An Anarchist FAQ - H.4 What actually happened in Russia?
PDF version of Section H.
H.4 Didn't Engels refute anarchism in "On Authority"?
No, far from it. Engels (in)famous essay "On Authority" is often pointed to by Marxists of various schools as refuting anarchism. Indeed, it is often considered the essential Marxist work for this and is often trotted out (pun intended) when anarchist influence is on the rise. However this is not the case. In fact, his essay is both politically flawed and misrepresentative. As such, anarchists do not think that Engels refuted anarchism in his essay but rather just showed his ignorance of the ideas he was critiquing. This ignorance essentially rests on the fact that the whole concept of authority was defined and understood differently by Bakunin and Engels, meaning that the latter's critique was flawed. While Engels may have thought that they both were speaking of the same thing, in fact they were not.
For Engels, all forms of group activity meant the subjection of the individuals that make it up. As he put it, "whoever mentions combined action speaks of organisation" and so it is not possible "to have organisation without authority," as authority means "the imposition of the will of another upon ours . . . authority presupposes subordination." [Marx-Engels Reader, p. 731 and p. 730] Given that, Engels considered the ideas of Bakunin to fly in the face of common sense and so show that he, Bakunin, did not know what he was talking about. However, in reality, it was Engels who did this.
The first fallacy in Engels account is that anarchists, as we indicated in section B.1, do not oppose all forms of authority. Bakunin was extremely clear on this issue and differentiated between types of authority, of which he opposed only certain kinds. For example, he asked the question "[d]oes it follow that I reject all authority?" and answered quite clearly: "No, far be it from me to entertain such a thought." He acknowledged the difference between being an authority - an expert - and being in authority. This meant that "[i]f I bow before the authority of the specialists and declare myself ready to follow, to a certain extent and so long as it may seem to me to be necessary, their general indications and even their directions, it is because their authority is imposed upon me by no one . . . I bow before the authority of specialists because it is imposed upon me by my own reason." Similarly, he argued that anarchists "recognise all natural authority, and all influence of fact upon us, but none of right; for all authority and all influence of right, officially imposed upon us, immediately becomes a falsehood and an oppression." He stressed that the "only great and omnipotent authority, at once natural and rational, the only one we respect, will be that of the collective and public spirit of a society founded on equality and solidarity and the mutual respect of all its members." [The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 253, p. 241 and p. 255]
Bakunin contrasted this position with the Marxist one, whom he argued were "champions of the social order built from the top down, always in the name of universal suffrage and the sovereignty of the masses upon whom they bestow the honour of obeying their leaders, their elected masters." In other words, a system based on delegated power and so hierarchical authority. This excludes the masses from governing themselves (as in the state) and this, in turn, "means domination, and any domination presupposes the subjugation of the masses and, consequently, their exploitation for the benefit of some ruling minority." [Bakunin on Anarchism, p. 277]
So while Bakunin and other anarchists, on occasion, did argue that anarchists reject "all authority" they, as Carole Pateman correctly notes, "tended to treat 'authority' as a synonym for 'authoritarian,' and so have identified 'authority' with hierarchical power structures, especially those of the state. Nevertheless, their practical proposals and some of their theoretical discussions present a different picture." [The Problem of Political Obligation, p. 141] This can be seen when Bakunin noted that "the principle of authority" was the "eminently theological, metaphysical and political idea that the masses, always incapable of governing themselves, must submit at all times to the benevolent yoke of a wisdom and a justice, which in one way or another, is imposed from above." [Marxism, Freedom and the State, p. 33] Clearly, by the term "principle of authority" Bakunin meant hierarchy rather than organisation and the need to make agreements (what is now called self-management).
Bakunin, clearly, did not oppose all authority but rather a specific kind of authority, namely hierarchical authority. This kind of authority placed power into the hands of a few. For example, wage labour produced this kind of authority, with a "meeting . . . between master and slave . . . the worker sells his person and his liberty for a given time." The state is also based hierarchical authority, with "those who govern" (i.e. "those who frame the laws of the country as well as those who exercise the executive power") being in an "exceptional position diametrically opposed to . . . popular aspirations" towards liberty. They end up "viewing society from the high position in which they find themselves" and so "[w]hoever says political power says domination" over "a more or less considerable section of the population." [The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 187 and p. 218]
Thus hierarchical authority is top-down, centralised and imposed. It is this kind of authority Bakunin had in mind when he argued that anarchists "are in fact enemies of all authority" and it will "corrupt those who exercise [it] as much as those who are compelled to submit to [it]." [Op. Cit., p. 249] In other words, "authority" was used as shorthand for "hierarchy" (or "hierarchical authority"), the imposition of decisions rather than agreement to abide by the collective decisions you make with others when you freely associate with them. In place of this kind of authority, Bakunin proposed a "natural authority" based on the masses "governing themselves." He did not object to the need for individuals associating themselves into groups and managing their own affairs, rather he opposed the idea that co-operation necessitated hierarchy:
"Hence there results, for science as well as for industry, the necessity of division and association of labour. I take and I give - such is human life. Each is an authoritative leader and in turn is led by others. Accordingly there is no fixed and constant authority, but continual exchange of mutual, temporary, and, above all, voluntary authority and subordination." [Op. Cit., pp. 353-4]
This kind of free association would be the expression of liberty rather than (as in hierarchical structures) its denial. Anarchists reject the idea of giving a minority (a government) the power to make our decisions for us. Rather, power should rest in the hands of all, not concentrated in the hands of a few. We are well aware of the need to organise together and, therefore, the need to stick by decisions reached. The importance of solidarity in anarchist theory is an expression of this awareness. However, there are different kinds of organisation. There can be no denying that in a capitalist workplace or army there is "organisation" and "discipline" yet few, if any, sane persons would argue that this distinctly top-down and hierarchical form of working together is something to aspire to, particularly if you seek a free society. This cannot be compared to making and sticking by a collective decision reached by free discussion and debate within a self-governing associations. As Bakunin argued:
"Discipline, mutual trust as well as unity are all excellent qualities when properly understood and practised, but disastrous when abused . . . [one use of the word] discipline almost always signifies despotism on the one hand and blind automatic submission to authority on the other . . .
"Hostile as I am to [this,] the authoritarian conception of discipline, I nevertheless recognise that a certain kind of discipline, not automatic but voluntary and intelligently understood is, and will ever be, necessary whenever a greater number of individuals undertake any kind of collective work or action. Under these circumstances, discipline is simply the voluntary and considered co-ordination of all individual efforts for a common purpose. At the moment of revolution, in the midst of the struggle, there is a natural division of functions according to the aptitude of each, assessed and judged by the collective whole: Some direct and others carry out orders. But no function remains fixed and it will not remain permanently and irrevocably attached to any one person. Hierarchical order and promotion do not exist, so that the executive of yesterday can become the subordinate of tomorrow. No one rises above the others, and if he does rise, it is only to fall back again a moment later, like the waves of the sea forever returning to the salutary level of equality.
