We are the 99%

by Jon Bekken, ASR 57

We are, or so the boss press insists, in the midst of an economic “recovery” that began in July 2009, ending the 19-month American recession. Unemployment rates are now down to “just” 8.5 percent (a figure that does not include millions who have given up looking for work, or been forced to settle for part-time jobs). At current rates of job growth, we’ll all be back to work in another 15 years or so.

When hard times hit, the bosses always demand that working people bear the costs of economic policies we had no hand in shaping. Nothing is different this time around. Continue reading

2011: Year of Rebellion

Editorials, ASR 57

The past year will probably go down in history as one of the most rebellious years ever.

It started out with young street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, in Tunisia immolating himself on December 17, 2010, to protest police harassment interfering with his efforts to earn a living.

That sacrificial fire ignited a blaze that swept the Arab world. First, the Ben Ali regime fell in Tunisia; then, the 18-day occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo by hundreds of thousands of Egyptians and a massive strike wave that swept the country brought down the Mubarak dictatorship. The rebellion in Libya was met by massive state repression but was rescued by the intervention of Nato, whose  “humanitarian” bombing campaign helped to bring down Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi while similar repression in U.S.-allies,Yemen and Bharain was allowed to continue. State violence in Syria continues to keep the Assad regime in power, making another “humanitarian” intervention a possibility. Continue reading

The economics of anarchism

by Iain McKay, ASR 53 (2010)

This article is based on a talk give at the Radical Routes Conference, “Practical Economics: Radical alternatives to a failed economic system,” held on May 23, 2009.

To quote someone who sums up the intellectual times in which we live, Sarah Palin: “Now is not the time to experiment with socialism.” This, during the worse crisis since the 1930s! Anarchists would say that is precisely the time – but only as long as we are talking about libertarian socialism!

Capitalism in crisis (again!), and the failure of state socialism could not be more clear. Social democracy has become neo-liberal (New Labour? New Thatcherites!) while this year also marks the 20th anniversary of the collapse of Stalinism in Eastern Europe. With its state capitalism and party dictatorship, Stalinism made the disease (capitalism) more appealing than the cure (socialism)! In this anarchists should be feel vindicated – the likes of Bakunin predicted both these outcomes decades before they became reality. Continue reading

100 years of anarcho-syndicalism in Spain

by CNT,  translated by Pat Murtagh, ASR 53 (2010)

On November 1, 1910, in Barcelona’s Círculo de Bellas Artes, the CNT (National Confederation of Labor) was constituted. This organization, heir to the Spanish region of the 1st International (1870), was born from within the labor movement itself as the first independent trade union in this country.

Assuming the international slogan “the emancipation of the workers will be the work of the workers themselves, or it will not be,” the CNT made itself the repository of that popular rebellion which, like a subterranean stream, opposed power over the length of time, to emerge triumphant at specific times, from the Egyptian Middle Kingdom to the French Revolution, the origin of the unique historical processes in which humanity obviously advanced along the path of freedom, justice, equality, dignity and progress. Continue reading

The Zombie Stomp

ASR 53 (2010)

The economists are nearly unanimous in proclaiming that the U.S. recession has ended, and the economy is now expanding. Ordinary people disagree, but that’s because we look at the question entirely the wrong way. We ask how well the economy is meeting our needs, when we should be asking how well it’s doing at enriching our bosses. That, after all, is the fundamental purpose of a capitalist economy.

And from that vantage point, the infusion of trillions of dollars of society’s hard-built wealth has successfully revived the zombies. The Dow Jones average has been promenading around 10,000 for months, Continue reading

Principles of Libertarian Economics: Part I

Libertarian Labor Review 14 (1992-93)

by Abraham Guillen (translated by Jeff Stein)

Introduction: As part of our continuing efforts to present anarchist economic theory, we offer this translation from Abraham Guillen’s book, Economia Libertaria. The author of over fifty books and essays, Guillen is probably best known to English readers for his book, Philosophy of the Urban Guerilla (New York, 1973). A veteran of the Spanish Revolution, member of the CNT and FAI, Guillen spent most of his life in exile in South America. He has worked as a journalist and economist in Argentina, Uruguay and Peru. Presently he lives in Madrid, where he teaches at the International Institute for Self-Management and Communal Action, which is part of the Autonomous University of Madrid, Spain.

For U.S. readers some of Guillen’s terms may be confusing. His use of the term “libertarian” should not be confused with the right-wing laissez faire ideas of the so-called “Libertarian Party.” Although he does refer to “markets” as part of a revolutionary society, it is clear from the context that he is speaking of a system of federalist or collectivist exchange of products at their labor value – not of capitalist markets.

We do not necessarily agree with everything Guillen has to say, particularly his assessment of anti-Soviet marxism. We think it is possible to make an economic critique of marxism without giving in to the temptation of ascribing its failures to original sin or the fall from grace. Despite this and other disagreements, we think this a useful contribution to anarcho-syndicalist economics.

This is the first installment of Guillen’s article. The second part will run next issue.

Self-Management, Planning, Federalism

The principles of libertarian economy were put into practice – more by intuition than by design, without grand theories – by the libertarian collectives in Spain during the revolution of 1936-39. Here the “praxis,” more than any “a priori” theory, demonstrated that an economy inspired by federalist principles and self-managed, with a self-managed market, could work well and avoid the central-planning which always leads to the totalitarian, bureaucratic State, owner of each and everything.

In this article, we are not going to introduce all the self-regulating objective economic laws, although the most important of these, the law of labor value, self-regulates the exchange of goods and services at their just value in order to fulfill the others: the law of economic equity; the law of cooperation, between the distinct integrated federations of the libertarian economy; the law of exchange equivalence. In a market liberated from the capitalists and the opprobrious tutelage of the State, they will self-regulate, almost cybernetically, the economic processes of production, exchange, distribution and consumption. I study these laws and social-economic categories more profoundly in my Economia Autogestionara [Self-managed Economics], particularly, and to some extent in my three other books.

We are not going to deal, in this chapter, which is really an introduction to self-managed economics), with the development of libertarian socialism. Libertarian socialism I define as synonymous with self-managed socialism.

Anarchism and Marxism

From a semantic point of view, libertarian socialism is disposed to unite according to the concept of true socialism (without bureaucracy and with liberty) all well-intentioned socialists. However, the adjective libertarian has an anarchist connotation.

On the other hand the adjective self-managed tends to suggest an even broader front of socialist ideologies, some more bureaucratic than revolutionary, which might be unified, in thought and deed, into a self-managed socialism: the broadest alliance of popular and workers’ struggle, against the technocracies and bureaucracies, both West and East, and against the bourgeois pseudo-democracies of the West.

I would contend that in spite of light shades of ideological differences, the anarchist theory of liberty, federalism and socialism coincides, if not totally then in part, with the best of revolutionary humanism. In this I would include the Marxism thrown away as scrap by the State under the form of “the dictatorship of the proletariat, in the transition from capitalism to socialism,” which showed itself to be in the U.S.S.R. the dictatorship of the Party-State bureaucracy, and was under Stalin just as cruel as nazi-fascist dictators.

So, with the State acting as the revolutionary protagonist, instead of the people self-organized in self-managed enterprises and in libertarian collectives, marxist-leninism leads, not to socialism or even less to communism. Instead it perpetuates, as in the U.S.S.R. and its “satellites,” a capitalism of the State, a worse capitalism, closer to nazi-fascism, than to true socialism.

Marxism, separated from leninism, is a theory of capitalist development, its economic laws and

contradictions. It is thus a continuation of capitalist economics, since without a self-managed socialism all the rest is capitalism or neo-capitalism.

Marx, in Capital, his greatest work, does not say what socialism would be like, only what capitalism is like. This title merits serious study, without satanizing it like many anarchists have done without recognizing that Marx was an investigator of capitalism whose contribution to socialism is very limited. It is for us, those who live in the 20th century, to explain our prodigious, revolutionary and changing century, not by the ideologies of the 19th century which explained very well their own times, but cannot be explanations for us today. And this is not to say, in any manner, that we want to break with the past, since by knowing the past we can understand the present and go with certainty to win a future of peace, prosperity, liberty and equality for all, liberated from the bureaucracies of capitalism and the technocracies risen to State power to exploit Society.

