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An Anarchist FAQ - I.2 Is this a blueprint for an anarchist society?
PDF version of Section I.
I.2 Is this a blueprint for an anarchist society?
No, far from it. There can be no such thing as a "blueprint" for a free society. All we can do here is indicate those general features that we believe a free society must have in order to qualify as truly libertarian. For example, a society based on hierarchical management in the workplace (like capitalism) would not be libertarian and would soon see private or public states developing to protect the power of those at the top hierarchical positions ("Anarchy without socialism. . . [is] impossible to us, for in such case it could not be other than the domination of the strongest, and would therefore set in motion right away the organisation and consolidation of this domination, that is to the constitution of government." [Errico Malatesta, Life and Ideas, p. 148]). Beyond such general considerations, however, the specifics of how to structure a non-hierarchical society must remain open for discussion and experimentation:
"Anarchism, meaning Liberty, is compatible with the most diverse economic [and social] conditions, on the premise that these cannot imply, as under capitalist monopoly, the negation of liberty." [D. A. de Santillan, After the Revolution, p. 95]
So, this section of the anarchist FAQ should not be regarded as a detailed plan. Anarchists have always been reticent about spelling out their vision of the future in too much detail for it would be contrary to anarchist principles to be dogmatic about the precise forms the new society must take. Free people will create their own alternative institutions in response to conditions specific to their area and it would be presumptuous of us to attempt to set forth universal policies in advance. In Kropotkin's words:
"Once expropriation [of social wealth by the masses] has been carried through . . . then, after a period of grouping, there will necessarily arise a new system of organising production and exchange . . . and that system will be a lot more attuned to popular aspirations and the requirements of co-existence and mutual relations than any theory, however splendid, devised by the thinking and imagination of reformers. . ." [No Gods, No Masters, vol. 1, p. 232]
This, however, did not stop him "predicting right now that [in some areas influenced by anarchists]. . . the foundations of the new organisation will be the free federation of producers' groups and the free federation of Communes and groups in independent Communes." [Ibid.] This is because what we think now will influence the future just as real experience will influence and change how we think. Moreover, given the ways in which our own unfree society has shaped our ways of thinking, it is probably impossible for us to imagine what new forms will arise once humanity's ingenuity and creativity is unleashed by the removal of its present authoritarian fetters. Thus any attempts to paint a detailed picture of the future will be doomed to failure. Ultimately, anarchists think that "the new society should be organised with the direct participation of all concerned, from the periphery to the centre, freely and spontaneously, at the prompting of the sentiment of solidarity and under pressure of the natural needs of society." [E. Malatesta and A. Hamon, No Gods, No Masters, vol. 2, p. 20]
Nevertheless, anarchists have been willing to specify some broad principles indicating the general framework within which they expect the institutions of the new society to grow. It is important to emphasise that these principles are not the arbitrary creations of intellectuals in ivory towers. Rather, they are based on the actual political, social and economic structures that have arisen spontaneously whenever working class people have attempted to throw off its chains during eras of heightened revolutionary activity, such as the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Revolution, and the Hungarian uprising of 1956, to name just a few. Thus, for example, it is clear that self-managed, democratic workers' councils are basic libertarian-socialist forms, since they have appeared during all revolutionary periods -- a fact that is not surprising considering that they are rooted in traditions of communal labour, shared resources, and participatory decision making that stretch back tens of thousands of years, from the clans and tribes of prehistoric times through the "barbarian" agrarian village of the post-Roman world to the free medieval city, as Kropotkin documents in his classic study Mutual Aid. Ultimately, such organisations are the only alternatives to government. Unless we make our own decisions ourselves, someone else will.
So, when reading these sections, please remember that this is just an attempt to sketch the outline of a possible future. It is in no way an attempt to determine exactly what a free society would be like, for such a free society will be the result of the actions of all of society, not just anarchists. As Malatesta argued:
"None can judge with certainty who is right and who is wrong, who is nearest to the truth, or which is the best way to achieve the greatest good for each and everyone. Freedom, coupled by experience, is the only way of discovering the truth and what is best; and there is no freedom if there is a denial of the freedom to err." [Life and Ideas, p. 49]
And, of course, real life has a habit of over-turning even the most realistic sounding theories, ideas and ideologies. Marxism, Leninism, Monetarism, laissez-faire capitalism (among others) have proven time and time again that ideology applied to real life has effects not predicted by the theory before hand (although in all four cases, their negative effects where predicted by others; in the case of Marxism and Leninism by anarchists). Anarchists are aware of this, which is why we reject ideology in favour of theory and why we are hesitant to create blue-prints for the future. After all, history has proven Proudhon right when he stated that "every society declines the moment it falls into the hands of the ideologists." [System of Economical Contradictions, p. 115]
Only life, as Bakunin stressed, can create and so life must inform theory -- and so if the theory is producing adverse results it is better to revise the theory than deny reality or justify the evil effects it creates on real people. Thus this section of the FAQ is not a blue print, rather it is a series of suggestions (suggestions drawn, we stress, from actual experiences of working class revolt and organisation). These suggestions may be right or wrong and informed by Malatesta's comments that:
"We do not boast that we possess absolute truth, on the contrary, we believe that social truth is not a fixed quantity, good for all times, universally applicable or determinable in advance, but that instead, once freedom has been secured, mankind will go forward discovering and acting gradually with the least number of upheavals and with a minimum of friction. Thus our solutions always leave the door open to different and, one hopes, better solutions." [Op. Cit., p.21]
It is for this reason that anarchists, to quote Bakunin, think that the "revolution should not only be made for the people's sake; it should also be made by the people." [No Gods, No Masters, vol. 1, p. 141] Social problems will be solved in the interests of the working class only if working class people solve them themselves. This applies to a social revolution -- it will only liberate the working class if working class people make it themselves, using their own organisations and power. Indeed, it is the course of struggling for social change, to correct social problems, by, say, strikes, occupations, demonstrations and other forms of direct action, that people can transform their assumptions about what is possible, necessary and desirable. The necessity of organising their struggles and their actions ensures the development of assemblies and other organs of popular power in order to manage their activity. These create, potentially, an alternative means by which society can be organised. As Kropotkin argued, "[a]ny strike trains the participants for a common management of affairs." [quoted by Caroline Cahm, Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism, p. 233] The ability of people to manage their own lives, and so society, becomes increasingly apparent and the existence of hierarchical authority, the state, the boss or a ruling class, becomes clearly undesirable and unnecessary. Thus the framework of the free society will be created by the very process of class struggle, as working class people create the organisations required to fight for improvements and change within capitalism (for more discussion, see section I.2.3).