"In such a system, power, properly speaking, no longer exists. Power is diffused to the collectivity and becomes the true expression of the liberty of everyone, the faithful and sincere realisation of the will of all . . . this is the only true discipline, the discipline necessary for the organisation of freedom. This is not the kind of discipline preached by the State . . . which wants the old, routine-like, automatic blind discipline. Passive discipline is the foundation of every despotism." [Bakunin on Anarchism, pp. 414-5]
Clearly Engels misunderstood the anarchist conception of liberty. Rather than seeing it as essentially negative, anarchists argue that liberty is expressed in two different, but integrated, ways. Firstly, there is rebellion, the expression of autonomy in the face of authority. This is the negative aspect of it. Secondly, there is association, the expression of autonomy by working with your equals. This is the positive aspect of it. As such, Engels concentrates on the negative aspect of anarchist ideas, ignoring the positive, and so paints a false picture of anarchism. Freedom, as Bakunin argued, is a product of connection, not of isolation. How a group organises itself determines whether it is authoritarian or libertarian. If the individuals who take part in a group manage the affairs of that group (including what kinds of decisions can be delegated) then that group is based on liberty. If that power is left to a few individuals (whether elected or not) then that group is structured in an authoritarian manner. This can be seen from Bakunin's argument that power must be "diffused" into the collective in an anarchist society. Clearly, anarchists do not reject the need for organisation nor the need to make and abide by collective decisions. Rather, the question is how these decisions are to be made - are they to be made from below, by those affected by them, or from above, imposed by a few people in authority.
Only a sophist would confuse hierarchical power with the power of people managing their own affairs. It is an improper use of words to denote equally as "authority" two such opposed concepts as individuals subjected to the autocratic power of a boss and the voluntary co-operation of conscious individuals working together as equals. The lifeless obedience of a governed mass cannot be compared to the organised co-operation of free individuals, yet this is what Engels did. The former is marked by hierarchical power and the turning of the subjected into automations performing mechanical movements without will and thought. The latter is marked by participation, discussion and agreement. Both are, of course, based on co-operation but to argue that latter restricts liberty as much as the former simply confuses co-operation with coercion. It also indicates a distinctly liberal conception of liberty, seeing it restricted by association with others rather than seeing association as an expression of liberty. As Malatesta argued:
"The basic error . . . is in believing that organisation is not possible without authority.
"Now, it seems to us that organisation, that is to say, association for a specific purpose and with the structure and means required to attain it, is a necessary aspect of social life. A man in isolation cannot even live the life of a beast . . . Having therefore to join with other humans . . . he must submit to the will of others (be enslaved) or subject others to his will (be in authority) or live with others in fraternal agreement in the interests of the greatest good of all (be an associate). Nobody can escape from this necessity." [Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, pp. 84-5]
Therefore, organisation is "only the practice of co-operation and solidarity" and is a "natural and necessary condition of social life." [Malatesta, Op. Cit., p. 83] Clearly, the question is not whether we organise, but how do we do so. This means that, for anarchists, Engels confused vastly different concepts: "Co-ordination is dutifully confused with command, organisation with hierarchy, agreement with domination - indeed, 'imperious' domination." [Murray Bookchin, Towards an Ecological Society, pp. 126-7]
Socialism will only exist when the discipline currently enforced by the stick in the hand of the boss is replaced by the conscious self-discipline of free individuals. It is not by changing who holds the stick (from a capitalist to a "socialist" boss) that socialism will be created. It is only by the breaking up and uprooting of this slavish spirit of discipline, and its replacement by self-management, that working people will create a new discipline what will be the basis of socialism (the voluntary self-discipline Bakunin talked about). As Kropotkin memorably put it:
"Having been brought up in a serf-owner's family, I entered active life, like all young men of my time, with a great deal of confidence in the necessity of commanding, ordering, scolding, punishing, and the like. But when, at an early stage, I had to manage serious enterprises and to deal with men, and when each mistake would lead at once to heavy consequences, I began to appreciate the difference between acting on the principle of command and discipline and acting on the principle of common understanding. The former works admirably in a military parade, but it is worth nothing where real life is concerned, and the aim can be achieved only through the severe effort of many converging wills." [Memoirs of a Revolutionist, p. 202]
Clearly, then, Engels did not refute anarchism by his essay. Rather, he refuted a straw man of his own creation. The question was never one of whether certain tasks need co-operation, co-ordination, joint activity and agreement. It was, in fact, a question of how that is achieved. As such, Engels diatribe misses the point. Instead of addressing the actual politics of anarchism or their actual use of the word "authority," he rather addressed a series of logical deductions he draws from a false assumption regarding those politics. Engels essay shows, to paraphrase Keynes cutting remarks against von Hayek, the bedlam that can be created when a remorseless logician deduces away from an incorrect starting assumption.
For collective activity anarchists recognise the need to make and stick by agreements. Collective activity of course needs collective decision making and organisation. In so far as Engels had a point to his diatribe (namely that group efforts meant co-operating with others), Bakunin (like any anarchist) would have agreed. The question was how are these decisions to be made, not whether they should be or not. Ultimately, Engels confused agreement with hierarchy. Anarchists do not.
Engels argument in "On Authority" can be summed up as any form of collective activity means co-operating with others and that this means the individual subordinates themselves to others, specifically the group. As such, authority cannot be abolished as organisation means that "the will of a single individual will always have to subordinate itself, which means that questions are settled in an authoritarian way." [Op. Cit., p. 731]
Engels argument proves too much. As every form of joint activity involves agreement and "subordination," then life itself becomes "authoritarian." The only free person, according to Engels' logic, would be the hermit. Anarchists reject such nonsense. As George Barrett argued:
"To get the full meaning out of life we must co-operate, and to co-operate we must make agreements with our fellow-men. But to suppose that such agreements mean a limitation of freedom is surely an absurdity; on the contrary, they are the exercise of our freedom.
"If we are going to invent a dogma that to make agreements is to damage freedom, then at once freedom becomes tyrannical, for it forbids men [and women] to take the most ordinary everyday pleasures. For example, I cannot go for a walk with my friend because it is against the principle of Liberty that I should agree to be at a certain place at a certain time to meet him. I cannot in the least extend my own power beyond myself, because to do so I must co-operate with someone else, and co-operation implies an agreement, and that is against Liberty. It will be seen at once that this argument is absurd. I do not limit my liberty, but simply exercise it, when I agree with my friend to go for a walk.
"If, on the other hand, I decide from my superior knowledge that it is good for my friend to take exercise, and therefore I attempt to compel him to go for a walk, then I begin to limit freedom. This is the difference between free agreement and government." [Objections to Anarchism, pp. 348-9]
If we took Engels' argument seriously then we would have to conclude that living makes freedom impossible! After all by doing any joint activity you "subordinate" yourself to others and so, ironically, exercising your liberty by making decisions and associating with others would become a denial of liberty. Clearly Engels argument is lacking something!
