Nationalism or Freedom?

By Jon Bekken, Anarcho-Syndicalist Review #32

Writing in the most recent Arsenal, a well-produced “magazine of anarchist strategy and culture,” Mike Staudenmaier devotes one of the leading articles to a critique of ASR’s “extensive and influential writings opposing nationalism and advocating working-class internationalist revolution.” (Unfortunately, he cannot be troubled to cite any of them, perhaps recognizing that his muddled argument could not stand up to any anarchist writings on the subject.)

According to Staudenmaier, we follow the “people, not nations” analysis he attributes to Rudolf Rocker, “combin [ing] the sort of economic reductionism that is often the hallmark of syndicalism with careful analysis of the harsh experiences of the Cuban revolution.” Our color-blind position that “working people have no country” was revolutionary a century ago, he continues, but today is a manifestation of white supremacy responsible for the overwhelmingly white membership of “one of the best-recruiting and most steadily growing segments of North American anarchism.”

Citing our criticism of Chomsky’s suggestion that in this era of globalization, the nation-state can serve as a mechanism for popular self-defense (and strangely arguing that the Brazilian nation-state, which routinely murders homeless children on the street, aids and abets transnational corporations in despoiling Brazil’s abundant natural resources, and forces landless peasants into debt peonage, is less repressive than the IMF), Staudenmaier says we fail to acknowledge the substantial divisions within global economic classes posed by racial and national identities. These divisions, he argues, create the possibility of “meaningful cross-class alliances – difficult to assimilate into a syndicalist world view.” (13)

In a typically confused passage he then conflates race, culture and nation, and claims that syndicalists say that the struggle for racial justice must be put off until after the anticapitalist revolution (which, Staudenmaier suggests, is exactly backward). Conceding that syndicalists are “sincerely anti-racist,” he argues that we ” underestimate the importance of cultural identity to people’s lives and to social struggles,” thereby leading revolutionaries into a dead end.

After some muted criticisms of anarcho-nationalist tendencies, which have led many who consider (or once considered) themselves anarchists into backing a variety of Marxist-Leninist groupings (a significant fraction of the now-dissolved Love & Rage Federation recently joined the Maoist Freedom Road Socialist Organization) for ignoring class struggle, the author turns from setting up his straw men to putting forward his own perspective:

“Where ASR offers the false dichotomy between people and nations, the ABCF upholds a similarly questionable opposition between ‘oppressor nationalism’ … and ‘nationalism of the oppressed’ … [But] in both cases, the social experience at a grassroots level is the same – cultural identity rooted in geography, language and assorted historical intangibles, producing a broad-based love and prioritization of a community of communities.” (15)

Staudenmaier rejects this attempt to separate what he sees as inextricably intertwined positive and negative aspects of national identity. Instead he champions what he admits is an ad hoc analysis, skeptical of national liberation struggles while supporting them, “recit[ing] rhetoric about class struggle” while working with radicals of all class backgrounds (he apparently believes there are significant numbers of the employing class to be found in the anarchists’ ranks, something I have never observed), and calling upon activists to embrace the contradictions.

Anarchist support for the EZLN (the Zapatistas) is offered as an example “of this promising new anarchist response to nationalism,” (16) citing Marcos’ embrace of “the nation” in a typically incoherent quote. But for Staudenmaier the Zapatistas embody an anti-statist nationalism, apparently because they have recognized that they are in no position to seize state power and so instead negotiate with the state and pressure it to change its policies. Unwilling to embrace nationalism fully, Staudenmaier instead urges us to

“participate in and/or lend support to anticolonial struggles in a principled and critical way. … Anarchists must become involved in a critical way in what Marcos calls the ‘reconstruction’ of the nation, which can only happen if we avoid the twin pitfalls of knee-jerk anti-nationalism and uncritical acquiescence to national liberation. By balancing the competing claims of race and class, we can develop a new anarchist understanding of nations and nationalism.” (17)

I apologize if this summary seems incoherent; while I have endeavored to distill a coherent argument from seven pages of confusion, this is at best a difficult task. I undertake this thankless task only because Staudenmaier is quite mistaken when he describes our writings on this question as “influential.” In fact, most North American anarchists today embrace the muddled thinking he advocates, with devastating results. In upholding the traditional anarchist opposition to nationalism (although our recent writings on the subject have hardly been extensive, and have tended to discuss the Middle East far more than Cuba), we have waged a difficult and usually lonely struggle for fundamental anarchist principles.

Staudenmaier’s argument relies upon an almost total exclusion of evidence, allowing patently false claims such as that syndicalists argue that the struggle for racial justice must be postponed until after The Revolution to stand cheek by jowl with highly questionable characterizations of various nation-states and nationalist movements. Failing to critically engage the one example of “progressive” nationalism he discusses (the Zapatistas), he leaves readers with no concrete sense of what this “new anarchist understanding” might look like in actual practice, or why we might consider it to be in any way anarchist.

Staudenmaier is unable even to keep his core concept clear. He offers two definitions of nationalism: a common language and shared geography (11) and cultural identity rooted in geography, language and historical intangibles (15). These definitions are quite useless in understanding actually existing nationalism. In the Balkans, for example, the allegedly intractable nationalisms there (we leave aside the high levels of intermarriage and other such inconvenient facts) have nothing whatever to do with language (Serbian and Croatian are the same language, only the script in which they are written differs) or geography (the populations are completely intermingled, thus the necessity for “ethnic cleansing”). This confusion is not entirely his fault. The “nation” is an essentially mythic concept, its signifiers chosen arbitrarily by ideologues seeking to unite followers against the “other” or to conceal real conflicting interests behind a facade of national unity.

As Mikhail Bakunin (whose understanding of nationalism was far more complex than Staudenmaier’s), noted:

“There is nothing more absurd and at the same time more harmful, more deadly, for the people than to uphold the fictitious principle of nationalism as the ideal of all the people’s aspirations. Nationality is not a universal human principle; it is a historic, local fact. … We should place human, universal justice above all national interests.”

While consistently defending the principle of self-determination, Bakunin (whose political activity began in pan-Slavism) came to see nationalism (and its corollary, patriotism) as a manifestation of backwardness. “The less developed a civilization is, and the less complex the basis of its social life, the stronger the manifestation of natural patriotism.”

Bakunin also termed nationalism a “natural fact” that had to be reckoned with. Indeed, nationalism does exist, in precisely the same sense that dementia does. There are many people in the world who hear God giving them orders – sometimes cruel, sometimes bizarre, sometimes quite humane – or who see hallucinations. While these unfortunates insist upon the reality of their visions, we know better. Such things simply do not exist, for all that thousands of our fellow humans act upon them. But the mental disorder that sparks these delusions quite certainly exists. Sometimes it is relatively harmless and can perhaps be ignored, though I tend to believe symptoms should be responded to before the disease gets worse. Sometimes the derangement is quite serious, and must be confronted forcefully.

In precisely the same way, we can say that nationalism exists, even though there is no useful sense in which “nations” can be said to exist, except as an artificial construct imposed by states, churches and other powers to suit their own interests.

Nations are in fact inventions of relatively recent origin. Five hundred years ago, the language we now know as “French” was a family of loosely related regional tongues that were not mutually intelligible. The “Italian” nation was invented in the 1800s, and a significant fraction of the Italian right now seems determined to uninvent it. In Chicago, in the early 1900s, there was a prolonged struggle over the national identity of the people now known as Ukrainian immigrants, with competing networks of institutions seeking to construct national identities as Poles, Ruthenians, Little Russians, Russians, and Ukrainians. With the defeat of the claimants in the diaspora, the Ruthenian nation vanished without a trace, aside from some old buildings where it was engraved into the stone. Similarly, there was heated debate within the Polish community over whether Jews, atheists, socialists, and members of the Polish National Alliance could be considered members of the Polish nation. Such debates had little to do with language or culture, rather they represented efforts by competing leaderships to establish dominance and to exclude those who subscribed to competing identities from inclusion in the fold of “the people.”

But Staudenmaier’s confusion does not end with his definition of nationalism. Throughout his essay, he treats the concepts of “nation” and “race” as if they were synonyms. There are, of course, important similarities between the two concepts: Both lack any basis in the real, material world, but are instead ideological constructs invented to justify oppression and domination. Although their boundaries are porous, subject to constant reinterpretation and redefinition (as are all arbitrary categorization schemes), many people have internalized these constructs, making them part of their own self-identification. Both are poisonous, pernicious ideologies; there is no crime too heinous to be “justified” under the cloak of race or nation. And, of course, both are manifested in social arrangements that reflect not only relations of power (which have their own historic weight), but have also implanted themselves in the consciousness even of those sincerely committed to the cause of human emancipation.