Thus, the actual framework of an anarchist society and how it develops and shapes itself is dependent on the needs and desires of those who live in such a society or are trying to create one. This is why anarchists stress the need for mass assemblies in both the community and workplace and their federation from the bottom up to manage common affairs. Anarchy can only be created by the active participation of the mass of people. In the words of Malatesta, an anarchist society would be based on "decisions taken at popular assemblies and carried out by groups and individuals who have volunteered or are duly delegated." The "success of the revolution" depends on "a large number of individuals with initiative and the ability to tackle practical tasks: by accustoming the masses not to leave the common cause in the hands of a few, and to delegate, when delegation is necessary, only for specific missions and for limited duration." [Life and Ideas, p. 129] This self-management would be the basis on which an anarchist society would change and develop, with the new society created by those who live within it. Thus Bakunin:
"revolution everywhere must be created by the people, and supreme control must always belong to people organised into a free federation of agricultural and industrial associations . . . organised from the bottom upwards by means of revolutionary delegation." [Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 172]
And, we must not forget that while we may be able to roughly guess the way an anarchist society could start initially, we cannot pretend to predict how it will develop in the long term. A social revolution is just the beginning of a process that will soon lead to such a different society that we cannot predict how it will look. Unfortunately, we have to start where we are now, not where we hope to end up! Therefore our discussion will, by necessity, reflect the current society as this is the society we will be transforming. While, for some, this outlook may not be of a sufficient qualitative break with the world we now inhabit, it is essential. We need to offer and discuss suggestions for action in the here and now, not for some future pie in the sky world which can only possibly exist years, even decades, after a successful revolution.
For example, the ultimate goal of anarchism, we stress, is not the self-management of existing workplaces or industries. However, a revolution will undoubtedly see the occupation and placing under self-management much of existing industry and we start our discussion assuming a similar set-up as exists today. This does not mean that an anarchist society will continue to be like this, we simply present the initial stages using examples we are all familiar with. It is the simply the first stage of transforming industry into something more ecologically safe, socially integrated and individually and collectively empowering for people.
These words of the strikers just before the 1919 Seattle General Strike expresses this perspective well:
"Labour will not only SHUT DOWN the industries, but Labour will REOPEN, under the management of the appropriate trades, such activities as are needed to preserve public health and public peace. If the strike continues, Labour may feel led to avoid public suffering by reopening more and more activities,
"UNDER ITS OWN MANAGEMENT.
"And that is why we say that we are starting on a road that leads -- NO ONE KNOWS WHERE!" [quoted by Jeremy Brecher, Strike!, p. 110]
Some people seriously seem to think that after a social revolution working people will continue using the same technology, in the same old workplaces, in the same old ways and not change a single thing (except, perhaps, electing their managers). They simply transfer their own lack of imagination onto the rest of humanity. We have little doubt that working people will quickly transform their work, workplaces and society into one suitable for human beings, rejecting the legacy of capitalism and create a society we simply cannot predict. The occupying of workplaces is, we stress, simply the first stage of the process of transforming them and the rest of society.
People's lives in a post-revolutionary society will not centre around fixed jobs and workplaces as they do now. Productive activity will go on, but not in the alienated way it does today. Similarly, in their communities people will apply their imaginations, skills and hopes to transform them into better places to live (the beautification of the commune, as the CNT put it). The first stage, of course, will be to take over their existing communities and place them under community control. Therefore, it is essential to remember that our discussion can only provide an indication on how an anarchist society will operate in the months and years after a successful revolution, an anarchist society still marked by the legacy of capitalism. However, it would be a great mistake to think that anarchists do not seek to transform all aspects of society to eliminate that legacy and create a society fit for unique individuals to live in. As an anarchist society develops it will, we stress, transform society in ways we cannot guess at now, based on the talents, hopes, dreams and imaginations of those living in it.
Lastly, it could be argued that we spend too much time discussing the "form" (i.e. the types of organisation and how they make decisions) rather than the "content" of an anarchist society (the nature of the decisions reached). Moreover, the implication of this distinction also extends to the organisations created in the class struggle that would, in all likelihood, become the framework of a free society. However, form is as, perhaps more, important than content. This is because "form" and "content" are inter-related -- a libertarian, participatory "form" of organisation allows the "content" of a decision, society or struggle to change. Self-management has an educational effect on those involved, as they are made aware of different ideas, think about them and decide between them (and, of course, formula and present their own ones). Thus the nature of these decisions can and will evolve. Thus form has a decisive impact on "content" and so we make no apologies for discussing the form of a free society. As Murray Bookchin argues:
"To assume that the forms of freedom can be treated merely as forms would be as absurd as to assume that legal concepts can be treated merely as questions of jurisprudence. The form and content of freedom, like law and society, are mutually determined. By the same token, there are forms of organisation that promote and forms that vitiate the goal of freedom . . . To one degree or another, these forms either alter the individual who uses them or inhibit his [or her] further development." [Post-Scarcity Anarchism, p. 147]
And the content of decisions are determined by the individuals involved. Thus participatory, decentralised, self-managed organisations are essential for the development of the content of decisions because they develop the individuals who make them.
Partly, in order to indicate why people should become anarchists. Most people do not like making jumps in the dark, so an indication of what anarchists think a desirable society would look like may help those people who are attracted intellectually by anarchism, inspiring them to become committed to its practical realisation. Partly, it's a case of learning from past mistakes. There have been numerous anarchistic social experiments on varying scales, and its useful to understand what happened, what worked and what did not. In that way, hopefully, we will not make the same mistakes twice.
