Anarchism and Democracy

Anarchism is a social movement which advocates the abolition of all forms of domination and exploitation in favour of a society based on freedom, equality and co-operation. It holds that this goal can only be achieved if the hierarchical social structures of capitalism and the state are abolished and replaced by a socialist society organised via horizontal free association. Doing so requires a fundamental transformation in how organisations are structured and decisions are made. Capitalism and the state are hierarchical pyramids in which decision-making flows from the top to the bottom. They are based on a division between a minority who monopolise decision-making power and issue commands, and a majority who lack real decision-making power and must ultimately obey the orders of their superiors. A horizontal social structure, in comparison, is one where people collectively self-manage and co-determine the organisation as equals. In an anarchist society there would be no masters or subjects.

Modern anarchists often describe anarchism as democracy without the state. Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin argued in 1993 that “there is no democracy or freedom under government — whether in the United States, China or Russia. Anarchists believe in direct democracy by the people as the only kind of freedom and self-rule” (Ervin 1993. Also see Milstein 2010, 97-107). Perhaps the most famous advocate of this position was David Graeber. In 2013 Graeber argued that “Anarchism does not mean the negation of democracy”. It instead takes “core democratic principles to their logical conclusion” by proposing that collective decisions should be made via “nonhierarchical forms of direct democracy”. By “democracy” Graeber meant any system of “collective deliberation” based on “full and equal participation” (Graeber 2013, 154, 27, 186).

This endorsement of direct democracy is not a universal position among modern anarchists. A significant number of anarchists have argued that anarchism is fundamentally incompatible with, or at least distinct from, democracy. Their basic argument is that democracy means rule by the people or the majority, whilst anarchism advocates the abolition of all systems of rulership. The word anarchism itself derives from the ancient Greek work anarchos, which means without rulers. Within a democracy decisions are enforced on everyone within a given territory via institutionalised mechanisms of coercion, such as the law, army, police and prisons. Defenders of democracy take this coercive enforcement to be legitimate because the decisions were made democratically, such as every citizen having the right to participate in the decision-making process. Since such coercive enforcement is taken to be incompatible with anarchism’s commitment to free association, it follows that anarchism does not advocate democracy (Gordon 2008, 67-70; Crimethinc 2016).

Anarchists who advocate democracy without the state are themselves in favour of free association. Graeber, for example, advocates a society “where humans only enter those kinds of relations with one another that would not have to be enforced by the constant threat of violence”. As a result, he opposed any system of decision-making in which someone has “the ability . . . to call on armed men to show up and say ‘I don’t care what you have to say about this; shut up and do what you’re told’” (Graeber 2013, 187-8. Also see Milstein 2010, 60-2). Given this, the pro-democracy and anti-democracy anarchists I have examined are advocating the same position in different language. Both advocate collective methods of decision-making in which everyone involved has an equal say. Both argue that this should be achieved via voluntary association and reject the idea that decisions should be imposed on those who reject them via mechanisms of institutionalised coercion, such as the law or police. They just disagree about whether these systems should be called democracy because they use different definitions of that word.

During these debates it is common for anarchists to appeal to the fact that historical anarchists were against what they called democracy. Unfortunately these appeals to anarchist history are often a bit muddled due to people focusing on the words historical anarchists used, rather than their ideas. In this essay I shall explain not only what historical anarchists wrote about democracy but also how they made decisions. I do not think that the history of anarchism can be straight forwardly used to settle the debate on anarchism and democracy. My hope is only that an in-depth knowledge of anarchist history will help modern anarchists think about the topic in more fruitful ways.

The Historical Anarchist Critique of Democracy

The majority of historical anarchists only used the term ‘democracy’ to refer to a system of government which was, at least on paper, based on the rule of the people or the majority. Errico Malatesta wrote that, “anarchists do not accept majority government (democracy), any more than they accept government by the few (aristocracy, oligarchy, or dictatorship by one class or party) nor that of one individual (autocracy, monarchy or personal dictatorship)” (Malatesta 2014, 488). Malatesta did not invent these definitions. He is merely repeating the standard definitions of different forms of government in so called ‘western’ political theory. The same distinction between the government of the many, of the few, and of one individual can be found in earlier theorists such as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau (Hobbes 1998, 123; Locke 2016, 65-6; Rousseau 1999, 99-100). These standard definitions of different forms of government derived from ancient Greek sources, including Herodotus, Plato and Aristotle (Hansen 1991, 65-9).

The most famous example of a democracy in ancient Greece is Athens during the 5th century BC. In democratic Athens all major decisions were made by majority vote in an assembly attended by adult male citizens. Key government officials were selected at random by lot. The majority of the population – women, slaves, children and foreigners – were excluded and lacked decision-making power in the assembly (Hansen 1991, 304-20).  There is a tendency for modern radicals to argue that the example of 5th century Athens demonstrates that from a historical point of view true democracy is direct democracy. Doing so would be a mistake. As Raekstad has argued, in ancient Greece the word ‘democracy’ did not refer to a specific decision-making system. Ancient Greeks did not have our modern distinction between direct democracy and representative democracy. They instead viewed a city as a democracy if and only if it was ruled by its citizens or at least the majority of its citizens. As a result, cities with fundamentally different systems of decision-making could all be regarded as democracies providing that they were cities based on the collective self-rule of the citizenry (Raekstad 2020).

Aristotle, to give one example, does not only refer to cities where citizens debate and directly vote on decisions in an assembly as a ‘democracy’. He also used the term ‘democracy’ to refer to cities where citizens merely elected government officials who wielded decision-making power, and then held these government officials to account (Hansen 1991, 3; Aristotle 1998, 235-6). Aristotle did so even though he regarded selecting officials via lot as a democratic method and selecting officials via voting as an aristocratic or oligarchical method (ibid, 80-1, 153-5). The reason why is that for Aristotle the key question when determining what to label a city’s constitution is which group of people rule. If a city is ruled by the majority of its citizens, and these citizens are poor in the sense that they do not own a lot of property, then for Aristotle, it is a democracy independently of the decision-making mechanisms through which this rule is achieved (ibid, 100-2, 139-41). A modern person could of course disagree with Aristotle about whether or not citizens who elect representatives truly rule their city. Such a disagreement does not change the fact that in ancient Greece the word ‘democracy’ did not just mean what we call direct democracy.

Between the late 18th and mid 19th centuries the term ‘democracy’ gradually came to refer to governments ruled by parliaments composed of elected representatives who belonged to political parties. These governments claimed to be expressions of the will of the people. It should be kept in mind that these democratic governments were not initially based on universal suffrage. Representatives were at first elected by adult male property owners, who were a minority of the population. Over several decades of struggle from below suffrage was gradually expanded to include most or all adult men and then, largely after WW1, all adult men and women. The gradual expansion of suffrage went alongside various attempts by rulers to prevent genuine universal suffrage, such as wealthy property owners having multiple votes rather than only one, or black people being prevented from registering to vote in the United States (Markoff 2015, 41-76, 83-5, 136-40). This historical context is why when anarchists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries wrote critiques of ‘democracy’ they focused on the representative democracy of bourgeois parliaments, rather than the direct democracy of ancient Athens.

The historical anarchist critique of democracy so understood is as follows. Anarchists began by arguing that the government of the people was impossible. What defenders of democracy referred to as ‘the people’ was an abstraction which did not really exist. The actual population of a country is constituted by distinct individuals with different and contradictory ideas, needs and  aspirations. If people will never agree on everything, then there will never be a unanimous ‘will of the people’. There will only ever be multiple and incompatible wills of different segments of the people. The decisions of governments are imposed on everyone within a country via the law and the violent enforcers of the law, such as the police or judges. A democracy is therefore at best a system of government in which the will of the majority is violently imposed on the minority in the name of an abstraction called ‘the people’ (Malatesta 1995, 77-8).

Such a system of government was rejected by anarchists on the grounds that it is incompatible with freedom. Anarchists were committed to the view that everyone should be free and that, as a result, no one should be dominated.  As Alexander Berkman wrote, in an anarchist society, “[y]ou are to be entirely free, and everybody else is to enjoy equal liberty, which means that no one has a right to compel or force another, for coercion of any kind is interference with your liberty” (Berkman 2003, 156). In advocating this position anarchists were not arguing that violence is always wrong. They viewed violence as legitimate when it was necessary to establish or protect the equal freedom of all, such as in self-defence or to overthrow the ruling classes. (Malatesta 2014, 187-91) The violence of government, however, goes far beyond this since they are institutions which have the power, and claim the exclusive right to, impose their will on everyone within a given territory via force (ibid, 113, 136).

This was a form of domination which anarchists opposed irrespective of whether or not the government was ruled by a minority or a majority.  In Luigi Galleani’s words, even if “the rule of the majority over the minority” were “a mitigated form of tyranny, it would still represent a denial of freedom” (Galleani 2012, 42). Anarchists reject “the domination of a majority over the minority, we aspire to realise the autonomy of the individual within the freedom of association, the independence of his thought, of his life, of his development, of his destiny, freedom from violence, from caprice and from the domination of the majority, as well as of various minorities” (ibid 61. Also see ibid, 50). This opposition to the domination of the majority went alongside the awareness that majorities are often wrong and can have harmful views (Malatesta 2015, 63-4). In a homophobic and transphobic society, for example, the government of the majority would result in laws oppressing queer people.

Anarchists did not, however, think that modern states have ever been based on majority rule. They consistently described them as institutions based on minority rule by a political ruling class in their interests and the interests of the economic ruling class. This included self-described democratic governments. In 1873 Michael Bakunin wrote that,

modern capitalist production and bank speculation . . . get along very nicely, though, with so-called representative democracy. This latest form of the state, based on the pseudo-sovereignty of a sham popular will, supposedly expressed by pseudo-representatives of the people in sham popular assemblies, combines the two main conditions necessary for their success: state centralization, and the actual subordination of the sovereign people to the intellectual minority that governs them, supposedly representing them but invariably exploiting them (Bakunin 1990, 13).

Given this Bakunin thought that,

Between a monarchy and the most democratic republic there is only one essential difference: in the former, the world of officialdom oppresses and robs the people for the greater profit of the privileged and propertied classes, as well as to line its own pockets, in the name of the monarch; in the latter, it oppresses and robs the people in exactly the same way, for the benefit of the same classes and the same pockets, but in the name of the people’s will. In a republic a fictitious people, the ‘legal nation’ supposedly represented by the state, smothers the real, live people. But it will scarcely be any easier on the people if the cudgel with which they are beaten is called the people’s cudgel (Bakunin 1990, 23).

The same position was advocated by Malatesta. He wrote in 1924 that, “even in the most democratic of democracies it is always a small minority that rules and imposes its will and interests by force”. As a result “Democracy is a lie, it is oppression and is in reality, oligarchy; that is, government by the few to the advantage of a privileged class” (Malatesta 1995, 78, 77. Also see Berkman 2003, 71-3). The anarchist critique of democratic governments should not be interpreted as the claim that all forms of government are equally bad. Both Bakunin and Malatesta also claimed that the worst democracy was preferable to the best monarchy or dictatorship (Bakunin 1980, 144; Malatesta 1995, 77).

Given their analysis of the state as an institution which serves the interests of the capitalist class, anarchists concluded that a truly democratic government, where the majority rule, could only possibly be established in a socialist society based on the common ownership of the means of production (Malatesta 1995, 73). They did not, however, think that this could actually happen. Since the modern state is a centralised and hierarchical institution which rules over an extended area of territory, it follows that state power can only in practice be wielded by a minority of elected representatives. These representatives would not be mere delegates mandated to complete a specific tasks. They would be governors who had the power to issue commands and impose their will on others via force or the threat of it. As a result they would constitute a distinct political ruling class. Over time these representatives would be transformed by the activity of exercising state power and become primarily concerned with reproducing and expanding their power over the working classes (Baker 2019).

In rejecting what they called democracy, historical anarchists were not rejecting the idea that collective decisions should be made in general assemblies. Historical anarchists consistently argued that in an anarchist society collective decisions would be made in workplace and community assemblies. Anarchists referred to these assemblies using various terms, such as labour councils,  communes, and associations of production and consumption (Rocker 2004, 47-8; Malatesta 2014, 60; Goldman 1996, 68). The National Confederation of Labour (CNT), which was a Spanish anarcho-syndicalist trade union, proposed in its 1936 Zaragoza congress resolutions that decisions in a libertarian communist society would be made in “general assemblies”, “communal assemblies” and “popular assemblies” (Peirats 2011, 103, 105, 107).

A few historical anarchists did refer to anarchism as democracy without the state but they were in the minority. During the 1930s the Russian anarcho-syndicalist Gregori Maximoff rejected both “Bourgeois democracy” and the “democracy” of “the Soviet republic” on the grounds that, contrary to what they claimed, they were not based on the genuine rule of the people. They were instead states in which a minority ruling class exercised power in order to reproduce the domination and exploitation of the working class. Given this, Maximoff advocated the abolition of the state in favour of the self-management of society via federations of  workplace and community councils. He regarded such a system of self-management as genuine democracy. He wrote, “true democracy, developed to its logical extreme, can become a reality only under the conditions of a communal confederation. This democracy is Anarchy” (Maximoff 2015, 37-8). On another occasion Maximoff declared that “Anarchism is, in the final analysis, nothing but democracy in its purest and most extreme form” (Maximoff n.d., 19). In arguing that anarchism was “true democracy” Maximoff was not advocating different forms of association or decision-making to other anarchists. He was only using different language to describe the same anarchist ideas.

The majority of anarchists did not refer to an anarchist society as ‘true democracy’ because for them ‘democracy’ necessarily referred to a system of government. A key reason why historical anarchists associated ‘democracy’ with government was that anarchism as a social movement emerged in parallel with, and in opposition to, another social movement called Social Democracy. Although the term ‘social democracy’ has come to mean any advocate of a capitalist welfare state, it originally referred to a kind of revolutionary socialist who aimed at the abolition of all forms of class rule. In order to achieve this goal Social Democrats argued that the working class should organise into trade unions and form socialist political parties which engaged in electoral politics. This was viewed as the means through which the working class would both win immediate improvements, such as the eight hour day or legislation against child labour, and overthrow class society through the conquest of state power and the establishment of a workers’ state. Social Democrats argued that in so doing socialist political parties would overthrow bourgeois democracy and establish social or proletarian democracy (Taber 2021). Anarchists responded by making various arguments against Social Democracy, such as critiques of trying to achieve socialism via the conquest of state power. The consequence of this is that one of the main occasions when historical anarchists used the words ‘democracy’ and ‘democrat’ was when they were referring to Social Democracy (Kropotkin 2014, 371-82; Berkman 2003, 89-102).

One of the great ironies of history is that the Russian anarchist Michael Bakunin initially used the language of ‘democracy’. In 1868 he co-founded an organisation called The Alliance of Socialist Democracy and wrote a programme for it which committed the group to the goal of abolishing capitalism and the state (Eckhart 2016, 3; Bakunin 1973, 173-5). The language of ‘democracy’ was echoed by the anarchist led Spanish section of the 1st International even though it was formally opposed to the strategy of electoral politics. The September 1871 resolutions of the Valencia Conference declared that “the real Federal Democratic Republic is common property, anarchy and economic federation, or in other words the free worldwide federation of free agricultural and industrial worker’s associations” (Eckhart 2016, 166. For resolutions against electoral politics see ibid, 160). This language did not catch on among anarchists and by 1872 Bakunin had definitely abandoned it. This can be seen in the fact that when he founded a new organisation, which he viewed as the successor to the original Alliance, he decided to name it the Alliance of Social Revolutionaries (Bakunin 1990, 235-6, note 134; Eckhart 2016, 355).

Historical Anarchist Methods of Decision-Making

Having established what historical anarchists thought about democracy, I shall now turn to their views on collective systems of decision-making. Historical anarchists proposed a variety of different mechanisms through which decisions in general assemblies could be made. It can be difficult to establish how exactly historical anarchists made decisions because it is a topic which does not appear frequently in surviving articles, pamphlets or books. Those sources which are available do nonetheless establish a number of clear positions. Some anarchists advocated majority vote, whilst other anarchists advocated unanimous decisions in which everyone involved had to agree on a proposal. Other anarchists advocated both depending upon the context, such as the size of an organisation or the kind of decision being made. It should be kept in mind that what historical anarchists referred to as systems of ‘unanimous agreement’ was not modern consensus decision-making in different language. I have found no evidence of historical anarchists using the key features of consensus as a process, such as the specific steps a facilitator moves the meeting through or the distinction between standing aside and blocking a proposal.

Malatesta advocated a combination of unanimous agreement and majority voting. He wrote that in an anarchist society “everything is done to reach unanimity, and when this is impossible, one would vote and do what the majority wanted, or else put the decision in the hands of a third party who would act as arbitrator” (Malatesta n.d., 30). This position was articulated in response to other anarchists who thought that all decisions should be made exclusively by unanimous agreement and rejected the use of voting. He recalled that,

in 1893 . . . there were many Anarchists, and even at present there are a few, who, mistaking the form for the essence, and laying more stress on words than on things, made for themselves a sort of ritual of ‘true’ anarchism, which held them in bondage, which paralyzed their power of action, and even led them to make absurd and grotesque assertions. Thus going from the principle: The Majority has no right to impose its will on the minority; they came to the conclusion that nothing should ever be done without the unanimous consent of all concerned. But as they had condemned political elections, which serve only to choose a master, they could not use the ballot as a mere expression of opinion, and considered every form of voting as anti-anarchistic (Malatesta 2016, 17. Also see Turcato 2012, 141).

This opposition to all forms of voting allegedly led to farcical situations. This included endless meetings where nothing was agreed and groups forming to publish a paper and then dissolving without having published anything due to minor disagreements (Malatesta 2016, 17-8). From these experiences Malatesta concluded that “social life” would be impossible if “united action” was only allowed to occur when there was “unanimous agreement”. In situations where it was not possible to implement multiple solutions simultaneously or effective solidarity required a uniform action, “it is reasonable, fair and necessary for the minority to defer to the majority” (Malatesta 2016, 19). To illustrate this point Malatesta gave the example of constructing a railway. He wrote,

If a railroad, for instance, were under consideration, there would be a thousand questions as to the line of the road, the grade, the material, the type of the engines, the location of the stations, etc., etc., and opinions on all these subjects would change from day to day, but if we wish to finish the railroad we certainly cannot go on changing everything from day to day, and if it is impossible to exactly suit everybody, it is certainly better to suit the greatest possible number; always, of course, with the understanding that the minority has all possible opportunity to advocate its ideas, to afford them all possible facilities and materials to experiment, to demonstrate, and to try to become a majority (Malatesta 2016, 18-9).

This is not to say that Malatesta viewed an anarchist society as one where people voted on every decision. He thought that farmers, for example, would not need to vote on what season to plant crops since this is something they already know the answer to. Given this, Malatesta predicted that over time people would need to vote on fewer decisions due to them learning the best solution to various problems from experience (Malatesta n.d., 30).

Malatesta was not alone in disagreeing with anarchists who opposed all systems of voting. During the 1907 International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam, the Belgian anarchist Georges Thonar argued that the participants should not engage in voting and declared himself “opposed to any vote”. The minutes of the congress claim that this caused “a minor incident. Some participants applaud noisily, while lively protest is also to be heard” (Antonioli 2009, 90). The French anarchist and revolutionary syndicalist Pierre Monatte then gave the following speech,

I cannot understand how yesterday’s vote can be considered anti-anarchist, in other words authoritarian. It is absolutely impossible to compare the vote with which an assembly decides a procedural question to universal suffrage or to parliamentary polls. We use votes at all times in our trade unions and, I repeat, I do not see anything that goes against our anarchist principles.

There are comrades who feel the need to raise questions of principle on everything, even the smallest things. Unable as they are to understand the spirit of our anti-parliamentarianism, they place importance on the mere act of placing a slip of paper in an urn or raising one’s hand to show one’s opinion (Antonioli 2009, 90-1).

Malatesta’s advocacy of majority voting was also shared by other anarchists. The Ukrainian anarchist Peter Arshinov wrote in 1928 that “[a]lways and everywhere, practical problems among us have been resolved by majority vote. Which is perfectly understandable, for there is no other way of resolving these things in an organization that is determined to act” (Arshinov 1928, 241).