But despite these similarities, there are also important distinctions between race and nation. While no one can define either with any precision, given their wholly mythic character, race certainly does not involve questions of geography or language – the only two generally agreed-upon markers of nationality. (That nation is not in fact defined in any way by these markers is a different question.)

There are certainly people who have historically been – and continue to be – oppressed in particular ways, justified in part by alleged differences in skin color and/or physical build. (Such differences have relatively little explanatory power; in the 1790s there was a debate in this country over whether Germans were “white” or ” black”; in the 1800s the same question was raised about the Irish; in the early 1900s Finns were widely considered an “Asiatic” people by specialists in racial categorization. Physical characteristics are purely incidental to such arguments, which are fundamentally about power and domination.) This history of oppression manifests itself in many ways, from the jobs workers are able to obtain, to the schools their children are enrolled in, to the accumulated resources they have at their disposal to see them through hard times or enable them to secure a viable economic foothold, to their likelihood of being shot by police. Syndicalists have always recognized the importance of racial oppression, fighting against discrimination on the job and in the broader society, demanding equal access to jobs, and putting our bodies on the line in the struggle for racial justice. “Race” has been used both to divide the working class and to subject one segment of our class to particularly brutal oppression and exploitation, and as such it can not be ignored. But its manifestation is radically different than that of “nation,” and to treat them as interchangeable is a dangerous confusion.

It is particularly dangerous when Staudenmaier swings between race and nation, arguing that anarchists should build cross-class alliances – an anarchist version of the Popular Front which has sucked so many radicals into pallid reformism. While there is a certain logic to cross-class alliances for those who seek state power above all else (the politician needs money for propaganda, for armed henchmen, and his material comforts, but also needs a mass base to provide cannon fodder, generate wealth and implement the great leader’s schemes), there is absolutely no reason why anarchists should be making common cause with our exploiters. It is not only wrong in principle, it not only feeds illusions among our fellow workers, but it is tactically stupid to boot.

As we noted earlier this year,

“The right of a people to self-determination is a long-standing anarchist principle. Nationalism, however, is a fraud whereby would-be rulers ‘self-determine’ to impose their vision of nationhood on an entire community. Nationalism is an ideology of separation, of hatred for the ‘other.’ It is a creed of violence and war and oppression. And it has absolutely nothing to offer the world’s oppressed. What is necessary is to develop human solidarity, the instincts of mutual aid that enable us to survive and which have fueled all human progress…”

Even many Marxists are at long last recognizing the folly of their long detour into nationalism. In a recent essay, George Kateb describes nationalism (and its close cousin, patriotism) as “a grave moral error” arising out of “a state of mental confusion.” Noting that the nation is an amalgam “of a few actual and many imaginary ingredients,” he notes that patriotism, in its essence, “is a readiness to die and to kill for an abstraction … for what is largely a figment of the imagination.” (907) Necessarily constructed to exclude the vast majority of humanity from its imagined community, patriotism – the celebration of the nation armed – needs external enemies. ” Patriotism is on a permanent moral holiday, and once it is made dynamic, it invariably becomes criminal.” (914) But not only does nationalism define itself in opposition to the whole of humanity, Kateb argues, it also requires that the individual surrender her moral authority and individuality, abandoning her own dignity and individuality to embrace submersion into an ideology of hatred, a life of criminality. Quoting Thoreau, he concludes that only those who surrender their “self-respect, and sacrifice the greater to the less” can be patriotic. “They love the soil which makes their graves, but have no sympathy with the spirit which may still animate their clay. Patriotism is a maggot in their heads.”

As Rudolf Rocker noted, “the change of human groups into nations, that is, State peoples, has not opened out a new outlook… It is today one of the most dangerous hindrances to social liberation.” (202) Peoples with common history, language and cultural backgrounds evolved over long periods of living together in free (and sometimes not so free) social alliances. No anarchist would propose that such communities should be forced to dissolve themselves into some invented social identity. But this is precisely what nationalism, the political theology of the state, attempts. “Nations” are in no sense natural communities; they stand in stark opposition to human autonomy, to the right of self-organization and self-determination, and to the principles of mutual aid and solidarity upon which our very survival depends.


ASR: “The Folly of Nationalism,” #30 (Winter 2000/01), pp. 1-2.

Mikhail Bakunin, “Statism and Anarchism,” “Letters on Patriotism,” “A Circular Letter to My Friends in Italy,” “The Knouto-Germanic Empire and the Social Revolution.” Excerpted in G.P. Maximoff, ed., The Political Philosophy of Bakunin.

Jon Bekken, “Negotiating Clas and Ethnicity: The Polish-Language Press in Chicago.” Polish-American Studies (Autumn 2000), pp. 5-29.

George Kateb, “Is Patriotism a Mistake?” Social Research 67(4) (Winter 2000), pp. 901-24.

Rudolf Rocker, Nationalism and Culture.

Werner Sollors (ed.), The Invention of Ethnicity.

Mike Staudenmaier, “What Good are Nations?” Arsenal 3 (2001), pp. 11-17.

Direct Action: Towards an understanding of a concept

by Harald Beyer-Arnesen, ASR #29

Campaigning for wage-workers to join the Industrial Workers of the World, Eugene V. Debs stated in December 1905: “The capitalist own the tools they do not use, and the workers use the tools they do not own.” To this one could add: At times direct action may mean putting the tools we do not own out of action, at times it may mean bringing them into play for our own, self-defined needs and ends. In the final instance, it can only mean acting as if all the tools were in fact our own.

Direct action brought to its ultimate and logical end is the libertarian social revolution: the working class’s direct overtaking, rearrangement, transformation and deconstruction (when not found appropriate to human needs) of the means of production (the material tools of freedom), and the disarmament of the forces protecting the order that was. If we are talking about a genuine social revolution, this can be nothing but the collective, direct action by the working class abolishing itself as a class, and thus the state and class society as such, making us all into citizens of a world of our own making.

Many are those who talk about direct actions these days, fewer try to explore its meaning, asking what kind of tool it is. This is not a semantic question but one of substance – one that lies at the core of the whole anarchist, social-revolutionary project where “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves,” and the means are determined by and contained in our ends. From this perspective we can define direct action as being an action carried out on the behalf of nobody else but ourselves, where the means are immediately also the ends, or if not, as in a wage strike not mediated by any union bureaucracy, the means (decreasing the bosses’ profits by our non-work, and thus also diminishing the bosses’ power) stand in an immediate relationship to self-defined ends (increasing our wages and extending our own power). A direct action successfully carried out brings about a direct rearrangement of existing conditions of life through the combined efforts of those directly affected.

Nobody need wholly agree with this definition, but I find it logical as well as a potentially powerful instrument in developing a practice where the future society comes to life within the shell of the old. In all circumstances, we as anarchists and social revolutionaries must comprehend direct action within the context of our project of human emancipation. Direct action is however not like pregnancy, which is something you either are or are not. Elements of direct action may be contained in actions that do not fully qualify as such. Part of our task consists in trying to make these elements as dominant as possible, whenever possible. To this we need a usable definition, something to aspire towards and measure our actions by, and thus also acquire a greater awareness of the sources of our strengths and shortcomings.

We will not always have the power to reach our ends through direct action. More than any other form of action, it tends to demand a collective, organizational force. Most clearly this will manifest itself in the working class’s direct re-expropriation of the instruments of production and freedom. We can achieve anything together. Building that togetherness is the difficult part, and like a muscle not used, the force of collective action is weakened by passivity. On a local level, where most of our actions are still confined, or on international level, through the coordinated actions within one small sector of the working class, our ability to carry out direct action will be restricted by it being a means not yet generalized. We should still be able to make use of it some of the time, but not all of the time without being crushed by the forces we are up against. If you are fired, a sit-down strike might save your job, but if you are the only one sitting there it might be a good idea to look up a lawyer or some union bureaucrat. Something which also draws our attention to how the concept of direct action links up with another old word in the vocabulary of working class struggles, namely practical solidarity. Solidarity does not mean charity, and cannot be reduced to altruism. Rather it is something which grows out of an understanding of common interests. At the root of the IWW catchword, “an injury to one is an injury to all,” lies more than a moral economy. The words also describe a fact of social life.

