- Created: Wednesday, 17 February 2010 13:00
- Written by Eddie Abrahams
FRFI December - January 1994 / 1995
In Britain anarchism appears to be enjoying a revival as sections of today’s young dissidents unfurl its red and black flag. Anarchism has replaced communism as the bourgeoisie’s bogey-man. The media and police set anarchists up as targets to test repressive tactics. Anarchists become culpable for all that the authorities disapprove of. All youthful opposition to the hopeless life bourgeois society offers is labelled anarchistic.
But what is anarchism? What are its social, economic and political principles? Can it contribute to building a society free e of exploitation? What are the differences between anarchism and communism? In the first of a series EDDIE ABRAHAMS highlights the ideological issues that divided Marx and Engels from the anarchist Bakunin in the 1860s and 1870s.
Anarchism – its first principles
Anarchism has a long and chequered history. Like other trends in the socialist movement it has been marked by measures of heroism, opportunism, sectarianism and charlatanry. We have no intention of visiting the sins of the parents upon their children. By examining past disputes we hope only to the fore some of the principles dividing anarchism from communism.
Anarchism’s appeal in the mid-to late 19th Century was strongest among those classes which capitalist development was then systematically and ruthlessly proletarianising: the impoverished peasantry on its way to becoming a rural or urban proletariat and the urban lower middle classes —artisans, shop keepers etc — whose existence was also threatened by capitalist development.
The anarchist call for freedom from the state appealed to these strata whose individualistic mode of existence was being destroyed by the seemingly invisible authority of the capitalist market, supported by the violent authority of the capitalist state. It was no accident therefore that anarchism won significant support not in the long established working class centres of powerfully developed capitalist states like Britain and Germany, but in the rural and recently urbanised Spain and Italy.
Central to anarchist doctrine is its total opposition to and rejection of all forms of social or political authority over the individual or individual group. Against the authority of society and the state the anarchists counterpose individual freedom and autonomy. Max Stirner, anarchism’s first theoretician, wrote in his famous book The Ego and His Own:
‘For me there is nothing above myself.’
‘Away then with everything that is not wholly and solely my own affair! You think my own concerns must at least be ‘good ones’? A fig for good and evil! My concern is neither the Godly nor the Human…but simply my own self…’
‘I, the egoist, have not at heart the welfare of this ‘human society’. I sacrifice nothing to it. I only utilise it…
From this assertion of absolute individual freedom and autonomy flows anarchism’s rejection of the state and politics, and its concept of revolution. The state represents authority and inhibits freedom, Bakunin (1814 - 1876), declared, therefore:
‘The revolution must from the very first day destroy, radically and totally, the state and all the state’s institutions.’
This is ‘the whole secret of the revolution’ and makes of anarchists the:
`natural enemies of those revolutionaries (such as communists) who… dream of creating new revolutionary states…’
For Bakunin political activity - the organised struggle against reactionary legislation, the struggle to win reforms or the struggle to form a revolutionary government – implies recognition of the state and is rejected. Early anarchists such as Proudhon (1809-1865) even opposed strikes for better conditions arguing that they constituted a recognition of the capitalist system.
The question of authority
For those opposed to capitalist exploitation, to its mass murder and environmental destruction, there is something ‘above myself’: it is the collective interests of the oppressed upon whose collective, social labour society rests. For example, when protesters block the building of the M11, they are imposing their collective will in the interests of society precisely against the selfish minority ‘nothing above myself and my profit’ attitude of the roads lobby and multinational car industry.
Collective social life, including socialism, is impossible without social organisation, and social organisation is impossible without the imposition of collective authority. Any form of social collective restricts the absolute freedom of individuals or groups and inevitably imposes a degree of authority over the individual. Communists fight to create democratic forms of popular organisation in order to democratise authority. Authority is power and the issue is to take it out of the hands of the ruling class and place it in the hands of the majority.
To reject the democratic authority of a collective working class movement is tantamount to abandoning the struggle against capitalism and the ruling class. The working class, individually or as isolated groups, has no power to match that of the capitalist class. Its power comes out of collective action. But collective action requires common agreement and a readiness to accept the authority of the majority. If each individual or group, in the name of autonomy and anti-authoritarianism, rejected majority decisions we could win no battles against the centralised state power of police, army, courts, prisons, schools and social workers.
The question of the state
The anarchists’ rejection of authority is turned into a theory of the state and revolution. Engels explained:
‘They demand that the first act of the social revolution shall be the abolition of authority. Have these gentlemen ever seen a revolution? 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 which its arms inspire in the reactionaries.’
The ruling class never relinquishes power voluntarily and never voluntarily disbands the armed forces it has on its side. Even when overthrown, it relentlessly organises war to restore capitalism. It is for this reason the working class must organise its own revolutionary state.