The same commitment to majority voting was implemented in the CNT, which had a membership of 850,000 by February 1936. (Ackelsberg 2005, 62) The anarchist José Peirats explained the CNT’s system of decision-making as follows. The CNT was a confederation of trade unions which were “autonomous units” linked together “only by the accords of a general nature adopted at national congresses, whether regular or extraordinary”. As a result of this, individual unions were “free to reach any decision which is not detrimental to the organisation as a whole”. The “guidelines of the Confederation” were decided and directly regulated by the autonomous trade unions themselves. This was achieved through a system in which “the basis for any local, regional, or national decision” was “the general assembly of the union, where every member has the right to attend, raise and discuss issues, and vote on proposals”. The “resolutions” of these assemblies were “adopted by majority vote attenuated by proportional representation”. The agenda of regional or national congresses were “devised by the assemblies” themselves. These general assemblies in turn “debated” each topic on the agenda and after reaching an agreement amongst themselves elected mandated delegates to attend the congress as “the executors of their collective will” (Peirats 2011, 5).

Anarchists who advocated majority voting disagreed about whether or not decisions passed by majority vote should be binding on everyone involved in the decision-making process, or only those who had voted in favour of them. Malatesta argued that the congress resolutions of a federation should only be binding on the sections who had voted for them. He wrote in 1900 that since a federation is a free association which does not have the right “to impose upon the individual federated members” it followed that “any group just like any individual must not accept any collective resolution unless it is worthwhile and agreeable to them”. As a result, decisions made at the federation’s congresses, which were attended by mandated delegates representing each group that composed the federation, were “binding only to those who accept them, and only for as long as they accept them” (Malatesta 2019, 210, 206).

Malatesta repeated this view in 1927. He claimed that congresses of specific anarchist organisations, which are organisations composed exclusively of anarchist militants, “do not lay down the law” or “impose their own resolutions on others”. Their resolutions are only “suggestions, recommendations, proposals to be submitted to all involved, and do not become binding and enforceable except on those who accept them, and for as long as they accept them”. (Malatesta 2014, 489-90) The function of congresses was to,

maintain and increase personal relationships among the most active comrades, to coordinate and encourage programmatic studies on the ways and means of taking action, to acquaint all on the situation in the various regions and the action most urgently needed in each; to formulate the various opinions current among the anarchists and draw up some kind of statistics from them. (ibid, 489. See also ibid, 439-40)

Malatesta’s position on congress resolutions should not be interpreted as the claim that a person could do whatever they wanted within an organisation without consideration for the organisation’s common programme or how their actions effected others. In 1929 he clarified that within an organisation each member should “feel the need to coordinate his actions with those of his fellow members”, “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”. He thought that people “who do not feel and do not practice that duty should be thrown out of the association” (Malatesta 1995, 107-8).

A more concrete understanding of what this position on congress resolutions looked like can be established by examining actual anarchist congresses. In 1907 anarchist delegates representing groups in Europe, the United States and Argentina attended the previously mentioned International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam. Proposals or resolutions at the congress were adopted by majority vote and each delegate had a single vote. How this was implemented varied depending upon the kind of decision being made. On the first day of the congress there was a disagreement about the agenda. One faction proposed that the topic of anti-militarism should be removed from the agenda and that this topic should instead be discussed at the separate congress of the International Antimilitarist Association. The other faction argued that the anarchists would have to formulate a position on anti-militarism at their anarchist congress before they attended a distinct congress attended by people who were not anarchists. The first proposal won 33 votes and the second 38 votes. Since only one proposal could be implemented the majority position won and the congress included anti-militarism on its agenda (Antonioli 2009, 36-7. For the later discussion on anti-militarism see ibid, 137-8).

Over several days the congress passed a variety of resolutions via majority vote. These resolutions were not binding on the minority. As the Dutch delegate Christiaan Cornelissen explained, “[v]oting is to be condemned only if it binds the minority. This is not the case here, and we are using the vote as an easy means of determining the size of the various opinions that are being confronted” (ibid, 91). The proposed resolution against alcohol consumption was not even put to a formal vote due to almost every delegate being opposed to it (ibid, 150-52). In situations where there was no need to have a single resolution, multiple resolutions were passed providing that each received a majority vote. This occurred when four slightly different resolutions on syndicalism and the general strike were adopted (ibid, 132-5). The congress minutes respond to this situation by claiming,

The reader may be rather surprised that these four motions could have all been passed, given the evident contradictions between them. It defies the parliamentary norm, but it is a conscious transgression. In order that the opinion of the majority not suffocate, or seem to suffocate, that of the minority, the majority presented the single motions one by one for vote. All four had a majority of votes for. In consequence, all four were approved (ibid, 135).

Other anarchists argued that decisions passed by majority vote should be binding on every member of the organisation. In June 1926 a group of anarchists, who had participated in the Russian revolution and been forced to flee to Paris to escape Bolshevik repression, issued the Organisational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists (Draft). The text made a series of proposals about how specific anarchist organisations should be structured. This included the position that the collectively made decisions of congresses should be binding on every section and member of a specific anarchist organisation such that everyone involved is expected to carry out the majority decision. The platform states that,

such an agreement and the federal union based on it, will only become reality, rather than fiction or illusion, on the conditions sine qua non that all the participants in the agreement and the Union fulfil most completely the duties undertaken, and conform to communal decisions. In a social project, however vast the federalist basis on which it is built, there can be no decisions without their execution. It is even less admissible in an anarchist organisation, which exclusively takes on obligations with regard to the workers and their social revolution. Consequently, the federalist type of anarchist organisation, while recognising each member’s rights to independence, free opinion, individual liberty and initiative, requires each member to undertake fixed organisation duties, and demands execution of communal decisions (The Group of Russian Anarchists Abroad 1926a. Also see Arshinov 1928, 240-1).

Within a specific anarchist organisation differences of opinion about its programme, tactics and strategy would of course emerge. In such situations the authors of The Platform later clarified that there were three main potential outcomes. In the case of “insignificant differences” the minority would defer to the majority position in order to maintain “the unity” of the organisation. If “the minority were to consider sacrificing its view point an impossibility” then further “discussion” would occur. This would either culminate in an agreement being formed such that “two divergent opinions and tactics” co-existed with one another or there would be “a split with the minority breaking away from the majority to found a separate organisation” (Group of Russian Anarchists Abroad 1926b, 218).

The position that decisions passed by majority vote should be binding on every member of the organisation was not a uniquely platformist one. The CNT’s constitution, which was printed on each membership card, declared that “Anarcho-syndicalism and anarchism recognise the validity of majority decisions”. Although the CNT recognised “the sovereignty of the individual” and a militant’s right to have their own point of view and defend it, members of the CNT were “obliged to comply with majority decisions” and “accept and agree to carry out the collective mandate taken by majority decision” even when they are against a militant’s “own feelings”. This position was justified on the grounds that, “[w]ithout this there is no organisation” (Quoted in Peirats 1974, 19-20).

Members of the CNT did nonetheless disagree about whether or not this system of majority voting, in which decisions were binding on all members, should be applied to much smaller specific anarchist organisations. The Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) was a specific anarchist organisation composed of affinity groups. These affinity groups had between 4 and 20 members. The FAI initially made most of their decisions via unanimous agreement and rarely used voting. In 1934 the Z and Nervio affinity groups pushed for the FAI to adopt binding agreements established through majority vote. The Afinidad affinity group agreed with the necessity of such a system within the CNT but opposed it being implemented within small specific anarchist organisations or affinity groups. After a confrontational FAI meeting Afinidad left the organisation in protest (Ealham 2015, 77; Guillamón 2014, 28-9).

Conclusion

Having systematically gone through the evidence, it is clear that modern and historical anarchists advocate the same core positions. What many modern anarchists label as democracy without the state, historical anarchists just called free association or anarchy. At least one historical anarchist, Maximoff, referred to anarchism as democracy without the state several decades before it became a popular expression. Historical anarchists made decisions via majority vote, unanimous agreement or a combination of the two. Modern anarchists use the same basic systems of decision-making. The main difference is that modern anarchists often use consensus decision-making processes, which historical anarchists did not use.

This, in turn, raises the question of whether or not anarchists should use the language of democracy. In a society where people have been socialised to view democracy as a good thing, it can be beneficial to describe anarchism as a kind of direct democracy. Yet doing so also comes with potential downsides, such as people confusing anarchism for the idea that society should be run by an extremely democratic state that makes decisions within general assemblies and then imposes these decisions on everyone via the institutionalised violence of the law, police and prisons. Independently of what language modern anarchists choose to use, our task remains the same as historical anarchists: during the course of the class struggle we must develop, through a process of experimentation in the present, the forms of association, deliberation and decision-making which simultaneously enable effective action and prefigure a society with neither master nor subject.

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Antonioli, Maurizio, ed. The International Anarchist Congress Amsterdam (1907). Edmonton: Black Cat Press, 2009.

Aristotle. 1998. Politics. Translated by Ernest Barker. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Arshinov, Peter. 1928. “The Old and New in Anarchism: Reply to Comrade Malatesta (May 1928).” In Facing the Enemy: A History of Anarchist Organisation from Proudhon to May 1968, edited by Alexandre Skirda, 237–42. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2002.

Baker, Zoe. 2019. Means and Ends: The Anarchist Critique of Seizing State Power.

Bakunin, Michael. 1973. Selected Writings. Edited by Arthur Lehning. London: Jonathan Cape.

Bakunin, Michael. 1980. Bakunin on Anarchism. Edited by Sam Dolgoff. Montréal: Black Rose Books.

Bakunin, Michael. 1990. Statism and Anarchy. Edited by Marshall Shatz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Berkman, Alexander. 2003. What is Anarchism? Oakland, CA: AK Press

Crimethinc. 2016. From Democracy to Freedom.

Ealham, Chris. 2015. Living Anarchism: José Peirats and the Spanish Anarcho-Syndicalist Movement. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Eckhart, Wolfgang. 2016. The Fist Socialist Schism: Bakunin VS. Marx in the International Working Men’s Association. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Ervin. Lorenzo Kom’boa. 1993. Anarchism and the Black Revolution.

Galleani, Luigi. 2012. The End of Anarchism?. London: Elephant Editions.

Goldman, Emma. 1996. Red Emma Speaks: An Emma Goldman Reader. Edited by Alix Kates Shulman. 3rd ed. New Jersey: Humanities Press.

Gordon, Uri. 2008. Anarchy Alive:Anti-authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory. London: Pluto Press.

Graeber, David. 2013. The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement. London: Allen Lane.

Guillamón, Agustín. 2014. Ready for Revolution: The CNT Defence Committees in Barcelona 1933-1938. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Hansen, Mogens Herman. 1991. The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes: Structure, Principles and Ideology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Hobbes, Thomas. 1998. Leviathan. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kropotkin, Peter. 2014. Direct Struggle Against Capital: A Peter Kropotkin Anthology. Edited by Iain McKay. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Locke, John. 2016. Second Treatise of Government and Letter Concerning Toleration. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Maximoff, Gregori. 2015. Program of Anarcho-Syndicalism. Guillotine Press

Maximoff, Gregori. n.d. Constructive Anarchism.

Malatesta, Errico. n.d. Between Peasants: A Dialogue on Anarchy. Johannesburg: Zabalaza Books.

Malatesta, Errico. 1995. The Anarchist Revolution: Polemical Articles 1924-1931. Edited by Vernon Richards. London: Freedom Press.

Malatesta, Errico. 2014. The Method of Freedom: An Errico Malatesta Reader. Edited by Davide Turcato. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Malatesta, Errico. 2015. Life and Ideas: The Anarchist Writings of Errico Malatesta. Edited by Vernon Richards. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Malatesta, Errico. 2016. A Long and Patient Work: The Anarchist Socialism of L’Agitazione 1897-1898. Edited by Davide Turcato. Chico, CA: AK Press.

Malatesta, Errico. 2019. Towards Anarchy: Malatesta in America 1899-1900. Edited by Davide Turcato. Chico, CA: AK Press.

Markoff, John. 2015. Waves of Democracy: Social Movements and Political Change. Paradigm Publishers.

Milstein, Cindy. 2010. Anarchy and Its Aspirations. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Peirats, José. 1974. What is the C.N.T?. London: Simian.

Peirats, José. 2011. The CNT in the Spanish Revolution Volume 1. Edited by Chris Ealham. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Taber, Mike, ed. 2021. Under the Socialist Banner: Resolutions of the Second International 1889-1912. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

The Group of Russian Anarchists Abroad. 1926a. The Organisational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists.

The Group of Russian Anarchists Abroad. 1926b. “Supplement to the Organisational Platform”. In Facing the Enemy: A History of Anarchist Organisation from Proudhon to May 1968, edited by Alexandre Skirda, 214–23. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2002.

Turcato, Davide. 2012. Making Sense of Anarchism: Errico Malatesta’s Experiments With Revolution, 1889-1900. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Raekstad, Paul. 2020. “Democracy Against Representation: A Radical Realist View”. Abolition: A Journal of Insurgent Politics.

Rocker, Rudolf. 2004. Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1999. Discourse on Political Economy and The Social Contract. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Anarchists Are Not Naive About Human Nature

In the popular imagination anarchists are assumed to be naive optimists. It is thought that anyone who thinks humans can live a good life without capitalism and the state must do so because they think humans are angels who are naturally caring and benevolent. Anarchists in the 19th and early 20th centuries in fact had a very nuanced understanding of human nature.

Anarchists thought that all human beings across all societies have some characteristics in common. Michael Bakunin wrote that the key elements of “human existence” will “always remain the same: to be born, to develop and grow; to work in order to eat and drink, in order to have shelter and defend oneself, in order to maintain one’s individual existence in the social equilibrium of his own species, to love, reproduce and then to die”. (Bakunin 1964, 85-6) The exact same point is made by Rudolf Rocker. He claimed that,

We are born, absorb nourishment, discard the waste material, move, procreate and approach dissolution without being able to change any part of the process. Necessities eventuate here which transcend our will . . . We are not compelled to consume our food in the shape nature offers it to us or to lie down to rest in the first convenient place, but we cannot keep from eating or sleeping, lest our physical existence should come to a sudden end. (Rocker 1937, 24)

Since these common characteristics are constant across all human beings they must stem from certain basic facts about human biology. Anarchists did not, however, regard human nature as a static unchanging entity. Humans are, just like all species of animal, subject to evolutionary change via various processes including natural selection. As a result of this, Peter Kropotkin thought that there were “fundamental features of human character” which could “only be mediated by a very slow evolution”. (Kropotkin 1895) Nor did anarchists view human nature as an abstract essence which exists outside of history. Anarchists distinguished between the innate characteristics which constitute all human beings and the manner in which these innate characteristics are developed during a person’s life within a historically specific society. Bakunin thought that although humans possessed innate “faculties and dispositions” which are “natural” it was “the organisation of society” which “develops them, or on the other hand halts, or falsifies their development”. Given this, “all individuals, with no exception, are at every moment of their lives what Nature and society have made them”. (Bakunin 1964, 155) Kropotkin similarly wrote that “man is a result of both his inherited instincts and his education”. (Kropotkin 2006, 228)

Anarchists thought that one of the main processes which modifies and develops the innate characteristics of human nature is human activity itself. Anarchists conceptualised human activity in terms of practice. Humans engage in practice when they deploy their capacities to satisfy a psychological drive and through doing so change the world and themselves simultaneously. For example, when a person makes a sandwich they deploy their relevant capacities, such as being able to spread jam on bread, in order to satisfy their drive for a jam sandwich. In so doing they change the world – a jam sandwich now exists where before there was none – and they change themselves – they acquire the drive to have sandwiches with other kinds of jam or reproduce their capacity to make a sandwich. This idea can be seen in Kropotkin’s advocacy of “teaching which, by the practice of the hand on wood, stone, metal, will speak to the brain and help to develop it” and thereby produce a child whose brain is “developed at once by the work of hand and mind”. (Kropotkin 2014, 645)

If the capacities and drives a person has are continually determined by practice, and the practice people engage in varies across different social and historical contexts, then what capacities and drives people have, in turn, varies both socially and historically. This idea can be clearly seen in anarchist discussions of psychological drives, which were historically called needs. Luigi Galleani thought that when a human being develops themselves they acquire “a series of ever-more, growing and varied needs claiming satisfaction” which “vary, not only according to time and place, but also according to the temperament, disposition and development of each individual”. (Galleani 2012, 43, 45)

The consequence of the theory of practice was that even capacities and drives which are universal among human beings are always mediated through and developed by historically specific forms of practice. All human being, for example, have the drive to consume water but how they do so and what specific kinds of liquid they have a drive to consume varies between and within societies. One person may satisfy their drive for liquid through drinking tea from a mug, whilst another person drinks milk from a glass through a straw. The universal capacities and drives which all human beings possess (except in cases of pathology) are, in turn, what enable people within specific contexts to develop historically specific capacities and drives. The universal capacity to acquire language, for example, enables human beings to invent, learn and alter a vast array of different specific languages such as French, Mandarin and Welsh. The characteristics which all humans have in common are, in other words, the foundation from which the great diversity of human life emerges. The extent to which anarchists thought this was the case can be seen in the fact that several anarchists claim that there is an infinite number of different kinds of person. Errico Malatesta, for example, wrote that in an anarchist society “the full potential of human nature could develop in its infinite variations”. (Malatesta 2014, 402)

This was not to say that humans could transform themselves into anything they wanted. The nature of the innate characteristics which constitute all human beings places definite limits on what they can be shaped into. Humans cannot morph their arms into wings, their feet into claws or their hair into feathers. Although a human can develop themselves in many different directions, the scope of what they can possibly become is limited by the kind of animal that they are. As Rocker wrote, “man is unconditionally subject only to the laws of his physical being. He cannot change his constitution. He cannot suspend the fundamental conditions of his physical being nor alter them according to his wish”. (Rocker 1937, 27)

Anarchists thought that human beings were social animals who had a tendency to engage in two main kinds of behaviour: struggle and co-operation. Malatesta wrote that humans possessed the “harsh instinct of wanting to predominate and to profit at the expense of others” and “the thirst for domination, rivalry, envy and all the unhealthy passions which set man against man”. These negative passions co-existed with “another feeling which draws him closer to his neighbour, the feeling of sympathy, tolerance, of love”. As a result human history contained “violence, wars, carnage (besides the ruthless exploitation of the labour of others) and innumerable tyrannies and slavery” alongside “mutual aid, unceasing and voluntary exchange of services, affection, love, friendship and all that which draws people closer together in brotherhood”. From these facts Malatesta drew the conclusion that human beings were “a social animal whose existence depends on the continued physical and spiritual relations between human beings” which are “based either on affinity, solidarity and love, or on hostility and struggle”. (Malatesta 2015, 65-6, 68)

The same position was advocated by Kropotkin. It is sometimes falsely claimed that Kropotkin only focused on the second tendency of human beings to co-operate with one another and ignored the darker side of human nature. This stems from a lack of familiarity with Kropotkin’s book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. As the book’s subtitle and introduction makes clear, Kropotkin thought that mutual aid was one among several factors of evolution, rather than the sole factor. (Kropotkin 2006, xvii-xviii). Kropotkin expanded upon this point in chapter 1. He argued that a naturalist would be wrong to view “the life of animals” as only “a field of slaughter” or “nothing but harmony and peace”. (Kropotkin 2006, 4) The animal world instead featured both conflict and co-operation. He wrote,

as we study animals . . . we at once perceive that though there is an immense amount of warfare and extermination going on amidst various species, and especially amidst various classes of animals, there is, at the same time, as much, or perhaps even more, of mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defence amidst animals belonging to the same species or, at least, to the same society. Sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle. (Kropotkin 2006, 4-5)

Kropotkin thought that human beings were not different from other animals in this respect. He wrote in his book Ethics: Origin and Development that there are “two sets of diametrically opposed feelings which exist in man”. These “are the feelings which induce man to subdue other men in order to utilise them for his individual ends” and the feelings which “induce human beings to unite for attaining common ends by common effort”. The first corresponds “to that fundamental need of human nature – struggle” and the second to the “equally fundamental tendency – the desire of unity and mutual sympathy”. (Kropotkin 1924, 22) Charlotte Wilson similarly wrote that “the history of men living in a social state is one long record of a never-ending contest between certain opposing natural impulses developed by the life in common.” This “struggle” which humans observe “within our own nature and in the world of men around us” occurred between “the anti-social desire to monopolise and dominate, and the social desires which find their highest expression in fraternity”. (Wilson 2000, 38-9)