Direct action has been defined as action without intermediaries. This is a definition in need of qualification. From an anarchist perspective direct action is connected not only to solidarity, but also to what tends to be a precondition for solidarity and the underlying principle of the concept of direct democracy: non-hierarchical human communication. Such communication lies at the roots of what direct action always is, individual and collective self-empowerment. As direct action contains its own end, within that self-defined end its meaning is also found. The more the ends are manifested in the means, the more it is a direct action.

If we stay seated or go on playing darts as a means to prolong a lunch break, and thus shorten our working day, then the meaning of the action is also immediately the means used. But such collective action has as its precondition the human dialogue. It is through the mediation of the dialogue the ends are defined that gives the action its signification for us as human beings. If we stay seated or go on with our dart playing because the boss tells us so, then even if this will prolong our lunch break just as much or more, it is not direct action. Now there are forms of direct action that may involve only a single person, precisely because it is something which is of nobody elseÕs concern. But in general, for an action to be effective and have more than a symbolic significance in a social context, it must involve the participation of many. A one-(wo)man strike is at best a political statement.

Protesting the modern-day popes and tsars

If you lack water you might have to dig a well, and the act of digging will be direct action. You may need the assistance of others and your lack will very likely also be shared by them, making it into a collective task. But within a class society things are rarely that simple. The land may be owned by an absent landowner, and an apparatus of force will exist to impose proprietor rights. Just going out there digging the well would thus be illegal. Still, illegality is not what defines it as direct action. Collective self-education, for instance, is a form of direct action that often, if not always, would be perfectly legal.

We could imagine that rather than digging the well without a permit, we organized to sit down outside the landowner residence, the KingÕs Palace, the White House or the parliament building, called in the press and proclaimed we would remain seated on the lawn (committing the crime of trespassing) until the absent landowner, a legislative body or somebody else with authority, granted us a permit to dig for water on his or her property – or until we were carried or otherwise forced away.

This surely would be civil disobedience, a breach of law, but would it also be direct action? Hardly. We had tried to put pressure on an authority to make or undo a judgment. In this we had abided by their power and authority to make such a judgment in the first place. Rather than letting our ends only be mediated by our own efforts and (wo)man-made tools – which in this case would be spades or excavators – we had put their rule between our means and ends. The tools yes, the instruments of production and destruction, as well as our own creativity: sold hours of life turned into instruments of our exploitation. We are the ones who employ these tools, but not according to own plans, needs and desires. We rarely utilize them as means of direct action. The wage working cook does not serve the poor as part of collective project in the time (s)he has sold to an alien force, instead (s)he casts a vote, signs a petition, joins a demonstration, breaks some windows or blows up a building in his or her unwaged time. None of which produces anything immediately digestible.

Some would define any non-parliamentary action as a direct action, such as any street demonstration. But to make a statement about we would like something to be, or not to be, is not likely to move any mountain. If the mere words, “Stop the bombing!” halted bombs in mid-air, or took away their deadly effect, the world be a better place to live. It is not any more likely that breaking window panes would generate this effect, either.

That symbolic actions, and actions that borrow their efficiency from the very powers we are struggling against, more and more have come to be defined as direct actions, reflects our present organizational impotence, our social fragmentation and a generalized lack of trust among waged and unwaged workers in their own collective powers. Under particular circumstances symbolic actions can be powerful. But they should be seen as what they are at their best: means of communication. Their degree of efficiency outside this lies foremost in the fear among the owners of the world that they will be followed up by more direct forms of action. At the present moment, disorganized as we stand, or organized into passivity, they are also often all we have, but that should not lead us to the conclusion that they are all we could have.

Often, as during the WTO meeting in Seattle, we see proclaimed as direct actions protests carried out in spectacular and some times violent or destructive ways to draw the attention of mainstream media. Though often denied, the whole logic of such actions is to influence the powers that be by way of some imagined “public opinion.” And in the age of the world-wide web, even a demonstration of a few dozen people can appear as a world event if only the rumor about it is widely enough circulated, while you can live a couple of blocks away without even noticing that it has taken place. So maybe a better term than direct action in such circumstances might be virtual or multi-mediated action. Ironically, both larger protests, like those in Seattle, as well as smaller ones tend to be followed by a critique of the mainstream media for distorting the (f)acts, for only having reproduced their most spectacular aspects.

Of course it could be said, and not without some truth, that the property destruction in Seattle had a symbolic value that it gained from the particular context if functioned within. I am not arguing against that, though this value would soon be devalued if the same procedure was tried repeated over and over again. However, apart from their symbolic value, the actions had no immediate relation to what one wanted to achieve. The blocking of the meeting or the destruction of property were not means to bring about any immediate changes in the conditions of trade, exploitation and oppression: they fed no one, did not reduce the pollution of our environment or in other ways enrich the lives of working-class people.

Exploitation and oppression always work in concrete ways, and the realities of what one was protesting against and the concrete points of possible change escaped the protesters. Lacking the power to bring about immediate changes, one appealed to the Pope and the Tsar, some would say in less than polite ways, to use their commanding powers over us to bring such changes about. Rather than going out digging the wells to find the water, one demanded of the high and mighty to order us to do so, and rather than blocking the ruling order from polluting our water, one called on them to make laws prohibiting such acts, or to refrain from introducing new ones allowing the pollution. One appealed to the force of their laws, asking for better ones: asking for an atheist Pope, a landless Tsar, a capitalism where money wields no power. Many will find this a misrepresentation: “We demanded the break-up of the WTO,” they will say. But this, even had it been realistic – which it was not – would at best only substitute a not yet defined set of international laws and power relations for the particular ones existing or in making. It was a wholly abstract demand.

If temporarily halting the mere coming together of the delegates of the World Trade Organization was all one had wanted to achieve, then the protesters used means (their own bodies) appropriate to this end. But was this really their end? Hopefully, and far more likely, they thought of it as a means. In the age before the telegraph and telephone, to say nothing about more modern means of communication, such means might also have had a more immediate effect, and a far closer relation to the end. But today such gatherings of the high and mighty foremost have symbolic significance. The decision-making and coordination of power takes place elsewhere, and not in any particular place at any particular date. I for one am certain that the protesters aspired to bring about an end to particular destructive practices associated with the policies of the World Trade Organization, as well as to halt even more destructive ones, and not to the mere obstruction of the coming together of some people at a certain place and time. Had practices of exploitation, oppression and destruction existed only in the minds and the statements of the high and mighty, we would not have to offer them much attention. Nor would the high then be very mighty.

If from every community affected by the policies of the WTO (or rather of global capitalism) there had been one person present among the protesters in Seattle, they would be in the wrong place to bring about changes through direct action. The concrete and daily manifestations of WTO policies takes place in the communities they would have left behind, and it is also there these policies could be directly confronted. On the other hand, such a global assembly could have served as an opportunity to coordinate actions throughout the world, and not primarily to worry about what was going on in the congress halls where the WTO delegates were gathered. As it was, people from every community of the planet were not gathered in Seattle. What is more, those who were there, to the degree they at all considered the option of direct action, were in Seattle precisely because of their, or rather our, impotence to bring about the organization needed to confront the WTO through direct action on our home ground.

Propaganda by the deed & solidarity revisited

A critical dialogue in search of forms of action that could directly put whatever has and will be resolved within the framework of the WTO, IMF and World Bank wholly, or more realistically at this stage, in part out of operation, has hardly even been attempted, despite of, or maybe because of all claims of direct action practices.

In this context, it is interesting that West Coast longshoremen carried out a political strike against the WTO. However positive this was a sign of times to come, it did not go beyond being a symbolic action. But the event may also be considered as symbolic in another context. The longshoremen (dockers and wharfies) and transport workers in general, are the wage workers with the most manifest potency to directly and materially impose the terms of world trade. Thus also all the efforts to destroy their strength. But these workers would in no circumstances be able to wield such power for long if their “propaganda by the deed” did not also bring about manifestations of direct action by the waged and unwaged workers of the world, or at least within significant parts of it.

The term “propaganda by the deed” brings forth associations to bombs and other individual acts of desperation and social impotence. But it need not refer to this. When tasks meet us on a global scale, direct action carried out locally to bring about smaller changes in the here and now, or internationally by a small section of the working class, may be considered as just a drop in the bucket. But if successfully carried out direct actions will communicate a message beyond their immediate ends, carrying within themselves the very seeds of a libertarian social revolution. Acts of immediate empowerment tend to be contagious as they practically illustrate roads that may be traveled outside the realm of bureaucratic intermediaries and parliamentary representation. Direct action is always “propaganda by the deed.”

