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. Our pensions have been gutted (for those lucky enough to still have them), average pay fell an inflation-adjusted 3.2 percent during the recession, and millions of our fellow workers paid for the bosses’ looting and speculation with their jobs. (And we continue to pay with our jobs; the government says it now takes a laid-off worker about 41 weeks to find a new job, and they count everyone who lands even a few hours a week in part-time work as back on the job. Those who do find a new job earn a lot less than they did at their old one — 17.5 percent less, on average.)

But now that we’ve been recovering for more than two years, times are even tougher. The stock market might be rebounding, profits are certainly up, lobbyists are doing well, and economic pundits get plenty of airtime telling us how great things could be if we would just give the rich a bit of a boost… It seems things are going pretty well for everyone except those of us who have to work for a living. A recent report by two former Census Bureau officials looked at government wage surveys, and found that median household income has fallen by another 6.7 percent since the recovery began. So the average working-class family is now 9.8 percent worse off “today” (actually June; the latest month for which data was available, so it will be much worse now), after inflation, than we were four years ago.

Starving amidst plenty

The number of Americans officially living in poverty has grown by nearly 10 million since 2006, to more than 15 percent of the population (it’s more than 22 percent for children). In November new poverty figures came out showing that huge swathes of the country are dominated by extreme poverty, areas that often lack access to decent food, schools or jobs.

The official poverty definition used by U.S. statisticians was developed a long time ago, reflecting an age when we spent far less on health care (largely because it wasn’t available to most people) and such. Every serious study done since has found that it seriously understates the misery that pervades our society. So the Obama administration has come up with a simple way to reduce poverty: they’re looking to redefine poverty, in part by counting food stamps and other support programs as income. This alternate measure would cut the growth in poverty in half, even if it doesn’t do anything to put food on anyone’s table.

Official measures are regularly revised, of course. The government has changed the way it calculates inflation 20 times since 1980. The net result? Inflation is currently reported at just over 3 percent a year; it would be more than 10 percent without the “improvements.” (The truth probably lies somewhere in between.) So if it seems to you that your costs are rising higher than the statisticians report, you’re probably right.

The 1 percent, and the rest of us

The median represents the middle of the income spread. Half earn more, half less. The top third or so seem to be doing OK under this recovery, even if the bosses want deeper tax cuts to motivate them to do more looting so that they can get the economy back into full speculation gear. But the “bottom” two-thirds get poorer and poorer the “better” the economy is doing.

Of course, the pain is not evenly distributed. Some folks are so very poor that it isn’t possible to slash their income very much. Those pesky minimum wage laws the rich keep pointing out stand in the way of more jobs (if we worked for free, there’d be jobs for all!) prevented wages from being cut as much as the bosses would have wished, even if off-the-book work, productivity gains, unpaid overtime and the like helped ease the bosses’ pain. But otherwise, incomes fell more for those who earned less, for those who live in families (and so have children to support), and for African-American and Hispanic workers, who were already being paid much less. Between 1990 and 2007, hourly wages fell by 8.6 percent in New York City (and they’re still falling), with workers taking on extra jobs or going into debt to keep afloat.

The economy is skewed to send wealth upwards. From 1989 to 2009, median household income rose 2 percent; inflation-adjusted GDP was up 63 percent over the same period. If that increased wealth was spread about equally, the average household would have received about 20 times as much income as it did.

Income inequality has now reached points not seen since the onset of the Great Depression. Income for the top hundredth of one percent (the 12,000 richest U.S. households, whose income averages $35 million a year) rose by 215 percent since 1980. The bottom 40 percent lost ground.

The harder you work, the less you make. That’s always been true under capitalism. And the less you make, the more will be stolen from you when the bosses are looking to get their bonuses and stock options back in shape. Unless, of course, we organize to defend ourselves, and to dump the bosses off our backs. (Even today, union workers earn higher pay and less-meager benefits. That’s why the bosses are so intent on busting unions.)

Things weren’t so great even in the boom times before the recession, of course. The New York Times reports that inflation-adjusted income from January 2000 until June 2011 rose slightly at the start of the period, but since then income has been gradually going down, down, down. Back in the Clinton “boom” times, real (inflation-adjusted) wages for the bottom 40 percent were falling year by year, even as productivity increased and working hours gradually crept back to 1920s levels.

It’s not us, it’s the system

Pundits and politicians are fond of claiming that unemployment is caused not by our economic system, but rather by the inadequacy of individual workers. Indeed, some would have you pity the poor bosses eager to put people to work but unable to find “qualified” wage slaves. It’s hard to believe that even pro-capitalist economists are stupid enough to really believe this twaddle.