Perhaps this paradox can be explained once we recognise that Engels is using a distinctly liberal view of freedom - i.e. freedom from. Anarchists reject this. We see freedom as holistic - freedom from and freedom to. This means that freedom is maintained by the kind of relationships we form with others, not by isolation. As Bakunin argued, "man in isolation can have no awareness of his liberty. Being free for man means being acknowledged, considered and treated as such by another man. Liberty is therefore a feature not of isolation but of interaction, not of exclusion but rather of connection". [Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 147] Liberty is denied when we form hierarchical relationships with others not necessarily when we associate with others. To combine with other individuals is an expression of individual liberty, not its denial! We are aware that freedom is impossible outside of association. Within an association absolute "autonomy" cannot exist, but such a concept of "autonomy" would restrict freedom to such a degree that it would be so self-defeating as to make a mockery of the concept of autonomy and no sane person would seek it. To requote Malatesta, freedom we want "is not an absolute metaphysical, abstract freedom" but "a real freedom, possible freedom, which is the conscious community of interests, voluntary solidarity." [Anarchy, p. 43]
To state the obvious, anarchists are well aware that "anyone who associates and co-operates with others for a common purpose must feel the need to co-ordinate his [or her] actions with those of his [or her] fellow members and do nothing that harms the work of others and, thus, the common cause; and respect the agreements that have been made - except when wishing sincerely to leave the association when emerging differences of opinion or changed circumstances or conflict over preferred methods make co-operation impossible or inappropriate." [Malatesta, The Anarchist Revolution, pp. 107-8] For anarchists, collective organisation and co-operation does not mean the end of individuality. Bakunin expressed it well:
"You will think, you will exist, you will act collectively, which nevertheless will not prevent in the least the full development of the intellectual and moral faculties of each individual. Each of you will bring to you his own talents, and in all joining together you will multiply your value a hundred fold. Such is the law of collective action . . . in giving your hands to each other for this action in common, you will promise to each other a mutual fraternity which will be . . . a sort of free contract . . . Then proceed collectively to action you will necessarily commence by practising this fraternity between yourselves . . . by means of regional and local organisations . . . you will find in yourselves strength that you had never imagined, if each of you acted individually, according to his own inclination and not as a consequence of a unanimous resolution, discussed and accepted beforehand." [quoted by K.J. Kenafick, Michael Bakunin and Karl Marx, pp. 244-5]
So, unlike the essentially (classical) liberal position of Engels, anarchists recognise that freedom is a product of how we associate. This need not imply continual agreement nor an unrealistic assumption that conflict and uncooperative behaviour will disappear. For those within an organisation who refuse to co-operate, anarchists argue that this problem is easily solved. Freedom of association implies the freedom not to associate and so those who ignore the decisions reached collectively and disrupt the organisation's workings would simply be "compelled to leave" the association. In this way, a free association "could protect itself without the authoritarian organisation we have nowadays." [Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread, p. 152]
Clearly, Engels "critique" hides more than it explains. Yes, co-operation and coercion both involve people working jointly together, but they are not to be equated. While Bakunin recognised this fundamental difference and tried, perhaps incompletely, to differentiate them (by arguing against "the principle of authority") and to base his politics on the difference, Engels obscures the differences and muddies the water by confusing the two radically different concepts within the word "authority." Any organisation or group is based on co-operation and co-ordination (Engels' "principle of authority"). How that co-operation is achieved is dependent on the type of organisation in question and that, in turn, specifies the social relationships within it. It is these social relationships which determine whether an organisation is authoritarian or libertarian, not the universal need to make and stick by agreements.
Ultimately, Engels is simply confusing obedience with agreement, coercion with co-operation, organisation with authority, objective reality with despotism.
Rather than seeing organisation as restricting freedom, anarchists argue that the kind of organisation we create is what matters. We can form relationships with others which are based on equality, not subordination. As an example, we point to the differences between marriage and free love (see next section). Once it is recognised that decisions can be made on the basis of co-operation between equals, Engels essay can be seen for what it is - a deeply flawed piece of cheap and inaccurate diatribe.
Yes! Engels, let us not forget, argued, in effect, that any activities which "replace isolated action by combined action of individuals" meant "the imposition of the will of another upon ours" and so "the will of the single individual will have to subordinate itself, which means that questions are settled in an authoritarian manner." This, for Engels, means that "authority" has not "disappeared" under anarchism but rather it has only "changed its form." [Op. Cit., pp. 730-1]
However, to say that authority just changes its form misses the qualitative differences between authoritarian and libertarian organisation. Precisely the differences which Bakunin and other anarchists tried to stress by calling themselves anti-authoritarians and being against the "principle of authority." By arguing that all forms of association are necessarily "authoritarian," Engels is impoverishing the liberatory potential of socialism. He ensures that the key question of liberty within our associations is hidden behind a mass of sophistry.
As an example, look at the difference between marriage and free love. Both forms necessitate two individuals living together, sharing the same home, organising their lives together. The same situation and the same commitments. But do both imply the same social relationships? Are they both "authoritarian"?
Traditionally, the marriage vow is based on the wife promising to obey the husband. Her role is simply that of obedience (in theory, at least). As Carole Pateman argues, "[u]ntil late into the nineteenth century the legal and civil position of a wife resembled that of a slave" and, in theory, she "became the property of her husband and stood to him as a slave/servant to a master." [The Sexual Contract, p. 119 and pp. 130-1] As such, an obvious social relationship exists - an authoritarian one in which the man has power over the woman. We have a relationship based on domination and subordination.
In free love, the couple are equals. They decide their own affairs, together. The decisions they reach are agreed between them and no domination takes place (unless you think making an agreement equals domination or subordination). They both agree to the decisions they reach, based on mutual respect and give and take. Subordination to individuals does not meaningfully exist (at best, it could be argued that both parties are "dominated" by their decisions, hardly a meaningful use of the word). Instead of subordination, there is free agreement.
Both types of organisation apply to the same activities - a couple living together. Has "authority" just changed its form as Engels argued? Of course not. There is a substantial difference between the two. The former is authoritarian. One part of the organisation dictates to the other. The latter is libertarian as neither dominates (or they, as a couple, "dominate" each other as individuals - surely an abuse of the language, we hope you agree!). Each part of the organisation agrees to the decision. Do all these differences just mean that we have changed name of "authority" or has authority been abolished and liberty created? This was the aim of Bakunin's terminology, namely to draw attention to the qualitative change that has occurred in the social relationships generated by the association of individuals when organised in an anarchist way. A few Marxists have also seen this difference. For example, Rosa Luxemburg repeated (probably unknowingly) Bakunin's distinction between forms of discipline and organisation when she argued that:
"We misuse words and we practice self-deception when we apply the same term - discipline - to such dissimilar notions as: (1) the absence of thought and will in a body with a thousand automatically moving hands and legs, and (2) the spontaneous co-ordination of the conscious, political acts of a body of men. What is there in common between the regulated docility of an oppressed class and the self-discipline and organisation of a class struggling for its emancipation? . . . The working class will acquire the sense of the new discipline, the freely assumed self-discipline of the social democracy, not as a result of the discipline imposed on it by the capitalist state, but by extirpating, to the last root, its old habits of obedience and servility." [Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, pp. 119-20]
Engels is confusing two radically different means of decision making by arguing both involve subordination and authority. The difference is clear: the first involves the domination of an individual over another while the second involves the "subordination" of individuals to the decisions and agreements they make. The first is authority, the second is liberty. As Kropotkin put it:
"This applies to all forms of association. Cohabitation of two individuals under the same roof may lead to the enslavement of one by the will of the other, as it may also lead to liberty for both. The same applies to the family or . . . to large or small associations, to each social institution . . .
