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(en) Which Way To The Revolution: Anarchism or Socialism? - by James O'Brien (WSM)

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Wed, 30 Jul 2003 08:22:59 +0200 (CEST)

A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E

> posted on infoshop.org by Workers Solidarity Movement
First off, Iíd like to thank Socialist Youth for having an
anarchist speaker, itís always a healthy sign when
different views are aired. I hope myself to learn something
about Marxism, particularly your own take on the tradition.
My talk is simply going to be an introduction to the basics of
anarchism, though itíll be aimed a bit for those coming
from a Marxist view-point. Iíll tend to focus on the areas
where we disagree, say the difference over authority and the
state, rather than on why capitalism needs to go.

Anarchism emerged in the mid-19th century as the libertarian
wing of the workersí movement. It split off from
authoritarian socialism in the early 1870s and has remained a
distinct force since. It had a lot of influence in Latin countries
in particular, most obviously Spain where the
anarchist-syndicalist union the CNT had over a million
members (and two paid officials apparently). They made a
major contribution to the Spanish Revolution where the
working class came close to achieving a libertarian society as
they ever have. Millions of people organised self-managed
industrial and agricultural collectives. Often, particularly in
rural areas, consumption was based on need and in some
places money was abolished altogether.

After the 1920s Anarchism was increasingly eclipsed by
Marxism, primarily in my view because the colossal Bolshevik
failure in Russia was treated by state socialists almost
everywhere as a success to be emulated. Combined with the
clear anarchist defeat in Spain anarchism went into decline.
However, the collapse of Leninism in the Soviet Union has led
to a revitalisation of anarchism.

Generally I like to divide anarchism into three easy to
understand pieces: the end goal of libertarian socialism, the
critique of capitalist and hierarchical society and itís also
a means to move from one to the other. We see means and
ends as being bound up with each other. Our end goal shapes
the methods we use. Therefore we advocate the use of
libertarian methods to achieve liberty. We think that if you
organise in a hierarchical fashion today, youíre most likely
going to finish up with a hierarchical society tomorrow. We
want a libertarian society, so we make every effort to organise
in an anarchist manner.

Liberty and Communism

The end goal then is libertarian socialism, this is where
everybody has an equal say in making decisions that affect
them and where everybody is assured of equal access to the
benefits of society. Itís summed in the old phrase
ďfrom each according to ability, to each according to

We are all aware of the shortcomings of liberty when one does
not have the material ability to participate in that liberty.
Socialism would ensure that everyone was free, not just the

But Socialism Without Liberty?

Bakunin said that ďSocialism without liberty would be
brutality and slaveryĒ. He was referring to the prospect of
centralised state socialism, specifically Marxism, which he
foresaw would result in a totalitarian society. I think thatís
one of the social sciences more impressive predictions. A
society that does not allow for the free development for
individuals is not worth struggling for.

A few words on anarchist socialism. I see no reason to keep
the wage system after a revolution. As every product is a
social product, nobody produces anything in isolation any
more, the products themselves ought to be socialised. Itís
simply not possible to ascertain the true social value of
anyoneís labour and in truth not worth the effort finding
out. Everybodyís contribution matters. It wouldnít
matter how many surgeons we had, if we didnít have
cleaners ensuring a hygienic workplace. Both contribute to
society. Why discriminate in favour of one in the future
society? Itíll 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
thatís basically what money does anyway, just in unfair

But all of this has to be a voluntary act of the working class.
The working class must implement liberation socialism
themselves. If an attempt is made to impose socialism from
above by a state or a benevolent few, itíll prove just as
disastrous as it did in the Soviet Union. And socialism
wonít result anyway.

Human Nature

The viability of libertarian socialism depends on whether
human nature will sustain it. Weíd be basically optimistic
about human nature. We believe it is possible to organise
society that is not based on exploitation and the division of
society into leaders and led without that society collapsing
into chaos.

