Many people who have limited knowledge of anarchism believe that anarchists are, by definition, against all organization; this is what they think anarchism means. In fact, historically anarchists have held a range of opinions on the question. Probably most well-known has been the position of anarcho-syndicalists, who are in favor of organizing the mass of workers in trade unions or trade union-like organizations, while differing among themselves over whether conscious anarchists should form a distinct organization of their own, either in or separate from the unions. At the risk of simplifying, one can say that there is a spectrum of opinion in the present-day anarchist movement on the issue. At one end are those who are against any type of organization larger than local collectives made up of people who know and trust each other and who relate to each other in a direct way. (These are known as “affinity groups.”) At the other end of the spectrum are people/groups who support the formation of a single national, and ultimately international, organization, based on a very high degree of political agreement. This level of agreement might well be described as theoretical, programmatic, and tactical unity.
Over the years since I have considered myself an anarchist, I have come to a position on the question of organization that I would like to sketch out here. To make it easier to see what I am for, it might be worth stating first what I am against. To put it most simply, I disagree strongly with proponents of both of the positions I mentioned above as representing the two ends of the spectrum. In contrast to the first stance, I believe anarchists should be willing to organize themselves in groupings larger than local collectives. On the other hand, I am definitely against building organizations that are based on “theoretical, programmatic, and tactical unity.”
Specifically, I think anarchists should build organizations that are larger than local collectives. This is because I believe it is crucial for anarchists to maintain ongoing communication among themselves, exchanging ideas and sharing our thoughts on our practical experiences. We also need means to coordinate our actions on a broader than local scale. This will become increasingly necessary when a mass radical movement develops in this country (which I believe - and hope - will happen at some point in the future) and we will be engaged in large-scale struggles while contending with other left-wing forces whose agendas differ significantly from our own. To develop and maintain such communication and coordination will require much more than local, disconnected affinity groups.
On the other hand, I believe that a group based on “theoretical, programmatic, and tactical unity” will, whatever the intentions of its founders, verge on the type of organization advocated by Marxists of the Leninist/Maoist/Trotskyist variety. In other words, such an organization will almost inevitably be, or will soon become, hierarchical and centralized, and will embody, and continually recreate, authoritarian relations among its members. I’d like to discuss this issue in more detail.
Let’s look first at the question of theoretical unity. What I assume is meant by this is building an organization whose members are all in substantial agreement on a fairly wide range of theoretical issues, including philosophical outlook, conception of the society they seek to build, view of the nature of the social transformation that would establish such a society, a strategy (that is, some notion of how this revolution would be achieved), attitudes toward competing organizations, tactics, and organizational methods. Leaving aside for the moment whether building an organization on this basis is desirable, I believe that in the vast majority of cases, such theoretical unity will either be a lie, that is, will serve to hide real theoretical differences in the group in question or will serve as a cover for what are in fact authoritarian relations within the organization.
First, it should be obvious that formal agreement on a given theoretical question can, and often does, hide substantial political disagreement. For example, many anarchists and most Marxists call for a working class revolution to overthrow capitalism and establish a liberated society. But what anarchists and Marxists mean by such a revolution are usually two very different things. While Marxists say they are for establishing a classless and stateless society, democratically and cooperatively managed, for them, that is only the ultimate goal, something that will happen way down the road. In the short run, they are for building the opposite. They aim to establish an extremely centralized revolutionary dictatorship, what they call the “dictatorship of the proletariat” but which, if history is any guide, will mostly likely be a dictatorial regime of the Marxists themselves, based on their total ownership and control of the entirety of society’s resources, the nationalized the means of production. This is, of course, what the Russian anarchists, and the Russian people as a whole, found out the hard way. Even in the long-run, the Marxists’ vision of communism and the views of anarchists on the ideal society are apt to be quite different, given Marxists’ commitment to “scientific” planning, extreme centralization, and huge factories manned by “industrial armies,” as well as their inveterate hostility to spontaneity, any form of real local control, and competing ideologies.