The Libertarian Economy

The libertarian economy, going beyond the marxist-leninist economic doctrine of State capitalism, rejects the State in the name of political and economic liberty. This is because the State protects the capitalists’ private property and the state property of the communist bureaucrats. In this school of thought, Bakunin asserted socialism and liberty at the same time, since he could not conceive that socialism could be less free than the bourgeois democracy described by the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man from the French Revolution of 1789-93. Thus denouncing the political bureaucracy of the “socialists of the cathedral” (the ideologues who spoke like workers, but wanted to govern like bourgeois), Bakunin exclaimed: “Liberty without socialism is privilege and injustice, and socialism without liberty is slavery

and brutality.” (Obras, vol. 1, p. 59)

For the libertarians, blind obedience to the State is an abdication of Society, since the freedom of each individual must not be limited by a ruling class, either by a class whose power is based on private property, as in the bourgeois State, or on State property, as in the despotic, bureaucratic State-both employer and police at the same time. According to libertarian thinkers, the biggest error of all revolutions rests in the absurd politics of demolishing a government in order to put another in its place which could be worse. Consequently the only true social revolution would be that which destroys the principle of authority, replacing it by self-government of the people – without political parties, without a class of professional politicians, without those who arbitrarily command and others who passively obey.

For Kropotkin, laws could be grouped in three categories: those that protect the persons of privilege, those that protect the governments, and those that protect private property, but that, in reality, disprotect the impoverished working people.

In the conventional capitalist mode of production, the bourgeois State is a committee in the service of the capitalists guaranteeing them the private ownership of the means of production and exchange and the realization; without the intervention of labor, of the surplus value usurped from the wage workers, as much in a parliamentary democracy as in a dictatorship, according to the situation. Under the statist mode of production, whose real expression is the soviet model, the State, a monopoly of the totalitarian bureaucracy, imposes state ownership; dictates wage and price policy; is employer, merchant, banker, police, making laws according to the convenience and interests of the totalitarian bureaucracy. In either case, with a conventional capitalist regime or with State capitalism, whether in the West or in the East, the worker remains a wage worker, producer of an economic surplus for the western bourgeoisie or for the eastern bureaucrats. Thus, by changing only one government for another the workers remain oppressed and exploited, in reality, by capitalism, whether private or of the State.

The fact is that the soviet regime perpetuates capitalism, but in another form, with state ownership and bureaucratic State. It should, according to marxist-leninism, but hasn’t, made socialism except semantically – purely in words, not in reality.

Thus, for example, Marx in his main doctrinal work, Capital, exposed the laws of development of capitalism, but not those of socialism; since Capital is a body of economic doctrine mostly about capitalism which contributes no well-defined socio-economic laws of socialism. On the other hand, Lenin, in State and Revolution, contributes no materials for the building of a socialist society, but takes from Marx the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat as a transitional step between capitalism and socialism, in order to apply it to

the soviet model, where, in time, this transition in the form of a dictatorial State becomes the permanent dictatorship of the communist bureaucracy over the wage workers, who are the producers of State surplus value, for the totalitarian “Nomenklatura.” In sum, then, socialism has not been realized anywhere, as such and as intended by the utopian and libertarian socialists of the 19th century, since the soviet model was a new capitalism of the bureaucratic State. But the fact of having prestige has enabled marxist-leninism, to a great extent, to present itself as the economic science, the dialectical philosophy, the sociology of class struggle and its solution, the materialist interpretation of history and the State form necessary for the transition from capitalism to socialism. All this body of doctrine penetrated the universities capturing the minds of many students and professors, the “intelligentsia” above all, in pre-revolutionary Russia, where leninism was established as the active political practice of marxism. In the West, marxism never really reached the workers – neither in its most simplified form, The Communist Manifesto and less still of Capital – but many professors, intellectuals, ideologues adopted Marxism as reformism, “socialism of the cathedral” or an ingredient of social democracy; although in recent times the economic ideal of the “socialists of the cathedral,” of the technocracy and of the bureaucracy, was not Marx but better still Keynes, who contributed the economic theory of a neo-capitalism, more a monopoly of the social-democratic political class or of the labor parties than of the bourgeoisie properly speaking.

The failing welfare-State in the West, squeezed by the abuse of inflation and of exorbitant taxes, and the State-owner in the East of the soviet bureaucracy, were established as an alternative to capitalism, as a “velvet socialism” in the West and as totalitarian communism in the East (which in reality is not communism, but a capitalism of the State: the most total of all dictatorships, without precedent in the ancient and modern world, and which has fallen into chaos from the “perestroika” of Gorbachev to the “catastroika” of Yeltsin).

It is necessary, therefore, to redefine what has semantically called itself socialism and is nothing more than State capitalism, investigating and proposing a libertarian economy, whose laws of development-economic, social, political, cultural, scientific and technological-are enunciated as a replacement and alternative to western welfare Statism and to Soviet State-ownership. For this libertarian socialism needs a little more scientific rigor and a little less utopianism, although it is necessary to take the adjective “scientific” with a grain of salt, as it has been depreciated enough by the soviets. Utopia is beautiful, but it must bring something of economy, of reality, of objectivity to the goal of libertarian socialism for it to be an alternative, at the same time, to western monopoly capitalism and to State capitalism, according to the soviet model.

False Democracy

In our epoch the exhaustion of statist politics emerges; so it is with the social-democratic regimes under the control of the parasitical middle classes (in the west); so it is with the totalitarian bureaucracies of the one-party and State-employer; whether under the welfare-State (in the West), or the total State (in the East) and of failed nazi-fascism, the people have understood that they must organize themselves into industrial democracy (self-managed enterprises) and into federated self-government (direct democracy), overthrowing the economic power of the industrial, mercantile and financial bourgeoisie, and the political power of the radical, social-democratic, christian democratic, socialist and neoliberal petty bourgeoisie who, with their various parties, take turns in Power.

Marxism and Keynesianism have contributed equally to the development of statist economics; so it is with the marxist-leninists and petty bourgeois socialists; so it is with the technocrats and bureaucrats of every type, partisans of managed economies with the goal of controlling the national economies and the organs of the world economy, imperialist or hegemonist, like the IMF, the GATT, the U.N. Security Council, instruments of the “new world order” of ex-president Bush.

But from these techno-bureaucratic experiences, with the proliferation of well-paid functionaries, of UN-ocrats, eurocrats, comeconorats, of central planners of every type, we can deduce that when the parasitic classes are augmented at the expense of productive workers, the poorer are the working people and consumers.

The moment arrives, then, when it is necessary to vindicate the restoration of a self-managed economy, debureaucratized and debourgeoisfied, liberated from both marxist-leninist totalitarianism and bureaucracy, and from western keynesian planning, which was based on the extravagant growth of taxes, monetary inflation, government budgetary deficit and full employment from above for the bureaucrats and technocrats, and maximum unemployment below for the productive workers underneath. An aberrant economy of this kind has to lead to the total failure of the welfare-State as long as it consumes unproductively more than it produces positively, in actuality in agriculture, industry, mining and goods production.

One thing is politically and economically evident in our time; the stronger and richer is the State than the more weak and poor are its subjects. In consequence, it can be seen on the political horizon and in immediate society, as much in the West as in the East, there are two great antagonistic human groups: those that order and those that obey; those that work and live poorly and those who don’t work and live well; the authoritarians, who seek to maintain their privileges, and the libertarians, who defend their rights and essential liberties. Thus we behold from the historical perspective, at the end of the twentieth century and beginning of the twenty-first, the crisis of the USA and the ex-USSR.

In regimes of the soviet-type, in which the State possesses all wealth and all power, it has created two great antagonistic classes, the totalitarian government bureaucracy and the working people forced to submit to a savage capitalism of the State. The dialectic of class struggle in bureaucratic socialist countries, by its essence, is transformed into a struggle between oppressed Society and the State oppressor, having thus an anarchist character, since it is the proletariat, paid by the State-employer, that has to overthrow the power of the totalitarian bureaucracy in order to build an economy based on self-management, de-bureaucratized, functioning through federations in production and social and public services, converging in a National Economic Council.

Since the quantification and accounting of the economy must be done federally, by agreement of all and the parts (without central planning by bureaucrats, according to central and final orders), there comes a moment in which the libertarian economy makes it scientifically possible as the best possible administration of economic matters creating thus the conditions to abolish the State, oppressor and exploiter of men, converting to decentralized self-government. In this manner an economic federalism (production of goods and service) and an administrative federalism – one as the self-management of workplaces; the other as local, regional and national self-government – creates a self-power of direct participation of people organized in their own interest; not requiring, therefore, a political governing class, nor a bourgeoisie nor techno-bureaucracy, managing industry in order to usurp the economic surplus produced by the labor of others without paying, usurping by surplus-value for the bourgeoisie of the State-owner, now failing in Russia and China, but which they want to perpetuate as capitalism pure and hard in the ex-COMECON countries.