We see the decency of human nature in everyday life, the guy
who gives up his Saturday morning to train the Under 12
soccer team, to the care parents give to a child, the men and
women who volunteer for lifeboat duty for no pay. They risk
theyíre lives for people theyíve never met. But we are
realistic enough to realise that there is a selfish side to human
nature. There is also a tendency to want to have power over
others. There are generous and selfish tendencies in all of us.
Which ones dominate depends to a great extent on the
environment in which we live.

As socialists and rational human beings we seek to create a
society which maximises the opportunities for the positive
elements of humanity and which minimises opportunities for
the unhealthy ones. At the moment, capitalism means we are
all in competition with each other.

For example I used work as a courier and we were paid piece
rates. This meant that we used have to compete with our
friends in order to make a decent wage. The bigger the slice of
the cake you take, the less there is for your friends. This
breeds the competitive mentality which is a characteristic of a
class society. The very structure of the employment brings out
the more unpleasant tendencies in human nature.

The logic holds for the structures of the new society. If we
create a society where everybody is assured of equal access
to the wealth of society, we can minimize the destructive
competitive element.

If we create a society where a few have power over the rest,
then the hunger for power which is a definite tendency in
human nature, is going to find an environment in which it can
flourish. It doesnít matter whether the few are the rich or
whether theyíre the leaders of the party. I see no reason to
take such a risk especially as it is possible to organise without

This why anarchists place such emphasis on direct action. It
is the libertarian principle in action. Direct action isnít
some fancy stunt designed to gain publicity as some Greens
seem to think as they lock themselves onto the gates of the
Dail for half an hour.

It is about acting directly, without appealing to intermediaries
to act on your behalf. It is the basis for true democracy, for
direct democracy, Every time you participate directly in taking
a decision on issues you are acting directly (discussion and
deciding are forms of political action).

When we act for ourselves we learn useful lessons for the
future as well as influencing the present. If socialism is to be
achieved, people will need to have confidence in their own
ability to run society. When we organise something useful for
ourselves in the present we are training ourselves for the

Anarchism is about personal liberty. In order to act as a free
person you must make decisions and act for yourself. When
you are acting directly you are clearly not obeying the
commands of a leader. No doubt you will be influenced by
some peopleís arguments more than others. But you are
free to decide your own course of action. Nobody is compelling
you to do anything.

Under a governmental system whether that be a
representative democracy or a dictatorship, the leaders have
the authority to tell you what to do. If you donít do it then
you can expect retribution. You are no longer capable of acting
directly when there is a higher power controlling your activity.

Collective Action

I want to stress that direct action does not preclude collective
action. In fact the opposite is the case. Anarchists emphasise
the need for collective action. This isnít simply because
itís more effective, which is obviously true, but also
because we are social beings whose freedom is not denied by
associating with our friends and colleagues, but rather
enhanced when it is a voluntary act.

It is when we are forced to associate that our freedom is
denied. There is a liberal myth, or rather a statist creation
myth, that originally humans lived as isolated individuals at
war with each other (hence the necessity for an entity above
society to control it: the state). Bakunin was good at dispelling
this one, though I canít do his argument justice here. He
argued that we are an intensely social species who become
aware of ourselves as individuals by interacting with our
fellow human beings.

From the recognition of humans as social beings flows the
anarchist view on organisation. Organisation is essential.
Pretty much all human endeavour relies on organisation to
some extent, and anarchists are usually found to be acting
through organisations of some sort whether that be informal
groupings which organise a Reclaim the Streets or a more
formal structure like Trade Unions or community campaigns.

Society of the future will be highly organised, but it wonít
be a hierarchal. We envisage that autonomous cities and
industries will federate together and co-ordinate their
activities. With socialism there wonít be any competitive
reason not to. With voluntary co-operation there wonít be
any need for a centralised authority.

The question is not really one of organisation or not, but rather
of what type of organisation: Libertarian or Authoritarian.