The unemployment rate is significantly lower for folks with college degrees – running about 4%. But that rate masks huge numbers of people who enrolled in graduate school rather than look for jobs in this dismal economy, and even more who were forced to take jobs for which their degrees are entirely irrelevant, thereby displacing other job seekers every bit as qualified to do the work. The job categories that are growing fastest typically require no more than a high school degree. The Labor Department predicts that two-thirds of jobs in 2016 will not require more than a high school degree, but nearly two-thirds of American workers already have at least some college. So, if anything, we’re too educated for the jobs out there. Nor is there any evidence that experienced workers are doing much better in the current job market. This babbling about skills seems to be designed to allow the bosses to import lower-paid workers from abroad, and to force government to pick up the costs of training for specific job needs.

Meanwhile, many college graduates find themselves carrying huge student loans, averaging more than $25,000 (debts of $80,000 or more are quite common at private colleges, and student loans can not be discharged in bankruptcy) as a result of massive cuts to financial aid programs. A recent article in the American Association of University Professors’ magazine compared the situation to indentured servitude. These heavily indebted workers are forced to take jobs on almost any terms the bosses offer, and many have joined the Occupy movement.

Victims of the “free” market

Across Europe, a better-organized working class is waging at least symbolic strikes and other protests against the bosses’ austerity schemes. As we go to press, European Union leaders meeting in Belgium have been hit by a massive one-day strike.

The attack is brutal almost beyond belief. The New York Times business pages suggest that “Greece may require living standards to decline by as much as 40 percent to become competitive.” This can’t be done through the political process, columnist Martin Hutchinson says, because Greek workers would never accept it. But “free markets” can do the dirty work if people just get out of the way. The resulting collapse in living standards would enable other European governments to impose the necessary “reforms.”

This is indeed the way “free markets” work, if we leave the bosses free to do as they choose. If workers want to hold onto what little we have, let alone make any progress, we will have to organize to accomplish the task.

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.

The so-called Arab Spring inspired rebellion in Europe and North America as well. Popular masses in Greece and Spain in particular have emulated the Egyptians with their mass occupations of public space to protest austerity. In Spain the so-called 15-M movement (named after May 15, the date of protests and occupations that drew hundreds of thousands of people, mainly youth who face an unemployment rate of 20 percent, into the streets of 58 cities throughout the country. And Greece, of course, has witnessed numerous general strikes over the couple of years. And the “indignants” movement, which began on May 25, has brought thousands of people into the streets independently of the parties and unions.

The Arab Spring even had its echo in the United States. In February Republican Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin announced his austerity budget that not only demanded huge cuts in public spending but also threatened to effectively eliminate collective bargaining for most public employees. Workers and students in Wisconsin rose up in rebellion, occupying the state capitol and holding protest rallies of over 100,000 people. There was even serious agitation for a general strike that was, unfortunately, overwhelmed by Democratic Party-aligned union leaders who channeled the mass anger into campaigns to recall anti-union Republican lawmakers and the governor.

Attacks on collective bargaining in Ohio led to mass mobilizations but no direct action. The trade unions satisfied themselves with a successful (albeit expensive) campaign to overturn the anti-union legislation at the ballot box.

Then, out of the blue, an obscure anti-consumerist magazine from Vancouver, Adbusters, issued a call for an occupation of Wall Street to begin on September 17. A small group of U.S., Spanish and Greek “horizontalists” and anarchists who had been meeting for some time organized a General Assembly for August 8 to organize for the day.

On September 17 a fairly small crowd of 175-200 folks marched on Wall Street to protest increasing inequality and the on-going economic and social crisis resulting therefrom; but instead of going home, as so often happens after a demonstration, they held a General Assembly in Zuccotti Park and decided to stay in the park, changing its name to “Liberty Square” in reference to Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

The Occupy Wall Street movement began to hold almost daily protests. A week or so after September 17 police attacked some women with pepper spray during a demo. The attack was recorded and posted on YouTube. This seemingly unprovoked attack brought the attention of the media, which had until then had pretty much ignored the movement. Then on October 1, police arrested 700 people during a march on the Brooklyn Bridge. This brought national media attention and the movement started to spread from coast to coast, and internationally. On October 15 there were 950 demonstrations in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street and occupations started springing up everywhere, in big cities and small towns.

As the movement spread so did the repression. Attempts to occupy public spaces were met with mass arrests. In Chicago, 170 and 130 people were arrested on successive weekends for violating Chicago’s 11:00 pm curfew when they refused to leave Grant Park. In Oakland a violent eviction of the “Oakland Commune” on October 31, during which Iraq War veteran Scott Olson was sent to the hospital with a fractured skull as a result of being hit by a tear-gas bomb, led to a mass strike on November 2 that closed businesses and shut down the Port of Oakland. By   mid-November mayors in a number of major cities were holding conference calls, coordinated by the U.S. Justice Department, to decide on a strategy for clearing public spaces of occupiers followed by sometimes violent evictions of many occupations.