Anarchists did not think that there was a strict dichotomy between domination and co-operation such that a social structure only ever contained one or the other. Anarchists understood that people can co-operate with one another to engage in domination, such as the police working together in order to effectively beat up protesters. It is furthermore the case that institutions which are based on domination are generally reproduced through co-operative social relations. Under capitalism, for example, workers are subject to domination and exploitation by the capitalist who employs them. Yet these same capitalist businesses would quickly go bankrupt if workers did not co-operate with one another in order to collectively produce various goods or services. (Malatesta 2014, 121-6)

Anarchists repeatedly emphasized both the good and the bad aspects of human beings in their overviews of history. Within Mutual Aid Kropotkin noted multiple examples of the San people in South Africa co-operating and being sympathetic towards one another, such as hunting in common, engaging in affectionate behaviour, and rescuing someone if they were drowning in water. (Kropotkin 2006, 72-3) This went alongside Kropotkin noting examples of domination. He wrote,

when Europeans settled in their territory and destroyed deer, the Bushmen began stealing the settlers’ cattle, whereupon a war of extermination, too horrible to be related here, was waged against them. Five hundred Bushmen were slaughtered in 1775, three thousand in 1808 and 1809 . . . They were poisoned like rats, killed by hunters lying in ambush before the carcass of some animal, killed whenever met with. So that our knowledge of the Bushmen, being chiefly borrowed from those same people who exterminated them, is necessarily limited. (Kropotkin 2006, 72)

Far from being naive about human nature, anarchists were extremely aware of the fact that humans are capable of committing atrocities against one another. Anarchists, in addition to this, thought that the extent to which human beings engaged in domination or co-operation varied significantly between different contexts. Kropotkin wrote,

the relative amounts of individualist and mutual aid spirit are among the most changeable features of man. Both being equally products of an anterior development, their relative amounts are seen to change in individuals and even societies with a rapidity which would strike the sociologist if he only paid attention to the subject, and analysed the corresponding facts. (Kropotkin 1895)

Given their conception of human nature, anarchists thought that the main reason for this variation in human behaviour was differences in people’s environment and the forms of practice they engaged in and were subject to. This led anarchists to argue that the oppression and exploitation which occurred within existing society was not the product of human nature considered in isolation. They instead stemmed from the manner in which the raw materials of human nature were developed through participation within social structures. To quote Malatesta, “social wrongs do not depend on the wickedness of one master or the other, one governor or the other, but rather on masters and governments as institutions; therefore, the remedy does not lie in changing the individual rulers, instead it is necessary to demolish the principle itself by which men dominate over men”. (Malatesta 2014, 415)

Anarchists viewed capitalism and the state as hierarchical social structures based on a division between a minority who command and a majority who obey. They are pyramids in which decision making flows from the top to the bottom. The majority of the population are workers who lack real decision making power over the nature of their life, workplace, community or society as a whole. They are instead subject to the rule of an economic ruling class – capitalists, bankers, heads of state owned companies etc – and a political ruling class – politicians, heads of the police, generals etc. The decisions of the ruling classes are, in turn, implemented by a vast array of individuals raised up above the rest of the population and granted special powers of command, such as corporate managers, police officers and prison guards.

Those at the top of hierarchies not only wield power over others but are also transformed and corrupted through doing so due to the forms of practice they are engaging in. Bakunin argued that,

Nothing is as dangerous for man’s personal morality as the habit of commanding. The best of men, the most intelligent, unselfish, generous, and pure, will always and inevitably be corrupted in this pursuit. Two feelings inherent in the exercise of power never fail to produce this demoralization: contempt for the masses, and, for the man in power, an exaggerated sense of his own worth. (Bakunin 1972, 145)

The same point was made by Elisée Reclus. He wrote,

Anarchists contend that the state and all that it implies are not any kind of pure essence, much less a philosophical abstraction, but rather a collection of individuals placed in a specific milieu and subjected to its influence. Those individuals are raised up above their fellow citizens in dignity, power, and preferential treatment, and are consequently compelled to think themselves superior to the common people. Yet in reality the multitude of temptations besetting them almost inevitably leads them to fall below the general level. (Reclus 2013, 122)

It is common for defenders of hierarchy to claim that capitalism and the state are necessary due to the negative characteristics of human nature. If workers are incapable of governing themselves then they must be led by enlightened CEOs. If people murder, steal and rape then society must be protected by the police, prisons and the law. Yet it is these hierarchical systems which bring out the worst in people and make the greatest atrocities possible. As Kropotkin wrote,

when we hear men saying that the Anarchists imagine men much better than they really are, we merely wonder how intelligent people can repeat that nonsense. . . We maintain that both rulers and ruled are spoiled by authority; both exploiters and exploited are spoiled by exploitation; while our opponents seem to admit that there is a kind of salt of the earth — the rulers, the employers, the leaders — who, happily enough, prevent those bad men — the ruled, the exploited, the led — from becoming still worse than they are. There is the difference, and a very important one. We admit the imperfections of human nature, but we make no exception for the rulers. (Kropotkin 2014, 609)

Anarchists argued that if human beings are imperfect animals capable of committing the most appalling acts against one another, then this imperfection is the strongest reason for why no person should be raised up above the rest of society and granted the institutionalised power to command and impose their decisions on others through force or the threat of it. (Malatesta 2015, 40) An individual serial killer can do a great deal of harm armed only with a knife. Their capacity for violence is, however, nothing compared to what rulers wielding the knife of state power are capable of. This can be seen in the fact that millions of people have been killed by states during the history of imperialism and colonialism. An individual thief may break into my home and steal my television but their theft is nothing compared to the vast plunder of resources, destruction of the natural environment and oppression of workers carried out by the corporations which manufactured my television and extracted the raw materials it is made out of. The greatest crimes are carried out not by isolated sadistic individuals but by vast social structures which enable a ruling minority to violently impose their will on the working classes.

As a result of this anarchists concluded that hierarchical and centralised institutions should be abolished in favour of horizontal free association between equals. Within an anarchist society people with the desire or predisposition to oppress and exploit other people would still exist. They would not, however, find themselves in a situation where there are positions of power they can take over and use to engage in oppression and exploitation on a large scale. In Bakunin’s words,

Do you want to prevent men from ever oppressing other men? Arrange matters such that they never have the opportunity. Do you want them to respect the liberty, rights and human character of their fellow men? Arrange matters such that they are compelled to respect them — compelled not by the will or oppression of other men, nor by the repression of the State and legislation, which are necessarily represented and implemented by men and would make them slaves in their turn, but by the actual organization of the social environment, so constituted that while leaving each man to enjoy the utmost possible liberty it gives no one the power to set himself above others or to dominate them. . . (Bakunin 1973, 152-3)

Given the above, anarchists would argue that it is not they who are naive about human nature but the defenders of hierarchy. Authoritarians imagine that emancipation can be achieved if good people with the correct ideas take control of the reigns of power. Anarchists realise that this has never happened and will never happen. Irrespective of people’s good intentions or the stories they tell themselves, they will be corrupted by their position at a top of a hierarchy and become primarily concerned with exercising and expanding their power over others in order to serve their own interests. If human beings are not inherently good, then no person is good enough to be a ruler

Bibliography

Bakunin, Michael. 1964. The Political Philosophy of Bakunin: Scientific Anarchism. Edited by G.P. Maximoff. New York: The Free Press of Glencoe.

Bakunin, Michael. 1973. Selected Writings. Edited by Arthur Lehning. London: Jonathan Cape.

Galleani, Luigi. 2012. The End of Anarchism? London: Elephant Editions.

Kropotkin, Peter. 1895. Proposed Communist Settlement: A New Colony for Tyneside or Wearside. The Newcastle Daily Chronicle. https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/petr-kropotkin-proposed-communist-settlement-a-new-colony-for-tyneside-or-wearside.

Kropotkin, Peter. 1924. Ethics: Origins and Development. London: George G. Harrap & Co.

Kropotkin, Peter. 2006. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

Kropotkin, Peter. 2014. Direct Struggle Against Capital: A Peter Kropotkin Anthology. Edited by Iain McKay. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Malatesta, Errico. 2014. The Method of Freedom: An Errico Malatesta Reader. Edited by Davide Turcato. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Malatesta, Errico. 2015. Life and Ideas: The Anarchist Writings of Errico Malatesta. Edited by Vernon Richards. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Rocker, Rudolf. 1937. Nationalism and Culture. Los Angeles: Rocker Publications Committee.

Wilson, Charlotte. 2000. Anarchist Essays. Edited by Nicolas Walter. London: Freedom Press.

Wild Anarchist Hot Takes

In the modern world anarchist hot takes can be easily found on twitter or facebook. Such hot takes are of course not a new phenomenon and can also be found in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In this video I shall draw attention to a few of my personal favourites.

The French geographer Élisée Reclus was strongly opposed to children being taught geography with two-dimensional maps because they failed to accurately represent the real 3D earth. In a letter to the Spanish anarchist educator Francisco Ferrer he argued that “maps with unequal scales and projections would do as much damage to my students as they did to me and undoubtedly to the reader as well, because no one manages to completely erase the contradictory impressions that one receives from these diverse maps.” This was because they gave “geographic forms a floating and indefinite appearance”, misrepresented “the proportions between the different regions” and featured “multiple deformations, inflated or narrowed, stretched, elongated, or truncated in various ways”. (Quoted in Ferrer 2019, 102) It was therefore “truly impossible to use traditional maps without betraying the very same cause of education with which they were entrusted”. Reclus’ alternative to 2D maps was the use of 3D globes. He thought that, “the early geographical education of the child must proceed from a direct examination of the globe, an exact and proportional reproduction of the earth itself.” (Ibid, 103) This hostility to 2D maps is not a one off event. In 1903 Reclus argued that 2D maps ”ought to be entirely tabooed. They must be tabooed, because maps are made on different scales, and that being so, it is quite impossible to compare them; and if you cannot compare them, it is only a waste of time and trouble. In all well-conducted schools, globes should be used, and children ought to be entirely forbidden the use of maps’.” (Quoted in Ferretti 2019, 32) Reclus was, in short, a true globe head.

Historical anarchists had strong opinions not only about globes but also about drugs. In 1922 the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta argued against the criminalisation of cocaine. Although his arguments against drug prohibition are still relevant today, he did seriously underestimate how much people enjoy taking cocaine. He wrote,

There are in France stringent laws against the traffic in drugs and against those who take them. And as always happens, the scourge grows and spreads in spite, and perhaps because of, the laws. The same is happening in the rest of Europe and in America. Doctor Courtois-Suffit, of the French Academy of Medicine, who, already last year [1921], had sounded the alarm against the dangers of cocaine, noting the failure of penal legislation, now demands … new and more stringent laws.

It is the old mistake of legislators, in spite of experience invariably showing that laws, however barbarous they may be, have never served to suppress vice or to discourage delinquency. The more severe the penalties imposed on the consumers and traffickers of cocaine, the greater will be the attraction of forbidden fruits and the fascination of the risks incurred by the consumer, and the greater will be the profits made by the speculators, avid for money.

It is useless, therefore to hope for anything from the law. We must suggest another solution. Make the use and sale of cocaine free [from restrictions], and open kiosks where it would be sold at cost price or even under cost. And then launch a great propaganda campaign to explain to the public, and let them see for themselves, the evils of cocaine; no one would engage in counter-propaganda because nobody could exploit the misfortunes of cocaine addicts.

Certainly the harmful use of cocaine would not disappear completely, because the social causes which create and drive those poor devils to the use of drugs would still exist. But in any case the evil would decrease, because nobody could make profits out of its sale, and nobody could speculate on the hunt for speculators. (Malatesta 2015, 105-6)

Malatesta’s hot take about cocaine is one example of how historical anarchists articulated anarchist theory in response to a specific historical context. Another example is the Spanish anarchist Ricardo Mella’s amusing intervention into discussions about exercise. In 1913 he argued that gym culture emerged due to the wealthy not having to engage in manual labour. Whilst the poor worked their bodies to exhaustion in order to earn a wage, the rich went to gyms where they would “ridiculously move their arms and legs and trunks aimlessly and uselessly.” (Mella 2020, 42) Mella thought that gym culture was not only a product of the capitalist division of labour. It was also inferior to what he viewed as more natural and superior forms of exercise. He wrote,

Some days ago, a French illustrated magazine published a beautiful picture of a group of German ladies in the most ridiculous gymnastic positions. All of them were simultaneously performing the strangest movements. Blunders, pirouettes, jumps, everything was done rhythmically and to the voice of a leader.

We immediately think that those ladies would become healthier and more vigorous and would also be happier running free across the prairie into the forest’s heavy leafiness, bounding over rocks and crags or bathing in the sun on the beach’s warm sand. We immediately think that tidy tough guys who waste their time in fencing halls, in ball games, in horse racing, or in water sports would be much better off running around beaches, forests, and meadows after cute girls, inviting kisses, in pink colors. They would be better off climbing trees in order to reach bountiful nature’s rich fruits for their loved ones. They would be much better off in complete freedom of action and passion. The automated doll is in no way better to natural man. (Mella 2020, 41)

Prior to the invention of crossfit, Mella suggested what could have become a bold new exercise programme: men in pink outfits chasing hot women across the wilderness. Other anarchists do not appear to have endorsed Mella’s attempt to combine cross country running with heterosexual gender relations. When writing about dating they largely focused on the idea of free love. Although this sometimes included the idea of polyamory, it usually referred to a monogamous consensual relationship which occurred outside of marriage. Such love was supposed to be free in the sense that it was voluntary and did not contain any oppressive social relations. One proponent of free love in this sense of the term was the German anarchist Rudolf Rocker. Although Rocker appears to have treated his partner Milly Witkop with respect, other anarchist men were less caring and used women as sex objects. To give one example, Rocker knew a married man who lived with and impregnated a young woman who was not his wife. This man subsequently threw her out of his house when his wife arrived from Russia. In response to this kind of behaviour Rocker endorsed drastic action. He proposed that men who had sex with and then abandoned women should be expelled from an organisation he was involved in. Such men were viewed by Rocker as people who had wrongly mistaken anarchist ideas on free love as license to satisfy their own sexual desires without consideration for the welfare of others. (Frost 2009, 88) Rocker in other words engaged in anti-fuckboi aktion.

Given the above, historical anarchist theory is not only interesting or thought provoking. It is also sometimes very amusing and bizarre. These hot takes highlight the fact that anarchists did not only write about such topics as the oppression of capitalism and the state or what strategies anarchists should use to achieve their objectives. They reflected upon and wrote about a large number of different topics. In 1886 the English anarchist Charlotte Wilson claimed that, “Anarchists believe that the solution of the social problem can only be wrought out from the equal consideration of the whole of the experience at our command, individual as well as social, internal as well as external”. (Wilson 2000, 50) For some anarchists the topics worthy of consideration included drugs, sex, exercise and, most importantly of all, globes.

Bibliography

Ferrer, Francisco. 2019. Anarchist Education and the Modern School: A Francisco Ferrer Reader. Edited by Mark Bray and Robert H. Haworth. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Ferretti, Federico. 2019. Anarchy and Geography: Reclus and Kropotkin in the UK. London: Routledge.

Frost, Ginger. 2009. “Love is Always Free: Anarchism, Free Unions and Utopianism in Edwardian England”. Anarchist Studies 17, no. 1, 73-94.

Malatesta, Errico. 2015. Life and Ideas: The Anarchist Writings of Errico Malatesta. Edited by Vernon Richards. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Mella, Ricardo. 2020. Anarchist Socialism in Early Twentieth-Century Spain: A Ricardo Mella Anthology. Edited by Stephen Luis Vilaseca. Palgrave Macmillan.

Wilson, Charlotte. 2000. Anarchist Essays. Edited by Nicolas Walter. London: Freedom Press.

Louise Michel Was Chaotic Good

The French anarchist Louise Michel was born in 1830 and died in 1905. She led a very eventful life, which included fighting in the Paris Commune of 1871. In this video I’m going to be drawing attention to an aspect of her life which doesn’t get the attention it deserves. She was extremely chaotic good.

As a child she gave away her possessions to poor people. This even included her shoes on one occasion. Not content with giving away items she personally owned, Michel also stole money, fruits and vegetables from her grandparents and then distributed them to local peasants in her relatives’ name. This led to unexpected consequences when the peasants arrived at the house to thank her grandparents for their generosity. Michel claims to have “laughed” in response to the “great scenes” which occurred during these moments. (Thomas 1983, 21; Michel 1981, 6)

During her childhood Michel attended church regularly (Thomas 1983, 20). This did not stop her from also attempting “alchemy, astrology, the summoning of spirits” at the top of a tower which she decorated with the skeletons of dogs, cats and horses. At one point she took her practice of witchcraft to the next level and tried to summon the devil. She wrote in her autobiography, “among haunted ruins I drew magical circles, and I declared my love to Satan. Satan didn’t come, which led me to think he didn’t exist.” (Michel 1981, 20, 19)

This chaotic good energy continued into adulthood. During the 1860s she earned a living as a teacher in Paris (Thomas 1983, 42-3). In her autobiography she claimed that one night when walking home she deliberately scared a member of the bourgeoisie. She wrote,

Another time I was returning home on foot fairly late, and I had on a long cloak which enveloped me completely. I was wearing a sort of wide hat made out of shaggy cloth which cast a lot of shadows on my face, and brand-new ankle boots from the pawnshop, For some reason the heels made a lot of noise. The newspapers recently had been writing a lot about nocturnal attacks. Some good bourgeois heard my boots ringing, and being unable to make out my exact form because of my cloak and hat, he began to run with such fear that it gave me the idea of following him for a bit to scare him properly.

He went along, looking around to see if anyone would come to help him. With the black night and the deserted streets, the bourgeois was scared witless, and I was having a really good time. He lengthened his stride as much as he could. I kept to the shadows and made my heels strike even louder, because that noise was what kept up his fright. I don’t know what district we had come to when I let the bourgeois go, yelling at him: ‘Must you be so stupid?’ (Michel 1981, 48-9)

During her eventful life Michel was arrested and imprisoned a number of times. In January 1882 she was arrested and sentenced to two weeks in prison for insulting a police officer. During the trial Michel denied that she had called the police “hoods and deadbeats” and offered an alternative chain of events. A newspaper account of the trial reads as follows.

‘You are charged with insulting policemen,’ said M. Puget, the judge.

