people delegate their responsibilities and power to others because they have better things to do. Such an argument, however, is flawed on empirical grounds. As we indicated in section B.2.6, centralisation of power in both the French and American revolutions occurred because working people were taking too much interest in politics and social issues, not the reverse (“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. . .” [Kropotkin, Words of a Rebel, p. 143]).

Simply put, the state is centralised to facilitate minority rule by excluding the mass of people from taking part in the decision making processes within society. This is to be expected as social structures do not evolve by chance — rather they develop to meet specific needs and requirements. The specific need of the ruling class is to rule and that means marginalising the bulk of the population. Its requirement is for minority power and this is transformed into the structure of the state.

Even if we ignore the historical evidence on this issue, anarchists do not draw this conclusion from the current apathy that surrounds us. In fact, we argue that this apathy is not the cause of government but its result. Government is an inherently hierarchical system in which ordinary people are deliberately marginalised. The powerlessness people feel due to the workings of the system ensure that they are apathetic about it, thus guaranteeing that wealthy and powerful elites govern society without hindrance from the oppressed and exploited majority.

Moreover, government usually sticks its nose into areas that most people have no real interest in. Some things, as in the regulation of industry or workers’ safety and rights, a free society could leave to those affected to make their own decisions (we doubt that workers would subject themselves to unsafe working conditions, for example). In others, such as the question of personal morality and acts, a free people would have no interest in (unless it harmed others, of course). This, again, would reduce the number of issues that would be discussed in a free commune.

Also, via decentralisation, a free people would be mainly discussing local issues, so reducing the complexity of many questions and solutions. Wider issues would, of course, be discussed but these would be on specific issues and so more focused in their nature than those raised in the legislative bodies of the state. So, a combination of centralisation and an irrational desire to discuss every and all questions also helps make “politics” seem boring and irrelevant.

As noted above, this result is not an accident and the marginalisation of “ordinary” people is actually celebrated in bourgeois “democratic” theory. As Noam Chomsky notes:

“Twentieth century democratic theorists advise that ‘The public must be put in its place,’ so that the ‘responsible men’ may ‘live free of the trampling and roar of a bewildered herd,’ ‘ignorant and meddlesome outsiders’ whose ‘function’ is to be ‘interested spectators of action,’ not participants, lending their weight periodically to one or another of the leadership class (elections), then returning to their private concerns. (Walter Lippman). The great mass of the population, ‘ignorant and mentally deficient,’ must be kept in their place for the common good, fed with ‘necessary illusion’ and ’emotionally potent oversimplifications’ (Wilson’s Secretary of State Robert Lansing, Reinhold Niebuhr). Their ‘conservative’ counterparts are only more extreme in their adulation of the Wise Men who are the rightful rulers — in the service of the rich and powerful, a minor footnote regularly forgotten.” [Year 501, p. 18]

This marginalisation of the public from political life ensures that the wealthy can be “left alone” to use their power as they see fit. In other words, such marginalisation is a necessary part of a fully functioning capitalist society. Hence, under capitalism, libertarian social structures have to be discouraged. Or as Chomsky puts it, the “rabble must be instructed in the values of subordination and a narrow quest for personal gain within the parameters set by the institutions of the masters; meaningful democracy, with popular association and action, is a threat to be overcome.” [Op. Cit., p. 18] This philosophy can be seen in the statement of a US Banker in Venezuela under the murderous Jimenez dictatorship:

“You have the freedom here to do whatever you want to do with your money, and to me, that is worth all the political freedom in the world.” [quoted by Chomsky, Op. Cit., p. 99]

Deterring libertarian alternatives to statism is a common feature of our current system. By marginalising and disempowering people, the ability of individuals to manage their own social activities is undermined and weakened. They develop a “fear of freedom” and embrace authoritarian institutions and “strong leaders”, which in turn reinforces their marginalisation.

This consequence is hardly surprising. Anarchists maintain that the desire to participate and the ability to participate are in a symbiotic relationship: participation builds on itself. By creating the social structures that allow participation, participation will increase. As people increasingly take control of their lives, so their ability to do so also increases. The challenge of having to take responsibility for decisions that make a difference is at the same time an opportunity for personal development. To begin to feel power, having previously felt powerless, to win access to the resources required for effective participation and learn how to use them, is a liberating experience. Once people become active subjects, making things happen in one aspect of their lives, they are less likely to remain passive objects, allowing things to happen to them, in other aspects.

All in all, “politics” is far too important a subject to leave to politicians, the wealthy and bureaucrats. After all, it is (or, at least, it should be) what affects, your friends, community, and, ultimately, the planet you live on. Such issues cannot be left to anyone but you.