This all brings us back to the question of solidarity and its relation to direct action, and then in particular as defined as an action carried out on behalf of nobody else. The question also arises out of ecological concerns. Who are the directly affected, and at what point does an act cease being direct action because it is not being carried out by those directly affected? What interests us here is of course the political implications of the answer given. The advocates of ideologies of representative democracy, social democracy and Leninism all claim to act on the behalf of “the people” in the interest of “the people.” Anarchists have always rejected not only that the representatives of these ideologies do so, but the very notion that they could. What is more, even if they could, we claim that this would not be in our best interest as the value of being our own masters is the very essence of being a human being. Something, it must be added, which does not imply an escape from the influence and critique of others, without which we would be nothing.

On the other hand we uphold the principles of mutual aid and solidarity; that an injury to one is an injury to all, and thus also the concern of all. We can skip the most absurd interpretations of non-representation, like: “If we see a person drowning, this is not our concern.” Whether or not saving another person from drowning also should be defined as direct action is not an interesting question. Philosophical riddles are not the concern here, but the politics of human emancipation.

On this level the answer to the question leads us to another: who has the defining power? I define the low wages and bad working conditions in company X, wherever it may be situated in the world, as my concern not only for moral reasons, but also because, to paraphrase Bakunin: in the hands of the owners of the world, their exploitation and oppression becomes an instrument for my subordination. Brought to its logical conclusion this reasoning may however brings us straight back to rule by representation and enlightened despotism. The defining power must be situated among the workers of company X. However, my participation in direct action on their initiative, or through joint initiative and cooperation, would make me part of this direct action if my acts also otherwise qualified as such, for instance through a blockade during a strike. We have realized our common interests.

There is much more that could be said around this topic. But what is crucial is to grasp its importance, so that claimed direct action does not become a road that leads us towards elitism, and thus also away from the anarchist project of individual and social emancipation.

Once again we reach the conclusion that as a rule, the greater the task the more collective the action – this to fit a libertarian definition of direct action. We should never lose sight of the fact that the concept of direct action emerges out of people doing something with their own situation. It is for this reason that it has held such a central position within the traditions of anarchism and revolutionary syndicalism. Direct action is an expression of power over our lives: our empowerment. Direct actions are primarily, if not exclusively, tied to collective forms of actions also for the simple reason that it is together we as waged and unwaged workers have the potency to directly, and often immediately, change our conditions of life. The fewer the actors the more symbolic our acts as a rule will also be. They then tend to become, not means to the immediate transformation of part of our reality through our own efforts but foremost to call on the power of others.

While many may live under the illusion that through direct action we escape the need for organizing, the opposite is true: Generally it requires a greater degree of organized coordination. The degree of our disorganization is the degree to which our lives will be organized by others. It is we who make the world, but we make it as a collective (presently under the command of and through the mediation of the owners of the world) and it is thus also together we can make direct profound changes unmediated by outside forces, and in the final instance conquer the world and the power over our own destinies.

Direct action could be seen as a kind of language: a language of practical articulation. As such it contains also a symbolic force far greater than any mere symbolic action, precisely because its message is contained in and not separated from its means. Much of the reason for our present impotence to express us through direct action lies in an ever increasing division of labor within modern capitalism. Not so much due to this division in itself but in our failure to bridge it in our minds, and through organization and action.

We need to reconnect our means with our ends. To return to the wage strike Ð it used to signify, and still often does, striking the bosses where it hurt them the most, their banking accounts, by withholding our capacity for labor. So why did the workers of the “public owned” trams in Melbourne ten years ago strike by running the trams Ð the tools they do not own – free of charge for the public, while their bosses struck back by closing them down by force? The reason is obvious. As so often is the case with public services, the non-work of the publicly employed tramdrivers would not have cost the city council a cent. It could only save them the expenses of the workers’ wages. Free public transport, however, would cost them.

What is more crucial, this was a manifestation of workers turning the tools they do not own into means for their own ends, as well as for the working class community at large. What if all the waged and unwaged workers (including school and university students) of Melbourne had non-hierarchically organized to do the same, if only for day or a week? That really would have been a symbolically powerful manifestation of our potency by means of direct action. Reality is still concrete. Let’s not forget it. Also in the struggle against the policies of the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank we should seek to find ways to on a local and global scale halt and put into action the tools we do not own for our self-defined needs.

Book Review: Looking Forward

Looking Forward: Participatory Economic for the Twenty First Century by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel. Boston, South End Press, 1991
Review by Jeff Stein [Published in Libertarian Labor Review No. 12]

The economy in the Soviet Union is a mess and always has been,” say Marxist theorists Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel. The problem isn’t with having a planned economy, but a matter of who is doing the planning. In the Soviet Union, economic planning was exclusively a power of an elite class of “coordinators” [i.e. the Communist bureaucrats]. Thus it should have come as no surprise whose interest the Soviet economy served. Instead of “coordinatorism” the authors propose a rough model of a system of economic planning in which all workers and consumers would have a voice.

The model proposed by the authors is based upon a sort of democratic bargaining in which yearly production proposals made by workplace councils are compared to yearly consumption request made by consumer councils. A series of “facilitation boards” tabulate all the proposals and revises the “prices” of goods and services in terms of additional labor required to meet consumer demands. Goods and services, for which supply is not expected to meet demands, go up in price and vice versa. The councils then revise their previous proposals based upon the new prices. This continues for several rounds or “iteration” of planning proposals until at some point an exact match is made between projected yearly production and consumption. In order to encourage a convergence towards a final plan, councils are limited by how much they can alter a previous proposal in the next round. Proposals leading in direction of convergence can be changed up to 50%. Proposals leading away from an agreement can only be changed by 25%.

To make sure that everyone benefits equally from their economic model, Albert and Hahnel propose that every worker receive an equal share of consumption and be required to work an equal number of hours. In the former case, this can be modified somewhat by local consumer councils, based upon individual needs. A local consumer council can decide to increase or decrease the share of individual members; as long as the council’s total consumption stays the same. In the case of the latter, the requirement to work an equal number of hours is accompanied by the requirement that the overall quality of working conditions also be equal for all workers. Thus every worker is required to have a “balanced job complex”, made up of an average amount of pleasant tasks and drudgery.

The idea of “balanced job complexes” comes from the traditional socialist rejection of the capitalist division of labor, which condemns most individuals to a life of dull, repetitive, often dangerous hand labor, in order to free up a minority for the more creative and artistic work. Unlike some socialists (principally other Marxists) who merely propose to ameliorate the bad side effects of the division of labor by complex wage schemes, etc., Albert and Hahnel insist on doing away with the division of labor entirely. They argue that the quality of work assignments determines the amount of power an individual worker has within the economy. People with more interesting and enjoyable jobs have more control. As the authors put it, “Classlessness and real rather than formal workplace democracy require that each worker has a job complex composed of comparably fulfilling responsibilities.the half dozen or so tasks that I regularly do must be roughly as empowering as the half dozen or so tasks that you regularly do if we are to participate as equals in council decision making.” (p.19, my emphasis)

I am sure many will find Looking Forward a thought-provoking read. However I am not so sure how useful a guide it is towards creating a self-managed social economy. The general idea of allowing everyone to take part in the planning process is good, although I don’t agree on their specific suggestions for how to implement it. I also think their suggestion for making economic planning into a sort of bargaining process through several sessions or “iterations” could be useful. However in many ways I thought their system to be far less decentralized and “participatory” than they claim it to be. The authors tend to be somewhat vague about the role of the government in enforcing their system. For instance what about a workplace council which finds the final plan so intolerable that they refuse to go along with it? Can they negotiate their own separate agreement, or will some higher authority lock them out of their facilities, cut their rations, or worse? The authors say nothing about the right to strike, not to mention the right of voluntary association, the basis of federalism.