"Communism is capable of assuming all forms of freedom or of oppression - which other institutions are unable to do. It may produce a monastery where all implicitly obey the orders of their superior, and it may produce an absolutely free organisation, leaving his full freedom to the individual, existing only as long as the associates wish to remain together, imposing nothing on anybody, being anxious rather to defend, enlarge, extend in all directions the liberty of the individual. Communism may be authoritarian (in which case the community will soon decay) or it may be Anarchist. The State, on the contrary, cannot be this. It is authoritarian or it ceases to be the State." [Small Communal Experiments and Why They Fail, pp. 12-3]
Therefore, the example of free love indicates that, for anarchists, Engels arguments are simply pedantic sophistry. It goes without saying that organisation involves co-operation and that, by necessity, means that individuals come to agreements between themselves to work together. The question is how do they do that, not whether they do so or not. As such, Engels' arguments confuse agreement with hierarchy, co-operation with coercion. Simply put, the way people conduct joint activity determines whether an organisation is libertarian or authoritarian. That was why anarchists called themselves anti-authoritarians, to draw attention to the different ways of organising collective life.
In his campaign against anti-authoritarian ideas within the First International, Engels asks in a letter written in January 1872 "how do these people [the anarchists] propose to run a factory, operate a railway or steer a ship without having in the last resort one deciding will, without a single management"? [The Marx-Engels Reader, p. 729]
This could only be asked if Engels was totally ignorant of Bakunin's ideas and his many comments supporting co-operatives as the means by which workers would "organise and themselves conduct the economy without guardian angels, the state or their former employers." Bakunin was "convinced that the co-operative movement will flourish and reach its full potential only in a society where the land, the instruments of production, and hereditary property will be owned and operated by the workers themselves: by their freely organised federations of industrial and agricultural workers." [Bakunin on Anarchism, p. 399 and p. 400] Which meant that Bakunin, like all anarchists, was well aware of how a factory or other workplace would be organised:
"Only associated labour, that is, labour organised upon the principles of reciprocity and co-operation, is adequate to the task of maintaining . . . civilised society." [The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 341]
By October of that year, Engels had finally "submitted arguments like these to the most rabid anti-authoritarians" who replied to run a factory, railway or ship did require organisation "but here it was not a case of authority which we confer on our delegates, but of a commission entrusted!" Engels commented that the anarchists "think that when they have changed the names of things they have changed the things themselves." He, therefore, thought that authority will "only have changed its form" rather than being abolished under anarchism as "whoever mentions combined action speaks of organisation" and it is not possible "to have organisation without authority." [Op. Cit., p. 732 and p. 731]
However, Engels is simply confusing two different things, authority and agreement. To make an agreement with another person is an exercise of your freedom, not its restriction. As Malatesta argued, "the advantages which association and the consequent division of labour offer" meant that humanity "developed towards solidarity." However, under class society "the advantages of association, the good that Man could drive from the support of his fellows" was distorted and a few gained "the advantages of co-operation by subjecting other men to [their] will instead of joining with them." This oppression "was still association and co-operation, outside of which there is no possible human life; but it was a way of co-operation, imposed and controlled by a few for their personal interest." [Anarchy, pp. 30-1] Anarchists seek to organise association to eliminate domination. This would be done by workers organising themselves collectively to make their own decisions about their work (workers' self-management, to use modern terminology). This did not necessitate the same authoritarian social relationships as exist under capitalism:
"Of course in every large collective undertaking, a division of labour, technical management, administration, etc., is necessary. But authoritarians clumsily play on words to produce a raison d'être for government out of the very real need for the organisation of work. Government . . . is the concourse of individuals who have had, or have seized, the right and the means to make laws and to oblige people to obey; the administrator, the engineer, etc., instead are people who are appointed or assume the responsibility to carry out a particular job and do so. Government means the delegation of power, that is the abdication of initiative and sovereignty of all into the hands of a few; administration means the delegation of work, that is tasks given and received, free exchange of services based on free agreement. . . Let one not confuse the function of government with that of administration, for they are essentially different, and if today the two are often confused, it is only because of economic and political privilege." [Op. Cit., pp. 41-2]
For a given task, co-operation and joint activity may be required by its very nature. Take, for example, a train network. The joint activity of numerous workers are required to ensure that it operates successfully. The driver depends on the work of signal operators, for example, and guards to inform them of necessary information essential for the smooth running of the network. The passengers are dependent on the driver and the other workers to ensure their journey is safe and quick. As such, there is an objective need to co-operate but this need is understood and agreed to by the people involved.
If a specific activity needs the co-operation of a number of people and can only be achieved if these people work together as a team and, therefore, need to make and stick by agreements, then this is undoubtedly a natural fact which the individual can only rebel against by leaving the association. Similarly, if an association considers it wise to elect a delegate whose tasks have been allocated by that group then, again, this is a natural fact which the individuals in question have agreed to and so has not been imposed upon them by any external will - the individual has been convinced of the need to co-operate and does so.
If an activity requires the co-operation of numerous individuals then, clearly, that is a natural fact and there is not much the individuals involved can do about it. Anarchists are not in the habit of denying common sense. The question is simply how do these individuals co-ordinate their activities. Is it by means of self-management or by hierarchy (authority)? So anarchists have always been clear on how industry would be run - by the workers' themselves in their own free associations. In this way the domination of the boss would be replaced by agreements between equals.
Engels argued that large-scale industry (or, indeed, any form of organisation) meant that "authority" was required. He stated that factories should have "Lasciate ogni autonomia, voi che entrate" ("Leave, ye that enter in, all autonomy behind") written above their doors. That is the basis of capitalism, with the wage worker being paid to obey. This obedience, Engels argued, was necessary even under socialism, as applying the "forces of nature" meant "a veritable despotism independent of all social organisation." This meant that "[w]anting to abolish authority in large-scale industry is tantamount to wanting to abolish industry itself." [Op. Cit., p. 731]
The best answer to Engels claims can be found in the class struggle. Given that Engels was a capitalist (an actual owner of a factory), he may have not been aware of the effectiveness of "working to rule" when practised by workers. This basically involves doing exactly what the boss tells you to do, regardless of the consequences as regards efficiency, production and so on. Quite simply, workers refusing to practice autonomy can be an extremely effective and powerful weapon in the class struggle.