However, the most important reason for discussing what an anarchist society would look like is to ensure that the creation of such a society is the action of as many people as possible. As Errico Malatesta indicated in the middle of the Italian revolutionary "Two Red Years" (see section A.5.5), "either we all apply our minds to thinking about social reorganisation, and right away, at the very same moment that the old structures are being swept away, and we shall have a more humane and more just society, open to future advances, or we shall leave such matters to the 'leaders' and we shall have a new government." [The Anarchist Revolution, p. 69]
Hence the importance of discussing what the future will be like in the here and now. The more people who have a fairly clear idea of what a free society would look like the easier it will be to create that society and ensure that no important matters are left to the "leaders" to decide for us. The example of the Spanish Revolution comes to mind. For many years before 1936, the C.N.T. and F.A.I. put out publications discussing what an anarchist society would look like (for example, After the Revolution by Diego Abel de Santillan and Libertarian Communism by Isaac Puente). In fact, anarchists had been organising and educating in Spain for almost seventy years before the revolution. When it finally occurred, the millions of people who participated already shared a similar vision and started to build a society based on it, thus learning firsthand where their books were wrong and which areas of life they did not adequately cover.
So, this discussion of what an anarchist society might look like is not a drawing up of blueprints, nor is it an attempt to force the future into the shapes created in past revolts. It is purely and simply an attempt to start people discussing what a free society would be like and to learn from previous experiments. However, as anarchists recognise the importance of building the new world in the shell of the old, our ideas of what a free society would be like can feed into how we organise and struggle today. And vice versa; for how we organise and struggle today will have an impact on the future.
As Malatesta pointed out, such discussions are necessary and essential, for "[i]t is absurd to believe that, once government has been destroyed and the capitalists expropriated, 'things will look after themselves' without the intervention of those who already have an idea on what has to be done and who immediately set about doing it. . . . [for] social life, as the life of individuals, does not permit of interruption." He stresses that "[t]o neglect all the problems of reconstruction or to pre-arrange complete and uniform plans are both errors, excesses which, by different routes, would led to our defeat as anarchists and to the victory of new or old authoritarian regime. The truth lies in the middle." [Op. Cit., p. 121]
Moreover, the importance of discussing the future can help indicate whether our activities are actually creating a better world. After all, if Karl Marx had been more willing to discuss his vision of a socialist society then the Stalinists would have found it much harder to claim that their hellish system was, in fact, socialism. Unfortunately he failed to understand this. Given that anarchists like Proudhon and Bakunin gave a board outline of their vision of a free society it would have been impossible for anarchism to be twisted as Marxism was.
We hope that this Section of the FAQ, in its own small way, will encourage as many people as possible to discuss what a libertarian society would be like and use that discussion to bring it closer.
Possibly, it depends what is meant by an anarchist society.
If it is meant a fully classless society (what some people, inaccurately, would call a "utopia") then the answer is a clear "no, that would be impossible." Anarchists are well aware that "class difference do not vanish at the stroke of a pen whether that pen belongs to the theoreticians or to the pen-pushers who set out laws or decrees. Only action, that is to say direct action (not through government) expropriation by the proletarians, directed against the privileged class, can wipe out class difference." [Luigi Fabbri, "Anarchy and 'Scientific' Communism", in The Poverty of Statism, pp. 13-49, Albert Meltzer (ed.), p. 30]
For anarchists, a social revolution is a process and not an event (although, of course, a process marked by such events as general strikes, uprisings, insurrections and so on). As Kropotkin argued:
"It is a whole insurrectionary period of three, four, perhaps five years that we must traverse to accomplish our revolution in the property system and in social organisation." [Words of a Rebel, p. 72]
His famous work The Conquest of Bread aimed, to use his words, at "prov[ing] that communism -- at least partial -- has more chance of being established than collectivism, especially in communes taking the lead . . . [and] tried . . . to indicate how, during a revolutionary period, a large city -- if its inhabitants have accepted the idea -- could organise itself on the lines of free communism." [Kropotkin's Revolutionary Pamphlets, p. 298] Indeed, he stresses in The Conquest of Bread that anarchists "do not believe that in any country the Revolution will be accomplished at a stroke, in the twinkling of a eye, as some socialists dream." [The Conquest of Bread, p. 81] Indeed, he stressed that "[n]o fallacy more harmful has ever been spread than the fallacy of a 'One-day Revolution.'" [Op. Cit., p. 81f] The revolution, in other words, would progress towards communism after the initial revolt:
"we know that an uprising can overthrow and change a government in one day, while a revolution needs three or four years of revolutionary convulsion to arrive at tangible results . . . if we should expect the revolution, from its earliest insurrections, to have a communist character, we would have to relinquish the possibility of a revolution, since in that case there would be need of a strong majority to agree on carrying through a change in the direction of communism." [Kropotkin, quoted by Max Nettlau, A Short History of Anarchism, pp. 282-3]
In addition, different areas will develop in different speeds and in different ways, depending on the influences dominant in the area. "Side by side with the revolutionised communes," argued Kropotkin, "[other] places would remain in an expectant attitude, and would go on living on the Individualist system . . . revolution would break out everywhere, but revolution under different aspects; in one country State Socialism, in another Federation; everywhere more or less Socialism, not conforming to any particular rule." Thus "the Revolution will take a different character in each of the different European nations; the point attained in the socialisation of wealth will not be everywhere the same." [The Conquest of Bread, pp. 81-2 and p. 81] In this, as we shall see, he followed Bakunin.