The violence of the authorities unleashed on an essentially non-violent movement, however, has only led to greater public sympathy and participation. Organized labor has taken an interest in the movement. Early on, in New York City, the transportation union complained about their members being forced to drive busses of arrested demonstrators and the October 15 demonstrations garnered the participation of many unions and their rank-and-file. In Chicago, on November 17, a couple thousand unionists blockaded the LaSalle Street bridge, taking dozens of arrests, before joining Occupy Chicago at their usual Board of Thieves/Federal Reserve venue.

Encouraged by the success of the November 2 “General Strike” the Occupy movement on the West Coast called for shutting down “Wall Street on the Waterfront” from San Pedro to Alaska in solidarity with embattled longshoremen in Longview, Washington, and port truck drivers in Los Angeles. The action was controversial and threatened to derail the alliance with labor as conservative labor leaders, particularly from the building trades (who else?), opposed the action. However, the ILWU did not officially oppose it and many rank-and-file workers were on board, although some longshoremen and truck drivers complained about losing a day’s pay. The action succeeded in shutting down or otherwise disrupting waterfront operations all along the West Coast.

Occupy is reaching a cross-roads as repression and winter make physically occupying public spaces more difficult. New strategy and tactics are being discussed to sustain the movement during the cold winter months in hopes of perhaps reviving the occupations come spring. Supporting anti-eviction movements, supporting labor struggles and keeping the pressure on to rein in the banks are all being put forward. General Assemblies will continue to be held, perhaps with reduced participation as the public occupations recede.

The Leninist left was late to the party. While the original meeting of August 8 was called primarily by the Workers World Party, anarchists and horizontalists successfully broke away to form the first General Assembly that launched the Occupy movement. Since then some left groups have stayed aloof while others have jumped in with both feet.

Many of these leftists hope that they can either recruit elements from the movement or foist a program on it. They are working to get the General Assemblies to abandon the “modified consensus” model of decision making in favor of majority rule and to elect a formal leadership. However, it is the “we are all leaders” ambit and the consensus process, precisely those anarchistic methods so reviled by the Leninists, that has fostered the dynamism of the movement and has encouraged non-political people to get involved. Introducing voting and formal leadership may turn the Occupy movement into just another forum for competition between leftist sects and the grassroots will get bored and walk away. While there are definitely problems with consensus and the “Tyranny of Structurelessness,” there are just as many problems with majority rule and formal leadership (the “Tyranny of Tyranny”). Certainly ways of holding the informal “leadership,” those who basically volunteer to do the work, accountable to General Assemblies must be found, but what would be more damaging to the movement: an informal “leadership” that is only so because they are the most energetic and  whom nobody feels obliged to follow, or a formal, elected leadership who get themselves elected because they can make a good speech and then come to think that, because they were elected, the movement should defer to them in every respect?

Anarchists have been involved in the movement from the very beginning and its modus operandus has been largely anarchistic, but anarchists need to do more than promote the process. They need to highlight the actual class war that is going on, and the solution: solidarity, direct action, revolution. We have to resist the flattery of the liberal/progressive community which can only drag the movement back into the Democratic Party. We have to equally resist attempts by the Leninist left to gain control of the movement through domination of certain working groups, like labor or direct action committees.

The powers that be and their media will be looking for every opportunity to identify and exploit the natural differences that exist within such an amorphous, decentralized and “leaderless movement.” They will jump on any militant action that leads to clashes with the police, such as the occupation of non-public spaces or street blockades, to criminalize the movement and paint it as violent. They will try to promote the most conservative labor fakirs to drive a wedge between Occupy and Labor. They will use outfits like MoveOn.org and supporters like former Labor Secretary Robert Reich to drag Occupy into the orbit of the Democratic Party to get Obama re-elected.

Occupy’s populism makes it vulnerable to such co-optation. Its 99% contains within it a layer of wealthy people and exploiters of labor who haven’t quite made it into the 1%, despite all of their efforts. The core of Occupy, of course, are debt-ladened students, precarious workers, and unemployed and rank-and-file union workers, but the lack of a clear class line can lead to notions that taxing the rich, better regulation of the banks or getting corporate money out of politics will bring back the American Dream. Anarchists involved in the movement need to clarify the class line and promote struggles that reveal it.

The past year has seen a storm of rebellion throughout the world. May 2012 be even stormier.

— Mike Hargis

You Might Say We’re Dreamers

In an effort to mimic the success of the right-wing Tea Party, liberals are trying to rebrand their movement as “The American Dream Movement.” A conference held in October in Washington, DC, drew liberal politicians, business union leaders, lobbyists and progressive activists around the American Dream theme of saving the shrinking American “Middle Class.” With presidential elections only a year away, their intention is to recapture Congress and pressure the Democratic Party and President Obama towards the left. This effort, while perhaps noble in intent, will fail because it is based upon false assumptions.