This weapon has long been used by workers and advocated by anarchists, syndicalists and wobblies. For example, the IWW booklet How to fire your boss argues that "[w]orkers often violate orders, resort to their own techniques of doing things, and disregard lines of authority simply to meet the goals of the company. There is often a tacit understanding, even by the managers whose job it is to enforce the rules, that these shortcuts must be taken in order to meet production quotas on time." It argues, correctly, that "if each of these rules and regulations were followed to the letter" then "[c]onfusion would result - production and morale would plummet. And best of all, the workers can't get in trouble with the tactic because they are, after all, 'just following the rules.'" The British anarcho-syndicalists of the Direct Action Movement agreed and even quoted an industrial expert on the situation:
"If managers' orders were completely obeyed, confusion would result and production and morale would be lowered. In order to achieve the goals of the organisation workers must often violate orders, resort to their own techniques of doing things, and disregard lines of authority. Without this kind of systematic sabotage much work could not be done. This unsolicited sabotage in the form of disobedience and subterfuge is especially necessary to enable large bureaucracies to function effectively." [J.A.C. Brown, quoted in Direct Action in Industry]
Another weapon of workers' resistance is what has been called "Working without enthusiasm" and is related to the "work to rule." This tactic aims at "slowing production" in order to win gains from management:
"Even the simplest repetitive job demands a certain minimum of initiative and in this case it is failing to show any non-obligatory initiative . . . [This] leads to a fall in production - above all in quality. The worker carries out every operation minimally; the moment there is a hitch of any kind he abandons all responsibility and hands over to the next man above him in the hierarchy; he works mechanically, not checking the finished object, not troubling to regulate his machine. In short he gets away with as much as he can, but never actually does anything positively illegal." [Pierre Dubois, Sabotage in Industry, p. 51]
The practice of "working to rule" and "working without enthusiasm" shows how out of touch Engels (like any capitalist) was with the realities of shop floor life. These forms of direct action are extremely effective because the workers refuse to act autonomously in industry, to work out the problems they face during the working day themselves, and instead place all the decisions on the authority required, according to Engels, to run the factory. The factory itself quickly grinds to a halt. What keeps it going is not the "imperious" will of authority, but rather the autonomous activity of workers thinking and acting for themselves to solve the numerous problems they face during the working day. In contrast, the hierarchical perspective "ignores essential features of any real, functioning social order. This truth is best illustrated in a work-to-rule strike, which turns on the fact that any production process depends on a host of informal practices and improvisations that could never be codified. By merely following the rules meticulously, the workforce can virtually halt production." [James C. Scott, Seeing like a State, p. 6] As Cornelius Castoriadis argued:
"Resistance to exploitation expresses itself in a drop in productivity as well as exertion on the workers' part . . . At the same time it is expressed in the disappearance of the minimum collective and spontaneous management and organisation of work that the workers normally and of necessity puts out. No modern factory could function for twenty-four hours without this spontaneous organisation of work that groups of workers, independent of the official business management, carry out by filling in the gaps of official production directives, by preparing for the unforeseen and for regular breakdowns of equipment, by compensating for management's mistakes, etc.
"Under 'normal' conditions of exploitation, workers are torn between the need to organise themselves in this way in order to carry out their work - otherwise there are repercussions for them - and their natural desire to do their work, on the one hand, and, on the other, the awareness that by doing so they only are serving the boss's interests. Added to those conflicting concerns are the continual efforts of factory's management apparatus to 'direct' all aspects of the workers' activity, which often results only in preventing them from organising themselves." [Political and Social Writings, vol. 2, p. 68]
Needless to say, co-operation and co-ordination are required in any collective activity. Anarchists do not deny this fact of nature, but the example Engels considered as irrefutable simply shows the fallacy of his argument. If large-scale industry were run along the lines argued by Engels, it would quickly grind to halt. So trying to eliminate workers' autonomy is difficult as "[i]ndustrial history shows" that "such management attempts to control the freedom of the work force invariably run up against the contradiction that the freedom is necessary for quality production." [David Noble, Forces of Production, p. 277]
Ironically, the example of Russia under Lenin and Trotsky reinforces this fact. "Administrative centralisation" was enforced on the railway workers which, in turn, "led more to ignorance of distance and the inability to respond properly to local circumstances . . . 'I have no instructions' became all the more effective as a defensive and self-protective rationalisation as party officials vested with unilateral power insisted all their orders be strictly obeyed. Cheka ruthlessness instilled fear, but repression . . . only impaired the exercise of initiative that daily operations required." [William G. Rosenberg, "The Social Background to Tsektran", pp. 349-373, Party, State, and Society in the Russian Civil War, Diane P. Koenker, William G. Rosenberg and Ronald Grigor Suny (eds.), p. 369] Without the autonomy required to manage local problems, the operation of the railways was seriously harmed and, unsurprisingly, a few months after Trotsky subjected to railway workers to the "militarisation of labour" in September 1920, there was a "disastrous collapse of the railway network in the winter of 1920-1." [Jonathan Aves, Workers against Lenin, p. 102] There can be no better way to cripple an economy than to impose Lenin's demand that the task of workers was that of "unquestioningly obeying the will of the Soviet leader, of the dictator, during the work." [Collected Works, vol. 27, p. 270]
As the experience of workers' in struggle shows, it is the abolition of autonomy which ensures the abolition of large-scale industry, not its exercise. The conscious decision by workers to not exercise their autonomy brings industry grinding to a halt and are effective tools in the class struggle. As any worker know, it is only our ability to make decisions autonomously that keeps industry going.
Rather than abolishing authority making large-scale industry impossible, it is the abolishing of autonomy which quickly achieves this. The issue is how do we organise industry so that this essential autonomy is respected and co-operation between workers achieved based on it. For anarchists, this is done by self-managed workers associations in which hierarchical authority is replaced by collective self-discipline.
As noted in the last section, Engels argued that applying the "forces of nature" meant "a veritable despotism independent of all social organisation." This meant that "[w]anting to abolish authority in large-scale industry is tantamount to wanting to abolish industry itself." [Op. Cit., p. 731]
For anarchists, Engels' comments ignore the reality of class society in an important way. Modern ("large-scale") industry has not developed neutrally or naturally, independently of all social organisation as Engels claimed. Rather it has been shaped by the class struggle along with technology (which is often a weapon in that conflict - see section D.10). As Castoriadis argued:
"Management organises production with a view of achieving 'maximum efficiency.' But the first result of this sort of organisation is to stir up the workers' revolt against production itself . . . To combat the resistance of the workers, the management institutes an ever more minute division of labour and tasks . . . Machines are invented, or selected, according to one fundamental criterion: Do they assist in the struggle of management against workers, do they reduce yet further the worker's margin of autonomy, do they assist in eventually replacing him [or her] altogether? In this sense, the organisation of production today . . . is class organisation. Technology is predominantly class technology. No . . . manager would ever introduce into his plant a machine which would increase the freedom of a particular worker or of a group of workers to run the job themselves, even if such a machine increased production.