Kropotkin was also aware that a revolution would face many problems, including the disruption of economic activity, civil war and isolation. He argued that it was "certain that the coming Revolution . . . will burst upon us in the middle of a great industrial crisis . . . There are millions of unemployed workers in Europe at this moment. It will be worse when Revolution has burst upon us . . . The number of the out-of-works will be doubled as soon as barricades are erected in Europe and the United States . . . we know that in time of Revolution exchange and industry suffer most from the general upheaval . . . A Revolution in Europe means, then, the unavoidable stoppage of at least half the factories and workshops." He stressed that there would be "the complete disorganisation" of the capitalist economy and that during a revolution "[i]nternational commerce will come to a standstill" and "the circulation of commodities and of provisions will be paralysed." This would, of course, have an impact on the development of a revolution and so the "circumstances will dictate the measures." [Op. Cit., pp. 69-70, p. 191 and p. 79]
Thus we have anarcho-communism being introduced "during a revolutionary period" rather than instantly and the possibility that it will be "partial" in many, if not all areas, depending on the "circumstances" encountered. Therefore the (Marxist inspired) claim that anarchists think a fully communist society is possible overnight is simply false -- we recognise that a social revolution takes time to develop after it starts. As Malatesta put it, "after the revolution, that is after the defeat of the existing powers and the overwhelming victory of the forces of insurrection, . . . then . . . gradualism really comes into operation. We shall have to study all the practical problems of life: production, exchange, the means of communication, relations between anarchist groupings and those living under some kind of authority, between communist collectives and those living in an individualistic way; relations between town and country . . . -- and so on." [Life and Ideas, p. 173]
However, if by "anarchist society" it is meant a society that has abolished the state and started the process of transforming society from below then anarchists argue that such a society is not only possible after a successful revolution, it is essential. Thus the anarchist social revolution would be political (abolition of the state), economic (abolition of capitalism) and social (abolition of hierarchical social relationships). Or, more positively, the introduction of self-management into every aspect of life. In other words, "political transformation . . . [and] economic transformation . . . must be accomplished together and simultaneously." [Bakunin, The Basic Bakunin, p. 106] This transformation would be based upon the organisations created by working class people in their struggle against capitalism and the state (see next section). Thus the framework of a free society would be created by the struggle for freedom itself, by the class struggle within but against hierarchical society. This revolution would come "from below" and would expropriate capital as well as smash the state:
"the revolution must set out from the first to radically and totally destroy the State . . . The natural and necessary consequence of this destruction will be . . . [among others, the] dissolution of army, magistracy, bureaucracy, police and priesthood. . . confiscation of all productive capital and means of production on behalf of workers' associations, who are to put them to use . . . the federative Alliance of all working men's associations . . . will constitute the Commune." [Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 170]
As can be seen, anarchists have long argued that a social revolution must be directed against both capitalism and the state. Moreover, we have always stressed the key role that workers' councils (or "soviets") would play in a socialist revolution as both a means of struggle and the basis of a free society.
Such a society, as Bakunin argued, will not be "perfect" by any means:
"I do not say that the peasants [and workers], freely organised from the bottom up, will miraculously create an ideal organisation, confirming in all respects to our dreams. But I am convinced that what they construct will be living and vibrant, a thousands times better and more just than any existing organisation. Moreover, this . . . organisation, being on the one hand open to revolutionary propaganda . . . , and on the other, not petrified by the intervention of the State . . . will develop and perfect itself through free experimentation as fully as one can reasonably expect in our times.
"With the abolition of the State, the spontaneous self-organisation of popular life . . . will revert to the communes. The development of each commune will take its point of departure the actual condition of its civilisation . . ." [Bakunin on Anarchism, p. 207]
The degree which a society which has abolished the state can progress towards free communism depends on objective conditions. Bakunin and other collectivists doubted the possibility of introducing a communistic system instantly after a revolution. For Kropotkin and many other anarcho-communists, communistic anarchy can, and must, be introduced as far as possible and as soon as possible in order to ensure a successful revolution. We should mention here that some anarchists, like the individualists, do not support the idea of revolution and instead see anarchist alternatives growing within capitalism and slowly replacing it.
So, clearly, the idea of "one-day revolution" is one rejected as a harmful fallacy by anarchists. We are aware that revolutions are a process and not an event (or series of events). However, one thing that anarchists do agree on is that it's essential for both the state and capitalism to be undermined as quickly as possible. It is true that, in the course of social revolution, we anarchists may not be able to stop a new state being created or the old one from surviving. It all depends on the balance of support for anarchist ideas in the population and how willing people are to introduce them. There is no doubt, though, that for a social revolt to be fully anarchist, the state and capitalism must be destroyed and new forms of oppression and exploitation not put in their place. How quickly after such a destruction we move to a fully communist-anarchist society is a moot point, dependent on the conditions the revolution is facing and the ideas and wants of the people making it.
In other words anarchists agree that an anarchist society cannot be created overnight, for to assume so would be to imagine that anarchists could enforce their ideas on a pliable population. Libertarian socialism can only be created from below, by people who want it and understand it, organising and liberating themselves. "Communist organisations," argued Kropotkin, "must be the work of all, a natural growth, a product of the constructive genius of the great mass. Communism cannot be imposed from above; it could not live even for a few months if the constant and daily co-operation of all did not uphold it. It must be free." [Kropotkin's Revolutionary Pamphlets, p. 140] The results of the Russian Revolution should have cleared away long ago any contrary illusions about how to create "socialist" societies. The lesson from every revolution is that the mistakes made by people in liberating themselves and transforming society are always minor compared to the results of creating authorities, who eliminate such "ideological errors" by destroying the freedom to make mistakes (and so freedom as such). Freedom is the only real basis on which socialism can be built ("Experience through freedom is the only means to arrive at the truth and the best solutions; and there is no freedom if there is not the freedom to be wrong." [Malatesta, Life and Ideas, p. 72]).