‘On the contrary, it is we who should bring charges concerning brutality and insults,’ Louise Michel said, ‘because we were very peaceful. What happened, and doubtless the reason I am here, is this: I went to the headquarters of the police commissioner and when I got there, I looked out a window and saw several policemen beating a man. I did not want to say anything to those policemen because they were very overexcited, so I went up to the next floor and found two other policemen who were calmer. I said to them, ‘Go down quickly. Someone is being murdered.’ (Michel 1981, 134)

Michel’s true crime was, in other words, trolling a police officer. She had amusing interactions not only with the police but also with men in general. When she was twelve or thirteen two adult suitors attempted to marry her. She remembered that “they both had the idea of choosing a very young fiancée and having her moulded like soft wax for a few years before offering her up to themselves as a sacrifice.” After the first adult suitor did not notice her literary reference to Moliere she “looked straight in his face, and with the ingenuousness of Agnes, I said to him boldly, knowing he had one glass eye, ‘Monsieur, is your other eye glass, too?’ That seemed to embarrass my relatives a little, and as for my suitor, he gave me a venomous look from the eye that wasn’t glass, and made it clear he no longer wanted to make me his fiancée.” (Michel 1981, 21) Michel scared away the second adult suitor with similar tactics. She remembered saying,

‘You see plainly what’s hanging on the wall over there.’ It was a pair of stag antlers. ‘Well, I don’t love you. I will never love you, and if I marry you I won’t restrain myself any more than Mme Dandin did. If I marry you, you will wear horns on your head a hundred thousand feet higher than those antlers.’ I suppose I convinced him I was telling him the truth, for he never came back. My relatives advised me, however, to be a little more reserved in quoting old authors in the future.There have been unfortunate children who were forced to marry old crocodiles like those. If it had been done to me, either he or I would have had to jump out the window. (Michel 1981, 21)

As an adult Michel acted in a similar manner towards unwanted men. She wrote that one day,

a simple-minded man, absolutely dressed to the teeth, a stupid man as stiff as a wooden doll, appeared at the door of 45, boulevard Ornano, where my mother and I were living. ‘MIle Michel?’ he asked, forgetting to take off his stove-pipe hat and beating his right hand with a small stick. ‘I am she,’ I said. ‘No, you aren’t her.’ ‘I’m not me?’ ‘Well! I know Louise Michel. I saw her portrait in the Salon.’ ‘So?’ ‘So! Try not to make fun of me. A woman who has horses and carriages doesn’t open her own door. Go and get her for me. I repeat: It isn’t her who is opening this door.’ ‘It’s she who is closing it,’ I said. Whereupon, as this stupid man wasn’t all the way inside, I pushed him completely outside and slammed the door in his face. He blustered a little from the other side of the door, and then I heard him going down the steps, still shouting insults. (Michel 1981, 153)

Michel regularly went on speaking tours to spread anarchist ideas and raise money for social movements. On one occasion she combined this with a cunning plan to manipulate her haters. She wrote,

In October 1882 I went to Lille to speak in connection with the strike of the women spinners there. . . All the strikers had to do was hold out for one week more and the exploiters would have given in, but to last a week longer the strikers needed two thousand francs. That was why I went to Lille to make a speech. Thanks to the reactionaries who paid for their seats so that they could come to insult me, we made the two thousand francs in one lecture alone. I asked the organizers of the speech to put that money away safely, and then I was able to announce to the gentlemen who had bought tickets that we had what we needed. Thus, they were free either to listen to me or to spend their time howling, either of which was perfectly all right with me because we already had the two thousand francs that we needed. (Michel 1981, 153-4)

From these stories it is apparent that Louise Michel had powerful chaotic good energy. Yet these stories are not only amusing. They also serve as a reminder that famous revolutionaries in the past were not fundamentally different to people alive today. They were human beings who, despite living in a different time and place, engaged in what one might call relatable content.

Bibliography

Michel, Louise. 1981. The Red Virgin: Memoirs of Louise Michel. Edited and Translated by Bullit Lowry and Elizabeth Ellington Gunter. The University of Alabama Press.

Thomas, Edith. 1983. Louise Michel. Black Rose Books.

Anarchism as a Way of Life

In 1925 the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta wrote that,

Anarchy is a form of living together in society; a society in which people live as brothers and sisters without being able to oppress or exploit others and in which everyone has at their disposal whatever means the civilisation of the time can supply in order for them to attain the greatest possible moral and material development. And Anarchism is the method of reaching anarchy, through freedom, without government – that is, without those authoritarian institutions that impose their will on others by force . . . (Malatesta 1995, 52)

In this passage Malatesta distinguishes between anarchy as a goal and anarchism as a method of achieving this goal. One of the interesting features of Malatesta’s theory is that he views anarchy itself as both a goal and an on-going process. He refers to anarchy as a “form of living together in society” which has to be continuously produced and reproduced over time, rather than a static unchanging utopia. This idea can be clearly seen in Malatesta’s earlier writings. In 1891 he wrote that,

By the free association of all, a social organisation would arise through the spontaneous grouping of men according to their needs and sympathies, from the low to the high, from the simple to the complex, starting from the more immediate to arrive at the more distant and general interests. This organisation would have for its aim the greatest good and fullest liberty to all; it would embrace all humanity in one common brotherhood, and would be modified and improved as circumstances were modified and changed, according to the teachings of experience. This society of free men, this society of friends would be Anarchy. (Malatesta 2014, 128)

Since anarchy is a society which will be continuously modified and improved over time it follows that “Anarchy” is “above all, a method”. This method is, according to Malatesta, “the free initiative of all”, “free agreement” and “free association”. (Malatesta 2014, 141, 142) These two claims come together in the view that,

Anarchy, in common with socialism, has as its basis, its point of departure, its essential environment, equality of conditions; its beacon is solidarity and freedom is its method. It is not perfection, it is not the absolute ideal which like the horizon recedes as fast as we approach it; but it is the way open to all progress and improvements for the benefit of everybody. (Quoted in Turcato 2012, 56. For a different translation see Malatesta 2014, 143)

What Malatesta means by this is as follows. Anarchy’s point of departure is a stateless classless society in which the means of production are owned in common and no person has the institutionalised power to impose their will on others via force. This not only creates a situation in which people are no longer subject to domination and exploitation by the ruling classes. It, in addition to this, establishes the real possibility for all people to do and be a wide variety of different things since their ability to act is no longer limited by poverty, borders, government bureaucracy, having to work for a capitalist to survive etc. This equality of conditions is the social basis from which people can engage in an open-ended process of striving towards the goal of universal human co-operation at a societal level and the formation of bonds of mutual support and love at the level of our day to day lives with friends, family, partners and so on.

People living under anarchy will move towards the goal of solidarity through the method of forming voluntary horizontal associations. These voluntary horizontal associations will then enter into free agreements with one another and establish a decentralised network capable of co-ordinating action over a large scale. Although violence may sometimes be necessary to defend spaces of co-operation from external attack or to overthrow the ruling classes, force cannot be used to establish co-operation among equals. If one tries to impose decisions on others through force then the result will not be solidarity but conflict, strife and relations of command and obedience. The achievement of genuine solidarity requires that people come to agreements which best suit everyone involved and must therefore be established voluntarily.

This process of striving for solidarity through the method of freedom will result in a wide variety of experiments in different forms of life. Through a process of trial-and-error people will over time establish new social structures and relations which do a superior job of maximising the equality, solidarity and freedom of humanity. These new social structures and relations will, in turn, lay the foundations from which future improvements can occur and so on and on. As Malatesta wrote in 1899, “Anarchist ideals are . . . the experimental system brought from the field of research to that of social realisation”. (Malatesta 2014, 302)

Malatesta does not think that the establishment of anarchy will occur automatically or that humans naturally create anarchy. Anarchy only exists if it is consciously produced and reproduced by human action. As he wrote in 1897,

The belief in some natural law, whereby harmony is automatically established between men without any need for them to take conscious, deliberate action, is hollow and utterly refuted by the facts.

Even if the State and private property were to be done away with, harmony does not come to pass automatically, as if Nature busies herself with men’s blessings and misfortunes, but rather requires that men themselves create it. (Malatesta 2016, 81)

This exact point was repeated by Malatesta in 1925. He wrote, “Anarchy . . . is a human aspiration which is not founded on any true or supposed natural law, and which may or may not come about depending on human will.” (Malatesta 1995, 46) If anarchy is a product of human will, then it follows that anarchy could be ended if humans choose to oppress others and establish relations of domination and subordination. This is a danger that Malatesta was aware of. He wrote in 1899 that, “if anyone in some future society sought to oppress someone else, the latter would have the right to resist them and to fight force with force”. Anarchy was therefore a society based on “freedom for all and in everything, with no limit other than the equal freedom of others: which does not mean . . . that we embrace and wish to respect the ‘freedom’ to exploit, oppress, command, which is oppression and not freedom”. (Malatesta 2019, 148, 149).

A crucial aspect of reproducing anarchy as a social system is therefore ensuring that relations of domination and exploitation do not arise in the first place and that, if they do somehow arise, they are quickly defeated. Malatesta does not provide many details on how to do this because he thought this was a question which would be settled through large groups of people engaging in a process of experimentation with different forms of association. Modern anarchists can, however, look at anthropological evidence on how really existing stateless societies reproduce themselves. They do not provide exact blueprints which we can follow like an instruction manual for creating a free society, but they can be useful sources of inspiration. It should, in addition to this, be kept in mind that some stateless societies are hierarchical in other ways, such as men oppressing women or adults oppressing children.

There is a tendency for people raised in societies with states to assume that the true or correct end point of human cultural evolution is the creation of a society with a state. Those who live in stateless societies are therefore viewed as inferior people who have failed to realise the best way of organising society. In response to this way of thinking, the anthropologist Pierre Clastres has suggested that stateless societies should not be viewed as societies without a state, but instead as societies against the state. That is to say, people do not live in stateless societies by chance. They have instead developed political philosophies about the kind of society they want to live in and consciously created social structures to ensure that a society without rulers is reproduced. Members of stateless societies have not failed to realise the possibility of a society in which a ruling minority imposes their will on everyone else through violence. They have instead deliberately chosen to create a different kind of society. (Clastres 1989, 189-218) Clastres writes, in what I consider to be outdated and problematic language, that,

primitive societies do not have a State because they refuse it, because they refuse the division of the social body into the dominating and the dominated. The politics of the Savages is, in fact, to constantly hinder the appearance of a separate organ of power, to prevent the fatal meeting between the institution of chieftainship and the exercise of power. In primitive society, there is no separate organ of power, because power is not separated from society: society, as a single totality, holds power in order to maintain its undivided being, to ward off the appearance in its breast of the inequality between masters and subjects, between chief and tribe. . . The refusal of inequality and the refusal of separate power are the same, constant concern of primitive societies. (Clastres 1994, 91)

This point has recently been made in much greater depth by the anthropologist Christopher Boehm. He argues that egalitarian stateless societies are “the product of human intentionality” and that “the immediate cause of egalitarianism is conscious, and that deliberate social control is directed at preventing the expression of hierarchical tendencies”. (Boehm 2001, 12, 60) One of the main ways egalitarian stateless societies achieve this is through the use of horizontal decision-making processes in which the group make collective decisions through consensus between all involved. (Boehm 2001, 31, 113) Any leaders which do exist lack the power to impose decisions on others through coercion and must instead persuade others to act in a certain way through oratory skill alone. This usually goes alongside a variety of behavioural expectations which the leader has to conform to in order to remain in their position, such as the leader being modest, in control of their emotions, good at resolving disputes and generous. The emphasis on generosity can be so strong that leaders are expected to share large amounts of their possessions with others, especially those in need. This often results in leaders possessing the smallest number of things in the entire group due to them having to give so many items away. (Boehm 2001, 69-72)

Egalitarian stateless societies have, in addition to this, developed various mechanisms to respond to what Boehm labels ‘upstartism’. Upstartism includes any behaviour which threatens the autonomy and equality of the group, such as bullying, being selfishly greedy, issuing orders, taking on airs of superiority, engaging in acts of physical violence and so on. In order to implement the ethical values of the community, members of egalitarian stateless societies will respond to upstartism with a wide range of different social sanctions. This includes, but is not limited to, criticism, gossiping, public ridicule, ignoring what they say, ostracism, expulsion from the group and even, in some extreme cases, execution. Social sanctions are applied to all members of the group but leaders in particular. This is due to the fact that leaders are subject to a greater deal of public scrutiny and viewed as one of the main places where relations of domination and subordination could emerge. This, in turn, creates a situation where leaders will, in order to maintain their position and avoid being subject to sanctions, engage in the socially prescribed behaviour that is expected from them, such as sharing huge amounts of their belongings even if they would rather not do so. The system of sanctions therefore not only effectively counters acts of domination but also reproduces the horizontal structure of the group itself. (Boehm 2001, 3, 9-12, 43, 72-84)

The manner in which members of egalitarian stateless societies respond to upstartism can be subtle. Boehm gives the example of the !Kung, who have developed various ways of dealing with the problem of successful male hunters coming to think of themselves as superior to everyone else and, as a result, becoming more likely to engage in domination, especially murder. Firstly, large-game meat is shared equally among the group by the person who is credited with killing the animal. The credit for the kill does not go to the person who loosed the actual killing arrow, but instead to the owner of the first arrow to hit the animal. This will often not even be someone who went on the hunt due to the male hunters regularly trading arrows with one another. This social system ensures that credit for the hunt is randomized, unskilled or unlucky hunters are less likely to be envious of other hunters, every member of the group has access to protein, and the most skilled or lucky hunters are not able to easily use this fact to develop power and influence over others. (Boehm 2001, 46)

Secondly, the !Kung actively use humour and social etiquette to ensure that successful hunters do not put themselves on a pedestal. An unnamed member of the !Kung explains this as follows,

Say that a man has been hunting. He must not come home and announce like a braggart, ‘I have killed a big one in the bush!’ He must first sit down in silence until I or someone else comes up to his fire and asks, ‘What did you see today?’ He replies quietly, ‘Ah, I’m no good for hunting. I saw nothing at all . . . maybe just a tiny one.’ Then I smile to myself because I now know he has killed something big.

Even after the hunter has deliberately acted as if they haven’t been very successful, other members of the group will make jokes about them and express their disappointment. The unnamed member of the !Kung claims that when people go to collect the dead animal they will say things like,

You mean to say you have dragged us all the way out here to make us cart home your pile of bones? Oh, if I had known it was this thin I wouldn’t have come. People, to think I gave up a nice day in the shade for this. At home we may be hungry but at least we have nice cool water to drink.

The conscious motivation behind this behaviour is explained by a healer as follows,

When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. In this way we cool his heart and make him gentle. (Quoted in Boehm 2001, 45)

The !Kung have, in other words, intentionally developed a complex social system based on their political philosophy which ensures the reproduction of an egalitarian stateless society and actively prevents the rise of domination within their midst. It is important to note that Boehm’s account of the !Kung draws upon research conducted in the 1960s and early 1970s. Their society has significantly changed since then. In 1975 the anthropologist Patricia Draper claimed that,

the great majority of !Kung-speaking people have abandoned their traditional hunting and gathering way of life and are now living in sedentary and semi-squatter status in or near the villages of Bantu pastoralists and European ranchers. A minority of !Kung, amounting to a few thousand, are still living by traditional hunting and gathering technique. (Draper 1975, 79)

Although people living in industrial societies do not have to develop social norms around successful hunters, we do have our equivalents. For example, successful influencers sometimes let the fame get to their head, come to think of themselves as superior to other people, and then treat others as inferior to them and engage in acts of domination. Think Jake Paul. It is of course the case that those of us currently living under the domination of capitalism, the state, patriarchy, racism, queerphobia, ableism etc are most likely a long way away from achieving anarchy at a societal level. We are not confronted with the problem of reproducing anarchy as a stateless classless society. We instead face the challenge of living under oppressive systems, whilst attempting to implement the methods of anarchism within both our intimate relationships with friends, family, partners etc and social movements aimed at the abolition of all systems of domination and exploitation.

In order to do so we must establish horizontal social relations which are, as far as is possible, the same as those that would constitute anarchy. In so doing we can simultaneously (a) construct the world as we wish it was during our struggle against the world as it is and (b) develop through a process of experimentation in the present the real methods of organisation, decision-making and association that people in the future could use to achieve the states of affairs that characterise anarchy. If, as Malatesta argued, “tomorrow can only grow out of today” (Malatesta 2014, 163) then we must build organisations based “upon the will and in the interest of all their members” not only “tomorrow in order to meet all of the needs of social life” but also “today for the purposes of propaganda and struggle”. (Malatesta 2019, 63) We must, in other words, engage in prefigurative politics or, to use historical anarchist language, build “the embryo of the human society of the future”. (Graham 2005, 98. For more on prefigurative politics see Raekstad and Gradin 2020)

The pockets of freedom we manage to create within class society are of course not anarchy. Anarchy is a social system in which all forms of class rule have been abolished and socialism has been achieved. Anarchy cannot therefore be said to exist just because a horizontal association has been built within the cage of capitalism and the state. (Malatesta 2016, 358-60) Although horizontal associations within class society are not anarchy, they are the means through which anarchy can be achieved. That is to say, horizontal associations should be organs of class struggle which unite workers together in order to both win immediate improvements, such as higher wages or stopping the fossil fuel industry, and ultimately overthrow the ruling classes. Horizontal associations should, at the same time, be social structures which are constituted by forms of activity that develop their participants into the kinds of people who are both capable of, and driven to, establish and reproduce anarchy. For example, a group of workers form a tenant union, use direct action to prevent their landlord from evicting them, and at the same time learn how to make decisions within a general assembly. In changing the world, workers at the same time change themselves.

Given the insights of both historical anarchist theory and modern anthropology, a crucial aspect of laying the foundations from which anarchy could emerge in the future is establishing effective methods for maintaining the horizontality of a group. This includes at least,

(a) Deliberately structuring organisations so as to ensure that they are self-managed by their membership, such as making decisions through general assemblies in which everyone has a vote, co-ordinating action over a large scale via informal networks or formal federations, electing instantly recallable mandated delegates to perform specific tasks etc.

(b) Consciously developing a system of social sanctions which effectively and proportionally respond to situations where a member engages in what Boehm terms upstartism. This is especially necessary for when people attempt to establish themselves in positions of power at the top of an informal hierarchy or engage in an act of domination. One of the most important situations which a group must effectively respond to is when a member emotionally, physically or sexually abuses another person. It is, in addition to this, very important than any sanction system which is implemented is not itself a new form of domination disguised as mere opposition to the domination of others.

In summary, anarchy is a form of living together in society which must be consciously and intentionally produced and reproduced by human action. A crucial part of doing so is developing social structures and relations which maintain the horizontality of groups and prevent new forms of domination and exploitation from arising. Given modern anthropological evidence on how really existing stateless societies reproduce themselves, this will include developing social sanctions to respond to what Boehm terms upstartism. Although we do not currently live under anarchy, we must establish horizontal associations which engage in class struggle against the ruling classes and prefigure the methods of organisation, decision-making and association which would exist in a free society. This includes developing effective sanction systems which proportionally respond to behaviour that threatens the horizontality of the group. Doing so will, just like under anarchy, require a process of experimentation with different forms of life in order to figure out which solutions actually work and are compatible with anarchist goals and values.

In 1899 Malatesta wrote that “Anarchy cannot come but little by little – slowly, but surely, growing in intensity and extension. Therefore, the subject is not whether we accomplish Anarchy today, tomorrow or within ten centuries, but that we walk toward Anarchy today, tomorrow and always.” (Malatesta 2014, 300) Through the process of walking towards anarchy we must learn how to live as equals within a free horizontal association and in so doing become fit to establish a society with neither masters nor subjects. I am sure that we will make mistakes along the way, but these mistakes must be treated as opportunities to learn and develop, rather than reasons to abandon the march towards anarchy. In the words of the Spanish anarchist Isaac Puente,

Living in libertarian communism will be like learning to live. Its weak points and its failings will be shown up when it is introduced. If we were politicians we would paint a paradise brimful of perfections. Being human and being aware what human nature can be like, we trust that people will learn to walk the only way it is possible for them to learn: by walking. (Puente 1932)

Bibliography

Boehm, Christopher. 2001. Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behaviour. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Clastres, Pierre. 1989. Society Against the State: Essays in Political Anthropology. New York: Zone Books.

Clastres, Pierre. 1994. Archeology of Violence. Semiotext(e).

Draper, Patricia. 1975. “!Kung Women: Contrasts in Sexual Egalitarianism in Foraging and Sedentary Contexts” in Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. R. R. Reiter. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Graham, Robert. 2005. Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE to 1939. Montréal: Black Rose Books.

Malatesta, Errico. 1995. The Anarchist Revolution: Polemical Articles 1924-1931. Edited by Vernon Richards. London: Freedom Press.

Malatesta, Errico. 2014. The Method of Freedom: An Errico Malatesta Reader. Edited by Davide Turcato. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Malatesta, Errico. 2016. A Long and Patient Work: The Anarchist Socialism of L’Agitazione 1897-1898. Edited by Davide Turcato. Chico, CA: AK Press.

Malatesta, Errico. 2019. Towards Anarchy: Malatesta in America 1899-1900. Edited by Davide Turcato. Chico, CA: AK Press.

Puente, Isaac. 1932. Libertarian Communism.

Turcato, Davide. 2012. Making Sense of Anarchism: Errico Malatesta’s Experiments With Revolution, 1889-1900. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Raekstad, Paul, and Gradin, Sofa Saio. 2020. Prefigurative Politics: Building Tomorrow Today. Cambridge: Polity Press.