For one thing it assumes that there is such a thing as an American Dream. Social mobility and a rise in one’s personal prosperity is a universal aspiration. There is nothing uniquely American about it. The Indians and the Chinese, not to mention Mexican immigrants, all want it just as badly as Americans do. The wage disparity between workers in the various countries makes it difficult for American workers to organize at the workplace and to win pay raises. Ordinary Americans cannot raise their standard of living unless the workers everywhere raise theirs.

Secondly it confuses Middle Class with the Working Class. Capitalism cannot exist without a working class that is forced into wage labor because the workers lack capital. The Middle Class are the small business owners, professionals and managers, who are neither capitalists nor members of the working class. It is the stagnating wages of the working class majority and the loss of their jobs to global outsourcing to sweatshops in other countries that has led to the vast disparity of wealth, not a decline in the number of doctors and lawyers or small shop owners. The jobless prosperity of the Clinton years was not much better than the jobless prosperity of the Bush years, as far as the working class is concerned. Both led to the current economic hard times. It is the restoration of well-being of the working class majority that must be on the agenda.

The accomplishments of liberals will fall short because their dreams fall short. If the Democratic Party of the past seemed to represent the interests of ordinary Americans and not just the wealthy it was because the party raised itself on the tide of a rebellious labor movement. Rebuild the labor movement and the capitalists will be forced to relent. However, the interests of the Middle Class are not identical to those of the Working Class, and we can no longer afford to allow them to negotiate with the capitalists on our behalf.

Our dream is of a classless society: no capitalists, no middle class, and no wage slavery. That is something worth fighting for.

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.

So there is an opening for a real alternative. For we must not forget that capitalism is but the latest form of economy. To Proudhon: “the radical vice of political economy, consists … in affirming as a definitive state a transitory condition – namely, the division of society into patricians [a wealthy elite] and proletaires.” So we have seen slave labor, followed by serfdom, followed by capitalism. What is capitalism? As Proudhon put it, the “period through which we are now passing … is distinguished by a special characteristic: WAGE LABOR” (“la salariat,” to use the Frenchman’s favorite term for it).

So capitalism is an economic system based on hired labor, that is selling your labor (liberty) piecemeal to a boss. For anarchists, this is best called “wage slavery”

Anarchism aims for associated labor, free labor in other words – the situation where those who do the work manage it. In the longer term, the aim is for abolition of work (work/play becoming the same thing). To quote Kropotkin, we aim to “create the situation where each person may live by working freely, without being forced to sell [their] work and [their] liberty to others who accumulate wealth by the labor of their serfs.”

Anarchism was not thought up by thinkers in a library. Its origins, as Kropotkin stressed in his classic work “Modern Science and Anarchism,” lie in the struggle and self-activity of working class people against exploitation and oppression.

We do not abstractly compare capitalism to a better society, rather we see the structures of new world being created in struggle within, but against, capitalism. Thus the assemblies and committees created to conduct a strike are seen as the workplace organizations which will organize production in a free society. To quote the Industrial Workers of the World: Building the new world in the shell of the old.

Different schools of anarchism

There are generally three different schools of anarchism (or libertarian socialism): Mutualism, Collectivism and Communism.  Anarcho-Syndicalism is more a tactic than a goal and so its adherents aim for one of these three (usually, anarcho-communism although Bakunin, who first formulated anarcho-syndicalist tactics, called himself a collectivist). In practice, of course, different areas will experiment in different schemes depending on what people desire and the objective circumstances they face. Free experimentation is a basic libertarian principle.

While these three schools differ on some issues, they share certain key principles. In fact, if someone claims something as “anarchism” and it rejects any one of these then we can safely say it is not anarchism at all.

The first principle is possession, not private property. Following Proudhon’s What is Property?, use rights replace property rights in a free society. This automatically implies an egalitarian distribution of wealth. The second is socialization. This means free access to workplaces and land, so the end of landlords and bosses (this is sometimes called “occupancy and use”). The third is voluntary association, in other words self-management of production by those who do it. While the name given to these worker associations vary (cooperatives, syndicates, collectives, workers companies are just four), the principle is the same: one person, one vote. The last key principle is free federation. This is based on free association, which is essential for any dynamic economy, and so horizontal links between producers as well as federations for coordination of joint interests. It would be rooted in decentralization (as both capitalist firms and the Stalinist economies prove, centralization does not work). It would be organized from the bottom up, by means of mandated and recallable delegates

Bakunin summarized this kind of economy well when he stated that the “land belongs to only those who cultivate it with their own hands; to the agricultural communes … the tools of production belong to the workers; to the workers’ associations.” The rationale for decision making by these self-managed workplaces would be as different from capitalism as their structure. To quote Kropotkin, economics in a sane society should be the “study of the needs of mankind, and the means of satisfying them with the least possible waste of human energy.” These days we would need to add ecological considerations – and it is certain that Kropotkin would have agreed (his classic Fields, Factories and Workshops has an obvious ecological perspective, even if he does not use the term).