Therefore, most anarchists would support Malatesta's claim that "[t]o organise a [libertarian] communist society on a large scale it would be necessary to transform all economic life radically, such as methods of production, of exchange and consumption; and all this could not be achieved other than gradually, as the objective circumstances permitted and to the extent that the masses understood what advantages could be gained and were able to act for themselves." [Malatesta: Life and Ideas, p. 36]
This means that while the conditions necessary of a free society would be created in a broad way by a social revolution, it would be utopian to imagine everything will be perfect immediately. Few anarchists have argued that such a jump would be possible -- rather they have argued that revolutions create the conditions for the evolution towards an anarchist society by abolishing state and capitalism. "Besides," argued Alexander Berkman, "you must not confuse the social revolution with anarchy. Revolution, in some of its stages, is a violent upheaval; anarchy is a social condition of freedom and peace. The revolution is the means of bringing anarchy about but it is not anarchy itself. It is to pave the road to anarchy, to establish conditions which will make a life of liberty possible." However, "to achieve its purpose the revolution must be imbued with and directed by the anarchist spirit and ideas. The end shapes the means. . . the social revolution must be anarchist in method as in aim." [The ABC of Anarchism, p. 81]
This means that while acknowledging the possibility of a transitional society, anarchists reject the notion of a transitional state as confused in the extreme (and, as can be seen from the experience of Marxism, dangerous as well). An anarchist society can only be achieved by anarchist means. Hence French Syndicalist Fernand Pelloutier's comments:
"Nobody believes or expects that the coming revolution . . . will realise unadulterated anarchist-communism. . . it will erupt, no doubt, before the work of anarchist education has been completed . . . [and as] a result . . . , while we do preach perfect communism, it is not in the certainty or expectation of [libertarian] communism's being the social form of the future: it is in order to further men's [and women's] education . . . so that, by the time of the day of conflagration comes, they will have attained maximum emancipation. But must the transitional state to be endured necessarily or inevitability be the collectivist [i.e. state socialist/capitalist] jail? Might it not consist of libertarian organisation confined to the needs of production and consumption alone, with all political institutions having been done away with?" [No Gods, No Masters, vol. 2, p. 55]
One thing is certain: an anarchist social revolution or mass movement will need to defend itself against attempts by statists and capitalists to defeat it. Every popular movement, revolt, or revolution has had to face a backlash from the supporters of the status quo. An anarchist revolution or mass movement will face (and indeed has faced) such counter-revolutionary movements. However, this does not mean that the destruction of the state and capitalism need be put off until after the forces of reaction are defeated (as Marxists usually claim). For anarchists, a social revolution and free society can only be defended by anti-statist means, for example, by "arming everyone . . . and of interesting the mass of the population in the victory of the revolution." This would involve the "creation of a voluntary militia, without powers to interfere as militia in the life of the community, but only to deal with any armed attacks by the forces of reaction to re-establish themselves, or to resist outside intervention by countries as yet not in a state of revolution." [Malatesta, Life and Ideas, p. 173 and p. 166] For more discussion of this important subject see sections I.5.14 and J.7.6.
So, given an anarchist revolution which destroys the state, the type and nature of the economic system created by it will depend on local circumstances and the level of awareness in society. The individualists are correct in the sense that what we do now will determine how the future develops. Obviously, any "transition period" starts in the here and now, as this helps determine the future. Thus, while social anarchists usually reject the idea that capitalism can be reformed away, we agree with the individualists that it is essential for anarchists to be active today in constructing the ideas, ideals and new liberatory institutions of the future society within the current one. The notion of waiting for the "glorious day" of total revolution is not one held by anarchists.
Thus, all the positions outlined at the start of this section have a grain of truth in them. This is because, as Malatesta put it, "[w]e are, in any case, only one of the forces acting in society, and history will advance, as always, in the direction of the resultant of all the [social] forces." [Malatesta: Life and Ideas, p. 109] This means that different areas will experiment in different ways, depending on the level of awareness which exists there -- as would be expected in a free society which is created by the mass of the people.
Ultimately, the most we can say about the timing and necessary conditions of revolution is that an anarchist society can only come about once people liberate themselves (and this implies an ethical and psychological transformation), but that this does not mean that people need to be "perfect" nor that an anarchist society will come about "overnight," without a period of self-activity by which individuals reshape and change themselves as they are reshaping and changing the world about them.
Anarchists do not abstractly compare a free society with the current one. Rather, we see an organic connection between what is and what could be. In other words, anarchists see the initial framework of an anarchist society as being created under statism and capitalism when working class people organise themselves to resist hierarchy. As Kropotkin argued:
"To make a revolution it is not . . . enough that there should be . . . [popular] risings . . . It is necessary that after the risings there should be something new in the institutions [that make up society], which would permit new forms of life to be elaborated and established." [The Great French Revolution, vol. 1, p. 200]
Anarchists have seen these new institutions as being linked with the need of working class people to resist the evils of capitalism and statism. In other words, as being the product of the class struggle and attempts by working class people to resist state and capitalist authority. Thus the struggle of working class people to protect and enhance their liberty under hierarchical society will be the basis for a society without hierarchy. This basic insight allowed anarchists like Bakunin and Proudhon to predict future developments in the class struggle such as workers' councils (such as those which developed during the 1905 and 1917 Russian Revolutions). As Oskar Anweiler notes in his definitive work on the Russian Soviets (Workers' Councils):
"Proudhon's views are often directly associated with the Russian councils . . . Bakunin . . ., much more than Proudhon, linked anarchist principles directly to revolutionary action, thus arriving at remarkable insights into the revolutionary process that contribute to an understanding of later events in Russia . . .
"In 1863 Proudhon declared . . . 'All my economic ideas as developed over twenty-five years can be summed up in the words: agricultural-industrial federation. All my political ideas boil down to a similar formula: political federation or decentralisation.' . . . Proudhon's conception of a self-governing state [sic!] founded on producers' corporations [i.e. federations of co-operatives], is certainly related to the idea of 'a democracy of producers' which emerged in the factory soviets. To this extent Proudhon can be regarded as an ideological precursor of the councils . . .
"Bakunin . . . suggested the formation of revolutionary committees with representatives from the barricades, the streets, and the city districts, who would be given binding mandates, held accountable to the masses, and subject to recall. These revolutionary deputies were to form the 'federation of the barricades,' organising a revolutionary commune to immediately unite with other centres of rebellion . . .