Apparent theoretical agreement among people who call themselves anarchists may also mask serious differences. Thus, there are some anarchists who are just as convinced as Marxists that they are right and that everybody else is wrong, that they have all (or most of) the answers, and that it is their job to go out and convince everyone, particularly the “masses,” of their point of view, to “educate” them about the correct theory, the correct analysis, the correct strategy, and the correct tactics. In contrast, there are others who do not believe they have all the answers and who therefore wish to establish ongoing relations with other anarchists, and even those who may not consider themselves anarchists, to join forces on concrete issues, and to share ideas with and learn from each other in an honest and comradely manner. In this example, apparent agreement even on the term “anarchism” papers over what are, in fact, very different concrete meanings.
Besides hiding crucial political differences, theoretical unity often obscures what are actually authoritarian relations. To see why this is so, it is worth taking a look at organizations that are (or, I should say, claim to be) based on theoretical unity. Typical of these are the Marxist-Leninist or Trotskyist organizations. When one joins such an organization, one automatically claims to be, or at least to want to be, a revolutionary Marxist, which means being in agreement with the major theoretical tenets of Marxism. These include a huge number of issues, such as: (1) the philosophy of “dialectical materialism”; (2) the Marxist theory of history, or “historical materialism”; (3) the Marxist analysis of capitalist society, as elaborated in Marx’s CAPITAL and in other works; (4) a commitment to establishing the “dictatorship of the proletariat” based on nationalized property; (5) the basic theoretical, strategic, and tactical ideas of Lenin, which include his analysis of imperialism, his conception a revolutionary party based on democratic centralism, his support for the right of nations to self-determination, his attitude toward peasants, and the various Leninist tactics, such as the united front and critical support; (6) the view that the October Revolution (of 1917) was a proletarian socialist revolution, and (7) a specific analysis of the nature of the society that was established by that revolution.
Superficially, it may seem as if all the members of such organizations really do agree on such positions, but the reality is often - even usually - quite different. How many members of these organizations spend any significant amount of time studying these questions before they join them? How many spend any significant amount of time studying these questions even AFTER they become members? The answer is - very few. In fact, most members of Marxist organizations take the truth of these theoretical propositions on faith and then go out and proselytize for them, building the organization, selling its newspaper, handing out leaflets, pursuing the organization’s work in the workplace, in the trade unions, and in the other “arenas” in which the organization is active, trying to recruit people. While they may participate in a class or two on Marxist theory, belong to a study group, or do some reading on their own, most members have neither the time nor the personal inclination to do the studying necessary to have more than a very limited and superficial knowledge of Marxist theory. This is one of the reasons why in almost all Marxist organizations there is a fairly marked division of labor between a few of the organization’s leaders, who have, or claim to have, a substantial theoretical knowledge of Marxism, Leninism, Trotskyism or Mao Tse-Tung (Zedong) Thought (as the case may be) and the vast majority of the members, who do not have such knowledge but who trust and respect the leaders and have confidence that what they say and decide will be correct. Although people in such organizations may claim to have and even believe themselves to be in theoretical unity, such unity is in fact a mask for an authoritarian relationship between leaders and rank and file members.
Of course, anarchism (to its credit) does not claim to stand on an extensive and logically consistent body of theory in the way that Marxism does. But an anarchist organization based on theoretical unity would almost inevitably embody the same authoritarian dynamic. Newer, less well-read, less theoretically sophisticated members would generally accept the theoretical propositions that define the organization on faith, in essence, following the group’s leaders with only a limited knowledge of what the organization stands for.
Moreover, do we really want to build and to be part of an organization built on theoretical agreement? I don’t. It would take me many hours (days?) to explain to another person my views on just a few philosophical and political issues: why, for example, I do not agree with “dialectical materialism”; why (to be even more shocking) I am no longer a “materialist”; what my theory of history is (or perhaps that I don’t really have one); what my analysis of capitalism is; whether I think our knowledge of the “external world” is true and what Truth really means; why I consider myself to have been more influenced by the philosophers Kant, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, than by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Bakunin, and Kropotkin; why I feel myself to be closer to some Christian socialist thinkers (and mystics), such as Nicholas Berdyaev and Lev Shestov, than to most atheists, even though I still consider myself to be an atheist; why I think novelists such as Stendahl, Balzac, Conrad, Melville, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy have as much to teach us as the great political theorists. And who would want to listen to all that anyway? And how could I reasonably expect anybody to agree with me on these questions, based as my current thinking is on years of reading and pondering the “ultimate” questions. And what could it possibly mean if somebody said he/she did? Yet, I certainly would not want to build, let alone join, an organization that demanded a high level of theoretical agreement and whose theoretical tenets differed substantially from my own, both on the issues I mentioned and on other questions.