The Management of Social Capital

The libertarian economy has to assume the increased reproduction of social capital, in such a way that the development of productive forces will not be inferior to that under private or State capitalism. Only then will anew economic regime be justified, historically, socially and politically, if it creates more well-being, a better standard of living, more production with less manual labor than under the old overthrown regime. To not do this would produce over time the conditions for a counter-revolution as long as humanity can not lose productive forces, without earning them constantly until living labor (human productivity) has enough capital (accumulated past labor) that enables one hour of automated labor to produce more than many hours of simple or rudimentary labor based upon the muscular efforts of man.

Accordingly, as workers’ productivity increases, with everyone working scientifically, it half productive and half educational, with the goal of giving everyone equal time for labor and studies, equal scientific, technical and cultural preparation. In this way, all will be capable of doing all, and with the help of the computer revolution, to abolish the traditional division of labor, so that the revolution is not overcome by classes or social estates from dividing labor into manual or intellectual.

The self-managed economy, libertarian in the greatest sense of the word, will have to completely master the basic industries-the creation of new products; the complete utilization of scientific-technological research, bringing it from the universities to the workplaces and institutes; the creation of an agro-industry that will erase the differences in cultural, economic, and technological development between city and country; the constitution of a libertarian society that will balance economics, society, ecology, population and harmonize natural resources and humans, guaranteeing all the right to work, education and leisure; the integral assimilation of the computer revolution in order to liberate (painful) manual labor from material production. Since the automation of labor, plus self-management of social capital at the same time, will create all the technical, economic, cultural and scientific conditions to attain a harmonious society, without social conflicts nor economic contradictions; then self-management plus automation equals libertarian communism.

But prior to attaining the “golden age” of self-government, of equality in education and social conditions for all, where each receives according to their needs and the economic possibilities of society, transcending social hierarchies and the antagonism between wage labor and private or State capital. Prior to this, it will be necessary to transcend political economy as a science of administration of scarce resources and distribution of goods and services according to quantity and quality of labor, abolishing at the same time the division of labor into professions or corporations, by virtue of which some consume more than others, using money and unequal incomes in order to perpetuate the inequality among people.

The spontaneous natural riches, the fruits and wild berries, the water and air to be in reach of all humans, without appropriation, can not be distributed in the mercantile sense of the realization of the law of exchange value since they do not pass in the form of money; price and market-seeking profit, not being the objective of political economy. In libertarian communism, for humanity to attain an economy of abundance a high productivity of automated labor will have to go beyond the laws of exchange value, wages, money, merchandise, unequal incomes, the State (formed in order to impose a unequal division by classes); the political parties and the ideologies peculiar to the political alienation of a competitive society; the division of labor between managers and subordinates.

These can not be economically, politically, socially or culturally transcended, however, by bureaucratic socialism – a neo-bourgeois political economy of usufruct, which is followed by a system of distribution as unequal as capitalism.

The libertarian economy, initially, as happened in Spain during the Revolution of1936-39, the “praxis” set itself problems that had to be the resolved, totally or partially, by bypassing political ideology, creating libertarian collectives, enterprises managed directly by workers without techno-bureaucratic directors; but having to demonstrate by means of self-organized labor that the forces of production would not be wasted. Seeing in practice the human, solidaric and productive labor advantages of the libertarian collectives, the small private property owners associated with them voluntarily. On the other hand, Stalin decreed the forced collectivization of the land into kolkhozes [co-operatives] and sovkhozes [state farms], repressing those peasants who did not want to join them except by pressure of the political police.

The good from the moment it is forced … is converted into evil. Liberty, morality, human dignity, consists precisely in that man does good, not because he is ordered to do it, but because he conceived it, desired it, and loved it. (Bakunin, Obras, Volume 1, p. 280).

In reality, people are neither good nor evil, but products of the societies where they live, conditioned by their economic, political, social, and cultural circumstances. Thus in societies where private or state property holds sway, each individual appears as an enemy of the other, competing with the other, oppressed by the other, limited by the other in rights and duties.

The causes of injustice, in the socio-economic sense, do not reside so much in human conscience as in the inhuman essence of societies of conflicting classes and in the State which perpetuates them throughout history, as if humanity was incapable of overcoming the prehistory of unjust society, with even less equality than primitive society from the paleolithic to the neolithic.

An economist so little suspected of being an anarchist as Adam Smith, but a sincere intellectual and friend of the truth concerning social injustice between people, having as a principal cause the governments of class, said:

Civil government … is in reality established for the defense of those who possess something against those others who possess nothing. The International Workers Association (AIT), in the past century, was more clear about the emancipation of working people than all the later internationals where the union bureaucracies, politicians, and technocrats, allies of each other, had corrupted communist and socialist ideals; whether this corruption was, by favoring the welfare-State, more Keynesian than marxist, in the West, or the totalitarian State, the administrative socialism in the East, which produced plenty of armaments but failed to produce food.

“The three great causes of human immorality are: inequality as much political as economic and social; ignorance, that is the natural result of the former; and, finally, the necessary consequence of both, that is slavery.” (Program of the AIT).

The deeds of the political parties, of the so-called left, and the labor union organizations, with the development of monopoly capitalism (West) and with administrative socialism, East having fallen into the hands of political and union bureaucracies and into those of technocrats, with the words of the left and the deeds of the right – has been to confound, in our epoch, all the values of the popular revolutionary struggle, making the communist and socialist parties, and their union organizations, into transmission belts for the interests of the petty-bourgeoisie of the left which, by the means of political power, aspires to become a “new bourgeoisie.” Thus they adulate the workers, promoting to them a “socialist paradise,” in order to sacrifice them to the capitalist inferno – so it is whether under the laborist or social-democratic model, or under soviet totalitarianism.

To Be Continued

Another Military Adventure

Editorial, ASR 63 (2015)

Once again the U.S. government has begun a military campaign in a middle eastern country to end “terrorism.” Thousands will be killed with explosives, made homeless and destitute, and the region left in turmoil and even more deeply in the hands of religious fanatics.

This time the battlefield is Syria, but it is a long war, begun sixty years ago when the CIA toppled the elected leader of Iran and installed the Shah. The Shah’s secret police murdered and tortured for a quarter century, until finally his dictatorship was overthrown by a revolution usurped by religious factions before democracy could be restored. The U.S. has been involved in wars throughout the middle east ever since, first supporting Saddam Hussein in Iraq and encouraging him to attack Iran, then toppling him a decade later by invading Iraq.

The U.S. supported Al-Qaeda when it fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, then had to hunt down its own Frankenstein’s Monster after that monster turned on its creator with the World Trade Center attack. Reagan invaded Lebanon supposedly to bring stability, but had to pull out after the Marine barracks was destroyed by a suicide bomber. Obama helped Libyan rebels overthrow Qadafi with weapons and air attacks, not unlike what he proposes to do in Syria, but it would be foolish to expect any other outcome than what happened in Libya. Assad may fall, some ISIS leaders will be killed, but another country will be left in a state of permanent civil war.

Anarcho-syndicalists have no sympathy for Assad, a hereditary dictator who is only too willing to kill those who oppose his regime. Neither do we see the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS) as anything more than a violent criminal enterprise, playing on religion to gain followers and extort money from people living in that region. However, this new military adventure is not about ending terrorism, it is about protecting the oil fields of Iraq for U.S. corporate interests and creating another economic windfall for the military contractors and arms dealers.

President Obama wanted to attack Syria over a year ago to help overthrow Assad, but anti-war sentiment was too great. It was not until Syrian rebels calling themselves ISIS began attacks in Iraq, and threatened the oil fields there, that the corporate media discovered a “terrorist threat” and began running atrocity stories and the Obama regime finally got its war.

Whatever progress liberals and the left hoped to see from President Obama will be sacrificed to a renewed war on terror. President Obama has been compared by some to President Franklin Roosevelt, who had to change course from being “Dr. New Deal to Dr. Win the War” to defeat the Nazis. Unfortunately, Obama has been more “Dr. No Deal” than “Dr. New Deal.” This Syrian military adventure will only make matters worse. Under Presidents Bush and Obama, working families saw almost $5 trillion of their savings and assets transferred to the wealthy Wall Street swindlers who caused the largest financial meltdown in history.

Nothing has changed by trading Obama for Bush: No reinstatement of New Deal banking rules that would have prevented this disaster. No bailout for home-owners who were left to pick up the tab. By launching this military adventure, it is assured that as long as it continues we will hear the sad refrain whenever we demand something from the government, “We Are Too Broke!”

The only way to stop these oil wars is to ignore the claims of the war mongers and continue fighting to improve the lot of working people in our own country, and do everything we can to keep our children and fellow workers from joining the imperial armies of the energy barons.