Critique of Property

To understand anarchist visions of a free economy, you need to understand the anarchist critique of capitalism. As is well known, Proudhon proclaimed that “property is theft.” By that he meant two things. First, that landlords charged tenants for access to the means of life. Thus rent is exploitative. Second, that wage labor results in exploitation. Workers are expected to produce more than their wages. To quote Proudhon:

Whoever labors becomes a proprietor – this is an inevitable deduction from the principles of political economy and jurisprudence. And when I say proprietor, I do not mean simply (as do our hypocritical economists) proprietor of his allowance, his salary, his wages, – I mean proprietor of the value his creates, and by which the master alone profits … The laborer retains, even after he has received his wages, a natural right in the thing he was produced.

This feeds into Proudhon’s “property is despotism.” In other words, that it produces hierarchical social relationships and this authority structure allows them to boss workers around, ensuring that they are exploited. To quote Proudhon again:

Do you know what it is to be a wage-worker? It is to labor under another, watchful for his prejudices even more than for his orders. … It is to have no mind of your own … to know no stimulus save your daily bread and the fear of losing your job. The wage-worker is a man to whom the property owner who hires him says: What you are to do is to be none of your business; you have nothing to control in it.

To achieve this, as noted above, use rights replace property rights. Personal possession remains only in the things you use. To quote Alexander Berkman, anarchism

abolishes private ownership of the means of production and distribution, and with it goes capitalistic business. Personal possession remains only in the things you use. Thus, your watch is your own, but the watch factory belongs to the people. Land, machinery, and all other public utilities will be collective property, neither to be bought nor sold. Actual use will be considered the only title – not to ownership but to possession. The organization of the coal miners, for example, will be in charge of the coal mines, not as owners but as the operating agency. Similarly will the railroad brotherhoods run the railroads, and so on. Collective possession, cooperatively managed in the interests of the community, will take the place of personal ownership privately conducted for profit.

Proudhon summarized this well as “possessors without masters.”


While not all anarchists have used the term “socialization,” the fact this is the necessary foundation for a free society and, unsurprisingly, the concept (if not the word) is at the base of anarchism. This is because it ensures universal self-management by allowing free access to the means of production. As Emma Goldman and John Most argued, it “logically excludes any and every relation between master and servant.”

This has been an anarchist position as long as anarchism has been called anarchism. Thus we find Proudhon arguing in 1840 that “the land is indispensable to our existence” and “consequently a common thing, consequently insusceptible of appropriation” and that “all accumulated capital being social property, no one can be its exclusive proprietor.” This means “the farmer does not appropriate the field which he sows” and “all capital … being the result of collective labor” is “collective property.”  Unsurprisingly, Proudhon argued for “democratically organized workers associations” and that “[u]nder the law of association, transmission of wealth does not apply to the instruments of labor, so cannot become a cause of inequality.”

As economist David Ellerman explains, the democratic workplace is a social community,

a community of work rather than a community residence. It is a republic, or res publica of the workplace. The ultimate governance rights are assigned as personal rights … to the people who work in the firm. … This analysis shows how a firm can be socialized and yet remain ‘private’ in the sense of not being government-owned.


Socialization logically implies that there would be no labor market, simply people looking for associations to join and association looking for associates. Wage-labor would be a thing of the past and replaced by self-management.

This is sometimes termed “workers’ control” or, in the words of Proudhon, “industrial democracy” and the turning of workplaces into “little republics of workers.” For Kropotkin, a libertarian economy would be based on “associations of men and women who … work on the land, in the factories, in the mines, and so on, [are] themselves the managers of production.”

This would be based on one member, one vote (and so egalitarian structures and results); administrative staff elected and recallable; integration of manual and intellectual work; and division of work rather than division of labor.

Thus, as Proudhon suggested, workplaces “are the common and undivided property of all those who take part therein” rather than “companies of stockholders who plunder the bodies and souls of the wage workers.” This meant free access, with “every individual employed in the association” having “an undivided share in the property of the company” and has “a right to fill any position” as “all positions are elective, and the by-laws subject to the approval of the members.”

While these principles underlie all schools of anarchism, there are differences between them.


The first school of anarchism was mutualism, most famously associated with Proudhon. This system has markets. This does not imply capitalism, as markets are not what define that system. Markets pre-date capitalism by thousands of years. What makes capitalism unique is that it has the production of commodities and wage labor. So mutualism is based on producing commodities, but with wage labor replaced by self-employment and cooperatives.