In addition, I wouldn’t want to be a member of an organization in which everybody did agree on a broad range of theoretical issues. How boring would that be! Any group I would want to join and to build at this point in my life would include individuals with differing theoretical ideas but who agreed to meet and work together based on other considerations (considerations I will discuss later on). Then, when we had time, we could alter our consciousnesses in the ways we like (those of us who do) and sit around and discuss the deep theoretical issues that interest us.
Lastly, I think organizations built on a high level of theoretical unity have a built-in tendency to believe that their theory, their program, is The Truth. As a result, even a self-proclaimed anarchist organization built on such a basis would strive to achieve ideological hegemony over the anarchist movement, over the entire left, and over any mass movement of working class and other oppressed people that might arise. Despite its claims to be anarchist, it is also highly likely that an organization built on such unity would seek to impose its world-view (its theoretical opinions) on the new, supposedly liberated society if it had the opportunity to do so. The result, of course, would not be a liberated society at all, but something looking remarkably like the regimes established by Marxist organizations, and for the same reasons.
Having once thought that I understood The Truth (Marxism) and having since decided that I was wrong, I do not want to be a part of an organization that believes it has The Truth. While I think that what I now believe is true, I also understand and accept that my current ideas may turn out to be wrong, and I would hope I would have the intellectual and moral honesty to change my beliefs accordingly. I therefore do not wish to isolate myself from people who have differing theoretical ideas. This is because, instead of the Marxist approach to the question of truth, which is “monist,” that is, it insists that there is one true explanation of reality, I now subscribe to a philosophical anarchism, based on a “pluralistic” conception of the truth. This approach believes either: (1) that there is no one truth; or (2) that there is one truth, but that it is not possible for any individual or organization, or even humanity as a whole, to grasp that truth perfectly and in its entirety. The result is that there is no theoretical/philosophical certainty, and that different points of view - and different organizations and individuals - may grasp parts of the truth but not all of it.
At the other end of the scale from theoretical unity is tactical unity. I assume this means that the people involved in specific areas of work discuss and come to agreement about the tactics they plan to use at any given time in those areas, and then all (including those who might disagree with the tactics decided upon, presumably, by the majority) would carry out such tactics. This is, in fact, Leninist discipline. (I’m not sure what else tactical unity could mean.) I once supported this idea, but that was when I was a Marxist and held to a Marxist conception of truth. I now no longer support this idea and would not want to be part of an organization that operates according to this principle. Putting to one side the question of whether tactical unity also masks authoritarian relations (people accepting what they should do on authority), I now believe that people in any given political or organizing situation should carry out the work as they see fit, according to their knowledge, their experience, and their assessment of the local conditions at any particular time. They could and should share their ideas and experiences with other people working in similar situations. I would also not exclude a number people coming to agreement to carry on their work in precisely the same way for a period of time, but I would not want to make this a hard-and-fast rule. I now recognize the importance of diversity in action, of trying a variety of differing approaches and then seeing what works best, and I would like to encourage such an experimentalist approach to political work.
This leaves programmatic unity. I believe that we can and should build organizations based on some degree of programmatic agreement. But this term covers a broad range of conceptions, so just what level of programmatic unity are we talking about? Obviously, people working together in a common organization, or in collectives affiliated to other groups, need to have some level of political (that is, programmatic) agreement. But this need not be - and in my opinion, should not be - anything like that implied by theoretical unity. It seems to me that theoretical unity implies a very high level of programmatic unity, and this, for the reasons I discussed above, I do not support. I think people working together in a common organization or in affiliated organizations can come to a fairly broad notion of unity - agreement on the basic points - while leaving a lot of other questions open; the exact level could be worked out over time. We could then have the basis for on-going work, but without insisting that everyone agree about everything or even most things.