From the Bottom Up: The First International and the Emergence of European Anarchist Movements

by Robert Graham, ASR 63 (2015)

Robert Graham is the editor of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, a three-volume anthology of anarchist writings from ancient China to the present day. He is currently working on a history of the emergence of European anarchist movements from out of the First International.

September 2014 marked the 150th anniversary of the founding of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWMA – in the Romance languages, the AIT – now commonly referred to as the First International). While much is often made of the dispute between Marx and Bakunin within the International, resulting in Bakunin’s expulsion in 1872, more important from an anarchist perspective is how anarchism as a distinct revolutionary movement emerged from the debates and conflicts within the International, not as the result of a personal conflict between Marx and Bakunin, but because of conflicting ideas regarding working class liberation.

Many members of the International, particularly in Italy, Spain and French-speaking Switzerland, but also in Belgium and France, took to heart the statement in the International’s Preamble that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the workers themselves. They envisioned the International as a fighting organization for the daily struggle of the workers against the capitalists for better working conditions, but also looked to the International as a federation of workers across national borders that would provide the impetus for revolutionary change and the creation of a post-revolutionary socialist society based on workers’ self-management and voluntary federation. It was from out of these elements in the International that the first European anarchist movements arose.

When the International was founded in September 1864 by French and British trade unionists, any anarchist tendencies were then very weak. The French delegates at the founding of the First International regarded themselves as “mutualists,” moderate followers of Proudhon, not anarchist revolutionaries. They supported free credit, workers’ control, small property holdings and equivalent exchange of products by the producers themselves. They wanted the International to become a mutualist organization that would pool the financial resources of European workers to provide free credit for the creation of a system of producer and consumer cooperatives that would ultimately displace the capitalist economic system.

The first full congress of the International was not held until September 1866, in Geneva, Switzerland, with delegates from England, France, Germany and Switzerland. Although the French delegates did not call for the immediate abolition of the state, partly because such radical talk would only result in the International being banned in France, then under the dictatorship of Napoleon III, they did express their rejection of the state as a “superior authority” that would think, direct and act in the name of all, stifling initiative. They shared Proudhon’s view that social, economic and political relations should be based on contracts providing reciprocal benefits, thereby preserving the independence and equality of the contracting parties. The French delegates distinguished this “mutualist federalism” from a communist government that would rule over society, regulating all social and economic functions.

At the next Congress of the International in Laussane, Switzerland, in September 1867, César De Paepe, one of the most influential Belgian delegates, debated the more conservative French mutualists on the collectivization of land, which he supported, arguing that if large industrial and commercial enterprises, such as railways, canals, mines and public services, should be considered collective property to be managed by companies of workers, as the mutualists agreed, then so should the land. The peasant and farmer, as much as the worker, should be entitled to the fruits of their labor, without part of that product being appropriated by either the capitalists or the landowners. De Paepe argued that this “collectivism” was consistent with Proudhon’s “mutualist program,” which demanded “that the whole product of labor shall belong to the producer.” However, it was not until the next congress in Brussels in September 1868 that a majority of delegates adopted a collectivist position that included land as well as industry.

At the Brussels Congress, De Paepe also argued that the workers’ “societies of resistance” and unions, through which they organized and coordinated their strike and other activities, constituted the “embryo” of those “great companies of workers” that would replace the “companies of the capitalists” by eventually taking control of collective enterprises. For, according to De Paepe, the purpose of unions and strike activity was not merely to improve existing working conditions but to abolish wage labor. This could not be accomplished in one country alone, but required a federation of workers in all countries, who would replace the capitalist system with the “universal organization of work and exchange.” Here we have the first public expression within the International of the basic tenets of revolutionary and anarchist syndicalism: that through their own union organizations, by which the workers waged their daily struggles against the capitalists, the workers were creating the very organizations through which they would bring about the social revolution and reconstitute society, replacing capitalist exploitation with workers’ self-management.

After the Brussels Congress, Bakunin and his associates applied for their group, the Alliance of Socialist Democracy, to be admitted into the International. The Alliance stood for “atheism, the abolition of cults and the replacement of faith by science, and divine by human justice.” The Alliance supported the collectivist position adopted at the Brussels Congress, seeking to transform “the land, the instruments of work and all other capital” into “the collective property of the whole of society,” to be “utilized only by the workers,” through their own “agricultural and industrial associations.”

In Bakunin’s contemporaneous program for an “International Brotherhood” of revolutionaries, he denounced the Blanquists and other like-minded revolutionaries who dreamt of “a powerfully centralized revolutionary state,” for such “would inevitably result in military dictatorship and a new master,” condemning the masses “to slavery and exploitation by a new pseudo-revolutionary aristocracy.” In contrast, Bakunin and his associates did “not fear anarchy, we invoke it.” Bakunin envisaged the “popular revolution” being organized

from the bottom up, from the circumference to the center, in accordance with the principle of liberty, and not from the top down or from the center to the circumference in the manner of all authority.

In the lead-up to the Basel Congress of the International in September 1869, Bakunin put forward the notion of the general strike as a means of revolutionary social transformation, observing that when “strikes spread out from one place to another, they come very close to turning into a general strike,” which could “result only in a great cataclysm which forces society to shed its old skin.” He also supported, as did the French Internationalists, the creation of

as many cooperatives for consumption, mutual credit, and production as we can, everywhere, for though they may be unable to emancipate us in earnest under present economic conditions, they prepare the precious seeds for the organization of the future, and through them the workers become accustomed to handling their own affairs.

Bakunin argued that the program of the International must “inevitably result in the abolition of classes (and hence of the bourgeoisie, which is the dominant class today), the abolition of all territorial States and political fatherlands, and the foundation, upon their ruins, of the great international federation of all national and local productive groups.” Bakunin was giving a more explicitly anarchist slant to the idea, first broached by De Paepe at the Brussels Congress, and then endorsed at the Basel Congress in September 1869, that it was through the International, conceived as a federation of trade unions and workers’ cooperatives, that capitalism would be abolished and replaced by a free federation of productive associations.

Jean-Louis Pindy, a delegate from the carpenters’ Chambre syndicale in Paris, expressed the views of many of the Internationalists at the Basel Congress when he argued that the means adopted by the unions must be shaped by the ends which they hoped to achieve. He saw the goal of the International as being the replacement of capitalism and the state with “councils of the trades bodies, and by a committee of their respective delegates, overseeing the labor relations which are to take the place of politics,” so that “wage slavery may be replaced by the free federation of free producers.” The Belgian Internationalists, such as De Paepe and Eugène Hins, put forward much the same position, with Hins looking to the International to create “the organization of free exchange, operating through a vast section of labor from one end of the world to another,” that would replace “the old political systems” with industrial organization – an idea which can be traced back to Proudhon, but which was now being given a more revolutionary emphasis.

The Basel Congress therefore declared that “all workers should strive to establish associations for resistance in their various trades,” forming an international alliance so that “the present wage system may be replaced by the federation of free producers.” This was the high water mark of the federalist, anti-authoritarian currents in the First International, and it was achieved at its most representative congress, with delegates from England, France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy and Spain.

Bakunin attended the Congress, drawing out the anarchist implications of this position. He argued that because the state provided “the sanction and guarantee of the means by which a small number of men appropriate to themselves the product of the work of all the others,” the political, juridical, national and territorial state must be abolished. Bakunin emphasized the role of the state in creating and perpetuating class privilege and exploitation, arguing that “if some individuals in present-day society do acquire… great sums, it is not by their labor that they do so but by their privilege, that is, by a juridically legalized injustice.”

Bakunin expressed his antipathy, shared by other members of the International, to revolution from above through a coercive state apparatus. With respect to peasant small-holders, he argued that “if we tried to expropriate these millions of small farmers by decree after proclaiming the social liquidation, we would inevitably cast them into reaction, and we would have to use force against them to submit to the revolution.” Better to “carry out the social liquidation at the same time that you proclaim the political and juridical liquidation of the State,” such that the peasants will be left only with “possession de facto” of their land. Once “deprived of all legal sanction,” no longer being “shielded under the State’s powerful protection,” these small holdings “will be transformed easily under the pressure of revolutionary events and forces” into collective property.

The Basel Congress was the last truly representative congress of the International. The Franco-Prussian War in 1870 and the Paris Commune in 1871 made it difficult to hold a congress, while the Hague Congress of 1872 was stacked by Marx and Engels with delegates with dubious credentials. One must therefore look at the activities of the various International sections themselves between 1869 and 1872 to see how the anti-authoritarian, revolutionary collectivist currents in the International eventually coalesced into a European anarchist movement.