When Malatesta Got Shot

During the 1890s there was an intense debate in the Italian anarchist movement between organisationalists, who advocated formal organisations like federations, and anti-organisationalists, who only advocated affinity groups and thought formal organisation was incompatible with anarchist values and strategy. In the United States the main debate occurred between Errico Malatesta, who edited La Questione Sociale and advocated formal organisation, and Giuseppe Ciancabilla, who edited l’Aurora and rejected formal organisation. (Turcato 2012, 190-7)

Prior to this debate with Ciancabilla occurring, Malatesta attended a meeting of anarchists at the Tivola and Zucca Saloon in West Hoboken, New Jersey on 3rd September 1899. West Hoboken was one of the main areas where anti-organisationalist anarchism was popular. During the meeting Malatesta explained his organisationalist ideas and this greatly angered an anarchist barber called Domenico Pazzaglia, who was an anti-organisationalist. According to Armando Borghi, Pazzaglia was “unknown to most of the comrades and ignored by the few who knew him.” (Quoted in Malatesta 2015, 238) Pazzaglia became so enraged during Malatesta’s speech that he drew his revolver and shot Malatesta in the leg. Pazzaglia was then disarmed by Gaetano Bresci, who would go onto assassinate the king of Italy in 1900. The police arrived on the scene and decided to arrest Malatesta, the victim of the shooting. Malatesta responded in a truly anarchist fashion and refused to tell the police who had shot him. Upon being released from police custody, Malatesta decided to not publish an account of the shooting in the paper he edited, La Questione Sociale. (Malatesta 2019, xxiii. Nettlau claims the shot missed Malatesta but both Fabbri and Borghi claim he was shot in the leg)

The newspaper Il Progresso Italo-Americano published an article on September 6th in which they claim that,

Enrico Malatesta has proven he is a great soul again on this occasion. Not only has he refused to name the assailant, but he has also declared that he has forgiven him from the bottom of his heart.

‘I am sure – Malatesta said – that by now he regrets his actions.’ (Malatesta 2019, 258)

Shortly after the shooting Ciancabilla began the publication of l’Aurora on 16th September and launched a polemical campaign against Malatesta’s organisationalists ideas. Malatesta responded to this by writing a series of articles critiquing his opponents’ arguments. Even though Ciancabilla did not express public regret over the fact that Malatesta had been shot by an anti-organisationalist, Malatesta did not bring up the incident during the debate and focused on the arguments for and against formal organisation. Although it should be noted that Ciancabilla does appear to have been privately opposed to Pazzaglia’s actions. (Malatesta 2019, xxiii; Malatesta 2015, 238)

The one-time Malatesta did mention the shooting occurred when news of it spread from America to Italy. In response to the coverage of the events in the Italian socialist press, Malatesta published a brief note in La Questione Sociale on October 28th. It said,

Comrade Errico Malatesta – considering the protests being published in the Italian newspapers, as well as others that have reached us directly, regarding the slight accident that happened to him and which we believe is not even worth talking about – thanks the friends who have in such a manner expressed their sympathy with him, but begs them… to let that be the end of it. (Malatesta 2019, 120)

I have been unable to find many details about what happened to Pazzaglia after he shot Malatesta. According to Luigi Fabbri, the paper “L’Adunata dei Refrattari of New York (no. 5 of January 28, 1933) clarifies that Malatesta’s shooter had been an outcast who was not given any consideration among comrades; some Pazzaglia, who disappeared immediately after the movement and died a few years later.” (Fabbri 1936)

Malatesta could have used him being shot by an anti-organisationalist to wage a polemical war against his political opponents within the anarchist movement. He could have sought revenge and attempted to shoot Pazzaglia in retaliation. He instead chose to forgive his assailant and move on from these events. In other words, Malatesta killed the cop in his head. Have you?

Bibliography

Fabbri, Luigi. 1936. Life of Malatesta.

Malatesta, Errico. 2015. Life and Ideas: The Anarchist Writings of Errico Malatesta. Edited by Vernon Richards. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Malatesta, Errico. 2019. Towards Anarchy: Malatesta in America 1899-1900. Edited by Davide Turcato. Chico, CA: AK Press.

Turcato, Davide. 2012. Making Sense of Anarchism: Errico Malatesta’s Experiments with Revolution 1889-1900. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fun Kropotkin Facts

Peter Kropotkin was an anarcho-communist revolutionary. He is perhaps now most famous for developing the theory of mutual aid and writing the conquest of bread aka the bread book. In this video I’m going to go through some fun facts about him.

1. Kropotkin was born into the Russian nobility. His family were large landowners who exploited almost 1200 serfs. (Kropotkin 1989, 24) Due to this Kropotkin inherited the title of prince. This didn’t mean he was a member of the royal family. Prince was a rank in the Russian nobility. As a child Kropotkin abandoned the title of prince in response to the influence of his tutors. He recalls in his autobiography that,

The title of prince was used in our house with and without occasion. M. Poulain must have been shocked by it, for he began once to tell us what he knew of the great Revolution. I cannot now recall what he said, but one thing I remember, namely, that ‘Count Mirabeau’ and other nobles one day renounced their titles, and that Count Mirabeau, to show his contempt for aristocratic pretensions, opened a shop decorated with a signboard which bore the inscription, ‘Mirabeau, tailor.’ (I tell the story as I had it from M. Poulain.) For a long time after that I worried myself thinking what trade I should take up so as to write, ‘Kropótkin, such and such a handicraft man.’ Later on, my Russian teacher, Nikolái Pávlovich Smirnóff, and the general republican tone of Russian literature influenced me in the same way; and when I began to write novels — that is, in my twelfth year — I adopted the signature P. Kropótkin, which I never have departed from, notwithstanding the remonstrances of my chiefs when I was in the military service. (Kropotkin 1989, 43-4)

As an adult anarchist Kropotkin did not like being called a prince. Emma Goldman writes in her autobiography Living my Life,

I remembered the anecdote he had told us about his stay in Chicago, when his comrades had arranged for him to go to Waldheim to visit the graves of Parsons, Spies, and the other Haymarket martyrs. The same morning a group of society women, led by Mrs. Potter Palmer, invited him to a luncheon. ‘You will come, Prince, will you not?’ they pleaded. ‘I am sorry, ladies, but I have a previous engagement with my comrades,’ he excused himself. ‘Oh, no, Prince; you must come with us!’ Mrs. Palmer insisted. ‘Madam,’ Peter replied, ‘you may have the Prince, and I will go to my comrades.’ (Goldman 1970a, 361)

2. Kropotkin rode a penny farthing. His nephew Nicholas Alexeivich visited Kropotkin in 1886 as a child and later recalled in a 1931 article that, “I remember that our uncle astonished us with his adroitness in physical exercises, in bicycling, when that was still new in England”. Kropotkin rode a “penny-farthing”, “the wheel in front was enormous and the rear one very small”. (Quoted in Woodcock and Avakumovic 1990, 212)

3. Kropotkin spoke English in a Russian accent and mispronounced words. That Kropotkin spoke English in a strong accent is claimed by several eyewitness accounts, such as Philip Snowden and Roger Baldwin. (Woodcock and Avakumovic 1990, 226, 284) The longest description I’ve been able to find is by H.W. Nevinson. He writes that,

Anarchists do not have a chairman, but when enough of us had assembled a man stood up and began to speak. His pronunciation was queer until one grew accustomed to it (‘own’ rhymed with ‘town’, ‘law’ with ‘low’, and ‘the sluffter fields of Europe’ became a kindly joke among us). He began with the sentence, “Our first step must be the abolition of all ‘low’. I was a little startled. I had no exaggerated devotion to the law, but, as a first step, its abolition seemed rather a bound. Without a pause the speaker continued speaking, with rapidity, but with the difficulties of a foreigner who has to translate rushing thoughts as he goes along . . . (Quoted in Woodcock and Avakumovic 1990, 235-6)

Kropotkin was himself aware of the difficulties he had when speaking English. He writes in his autobiography that upon first moving to Edinburgh in 1876,

I may say that I had learned English in Russia, and, with my brother, had translated Page’s ‘Philosophy of Geology’ and Herbert Spencer’s ‘Principles of Biology.’ But I had learned it from books, and pronounced it very badly, so that I had the greatest difficulty in making myself understood by my Scotch landlady; her daughter and I used to write on scraps of paper what we had to say to each other; and as I had no idea of idiomatic English, I must have made the most amusing mistakes. I remember, at any rate, protesting once to her, in writing, that it was not a “cup of tea” that I expected at tea time, but many cups. I am afraid my landlady took me for a glutton, but I must say, by way of apology, that neither in the geological books I had read in English nor in Spencer’s ‘Biology’ was there any allusion to such an important matter as tea-drinking. (Kropotkin 1989, 355)

4. Kropotkin is sometimes depicted by later authors as a saintly figure or gentle sage. In reality he was a hardcore anarcho-communist revolutionary. This can be seen in several primary sources. For example, in 1881 he wrote that workers must “seize all of the wealth of society, if necessary doing so over the corpse of the bourgeoisie, with the intention of returning all of society’s wealth to those who produced it, the workers”. (Kropotkin 2014, 305) Decades later in 1914 he wrote that, “two things are necessary to be successful in a revolution . . . an idea in the head, and a bullet in the rifle! The force of action – guided by the force of Anarchist thought”.  (Ibid, 207)

Kropotkin’s hardcore militancy can also be seen in his actions. In 1877 a small armed band of twenty-six Italian anarchists, which included Malatesta, roamed the Matese mountains attempting to spread anarchist ideas through deeds. After failing to accomplish much beyond entering two small towns, burning some official government documents, and giving speeches to peasants on the need for a social revolution, the anarchists were arrested without firing a shot. (Pernicone 1993, 121-6) In response Kropotkin wrote a letter to Paul Robin where he said,

You can imagine how angry we are with the Italians. Seeing that they have allowed themselves to be surprised and have not defended themselves, I propose a vote for their exclusion from the International. The republic of [17]93 was quite capable of guillotining its generals when they gave proof of ineptitude. In my view, by allowing themselves to be surprised, to take fright, and by delivering up their weapons and ammunition to 42 men they have acted as cowards. (Quoted in Cahm 1989, 103)

Kropotkin may have changed his mind after James Guillaume wrote a letter explaining that the Italian anarchists had been unable to use their old rifles because heavy rain had made it too damp to fire. (ibid). In 1877 Kropotkin had himself attended a demonstration in St Imier, Switzerland armed with a “loaded revolver”. He was ready, in his own words, to “blow out the brains” of the police if they attacked. (Cahm 1989, 102, 104) Decades later in 1905 Kropotkin, who was in his 60s, responded to news of the Russian revolution by practising shooting with a rifle in case he returned to Russia and needed to participate in street fighting. (Woodcock and Avakumovic 1990, 365-6)

5. When living in England Kropotkin refused to toast the king. He recounts in a letter that,

A month ago I was invited to a banquet of the Royal Geographical Society of London. The chairman proposed, ‘The King’! Everybody rose and I alone remained seated. It was a painful moment. And I was thunderstruck when immediately afterwards the same chairman cried, ‘Long live Prince Kropotkin!’ And everybody, without exception, rose. (Quoted in Woodcock and Avakumovic 1990, 227)

6. Kropotkin called everything a prison before Foucault made it cool. Kropotkin argued in 1887 that insane asylums were prisons. He wrote,

There was a time when lunatics, considered as possessed by the devil, were treated in the most abominable manner. Chained in stalls like animals, they were dreaded even by their keepers. To break their chains, to set them free, would have been considered then as a folly. But a man came – Pinel – who dared to take off their chains, and to offer them brotherly words, brotherly treatment. And those who were looked upon as ready to devour the human being who dared to approach them, gathered round their liberator, and proved that he was right in his belief in the best features of human nature, even in those whose intelligence was darkened by disease. From that time the cause of humanity was won. The lunatic was no longer treated like a wild beast. Men recognized in him a brother.

The chains disappeared, but asylums – another name for prisons – remained, and within their walls a system as bad as that of the chains grew up by-and-by. (Kropotkin 1991, 369)

A decade later Kropotkin argued in 1899 that authoritarian schools were prisons. He wrote that in Germany “the Kindergarten . . . has often become a small prison for the little ones” where “teachers often make of it a kind of barrack in which each movement of the child is regulated beforehand”. (Kropotkin 1902, 193-4)

7. Kropotkin loved gardening. A wholesome example of this is Goldman’s description of her visit to Kropotkin during the Russian revolution. She writes,

we had visited Peter in July and had found him in good health and buoyant spirits. He seemed then younger and better than when we had seen him the previous March. The sparkle in his eyes and his vivacity had impressed us with his splendid condition. The Kropotkin place had looked lovely in the summer sunshine, with the flowers and Sophie’s vegetable garden in full bloom. With much pride Peter had spoken of his companion and her skill as a gardener. Taking Sasha and me by the hand, he had led us in boyish exuberance to the patch where Sophie had planted a special kind of lettuce. She had succeeded in raising heads as large as cabbages, their leaves crispy and luscious. He himself had also been digging in the soil, but it was Sophie, he had reiterated, who was the real expert. Her potato crop of the previous winter had been so large that there was enough left over to exchange for fodder for their cow and even to share with their Dmitrov neighbours, who had few vegetables. Our dear Peter had been frolicking in his garden and talking about these matters as if they were world events. Infectious had been the youthful spirit of our comrade, carrying us along by its freshness and charm. (Goldman 1970b, 863)

8. Kropotkin was apparently good at playing with kids. His nephew Nicholas Alexeivich claims that during his 1886 visit to Kropotkin, “[h]e taught us all the rules of fortification (a science to which he referred with great respect, regarding it indispensable for a revolutionary) and made fortifications in the snow. We arranged desperate battles with our comrades, little English boys, with my uncle’s benevolent assistance”. (Quoted in Woodcock and Avakumovic 1990, 212)

E.M Heath visited Kropotkin’s home as a child and recalled that “Kropotkin was gay and brimming over with life and interest in everything – very warm and affectionate. His vast knowledge, his vast experience and his great powers of thought, I was quite oblivious to them. It was enough for me to listen to his stories and play the delightful game he taught me, where he was a bull-fighter and I the bull, hurling myself in vain on him”. (Quoted in Woodcock and Avakumovic 1990, 222)

9. Kropotkin never met Michael Bakunin, who was one of the most influential anarchist theorists in the 19th The reason why is as follows. In 1872 Kropotkin visited Switzerland in order to meet socialists of various persuasions and learn about the 1st International. He initially met state socialists in Geneva, including one of Bakunin’s main opponents Nicholas Utin. After Utin attempted to stop workers from going on strike in order to protect the election of a bourgeois candidate, Kropotkin left in disgust and headed for the Jura Mountains. During his stay in the Jura he came into contact with anarchists for the first time and soon came to consider himself one. (Kropotkin 1989, 255-67) He attempted to meet Bakunin but Guillaume advised against this on the grounds that Bakunin was old and overwhelmed by the on-going conflict in the International with Marx and his supporters. (Cahm 1989, 27)

Kropotkin later wrote in his autobiography that “Bakunin was at that time at Locarno. I did not see him, and now regret it very much, because he was dead when I returned four years later to Switzerland.” (Kropotkin 1989, 267) What Kropotkin didn’t realise was that Bakunin had rejected him. Guillaume revealed to Max Nettlau that Bakunin had decided to not meet Kropotkin for what strike me as extremely bizarre reasons. Bakunin associated Peter Kropotkin with his politically moderate brother Alexander Kropotkin who was an associate of Peter Lavrov, one of Bakunin’s rivals. Bakunin was, in addition to this, suspicious of the fact that Kropotkin had stayed with Utin in Geneva for several weeks. (Cahm 1989, 27) At the time Bakunin, who was an antisemite, was convinced that Utin was part of a Jewish state socialist conspiracy against him that had been masterminded by Marx. As a result, Bakunin may have mistakenly believed that Kropotkin had sided with Utin or was being manipulated by him in some way. Unlike Bakunin we now know from Kropotkin’s memoirs that he disliked Utin and that this was a key reason why he had gone to meet the anarchists in the Jura.

10. Kropotkin didn’t only look like Santa Claus he was also aware of the fact. According to Ruth Kinna, Kropotkin contemplated dressing up as Santa Claus in order to expropriate toys from shops and give them away to children for free. Kropotkin wrote on the edge of one page, “[i]nfiltrate the stores, give away the toys!”. On the back of a postcard he wrote,

On the night before Christmas, we’ll all be about
While the people are sleeping, we’ll realise our clout
We’ll expropriate goods from the stores, ‘cos that’s fair
And distribute them widely, to those who need care.

Bonus Fact

Kropotkin was not born with a large beard. Here is a picture of him from 1861. (Woodcock and Avakumovic 1990, 96)

Kropotkin 1861

Bibliography

Goldman, Emma. 1970a. Living My Life Volume 1. New York: Dover Publications.

Goldman, Emma. 1970b. Living My Life Volume 2. New York: Dover Publications.

Cahm, Caroline. 1989. Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism, 1872-1886. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kropotkin, Peter. 1902. Fields, Factories and Workshops: Industry Combined with Agriculture and Brain Work with Manual Work. New York: G.P Putnam’s Sons.

Kropotkin, Peter. 1989. Memoirs of a Revolutionist. Montréal: Black Rose Books.

Kropotkin, Peter. 1991. In Russian and French Prisons. Montréal: Black Rose Books.

Kropotkin, Peter 2014. Direct Struggle Against Capital: A Peter Kropotkin Anthology. Edited by Iain McKay. Oakland, CA: AK Press,

Pernicone, Nunzio. 1993. Italian Anarchism 1864-1892. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Woodcock, George, and Ivan Avakumović. Peter Kropotkin: From Prince to Rebel. Montréal: Black Rose Books, 1990.

The Best Feminist You’ve Never Heard Of: He-Yin Zhen

Discussions of historical feminists usually focus on figures like Mary Wollstonecraft or Emmeline Pankhurst. If you’re lucky anti-capitalist feminists like Emma Goldman, Voltairine de Cleyre and Eleanor Marx will be mentioned. In this video I’m going to be talking about a historical feminist you’ve probably never heard of: the Chinese anarchist feminist He-Yin Zhen, who during the early 20th century developed feminist theory which conceptualised the manner in which patriarchy, capitalism and the state intersected with one another to uniquely oppress working class women in China. 

He-Yin was born in 1884 to wealthy parents in China’s Jiangsu province and received a considerable childhood education. In 1904 she married the classical scholar Liu Shipei and subsequently fled to Tokyo with him in 1907 due to their opposition to Manchu rule in China. It was in Tokyo, where they lived among Chinese students and exiled revolutionaries in the Kanda district, that they first discovered and came to identify with anarchism. According to the historian Peter Zarrow, Liu and He-Yin were, alongside Zhang Ji, the first Chinese anarchists we know of living outside of Europe. That same year He-Yin co-founded ‘the Society for the Restoration of Women’s Rights’ and its accompanying journal, Natural Justice. The society’s bylaws prohibited supporting governments, acting in subservience to men, and becoming a concubine or second wife. The journal Natural Justice, which was edited by He-Yin, was in print for only two years but played a crucial role in spreading feminism, socialism, Marxism and anarchism among Chinese speakers. This can be seen in the fact that the journal published the earliest Chinese translation of large parts of the Communist Manifesto in 1908. (Zarrow 1988, 800; Zarrow 1990, 31, 33-4, 101-4, 130-1)

In the pages of Natural Justice He-Yin laid out her theory of how women’s oppression arose, was reproduced and could be abolished. Central to this theorising was the Confucian concept of nannü, which can be translated as ‘man-woman’. In Confucianism the concept of nannü was used by male thinkers to render the inequalities and differences between men and women as inherent aspects of the natural world which it was wrong to oppose or try to change. The White Tiger Discourse, for example, claims that “[t]he husband is high as the wife is low; the husband is to heaven as the wife is to earth. The wife cannot do without her husband as the earth cannot do without Heaven.” (Quoted in He-Yin 2013, 180) He-Yin responded to this intellectual context by taking the concept of nannü and using it to theorise how the inequalities and differences between men and women were inherently historical and socially produced, rather than natural, and so could be changed. In her usage the concept nannü refers to the social system under which human action continually produces and reproduces the division of men and women into distinct social categories with accompanying roles who stand in specific social relations to one another. (see the extended discussion on translating nannü by the editors in ibid, 10-17, 20)

There are two important features of nannü as a concept which must be stressed. Firstly, it holds that ‘men’ and ‘women’ cannot be understood in isolation of one another but must instead be understood in terms of the relations that they stand in with one another, such as the actual and socially prescribed relationships between husband and wife, father and daughter, male emperor and female concubine and so on. This relational view of men and women is similar to how Marx defines capitalist and worker in terms of their relationship with one another and the productive process which they both take part in.