THE QUESTION OF VALUES
In fact, I think all of these terms - theoretical, programmatic, and tactical unity, as well as others usually used to define political agreement - are too artificial and abstract to actually grasp political (and human) reality. This is because underneath them is a far more important question - one of values. By this I mean the fundamental ideas individuals hold about how human beings ought to treat each other, what kind of relations we want to establish with other people, what type of world we would like to live in. Obviously, to deal with this issue in any depth would require many pages, even a whole book (and, of course, many books have already been written about it), and I don’t intend to do that here. But I would like to discuss a couple of points.
I think, first of all, we should admit that the type of world we would like to live in, the type of society we wish to create, is a kind one, a place in which people deal with each other in a sensitive, caring, and considerate way, in which people are courteous to each other, and honest with each other, and where one person or group of people would not seek to dominate, use or exploit others. This is really what we mean, or should mean, when we say that we want to end exploitation. We do not merely want to do away with economic exploitation; we also want to eliminate political, social, racial, religious, cultural, sexual, and personal domination. This conception also includes the idea of being kind to the environment, to our Earth and to all its plants and animals, and to the cosmos of which we are a part. And we should not be afraid to admit all this, even though it may sound sappy, old-fashioned, and even religious. The left has almost always had an ambivalent attitude toward this idea, or at least toward coming out openly and expressing it. I suspect this is, at least in part, because of the left’s historical hostility attitude toward religion and liberalism, both of which articulate (usually hypocritically) these values. But this is really what being an anarchist means, at least to me. We are not talking about an abstract or purely formal change in social structure, e.g., the replacement of private property by social property, the elimination of social classes, government, and authority. What we really want to do is to change the way people relate to each other or, to put it better, to have them change the way they relate to each other.
An integral part of this is that the methods we use - our means, the actual way we relate to other people here and now, in the struggle and in our personal lives - should be consistent with our goals. For example, we do not believe that we (or anyone else) can use a dictatorship, along with violent, brutal methods, to create a liberated, humane society. Here, we definitely part company with Marxists. Although they insist that “means and ends are dialectically interrelated,” their notion of dialectics, built into the core of Marxist theory, leads them to insist that a dictatorship can - indeed, must - be used to create (ultimately) a liberated society. This is, of course, a reference to the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” which Frederick Engels himself described as authoritarian. The Bolsheviks took this notion very literally and built one of the most vicious dictatorships ever seen, while Stalin, rather than representing the negation of Leninism, as Leon Trotsky contended, took this Leninist tenet and carried it out to its logical conclusion. The Bolsheviks utilized similar dialectical sophistry to motivate the most elementary violations of common decency, particularly during the Civil War but even after: the taking and shooting of innocent people as hostages, the execution of entire military units that behaved “inappropriately” under fire, the imprisonment and execution of people for “pilfering state property” and “speculation” (in other words, for merely trying to survive under famine conditions, which were, to a considerable degree the result of the actions of the Bolsheviks themselves), shooting, jailing or exiling people merely because they had different ideas. They also turned lying into an art form. Although Trotsky wrote that Leninists must always “say what is,” the Bolsheviks slandered all their opponents in the foulest way, denouncing, when it suited their interests, all those who disagreed with them as “agents of the bourgeoisie” and “counterrevolutionaries.” To them, there were no honest disagreements, certainly not between political organizations. Either one agreed with the Bolsheviks or one represented the point of view of “non-proletarian classes.” In his narrow, fanatical mind, Lenin was always right, whatever he said, wrote, and did, even if it was on the most trivial of questions. One can see this throughout the entire history of the Russian Socialist Democratic Labor Party. Eventually, this idea, too, was taken to its logical conclusion and applied within the Russian Communist Party. Consistent with this, Lenin also insisted that real revolutionaries - true Bolsheviks - be “hard” and “merciless,” and that any manifestation of humane values was bourgeois and pusillanimous. Not least, the vast majority of Marxists have justified, excused, and whitewashed some of the most violent, cruelest regimes in history, on the grounds that they were (or, in the case of Cuba and Vietnam, still are) “socialist,” “progressive,” “workers’ states,” or some other piece of scholastic idiocy. (This is one of the reasons why, even though I consider myself to be an atheist, I feel closer to certain religious people than I do toward many atheists, certainly those of the Marxist variety, this being a rather obvious example of “theoretical unity” hiding crucial differences.) To me, agreement on humane values is more important than unity on a slew of theoretical issues.