In France, Eugène Varlin, one of the International’s outstanding militants, described the position adopted “almost unanimously” by the delegates at the Basel Congress as “collectivism, or non-authoritarian communism.” Varlin expressed the views of many of the French Internationalists when he wrote that the workers’ own organizations, the trade unions and societies of resistance and solidarity, “form the natural elements of the social structure of the future.” By March 1870, he was writing that short

of placing everything in the hands of a highly centralized, authoritarian state which would set up a hierarchic structure from top to bottom of the labor process… we must admit that the only alternative is for the workers themselves to have the free disposition and possession of the tools of production… through cooperative associations in various forms.

The revolutionary syndicalist ideas of the Belgians and Bakunin’s more explicitly anarchist views were also being spread in Spain. Echoing De Paepe’s comments from the Brussels Congress, the Spanish Internationalists described the International as containing “within itself the seeds of social regeneration… it holds the embryo of all future institutions.” They founded the Federación Regional Española (FRE – Spanish Regional Federation) in June 1870, which took an anarchist position. One of its militants, Rafael Farga Pellicer, declared that: “We want the end to the domination of capital, the state, and the church. Upon their ruins we will construct anarchy, and the free federation of free associations of workers.” In addition, the FRE adopted a form of organization based on anarchist principles.1

In French-speaking Switzerland, as a result of a split between the reformist minority supported by Marx and the anti-authoritarian collectivist majority allied with Bakunin, the Jura Federation was created in 1870. The Jura Federation adopted an anarchist stance, declaring that “all participation of the working class in the politics of bourgeois governments can result only in the consolidation and perpetuation of the existing order.”

On the eve of the Franco-Prussian War during the summer of 1870, the French Internationalists took an anti-war stance, arguing that the war could only be a “fratricidal war” that would divide the working class, leading to “the complete triumph of despotism.” The Belgian Internationalists issued similar declarations, denouncing the war as a war of “the despots against the people,” and calling on workers to respond with a “war of the people against the despots.”

This was a theme that Bakunin was soon to expand upon in his Letters to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis, published in September 1870. Although many of the French Internationalists abandoned their anti-war stance, Bakunin argued that revolutionaries should seek to transform the war into a country-wide insurrection that would then spread the social revolution across Europe. With the French state in virtual collapse, it was time for the “people armed” to seize the means of production and overthrow their oppressors, whether the French bourgeoisie or the German invaders.

For the social revolution to succeed, Bakunin argued that it was essential that the peasants and workers band together, despite the mutual distrust between them. The peasants should be encouraged to “take the land and throw out those landlords who live by the labor of others,” and “to destroy, by direct action, every political, juridical, civil, and military institution,” establishing “anarchy through the whole countryside.” A social revolution in France, rejecting “all official organization” and “government centralization,” would lead to “the social emancipation of the proletariat” throughout Europe.

Shortly after completing his Letters, Bakunin tried to put his ideas into practice, traveling to Lyon, where he met up with some other Internationalists and revolutionaries. Bakunin and his associates issued a proclamation announcing the abolition of the “administrative and governmental machine of the State,” the replacement of the judicial apparatus by “the justice of the people,” the suspension of taxes and mortgages, with “the federated communes” to be funded by a levy on “the rich classes,” and ending with a call to arms. Bakunin and his confederates briefly took over City Hall, but eventually the National Guard recaptured it and Bakunin was arrested. He was freed by a small group of his associates and made his way to Marseilles, eventually returning to Switzerland. A week after Bakunin left Marseilles, there was an attempt to establish a revolutionary commune there and, at the end of October, in Paris.2

In Paris, the more radical Internationalists did not take an explicitly anarchist position, calling instead for the creation of a “Workers’ and Peasants’ Republic.” But this “republic” was to be none other than a “federation of socialist communes,” with “the land to go to the peasant who cultivates it, the mine to go to the miner who exploits it, the factory to go to the worker who makes it prosper,” a position very close to that of Bakunin and his associates.

After the proclamation of the Paris Commune on March 18, 1871, the Parisian Internationalists played a prominent role. On March 23, 1871, they issued a wall poster declaring the “principle of authority” as “incapable of re-establishing order in the streets or of getting factory work going again.” For them, “this incapacity constitutes [authority’s] negation.” They were confident that the people of Paris would “remember that the principle that governs groups and associations is the same as that which should govern society,” namely the principle of free federation.

The Communes’ program, mostly written by Pierre Denis, a Proudhonist member of the International, called for the “permanent intervention of citizens in communal affairs” and elections with “permanent right of control and revocation” as well as the “total autonomy of the Commune extended to every township in France,” with the “Commune’s autonomy to be restricted only by the right to an equal autonomy for all the other communes.” The Communards assured the people of France that the “political unity which Paris strives for is the voluntary union of all local initiative, the free and spontaneous cooperation of all individual energies towards a common goal: the well-being, freedom and security of all.” The Commune was to mark “the end of the old governmental and clerical world; of militarism, bureaucracy, exploitation, speculation, monopolies and privilege that have kept the proletariat in servitude and led the nation to disaster.”

For the federalist Internationalists, this did not mean state ownership of the economy, but collective or social ownership of the means of production, with the associated workers themselves running their own enterprises. As the Typographical Workers put it, the workers shall “abolish monopolies and employers through adoption of a system of workers’ cooperative associations. There will be no more exploiters and no more exploited.”

The social revolution was pushed forward by female Internationalists and radicals, such as Nathalie Lemel and Louise Michel. They belonged to the Association of Women for the Defence of Paris and Aid to the Wounded, which issued a declaration demanding “No more bosses. Work and security for all – The People to govern themselves – We want the Commune; we want to live in freedom or to die fighting for it!” They argued that the Commune should “consider all legitimate grievances of any section of the population without discrimination of sex, such discrimination having been made and enforced as a means of maintaining the privileges of the ruling classes.”

Nevertheless, the Internationalists were a minority within the Commune, and not all of them supported the socialist federalism espoused in varying degrees by Varlin, Pindy and the more militant Proudhonists. The federalist and anti-authoritarian Internationalists felt that the Commune represented “above all a social revolution,” not merely a change of rulers. They agreed with the Proudhonist journalist A. Vermorel that “there must not be a simple substitution of workers in the places occupied previously by bourgeois. … The entire governmental structure must be overthrown.”3

The Commune was savagely repressed by French state forces, with the connivance of the Prussians, leading to wholesale massacres that claimed the lives of some 30,000 Parisians, including leading Internationalists like Varlin, and the imprisonment and deportation of many others, including Nathalie Lemel and Louise Michel. A handful of Internationalists, including Pindy, went into hiding and eventually escaped to Switzerland.

For Bakunin, what made the Commune important was “not really the weak experiments which it had the power and time to make,” but

the ideas it has set in motion, the living light it has cast on the true nature and goal of revolution, the hopes it has raised, and the powerful stir it has produced among the popular masses everywhere, and especially in Italy, where the popular awakening dates from that insurrection, whose main feature was the revolt of the Commune and the workers’ associations against the State.

Bakunin’s defense of the Commune against the attacks of the veteran Italian revolutionary patriot Guiseppe Mazzini played an important role in the “popular awakening” in Italy, and the rapid spread of the International there, from which the Italian anarchist movement sprang.

The defeat of the Paris Commune led Marx and Engels to draw much different conclusions. For them, the defeat demonstrated the necessity for working class political parties whose purpose would be the “conquest of political power.” They rammed through the adoption of their position at the September 1871 London Conference of the International, and took further steps to force out of the International any groups with anarchist leanings, which by this time included almost all of the Italians and Spaniards, the Jura Federation, many of the Belgians and a significant proportion of the surviving French members of the International.

In response, the Jura Federation organized a congress in Sonvillier, Switzerland, in November 1871. Prominent Communards and other French refugees also attended. They issued a Circular to the other members of the International denouncing the General Council’s actions, taking the position that the International, “as the embryo of the human society of the future, is required in the here and now to faithfully mirror our principles of freedom and federation and shun any principle leaning towards authority and dictatorship,” which was much the same position as had been endorsed by a majority of the delegates to the 1869 Basel Congress.

The Belgian, Italian and Spanish Internationalists supported the Jura Federation’s position, with the Italian and Spanish Internationalists adopting explicitly anarchist positions. Even before the London Conference, the Spanish Internationalists had declared themselves in favor of “collective property, anarchy and economic federation,” by which they meant “the free universal federation of free agricultural and industrial workers’ associations.” The Italian Internationalists rejected participation in existing political systems and in August 1872 called on the federalist and anti-authoritarian sections of the International to boycott the upcoming Hague Congress and to hold a congress of their own. Marx and Engels manipulated the composition of the Hague Congress to ensure a majority that would affirm the London Conference resolution on political action, expel Bakunin and his associate James Guillaume of the Jura Federation from the International, and transfer the General Council to New York to prevent the anti-authoritarians from challenging their control.