Hence a meaningful communal life based on self-empowered individuals is a distinct possibility (indeed, it has repeatedly appeared throughout history). It is the hierarchical structures in statism and capitalism, marginalising and disempowering the majority, which are at the root of the current wide scale apathy in the face of increasing social and ecological disruption. Libertarian socialists therefore call for a radically new form of political system to replace the centralised nation-state, a form that would be based around confederations of self-governing communities. In other words, in anarchism [s]ociety is a society of societies; a league of leagues of leagues; a commonwealth of commonwealths of commonwealths; a republic of republics of republics. Only there is freedom and order, only there is spirit, a spirit which is self-sufficiency and community, unity and independence.” [Gustav Landauer, For Socialism, pp. 125-126]

To create such a system would require dismantling the nation-state and reconstituting relations between communities on the basis of self-determination and free and equal confederation from below. In the following subsections we will examine in more detail why this new system is needed and what it might look like. As we have stressed repeatedly, these are just suggestions of possible anarchist solutions to social organisation. Most anarchists recognise that anarchist communities will co-exist with non-anarchist ones after the destruction of the existing state. As we are anarchists we are discussing anarchist visions. We will leave it up to non-anarchists to paint their own pictures of a possible future.

On the Black Bloc Tactic


“It may be that the black bloc’s time is over, that it remains completely inadequate to our present conjuncture. But it may also be the case that we can find ways to reintegrate the bloc into today’s struggles, which might ultimately make our movements even stronger. We will get nowhere by indulging in knee-jerk denunciations based in moralism, dubious appeals to the authority of history, or fixed ideas about what struggles ought to look like, as the real struggles rage outside. We have to begin with a concrete analysis of the concrete situation to see what kind of political experiments we need today, making sure we don’t miss the possibilities of unprecedented events. Instead of drawing conclusions from behind closed doors, we should base our strategy on what’s happening in the streets.”

The Uprising in Baja California

Magonista guerrillas with the banner “Tierra y Libertad” in Tijuana, 1911

Baja California (Lower California ) is the long finger of land that stretches down into the Pacific south of the border with California in the USA. The border towns of Tijuana and Mexicali and the coastal town of Ensanada are its chief towns. Here for six months during 1911 a major insurrection took place. Organise! Looks at this little-known event, in which the famous Wobbly Joe Hill is rumoured to have been involved.
On 29th January 1911 twenty armed Magonista militants led by Jose Maria Leyva seized the town of Mexicali. Leyva called himself the General in Chief of the Insurgent Forces and was assisted by Simon Berthold. This act threatened the rich agricultural estates as well as the water resources used by the US farmers of Imperial Valley. The Magonistas were soon joined by many volunteers from the USA, boosting their numbers to 80. A column of soldiers was sent from Ensenada to drive them out.

At the same time in the US press an eccentric businessman Dick Ferris, with backing from important bankers, began to make announcements about creating an independent Baja California, and to recruit 1,000 men to carry this out. The US press began to falsely amalgamate the Magonista actions with Ferris’s plans.

The government troops were defeated and the insurgents increased their numbers to 200. The socialist John Kenneth Turner brought them a delivery of arms over the border . A few days later, thirty Americans led by ex-sergeant William Stanley seized a border post to the east of Mexicali. The following day Leyva and Berthold declared the foundation of a cooperative commonwealth in Baja California. The insurgents now numbered 300 at Mexicali, with two thirds of them from the USA. On 1st March another Magonista column led by Francisco Vasquez Salinas and Luis Rodriguez crossed the border into Baja California and started requisitioning the big estates near Tecate.

Indecision within the insurgent ranks at Mexicali led to serious disagreements with Stanley attempting to strip Leyva of his command, which was countered by Berthold. Stanley then crossed the border into the USA with the aim of convincing the Magonista leadership in Los Angeles that he should lead an independent expedition.

Luis Rodriguez seized Tecate on 12th March, whilst Stanley again seized the same border post and built up his forces to a hundred. Meanwhile the US government, affrighted by the perceived threat to its interests, massed 20,000 soldiers on the border. Fighting now broke out between the government troops and the insurgents , Tecate was retaken and Leyva and Berthold failed to retake it. Antagonisms between the Americans and the Mexicans within the insurgent ranks continued, with Leyva being blamed for the defeat. He was dismissed as commander and replaced by Salinas. Disobeying Salinas, Stanley launched an attack on government troops and was defeated dying a day later. He was replaced by Cary lap Rhys Pryce, a Welsh “soldier of fortune” who accused Salinas of having betrayed Stanley.
On 13th April Berthold died of an infection of a wound he had sustained in the previous month. The election of a new commander aggravated the conflicts between Mexicans and Americans and a group of Indians led by Emilio Guerrero quit the detachment. Meanwhile the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) delivered arms to the insurgents.

Salinas arrived in Los Angeles to meet with the Magonista leadership but was arrested by the US authorities. Francisco Quijadas replaces him. Meanwhile Mosby was wounded and replaced by Sam Wood, who was joined by Pryce at the retaken town of Tecate. They seized Tijuana after fierce fighting. Tijuana was and still is, a playground for Americans to come over the border to spend their money in saloons, casinos and brothels and at the racetrack. The capture of Tijuana led to great enthusiasm in radical circles with 30 deserters from the US Army crossing the border to join the insurgents.
However media attention went to Pryce’s head. He set up a system where for 25 cents American tourists could visit the sights of battle. He allowed the saloons and gambling dens to continue their activities, taxing them and sending 850 dollars to the Magonista leadership. Pryce became more and more out of control and started talking about uniting Baja California to the USA, in several interviews to US papers. He regularly crossed the border, dining at the best restaurants in San Diego and establishing contact with the businessman Dick Ferris.