Secondly, it holds that ‘men’ and ‘women’ are not static fixed entities but are rather on-going processes which change over time. What it is for an individual to be a ‘woman’ will change between the 16th and 19th century or will change as a woman moves from being a child to an adult and from unmarried to married to widowed. These changes to womanhood can crucially be brought about by women themselves, such as He-Yin changing her own sense of being a woman through the creation of feminist theory. This can be seen in He-Yin’s view that part of why women must emancipate themselves is because it develops their character as women and enables them to unlearn the passivity that they have been socialised into. (ibid, 63) The end point of such emancipation was for He-Yin the abolition of nannü as a social system. She writes that,

Men and women are both humans. By [saying] ‘men’ (nanxing) and ‘women’ (nuxing) we are not speaking of  ‘nature’, as each is but the outcome of differing social customs and education. If sons and daughters are treated equally, raised and educated in the same manner, then the responsibilities assumed by men and women will surely become equal. When that happens, the nouns ‘men’ and ‘women’ would no longer be necessary. This is ultimately the ‘equality of men and women’ of which we speak. (ibid, 184)

The history of how patriarchy arose was for He-Yin the history of how men “created political and moral institutions, the first priority of which was to separate man from woman” and thereby come to consider “the differentiation between man and woman” as “one of the major principles in heaven and on earth.” These divisions between men and women either did not exist prior to the creation of patriarchy, such as women’s subservience to men, or were built upon previously existing differences which hitherto had not been of supreme importance and did not determine a person’s social positioning within a relationship of domination and subordination, such as men’s control of women’s capacity to have children. Crucially, in both cases these divisions were created by human action and were not, as people under patriarchy thought, inherent in the natural order. (ibid, 53) 

The key social system which established and reproduced the division of men and women into separate social categories was men’s exclusive right to own property. She writes that “[f]or thousands of years, the world has been dominated by the rule of man. This rule is marked by class distinctions over which men – and men only – exert proprietary rights.” These “proprietary rights” consisted of, alongside the ownership of land and resources, the ownership of women as property. (ibid)   

He-Yin thought that prior to the creation of patriarchy through the enslavement of women, humans initially lived in egalitarian societies in which property was owned in common, both men and women had multiple sexual partners, and children inherited their mothers’ surname because it was not important who the father was. Women’s oppression arose due to a division of labour in which men were soldiers and women were not. The consequence of this division of labour was that when different groups of humans came into armed conflict with one another the victorious group cemented their military supremacy by killing the male soldiers, seizing communally owned property as their own private property, and enslaving the remaining men as labourers and the women as concubines. In so doing the victorious male soldiers established themselves as a ruling class who wielded power over both other men and women through the ownership of resources and human beings. The establishment of patriarchy and class society therefore not only coincided with one another but patriarchy itself was a gendered form of class society because women were owned as sex slaves. (ibid, 92, 108-9) He-Yin writes,

just as the systems of communal marriage and common property were linked, so were the systems of pillaging women for marriage and slavery also linked at their very birth. And so it was that brute force became the way to rule: separating the strong from the weak, creating division into two classes. Both women and men were the objects of brute force, suppressed by those men with strength and power. Henceforth, slavery became the mode of production: whereas the weak expended their strength, the strong enjoyed their successes without effort; and the extremes of wealth and poverty gradually became more severe. (ibid, 92-3)

The practice of owning women as sex slaves simultaneously led men to view women as inferior beings who should be treated as objects and led women to become “disposed to servitude” and following “the commands of men”. It was therefore not long before what He-Yin termed ‘the age of men’s plundering of women’ was supplanted by ‘the age of men’s trading of women’, in which men, rather than seizing women through armed conflict, bought and sold women from within their own and neighbouring communities. This development represented a shift from a society in which women captured through military conquest were thought of as inferior, to a society in which women as a whole were thought of as inferior because all women, rather than only some, became the property of men. Under such a system, men were humans and women were chattel. (ibid, 110-1, 178-80) 

The transition to patriarchy was therefore the process through which a previous matrilineal social system in which both men and women had multiple sexual partners was replaced by a social system in which men owned multiple women as property and prohibited women from having any other sexual partner but them. Under such a system of ownership women lost their surnames in favour of the surname of their husband and the children they gave birth to inherited the surname of the father, rather than the mother. (ibid, 111-2)

The oppression of women was subsequently reproduced through a series of social practices which continually marked out the division between men and women. These included but were not limited to: a gendered division of labour in which men left the household to earn a living whilst women were forced to remain at home and perform “the double task of raising children” and “managing the household”; inequality in the system of rites whereby a husband would have to mourn his wife for a year but a wife would have to mourn her husband for three years; inequality in education such that women were taught how to be wives but not intellectuals; and a vast array of Confucian scholarship written by men which established the ideological underpinnings of man’s oppression of women and was used as the basis for patriarchal laws. (ibid, 54, 181, 122-46, 148-9)

These gendered forms of oppression permeated the whole of society such that irrespective of your economic class and social status if you were a woman then there was some man who you were subordinate to. An upper class woman, for example, may hold power over lower class men but at the same time be subordinate to the power of her wealthy husband. As He-Yin writes,

there is not a single woman who has not been ill treated by some man . . . One cannot deny that an empress occupies a highly esteemed position, but she never questions her own subjugation to a man (men). At the other end of the hierarchy, one finds beggars whose social position cannot be more degraded, yet even a female beggar would not question her subjugation to a man (men). (ibid, 105)

Although all women were subordinate to some man, they did not share the same experiences of subordination due to their different positions within economic and political hierarchies. Lower class women, who were the majority of women, experienced patriarchal, economic and state oppression at the same time. Although He-Yin did not use the word intersectionality, which was coined by Kimberlee Crenshaw in 1989, she did nonetheless think in an intersectional way. (Crenshaw 1989; Collins and Bilge 2016, 2, 4, 26-7) For He-Yin structures of oppression are not separate discrete entities but instead mutually determine and define one another. On her view, patriarchal, economic and state oppression form an interlocking web in which each component is defined in terms of its relationship to every other component. There is no such thing as pure patriarchy because part of what patriarchy is as a really existing social phenomenon is the relations it stands in with other structures of oppression, such as economic oppression. A working-class woman does not experience patriarchal + economic + state oppression whereby each form of oppression is separate and independent from one another. She instead experiences the product of these three systems of oppression interacting with one another to create life experiences that cannot be reduced to any one of these oppressive systems but are instead the product of all three at once. To understand oppression is therefore to examine how a given person is socially positioned along multiple different axis, rather than focusing only on one axis which is taken to be the most important.

I shall first discuss the intersection of patriarchal and economic oppression, then the intersection of patriarchal and state oppression and then the intersection of all three. He-Yin gives three main examples of the intersection of patriarchal and economic oppression. Firstly, poor families could not live solely off of male labour and so lower class women were forced to, usually in addition to raising children and managing the household, work as farmers, factory workers, domestic servants, bond servants, concubines and sex workers. (He-Yin 2013, 55, 82) Although, unlike upper class women, they were free to leave the home this freedom was not a liberating one since they suffered “the most strenuous forms of labor, the most ruthless exploitation, and the most shameful humiliation”. (ibid, 55)

Secondly, patriarchal and economic oppression combined to create a society in which lower class women were forced by poverty to become sex workers who sold their bodies to men who viewed women as sex objects. Poor families, for example, would often sell their daughters, who due to patriarchy they valued less than their sons, as slaves to rich men or brothels visited primarily by rich men. Their poverty was in turn caused by these same rich men economically exploiting them. The upper class therefore both created the conditions under which lower class women were forced into sex work by poverty whilst at the same time being the primary users and owners of sex workers. In a society in which women were owned as property the sale of daughters by lower class families could be viewed, according to He-Yin, as an indirect means through which rich men both seized the property of the poor and raped the daughters of the poor. Even those women who found employment as factory workers or maids were forced to engage in sex work part time because their male employers did not pay them a living wage. (ibid, 74-5, 82-84, 88-9) He-Yin writes that,  

in a world where property is not equal, those who escape being a concubine may not escape being prostitutes; those who escape being a prostitute may not escape being a factory girl or a servant. Even if one is a factory girl or a servant in name, prostitution is the hidden reality. (ibid, 90)

Thirdly, in many cases lower class women, including those who did not engage in sex work, were raped or sexually harassed within the workplace by their male employer or manager and outside the workplace by upper class men who happened to notice them in public. In such situations both lower class women and their families were not in a position to do anything about what had happened because the perpetrator was wealthy and, if it occurred within the workplace, could make their life even worse by having them fired. This sexual violence therefore simultaneously had a gendered aspect, it was directed at them by a man, and an economic aspect, the man in question wielded class power over them. (ibid, 95-6, 100, 101)

A significant number of modern feminists would object to He-Yin’s description of sex work as women selling their bodies to men. She does nonetheless explicitly say that sex workers degrade their bodies not because they have sex with multiple men but because they, like all who must work for the wealthy in order to survive, sell their bodies for money. She therefore views capitalism as a social system in which the working classes in general sell their bodies to the rich, rather than thinking this is unique to sex work under capitalism. (ibid, 64, note 29, 80) Elsewhere He-Yin writes that those who “call prostitutes and concubines insulting names” are “pathetic”. (ibid, 84)

He-Yin does advocate the abolition of sex work, but she does not think this should occur through the violence of the state. She argued against the criminalisation of sex work on the grounds that such laws ignore that women engage in sex work in order to earn a living and will continue to do so as long as capitalism exists. She writes,

Although eliminating prostitution and concubinage is spoken of all over the country, neither public opinion nor legislative prohibition can stop poor women from becoming prostitutes and concubines. Nor can they stop the rich from patronizing prostitutes and keeping concubines. Even if the systems of prostitution and concubinage were eliminated in name, they would persist in reality. (ibid, 86)

According to He-Yin, the abolition of sex work could only come about through the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of a classless society. She advocates,

the implementation of communalized property, where there is no differentiation between the wealthy and the poor. This would allow poor women not to seek money by sacrificing their bodies and would prevent the rich from using their wealth to satisfy their desires. It would also eliminate the system of women’s employment, thus overturning the trend toward semiprostitution and semiconcubinage. In this way, one could save women from hardship. (ibid, 90)

This is not to say that He-Yin’s critique of involuntary sex work under capitalism is flawless. The way He-Yin talks about sex work gives the impression that her critique was underpinned by sexual prudishness. For example, she describes sex work as an “immoral profession” based on “the selling of lewdness and obscenity” which poor women “sink into”. She alleges that wealthy men who hire poor sex workers “ruin the virtue of women” and that “wealth is the root cause of lustful indulgence”. (ibid, 88, 97, 84, 96) He-Yin’s response to the idea that women should have multiple husbands in order to be equal with men who have multiple wives is particularly yikes. She writes that,

A woman who has multiple husbands is virtually a prostitute. Those women who are now advocating multiple husbands use the pretext of resisting men, but their real motivation is to give full rein to their personal lust, following the path of prostitutes. These women are traitors to womanhood. (ibid, 184)

Within another passage He-Yin complains about women who “appear to be liberated” but are instead merely “taking cover under freedom and equality to seek self-gratification and the fulfillment of sexual desire”. Some of these women are “driven by blind passion and some are seduced by men and fall into their snare.” She claims that “when liberation is mistaken for self-indulgence, a woman cannot think of a nobler task than sexual pleasure”. It should, however, be noted that He-Yin also writes that “free love is an exception” to this, where free love means a monogamous sexual relationship in which both partners are free and equal. It is, in addition the case that, she critiques these liberated women for conceiving of “liberation much too narrowly” and focusing on their own individual self-indulgence, rather than fundamental social change for everyone. (ibid, 63-4) Perhaps then He-Yin’s issue is not with the fact that these women are pursuing sex but with the fact that they are ignoring the need to achieve universal human emancipation and are being seduced by sexist men who treat them badly.

According to He-Yin, women were oppressed not only by the intersection of patriarchal and economic oppression, but also suffered due to the intersection of patriarchal and state oppression. This took the form of women being excluded from wielding political power and commanding armies. The consequence of this is that states were not merely institutions controlled by a ruling minority in their interests. They were controlled by a ruling minority who were specifically men and so had an interest in reproducing and expanding the oppression of women by men. In those rare moments when women did wield state power they would often have to entrust the affairs of state to their husband or brothers and would be viewed as a danger to the country by men. State power was therefore exercised to perpetuate not only economic and political oppression but also gender oppression. For He-Yin one of the prime examples of this was patriarchal laws which dictated that when a man committed a crime the punishment would be applied not only to the guilty man but also to the innocent women within his household, which included his wife, daughters, sisters and concubines. The consequence of this is that countless women were executed, banished or imprisoned by the state because of the crimes their husband, brother or father committed. The law treated women “as appendages of men” and so deprived them of life for crimes they did not commit simply because of who their father, brother or husband happened to be. (ibid, 59, 107, 147-8, 158-67)

The intersections of patriarchal, economic and state oppression came together in the form of state power being exercised to force large numbers of women to become the concubines of both the male head of state and male lords. Under this system the political ruling class was divided into ranks and the higher a man’s rank was the more sex slaves he could have. Although in some periods these women were from both upper class and lower class families it was nonetheless the case that the majority of the women coerced into sex slavery by the state were poor. In some cases the concubines of Emperors would even be killed and buried alongside the Emperor when he died. (ibid, 112-3, 153-8)

Equipped with this intersectional theory of women’s oppression He-Yin critiqued liberal feminists who sought to achieve women’s emancipation through winning the right to vote and electing women into parliament. Such a strategy ignored that the majority of women are simultaneously oppressed by patriarchy, capitalism and the state. As a result, liberal feminists would not achieve the emancipation of women as a whole but would merely establish a situation in which a minority of upper class women wielded state power alongside men to oppress the majority of the population, both male and female, in their class interests. He-Yin writes,

If gender equality simply means that a minority of women may take political office and maintain an equilibrium of power with a minority of men who hold similar office, we should try to explain how the following happens among men: namely, in today’s world where there is difference between men who rule over other men and men who are ruled by them, the majority of the ruled in the world of men are demanding a revolution. As for the idea of equal division of power between men and women, most people seem to believe that since there are power holders among men, there should be among women as well. But did such powerful female sovereigns as Queen Victoria of the British Empire or Empresses Lü Zhi and Empress Wu Zetian in the dynastic history of China ever bring the slightest benefits to the majority of women?

A minority of women holding power is hardly sufficient to save the majority of women. In the case of Norway, for instance, the few aristocratic women who occupy political office do little in the way of bringing benefits to the general population. And as representatives of women from the upper classes and gentry families, these women have gained political rights and are assisting men from the upper classes in perpetrating damages even further. If their legislative work benefits upper-class women only, it deepens the suffering of lower-class women. (ibid, 66)

The emancipation of women as a whole could only be achieved by abolishing the three main social structures which intersected to oppress them: patriarchy, capitalism and the state. He-Yin writes that her “understanding of gender equality implies equality among all human beings, which refers to the prospect of not only men no longer oppressing women but also men no longer oppressed by other men and women no longer oppressed by other women.” Given this, “rather than wrest power from men, modern women should aim to overturn the rule of man by compelling men to renounce their privileges and power and humble themselves so man and woman can achieve equality on woman’s terms. . . the ultimate goal of women’s liberation is to free the world from the rule of man and from the rule of woman”. He-Yin was therefore “proposing not merely a women’s revolution but a complete social revolution” which abolished the state and capitalism in favour of an anarchist society based on communal ownership. Or as He-Yin writes elsewhere, “if you desire to realise a women’s revolution, you must begin with an economic revolution”. (ibid, 65-6, 70, 183, 103)

Doing so was necessary to abolish patriarchy because of the manner in which capitalism and the state underpinned and constituted patriarchy as a really existing social structure. In a classless egalitarian society based on production and distribution according to need women would no longer be subordinate to the whims of men who wielded economic and political power over them and forced women to engage in work, including sex work, in order to survive. In the absence of money women would marry for love rather than wealth and childcare could be organised communally rather than being the individual responsibility of mothers. This is not to say that abolishing capitalism and the state was sufficient to abolish patriarchy. He-Yin held that there must, in addition, be a transformation in gender relations such that sons and daughters were raised equally and given an equal education. As adults men and women were to shoulder the same responsibilities and all affairs in society were to become women’s concern. Overtime these changes would culminate in the abolition of nannü itself such that “the nouns “men” and “women” would no longer be necessary”. (ibid, 90-1, 103-4, 107-8, 182-4)

Within the modern context of the increasing popularity and ever-expanding influence of liberal and corporate feminism He-Yin’s intersectional anarchist feminism serves as an essential corrective. The emancipation of women cannot be achieved through electing woman presidents or having more women in boardrooms. Doing so would, as He-Yin argued over a century ago, merely bring about a more diverse ruling class and so create a situation in which the majority of women are oppressed by a small group of rich and powerful men and women, rather than only or largely men. The emancipation of women as a whole can only be achieved through a social revolution which overthrows the ruling classes and abolishes all forms of oppression, including patriarchy, capitalism and the state. If, as He-Yin wrote, “the question of women’s liberation is one of enabling each and every woman to partake in the joys of freedom” then women’s liberation can only be found in an anarchist society which brings the joys of freedom to all of humanity. (ibid, 70)

Bibliography

Collins, Patricia Hill, and Sirma Bilge. 2016. Intersectionality. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. 1989. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Anti-Racist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum, no. 1: 139–67.

He-Yin Zhen. 2013. The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory. New York: Columbia University Press. Edited by Lydia H Liu, Rebecca E Karl, and Dorothy Ko. 

Zarrow, Peter. 1988. “He Zhen and Anarcho-Feminism in China.” The Journal of Asian Studies 47, no. 4: 796–813.

Zarrow, Peter. 1990. Anarchism and Chinese Political Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

NonCompete Doesn’t Understand Platformism

Non-compete, who has referred to himself as a “huge theory nerd”, made a video about platformism. Unfortunately, he doesn’t understand what platformism is. According to non-compete platformism is characterised by the following 5 positions.

  1. Platformism is an idea that was invented in 1926 by Russian anarchists living in exile in France within a text called the Organisational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists (draft). It holds that we should build organisations on the foundation of a platform, which is a set of principles, goals and strategies that everyone within the organisation agrees on. The platform will be based on theoretical unity, tactical unity, collective responsibility and federalism.

  2. Theoretical unity means that the platform will include specific theoretical positions which everyone who joins the organisation must agree to in order to be a member. An organisation’s platform will by its very nature be inclusive to some people becoming members, whilst excluding others. What theoretical positions should be in an organisation’s platform will vary depending upon its aims and function. An organisation which feeds the homeless, for example, won’t need to include a commitment to the social ownership of the means of production in their points of theoretical unity. As a result, it could have a broad platform which can unite liberals, anarchists and Marxist-Leninists together in order to achieve effective common action at feeding the homeless. In contrast, a trade union could, due to the kind of organisation it is, have a platform which explictly tackles class politics and is narrower than the platform of other organisations. Platformism therefore advocates forming multiple different kinds of organisation which have different platforms that contain different theoretical principles as points of unity.

  3. Tactical unity means that even if we don’t agree on everything, members of an organisation will agree to work together tactically towards goals that they share. The platform of an organisation will therefore include both the goals members of the organisation share and the strategies they advocate to achieve them. This tactical unity also applies to working with other organisations which have the same goals. If an anarchist organisation’s goal is to feed the homeless then they should have tactical unity with other organisations which also aim to feed the homeless. This applies even if the other organisations are liberal or Marxist-Leninist. Given this, tactical unity is a way for different people who have different ideologies to work together if they share a common goal.