By authoritarian I mean the ability to enforce your will on
another. Decisions are made by a few which must be carried
out by the rest. So private companies and police forces are
authoritarian. States are authoritarian to the core.

By libertarian I mean direct involvement in the decision making
process and actions which affect you. The right to federate is
balanced with the right to disassociate. I think that only
libertarianism which is permeated by a socialist mentality is
viable, for the spirit of co-operation is vital.

Anarchism is a realistic political ideology. We do realise that
most people have little interest in making a libertarian
revolution next week. Or that making one in the next few
decades will be easy. Far from it, anarchy being the most
radical goal is going to encounter the greatest resistance from
the ruling class. Many are daunted by the task and look for
shortcuts, whether through the parliamentary route or via a
revolutionary coup díetat.

But if we are serious about achieving anarchism, then we have
to start about it now. It isnít going to drop in off the sky.
The longer we wait to begin acting for ourselves the longer
itís going to be till we achieve our aim.

Also many people are used to letting others run society for
them. Sure they might get indignant over corruption or a
particularly blatant invasion of a third world country, but
itís fair to say that their actual involvement in changing
anything is pretty low.

Although state socialist parties do talk about the need for
direct action, it is appears to be another weapon in the
armoury rather than directly related to the end goal of
libertarian communism.

The whole point of having a minority of brainy and benevolent
leaders is that they will do the difficult work for you. As such
it follows that you yourself donít need to change, to
participate on an equal footing with everybody else, to think
about why we need socialism, you donít need to get deeply
involved in making it happen.

This will be fatal for any revolution because the new society
will face tough times. But if people have good understanding of
what they are fighting for and have made a deep personal
commitment to achieving it, itís unlikely that they going to
let that go easily.

The State

Libertarian organising is incompatible with the state. This has
proved to be a controversial point with Marxists, though I
should say there are some libertarian Marxists, such as the
continental autonomists and council communists. But
historically they have been a tiny minority compared to the
Social Democratic and Leninist parties.

What is a State? Iím going to outline the bare bones of the
state. Undoubtedly the state has modified itself in the last
hundred years, but fundamentally the original anarchist
analysis remains valid.

A State comprises a definite geographical area.

A State reserves the exclusive right to wield force. By force I
include the police forces, a courts system, and of course an
army for when things get especially difficult.

A State is always controlled by a select few. Note that the
elite can be either wealthy capitalists or party leaders.

The elite operates using a system of hierarchical authority, i.e.
orders are issued by the elite at the top of the hierarchy which
are followed by those lower in the chain of command. This
bureaucratic chain of command is absolutely essential to any
state, Bolshevik or Capitalist.

The institutions of the State are centralised and they attempt
to regulate the behaviour of the rest of society. This follows
from the fact that the state is a vehicle for the rule of a

As a minority cannot hope to satisfy the wishes of all the
people and the people arenít going to submit without
compulsion, it creates a huge bureaucracy to implement the
orders emanating from above and to direct and control their
behaviour as much as possible.

Anarchists claim that this bureaucracy becomes entrenched
and a source of real power.

This is an issue of profound difference between us and
Marxists. Where as we wish to destroy this system of control
and replace it with directly democratic structures involving the
whole population, we would see the goal of the authoritarian
socialist party as the capturing of this bureaucratic power for
itself. This is essentially what happened in Russia.

Supposedly the bureaucratic apparatus that is the state is
used to introduce socialism. Anarchists are not only sceptical
that the new rulers of the state apparatus will succeed
introducing socialism, we are positively frightened that they
will introduce a totalitarian nightmare.

Maybe seizing control of the bureaucracy and its armed force
is not the goal of rank and file socialists but itís the likely
result if you maintain or re-establish the hierarchical
structures. The state structure is a tough animal, with nine

Leninists might think that the problem is solved theyíve
gotten rid of the people who ran the old state, but that really is
of limited importance. If the hierarchical patterns remain, the
system remains fundamentally unaltered. Class society
remains. Only this time the ruling class will be the privileged
elite of the party who control the bureaucratic structure.

