On Freedom, Theory and Practice, and Structure and Planning in a Good Society

Marxism has always had an affinity with the academy that anarchism never will. It was, after all, invented by a Ph.D.; and there’s always been something about its spirit which fits that of academy. Just as Marxism sprang from the mind of Marx, so we have Leninists, Maoists, Trotskyites, Gramscians, Althusserians. Note how the list starts with heads of states and grades almost seamlessly into French professors. [...] Schools of anarchism, in contrast, emerge from some kind of organizational principle or form of practice: Anarcho-Syndicalists and Anarcho-Communists, Insurrectionists and Platformists, Cooperativists, Individualists, and so on. Significantly, those few Marxist tendencies that are not named after individuals, like Autonomism and Council Commounism, are themselves the closest to anarchism. Anarchists are distinguished by what they do, and how they organize themselves to go about doing it. Indeed this has always been what anarchists have spent most of their time thinking and arguing about. [...] One might sum it up like this:

1.      Marxism has tended to be a theoretical or analytical discourse about revolutionary strategy.

2.      Anarchism has tended to be an ethical discourse about revolutionary practice.

Now, this does imply there’s a lot of potential complimentary between the two – and indeed there has been: even Mikhail Bakunin, for all his endless battles with Marx over practical questions, also personally translated Marx’s Capital into Russian. ~ excerpt from The Twilight of Vanguardism by David Graeber in the book POSSIBILITIES; Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire
I think Graeber, as usual, hit the nail on the head, and especially with the comment that the two – Marxism and anarchism – can be complimentary.
And the issue of combining theory and practice has produced the issue of who sets the boundaries. This has also been a huge point of consternation between Marxists and anarchists since the days of Marx and Bakunin (Bakunin, in fact, called Marx’s Communist Party a "red bureaucracy").
Historically, and perhaps understandably, it has been "intellectuals" who have provided much of the theory on strategy, and thus set boundaries to revolutionary aims. Intellectuals have been the ones with the privilege to spend more time conceptualizing while those less privileged have been forced to be more concerned with what to do, here and now. The lesson we can and should learn from this is that unless organizational/institutional structure has it built in to deter the threat of elitist rule or monopolization of skills and knowledge it is as The Who said
Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss
And unlike what Pete Townshend suggested, we don’t need to "get on our knees and pray that we won’t get fooled again." The solution isn’t crossing our fingers or more superstition. The solution is more consideration and attention to history and structural detail. Graeber also wrote, "The role of intellectuals is most definitively not to form an elite that can arrive at the correct strategic analyses and then lead the masses to follow."
The question here is: How do we organize our institutions in ways that does away with the very concept of bosses? How do we distribute "roles" so that there is no way to "form an elite that can arrive at the correct strategic analyses and then lead the masses to follow"? This question eats at the issue of division of labor. If tasks are divided so that empowering tasks are monopolized or if we alienate labor through the creation of bosses then we have laid the foundation for the formation of elite that will attempt to lead, not accompany.
Marx made some good points in his theory of alienation, but how could he miss the class of coordinators (in addition to the other two classes – workers and owners) that would prevent workers from managing their work? Whether the planners are owners of a private enterprise or technocratic specialists of a social/state/private enterprise, the alienation persists.
UNLESS everyone is free to manage their own labor then it will remain alienated.
Another issue that has still not been resolved is the issue of whether or not "the means justify the end." We want to achieve freedom but how do we go about doing so? Again, this issue was put in stark contrast between Bakunin and Marx when the former renounced the latter’s "Dictatorship of the Proletariat" by saying, "No dictatorship can have any other aim but that of self-perpetuation and it can beget only slavery in the people tolerating it; freedom can be created only by freedom."
Maybe it is important to say something on freedom.
C. Wright Mills said that freedom wasn’t the ability to do what one pleases or to choose from predetermined choices, but to cooperate, debate and formulate the choices to be chosen. This deals with how we plan and how we divide ourselves, and most importantly, how we define freedom. Since we are a social species with an "instinct for freedom" (Bakunin) and that most of our choices center around decisions that affect more than just ourselves I guess it’s fair to say that "freedom is the ability to cooperate in formulating and decision-making." What if others monopolize tasks, and present us options? Then we are not free since we didn’t participate in formulating our options. Having a say is more than just having a vote or a voice, it also includes access to the knowledge needed for an informed vote or voice.
Formulating can compliment decision-making in liberating ways if lessons learned and considerations are applied to the formulation process. Above all, anarchists have been concerned with human freedom. So it has always been somewhat of a mystery why some anarchists are reluctant to concern themselves with theory, formulating, conceptualizing different paths and ways to organize since it has profound implications on freedom. I get the concern for elitist planning and this is typically what they have in mind when critiquing planning but I have always felt it was an error to assume neglecting the significance of planning in preference of spontaneous action was the ideal route to go. Just because planning can be problematic doesn’t mean that all modes of planning are likewise. The problem isn’t that we plan, but how we go about it; how planning is structured. And organic or spontaneous action has its drawbacks too. It can be hurried and rushed. It can miss important details that make the end result sloppy. Worst of all, it often fails to address some of the lessons needed to prevent repeating past mistakes.
Besides, having vision and strategy is a defining feature of human nature. We are equipped to use deductive reasoning to determine a set of options and possible consequences. In fact we do this all the time. Every morning we get up we do not expect the floor to be missing because through our powers of deductive logic we know that it will be there and plan on it to be. There is no reason why we shouldn’t use them when it comes to social relations. The issue is not that we have plans, vision or strategy – personally, I think it is physically impossible for us not to – anymore than the problems of politics or economics is that we have polities and economies. The issue is how we plan.
Back to Bakunin, in his Immorality of the State – which he recognized as elitist and oppressive rule – he pointed out "The Supreme Law of the State,"
The supreme law of the State is self-preservation at any cost. And since all States, ever since they came to exist upon the earth, have been condemned to perpetual struggle – a struggle against their own populations, whom they oppress and ruin, a struggle against all foreign States, every one of which can be strong only if the others are weak – and since the States cannot hold their own in this struggle unless they constantly keep on augmenting their power against their own subjects as well as against the neighborhood States – it follows that the supreme law of the State is the augmentation of its power to the detriment of internal liberty and external justice.
While this description is accurate and one could learn a lot about human society by reading Bakunin, this conception of a "state" doesn’t have to exist. There is no law of nature that says political organization must be organized in top-down modes of authority. A state/government/polity can come in all different shapes, sizes and colors, and as the EZLN have pointed out we simply need to make a world where many worlds fit.
When we organize it is important to consider structure, and the question of authentic freedom should be a top priority of consideration. When we conceptualize, consider and decide on processes to get our tasks done we need to consider whether those impacted by the results have a fair and just say in discussing, formulating and deciding what processes to implant. This will also require that the knowledge and skills needed to ensure equitable access to this is fairly distributed to any and all who need it. How are tasks divided; what limitations and requirements are placed on those with access to those skills and knowledge so that others can freely and fairly acquire them?
The same holds true for the empowering work of theory. If in an institution – be this workplace, school, home or organization – a select group of people monopolizes the privileges of doing theoretical work then similar problems will arise. Those who control conceptualization set the parameters.
The ability to have such power and privilege fairly distributed amongst everyone affected in every aspect of their lives is the product of complete and absolute freedom. Anything else is a form of slavery.

Leave a comment