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Is all organization authoritarian?

By Paul D'Amato | March 9, 2007 | Page 10

ANARCHISTS, LIKE socialists, look forward to a society free of exploitation and state coercion--though, as I pointed out in a previous article, anarchists claim that socialists are state-worshippers because they argue that the state as an instrument of coercion cannot be done away with until all the forces defending capitalist rule are neutralized.

In short, for Marxists, since the state is an instrument of class rule, it cannot be dismantled until class divisions disappear.

The error anarchism falls into is believing that the means to achieve a classless, stateless society themselves must prefigure the end result. Thus if we want to achieve a society based on free association, without coercion and without centralization, we must build organizations that are organized on these very same principles.

The "anarchy" of the future society must be reflected in practice by the movement that intends to establish it. This point of view dissolves as soon as it connects with real revolutionary movements, which are by definition coercive, i.e., seek to overthrow the existing social order. If revolution is necessary to dismantle the state and class divisions, then we are already admitting that coercive means are possible and necessary to achieve a society that aims to free ourselves from coercive social relations.

To the pacifist, of course, this is an old refrain--he who lives by the sword dies by the sword. But there are plenty of revolutionary anarchists who don't seem to understand the impossibility of their political standpoint--revolution without coercion is a contradiction in terms.

The problem is when anarchists extend a legitimate hatred of the authority of the policemen, the boss and the bureaucrat to a hatred of all forms of authority.

Take the example of a strike. To be effective, a strike must prevent other workers--scabs--from taking strikers' jobs. They must organize and set up picket lines to shut down production.

To the scab this is an imposition, an authoritarian act if you like, but it is absolutely necessary for the strikers if they are to win, that is, to impose their "authority" on the bosses.

Moreover, among the strikers themselves there is a need for organization and discipline. Even in the case of the most democratically run strike, in which the rank and file is in control, an elected strike committee--composed of the most experienced, committed and resourceful--is necessary to keep the strike effective. The fact that the committee is elected and under the control of the rank and file does not change the fact that the committee is invested with some authority to act.

In extreme cases, for example in a demonstration or picket attacked by police, a smaller body of people must be entrusted with the authority to direct the activities of the rest in order that the protests not dissolve or degenerate.

Decisions in the struggle, moreover, must be made swiftly and decisively. For socialists, that means debate followed by majority rule. For some anarchists, democracy is authoritarian--the rule of the majority over the minority. Consensus is a non-authoritarian form of decision-making. Leaving aside the fact that consensus takes far longer to reach than majority agreement, consensus decision-making is not in the least bit anti-authoritarian.

There are occasions when everyone truly agrees and the consensus is real (a case that democratic decision-making handles perfectly well). In many cases, however, consensus merely disguises the fact that the minority or the majority is compelled to change its viewpoint for the sake of something getting done after several hours of wrangling (at the end of which only the most committed are left in the room). Alternatively, one person can simply hold up the proceedings indefinitely.

In reality, not all means prefigure the end. The plough and tractor do not prefigure corn and wheat. The acts of a rapist and of someone trying to stop the rape are both acts of force, but each leads to a very different result. Means and ends, therefore, are not identical.

That does not mean there is not a thread that must connect the struggle today with the world we aim to create in the future. The existing state, for example, cannot be used to create a new society because it is an instrument for the suppression of the working class.

In every revolutionary upheaval, the oppressed and exploited have erected new, democratic forms of organization--councils, cordones, soviets; they have many names. These new forms of democratic organization have the potential to become alternative centers of power that can challenge the existing state and become the organizational basis for the erection of democratic, working-class rule.

Moreover, the collective struggle of the working class itself helps change consciousness and prepare ordinary people to be the masters of their own destiny. Revolutionary plans that claim to free the masses without the masses' own participation in the struggle are means that will not lead to the desired end.

But it would be suicidal to forget that the old order cannot be simply wished away. The armed power of the state demands strong, disciplined and centralized organization of hundreds of thousands of people to counter and ultimately defeat it.

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