CONCEPTION OF ORGANIZATION
My conception of organization flows from these considerations. It proceeds fundamentally from my idea of the type of society and world I would like to help create. To me, a truly anarchist/anti-authoritarian society must be humane. As a result, it would entail - besides being democratic, egalitarian, cooperative, decentralized, and state-less - a great deal of leeway for people to live their lives as they see fit, for people living in different regions to organize their economic, social, and political lives in different ways. I don’t think anarchists can, or should, insist that the new society be based on one single type of property, say, “communist” or “collectivist,” or that the political structure be formed around one organizational form, say, workers’ councils, or “soviets.” In such a society, I can see distinct regions being based on different types of property - communist, collectivist, communal, cooperative, even private - and utilizing different types of structures to manage their daily affairs. What matters to me most are the basics: Are the relations among people non-exploitive and non-authoritarian? Are people truly cooperating in the diverse areas of social life? Do people treat each other honestly, fairly, and with respect. And what determines this, it seems to me, is whether people WANT to live with each other in such a democratic, egalitarian, cooperative, and (yes) loving way. If the vast majority of people have decided that they do want to live in this way, then the specifics of how they organize their lives do not matter. If people really want to live in this manner, they will find the methods that suit them.
CONCEPTION OF THE MOVEMENT
My idea of the popular movement I would like to see emerge in the US and around the world also follows from the notion of the society I envision. It would be, in a sense, that society in the process of developing, as people learn, in the course of the struggle, to work together and manage the movement’s affairs in an honest, cooperative, democratic, and egalitarian fashion. As a result, in my view, the movement would not be dominated by one political party, organization, tendency, or ideology. It would be a kind of constantly changing, evolving unity-in-struggle of different organizations, collectives, and individuals. This view is in contrast to that of the Marxist organizations, which see themselves as striving to take over - that is, to establish their ideological (theoretical) and political hegemony, and ultimately their organizational control, over - the entire movement. This flows from their notion of truth, from their belief that their ideas, their version of Marxism, is true and correct, that it, and only it, represents the true “proletarian consciousness,” the true path to liberation. One of our jobs as anarchists and anti-authoritarians, then, is to carry on the struggle according to our principles, to show other people, other collectives, and organizations, what a truly anti-authoritarian approach is. In this sense, we, too, struggle for hegemony over the movement, in the sense that we would like to win the entire movement over to our conception. But this differs from the Marxist approach. We do not seek organizational control over the movement, and we do not look to impose a narrow ideological outlook (theoretical unity) on it. Our main principles are broad and should be acceptable, and hopefully, even attractive, to many other organizations, groups, collectives, and individuals.
In contrast to the Marxists and other authoritarians, we do not aim to lead through organizational control and ideological domination, but through persuasion and example. Unfortunately, we will almost inevitably have to contend with Marxist and other authoritarian parties, organizations, and tendencies, and to resist their attempts to control the struggle and take over the movement. But if we are not to undercut our goal, our vision of the kind of movement we want and the kind of society we envision, we must resist adopting their tactics and methods. Otherwise, we will wind up just like them, whatever we choose to call ourselves.
At this point in time, the kind of anarchist movement I think we should be building in the United States is a national network of individuals and a variety of organizations - collectives, unions, periodicals, regional and even national political groups, study circles, community organizations, medical clinics, artists’ and musicians’ collectives, theater groups, agrarian communes, etc. - who share fundamental values, a common (and general) conception of the society we envision, and a fairly broad programmatic agreement. The way we should begin to build this movement is not from the top down, by hammering out a set of theoretical propositions and an abstract program and then trying to recruit members, but by seeking out and establishing ties with other people and groups, by looking for areas in which we can engage in joint struggles on issues on which we generally agree, and through broadly-defined shared approaches. As we do this, we can, and should, hold friendly, open, and honest discussions of a variety of political and theoretical questions. Our aim should be to find individuals and groups with whom we feel we have something in common, with whom we share fundamental values, rather than with those we think may hold to the same theories as we do. As joint work and mutual trust develops, we can think about and pursue other kinds, even more formal kinds, of unity.