"The workers are by no means helpless in this struggle. They constantly invent methods of self-defence. They break the rules, while 'officially' keeping them. They organise informally, maintain a collective solidarity and discipline." [The Meaning of Socialism, pp. 9-10]
So one of the key aspects of the class struggle is the conflict of workers against attempts by management to eliminate their autonomy within the production process. This struggle generates the machines which Engels claims produce a "veritable despotism independent of all social organisation." Regardless of what Engels implies, the way industry has developed is not independent of class society and its "despotism" has been engineered that way. For example, it may be a fact of nature that ten people may be required to operate a machine, but that machine is not such a fact, it is a human invention and so can be changed. Nor is it a fact of nature that work organisation should be based on a manager dictating to the workers what to do - rather it could be organised by the workers themselves, using collective self-discipline to co-ordinate their joint effort.
David Noble quotes one shop steward who stated the obvious, namely that workers are "not automatons. We have eyes to see with, ears to hear with, and mouths to talk." As Noble comments, "[f]or management . . . that was precisely the problem. Workers controlled the machines, and through their unions had real authority over the division of labour and job content." [Forces of Production, p. 37] This autonomy was what managers constantly struggled against and introduced technology to combat. So Engels' notion that machinery was "despotic" hides the nature of class society and the fact that authority is a social relationship, a relationship between people and not people and things. And, equally, that different kinds of organisation meant different social relationships to do collective tasks. It was precisely to draw attention to this that anarchists called themselves anti-authoritarians.
Clearly, Engels is simply ignoring the actual relations of authority within capitalist industry and, like the capitalism he claims to oppose, is raising the needs of the bosses to the plane of "natural fact." Indeed, is this not the refrain of every boss or supporter of capitalism? Right-wing "libertarian" guru Ludwig von Mises spouted this kind of nonsense when he argued that "[t]he root of the syndicalist idea is to be seen in the belief that entrepreneurs and capitalists are irresponsible autocrats who are free to conduct their affairs arbitrarily. . . . The fundamental error of this argument is obvious [sic!]. The entrepreneurs and capitalists are not irresponsible autocrats. They are unconditionally subject to the sovereignty of the consumers. The market is a consumers' democracy." [Human Action, p. 814] In other words, it is not the bosses fault that they dictate to the worker. No, of course not, it is the despotism of the machine, of nature, of the market, of the customer, anyone and anything but the person with authority who is actually giving the orders and punishing those who do not obey!
Needless to say, like Engels, von Mises is fundamentally flawed simply because the boss is not just repeating the instructions of the market (assuming that it is a "consumers' democracy," which it is not). Rather, they give their own instructions based on their own sovereignty over the workers. The workers could, of course, manage their own affairs and meet the demands of consumers directly. The "sovereignty" of the market (just like the "despotism" of machines and joint action) is independent of the social relationships which exist within the workplace, but the social relationships themselves are not predetermined by it. Thus the same workshop can be organised in different ways and so the way industry operates is dependent on social organisation. The workers can manage their own affairs or be subjected to the rule of a boss. To say that "authority" still exists simply means to confuse agreement with obedience.
The importance of differentiating between types of organisation and ways of making decisions can be seen from the experience of the class struggle. During the Spanish Revolution anarchists organised militias to fight the fascists. One was lead by anarchist militant Durruti. His military adviser, Pérez Farras, a professional soldier, was concerned about the application of libertarian principles to military organisation. Durruti replied:
"I've said it once and I'll say it again: I've been an anarchist my entire life and the fact that I'm responsible for this human collectivity won't change my convictions. It was as an anarchist that I agreed to carry out the task that the Central Committee of the Anti-Fascist Militias entrusted me.
"I don't believe - and everything happening around us confirms this - that you can run a workers' militia according to classic military rules. I believe that discipline, co-ordination, and planning are indispensable, but we shouldn't define them in terms taken from the world that we're destroying. We have to build on new foundations. My comrades and I are convinced that solidarity is the best incentive for arousing an individual's sense of responsibility and a willingness to accept discipline as an act of self-discipline.
"War has been imposed upon us . . . but our goal is revolutionary victory. This means defeating the enemy, but also a radical change in men. For that change to occur, man must learn to live and conduct himself as a free man, an apprenticeship that develops his personality and sense of responsibility, his capacity to be master of his own acts. The workers on the job not only transforms the material on which he works, but also transforms himself through that work. The combatant is nothing more than a worker whose tool is a rifle - and he should strive toward the same objective as a worker. One can't behave like an obedient soldier but rather as a conscious man who understands the importance of what he's doing. I know that it's not easy to achieve this, but I also know that what can't be accomplished with reason will not be obtained by force. If we have to sustain our military apparatus by fear, then we won't have changed anything except the colour of the fear. It's only by freeing itself from free that society can build itself in freedom." [quoted by Abel Paz, Durruti: In The Spanish Revolution, p. 474]
Is it really convincing to argue that the individuals who made up the militia are subject to the same social relationships as those in a capitalist or Leninist army? The same, surely, goes for workers associations and wage labour. Ultimately, the flaw in Engels' argument can be best seen simply because he thinks that the "automatic machinery of a big factory is much more despotic than the small capitalist who employ workers ever have been." [Op. Cit., p. 731] Authority and liberty become detached from human beings, as if authoritarian social relationships can exist independently of individuals! It is a social relationship anarchists oppose, not an abstraction.
Engels' argument is applicable to any society and to any task which requires joint effort. If, for example, a table needs four people to move it then those four people are subject to the "despotism" of gravity! Under such "despotism" can we say its irrelevant whether these four people are slaves to a master who wants the table moved or whether they agree between themselves to move the table and on the best way to do it? In both cases the table movers are subject to the same "despotism" of gravity, yet in the latter example they are not subject to the despotism of other human beings as they clearly are in the former. Engels is simply playing with words!