  4. Collective responsibility means that every member is responsible for the actions of the organisation and the organisation is responsible for the actions of every member acting on behalf of the organisation. Individual members should be aware that what they say is reflective of the organisation and work towards the best interests of the organisation as defined in its platform. The consequence of this is that individuals should put the organisation ahead of themselves as an individual when making decisions. This means that if the organisation makes a decision which I as an individual don’t agree with, I should in general put my ego aside and go along with the rest of the organisation. If my disagreement is significant then I am free to leave the organisation and join a different one or create a new one with a distinct platform.

  5. Federalism, which is interconnected with tactical unity, means that different groups with different platforms can form coalitions and federate together in order to achieve common goals and work on projects, such as helping the homeless or organising strikes. This is the case even if their platforms don’t agree on everything.

Non-compete then argues that unnecessary conflict and division within the left are a major problem. Given points 1-5 platformism is an effective way of responding to this conflict and division. Different leftists can form distinct organisations with platforms that correspond to their specific ideas. These different organisations can then, despite having different platforms, work together in tactical unity via federations in order to achieve common goals. For example, leftists disagree about Joe Biden a lot and this leads to lots of pointless arguing. Instead of wasting their time arguing with each other, leftists who advocate voting for Joe Biden should form one platformist organisation and leftists who advocate not voting for Joe Biden should form a different platformist organisation. This way instead of achieving nothing through pointless internet arguments, different leftists can take action and build organisations that reflect their own viewpoints. Or leftists could choose to build a platformist organisation which has a very broad and inclusive platform. In so doing it would enable different leftists to work together within the same organisation due to it having a platform which they all agree on and choose to focus on, instead of them focusing on where they disagree and arguing with each other all the time.

In summarising non-compete’s 46 minute video I have as much as possible put things in his own words. I have also watched his video several times in order to make sure that I am accurately representing him. Unfortunately, almost every single thing non-compete says about platformism is false. He is correct about three things. It is true that,

(a) platformism was invented by Russian anarchists in 1926 within a text called the organisational platform of the general union of anarchists (draft)

(b) platformism argues that we should form organisations based on theoretical unity, tactical unity, collective responsibility and federalism.

(c) collective responsibility means that every member is responsible for the actions of the organisation and the organisation is responsible for the actions of every member acting on behalf of the organisation.

The problem with non-compete’s video is that he doesn’t understand what theoretical unity, tactical unity or federalism mean. To my knowledge nobody in the history of anarchism has interpreted platformism in the way that non-compete has and I don’t understand where he got his ideas from. In this video I’m going to explain what platformism actually is.

Before I do so it is important to clarify some terminology. In his video non-compete refers to Marxism-Leninism. This is a very broad category and means different things to different people, ranging from Lenin’s specific ideas to Trotskyism, Stalinism and Maoism. In order to avoid confusion, and narrow this video’s focus, I shall be using the term ‘Stalinism’ in order to pick out those individuals or movements who seek to implement the version of Marxism-Leninism most strongly associated with Stalin.

Programmes and Organisational Dualism

According to non-compete platformism holds that we should build organisations on the foundation of a platform, which is a set of principles that everyone within the organisation agrees on. As a result, you can have platformist organisations for any political purpose, from voting for Joe Biden to feeding the homeless. These different platformist organisations will have different platforms depending upon their aims and can therefore range from an anarchist only organisation to an organisation which unites liberals, anarchists and Stalinists together.

This is wrong. Platformism is not the idea that organisations in general should have a common programme which every member agrees with. If this was the case, then platformism would be saying nothing new. Socialist groups have had common programmes for as long as socialism has been a thing. This is the case for both Marxism and anarchism. To give a few examples, in 1880 Marx co-wrote the programme of the French Workers’ Party; in 1883 anarchists in the United States adopted the Pittsburgh proclamation at the founding congress of the International Working People’s Association; in 1891 the Social Democratic Party of Germany adopted the Erfurt programme; in 1906 the French General Confederation of Labour, which was a syndicalist trade union that anarchists played a key role in, adopted the Charter of Amiens; in 1919 the Free Workers’ Union of Germany, which was one of the earliest anarcho-syndicalist trade unions, adopted a declaration of principles written by Rudolf Rocker. I could go on and on.

Nor is platformism the idea that different organisations should have different programmes depending upon their aim. In 1872 Bakunin argued that the 1st International should have a broad programme which united as many workers as possible on the basis of their shared class interests, whilst the organisation of dedicated revolutionaries, the Alliance, should have a narrow explictly anarchist programme. He wrote,

the Alliance and the International, although they both seek the same final goals, follow, at one and the same time, different paths. One has a mission to bring together the labour masses – millions of workers – [reaching] across differences of trades or lands, across the frontier of every state into one single compact and immense body. The other, the Alliance has a mission to give a really revolutionary direction to these masses. The programmes of the one and the other, without in any way being opposed, are different, in keeping with the extent of the development of each. That of the International, if it is taken seriously contains in germ – but only in germ – the whole programme of the Alliance. The programme of the Alliance is the elaboration of the programme of the International. (Bakunin 2016, 210)

This strategy of forming a mass organisation, which has a broad programme and is open to all workers, and a specific anarchist organisation, which has a narrower programme and is open only to anarchist militants, is known as organisational dualism. It has been advocated by anarchists since the late 1860s and early 1870s. Platformism is a particular form of organisational dualism. As a result it advocates, just like anarchists did prior to 1926, the formation of both “trade unions” which unite “workers on a basis of production” in their “occupations” and “the anarchist organisation outside the union” which should “enter into revolutionary trade unions as an organised force” in order to “exercise our theoretical influence”. This same strategy of organisational dualism is advocated during the social revolution itself. The platform proposes that,

it is necessary to work in two directions: on the one hand towards the selection and grouping of revolutionary worker and peasant forces on a libertarian communist theoretical basis (a specifically libertarian communist organisation); on the other, towards regrouping revolutionary workers and peasants on an economic base of production and consumption (revolutionary workers and peasants organised around production: workers and free peasants co-operatives).

The authors of the platform make it very clear that their advocacy of theoretical unity, tactical unity, collective responsibility and federalism only applies to specific anarchist organisations, and not organisations in general. The platform begins by arguing that the Russian anarchist movement suffered from the lack of an effective specific anarchist organisation. In response to this failure, they propose the formation of “an organisation which, having gathered the majority of the participants of the anarchist movement, establishes in anarchism a general and tactical political line which would serve as a guide to the whole movement.” In order to achieve this, different “anarchist militants” must agree upon “a homogeneous programme” which contains “precise positions” on “theoretical, tactical and organisational” questions. They claim that, “[t]he elaboration of such a programme is one of the principal tasks imposed on anarchists by the social struggle of recent years. It is to this task that the group of Russian anarchists in exile dedicates an important part of its efforts.” They continue, “The Organisational Platform published below represents the outlines, the skeleton of such a programme. It must serve as the first step towards rallying libertarian forces into a single, active revolutionary collective capable of struggle: the General Union of Anarchists.”

Several pages later in the paragraphs preceding the advocacy of theoretical unity, tactical unity, collective responsibility and federalism, the authors of the platform make it very clear that they are only making proposals about how specific anarchist organisations should be structured. They write that the platform aims to “group around itself all the healthy elements of the anarchist movement into one general organisation, active and agitating on a permanent basis: the General Union of Anarchists. The forces of all anarchist militants should be orientated towards the creation of this organisation. The fundamental principles of organisation of a General Union of anarchists should be as follows:” They then list and explain theoretical unity, tactical unity, collective responsibility and federalism one after the other.

In case anyone listening is confused, when the authors of the platform refer to “the General Union of Anarchists” they mean a specific anarchist organisation and not a trade union. Referring to specific anarchist organisations as a “union of anarchists”, as opposed to a labour union open to all workers, was a normal expression within the anarchist movement at the time. For example, the Italian specific anarchist organisation which adopted Malatesta’s anarchist programme in 1920 was known as the Italian anarchist union. Or in France the main specific anarchist organisation at the time the platform was written was called the Anarchist Union. This language was not confusing to people at the time because they didn’t speak English and so didn’t use the word ‘trade union’. In France, for example, they distinguished between ‘syndicates’ and ‘the anarchist union’.

Given this, non-compete is wrong to argue that platformism is a proposal about organisations in general and that as a result you can have platformist groups composed of liberals, anarchists and Stalinists. The only groups which can be committed to platformism are specific anarchist organisations, which are organisations composed exclusively of anarchists. This fact can be found not only within the platform itself but also every single source I have ever read on the topic. The first sentence of the libcom.org guide to platformism claims that “Platformism is a current within libertarian communism putting forward specific suggestions on the nature which anarchist organisation should take.” Workers Solidarity Movement’s position paper on platformism defines the “platformist model” as “a specific anarchist communist organisation, with high theoretical and tactical unity”. I could keep listing other examples, but I think you get the point.

Theoretical and Tactical Unity

This in turn entails that non-compete is wrong about what theoretical and tactical unity means within platformism. According to non-compete, theoretical unity means that the platform of an organisation should include positions which everyone who joins it must agree to in order to be a member. What positions are in an organisation’s platform will vary depending upon its aims or function such that it’s possible to have theoretical unity between liberals, anarchists and Stalinists within a single organisation. Non-compete similarly describes tactical unity as the position that members of a single organisation and members of different organisations should agree to work tactically towards goals that they share. Tactical unity can, in other words, take the form of liberals, anarchists and Stalinists agreeing on tactics within the same organisation or a specific anarchist organisation and a Stalinist party agreeing to engage in the same tactics towards a shared goal. Given this, theoretical and tactical unity are an effective way to overcome divisions on the left.

This is false. The platform defines theoretical unity as follows,

Theory represents the force which directs the activity of persons and organisations along a defined path towards a determined goal. Naturally it should be common to all the persons and organisations adhering to the General Union. All activity by the General Union, both overall and in its details, should be in perfect concord with the theoretical principles professed by the union.

Non-compete has misunderstood this as merely saying that an organisation should have a programme which everyone that joins the organisation must agree to in order to be a member. This interpretation makes no sense when the platform is located within its historical context. During this period there was a debate within the anarchist movement in France about how broad or narrow the programmes of specific anarchist organisations should be. Advocates of synthesis federations, such as Voline or Sébastien Faure, argued that specific anarchist organisations should unite all anarchists together in order to achieve common action, irrespective of whether or not they were individualist anarchists, anarcho-communists or anarcho-syndicalists, and then synthesize the ideas of different anarchists together into a new form of anarchism which combined the best of each. In response to these ideas the authors of the platform argued that synthesis federations would soon collapse due to internal disagreements over theory and practice. The introduction of the platform argues that,

We reject as theoretically and practically inept the idea of creating an organisation after the recipe of the ‘synthesis’, that is to say re-uniting the representatives of different tendencies of anarchism. Such an organisation, having incorporated heterogeneous theoretical and practical elements, would only be a mechanical assembly of individuals each having a different conception of all the questions of the anarchist movement, an assembly which would inevitably disintegrate on encountering reality.

Platformism was therefore opposed to trying to unite everybody who calls themselves an anarchist into a single organisation. They instead argued that specific anarchist organisations should be committed to theoretical and tactical unity such that they bring anarchists together under a single common programme which enables effective and co-ordinated action. In order for this to occur the common programme has to be much narrower than every member simply agreeing that capitalism should be abolished or that anarchism is good, let alone a position as broad as thinking the homeless should be fed. This interpretation of platformism was understood by anarchists at the time. For example, in 1927 the authors of the platform attempted to establish an international federation of different specific anarchist organisations which would put the ideas of the platform into practice. In response to this the Italian anarchists Luigi Fabbri, Camillo Berneri and Ugo Fedeli, who were members of the Italian Anarchist Union, wrote a letter in which they said,

there exists among you a spirit which is quite distant from that which underlies our way of conceiving an international anarchist organisation, that is one which is open to the greatest number of individuals, groups and federations who agree with the principles of struggle organized in an anarchist way against capitalism and the State, on a permanent national and international basis, but all this without any ideological or tactical exclusivism . . .

These Italian anarchists, in short, agreed with the platform that an international federation of specific anarchist organisations should have a common programme, but disagreed with the platformists that this programme should be narrow and thereby exclude lots of people who call themselves anarchists.

Non-compete is similarly wrong about what tactical unity means. The platform defines tactical unity as follows,

In the same way the tactical methods employed by separate members and groups within the Union should be unitary, that is, be in rigorous concord both with each other and with the general theory and tactic of the Union. A common tactical line in the movement is of decisive importance for the existence of the organisation and the whole movement: it removes the disastrous effect of several tactics in opposition to one another, it concentrates all the forces of the movement, gives them a common direction leading to a fixed objective.

Tactical unity is not the idea that members of a single organisation and members of different organisations should agree to work tactically towards goals that they share. Its instead the position that the individuals and groups which compose a specific anarchist organisation should agree to collectively implement a common set of tactics and strategies that are consistent with one another and thereby act effectively as an organisation. This is in order to avoid a situation where members follow distinct and incompatible strategies which result in wasted effort and goals not being achieved. The idea being that, for example, every group within the specific anarchist organisation agrees to participate in a trade union in order to spread anarchist ideas. Everybody in the specific anarchist organisation following this single tactical line is superior to a situation where five groups support working in trade unions, whilst three groups devote huge amounts of energy to persuading workers to leave trade unions and in so doing undermine the efforts of other anarchists within the same specific anarchist organisation.

Federalism

Non-compete is not only wrong about what theoretical and tactical unity means. He also doesn’t understand what federalism is. According to non-compete, federalism within the platform means that different groups with different platforms can come together and form coalitions or federate in order to achieve common goals, even if their platforms don’t agree on everything. Such federalism, given non-compete’s previous points about tactical unity, would include anarchist and Stalinist organisations working together on common goals within a coalition or federation. This is false. I think non-compete has got this idea from a line in the platform where it says that, “federation signifies the free agreement of individuals and organisations to work collectively towards common objectives.” Non-compete has then combined this with his other misunderstandings of the platform to arrive at the conclusion that federalism entails fundamentally different kinds of socialist working together within a single federation and thereby overcoming unnecessary conflict on the left.

This interpretation makes no sense when you know anything about the authors of the platform. The platform was written by a group known as the Group of Russian Anarchists Abroad who published their ideas within a journal called Dielo Truda (The Cause of Labour). This group included Nestor Makhno and Peter Arshinov. Makhno and Arshinov had participated in the Russian revolution as key members of the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine. The history of the Russian revolution is very complex and in this video I’m only going to focus on how the authors of the platform understood it.

In 1923 Arshinov published a history of the Makhnovist movement in which he gave his account of events. According to Arshinov, they initially formed a military alliance with the Bolsheviks against the counter-revolutionary Whites. After the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine refused to be totally absorbed into the hierarchical structure of the Bolshevik one-party state and Red Army, the Bolsheviks took a different approach. During April and May 1919 the Bolsheviks spread misinformation and lies about the anarchists through the press, declared that the councils which had been created by the Ukrainian masses themselves were counter-revolutionary and illegal, attempted to assassinate Makhno and ensured that the anarchist militias did not receive ammunition with which to fight the White army. In June 1919 the Bolshevik Red Army, under the orders of Trotsky, violently disbanded general assemblies which had been created by the Ukrainian masses themselves and shot anarchist militants on the spot.

Several months later in early January 1920, the Bolsheviks ordered the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine to move to the Polish front. The Ukrainian anarchists refused on the grounds that doing so would mean abandoning Ukraine to top-down rule by the Bolsheviks. In response the Bolsheviks declared the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine to be bandits and outlaws and invaded Ukraine. During this invasion the Red Army fought against the anarchists, which was a guerrilla army, by arresting and then shooting large numbers of civilian peasants who were sympathetic with the anarchists. Anarchist fighters and their families, which included their fathers, mothers, wives and relatives, were either shot on the spot or tortured. Their homes were then plundered and destroyed.

The bloody war between the anarchists and the Bolsheviks continued for several months. In October 1920 the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine and the Bolsheviks agreed to a truce in order to focus on defeating the counter-revolutionary White army. This truce did not, however, last long and in November the Bolsheviks launched a co-ordinated surprise attack against the Ukrainian anarchists. As part of this surprise attack the Bolsheviks invited the military commanders of the anarchist army to a meeting and then murdered them in cold blood. Just as had occurred previously, the Bolsheviks war against the anarchists was to a significant extent also a war against the civilian population which supported the anarchist guerrillas. This included not only the mass execution of peasants, but also members of the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police, forcing mothers to hold their babies in their arms so that both mother and child could be killed in one blow. Makhno was himself shot and wounded several times during battles against the red army and witnessed or heard of the death of numerous comrades. (Arshinov 2005, 100-14, 123-34, 162-72, 176-80, 185-206)

Throughout the book Arshinov argues that the Bolsheviks established the minority rule of the state socialist intelligentsia over the working classes (ibid 39-41). He described this as a system of “economic slavery” in which the “state” and its “functionaries” are “everything” whilst “the working class is nothing”. He claims that the Bolsheviks turned “all of Russia into an immense prison” via “governmental terror” and that “in the Communist state the workers and peasants are socially enslaved, economically plundered, and politically deprived of all rights”. According to Arshinov, “in the name of the dictatorship of their Party, the Communists militarily crushed all the attempts of workers to realise their own self-direction – the basic goal of the Russian revolution – and thus crushed the revolutionary ferment in the country.” As a result, they “shattered the greatest revolutionary possibility that the workers had ever had in all history. And for this the proletarians of the whole world will forever nail them to the pillory.” (ibid 76-7, 80-1, 254)

Arshinov was not alone in having this attitude. In February 1926, which is a few months before the platform was published, Makhno wrote an article in which he critiqued the Bolsheviks for murdering and imprisoning anarchists. In his conclusion he wrote, “let us hope that the toilers of every country may draw the necessary conclusions and, in turn, finish with the Bolsheviks” who are “exponents of the idea of slavery and oppressors of labour”. (Makhno 1996, 45) Within the platform itself the Bolsheviks are critiqued on three occasions for establishing a state which, as anarchist theory had predicted, resulted in the establishment of a new minority political ruling class which oppressed the working classes, rather than achieving the emancipation of labour.

Given the above, it is very bizarre that non-compete interprets platformism as advocating or entailing anarchists and Stalinists working together within the same organisation or a federation of distinct organisations. To say that the authors of the platform weren’t fans of the Bolsheviks would be a massive understatement. I would go so far as to say that it’s messed up to suggest that platformism means working with Stalinists given that the founders of platformism had numerous friends and comrades who were murdered by the Bolsheviks and viewed Bolshevism as an ideology that would result in the rule of the intelligentsia over the working classes. Things only get worse when you know that Arshinov returned to the USSR in 1933 and was subsequently murdered in 1937 during Stalin’s great terror on the grounds that he had attempted to rebuild anarchism in Russia. (Skirda 2002, 140-1)

If federalism doesn’t mean anarchists and Stalinists working together, then what does it mean? Within anarchist theory federalism refers to a way of structuring organisations. Anarchists oppose centralised organisations, in which a minority at the centre make decisions which everyone else in the organisation has to follow, in favour of decentralised organisations which are networks of autonomous groups. Within this network each group makes their own decisions about how they operate and forms voluntary agreements with other groups in order to co-ordinate their activity over a large scale. This is what the platform is referring to when it says that “federation signifies the free agreement of individuals and organisations to work collectively towards common objectives.” There is, in other words, free agreement between the individuals which compose a local group, free agreement between the groups which compose a federation and free agreement between the federations which compose a confederation.

Within a federation or confederation co-ordination between groups is achieved through congresses which are attended by delegates representing all the groups in a given area. These delegates don’t have the power to independently make decisions and impose them on others. They are instead mandated by the group who elected them on how to vote during a congress. If a delegate does something that the group who elected them oppose, then the group can recall the delegate and elect a new one. Within anarchism there is a disagreement about whether or not congress resolutions should be binding on all groups within a federation or only those groups who voted in favour of the congress resolutions. The authors of the platform argued that in so far as a group is a member of a federation the collectively made decisions of congresses should be binding on them and they are expected to carry out the majority decision. The platform states that,

such an agreement and the federal union based on it, will only become reality, rather than fiction or illusion, on the conditions sine qua non that all the participants in the agreement and the Union fulfil most completely the duties undertaken, and conform to communal decisions. In a social project, however vast the federalist basis on which it is built, there can be no decisions without their execution. It is even less admissible in an anarchist organisation, which exclusively takes on obligations with regard to the workers and their social revolution. Consequently, the federalist type of anarchist organisation, while recognising each member’s rights to independence, free opinion, individual liberty and initiative, requires each member to undertake fixed organisation duties, and demands execution of communal decisions.

