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(en) Ireland, WSM* text: What type of society do anarchists want to live in? by James O'Brien

Date Sun, 19 Feb 2006 17:04:58 +0200

Text of a WSM for Marxism v Anarchism debate organised by the (Irish) Socialist Party / CWI
Anarchism essentially sees a free society where everybody has the
opportunity to live as they want as achievable. But what does that
mean in practice, and how do we get there.
The first thing about a revolution is that it must result in an
expansion of freedom and not a new set of rulers.
Popular revolt got rid of the dictatorships in Stalinist Europe,
recently in Georgia, Serbia, and Indonesia. All these states were
police states and yet they fell, which goes to show the power that
workers have when they get going.

While in these cases workers knew perfectly well what they didn't
want, i.e. the old rulers, but putting something new in their place
was a different story. They put in different rulers instead of a
different political system with the result that the same old patterns of
exploitation continued.

We have got to try the road of freedom.

And being bossed about isn't something that people are willing to
fight for. This discussion is based on the premise of a
post-revolutionary society, one that is under threat, presumably, of
counter-revolution. Well, if the people don't think the new life is
better than the old one, they won't lift a finger to defend it. And that
will be the end of that.

So that means freedom in the most general sense is an absolute
necessity; no secret police, political courts, to the freedom to
participate in making decisions that affect you. And of course, as
socialists, for this freedom to have any meaning, people need to have
enough food in their bellies.

Freedom in Revolution
Freedom of speech & organisation
It is vital in a revolutionary situation that freedom of organisation is
available to all political strands.

When it comes to advancing one's political ideas on how society
should be organised this freedom needs to be available to all. And
not just because it is a nice thing but also because it is useful.
Anarchists believe that the best decisions are made after a debate
that has the opportunity to hear all sides. If one political faction
institutes itself as the thought police of the population then the
population won't be able to hear all the arguments for particular
policies. Useful options will inevitably become excluded from the

What do anarchists mean by revolution?
Forerunner to the revolution
We don't see a libertarian revolution coming out of nowhere. The
example of Spain is instructive. There was a long build up to the
revolution, probably the high point of workers' self-management in
history. It was was preceded by 70 years of militant activity. Workers
learned how to run society through self-organisation and direct

Obvious things that come with revolution

Overthrow of the capitalist regime: mass occupations, militias,
dismantling of the state apparatus.
Mass involvement in running society
Take the wealth of the rich and redistribute it.
Start producing things with need in mind.
Start thinking about our impact on Earth and factoring this in to the
cost of production.
Getting rid of the system of leaders and led in work and in society.
That is, changing the social relationship involved in production.
An end to invading and pillaging weaker nation

Who makes a Revolution

People aren't going to turn to anarchism if it can't provide solutions
to concrete problems. Problems such as the distribution of wealth,
never-ending wars, lack of participation in the running of society as
well as the material day-to-day issues of providing food and other

This is another reason, apart from the fact that workers make up the
vast majority of the population, that they've a central role. Only
people's labour can produce these solutions. A successful revolution
isn't going to be successful very long if the population is faced with
famine. And only workers can produce food. Only they can ensure
the material basis of a free society.

But clearly, given the importance of the economy in shaping society
it is necessary that it is organised in a free democratic manner. Let's
be clear what we meant by free and democratic. We don't mean
nationalisation by the state. That's will result in just a new class of
rulers, namely the upper echelons of that state. It doesn't matter in
whose name the industries are owned if effective control is in the
hands of a bureaucracy, then there's a concrete basis for class rule.
You got the class of order givers on one side and order takers on the
other. And once the order givers have control of the economy they're
going to have immense resources at their disposal, including military
resources, and thus will be in control of all of society. And we're on
the road to dictatorship.

Therefore any meaningful revolution will have the workers taking
over the daily life of administering society and the workplace. We
mean the abolishment of production for the profit of a few. Instead
production will be based on the desires of the people who'll have an
equal opportunity to have an input into the planning of production.

What do we put in place of the state and private corporations?
How will a free society operate?
What are its basic institutional structures?

Instead of having a state power separate and above society
Anarchists advocate the establishment of institutions through which
they can exercise direct power. We call them workers' councils and
community councils. These have been repeatedly been used by
workers in revolt, most famously in the Russian and Spanish
revolutions but also for example, the Hungarian uprising in 1956
and many other case. So in each workplace, workers would have a
democratic assembly to decide policies relevant to themselves. For
organising with other sections of the industry or the wider
community they can select delegates to represent their views in a
federated network. The same goes for neighbourhood councils. They
could be done on an estate basis and federating from there.

The assemblies would decide which policies they like and issue the
delegates with mandates. Obviously the mandates can be removed
and the delegates rotated. I think they should be rotated every three
months so as to prevent them getting too comfortable and so that
everybody gets a chance to learn how to do it. Incidently the
Zapatistas rotate their delegates every 10 days, much to the
annoyance of the NGOs who want to hob nob with the stars. I
wonder what would have happened if Lenin and Trotsky had been
rotated back into the ranks 10 days after the October revolution?

A revolution, therefore, means the mass involvement of the
population in overthrowing the old order and thereafter to run society
themselves. This is a crucial difference with the Leninists who want
to use the people to overthrow the capitalists but then take over in
the people's place by having the party as the most powerful

The workers' councils, must always have autonomy from the
political organisations, anarchist or otherwise. While political
organisations should be allowed to voice their opinions they should
have no formal control of the workers' councils, no matter how well
regarded that organisation or certain individuals may be. For
example, it would mean that Joe Higgins would be very welcome to
be part of his local neighbourhood council but that he should have
no more power or privileges than anybody else there.