This implies that distribution is by work done, by deed rather than need. Workers would receive the full product of their labor, after paying for inputs from other cooperatives. This does not mean that cooperatives would not invest, simply that association as a whole would determine what fraction of their collective income would be distributed to individual members and would be retained for use by the cooperative.

It should be noted here that neo-classical economics argues that cooperatives produce high unemployment. However, like the rest of this ideology this is based on false assumptions and is, ultimately, a theory whose predictions have absolutely nothing to do with the observed facts.

As well as cooperatives, the other key idea of mutualism is free credit. A People’s Bank would be organized and would charge interest rates covering costs (near 0%). This would allow workers to create their own means of production. Again, neo-classical economics suggest that there would be a problem of inflation as mutual banks would increase the money supply by creating credit. However, this is flawed as credit is not created willy-nilly but “rationed,” i.e., given to projects which are expected to produce more goods and services. Thus it would not be a case of more and more money chasing a set number of goods but rather money being used to create more and more goods.

Lastly, there is the agro-industrial federation. Proudhon was well aware of the problems faced by isolated cooperatives and so suggested associations organize a federation to reduce risk by creating solidarity, mutual aid and support. As all industries are interrelated, it makes sense for them to support each other. In addition, the federation was seen as a way to stop return of capitalism by market forces. It would also be for public services (such as railways, roads, health care and so forth) which would be communally owned and run by workers cooperatives.

Mutualism is reformist in strategy, aiming to replace capitalism by means of alternative institutions and competition. Few anarchists subscribe to that perspective.


The next school of anarchist economics is collectivism, most famously associated with Bakunin. It is similar to mutualism, less market based (although still based on distribution by deed). However, it has more communistic elements and most of its adherents think it will evolve into libertarian communism.

So it can be considered as a half-way house between mutualism and communism, with elements of both. As such, it will not be discussed here as its features are covered in these two. Like libertarian communism, it is revolutionary, considering that capitalism cannot be reformed.


First, this is not like Stalinism/Leninism! That was state capitalism and not remotely communistic, never mind libertarian communist. Most anarchists are libertarian communists and the theory is most famously associated with Kropotkin.

Unlike mutualism and collectivism, there are no markets. It is based on the abolition of money or equivalents (such as labor notes). So no wage labor AND no wages system (“From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”).

Communist-anarchism extends collective possession to the products of labour. This does not mean we share toothbrushes but simply that goods are freely available to those who need it. To quote Kropotkin: “Communism, but not the monastic or barrack-room Communism formerly advocated [by state socialists], but the free Communism which places the products reaped or manufactured at the disposal of all, leaving to each the liberty to consume them as he pleases in his [or her] own home.”

These anarchists urge the abolition of money because there are many problems with markets as such, problems which capitalism undoubtedly makes worse but which would exist even in a non-capitalist market system. Most obviously, income does not reflect needs and a just society would recognize this. Many needs cannot be provided by markets (public goods and efficient health care, most obviously). Markets block information required for sensible decision making (that something costs £5 does not tell you how much pollution it costs or the conditions of the workplace which created it). They also systematically reward anti-social activity (firms which impose externalities can lower prices to raise profits and be rewarded by increased market share as a result). Market forces produce collectively irrational behavior as a result of atomistic individual actions (e.g., competition can result in people working harder and longer to survive on the market as well as causing over-production and crisis as firms react to the same market signals and flood into a market). The need for profits also increases uncertainty and so the possibility of crisis and its resulting social misery.

Rather than comparing prices, resource allocation in anarcho-communism would be based on comparing the use values of specific goods as well as their relative scarcities. The use-values compared would be both positive (i.e., how well does it meet the requirements) and negative (i.e., what resources does it use it, what pollution does it cause, how much labor is embodied in it, and so on). In this way the actual cost information more often then not hidden by the price can be communicated and used to make sensible decisions. Scarcity would be indicated by syndicates communicating how many orders they are receiving compared to their normal capacity – as syndicates get more orders, their product’s scarcity index would rise so informing other syndicates to seek substitutes for the goods in question.


Fine, it will be said, but that is just wishful thinking! Not true as the empirical evidence is overwhelming for libertarian economic ideas.

For example, workers’ participation in management and profit sharing enhance productivity. Worker-run enterprises are more productive than capitalist firms. A staggering 94 percent of 226 studies into this issue showed a positive impact, with 60 percent being statistically significant. Interestingly, for employee ownership to have a strong impact on performance, it needs worker participation in decision making.

Cooperatives, moreover, have narrow differences in wages and status (well under 1 to 10, compared to 1 to 200 and greater in corporations). Unsurprisingly, high levels of equality increase productivity (as workers don’t like slaving to make others rich off their labor).