The authors, being Marxists, still tend to be complacent about the potential for authoritarian abuses in their model. Their economic organization requires a large number of “facilitation boards”: CFCBs . “Collective Consumption Facilitation Boards,” CFBs . “Consumption Facilitation Boards”, EFBs . “Employment Facilitation Boards,” HFBs . “Housing Facilitation Boards,” IFBs . “Iteration Facilitation Boards,” PFBs . “Production Facilitation Boards,” and UFBs . “Updating Facilitation Boards.” Supposedly the facilitators have no power other than collecting information and communicating it back to society via computer networks. But there is a tremendous amount of power involved in the control of information and its flow, particularly when this information is presented as being “objective and unbiased” (even more so when it is presented as computer data . about which the authors suggest “computers never lie”). Albert and Hahnel argue that such power would not be abused since the facilitator would (theoretically) be limited to the same consumption levels as everyone else and would therefore have nothing to gain by cooking the data. The authors somehow can not envision any other reason for distorting data other than direct economic benefit, such as ideological bias or pursuit of political objectives.

It is not hard to imagine a “facilitatorism” developing if these boards do not have sufficient safeguards placed upon them. It is somewhat disturbing that Albert and Hahnel seem reluctant to insist upon even the most elementary safeguards, such as limiting the terms of board members, since [as they say] this might interfere with the need for “expertise” at facilitation. This is even more surprising considering that they see expertise in every other job as being so unnecessary that it doesn’t interfere with their “job complex” work rotation scheme at all. Apparently anybody can fly a passenger airline jet but it takes a special breed to “facilitate” society.

Even supposing the facilitator had to be changed once and a while (every four years?), however, “job complexing” would not necessarily end the division of labor. The point of doing away with divided labor is to help workers control their own work, to understand the full implications of their efforts by allowing them to play a role in the design of their products and organize their own jobs as they see fit. Thus the artificial separation between hand work and brain work, labor and management, is abolished. Albert and Hahnel, however, have devised more of a socialist job enrichment scheme in which workers would be required to move between several workplaces each week, doing one task here, one task there, as though the sum total of all these fragmented experiences would give them a sense of control over the entire economy. Spending a few hours each week picking apples will not give a construction worker a better understanding of either agriculture or the construction industry. Nor would it necessarily give farm workers more control of their industry. The influx of thousands of part-time workers with no particular knowledge of or interest in the industry, could make matters worse on the job if the part-timers had an equal vote in workplace matters and were played off against the regular workforce.

The division of labor is not negated by forcing workers to frequently change jobs. Instead of empowering workers, such a scheme could make them even more dependent on the few within industry who “facilitate” all the job rating and the rotation of work assignments. Proudhon made this point in reference to similar suggestions by utopian socialists, “As if to change ten, fifteen, twenty times a day from one kind of divided labor to another was to make labor synthetic.Even if such industrial vaulting was practicable . and it may be asserted in advance that it would disappear in the presence of making laborers responsible and therefore their functions personal . it would not change at all the physical, moral, and intellectual condition of the laborer; the dissipation would only be a surer guarantee of his incapacity and, consequently, his dependence.” (System of Economic Contradictions, Tucker, trans., p.186)

Job complexing could certainly work at the workplace level and may be desirable, but making it a strict requirement for shuffling workers between industries is incompatible with self-management. Albert and Hahnel have the relationship between power and desirable work reversed. People do not lack power at their workplaces because they do the lousy jobs; rather they do the lousy jobs because they lack power. It is far more important to discuss the distribution of decision-making within workplaces and industry, than to try to formulate an elaborate job-sharing scheme which should be left up to the workers themselves. Formal democracy hat hides an informal class system is a valid concern, but I suspect that wherever this exists it may have more to do with a minority having a monopoly on information and education and a “good ol’ boy” political network, than with the absence of a system for rating every job for some abstract enjoyment level.

Another problem with the Albert-Hahnel model is its use of the labor theory of value as a means for determining individual consumption levels. The authors are correct in making the simple observation that if society as a whole wants to consume more, that at any given technological level, some people will have to work more. It only seems fair that those who wish to do the extra consuming should have to do the extra working. A problem comes in determining exactly how much each individual’s labor is worth when production is a complex and interdependent social undertaking. Albert and Hahnel get around this problem with their “job complexing”. In theory, every hour of labor is equal to some average because every worker works at the same average level of intensity under the same average working conditions. (This certainly makes things easier for the statisticians.)

Yet even if it were possible to balance all jobs in society according to some average level (and ignoring the huge bureaucracy this might require), Albert and Hahnel sacrifice the most valid application of the labor theory of value, its connection to technological change, while they retain the theory’s negative side effect, its neglect of ecological devastation. One might say, they have kept the bath water and thrown out the baby.

Let’s take a look at the “baby”, the labor theory of value and its connection to technological change. If you wish to make goods and services more plentiful, you must economize and reduce the amount of labor required to reduce them. According to the Albert-Hahnel model, workers at workplaces who adopt more efficient labor-saving technologies would be “rewarded” by being forced to work the hours they saved at less desirable jobs in other industries. Although it is true that this is no worse than under capitalism where labor-saving technology “rewards” workers with unemployment and subsequent loss of income, the point is that under the Albert-Hahnel model workers would be reluctant to adopt new technology since they would not benefit directly. Under a socialist system it would seem that the best reward for improving productivity would be to allow workers to decrease their work hours with no loss of income.

Albert and Hahnel would probably argue that their system would still reward labor saving efforts by giving a collective benefit to all workers. If workplace A, for instance, cuts its labor needs by say five hours a week per worker, then all workers throughout society would experience some small fraction of that reduction spread out proportionally. So even though the workers at workplace A might have to work part of the time elsewhere, instead of the five hours, it might be only 4 hours and 45 minutes at the other job. Even supposing that is sufficient incentive to keep technological progress going, there still remains the problem of using labor time as a method of pricing commodities and services.

One of the criticisms used by the Marxists against any sort of market system for determining prices has been that the “law of supply and demand” creates”commodity fetishism”. Consumers only concerned with getting the most commodities for the lowest price, ignore the labor involved and that lowest price often is accompanied by maximum labor exploitation. Although a pricing system based on labor time, may make this more apparent to consumers, the labor theory of value ignores the ecological costs of goods: energy, raw materials, wastes generated, natural habitats destroyed, etc. These costs can’t be measured in labor units. Thus instead of “commodity fetishism”, Albert and Hahnel would create a “labor fetish”.

For an example of how their use of the labor theory of value ignores ecological costs, let’s use one of their own examples. In the chapter on “Participatory Allocation”, Albert and Hahnel pose the problem of an increased demand for milk. “Sometimes, however, changes will not balance so that the net increase, say, in milk demand must be communicated to milk producers, who then either produce more . by increasing work intensity, hours worked by each employee, or adding personnel . or refuse to increase production.’ (p.80) Clearly, the assumption is that increased production only requires additional human labor. But how about the cattle that actually produce this milk? How about the extra land that must be set aside to feed the cattle, perhaps wilderness and wetlands destroyed? How about the degraded water supply from the animal wastes in the run-off from feed lots or pastures? These ecological consequences can’t be factored into a labor pricing system, and therefore would not show up on the computer terminals of consumers voting on the yearly economic plan.

Looking Forward has been accused by more orthodox Marxists of being an anarcho-syndicalist inspired proposal. Unfortunately this is not so. Although the authors clearly would like to give local economic bodies some autonomy, there still lingers a central plan and a state authority in the background (one the authors claim will wither away as their system has less “need” for it). Some rather ambiguous remarks made towards that end about Cuba suggest that the authors haven’t strayed too far from the Marxist fold. At best the Albert-Hahnel model could be described as “central-planning by referendum”.

While terms like “councils” and “federations” and anarchist quotes litter the text, there is no clear understanding of these demonstrated by the authors. Looking Forward is a utopian Marxist proposal with little anarchism in it.

Bakunin: The Collectivist Tradition

Anarchist economics began with Proudhon but eventually developed into two schools of thought: anarcho-syndicalism with its emphasis on mass production industries in an urban environment, and anarchist-communism with its emphasis on egalitarian distribution and small-scale communities. Both these theories developed out of anarcho-collectivism, a radical economic federalism developed by the libertarian elements of the (First) International Workingmen’s Association. Its principal advocates were Michael Bakunin and James Guillaume, but the real credit for the theory of collectivism should go to the workers belonging to the International, who took the various socialist and trade union economic ideas of the time and modified them in light of their own experience.