Barely a week after the Hague Congress in September 1872, the anti-authoritarians held their own congress in St. Imier where they reconstituted the International along federalist lines. The St. Imier Congress was attended by delegates from Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland and Russia. For them, “the aspirations of the proletariat [could] have no purpose other than the establishment of an absolutely free economic organization and federation, founded upon the labor and equality of all and absolutely independent of all political government.” Consequently, turning the London Conference’s resolution on its head, they declared that “the destruction of all political power is the first duty of the proletariat.”

They regarded “the strike as a precious weapon in the struggle” for the liberation of the workers, preparing them “for the great and final revolutionary contest which, destroying all privilege and all class difference, will bestow upon the worker a right to the enjoyment of the gross product of his labors.” Here we have the subsequent program of anarcho-syndicalism: the organization of workers into unions and similar bodies, based on class struggle, through which the workers will become conscious of their class power, ultimately resulting in the destruction of capitalism and the state, to be replaced by the free federation of the workers based on the organizations they created themselves during their struggle for liberation.

The resolutions from the St. Imier Congress were ratified by the Italian, Spanish, Jura, Belgian and, ironically, the American federations of the International, with most of the French sections also approving them. The St. Imier Congress marks the true emergence of a European anarchist movement, with the Italian, Spanish and Jura Federations of the International following anarchist programs. While there were anarchist elements within the Belgian Federation, by 1874, under the influence of De Paepe, the Belgians had come out in favor of a “public administrative state” that the anarchist federations in the anti-authoritarian International opposed. The French Internationalists contained a prominent anarchist contingent, but it was not until 1881 that a distinctively anarchist movement arose there.

In his memoirs, Kropotkin wrote that if the Europe of the late 1870s “did not experience an incomparably more bitter reaction than it did” after the Franco-Prussian War and the fall of the Paris Commune, “Europe owes it… to the fact that the insurrectionary spirit of the International maintained itself fully intact in Spain, in Italy, in Belgium, in the Jura, and even in France itself.” One can say, with equal justification, that anarchism itself, as a revolutionary movement, owes its existence to that same revolutionary spirit of the International from which it was born in the working class struggles in Europe during the 1860s and early 1870s. It was from those struggles, and the struggles within the International itself regarding how best to conduct them, that a self-proclaimed anarchist movement emerged.


1. “There were no paid trade union officials or bureaucratic hierarchies, and power flowed from the bottom upward.” George R. Esenwein, Anarchist Ideology and the Working-Class Movement in Spain, 1868-1898, University of California Press, 1989, 21.

2. Despite attempts by Marxists and some historians to portray the Lyon uprising as a tragicomic farce, as Paul Avrich points out, news “of the Lyon Commune touched off a chain reaction up and down the Rhone valley and through Provence,” as well as in Marseilles and Paris. Anarchist Portraits, Princeton University Press, 1988, 236.

3. Proudhon’s 1848 “Election Manifesto of Le Peuple” expounded an identical vision of a social structure based on mandated and recallable delegates (“imperative mandate”) and an economy run by a “universal association” of workers’ cooperatives. Iain McKay, ed., Property is Theft! A Pierre-Joseph Proudhon Anthology, AK Press, 2011, 371-381.

Bakunin & the Historians Revisited

Review essay by Jon Bekken, ASR 63 (2015)

When I reviewed the English-language literature on the pioneering Russian-born anarchist Mikhail Bakunin in 1992, there was only one decent biography in print, and it focused almost exclusively on his (very productive) final years in Italy. As we conclude the Bakunin bicentenary two new histories have been published – Mark Leier’s excellent Bakunin (reviewed in ASR 47, which while sometimes overly casual is far and away the best comprehensive work in English – I still prefer Ravindranathan’s Bakunin and the Italians for the final years), and John Randolph’s intriguing study of the intellectual life that surrounded Bakunin as he came of age. PM Press will release in March an English translation of Wolfgang Eckhardt’s The First Socialist Schism: Bakunin vs. Marx in the International Working Men’s Association. Eckhardt argues that this represented a schism between parliamentary party politics and social-revolutionary concepts that continues to resonate to the present day.

While the quality (if not the quantity) of this literature is far superior to that which inspired my original essay, Bakunin still has not received his due. English-readers have access to only a small sample of Bakunin’s writings. However, new English-language translations of Bakunin’s essays and letters are being regularly posted to Shawn Wilbur’s http://blog.bakuninlibrary.org (some are working drafts, others completed), even if one often wishes for more contextual information (which might well be provided when his eagerly awaited Bakunin Reader is published by PM Press).

There has also been a bit of a flurry of denunciations by academics (largely post-modernists), much of it part of a larger war on rationalism and social revolution. Exemplary in this regard is Saul Newman, who drags a largely imagined Bakunin into his postmodernist analysis of power. Brian Morris has issued a pamphlet for the bicentenary of Bakunin’s birth, Bakunin and the Human Subject (building upon his 1993 Bakunin: The Philosophy of Freedom), which succinctly refutes this post-modern school of falsification.

Randolph’s The House in the Garden is a richly documented account of the intellectual currents that swirled around the Bakunin family estate. We see here a young Bakunin, beginning to work out his philosophy (albeit already influential in introducing contemporary European philosophy to what was an intellectual and economic backwater) and like his peers somewhat inclined to interpret daily life through rather idealized lenses. Randolph offers a nuanced account of Bakunin’s effort to liberate his sister Varvara from her unhappy marriage, which makes it clear (though some reviewers argue otherwise) that throughout this episode he worked to support her in her efforts to realize her own destiny, even if he did not fully appreciate the social constraints which limited her ability to do so. Randolph offers a valuable exploration not only of the influences that shaped Bakunin, but of wider themes in Russian intellectual history in a period when it was increasingly clear that the old order could not be sustained.

Morris’ Bakunin and the Human Subject offers a spirited defense of its subject. “Harassed, denigrated, jailed, ridiculed and misunderstood in his own day, [Bakunin] was now being intellectually assaulted by liberal and Marxist scholars in the most appalling … fashion.” (3) Morris first responded with his 1993 book explicating Bakunin’s theory of social revolution, and now with this pamphlet which unfortunately must engage not only these longstanding detractors, but a new torrent of misrepresentation by writers who purport to be anarchists.

Much of the pamphlet is devoted to the assault on Bakunin by “post”-anarchists, who rather than embracing Bakunin’s sophisticated, humanist approach instead propose to build a denatured anarchism upon the bones of the sterile philosophy of the likes of Stirner. These professional theorists misrepresent Bakunin and the anarchist tradition so systematically that it is difficult to attribute the results to a failure of the intellect. They reject even the idea that human beings (to quote Todd May, a pioneer in this line of obfuscation) “possess characteristics that enable one to live justly with others in society.” (Morris, 8)

Morris (10), like Saltman, sees Bakunin as an evolutionary naturalist, who saw a world in a constant creative process of becoming, albeit within material constraints arising out of the past and the inter-relatedness of the natural world. While post-ies deny the fundamentally social character of humanity, instead suggesting “like Ayn Rand… that societies do not exist, but only individuals” (Morris, 20), Bakunin noted that we were so much social animals that is is impossible to think of humanity apart from society. Bakunin articulated both negative and positive conceptions of liberty – of the development and full enjoyment of our capacities – which he contrasted to the illusory freedoms extolled by the liberals of his day. “All his life,” Morris (27, 29) concludes, “Bakunin … [worked] to outline the kind of society that was conducive to human liberty and solidarity – a truly human society. It was one that was both socialist and libertarian, and no one as far as I am aware has improved on Bakunin’s essential ideas. … As a social theorist as well as a political thinker, Bakunin was well ahead of his time.”

So far ahead that the post-anarchists find themselves returning to concepts which Bakunin and the broader anarchist movement long ago rejected, finding their conception of human freedom too limited, and their reliance upon abstractions like nation and state too dangerous. Thus, Newman (one of many in this tradition) rejects class analysis, rationality, sociability, even humanity itself. (Instead we are urged to embrace the void and develop a “politics” of disruption and unpredictability – explicitly abandoning any notion of emancipation. It is an arid philosophy which has found no social base outside of the academy, where it appeals precisely because it poses no danger to established centers of power.)