What about a lack of stock market? No real need to discuss how stock markets are bad for the real economy in the current cycle but they are also characterized by serious communication problems between managers and shareholders. Moreover, the stock market rewards short-term profit-boosting over long-term growth so leading to over-investment in certain industries and increasing risk and gambling. Significantly, bank-centered capitalism has less extreme business cycles than stock market capitalism.

The successful cooperatives under capitalism, like Mondragon, are usually in groups, which shows sense of having an agro-industrial federation, and are often associated with their own banking institutions (which, again, shows the validity of Proudhon’s ideas).

Then there is the example of various social revolutions around the world. No anarchist talk would be complete with a reference to the Spanish Revolution of 1936 and this is no exception. Yet we do so for a reason as this shows that libertarian self-management can work on a large-scale, with most of industry in Catalonia successfully collectivized while vast areas of land owned and managed collectively. More recently, the revolt against neo-liberalism in Argentina included the taking over of closed workplaces. These recuperated factories show that while the bosses need us, we do not need them!

Getting there

So, with the desirability and validity of libertarian socialism sketched, the question becomes one of how do we get there. Obviously, one elements of this would be creating and supporting cooperatives within capitalism. (Proudhon: “That a new society be founded in the heart of the old society.”) This could include promoting socialization and cooperatives as an alternative to closures, bailouts and nationalization.

However, most anarchists see that as just a part of encouraging a culture of resistance, or encouraging collective struggles against capitalism and the state. In other words, encouraging direct action (strikes, protests, occupations, etc.) and ensuring that all struggles are self-managed by those within them and that any organizations they create are also self-managed from below. The goal would be for people to start occupying workplaces, housing, land, etc., and so making socialization a reality. By managing our struggles we learn to manage our lives; by creating organizations for struggles against the current system we create the framework of a free society.

Together we can change the world!

More information on these issues can be found in section I of An Anarchist FAQ (www.anarchistfaq.org.uk).  Radical Routes is a network of cooperatives and can be contacted c/o Cornerstone Resource Centre, 16 Sholebroke Avenue, Leeds, LS7 3HB, England.  Iain McKay is editing a compilation of Proudhon’s selected works.

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.

Upon the simple agreement to create a labor organization independent from the political, religious and economic powers as a prerequisite for improving the living conditions of the workers through to the end of exploitation, the CNT began its anarcho-syndicalist activity. In a few years it brought together most of the labor movement with significant social and economic advances that are now an invaluable legacy for today’s society.

The work day of eight hours, the work week of thirty-six hours, the elimination of child labor, equality of women and incorporation into daily life of values such as solidarity, federalism, ecology, feminism, free love, anti-militarism, atheism … so in vogue today, are part of that legacy that reached its zenith in the Social Revolution of 1936, when the utopia – libertarian communism – transformed everyone’s daily life in all the liberated territories.

The reaction of international capitalism enabled Franco’s fascist army to turn that revolutionary dream into a nightmare of hundreds of thousands of people persecuted, murdered and disappeared after the victorious coup in 1939. But not one of the culprits – all known, some active politicians – of that regime of terror, one of the most murderous in history, was even publicly reproved, thanks to the shameful impunity pact with Franco, which the national democratic left (PSOE, PCE, UGT and CCOO – the “socialist” and “communist” political parties and their respective affiliated union centers, ed.) sealed in its surrender agreement with capital, known as the “Spanish Transition” (1977).

Nevertheless, the people continued to defend, often with their lives, the simple principles of anarcho-syndicalism: independence, autonomy, federalism, self-management, assemblies, solidarity and direct action, i.e. self-organization, to reject any interference by political parties or other institutions, economic, religious, etc., in labor affairs. Strikes, demonstrations, repression and torture were the daily chronicle of the dictatorship (1939-1976), until their disappearance when the labor movement thrillingly came back to rebuild their beloved CNT (1977).

We live in new years of incessant labor conquest. The days of Montjuic, or San Sebastian de los Reyes, marked the powerful rebirth of the confederation in the 1970s. The progress of the labor movement, again self-organized by the CNT, through examples like the strike struggles of gas stations in 1978, prompted the reaction of capitalism, this time supported by the democratic state and its institutional apparatus (governments, parties, judges, trade union bureaucracies, …).

The successful union of the CNT was suppressed by the police (Case Scala, 1978) and, with the silence and propaganda campaigns of defamation in the media, this has generated disastrous consequences for the labor movement in this country.

The weakening of the anarcho-syndicalist presence in the labor movement made possible the loss of rights acquired after a long and bitter union struggles, by deregulation and labor precariousness implanted with the worst of the corruptions plaguing the country: union corruption. An officially silent corruption, which corrupts the union movement in general in the eyes of workers, but mainly it stars institutional unions – the CCOO and the UGT, whose unionist “yuppies” acquire grants and amounts in the millions from governments and businesses as payment to their treason, for accepting whatever measures are taken in defense of capital accumulation and rising profits (EREs, labor reforms, lay offs, etc …).