The Limits of Proudhonian Economics

The collectivists shared a number of ideas with the followers of Proudhon in the International, in particular the concepts of workers self-management of industry and economic federalism. On the other hand they saw a need to go beyond the sort of utopian thinking that led the Proudhonists to believe capitalism might be transformed by the growth of worker cooperatives and mutualist credit. By the time the International was formed in 1864, worker cooperatives had been experimented with for several decades and by now were floundering. In the last years of his life, even Proudhon was forced to admit the cooperative movement was not developing as he had hoped:

Not many years later, in 1857, he severely criticized the existing workers’ associations; inspired by naive, utopian illusions, they had paid the price of their lack of experience. They had become narrow and exclusive, had functioned as collective employers, and had been carried away by hierarchical and managerial concepts. All the abuses of capitalist companies “were exaggerated further in these so-called brotherhoods.” They had been torn by discord, rivalry, defections, and betrayals. Once their managers had learned the business concerned, they retired to “set up as bourgeois employers on their own account.” In other instances, the members had insisted on dividing up the resources. In 1848 several hundred workers’ associations had been set up; nine years later only twenty remained. (Guerin, pp. 47-48)

These same observations were made by the members of the International: “The English section reported on cooperatives. Without denying the usefulness of cooperative organizations, it indicated a dangerous tendency noticeable in a majority of such bodies in England, which were beginning to develop into purely commercial and capitalist institutions, thus creating the opportunity for the birth of a new class – the working bourgeoisie.” (Maximoff, p. 47)

The small, isolated, under-capitalized worker cooperatives could barely survive in competition with their better established capitalist rivals. The few cooperatives that prospered, often betrayed their working class supporters and began to operate as though their facilities were their own private property, aided and abetted by the laws and existing capitalist businesses. The failings of the cooperatives had raised the thorny issue of how to turn the socialization of the means of production from an ideal into a practical reality. The solution suggested by the collectivists was to expropriate the means of production from the capitalists and for the workers’ associations to own these “collectively”, no longer recognizing any individual ownership rights to divide up and sell them. The third Congress of the International accordingly passed a resolution that the main purpose of the cooperatives must go beyond narrow self-interest. Instead their purpose must be support the struggle “to wrench from the hands of the capitalists the means of production and return them to their rightful owners, the workers themselves.” (Guillaume, p. 70)

As we have seen, in The Principle of Federation (1863), Proudhon began to sketch the outlines of a sort of economic federalism before he died. This did not, however, prevent his mutualist followers from trying to defend his earlier ideas. At the 1869 Basel Congress of the International, a dispute arose over a resolution calling for the collectivization of the land. The Proudhonists held out for the right of small farmers to own land privately, as long as they did not rent out the land for others to work. Tolain, speaking for the mutualists, suggested the resolution be changed to read, “The Congress declares that, to realize the emancipation of the worker, it must transform the leases of farmland…to contracts of sale: so that ownership, continually in circulation, ceases to be abusive in itself; and consequently [by ensuring the individual worker the right to the product of his labors]…safeguards the liberty of the individual groups.” (Guillaume, p. 197)

Bakunin, speaking for the collectivists, disputed the notion that private property, even in a limited form, was justified as a means for safeguarding individual rights.

…the individual is a product of society, and without society man is nothing. All productive labor is above all social labor; “production is only possible through the combination of the labor of past generations with the present generation, there is not ever labor that can be called individual labor.” He [Bakunin] is thus a supporter of collective property, not only of the soil, but of all social wealth. As for the organization of agricultural production, it is concluded by the solidarization of the communes, as proposed by the majority of the commission, all the more willingly that this solidarization implies the organization of society from the bottom upwards, while the proposition of the minority presupposes a State [to guarantee and enforce the terms of sale]. (Guillaume, p. 197)

To be fair to Proudhon and the mutualists, their waffling on the issue of private property was not so much due to ambivalence about collective ownership, as an example of the extremes they were prepared to go to avoid a revolutionary confrontation. Mutualist credit was intended to produce “a new economic arrangement” which would somehow avoid the “shock” of violent confrontation with the capitalists over their property rights. To the collectivists, who were veterans of bitter labor strikes and insurrections, this was hopelessly idealistic. Capitalism had not originated out of a peaceful, democratic debate as to how to organize production to ensure economic justice and well-being for all, but was the product of centuries of fraud, theft, and State-sponsored violence. Proudhon often ignored that these activities were as much a part of the functioning of the existing economy as was the official market side of capitalism. The State and the capitalists would not disappear with a new set of rules, since they, more often than not, did not play by their own rules.

Although Proudhon had discovered many of the contradictions of capitalist economics, his non-confrontational solutions were just too out of touch with reality. What the anarchists needed was to base their economics less on moral arguments than on a positivist materialism. As Bakunin put it:

…Proudhon remained an incorrigible idealist all his life, swayed at one moment by the Bible and at the next by Roman Law …His great misfortune was that he never studied natural science and adopted its methods….As a thinker Marx is on the right path. He has set up the principle that all religious, political and legal developments in history are not the cause but the effect of economic developments. Many others before him had a hand in the unveiling of it and even expressed it in part, but in the last resort credit is due to him for having developed the idea scientifically and having made it the basis of his whole scientific teaching. On the other hand, Proudhon understood the idea of freedom better than Marx. (Jackson, pp. 128-129)

Collectivism and Marxism

The criticism Bakunin made of Proudhon’s idealism was perhaps a kinder version of the same criticism Marx had made in The Poverty of Philosophy. It is on the basis of such statements, as well as his praise for Marx’s Capital, that some argue that Bakunin shared the economic views of Marx. In reality Bakunin and his fellow collectivists differed with Marx on economic grounds as well as on political matters. Bakunin did begin a translation of Capital into Russian, but never completed it. Had his enthusiasm for the work been as overwhelming as some claim, he would no doubt have finished it and collected the remainder of the sum agreed upon by the Russian publishing house (instead of getting expelled at the Hague Congress of the International for allegedly threatening the publisher in order to get out of the deal). A closer look at what Bakunin thought about Capital reveals his real reason for admiring the work:

…nothing, that I know of, contains an analysis so profound, so luminous, so scientific, so decisive and if I can express it thus, so merciless an expose of the formation of bourgeois capital and the systematic and cruel exploitation that capital continues exercising over the work of the proletariat. The only defect of this work…is that it has been written, in part, in a style excessively metaphysical and abstract…which makes it difficult to explain and nearly unapproachable for the majority of workers. (Bakunin, p. 195)

Bakunin, more the revolutionary than the economist, admired Capital as a great piece of revolutionary propaganda. Marx, drawing his facts and figures out of British government documents and parliamentary debates, had hoisted the capitalists by their own petards. This does not mean he endorsed it verbatim. Bakunin had earlier translated The Communist Manifesto into Russian and made no bones about his disagreements with Marx and Engels over their proposals for a centralized state socialist economy.

I am not a communist because communism concentrates and absorbs all the powers of society into the state, because it necessarily ends in the centralization of property in the hands of the state…I want society and collective property to be organized from the bottom upwards by means of free association and not from the top downwards by means of some form of authority…it is in this sense that I am a collectivist. (quoted in Cahm, p. 36)

Rather than a State or a market determining the allocation of resources and the distribution of products, the workers would decide these things themselves by free agreements among the associations. These agreements would be monitored by the communes, and industrial federations to make sure that labor was not exploited. Bakunin, however, recognized that any system of free exchange of products still held the danger of monopoly and private accumulation of wealth, particularly by the self-employed farmer or artisan, who tried to pass on land or equipment to his children. Thus he also called for the abolition of inheritance to prevent the rise of a new working class bourgeoisie.

The International debated the subject of inheritance at its Basel Congress in 1869. Marx was opposed to the International taking a position on the subject of inheritance on the grounds that once the private ownership of the means of production had been abolished (and expropriated by the workers’ government), there would be nothing left to inherit. Even worse, it implied the International would support something other than the state communism of Marx. As Eccarius, speaking for Marx, put it, “the abolition of the right of inheritance can not be the point of departure for the same social transformation: it would be too absurd to require the abolition of the law of supply and demand while continuing the state of conditions of exchange; it would be a reactionary theory in practice. By treating the laws of inheritance, we suppose necessarily that individual ownership of the means of production would continue to exist.” (Guillaume, p. 201)

Eccarius was half right. Bakunin and the other collectivists intended that something other than the state ownership of the means of production and central control would exist, but it would not necessarily be capitalist ownership nor a market economy. The full collectivization of the economy would not be carried out by a single decree, but over a generation. Abolition of wage labor by the collectivization of the capitalist employers would be the first step, but the right of the self-employed, particularly the small farmer, to their means of livelihood would be respected. To recognize this right of possession to the tools needed for one’s own labor, however, was not to recognize an ownership right that could be bought and sold or passed on to one’s children. This was the meaning behind the collectivist demand for the abolition of inheritance.