The Madero regime had now come to power on 21st May. The Magonista leadership refused to cease hostilities, and Pryce, who was favourable to a ceasefire, went to L.A. to argue for this. He was dismissed. His place at Tijuana was taken by Louis James, also under the influence of Ferris. James called for an independent republic and the new regime used this as a pretext of accusing the Magonistas of serving US interests. Fortunately, James was ousted and forced to flee. Mosby attempted to control the situation and closed down the saloons and casinos. However he still looked for tourist revenue and set up a Wild West Show in the style of Buffalo Bill!

The Mexican government convened with the US authorities, which allowed 1500 Mexican troops to cross and re-cross the border and attack the insurgents. The detachment of Guerrero, who as we have seen, earlier separated from Leyva, was massacred. For their part the US authorities arrested the MAgonista leadership in Los Angeles. Leyva, who had gone over to the Madero regime, negotiated a surrender of the insurgents at Mexicali. Leyva later made a career in the Mexican army.

The forces led by Mosby at Tijuana refused to surrender and were attacked by government troops. The insurgents fled, Mexicans and Indians disappearing into the countryside and the Americans fleeing over the border where they were disarmed by the US Army.

The attempt at revolution in Baja California, had proved to be a fiasco, with the insurgents crippled by dissensions between Americans, Mexicans and Indians, and with opportunism and lack of political principle rife among some of its leading actors.

This article originally appeared in issue No 77 of Organise! the magazine of the Anarchist Federation.

Anton Pannekoek

Fighting for freedom is not letting your leaders think for you and decide, and following obediently behind them, or from time to time scolding them. Fighting for freedom is partaking to the full of one’s capacity, thinking and deciding for oneself, taking all the responsibilities as a self-relying individual amidst equal comrades. It is true that to think for oneself, to think out what is true and right, with a head dulled by fatigue, is the hardest, the most difficult task; it is much harder than to pay and to obey. But it is the only way to freedom. To be liberated by others, whose leadership is the essential part of the liberation, means the getting of new masters instead of the old ones.

Freedom, the goal of the workers, means that they shall be able, man for man, to manage the world, to use and deal with the treasures of the earth, so as to make it a happy home for all. How can they ensure this if they are not able to conquer and defend this themselves?

The proletarian revolution is not simply the vanquishing of capitalist power. It is the rise of the whole working people out of dependence and ignorance into independence and clear consciousness of how to make their life.

True organization, as the workers need it in the revolution, implies that everyone takes part in it, body and soul and brains; that everyone takes part in leadership as well as in action, and has to think out, to decide and to perform to the full of his capacities. Such an organization is a body of self-determining people. There is no place for professional leaders. Certainly there is obeying; everybody has to follow the decisions which he himself has taken part in making. But the full power always rests with the workers themselves.

The Vanguard Concept

“The Vanguard” = those layers of people in the working class who are either militant unionists, or are at least class conscious, or in some ways anti-capitalists or full on revolutionaries.

Thats all it means. So if you’re talking and debating the merits of “The Vanguard” you’re probably of it. So this includes (most) anarchists

So, we’re all invited to The Party? Great!

But the thing is, you’re leaving out the part where The Vanguard takes over state power:

What happens is that the Party, shall we say, absorbs the vanguard of the proletariat, and this vanguard exercises the dictatorship of the proletariat.

V. I. Lenin, The Trade Unions, The Present Situation, And Trotsky’s Mistakes, 1920

Lenin’s concept of The Vanguard was of rulers in waiting:

The art of politics (and the Communist’s correct understanding of his tasks) consists in correctly gauging the conditions and the moment when the vanguard of the proletariat can successfully assume power, when it is able—during and after the seizure of power—to win adequate support from sufficiently broad strata of the working class and of the non-proletarian working masses, and when it is able thereafter to maintain, consolidate and extend its rule by educating, training and attracting ever broader masses of the working people.

Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder, 1920

So, as workers with no wish to assume power over “the most backward strata and masses of the working class”, we anarchists can’t really count ourselves among the Leninist vanguard.

I mean honestly though, having read Lenin you must  realise that this is a bit of a stretch. What do you think Lenin would’ve made of an attempt to include anarchists in his definition of the proletarian vanguard? He’ll be spinning in his display case.


Especifismo: Anarchist Organisation, Historical Perspectives and Influences

As we have seen, in especifismo there is ideological and theoretical unity, an alignment in relation to the theoretical and ideological aspects of anarchism. This political line is collectively constructed and everyone in the organisation is obliged to follow it. Because we consider anarchism something very broad, with very different or even contradictory positions, it appears necessary to us that, between all these positions, we must extract an ideological and theoretical line to be advocated and developed by the organisation. As we have emphasised this line must, necessarily, be linked to practice since we believe that “to theorise effectively it is essential to act”.