Saltman’s book, not widely available and which escaped my notice in the original essay, argues that political theorists would do well to stop ignoring Bakunin; “his work can serve as a powerful corrective to the tendency of twentieth-century regimes to sink into bureaucratic and repressive forms of authority.” (xi) Saltman sets out to correct common misperceptions, to systematically present Bakunin’s political theory, and to explore Bakunin’s revolutionary strategy.

Many of their misconceptions appear to be based upon these critics’ unfamiliarity with Bakunin’s actual writing, attempts to impose life-long theoretical consistency (something rarely found in any serious thinker), and efforts to view his life and work through psycho-historical lenses. Saltman concludes (16), “these authors were [evidently] more interested in dismissing Bakunin’s arguments for political reasons than they were in assessing his thought…”

Saltman argues that Bakunin was a deeply materialist philosopher who made important contributions to our understanding of the nature of the state, bureaucracy, science, revolutionary vanguards and the potential of the peasantry as a revolutionary force. His thought was grounded in a materialist approach that challenged the abstractions imposed by actual and aspiring rulers (with often fatal consequences) with lived experience, a humanist orientation, and respect for the evolving constraints of our natural environment. Bakunin, he concludes, “provide[s] a theoretical grounding that places collectivist anarchism well within the mainstream of useful political analysis… With Bakunin’s work, … [anarchism] gained the stature of a full-fledged political philosophy, worthy of equal consideration among the various political perspectives on the modern world.” (170)

And yet, as Morris demonstrates, philosophers and political scientists have been unable to rise to the challenge, preferring to fall back on their shibboleths and epithets – on their fundamentally religious acceptance of the state, capitalism, and other authoritarian institutions – rather than confront the world as it is, as Bakunin sought to do.

Discussed in this essay:

Jon Bekken, “Bakunin and the Historians,” Libertarian Labor Review 13 (1992), pages 30-32.

Mark Leier, Bakunin: The Creative Passion. Thomas Dunne Books, 2006. Reviewed in ASR 47.

Brian Morris, Bakunin and the Human Subject. Published by the author for the Anarchist Federation, pamphlet, 2014.

Saul Newman, From Bakunin to Lacan: Anti-Authoritarianism and the Dislocation of Power. Lexington Books, 2007.

John Randolph, The House in the Garden: The Bakunin Family and the Romance of Russian Idealism. Cornell University Press, 2007, 304 pages, hardcover.

Richard Saltman, The Social and Political Thought of Michael Bakunin. Greenwood Press, 1983.

Overcoming the Politics of Division & Fear

review essay by Wayne Price, ASR 74 (2018)

William J. Barber with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear. Boston: Beacon Press, 2016.

“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness [mercy], and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah (Quoted frequently by Rev. Barber)

The Reverend Dr. William J. Barber became nationally known in 2013 for his role in organizing massive demonstrations of African-American and white working class and poor people in North Carolina. “Tens of thousands of people came for thirteen consecutive Moral Mondays” to rally at the statehouse. “By the end of the legislative session, nearly a thousand people had been arrested in the largest wave of mass civil disobedience since the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960.” (x)

Now he is co-chair of the effort to re-build Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign, with demonstrations at state capitals across the country. Thousands of people have been going to their statehouses to take part in the largest coordinated civil disobedience action across states in U.S. history. This is an effort to mobilize a vast “fusion movement” of a wide range of working, poor, discriminated-against, oppressed and exploited women and men, together with people concerned about war and ecological destruction.

This book was written before Rev. Barber had begun to build the new Poor People’s Campaign. It is an excellent introduction to his strategic and ethical thinking and to the faith which motivates him. The book also covers parts of his family and personal history, including the physical ailment which has afflicted him for years but which did not stop his organizing efforts. However, I will focus on his overall thinking.

He calls for a “Third Reconstruction.” The first Reconstruction followed the Civil War, and was a time of unprecedented opportunities for the ex-slaves. It was destroyed in a violent conservative backlash which established Jim Crow. The “Second Reconstruction” was the result of the Civil Rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s, which ended Southern legal segregation. Now Rev. Barber is calling for a “Third” Reconstruction which will finally end racism and other forms of oppression.

The Fusion Coalition

Two things stand out in what Rev. Barber is doing. One is the kind of “fusion coalition” which he is working to build. The other is the moral/religious basis on which he is building it.

Consistent with the prophet’s instruction to “walk humbly with your God,” he prefers to call himself an “organizer” rather than a “leader.” From his first days organizing, he believed in a joint struggle of the African-American movement and of union organizing by workers (of all races and ethnicities), both supported by progressive forces in the church. “Civil rights could not be separated from workers’ rights.” (48) “Is the real issue today race or is it class? We answer: Yes, it’s race and class.” (128) But like his inspiration, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he came to expand this conception while building a “fusion coalition” movement in North Carolina.

We had folks who cared about education, folks who cared about living wages, and others who were passionate about the 1.2 million North Carolinians who didn’t have access to health care. We also had groups petitioning for redress for black and poor women who’d been forcibly sterilized in state institutions, organizations advocating for public financing in elections, and historically black colleges and universities petitioning for better state funding…. Groups concerned about discrimination in hiring, others concerned about affordable housing, and people opposed to the death penalty and other glaring injustices in our criminal justice system. Finally, I noted the movements for environmental justice, immigrant justice, civil rights enforcement, and an end to America’s “war on terror.” (49)

Over time, people with these varying concerns pulled together. “Moral Mondays… resulted from the efforts of 140 organizations that had worked together as a grassroots coalition for seven years.” (xi) Through conferences and joint actions, the groups came to realize some things: “We all recognized the same forces opposing us…. [But] there were more of us than there were of them.” (50)

At times, Rev. Barber had to finesse in order to be as inclusive as he wanted. For example, there was a state referendum on same-sex marriage, deliberately raised by the right to split the LGBTQ community from religious African-Americans. “It wasn’t our job to endorse same-sex marriage…. But the fundamental principle of equal protection under the law was a constitutional and moral principle which our movement had not only to endorse but also to defend…. The codification of hate is never righteous. Legalized discrimination is never just.” (91) This argument was persuasive in the Black community.

Another issue arose when discussing with Janet Cohn, the president of Planned Parenthood. “I’d told her that with our broad coalition we could not endorse abortion, so she asked, ‘Can you support women’s rights and access to health care?’ Absolutely, I told her.” In turn, he asked if she would “speak up for a black women’s right to vote?” (108) She was very willing to do so – and did. The coalition expanded.

However, this agreement seems unclear to me. The question of “abortion” should not be whether the movement calls for abortions, which it does not. It is whether to support women’s right to chose whether or not to have abortions or other procedures. It is not over what opinion anyone (in or out of church) has about abortion. It is over whether anti-choice people should use the courts, the legislatures and the police – the power of the state – to enforce their opinion on all women (which, among other things, violates the moral value of humility!).

How far this effort of coalition-building by Rev. Barber and his allies will go on a national level is yet to be seen. But it is a vitally important effort. In the time of Trump and the rising of the extreme right, this is a major effort at organizing a real resistance and fight-back by the oppressed, exploited and endangered. That has been described as “intersectionality” – understanding the ways in which different oppressions interact and overlap with each other, and the fights against them interact and overlap. This sort of fusion coalition building is essential.

However, a coalition can be too broad. He writes, “We needed to come together with banks and businesspeople.” (38) Of a unionizing drive, he states, “The factory owners could not simply be our enemy. The community needed them as much as they needed us.” (17) But what if the rich are the enemy? What if they benefit from poverty, weak or no unions, super-exploitation of the workers, the extra oppression and poverty of people of color, the divisions among whites and African-Americans and Latinos, and between straight and LGBTQ people, and among religions, and between genders? No doubt there are personally decent business people, but overall, as a class, it is in their interest to maintain all the evils which Rev. Barber and his coalition are fighting. And he says so:

The people most frightened by our fusion coalition were the elites who had inherited the spoils of white power and had run North Carolina by proxy for generations…. What they had on their side, they knew, was money. [They are] shrewd businessmen. (62)

In North Carolina, the coalition faced “an avalanche of corporate funded extremism.” (93)

It is one thing to reach out to racist white workers. It is really in their self-interest overall to work with African-American and Latino working people, and they can come to see it. But it is against the self-interest of the capitalists to join with their workers. Further, the view that “the community needs” businesspeople shows a lack of imagination, especially for someone who once discussed “establishing worker-owned co-ops.” (5) Under present conditions workers have to live with their bosses, but it is possible to think of an alternate, radically democratic and cooperative, way to organize an economy (see Price 2014).