If after having proclaimed the social liquidation, we attempted to dispossess by decree millions of small farmers, they would necessarily be thrown onto the side of reaction, and in order for them to submit to the revolution, it would be necessary to employ force against them…It would be well then to leave them possessors in fact of those small parcels of which they are proprietors. But if you don’t abolish the right of inheritance what would happen? They would transfer their holdings to their children…If, to the contrary, at the same time that you would make the social liquidation… you abolish the right of inheritance what would remain with the peasants? Nothing but defacto possession, and that possession… no longer sheltered by the protective power of the state, would easily be transformed under the pressure of events and of revolutionary forces. (Bakunin, quoted by Guillaume, p. 203)

The Collectivist Economic Doctrine

Collectivism, unlike Proudhon’s Mutualism or Marxism, was not a well developed theory, the product of a single mind. Its principal advocates were socialist revolutionaries and workers caught up in the events of the time: the upheavals of 1848 which occurred throughout Europe, the birth of the labor unions, and the Paris Commune of 1871. As far as they could tell, a social revolution was not an abstract goal looming far off in the distance, but something that had to be prepared for right away. Some sort of workable economic program had to be agreed upon by the labor movement, which had broad appeal to the various socialist and labor groupings that made up the International, without locking everyone into something they might regret later. This explains why collectivism often was so sketchy in details, and some of its advocates disagreed among themselves over various points.

The closest thing to a “definitive” statement of collectivism is an essay written by James Guillaume in 1874, “Ideas on Social Organization” (see Dolgoff, pp. 356-379). Guillaume begins by emphasizing that there can be no “blueprint” for social revolution, since it must be left up to the workers themselves to decide how best to organize themselves in their own areas. However, having said that, he begins to make various suggestions about the collectivist approach. First the system of wage labor will be abolished by the workers “taking possession” of all capital and tools of production, ie. the collectivization of property. The self-employed and the owners of family businesses are to be left alone to operate as they wish, but with this important exception: “his former hired hands, if he had any, will become his partners and share with him the products which their common labor extracts from the land.” (Dolgoff, p. 359)

The internal organization of the worker collectives, working conditions, hours, distribution of responsibilities, and share of income, etc., are to be left in the hands of their members: “Each workshop, each factory, will organize itself into an association of workers who will be free to administer production and organize their work as they think best, provided that the rights of each worker are safeguarded and the principles of equality and justice are observed.” (Dolgoff, p. 363, my emphasis)

However the fact that the collectivists were willing to tolerate those groups which decided to distribute income according to hours worked, does not mean the collectivists believed in the principle, “to each according to their work.” As Guillaume makes clear, this is only justified (where it is practiced) as a temporary expedient, to discourage over-consumption during the transition period when capitalist conditions of scarcity will not yet have been overcome.

In some communities remuneration will be in proportion to hours worked; in others payment will be measured by both the hours of work and the kind of work performed; still other systems will be experimented with to see how they work out. The problem of property having been resolved, and there being no capitalists placing a tax on the labor of the masses, the question of types of distribution and remuneration become secondary. We should to the greatest possible extent institute and be guided by the principle From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. When, thanks to the progress of scientific industry and agriculture, production comes to outstrip consumption, and this will be attained some years after the Revolution, it will no longer be necessary to stingily dole out each worker’s share of goods… (Dolgoff, p. 361)

Although collectivism promotes the greatest autonomy for the worker associations, it should not be confused with a market economy. The goods produced by the collectivized factories and workshops are exchanged not according to highest price that can be wrung from consumers, but according to their actual production costs. The determination of these honest prices is to be by a “Bank of Exchange” in each community (obviously an idea borrowed from Proudhon).

…the [labor] value of the commodities having been established in advance by a contractual agreement between the regional cooperative federations [ie. industrial unions] and the various communes, who will also furnish statistics to the Banks of Exchange. The Bank of Exchange will remit to the producers negotiable vouchers representing the value of their products; these vouchers will be accepted throughout the territory included in the federation of communes. (Dolgoff, p. 366) The Bank of Exchange …[will] arrange to procure goods which the commune is obliged to get from outside sources, such as certain foodstuffs, fuels, manufactured products, etc. These outside products will be featured side by side with local goods…and all goods will be uniformly priced. [Since similar goods all have the same average labor value.] (Dolgoff, p. 367)

Although this scheme bears a strong resemblance to Proudhonian “People’s Banking,” it should be noted that the Banks of Exchange, along with a “Communal Statistical Commission,” are intended to have a planning function as well.

…each Bank of Exchange makes sure in advance that these products are in demand [in order to risk] nothing by immediately issuing payment vouchers to the producers. (p. 367) ….By means of statistics gathered from all the communes in a region, it will be possible to scientifically balance production and consumption. In line with these statistics, it will also be possible to add more help in industries where production is insufficient and reduce the number of men where there is a surplus of production. (Dolgoff, p. 370)

As conditions permit, the exchange functions of the communal banks are to be gradually replaced by the distribution of goods “in accordance with the needs of the consumers.” (p. 368) Until that point is reached, the local community has the responsibility for providing certain basic needs for everyone without regard for production done by that particular individual. Among these essential needs to be distributed freely are education, housing, health, personal security and fire protection, disaster relief, and food services. The worker collectives engaged in these essential communal services will not be required to exchange them for their “labor value,” but “will receive from the commune vouchers enabling them to acquire all commodities necessary for the decent maintenance of their members.” (Dolgoff, p. 365)

Therefore each “commune” is to provide a basic standard of living for all its members during the transitional period leading towards economic abundance. Those people desiring a higher income will be given the right of access to the means of production in order to produce goods both for themselves and for exchange. Each worker collective, however, will not have to shift for itself but will receive assistance from the communes, and local and regional industry associations.

…social organization is completed, on the one hand by the establishment of regional corporative federations comprising all the groups of workers in the same industry; and on the other by the establishment of a federation of communes….The corporative federations will unite all the workers in the same industry; they will no longer unite to protect their wages and working conditions against the onslaughts of their employers, but primarily to guarantee mutual use of the tools of production which are the property of each of these groups and which will by a reciprocal contract become the collective property of the whole corporative federation. In this way, the federation of groups will be able to exercise constant control over production, and regulate the rate of production to meet the fluctuating consumer needs of society….The statistics of production, coordinated by the statistical bureaus of every a rational manner of the hours of labor, the cost price of products and their exchange value, and the quantities in which these products should be produced to meet the needs of consumers. (Dolgoff, pp. 376-377)

A Limited Form of Communism

In his essay, “Must We Apply Ourselves with an Examination of the Ideal of a Future System?”, Peter Kropotkin pointed out that the anarcho-collectivism advocated by Bakunin, Guillaume, and the anarchists in the First International, was actually a variety of anarchist communism, but “in an altered and limited form” (Miller, p. 59). The anarcho-collectivists felt that full communism, ie. the free distribution of all goods and services, would have to wait until the economy had been reorganized and the scarcity artificially created by the capitalist market had been overcome. Until then much of production would be according to the principle of “to each workplace according to their product.” This is not the same as the state collectivists who argued for “to each worker according to their work,” and called for elaborate schemes of income hierarchy. The worst that can be said about the anarcho- collectivists, is that they were willing to tolerate income differences at various workplaces for the sake of giving each collective the autonomy to decide for themselves. This was, however, not their ideal. Even for the transition period, the anarcho-collectivist principle was income equality for all working in the same collective.

Do not the manager’s superior training and greater responsibilities entitle him to more pay and privileges than manual workers? Is not administrative work just as necessary to production as is manual labor – if not more so? Of course, production would be badly crippled, if not altogether suspended, without efficient and intelligent management. But from the standpoint of elementary justice and even efficiency, the management of production need not be exclusively monopolized by one or several individuals. And the managers are not at all entitled to more pay… (Bakunin, quoted in Dolgoff, p. 424)

A much more serious problem for collectivism is the inequality which would inevitably arise between workers due to the exchange of products. The collectivists sought to ameliorate this to a certain extent by giving the investment arm of the communes, the Banks of Exchange, a more activist role in economic planning, and by putting an income floor under all workers by providing free housing, food, and public services. However, this creates further possible sources of inequality, since the communal service workers are supposed to work in return for meeting all their needs regardless of their productivity. Thus a possible source of conflict arises between a communist service sector and an exchange-based production sector. If the production goes well, the communal workers may resent the higher incomes gained by the production workers. If production goes poorly, the production workers may resent the income security of the service workers.