It’s important to note that this isn’t a uniquely platformist position. The CNT’s constitution which was printed on each membership card similarly insists that, “we recognise the sovereignty of the individual, but we accept and agree to carry out the collective mandate taken by majority decision. Without this there is no organisation.” (Peirats 1974, 19) Or, to give another example, the 1911 declaration of the 3rd congress of the Workers’ Federation of the Uruguayan Region (FORU) claims that “the accords of this Congress, unless rescinded by a majority of associations party to the compact, are to be binding upon all associations currently affiliated and any which may join hereafter.” (Graham 2005, 202)
Given the above, the platform’s advocacy of federalism is not about different groups with different and incompatible platforms working together. It is about groups of anarchists freely associating to form a specific anarchist organisation which has a single common programme and makes binding decisions via majority vote at congresses attended by mandated delegates. This specific anarchist organisation could form an international federation with specific anarchist organisations in other countries, but were this to occur they would also be bound together by a narrow common programme in order to achieve theoretical and tactical unity. And this is exactly what the authors of the platform unsuccessfully attempted to create in 1927.

Conclusion

In conclusion, non-compete does not understand what theoretical unity, tactical unity or federalism mean within platformism. Platformism is, contrary to what non-compete says, a form of organisational dualism which advocates the formation of a specific anarchist organisation and a mass organisation. Two of the key elements which makes platformism distinct from other forms of organisational dualism is its advocacy of a narrow theoretical and tactical programme and the advocacy of binding congress resolutions. Platformism is not the view that organisations should have a platform. It is not the view that anarchists, liberals and Stalinists could unite together under a common programme. It is not the idea that anarchists, liberals and Stalinists could work together on common aims, such as feeding the homeless, or form a federation in order to do so. Platformism is only a theory and practice about how anarchists should organise and participate in mass movements as an effective force in order to achieve specifically anarchist goals.

I did not make this video in order to attack non-compete as a person but in order to correct his errors. When reading historical anarchist sources, it is important to understand them on their own terms and not impose our distinct ideas onto them. Non-compete may be correct to argue that anarchists and Stalinists should work together within single organisations or federations of organisations that have extremely broad programmes. But this strategy is not platformism and in advocating this non-compete is advocating strategies which are incompatible with platformism.

I do not, however, believe that non-compete’s strategy to achieve social change and overcome leftist infighting is viable. This is because different forms of socialism are largely distinguished from one another by the methods they propose to achieve social change. It is true that anarchists and Stalinists may be able to work together in the short term on occasion, such as both attending an anti-fascist demonstration or participating in the same strike. But any more substantial collaboration would not be possible because we propose incompatible methods of organisation and decision making. Anarchists want to create federations of autonomous groups bonded together through free agreement. Stalinists want to implement democratic centralism and establish a central committee that controls organisations and movements from the top down. Anarchists want trade unions to be independent of all political parties. Stalinists want trade unions to be connected with and subordinate to communist parties. As a result, any organisation composed of both anarchists and Stalinists would not last long. If the anarchists have their way, the Stalinists will be dissatisfied and leave. If the Stalinists have their way, the anarchists will be dissatisfied and leave.

That this would occur is clear from history. After the 1917 Russian revolution, anarcho-syndicalist trade unions initially attempted to join and work within the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU), which was affiliated with the Bolshevik-led Communist International, in order to further the revolutionary cause. Anarcho-syndicalists, however, abandoned this position after they learned of the extent to which anarchist movements were being repressed in Russia and the congresses of the RILU and Comintern declared themselves in favour of core state socialist tenets which anarcho-syndicalists could not subscribe to. This included parliamentarism, the seizure of state power by a communist party, joining reformist unions, centralisation and the subordination of trade unions to communist parties. In response anarcho-syndicalists formed the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) between December 1922 and January 1923 and adopted a declaration of principles which advocated the goal of libertarian communism and rejected the strategy of seizing state power. (Thorpe 1989, chapters 3-7; Graham 2005, 416-8)

The incompatibility between anarchism and Stalinism only becomes more apparent when one considers the topic of revolution. To speak like a 19th century anarchist for a moment, there can be no long-term alliance between those who advocate the achievement of anarchy via the method of freedom and those who are defenders of authority and minority rule by a political ruling class. During a revolutionary situation anarchist will seek to simultaneously destroy capitalism and the state in favour of federations of workplace and community assemblies and federations of workers’ militias. Stalinists, in comparison, will seek to seize state power and establish the rule of the communist party and its leadership. They will tell us that this minority rule is necessary until the abolition of classes has been achieved and the state withers away. We anarchists shall reply that the state cannot be used to abolish classes because the minority who actually wield state power constitute a distinct political ruling class and they will seek to preserve and expand their power over the working class at all costs. The state cannot wither away. It must be forcibly destroyed. The victory of this new minority ruling class shall, just as has already occurred historically, entail the death of the revolution and with it the brutal repression of all those who seek to build a society based on the free association of free producers. As a result, those of us who believe in freedom and the struggle for socialism from below will have no choice but to create whatever anarchist communities we can, refuse to recognise the legitimacy of whatever new state is created and continue to struggle against all forms of authority until we are defeated or emerge victorious. As the Korean anarchist federation wrote in 1928, “no matter what kind of form it takes, government is a tool for the minority with power to oppress the masses, and an obstacle that stands in the way of realising mutual human fraternity. Therefore, we do not allow for its existence . . . “(Graham 2005, 382)

Bibliography

Arshinov, Peter. 2005. History of the Makhnovist Movement: 1918-1921. London: Freedom Press.

Bakunin, Michael. 2016. Selected Texts 1868-1875. Edited by A. W. Zurbrugg. London: Anarres Editions.

Fabbri, Luigi, Camillo Berneri, and Ugo Fedeli. 1927. “Reply by the Pensiero e Volontà Group to an Invitation to Join the International Anarchist Communist Federation”.

Graham, Robert. 2005. Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300 CE to 1939). Montréal: Black Rose Books.

Makhno, Nestor. 1996. The Struggle Against the State and Other Essays. Edited by Alexandre Skirda. San Francisco, CA: AK Press.

Peirats, José. 1974. What is the C.N.T?. London: Simian.

Skirda, Alexandre. 2002. Facing the Enemy: A History of Anarchist Organisation from Proudhon to May 1968. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

The Group of Russian Anarchists Abroad. 1926. “The Organisational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists (Draft)”.

Thorpe, Wayne. 1989. “The Workers Themselves”: Revolutionary Syndicalism and International Labour 1913-1923. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Learning About Marx with Jordan Peterson

During his debate with Zizek Jordan Peterson makes two main arguments against what he calls proposition number 1 of the communist manifesto: “history is to be viewed primarily as an economic class struggle.” Peterson appears to have derived this proposition from the opening sentence of the Communist Manifesto’s 1st chapter: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” (Marx and Engels 2002, 219)

First Argument

Peterson’s first argument is that Marx focuses on class struggle but ignores the human struggle for survival within the natural world. He says,

“The other thing that Marx didn’t seem to take into account is that there are far more reasons that human beings struggle than economic class struggle . . . we’re also actually always at odds with nature and this never seems to show up in Marx and it doesn’t show up in Marxism in general. It’s as if nature doesn’t exist. The primary conflict as far as I’m concerned, or a primary conflict human beings engage in, is the struggle for life in a cruel and harsh natural world and it’s as if that doesn’t exist in the Marxist domain. If human beings have a problem it’s because there’s a class struggle that’s essentially economic. No, humans beings have problems because we come into life starving and lonesome and we have to solve that problem continually and we make our social arrangements at least in part to ameliorate that.” 

There are several problems with what Peterson says here. Firstly, Peterson is wrong to claim that “it’s as if nature doesn’t exist” in Marx. This is because Marx consistently argues within both his early and later writings that in order to survive humans must engage in labour which uses or transforms the natural world. In The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 Marx claims that, “[t]he worker can create nothing without nature, without the sensuous external world” because “nature provides labour with the means of life in the sense that labour cannot live without objects on which to exercise itself, so also it provides the means of life in the narrower sense, namely the means of physical subsistence of the worker.” (Marx 1992a, 325)

Within his economic notebooks of 1857-8, which were published under the title The Grundrisse, Marx refers to the “obvious, trite notion” that “in production the members of society appropriate (create, shape) the products of nature in accord with human needs.” (Marx 1993, 88)

A decade later in Capital Volume 1 Marx writes that “labour is . . . a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature. He sets in motion the natural forces which belong to his own body, his arms, legs, head and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs.” For Marx the “labour process” so understood “is the universal condition for the metabolic interaction between man and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence, and it is therefore independent of every form of that existence, or rather it is common to all forms of society in which human beings live.” (Marx 1990, 283, 290)

Marx reiterates this point in Capital Volume 3 when he writes that human beings “must wrestle with nature to satisfy his needs, to maintain and reproduce his life” and “he must do so in all forms of society and under all possible modes of production.” (Marx 1991, 959)

The importance Marx placed on the fact that humans must struggle for survival within the natural world through engaging in acts of production can be seen not only in the fact that Marx consistently advocates this position across both his early and later writings. It can also be demonstrated by the fact that within the German Ideology, which is an edited compilation of manuscripts that were written by Marx and Engels between 1845-6, he critiques previous historians for over focusing on the history of states, religions or ideas and in so doing excluding “the relation of man to nature” and “the real production of life” from history. (Marx 2000, 189)

Secondly, Marx talks about nature in chapter 1 of the Communist Manifesto. This is both the specific text Peterson claimed to have read in preparation for the debate and the specific chapter from which Peterson derives the proposition that he is responding to in this section of his speech. A few pages after saying that “[t]he history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” Marx describes how capitalism has created technology and human capacities which enable human beings to have a historically unprecedented ability to transform the natural world. He writes,

The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground — what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour? (Marx and Engels 2002, 224-5)

The fact that Peterson claims that “it’s as if nature doesn’t exist” in Marx therefore demonstrates not only the fact that Peterson has failed to read The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, The German Ideology, the Grundrisse, Capital Volume 1 and Capital Volume 3. It also shows that he failed to pay attention when reading the Communist Manifesto.

Thirdly, Peterson is wrong to claim that the relationship between humans and the natural world “doesn’t show up in Marxism in general.” Ecology has in fact been one of the main topics discussed in the recent academic literature on Marx. Peterson has clearly never heard of, let alone read, John Bellamy Foster’s 2010 book Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature, Foster and Paul Burkett’s 2017 book Marx and the Earth: An Anti-Critique and Kohei Saito’s 2017 book Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy. Peterson has in addition to this failed to familiarize himself with ecological Marxist texts more broadly, such as Jason Moore’s 2015 book Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital.

Given the above, in saying that Marx specifically and Marxism in general ignore nature and the fact that humans must struggle to survive within the harsh natural world Peterson was only demonstrating how little he knows about Marx.

2nd Argument

Peterson’s 2nd argument is that human beings are not motivated purely by economics and that Marx ignores non-economic motivations. He says, “there are many other motivations that drive human beings than economics and those have to be taken into account, especially that drive people other than economic competition, like economic co-operation for example. So that’s a problem.”

There are once again several problems with Peterson’s argument. Firstly, Peterson is claiming to be refuting Marx’s notion that “history is to be viewed primarily as an economic class struggle.” Yet in this section of his speech he’s instead making an argument against the distinct idea that people are motivated solely or primarily by economic motivations. This ignores the fact that it doesn’t follow from the proposition that the main driving force of history is economic class struggle that the human beings who engage in class struggle do so because they are purely or largely motivated to do so by economic motivations. People could be psychologically motivated to participate in class struggle for non-economic reasons. For example, a person could be driven to overthrow capitalism because they empathise with the suffering of others or could decide to become a capitalist because they want to impress their conservative father who has read a dangerous amount of Ludwig von Mises.

Secondly, although Peterson is correct to say that Marx talks about economic competition as a feature of capitalism, such as in the Communist Manifesto (Marx and Engels 2002, 225), Peterson is wrong to claim that Marx ignores economic co-operation. In chapter 13 of Capital Volume 1, which is called co-operation, Marx writes that, “when numerous workers work together side by side in accordance with a plan, whether in the same process, or in different but connected processes, this form of labour is called co-operation.” For Marx such co-operation results in “an increase in the productive power of the individual” and “the creation of a new productive power, which is intrinsically a collective one.” (Marx 1990, 443) Marx returns to this idea in Capital Volume 2 when he claims that under capitalism “the working period . . . can be shortened in some branches simply by an extension of cooperation”, such as “the completion of a railway” being “hastened by setting afoot great armies of workers and tackling the job from many different points in space.” (Marx 1992b, 312)

Thirdly, Marx did not hold that people are motivated solely or primarily by economic motivations. Marx instead held that people deploy their powers, by which he meant capacities, to satisfy their needs. Although Marx thought that some very important needs within his society were economic, such as a worker’s need for a job in order to earn money or a capitalist’s need to out-compete other businesses, he did not specify that human needs as a whole are only or largely economic and in fact gives several examples of non-economic needs.

Peterson would know this if he’d been intellectually responsible and read the recent academic literature on Marx before publicly speaking on the matter to an incredibly large audience. According to David Leopold in his 2007 book The Young Karl Marx: German Philosophy, Modern Politics and Human Flourishing Marx refers to a variety of basic and complex human needs. Basic human needs are such things as,

a human need for sustenance (he talks about ‘eating, drinking’ and, more generally, ‘nourishment’), for warmth and shelter (he lists ‘heating’ and ‘clothing’ as well as a ‘dwelling’), for certain climatic conditions (he mentions both ‘light’ and ‘air’), for physical exercise (the need ‘to move about’ and the need for ‘physical exercise’), for basic hygiene (‘the simplest animal cleanliness’), and for reproduction and (heterosexual) sexual activity (he writes of ‘procreation’ and describes sexual relationships between women and men as characteristic of the ‘species’). (Leopold 2007, 228)

Complex needs, in comparison, are things like the,

human need for recreation (to ‘go drinking’, to ‘go dancing’, to ‘fence’, to ‘sing’), for culture (to ‘go to the theatre’), for education and intellectual exercise (to ‘think’, to ‘theorise’, to ‘buy books’, to engage in ‘learning’), for artistic expression (to ‘paint’), for emotional fulfilment (to ‘love’), and for aesthetic pleasure (Marx identifies ‘a musical ear, an eye for the beauty of form’ as among our essential human capacities and powers). (Leopold 2007, 229)

Some of the basic needs, such as needing food, could be construed as economic motivations in a broad sense. Others, such as needing to exercise or have sex, cannot. None of the complex needs Marx mentions can be construed as strictly speaking economic needs. Even those needs whose satisfaction within our society rests on the exchange of money, such as buying alcohol to drink or buying books from a shop, are entangled with other non-economic needs such as the desire to get drunk in order to have fun or the desire to read a book in order to learn about the history of socks.

Fourthly, although Marx did subscribe to the view that the economy plays a key role in shaping society he did not conceptualize this primacy in terms of the idea that people are primarily motivated by economic needs. In his 1859 preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy Marx wrote a highly condensed and simplified summary of his theory of history. According to Marx,

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political, and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. (Marx 2000, 425)

In claiming that the “economic structure of society” is the “real foundation” upon “which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness” Marx was not, as is often falsely asserted, committing himself to the view that the economy is always the main determining element of all other aspects of society throughout all of human history. This is clearly demonstrated by the fact that within Capital Volume 1 Marx writes in a footnote that “the Middle ages could not live on Catholicism, nor could the ancient world on politics. On the contrary, it is the manner in which they gained their livelihood which explains why in one case politics, in the other case Catholicism, played the chief part.” (Marx 1990, 176)

In this passage Marx explicitly states that politics played “the chief part” in the ancient world and that Catholicism played “the chief part” in the middle ages. Marx was therefore not a strong economic determinist who ignored that other aspects of society are important or can play a more important role than the economy at certain historic moments. Marx was instead committed to the weaker view that the economy provides the “real foundation” of other elements of society. What does this mean? On my reading Marx holds that the economy provides the “real foundation” of other elements of society in three main ways which I shall discuss in turn.

(a) the economy produces the necessities of life and so guarantees the survival of humans. The consequence of this fact is that although humans can survive without social structures like religion or the state they cannot survive without an economy because in the absence of production humans would die. As Marx writes in the German Ideology, “the first premiss of all human existence and, therefore, of all history” is “that men must be in a position to live in order to be able to ‘make history’. But life involves before everything else eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing, and many other things. The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself.” (Marx 2000, 181) There is therefore a sense in which other social structures rest on the economy because the economy is a necessary condition for human existence over time in a way that other social structures are not.

(b) the production of material life itself is a concrete form of activity which necessarily shapes those who engage in it in significant ways. Marx writes that the “mode of production must not be considered simply as being the production of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce.” (Marx 2000, 177)

(c) the economy establishes the real possibilities for other forms of human action and thereby sets the parameters in which other social structures exist. One of the main reasons why Marx thinks that the economy plays this role is because what social structures humans can potentially establish are inherently limited by what technology and skills to use this technology humans possess. The manner in which a modern state is organised for example is only made possible due to computers, the internet, email etc and the ability to use this technology, such as knowing how to use Microsoft office. In the absence of these necessary productive forces the modern state would have to be organised in a very different manner or could not even exist in the first place. Hunter gatherers living in the Palaeolithic, for example, would not be able to create a modern state and its accompanying bureaucracy even if they somehow wanted to due to lacking key productive forces, such as writing or the mass production of pens and paper.

It is in turn the case that the development of new productive forces transforms how society is organised due to the new real possibilities for human action they enable. The invention of instant messaging for example transformed how humans were able to socially relate to one another and thereby transformed how society was structured. The technology and its application provided humans with the real possibility to enter into sexual relationships through tinder or grindr, rather than previous methods which were limited by earlier forms of technology, such as arranged marriages established through letters or dates organised via adverts in lonely hearts sections of newspapers. As Marx writes in the Poverty of Philosophy,

Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist. (Marx 1955, chapter 2: second observation)

Conclusion

Given the above, Jordan Peterson’s two main arguments against the idea that “history is to be viewed primarily as an economic class struggle” are wrong and rest on an entirely inaccurate understanding of Marx. Peterson made these false claims about what Marx thought with total confidence despite the fact that he himself knew that his understanding of Marx is based on reading the Communist Manifesto, rather than an extended study of Marx’s other major and much longer works, such as volumes 1 to 3 of Capital, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts or the Grundrisse.

Jordan Peterson fans often complain that critics of Peterson have not read his most scholarly book Maps of Meaning and so do not understand his worldview. But for some reason they have not to my knowledge applied this same standard to Peterson himself who has publicly critiqued Marx to a huge audience without actually bothering to find out what Marx thought. In 12 Rules for Life Peterson argues that “in societies that are well-functioning . . . competence, not power, is a prime determiner of status.” (Peterson, 2018) If we apply this yardstick to Peterson we are forced to conclude that in a well-functioning society he would exist at the bottom of the knowing things about Marx competence hierarchy. The fact that so many people in our society wrongly view Peterson as a source of knowledge on Marx who has raised a number of powerful objections to Marx’s worldview only demonstrates the extent to which society has failed to conform to Peterson’s own ideals.

Bibliography

Leopold, David. 2007. The Young Karl Marx: German Philosophy, Modern Politics and Human Flourishing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. 2002. The Communist Manifesto. London: Penguin.

Marx, Karl. 1955. The Poverty of Philosophy. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl. 1990. Capital Volume 1. London: Penguin.

Marx, Karl. 1991. Capital Volume 3. London: Penguin.

Marx, Karl. 1992a. Early Writings. London: Penguin.

Marx, Karl. 1992b. Capital Volume 2. London: Penguin.

Marx, Karl. 1993. The Grundrisse. London: Penguin.

Marx, Karl. 2000. Karl Marx: Selected Writings 2nd Edition. Edited by David McLellan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Peterson, Jordan. 2018. Maps of Meaning. Allen Lane.