The fallacy of Engels' basic argument can be seen from this simple example. He essentially uses a liberal concept of freedom (i.e. freedom exists prior to society and is reduced within it) when attacking anarchism. Rather than see freedom as a product of interaction, as Bakunin did, Engels sees it as a product of isolation. Collective activity is seen as a realm of necessity (to use Marx's phrase) and not one of freedom. Indeed, machines and the forces of nature are considered by Engels' as "despots"! As if despotism were not a specific set of relationships between humans. As Bookchin argued:
"To Engels, the factory is a natural fact of technics, not a specifically bourgeois mode of rationalising labour; hence it will exist under communism as well as capitalism. It will persist 'independently of all social organisation.' To co-ordinate a factory's operations requires 'imperious obedience,' in which factory hands lack all 'autonomy.' Class society or classless, the realm of necessity is also a realm of command and obedience, of ruler and ruled. In a fashion totally congruent with all class ideologists from the inception of class society, Engels weds Socialism to command and rule as a natural fact. Domination is reworked from a social attribute into a precondition for self-preservation in a technically advanced society." [Towards an Ecological Society, p. 206]
Given this, it can be argued that Engels' "On Authority" had a significant impact in the degeneration of the Russian Revolution into state capitalism. By deliberately obscuring the differences between self-managed and authoritarian organisation, he helped provide Bolshevism with ideological justification for eliminating workers self-management in production. After all, if self-management and hierarchical management both involve the same "principle of authority," then it does not really matter how production is organised and whether industry is managed by the workers or by appointed managers (as Engels stressed, authority in industry was independent of the social system and all forms of organisation meant subordination). Murray Bookchin draws the obvious conclusion from Engels' (and Marx's) position: "Obviously, the factory conceived of as a 'realm of necessity' [as opposed to a 'realm of freedom'] requires no need for self-management." [Op. Cit., p. 126] Thus it is no great leap from the arguments of Engels in "On Authority" to Lenin's arguments justifying the imposition of capitalist organisational forms during the Russian Revolution:
"Firstly, the question of principle, namely, is the appointment of individuals, dictators with unlimited powers, in general compatible with the fundamental principles of Soviet government? . . . concerning the significance of individual dictatorial powers from the point of view of the specific tasks of the present moment, it must be said that large-scale machine industry - which is precisely the material source, the productive source, the foundation of socialism - calls for absolute and strict unity of will, which directs the joint labours of hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands of people . . . But how can strict unity of will be ensured? By thousands subordinating their will to the will of one . . . unquestioning subordination to a single will is absolutely necessary for the success of processes organised on the pattern of large-scale machine industry. On the railways it is twice and three times as necessary . . . Today . . . revolution demands - precisely in the interests of its development and consolidation, precisely in the interests of socialism - that the people unquestioningly obey the single will of the leaders of labour." [Collected Works, vol. 27, pp. 267-9]
Hence the Bolsheviks need not have to consider whether replacing factory committees with appointed managers armed with "dictatorial powers" would have any effect on the position of workers in socialism (after all, the were subject to subordination either way). Nor did they have to worry about putting economic power into the hands of a state-appointed bureaucracy as "authority" and subordination were required to run industry no matter what. Engels had used the modern factory system of mass production as a direct analogy to argue against the anarchist call for workers' councils, for autonomy, for participation, for self-management. Authority, hierarchy, and the need for submission and domination is inevitable given the current mode of production, both Engels and Lenin argued. Little wonder, then, the worker become the serf of the state under the Bolsheviks. In his own way, Engels contributed to the degeneration of the Russian Revolution by providing the rationale for the Bolsheviks disregard for workers' self-management of production.
Simply put, Engels was wrong. The need to co-operate and co-ordinate activity may be independent of social development, but the nature of a society does impact on how this co-operation is achieved. If it is achieved by hierarchical means, then it is a class society. If it is achieved by agreements between equals, then it is a socialist one. As such, how industry operates is dependent on the society it is part of. An anarchist society would run industry based on the free agreement of workers united in free associations. This would necessitate making and sticking to joint decisions but this co-ordination would be between equals, not master and servant. By not recognising this fact, Engels fatally undermined the cause of socialism.
Ironically, Engels' essay "On Authority" also strikes at the heart of Marxism and its critique of anarchism. Forgetting what he had written in 1873, Engels argued in 1894 that for him and Marx the "ultimate political aim is to overcome the whole state and therefore democracy as well." [quoted by Lenin, "State and Revolution", Essential Works of Lenin, p. 331] Lenin argued that "the abolition of the state means also the abolition of democracy." [Op. Cit., p. 332]
The problems arise from the awkward fact that Engels' "On Authority" had stated that any form of collective activity meant "authority" and so the subjection of the minority to the majority ("if possible") and "the imposition of the will of another upon ours." [Marx-Engels Reader, p. 731 and p. 730] Aware of the contradiction, Lenin stresses that "someone may even begin to fear we are expecting the advent of an order of society in which the subordination of the minority to the majority will not be respected." That was not the case, however. He simply rejected the idea that democracy was "the recognition of this principle" arguing that "democracy is a state which recognises the subordination of the minority to the majority, i.e. an organisation for the systematic use of violence by one class against the other, by one section of the population against another." He argued that "the need for violence against people in general, the need for the subjection of one man to another, will vanish, since people will become accustomed to observing the elementary conditions of social life without force and without subordination." [Op. Cit., pp. 332-3]
Talk about playing with words! Earlier in his work Lenin summarised Engels "On Authority" by stating that "is it not clear that . . . complex technical units, based on the employment of machinery and the ordered co-operation of many people, could function without a certain amount of subordination, without some authority or power." [Op. Cit., p. 316] Now, however, he argued that communism would involve no "subordination" while, at the same time, be based on the "the principle of the subordination of the minority to the majority"! A contradiction? Perhaps no, as he argued that the minority would "become accustomed" to the conditions of "social life" - in other words the recognition that sticking to your agreements you make with others does not involve "subordination." This, ironically, would confirm anarchist ideas as we argue that making agreements with others, as equals, does not involve domination or subordination but rather is an expression of autonomy, of liberty.
Similarly, we find Engels arguing in Anti-Duhring that socialism "puts an end to the former subjection of men to their own means of production" and that "productive labour, instead of being a means of subjugating men, will become a means of their emancipation." This work was written in 1878, six years after "On Authority" where he stressed that "the automatic machinery of a big factory is much more despotic than the small capitalists who employ workers ever have been" and "subdu[ing] the forces of nature . . . avenge themselves" upon "man" by "subjecting him . . . to a veritable despotism independent of all social organisation." [Op. Cit., p. 720, p. 721 and p. 731] Engels is clearly contradicting himself. When attacking the anarchists, he argues that the "subjection" of people to the means of production was inevitable and utterly "independent of all social organisation." Six years later he proclaims that socialism will abolish this inescapable subjection to the "veritable despotism" of modern industry!
As can be seen from both Engels and Lenin, we have a contradiction within Marxism. On the one hand, they argue that authority ("subjection") will always be with us, no matter what, as "subordination" and "authority" is independent of the specific social society we live in. On the other, they argue that Marxist socialism will be without a state, "without subordination", "without force" and will end the "subjection of men to their own means of production." The two positions cannot be reconciled.
Simply put, if "On Authority" is correct then, logically, it means that not only is anarchism impossible but also Marxist socialism. Lenin and Engels are trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, arguing that anarchism is impossible as any collective activity means subjection and subordination, on the other, that socialism will end that inevitable subjection. And, of course, arguing that democracy will be "overcome" while, at the same time, arguing that it can never be. Ultimately, it shows that Engels essay is little more than a cheap polemic without much merit.
Even worse for Marxism is Engels' comment that authority and autonomy "are relative things whose spheres vary with the various phases of society" and that "the material conditions of production and circulation inevitably develop with large-scale industry and large-scale agriculture, and increasingly tend to enlarge the scope of this authority." Given that this is "a veritable despotism" and Marxism aims at "one single vast plan" in modern industry, then the scope for autonomy, for freedom, is continually reduced during the working day. [Op. Cit., p. 732, p. 731 and p. 723] If machinery and industry means despotism, as Engels claimed against Bakunin, then what does that mean for Lenin's aim to ensure "the transformation of the whole state economic mechanism into a single huge machine . . . as to enable hundreds of millions of people to be guided by a single plan?" [Collected Works, vol. 27, pp. 90-1] Surely such an economy would be, to use Engels' words, a "a veritable despotism"?