In 1883 Engels said:
‘Marx and I, ever since 1845, have held the view that one of the final results of the…revolution will be…the disappearance of the political organisation called the state…’
But before this:
‘…the proletarian class will first have to possess itself of the organised political force of the State… [to]…stamp out the resistance of the Capitalist class and re-organise society.’
‘Anarchists…say the revolution has to begin by abolishing…the State…But to destroy it at such a moment would be to destroy the only organism by means of which the victorious working class can exert its newly conquered power, keep down its capitalist enemies and carry out [the] economic revolution…’
Bakunin’s own experience proved this. In 1870 a working class uprising took place in Lyon. Bakunin managed to install himself in the local Town Hall and decreed that: ‘The Administrative and Governmental machine of the state, having become impotent, is abolished!’ The working class was not organised to suppress the inevitable bourgeois reaction. As a result, Marx commented:
‘The state, in the form and nature of two companies of bourgeois National Guards, swept the hall, and sent Bakunin hurrying back on the road to Geneva.’
Some three years later, during the Spanish revolt of 1873, the anarchists, then very influential, refused to stand candidates in the elections. This was political they said. Instead they advised their followers to vote for any candidate they chose. The result was that the working class, which could have had a revolutionary presence in parliament, was left voiceless, its votes going to radical bourgeois democrats.
Bakunin equated all politics with parliamentary cretinism. But the essence of working class politics is the democratic unification and organisation of the oppressed classes to extend their influence, seize power and enforce their own collective interests against the minority ruling class.
The anarchist theory of revolution
Bakunin’s rhetoric in support of autonomy and freedom turned into its opposite when he set about applying his theories. His rejection of collective, political and democratic organisation led inevitably to a secretive, conspiratorial and manipulative theory of revolution.
In the heat of practical struggle, Bakunin was forced to recognise the need for centralised political leadership:
‘…it is necessary that in the midst of popular anarchy... the unity of revolutionary thought and action should be embodied in a certain organ. That organ must be the secret and world-wide association of the International Brotherhood.’
Communists, Marx and Engels noted, try to:
‘create this unity by propaganda, by discussion and the public organisation of the proletariat. But all Bakunin needs is a secret organisation of 100 people, the privileged representatives of the revolutionary idea…’
In Bakunin’s words, an unelected but ‘well organised secret society’ is commissioned to:
‘…assist the birth of revolution by spreading among the masses ideas that accord with the instinct of the masses, and to organise not the army of the revolution…but a revolutionary General Staff…’
These ideas will be spread not by public leaders ‘standing at the head of the crowd’, but by:
‘…men hidden invisibly among the crowd and forming an invisible link between one crowd and another, and thus invisibly giving one and the same direction, one spirit, and character to the movement.’
Bakunin’s secret societies would be ‘limited to a small number of persons’:
‘one hundred serious and firmly united revolutionaries would be sufficient. Two or three hundred revolutionaries would be enough for the organisation of the largest country.’
But they would be, mind you, ‘men of talent, knowledge, intelligence and influence’!
This sounds more like Fabianism and the patronising rule of the good rather than a revolutionary theory based on the autonomous self-activity and self-emancipation of the masses. The brain of the revolution is a secret General Staff formed of the intelligentsia whose instructions are executed by invisible men who direct a working class herd governed by instinct! This parody of popular revolution is inevitable if open and democratic political organisation is rejected.
Bakunin and the First International
However, none of these ideological differences constituted a parting of the ways between the anarchists and communists. Marx and Engels recognised anarchism as an important trend in the working class International and argued that:
‘The International…in setting itself the aim of rallying under one banner the scattered forces of the world proletariat... was bound to open its doors to socialists of all shades.’
But in the late 1860s Bakunin had different ideas. In 1868 Bakunin failed in a bid to seize control of the bourgeois League for Peace and Freedom - founded in opposition to the International. So he formed an Alliance of Socialist Democracy (whose leadership would be self-appointed, secret and drawn from Bakunin’s International Brotherhood) and applied to join the International hoping to take that over instead.
Whilst rejecting an Alliance application, the International allowed all anarchists including Bakunin to join branches as individuals or groups, produce their own propaganda, newspapers and work according to their own politics. However within the International Bakunin, using his ‘secret society’, relentlessly conspired to impose on the International his own sectarian anarchist programme. In 1873 Bakunin was expelled from the International ending one epoch of the many battles between anarchism and communism.
Today in a period of acute capitalist crisis, anarchist trends are once more being nurtured by the proletarianisation of many middle class youth combined with the effects of the unbridled bourgeois culture of individualism. Whatever the differences between communists and anarchists, communists uncompromisingly defend anarchists’ civil rights and their right to organise. In the struggle against the capitalist system, communists will work alongside anarchists. Like other trends in the revolutionary movement, anarchists undoubtedly have a contribution to make. But only as part of an open, non-sectarian and democratically organised working class movement.