Iím well aware that the Russians faced a terrible time
after 1918, with the civil war and the toil it took on the urban
working class. But there is also the vital element of the
Bolshevik party taking power for itself and ruling over the

Anarchists claim that this was a crucial element in the failure
of the revolution. In fact I consider it counter-revolutionary.
The revolution consists of the establishment of factory
committees, popular soviets, etc. The smashing of State
power in October was essential. The repair work that the
Bolsheviks did on the State after October was counter to the
revolution, however much they honestly believed otherwise.
For example they rapidly moved to counter the growing power
of the grassroots factory committees by insisting on state
control of industry.

Given that itís the Marxist-Leninist goal to achieve
control of the bureaucratic structure that is the state, itís
logical that present day Marxists should use State structures
to further their aims: Lenin said that for the Marxist the
working class ought to be prepared for revolution by utilising
the present state.

Anarchists are opposed to the State and all that the principle
of authority demands. Therefore we canít utilise State
institutions, such as parliamentary elections to achieve our
ends. As the conduct of some anarchists during the Spanish
Civil war illustrates, anarchists are no more immune to the
virus of power that utilising State institutions involves than
anybody else. We advocate instead building alternative
movements which will pre-figure the type of society we want.

We are not in favour of mere disbandment of the state. We
favour its replacement with directly democratic institutions.
The state has taken on some socially necessary work such as
the provision of health care. We obviously arenít in favour
of shutting down hospitals because we dislike the Minister for
Health and senior civil servants. Just as we would disband
private companies but not do away with production, we would
disband the state structure but keep the service. We advocate
that workers manage the health service in consultation with
the community. To repeat, necessary functions which are
currently run by the state will be run by democratic
workersí councils which will federate which each other
not only because of a sense of mutual aid but also out of
self-interest. These workersí councils differ from a state
because they wonít be under the control of a minority.

Party Rule?

Onto the question as to whether itís possible to have a
dual structure of workers councils and a state structure
operating simultaneously. We doubt it. Dual-power situations
are inherently unstable. The state is particularly unwilling to
accommodate a challenge to its authority. Rulers tend not to
step aside voluntarily and weíd be doubtful that a
revolutionary socialist party is going to make history in this

The presence of a party assuming control of a revolutionary
situation must come at the expense of the activity of the class
as a whole. Either the class is in charge or the state is.

This is most starkly illustrated when the grassroots organs of
the class (workersí committees, community councils)
come into conflict with the state. What real power do the
councils have if they can be over-ruled by the State?
Whatís the point of a state if the workersí councils
can over-rule it?

The logical outcome of a party seizing the initiative in a
revolution is that the role of the class becomes redundant.
Why be active if the party can accomplish it for you? Why be
active if the party might arrest you for going against its policy?

Anarchists think that the creative capacities of the working
class as a whole far outweigh the capacities of a few
individual leaders. It is our view that a truly democratic
society would be more efficient than it currently is, simply
because it would harness everybodyís ability. Planning the
economy and society generally would be far more efficient
than it is now because it would include the views of
everybody. It would also be far more efficient than centralised
state planning, which tends to become messed up in useless,
self-perpetuating bureaucracy.

One reason that I personally am an anarchist is that I
donít feel confident that I know whatís good for
everybody. For example Iíd be clueless about the health
sector. So I just canít picture myself in a government
making a knowledgeable contribution to running it. Iíd
much rather leave to the people working there, to organise
themselves in conjunction with the local communities.

The revolution will not be made by anarchists. The task is too
complex to be accomplished by a minority. (We will of course
participate, advocating a libertarian direction.) A free socialist
society needs the active participation of millions of people.
And crucially that participation can only happen voluntarily.
Socialism cannot be imposed on the people. It has to be a
voluntary, organic process. It has to be a libertarian process.


Workers Solidarity Movement PO Box 1528 Dublin 8 Ireland
email: wsm_ireland@yahoo.com web:

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