The only possible solution is reducing the working day to a minimum and so the time spent as a slave to the machine (and plan) is reduced. The idea that work should be transformed into creative, empowering and liberating experience is automatically destroyed by Engels' argument. Like capitalism, Marxist-Socialism is based on "work is hell" and the domination of the producer. Hardly an inspiring vision of the future.
As well as the argument that "authority" is essential for every collective activity, Engels raises another argument against anarchism. This second argument is that revolutions are by nature authoritarian. In his words, a "revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon - authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror its arms inspire in the reactionaries." [Marx-Engels Reader, p. 733]
Yet such an analysis is without class analysis and so will, by necessity, mislead the writer and the reader. Engels argues that revolution is the imposition by "one part of the population" on another. Very true - but Engels fails to indicate the nature of class society and, therefore, of a social revolution. In a class society "one part of the population" constantly "imposes its will upon the other part" - those with power impose their decisions to those beneath them in the social hierarchy. In other words, the ruling class imposes its will on the working class everyday in work by the hierarchical structure of the workplace and in society by the state. Discussing the "population" as if it were not divided by classes and so subject to specific forms of authoritarian social relationships is liberal nonsense.
Once we recognise that the "population" in question is divided into classes we can easily see the fallacy of Engels argument. In a social revolution, the act of revolution is the overthrow of the power and authority of an oppressing and exploiting class by those subject to that oppression and exploitation. In other words, it is an act of liberation in which the hierarchical power of the few over the many is eliminated and replaced by the freedom of the many to control their own lives. It is hardly authoritarian to destroy authority! Thus a social revolution is, fundamentally, an act of liberation for the oppressed who act in their own interests to end the system in which "one part of population imposes its will upon the other" everyday.
Malatesta stated the obvious:
"To fight our enemies effectively, we do not need to deny the principle of freedom, not even for one moment: it is sufficient for us to want real freedom and to want it for all, for ourselves as well as for others.
"We want to expropriate the property-owning class, and with violence, since it is with violence that they hold on to social wealth and use it to exploit the working class. Not because freedom is a good thing for the future, but because it is a good thing, today as well as tomorrow, and the property owners, be denying us the means of exercising our freedom, in effect, take it away from us.
"We want to overthrow the government, all governments - and overthrow them with violence since it is by the use of violence that they force us into obeying - and once again, not because we sneer at freedom when it does not serve our interests but because governments are the negation of freedom and it is not possible to be free without getting rid of them . . .
"The freedom to oppress, to exploit . . . is the denial of freedom: and the fact that our enemies make irrelevant and hypocritical use of the word freedom is not enough to make us deny the principle of freedom which is the outstanding characteristic of our movement and a permanent, constant and necessary factor in the life and progress of humanity." [Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, p. 51]
It seems strange that Engels, in effect, is arguing that the abolition of tyranny is tyranny against the tyrants! As Malatesta so clearly argued, anarchists "recognise violence only as a means of legitimate self-defence; and if today they are in favour of violence it is because they maintain that slaves are always in a state of legitimate defence." [Op. Cit., p. 59] As such, Engels fails to understand the revolution from a working class perspective (perhaps unsurprisingly, as he was a capitalist). The "authority" of the "armed workers" over the bourgeois is, simply, the defence of the workers' freedom against those who seek to end it by exercising/recreating the very authoritarian social relationships the revolution sought to end in the first place. This explains why, as we discussed in section H.2.1 anarchists have always argued that a revolution would need to defend itself against those seeking to return the masses to their position at the bottom of the social hierarchy.
To equate the defence of freedom with "authority" is, in anarchist eyes, an expression of confused politics. Ultimately, Engels is like the liberal who equates the violence of the oppressed to end oppression with that the oppressors!
Needless to say, this applies to the class struggle as well. Is, for example, a picket line really authoritarian because it tries to impose its will on the boss, police or scabs? Rather, is it not defending the workers' freedom against the authoritarian power of the boss and their lackeys (the police and scabs)? Is it "authoritarian" to resist authority and create a structure - a strike assembly and picket line - which allows the formally subordinated workers to manage their own affairs directly and without bosses? Is it "authoritarian" to combat the authority of the boss, to proclaim your freedom and exercise it? Of course not.
Structurally, a strikers' assembly and picket line - which are forms of self-managed association - cannot be compared to an "authority" (such as a state). To try and do so fails to recognise the fundamental difference. In the strikers' assembly and picket line the strikers themselves decide policy and do not delegate power away into the hands of an authority (any strike committee executes the strikers decisions or is replaced). In a state, power is delegated into the hands of a few who then use that power as they see fit. This by necessity disempowers those at the base, who are turned into mere electors and order takers (i.e. an authoritarian relationship is created). Such a situation can only spell death of a social revolution, which requires the active participation of all if it is to succeed. It also, incidentally, exposes a central fallacy of Marxism, namely that it claims to desire a society based on the participation of everyone yet favours a form of organisation - centralisation - that excludes that participation.
Georges Fontenis summarises anarchist ideas on this subject when he wrote:
"And so against the idea of State, where power is exercised by a specialised group isolated from the masses, we put the idea of direct workers power, where accountable and controlled elected delegates (who can be recalled at any time and are remunerated at the same rate as other workers) replace hierarchical, specialised and privileged bureaucracy; where militias, controlled by administrative bodies such as soviets, unions and communes, with no special privileges for military technicians, realising the idea of the armed people, replace an army cut off from the body of Society and subordinated to the arbitrary power of a State or government." [Manifesto of Libertarian Communism, p. 24]
Anarchists, therefore, are no more impressed with this aspect of Engels critique than his "organisation equals authority" argument. In summary, his argument is simply a liberal analysis of revolution, totally without a class basis or analysis and so fails to understand the anarchist case nor answer it. To argue that a revolution is made up of two groups of people, one of which "imposes its will upon the other" fails to indicate the social relations that exist between these groups (classes) and the relations of authority between them which the revolution is seeking to overthrow. As such, Engels critique totally misses the point.
Anarchist FAQ Index
Table of Contents
Section A - What is anarchism?
Section B - Why do anarchists oppose the current system?
Section C - What are the myths of capitalist economics?
Section D - How do statism and capitalism affect society?
Section E - What do anarchists think causes ecological problems?
Section F - Is "anarcho"-capitalism a type of anarchism?
Section G - Is individualist anarchism capitalistic?
Section H - Why do anarchists oppose state socialism?
Section I - What would an anarchist society look like?
Section J - What do anarchists do?
Appendix - Anarchism and "Anarcho"-capitalism
Appendix - The Symbols of Anarchy
Appendix - Anarchism and Marxism
Appendix - The Russian Revolution