Writing about the English Civil War (of Cromwell and others), Lawrence Stone concluded that a necessary prerequisite to any revolution was “polarization into two coherent groups or alliances of what are naturally and normally a series of fractional and shifting tensions and conflicts within a society.” (quoted in Foner 1980; 31). While not advocating a revolution, Rev. Barber is working at building a “coherent group or alliance” out of conflicted and fractionalized social forces. This is a deliberate effort, as stated in the book’s subtitle, to “overcome the politics of division and fear.” But people need to recognize that a “coherent alliance” of the people will necessarily be counterposed to another “coherent group” of the rich and powerful.

The Moral Movement

Central to Rev. Barber’s approach is a moral appeal. In the words of the prophet Micah, which Barber likes to quote, the aim is “to do justice [and] to love kindness” (often written as “mercy”). His views are rooted in the African-American prophetic tradition. Theologically, he presents himself as a Christian “conservative.” He jokes that his politically conservative opponents are theologically “liberal,” in the sense that they ignore or twist the large parts of the Christian Bible which speaks of doing justice and loving kindness, of helping the poor, of supporting the least among us, of rejecting riches and power, of being humble, and so on. Nor does he limit himself to Christianity. He specifically rejects the view that the Christian church should be the only champion of ethical values in society. He includes all religions, making a point of including Muslims. “My Holy Bible is not the only holy book.” (105)

The Rev. Barber rejects what he takes to be “the liberal consensus that suggests that faith is either divisive or inherently regressive.” Instead he advocates “a faith-rooted moral movement that welcomes people of all faiths, as well as those who struggle with faith.” (66) As a radical humanist, I too reject liberal condescension toward religious views or the belief that religion is “inherently regressive.” I respect all faiths. While some have used religion to justify the worst of oppressions (as Rev. Barber knows), religious faith has also motivated great struggles for freedom and justice.

However I find his last phrase somewhat condescending toward atheists, agnostics, secularists, humanists, etc., as well as similar references to“people of no particular faith.” (38) I do not feel that I am “struggling with faith” or have “no particular faith,” since I have particular views of my own. In general, I have not found that non-theistic people are any less moral or ethically motivated than are believers in particular religions. (See Price 2009.)

Rev. Barber describes how he came to understand the importance of a directly moral approach when supporting a union organizing drive at a North Carolina Smithfield hog-processing factory. “In the media as well as in the community, the story was simply one of workers’ interests versus business interests.” (69) It was difficult to develop community support. So they decided “to change the narrative by making the workers’ struggle a moral cause for our whole coalition.” (69) They exposed the hard work, the suffering, and the mistreatment of the workers and their families. “The public story was no longer one about workers versus bosses. It was about the moral challenge of people receiving the just fruit of the labor.” (70)

It is completely correct to point to the moral basis of a struggle, of the need to do the right thing, to do justice and love kindness in all our activities. However, this can lead to a certain kind of blindness. Morality (justice and kindness) should not be counterposed to the self-interest of the oppressed. The Smithfield workers’ moral cause only became clear because they were struggling for their self-interest against that of the bosses. It is far easier for workers to see the justice of “receiving the just fruit of their labor” than it is for the bosses, whose financial self-interest lie in not seeing it. And it is easier for the community to see that justice if they realize that the struggle is in all their interests – because “We all recognized the same forces opposing us.” (50)

Elections and the Democratic Party

Most U.S. left and “progressive” forces have a strategy of electing Democrats to replace the Republicans, especially Donald Trump. (I am not talking about how isolated individuals vote every few years, but about the strategy of a movement.)  “Resistance” to Trumpism has become primarily a support for the Democratic Party. This party represents a liberal-to-moderate wing of the U.S. capitalist class. It supports capitalism, the attack on U.S. working people, the imperialist national state, and military aggression around the world. In words Democrats recognize the looming danger of global warming, but in practice they propose only mild and inadequate programs. As the failures of the Republicans have driven people to support the Democrats, so the repeated failures of the Democrats have driven people to support the Republicans. This includes the poverty, economic stagnation, low wages and industrial decline of much of the country. Over decades, liberals, union officials, African-American community leaders and other “progressives” have supported the Democrats as a “lesser evil.” The Republicans have consistently become more and more evil while the Democrats have become less and less good – that is, both parties have moved to their right. A minority of liberals have come to advocate a new, third, party as a strategy. This still relies on elections and the use of the government.

This is not Rev. Barber’s strategy. His coalition-building began “when Democrats were in power” in North Carolina. (52) The biased drawing of voting districts is something “which Democrats had engaged in as much as Republicans in the past.” (83) “No one was listening to poor people. Republicans and Democrats alike.” (88) He has worked for popular demonstrations and civil disobedience, rather than voting. Criticized for “not running… candidates who would champion our agenda. [He replied] … we will not win by starting a third party. We will win by changing the conversation for every candidate and party.” (124) He wants to raise “a clear agenda that doesn’t measure success only by electoral outcomes.” (129) He has opposed any effort to tie the coalition to political candidates or parties. He reports winning over working class and rural white people who had supported Republicans in the past, but were impressed that the movement was not a front for Democrats.

Yet his approach is not all that far from the pro-Democratic strategy. He and his co-workers focus on statehouses and electoral laws. They protest the unfairness of the Republicans’ gerrymandering of electoral districts and their voter suppression efforts. These things are worth protesting because they are unfair and repressive. But even the purest, cleanest, representative democracy would still be dominated by the corporate elite. And even the best democracy would still be vulnerable to forces outside of elections as such.

For example, after the Civil War, the Reconstruction era had a wide range of African-Americans elected to state offices, he writes. “More blacks were elected to public office during the period from 1868 to 1880 than at any other time in American history…. African-Americans wielded significant power in every statehouse.” (56) There was a coalition between African-Americans and many white Southerners. But this electoral power came to nothing. The Southern white upper class, former slave owners and businesspeople, mobilized racism among the poorer whites. They armed these people, built up the Klan, instigated “race riots,” murdered and lynched Black leaders, used “violence, intimidation, and the passage of laws that, together came to be called Jim Crow.”(116) They took away the right to vote and all other rights, by legal and illegal measures. The national government, led by Republicans, did nothing in the defense of democracy.

Could this happen again? Consider the history of fascist coups in democratic European countries in the ’20s and ’30s or in the military coup in democratic Chile in 1973. To a lesser extent, we have seen an African-American president be followed by a reactionary, racist, authoritarian president (who lost the popular vote), who has encouraged fascists, who has blatantly served the wealthy, and whose party has worked to suppress the votes of African-Americans and others.

It is dangerous to rely on elections and government power. The government is an instrument of the corporate rich and their agents and cannot be anything else. A mass movement has to be built outside of and against the government and its big business masters. Even reforms are most likely to be won if there is a militant and independent mass movement.

Along with every other issue, there needs to be a focus on workers and their unions. This is not because they are the most deserving but because they have enormous potential power. If the working people decided not to work for even a day, the whole system would grind to a halt. And they could potentially start things up in a different, democratic and cooperative, way. This would truly be a moral transformation of society.

Revolutionary Conclusions

Rev. Barber is aware that the racist capitalist system is facing a severe crisis. He quotes the radical economist Gar Alperowitz, “What we’re really beginning to experience is a process of slow decay, punctuated by a recurring economic crisis, one in which reforms achieve only sporadic gains.” (85) Barber adds, “Though we ended Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s… the wealth divide that is rooted in our history of race-based slavery is more extreme than it has ever been.” (xii-xiii) He warns that “anything less [than a Third Reconstruction], I fear, will mean the self-destruction of our nation.” (xv)

The implication of these statements is that the struggle for reforms can only go so far. Limited gains may be won, and have been won, but they are harder and harder to achieve. “Only sporadic gains” are the order of the day. This poses questions for any popular movement of opposition, such as the Poor People’s Campaign.

It is necessary to build a fusion coalition to fight for reforms, but this is not enough. What is needed is a moral vision of a new kind of society, based on justice and kindness, freedom and equality, radical democracy and cooperation, in all their political, social, and economic aspects. The wealth and power of the capitalist class must be taken from it. Ordinary people – the working class and all oppressed – must be empowered. The Third Reconstruction needs to be a new American Revolution.

This originally appeared on anarkismo.net, and has been slightly condensed for publication here.


Barber, W.J. (2016). The Third Reconstruction. Beacon Press.

Foner, Eric (1980). Politics and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War. Oxford University Press.

Price, Wayne (2014). “Workers’ Self-Directed Enterprises: A Revolutionary Program.” Anarkismo. https://www.anarkismo.net/article/26931?search_text=Way…Price

Price, Wayne (2009). “Religion and Revolution.” Anarkismo. http://www.anarkismo.net/article/12320?search_text=wayn…price