Despite all that, thousands of workers now follow the genuine labor organization which we call the CNT, keeping it exclusively their own, making it the only living example of class unionism, capable of dealing with oppression and social control, ecological destruction and over-exploitation of the world economy, all aspects inherent to capitalism.

2010 has for us a special connotation: it marks a century of existence of the CNT. It is the centenary of a people and the invaluable struggle of thousands of people over the last hundred years has provided us with a shining blueprint, to be followed by the world’s working class, by their own culture, self-organizing capacity, radical struggles, popular spread and revolutionary achievements in order to build an anti-authoritarian society based on solidarity.

These ideals form the noble cause to which we invite you here and now.

The CNT has established a web site commemorating the centenary at http://cnt.es/centenario. It includes a program of events throughout Spain, including an April 2010 conference on alternatives to capitalism in Barcelona at which ASR editorial collective member Jon Bekken will be among the presenters.

The CGT (General Confederation of Labor, which separated from the CNT in the 1980s) also lays claim to the heritage of the CNT, and presents its own statement and discusses its centenary plans at www.cgt.org.es/spip.php?rubrique125

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, indicating that the stock market has recovered most of its losses even as home foreclosures continue at record rates. True,  the number of people without jobs continues to rise – as does the length of time it takes laid-off workers to find new jobs even at lower pay (or give up, thereby reducing the official unemployment rate), which is now at record levels – but the pace of plant closings and lay-offs has slowed as the bosses run short on wage slaves to fire.

About eight and a half million U.S. workers have lost their jobs since the recession officially started a year ago (though, of course, millions of jobs were disappearing long before that), and many more jobs have disappeared as people retired, often a half-step ahead of the ax. Other jobs have been transformed from full-time wage slavery to part-time immiseration. Temporary and contract work is once again on the upswing.

Labor productivity is skyrocketing, as workers are pressed to do the work that previously required two or three people. Productivity rose by more than 9 percent in the third quarter of 2009 (it was even higher in manufacturing), enabling the bosses to get more production per hour of labor than ever before in recorded history. The economists see this as a good thing, and even when they start hiring again the bosses are hardly likely to tolerate a resumption of the earlier, already-too-hectic, pace of work.

Wages are down for most workers, and health and retirement benefits are in tatters; but executive bonuses are once again raining down from the sky. Even companies in bankruptcy – like the Tribune media conglomerate discussed last issue – are paying out tens of millions of dollars in bonuses to their executives, explaining that unlike us humble wage slaves who can be kept at our jobs through fear of starvation and homelessness, these overpaid parasites require ever-fatter paychecks to motivate them to do their (largely useless) jobs.

The capitalists are doing just fine, thank you very much. (And they should be thanking you, given the trillions of dollars shoveled into their greedy maws to keep them afloat.) The banks that we were told were “too big to fail” a couple years ago are now much, much bigger. Massive infusions of social wealth, not just in the United States but around the world, have enabled these capitalists to escape the consequences of their reckless speculation; instead of being consigned to the graves they so richly deserve, the bosses continue roaming the world looking for ever more victims to feed their insatiable demand for capital. This is indeed a zombie economy, fueled by the dead labor and destroyed dreams of our fellow workers around the world.

The ravages of the financial collapse will be felt for decades to come. The full cost of the bail-out may never be known, but one thing is certain. Tens of millions of human lives could have been saved from poverty-related deaths (malaria, malnutrition, AIDS, and the like) for less than a tenth of what the U.S. government alone spent on bailing out the banks and financiers. The money spent propping up an ownership system that enables a tiny handful to plunder our planet and squander our lives could instead have been used to eradicate world hunger, and to provide decent housing and health care for the world’s population.

It seems like the capitalists may succeed in patching this zombie economy back together for a few years longer. But can we afford the enormous expense of sustaining an economic system that depends on sucking the life blood from the planet, and from the workers who produce our society’s vast wealth?

The parasites who live off our labor see the means of our survival as costs to be shunted aside, our lives and planet as resources to be plundered. They measure our future in fiscal quarters, and their moral compass is the rate of return on investment. Perhaps we could afford to support this zombie system in an earlier age, though millions of our fellow workers died in the glorious cause of raising the profit rate. But today, in the midst of the deepest economic crisis our world has faced since the Great Depression, the capitalist system is a luxury we can no longer afford.

There has been too much chatter about reforming financial markets and the like. It’s time to organize in our communities and at our jobs, to seize our workplaces, to build job control, to win shorter hours, to dump the bosses off our backs. It’s time to rid ourselves of this rotten system, and instead devote our resources to meeting human needs, and the needs of our planet.

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