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Are "anti-authoritarians" the real left?

By Paul D'Amato | February 9, 2007 | Page 9

WHAT DOES it mean to be an "anti-authoritarian"? There are many activists who would claim to be one, and who would denounce what they call the "authoritarian" left.

For example, Thomas Good, editor of "Next Left Notes," an unofficial Students for a Democratic Society publication, calls "authoritarian," "vanguardist" left organizations "the fake left"--"the syphilis of the Movement" that "must be discredited and discarded."

The debates on the left around this question are quite old, going all the way back to Marx's day. The anarchist Bakunin, for example, called Marx and his associates "authoritarian communists," claiming that Marx worshipped state power.

Marx answered: "What all socialists understand by Anarchy is this," he wrote. "Once the aim of the proletarian movement, the abolition of classes, has been attained, the power of the State, which serves to keep the great majority of producers under the yoke of a numerically small exploiting minority, disappears, and the functions of government are transformed into simple administrative functions."

What irked Marx was that Bakunin "puts matters the other way round"--insisting on "anarchy" in ranks of the movement when it needed to be strong and centralized in order to challenge the state.

Being against all authority has a certain radical ring to it, but if strictly adhered to is a recipe for confusion. "As soon as something displeases the Bakuninists," Engels wrote in a letter to a comrade in 1871, "they say: it's authoritarian, and thereby imagine that they have damned it forever."

The reality--and this is why anarchists always disagree once they get involved in struggle--is that authority of some sort is inevitable. "No joint action of any sort," continued Engels, "is possible without imposing on some an extraneous will, i.e., an authority. Whether it be the will of a majority of voters, of a leading committee, or of one man, it is still a will imposed on the dissentients; but without that single and directing will, no cooperation is possible."

The passengers on a ship naturally cannot make decisions on questions of the ship's operation and navigation--they must submit to authority of the captain and crew on these matters. Traffic light systems require that all drivers submit without question, otherwise no one could drive a block without crashing.

Engels cites the example of a railway train. "I should very much to know whether the gallant Bakunin would entrust his large person to a railway carriage if that railway were administered according to principles by which nobody would be at his post if he did not please to submit to the authority of the regulations far more authoritarian in any possible state of society than those of the Basle Congress!" (A congress of the International Workingmen's Association).

Even the most open, democratic organization must be willing to impose rules--i.e., authority--over its members, and must reserve the right to exclude those it does not consider acceptable. Without that right, no organization can function properly. Yet, for anarchists, this is an insoluble dilemma. A principled anti-authoritarian must impose no organizational restrictions in order to be consistent.

Engels ridiculed this position thus: "If all Prussian officers were ordered to join the Social-Democratic organization in order to wreck it, the committee...must by no means keep them out, for this would amount to establishing a hierarchical and authoritarian organization!"

There are, of course, anarchists, who in the name of anti-authoritarianism, commit fairly obviously authoritarian (and sectarian) acts--for example when they attempt to restrict organizations only to so-called "anti-authoritarians" and thereby exclude socialists. But by so acting they have violated the first principle that they claim drives their politics.

All economic and political struggles are, in fact, authoritarian, in the sense that one group of people are attempting to impose, by direct action of some sort, their will on another. In a strike, the workers use the authority of the picket line to try and stop the scabs from getting in.

But nothing is more authoritarian than a revolution. "I believe the terms 'Authority' and centralization are being greatly abused," Engels wrote to an Italian socialist. "I know nothing more authoritarian than a revolution, and one's will is imposed on others with bombs and bullets, as in every revolution, it seems to me an act of authority is being committed."

"And when I am told," he concluded, "that authority and centralization are two things that should be condemned under all possible circumstances it seems to me that those who say so either do not know what a revolution is or are revolutionaries in name only."

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