So the workers' councils should be based on direct democracy and
not representative democracy. That is, they decide each issue on a
case by case basis rather than electing a party to govern on their
behalf. The current system in liberal democracies is to have a
representative democracy, and it is clear that it is a dangerous
system. The current occupation of Iraq is just one glaring example.

A note on the wages system
As every product is a social product, nobody produces anything in
isolation any more, the products themselves ought to be socialised.
It’s simply not possible to ascertain the true social value of
anyone’s labour and in truth not worth the effort finding out.
Everybody’s contribution matters. It wouldn’t matter how
many surgeons we had, if we didn’t have cleaners ensuring a
hygienic workplace. Both contribute to society. Why discriminate in
favour of one in the future society? It’ll only preserve the class
nature of society

We should move immediately to a system of “to each according
to need”. Probably this will involve rationing, but that’s
basically what our present money system does anyway, just in unfair
way. If you have lots of money earned by having others work for you,
then you can afford just about anything. If you don't, you can't!

Using a form of non-capitalistic money as a method of measuring a
rationing system rather than as a means of measuring wealth and
power merits consideration in my view.

A hierarchical system with different levels of wages and therefore
power has got to go. It is an impediment to the glue of solidarity that
is needed when a revolutionary society faces its tough times.

Which it will, and that will probably include civil war unless the
revolution spreads pretty far, pretty quickly.

So What problems will we be faced with in the immediate aftermath
of a revolution.

Normal Problems
There are two glaringly obvious problems which could arise in a
classless society. a) fucked up people: child abusers, mentally
disturbed people, drunken fools getting into a pub or a gig, and
attacking others. We will need a highly controlled and democratic
mechanism for dealing with these. In short a proper court system.


Abnormal Problems
Well Civil War for starters!

Therefore we need Workers' Militias under the control of the
Workers' Council may need to be established to defend the gains of a
revolution. Chavez talked about a million people under arms. Not a
major fan of his, but he's got the right idea there.

There shouldn't be a separate power structure which controls the
armed forces. And anyway we don't need to. If the working class
creates institutions that are powerful enough to overthrow the
capitalist state, then these institutions will self-evidently be powerful
enough to suppress whatever resistance that the poor
dis-enfranchised capitalist remnants can throw at it - without any of
the apparatus of the state which formerly made them so powerful.

The other major threat of rolling back the gains comes from a
“left” counter-revolution. This happened in the French.
Russian, and Spanish Revolutions where a minority of radicals
managed to seize power on behalf of the population but soon became
their dictators. We'd be idiots to ignore the real possibility that this
will happen again.

Difference with the Marxists
A digression on the state.

Marxists tend to define the State as being a bodies of armed men
who assert a monopoly of force in a given area. Anarchists add to
this by saying that the state is also a vehicle for the control by a
minority because it centralises decision making. This has been the
case historically, and it is the case today. Therefore the anarchist
definition o the state is more accurate and is the one we should work

Also, the state is not merely an emergent superstructure that is a
logical development of capitalistic production, but a cause of the
evolution of that form of economic structure in the first place.

The existence of classes does not depend on the formal ownership of
property. It depends on the social relationships involved in
production and life generally. If a hierarchical chain of command
exists with respect to production, i.e. if there are order givers and
order takers, then it won't matter that in theory the workers
“own” the factory or its products. In practice, and in life it is
practice which counts, those at the top of the chain of command will
siphon off the cream. And as I said earlier, they will then be able to
use this wealth to buy the support, including military that will further
entrench their positions of power. That, in short, is why anarchists
argue that permitting a leadership assume control over society,
whether at the stage of production or at military stage is an invitation
to counter-revolution.

Workers' Councils Vs Workers' State
Assume a workers' state, even a representative one is in power. But
at what moment will the workers be deemed responsible enough to
look after their own affairs? Why will the workers be capable of
overthrowing capitalism but require strict obedience to an
enlightened minority to tackle racism or sexism?

How on earth can a class be possibly considered to be in control
when the party can assert its authority at any moment? Leninists
have an almost mystical concept of the party , i.e. it is by definition,
the expression of the working class. It's as if Leninists had their own
unitary trinity - the leader, the party, the class - one simply the
expression of the other and all connected by a deep and mystical

It is disengenous to claim to be for the rule of workers' councils
when in reality Leninists are in favour or, initially at any rate, the rule
of the party on behalf of the working class.

In all known cases, including most famously in Leninist Russia, the
ruling minority, no matter how revolutionary became corrupted and
began to rule very quickly in their own interests. Anarchists have
always claimed that this will inevitably result. In fact it was the
source of the split between the Marxists and the anarchists at the
time of the First International. And anarchists are right.

It is up to Marxists to demonstrate the advantage of Workers' State
over a federated system of workers' councils. We should ask
ourselves the obvious question: If there is a state what is the point of
having workers' councils? If there are workers’ councils,
what’s the use of the state?

In the end, it is anarchists who have confidence in the creative power
of ordinary people, to reshape society in a way that facilitates well
being and freedom, without being ordered to create a future that
they're too dumb to arrive at themselves.

Text of a WSM contribution to the Marxism v Anarchism debate
organised by the (Irish) Socialist Party (CWI)
* WSM is an anarchist federation in Ireland
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