For the collectivists these problems were seen as minor, if recognized at all. Guillaume, for instance, assumed that the material abundance developed during the transitional period would bring about a blossoming of morality, which would soon make the exchange economy irrelevant. Unfortunately, this begs the question, since he did not bother to define what “abundance” is and how we are to know when we have achieved it. We can safely predict that in any future economy there is virtually no limit to human desires for material goods, while there will always be limits to what society and the ecology are able to provide without causing a breakdown. “Abundance” means different things to different people. The danger is that by leaving this point of development undefined, those who may be the economic”winners” of the transitional period, may be unwilling to make the next step.

The Collectivist Legacy

The main contribution of the collectivists to anarchist economics was their attempt to anticipate many of the problems which would be encountered during the revolutionary transition from capitalism to stateless communism, and their emphasis on the need for finding a balance between ultimate goals and day-to-day realities. These methods contributed enormously to the early successes of the 1936 revolution in Spain, where the anarchist movement retained a strong collectivist tradition. The specific proposals made by Guillaume and others, while useful as an example of applying anarchist principles to existing conditions, have lost most of their relevance. We do not live in 19th century europe nor 1930s Spain, but in a high-tech economy threatened by environmental exhaustion. In most industries, technology has developed well beyond the point needed for “abundance” in 19th century terms. This makes the question of defining the minimum level of abundance all the more important for modern anarchists, as well as the more practical problem of how to go beyond a crude exchange economy during the transition.


Bakunin, M. Obras Completas , Volume III. Translated by Santillan, Buenos Aires, 1926.

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

Dolgoff, Sam. Bakunin on Anarchism. Black Rose Books, Montreal, 1980.

Guerin, Daniel. Anarchism. Monthly Review Press, 1970.

Guillaume, James. L’Internationale : Documents et Souvenirs (1864 – 1878) . Paris, 1905. 4 volumes.

Jackson,J. Marx, Proudhon and European Socialism. Collier, New York, 1966.

Maximoff, G.P. Constructive Anarchism. Chicago, 1952.

Miller, Martin A. Selected Writings on Anarchism and Revolution: P.A. Kropotkin. M.I.T. Press, 1970.

(I would like to thank Nan DiBello for her assistance with this article.)

Market Anarchism? Caveat Emptor!

In A Structured Anarchism, John Griffin argues that an anarchist communist society, while a desirable goal in the distant future, is not practical in the short-term. This is because 1) people accustomed to a capitalist society aren’t culturally prepared for it, and 2) the modern economy is too complicated to organize without the “self-regulation” of a market system. Therefore Griffin calls for a series of short term compromises to be made with classical liberal economics, and dubs this “collectivist anarchism.”

Griffin, unfortunately, doesn’t understand collectivism nor economics in general. He manages to garble and lump together the views of Proudhon, Bakunin, and Malatesta. Bakunin was the only collectivist of the three. Proudhon was a mutualist and Malatesta, an anarchist communist. Besides mistakenly lumping them all as “collectivists,” Griffin makes an even bigger error by equating collectivism with “market anarchism.” Collectivism, however, was not based on a market economy, but on a federally coordinated system of “honest exchange” of products at their labor cost. In a market system the prices of products are determined according to their relative scarcity (ie. the “law of supply and demand”). These are not the same thing. Time and again, whether on the issue of markets or money, Griffin proves he is in no position to lecture other anarchists about their shaky grasp of economics. For instance, on page 22 he writes, “The extraction of large amounts of unearned income by the capitalists is a source of inflation, since too much money is generated to buy the available goods, thus encouraging price rises. Any inflation in a collectivist [sic] economy will not be aggravated by this spurious money growth, since those who operate it are remunerated only for work done.”

The extraction of value by the capitalist out of the workers’ gross product has nothing whatsoever to do with the money supply, since the capitalist does not print his/her own money. (In effect, Griffin is saying that a robber creates money when he steals your purse.) If what Griffin was saying were true, the history of capitalism would be one long inflationary spiral, without periodic economic depressions. On the contrary, capitalism, if not interfered with by the state, tends towards economic depressions (which cause deflation), since its constant drive to reduce workers to low wages and unemployment has a depressive effect.

In reality, the individual capitalist has very little control over the money supply, which is a source of constant consternation to the pro-laissez faire monetarists, like Hayek and Milton Friedman, so oddly respected by Griffin (p.23). The monetarists, however, do not suggest that the money supply be set according to what has been produced, since according to them only the market can determine the “true” value of these products anyway. What the monetarists argue is that the state should increase the money supply at a constant rate, so the capitalists can plan ahead without having to worry about whether the state economic planners will overreact to some minor market “adjustment.” According to classical laissez faire theory, business cycles are inevitable and the market eventually corrects itself. As for the effects these cycles have on working people and the poor in the meantime, Hayek and Friedman could bloody well care less. We should not forget the role of the “Chicago Boys” (a group of Friedman’s disciples) in running the economy of the ruthless Pinochet regime in Chile. Griffin should freely choose his mentors more carefully.

The state has always played a key role in the capitalist market and monetary systems. First its role was as a defender of private property, strike breaker of last resort, and as a foundation of a (somewhat) stable currency. More recently it has acted as a “pump primer,” business subsidizer, and money lender of the last resort. The so-called “Keynesian revolution” in capitalist economics was not the beginning of the state’s role in the economy, just an attempt to better play that role in hopes of making a more smooth running system and to stave off its collapse. Griffin himself admits that “the manipulation of the market by both the State and the Capitalists make the so-called ‘free market’ unfree.” (p.24)

Yet by making this admission, Griffin has inadvertently undermined one of his own arguments. On the one hand he attacks the anarchist communist position because “it lacks empirical justification from modern technological societies: it is not enough in my view to dwell on its great ethical strength, and gloss over organizational problems.” (p.24) But on the other, he doesn’t hold his own doctrine up to the same standard. It may be true that the market system “works” (perhaps in the since that the inhabitants of Europe and North America haven’t all starved to death so far), but as he admits it is not a “free market,” and thus cannot be used to accurately predict what might happen in an anarchist version. What of the many problems which would result when the state no longer plays even its “limited” role in the laissez faire sense? Who, for instance, would issue money in his anarcho-market economy and guarantee its value? Although Griffin cites Malatesta to back-up his claim for the necessity of money during the transition towards an anarchist economy, he apparently missed the Malatesta’s admonition that “one should seek a way to ensure that money truly represents the useful work by its possessors…” (Malatesta: Life and Ideas, edited by Richards, p. 101). Griffin, in spite of his enthusiasm for money, doesn’t address this problem.

Unlike the anarchist communists, what Griffin lacks in empirical evidence and practical concern for organizational problems, he can not make up for with “ethical strength.” For in his conciliatory approach towards market economics, he is prepared to sacrifice even the most basic anarchist principles, including the abolition of wage slavery and an end to the private ownership of the means of production: “I think we have to face up to the fact that if some people want to be employed and others want to employ them, then wage labor will continue. Recourse to coercion by anarchists not involved should in my view be regarded as a ‘cure’ which is worse than the disease. As long as libertarian cultures constitute the dominant socializing force, I do not think that the presence of small scale capitalist enterprises is very important.” (p.30)

Perhaps Griffin does not understand the implications of what he has written. We are not talking about economic individualism, self-employment or family businesses (which as long as they don’t employ non-family members, are not capitalist). The only reason workers want to be employed by capitalists is because they have no other means for making a living, no access to the means of production other than by selling themselves. For a capitalist sector to exist there must be some form of private ownership of productive resources, and a scarcity of alternatives. The workers must be in a condition of economic desperation for them to be willing to give up an equal voice in the management of their daily affairs and accept a boss. Wage labor would not be tolerated in an anarchist society anymore than extortion or blackmail, no matter how much the perpetrator might claim the victims “asked for it.” It would not take any “coercion” to get rid of wage labor either, as long as the condition for possession of any productive property is that all workers be given an equal voice in management. If not, the facility in question is given to some other group that will run things democratically.

To the extent that A Structured Anarchism was meant to stir controversy, it has succeeded. If it was meant to lay the foundation for a more practical anarchist economic alternative, it is a botched attempt. Griffin’s “collectivism” might more accurately be described as watered-down mutualism mixed with laissez faire liberal ideology.

–Jeff Stein