"Bakunin proposed the formation of revolutionary committees to elect communal councils, and a pyramidal organisation of society 'through free federation from the bottom upward, the association of workers in industry and agriculture -- first in the communities, then through federation of communities into districts, districts into nations, and nations into international brotherhood.' These proposals are indeed strikingly similar to the structure of the subsequent Russian system of councils . . .
"Bakunin's ideas about spontaneous development of the revolution and the masses' capacity for elementary organisation undoubtedly were echoed in part by the subsequent soviet movement. . . Because Bakunin . . . was always very close to the reality of social struggle, he was able to foresee concrete aspects of the revolution. The council movement during the Russian Revolution, though not a result of Bakunin's theories, often corresponded in form and progress to his revolutionary concepts and predictions." [The Soviets, pp. 8-11]
Paul Avrich also notes this:
"As early as the 1860's and 1870's, the followers of Proudhon and Bakunin in the First International were proposing the formation of workers' councils designed both as a weapon of class struggle against capitalists and as the structural basis of the future libertarian society." [The Russian Anarchists, p. 73]
In this sense, anarchy is not some distant goal but rather an aspect of the current struggles against domination, oppression and exploitation (i.e. the class struggle, to use an all-embracing term, although we must stress that anarchists use this term to cover all struggles against domination). "Anarchism," argued Kropotkin, "is not a mere insight into a remote future. Already now, whatever the sphere of action of the individual, he [or she] can act, either in accordance with anarchist principles or on an opposite line." It was "born among the people -- in the struggles of real life" and "owes its origin to the constructive, creative activity of the people." [Kropotkin's Revolutionary Pamphlets, p. 75, p. 150 and p. 149]
Thus, "Anarchism is not . . . a theory of the future to be realised by divine inspiration. It is a living force in the affairs of our life, constantly creating new conditions." It "stands for the spirit of revolt" and so "[d]irect action against the authority in the shop, direct action against the authority of the law, of direct action against the invasive, meddlesome authority of our moral code, is the logical, consistent method of Anarchism." [Emma Goldman, Anarchism and Other Essays, p. 63 and p. 66]
Anarchism draws upon the autonomous self-activity and spontaneity of working class people in struggle to inform both its political theory and its vision of a free society. The struggle against hierarchy, in other words, teaches us not only how to be anarchists but also gives us a glimpse of what an anarchist society would be like, what its initial framework could be and the experience of managing our own activities which is required for such a society to function successfully.
Therefore, as is clear, anarchists have long had a clear vision of what an anarchist society would look like and, equally as important, where such a society would spring from. Which means, of course, that Lenin's assertion in The State and Revolution that anarchists "have absolutely no clear idea of what the proletariat will put in its [the states] place" is simply false. [Essential Works of Lenin, p. 358] Anarchists supported the idea of a federation of workers' councils as the means to destroy the state over 50 years before Lenin argued that the soviets would be the basis of his "workers" state.
It would, therefore, be useful to give a quick summary of anarchist views on this subject.
Proudhon, for example, looked to the self-activity of French workers, artisans and peasants and used that as the basis of his ideas on anarchism. While seeing such activity as essentially reformist in nature, he saw the germs of anarchy as being the result of "generating from the bowels of the people, from the depths of labour, a greater authority, a more potent fact, which shall envelop capital and the State and subjugate them" as "it is of no use to change the holders of power or introduce some variation into its workings: an agricultural and industrial combination must be found by means of which power, today the ruler of society, shall become its slave." [System of Economical Contradictions, p. 399 and p. 398] What, decades later, Proudhon called an "agro-industrial federation" in his Principal of Federation.
He argued that workers should follow the example of those already creating Mutual Banks and co-operatives. He stressed the importance of co-operatives:
"Do not the workmen's unions at this moment serve as the cradle for the social revolution, as the early Christian communities served as the cradle of Catholicity? Are they not always the open school, both theoretical and practical, where the workman learns the science of the production and distribution of wealth, where he studies, without masters and without books, by his own experience solely, the laws of that industrial organisation, which was the ultimate aim of the Revolution of '89 . . . ?" [The General Idea of the Revolution, p. 78]
Proudhon linked his ideas to what working people were already doing:
"labour associations . . . hav[e] grasped spontaneously . . . [that] merely by liasing with one another and making loans to one another, [they] have organised labour . . . So that, organisation of credit and organisation of labour amount to one and the same. It is no school and no theoretician that is saying this: the proof of it, rather, lies in current practice, revolutionary practice . . . If it were to come about that the workers were to come to some arrangement throughout the Republic and organise themselves along similar lines, it is obvious that, as masters of labour, constantly generating fresh capital through work, they would soon have wrested alienated capital back again, through their organisation and competition . . . We want the mines, canals, railways handed over to democratically organised workers' associations . . . We want these associations to be models for agriculture, industry and trade, the pioneering core of that vast federation of companies and societies woven into the common cloth of the democratic social Republic." [No Gods, No Masters, vol. 1, pp. 59-61]
This linking of the present and the future through the self-activity and self-organisation of working class people is also found in Bakunin. Unlike Proudhon, Bakunin stressed revolutionary activity and so he saw the militant labour movement, and the revolution itself, as providing the basic structure of a free society. As he put it, "the organisation of the trade sections and their representation in the Chambers of Labour . . . bear in themselves the living seeds of the new society which is to replace the old one. They are creating not only the ideas, but also the facts of the future itself." [Bakunin on Anarchism, p. 255]
The needs of the class struggle would create the framework of a new society, a federation of workers councils, as "strikes indicate a certain collective strength already, a certain understanding among the workers . . . each strike becomes the point of departure for the formation of new groups." [The Basic Bakunin, pp. 149-50] This pre-revolutionary development would be accelerated by the revolution itself:
"the federative alliance of all working men's associations . . . [will] constitute the Commune . . . [the] Communal Council [will be] composed of . . . delegates . . . vested with plenary but accountable and removable mandates. . . all provinces, communes and associations . . . by first reorganising on revolutionary lines . . . [will] constitute the federation of insurgent associations, communes and provinces . . . [and] organise a revolutionary force capable defeating reaction . . . [and for] self-defence . . . [The] revolution everywhere must be created by the people, and supreme control must always belong to the people organised into a free federation of agricultural and industrial associations . . . organised from the bottom upwards by means of revolutionary delegation. . ." [Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, pp. 170-2]
Like Bakunin, Kropotkin stressed that revolution transformed those taking part in it. As he noted in his classic account of the French Revolution, "by degrees, the revolutionary education of the people was being accomplished by the revolution itself." [Op. Cit., vol. 1, p. 261] Part of this process involved creating new organisations which allowed the mass of people to take part in the decision making of the revolution. He pointed to "the popular Commune," arguing that "the Revolution began by creating the Commune . . . and through this institution it gained . . . immense power." He stressed that it was "by means of the 'districts' [of the Communes] that . . . the masses, accustoming themselves to act without receiving orders from the national representatives, were practising what was to be described later as Direct Self-Government." Such a system did not imply isolation, for while "the districts strove to maintain their own independence" they also "sought for unity of action, not in subjection to a Central Committee, but in a federative union." The Commune "was thus made from below upward, by the federation of the district organisations; it spring up in a revolutionary way, from popular initiative." [Op. Cit., p. 200 and p. 203]
Thus the process of class struggle, of the needs of the fighting against the existing system, generated the framework of an anarchist society -- "the districts of Paris laid the foundations of a new, free, social organisation." Little wonder he argued that "the principles of anarchism . . . already dated from 1789, and that they had their origin, not in theoretical speculations, but in the deeds of the Great French Revolution" and that "the libertarians would no doubt do the same to-day." [Op. Cit., p. 206, p. 204 and p. 206]
Similarly, we discover him arguing in Mutual Aid that strikes and labour unions were an expression of mutual aid in capitalist society and of "the worker's need of mutual support." [Mutual Aid, p. 213] Elsewhere Kropotkin argued that "labour combinations" like the "Sections" of French revolution were one of the "main popular anarchist currents" in history, expressing the "same popular resistance to the growing power of the few." [Kropotkin's Revolutionary Pamphlets, p. 159] For Kropotkin, like Bakunin, libertarian labour unions were "natural organs for the direct struggle with capitalism and for the composition of the future social order." [quoted by Paul Avrich, The Russian Anarchists, p. 81]
As can be seen, the major anarchist thinkers pointed to forms of organisation autonomously created and managed by the working class as the framework of an anarchist society. Both Bakunin and Kropotkin pointed to militant, direct action based labour unions while Proudhon pointed towards workers' experiments in co-operative production and mutual credit.
Later anarchists followed them. The anarcho-syndicalists, like Bakunin and Kropotkin, pointed to the developing labour movement as the framework of an anarchist society, as providing the basis for the free federation of workers' associations which would constitute the commune. Others, such as the Russians Maximov, Arshinov, Voline and Makhno, saw the spontaneously created workers' councils (soviets) of 1905 and 1917 as the basis of a free society, as another example of Bakunin's federation of workers' associations.
Thus, for all anarchists, the structural framework of an anarchist society was created by the class struggle, by the needs of working class people to resist oppression, exploitation and hierarchy. As Kropotkin stressed, "[d]uring a revolution new forms of life will always germinate on the ruins of the old forms . . . It is impossible to legislate for the future. All we can do is vaguely guess its essential tendencies and clear the road for it." [Evolution and Environment, pp. 101-2]
These essential tendencies were discovered, in practice, by the needs of the class struggle. The necessity of practising mutual aid and solidarity to survive under capitalism (as in any other hostile environment) makes working people and other oppressed groups organise together to fight their oppressors and exploiters. Thus the co-operation necessary for a libertarian socialist society, like its organisational framework, would be generated by the need to resist oppression and exploitation under capitalism. The process of resistance produces organisation on a wider and wider scale which, in turn, can become the framework of a free society as the needs of the struggle promote libertarian forms of organisation such as decision making from the bottom up, autonomy, federalism, delegates subject to instant recall and so on.
For example, a strikers' assembly would be the basic decision-making forum in a struggle for improved wages and working conditions. It would create a strike committee to implement its decisions and send delegates to spread the strike. These delegates inspire other strikes, requiring a new organisation to co-ordinate the struggle. This results in delegates from all the strikes meeting and forming a federation (i.e. a workers' council). The strikers decide to occupy the workplace and the strike assemblies take over the means of production. The strike committees becomes the basis for factory committees which could administer the workplaces, based on workers' self-management via workplace assemblies (the former strikers' assemblies). The federation of strikers' delegates becomes the local communal council, replacing the existing state with a self-managed federation of workers' associations. In this way, the class struggle creates the framework of a free society.
This, obviously, means that any suggestions of how an anarchist society would look like are based on the fact that the actual framework of a free society will be the product of actual struggles. This means that the form of the free society will be shaped by the process of social change and the organs it creates. This is an important point and worth repeating.
So, as well as changing themselves while they change the world, a people in struggle also create the means by which they can manage society. By having to organise and manage their struggles, they become accustomed to self-management and self-activity and create the possibility of a free society and the organisations which will exist within it. Thus the framework of an anarchist society comes from the class struggle and the process of revolution itself. Anarchy is not a jump into the dark but rather a natural progression of the struggle for freedom in an unfree society. The contours of a free society will be shaped by the process of creating it and, therefore, will not be an artificial construction imposed on society. Rather, it will be created from below up by society itself as working class people start to break free of hierarchy. The class struggle thus transforms those involved as well as society and creates the organisational structure and people required for a libertarian society.
This clearly suggests that the means anarchists support are important as they are have a direct impact on the ends they create. In other words, means influence ends and so our means must reflect the ends we seek and empower those who use them. In the words of Malatesta:
"In our opinion all action which is directed toward the destruction of economic and political oppression, which serves to raise the moral and intellectual level of the people; which gives them an awareness of their individual rights and their power, and persuades them themselves to act on their own behalf . . . brings us closer to our ends and is therefore a good thing. On the other hand all activity which tends to preserve the present state of affairs, that tends to sacrifice man against his will for the triumph of a principle, is bad because it is a denial of our ends." [Life and Ideas, p. 69]
The present state of affairs is based on the oppression, exploitation and alienation of the working class. This means that any tactics used in the pursuit of a free society must be based on resisting and destroying those evils. This is why anarchists stress tactics and organisations which increase the power, confidence, autonomy, initiative, participation and self-activity of oppressed people. As we indicate in section J ("What Do Anarchists Do?") this means supporting direct action, solidarity and self-managed organisations built and run from the bottom-up. Only by fighting our own battles, relying on ourselves and our own abilities and power, in organisations we create and run ourselves, can we gain the power and confidence and experience needed to change society for the better and, hopefully, create a new society in place of the current one.
Needless to say, a revolutionary movement will never, at its start, be purely anarchist:
"All of the workers' and peasants' movements which have taken place . . . have been movements within the limits of the capitalist regime, and have been more of less tinged with anarchism. This is perfectly natural and understandable. The working class do not act within a world of wishes, but in the real world where they are daily subjected to the physical and psychological blows of hostile forces . . . the workers continually feel the influence of all the real conditions of the capitalist regime and of intermediate groups . . . Consequently it is natural that the struggle which they undertake inevitably carries the stamp of various conditions and characteristics of contemporary society. The struggle can never be born in the finished and perfected anarchist form which would correspond to all the requirements of the ideas . . . When the popular masses engage in a struggle of large dimensions, they inevitably start by committing errors, they allow contradictions and deviations, and only through the process of this struggle do they direct their efforts in the direction of the ideal for which they are struggling." [Peter Arshinov, The History of the Makhnovist Movement, pp. 239-40]
The role of anarchists is "to help the masses to take the right road in the struggle and in the construction of the new society" and "support their first constructive efforts, assist them intellectually." However, the working class "once it has mastered the struggle and begins its social construction, will no longer surrender to anyone the initiative in creative work. The working class will then direct itself by its own thought; it will create its society according to its own plans." [Arshinov, Op. Cit., pp. 240-1] All anarchists can do is help this process by being part of it, arguing our case and winning people over to anarchist ideas (see section J.3 for more details). Thus the process of struggle and debate will, hopefully, turn a struggle against capitalism and statism into one for anarchism. In other words, anarchists seek to preserve and extend the anarchistic elements that exist in every struggle and to help them become consciously libertarian by discussion and debate as members of those struggles.
Lastly, we must stress that it is only the initial framework of a free society which is created in the class struggle. As an anarchist society develops, it will start to change and develop in ways we cannot predict. The forms in which people express their freedom and their control over their own lives will, by necessity, change as these requirements and needs change. As Bakunin argued:
"Even the most rational and profound science cannot divine the form social life will take in the future. It can only determine the negative conditions, which follow logically from a rigorous critique of existing society. Thus, by means of such a critique, social and economic science rejected hereditary individual property and, consequently, took the abstract and, so to speak, negative position of collective property as a necessary condition of the future social order. In the same way, it rejected the very idea of the state or statism, meaning government of society from above downward . . . Therefore, it took the opposite, or negative, position: anarchy, meaning the free and independent organisation of all the units and parts of the community and their voluntary federation from below upward, not by the orders of any authority, even an elected one, and not by the dictates of any scientific theory, but as the natural development of all the varied demands put forth by life itself.
"Therefore no scholar can teach the people or even define for himself how they will and must life on the morrow of the social revolution. That will be determined first by the situation of each people, and secondly by the desires that manifest themselves and operate most strongly within them." [Statism and Anarchy, pp. 198-9]
Therefore, while it will be reasonable to conclude that, for example, the federation of strike/factory assemblies and their councils/committees will be the framework by which production will initially be organised, this framework will mutate to take into account changing production and social needs. The actual structures created will, by necessity, will be transformed as industry is transformed from below upwards to meet the real needs of society and producers. As Kropotkin argued, "the 'concentration' [of capital into bigger and bigger units] so much spoken of is often nothing but an amalgamation of capitalists for the purpose of dominating the market, not for cheapening the technical process." [Fields, Factories and Workshops Tomorrow, p. 154] This means that the first task of any libertarian society will be to transform both the structure and nature of work and industry developed under capitalism.
Anarchists have long argued that that capitalist methods cannot be used for socialist ends. In our battle to democratise the workplace, in our awareness of the importance of collective initiatives by the direct producers in transforming the work situation and the economic infrastructure, we show that factories are not merely sites of production, but also of reproduction -- the reproduction of a certain structure of social relations based on the division between those who give orders and those who take them, between those who direct and those who execute. Therefore, under workers' self-management industry, work and the whole structure and organisation of production will be transformed in ways we can only guess at today. We can point the general direction (i.e. self-managed, ecologically balanced, decentralised, federal, empowering, creative and so on) but that is all.
Similarly, as cities and towns are transformed into ecologically integrated communes, the initial community assemblies and their federations will transform along with the transformation of our surroundings. What they will evolve into we cannot predict, but their fundamentals of instant recall, delegation over representation, decision making from the bottom up, and so on will remain.
So, while anarchists see "the future in the present" as the initial framework of a free society, we recognise that such a society will evolve and change. However, the fundamental principles of a free society will not change and so it is useful to present a summary of how such a society could work, based on these principles.
Anarchist FAQ Index
Table of Contents
Section A - What is anarchism?
Section B - Why do anarchists oppose the current system?
Section C - What are the myths of capitalist economics?
Section D - How do statism and capitalism affect society?
Section E - What do anarchists think causes ecological problems?
Section F - Is "anarcho"-capitalism a type of anarchism?
Section G - Is individualist anarchism capitalistic?
Section H - Why do anarchists oppose state socialism?
Section I - What would an anarchist society look like?
Section J - What do anarchists do?
Appendix - Anarchism and "Anarcho"-capitalism
Appendix - The Symbols of Anarchy
Appendix - Anarchism and Marxism
Appendix - The Russian Revolution