Individualism, Social Anarchism and Leninism

A Reply to the International Socialist Organization (Part 1)

I was prompted to write this by Paul D’Amato’s two recent articles in Socialist Worker criticizing anarchism (http://socialistworker.org/2009/02/27/refusing-to-be-ruled-over), and (http://socialistworker.org/2009/03/06/marxist-view-of-the-state) but this will also give me the opportunity to provide an explanation of some basic social anarchist ideas.

I believe there is, as Murray Bookchin said, an "unbridgeable chasm" between social anarchism and individualist or "lifestylist" forms of anarchism. Ideas often thought characteristic of anarchism, such as anti-organizational bias or an obsession for "consensus decision-making" are in fact features of individualist anarchism, not social anarchism.

Libertarian socialists would also agree there is an unbridgeable chasm between Leninism and libertarian socialism. The ISO is a Leninist organization in that it defends the political legacy of the Bolshevik party’s role in the Russian revolution, looks to Bolshevik leaders like Lenin and Trotsky for inspiration, and defends characteristic Leninist ideas such as the theory of a "vanguard party" to manage the transition to socialism, and the idea of building a hierarchical "proletarian state" in the period of social transformation away from capitalism.

D’Amato’s criticisms of those who think of social change in terms of one’s personal lifestyle choices make it clear he is taking aim at lifestyle or individualist anarchism. But D’Amato presents his criticisms as if they apply to anarchism in general. Leninist polemics have a long history of using individualist anarchism as a club to beat up on libertarian socialism…a kind of bait and switch fallacy. This method of argument would be analogous to me suggesting that there is no distinction between the form of Leninism advocated by the ISO and the despotic regime of Joseph Stalin. In fact I won’t do this because I’m aware that the ISO has a long history of critiquing existing (and formerly existing) Communist systems. I would suggest that Paul D’Amato and the ISO need to offer the same courtesy to social anarchism, by not confusing it with hyper-individualism or lifestyleism.

Self-emancipation and Direct Democracy

Social anarchism is a socialist political viewpoint, and emerged originally as a tendency in the first International Working Men’s Association (called the "First International") of the 1860s-70s. People like Anselmo Lorenzo and Michael Bakunin were prominent figures in that initial libertarian socialist current. Thus social anarchism or libertarian socialism — I use these phrases interchangeably — was a product of radical working class politics.

The libertarian socialists in the First International agreed with Marx that "the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the workers themselves."

This slogan was first annunciated by Flora Tristan y Moscoso — a pioneer socialist-feminist of the 1830s-40s. Tristan made her living as a printer. She had originally been a follower of socialists like Charles Fourier and Robert Owen, who advocated building alternative communities, and they relied on philanthropy from wealth people for funding — an approach that suffered from both paternalism and lack of realism. This was the approach that Engels later called "utopian socialism." By the early 1840s Tristan had repudiated utopian socialism. She came to the view that the working class could only rely on its own efforts. In 1843 she embarked on a nation-wide speaking tour to persuade French workers to form a national workers union, and her statement about working class self-emanipcation dates from that campaign.

Libertarian socialists in the First International thus agreed with Marx in rejecting the approach of the utopian socialists.

From the time of the First International to the 1930s, the main movement-building or mass organizing expression of social anarchism was in the labor movement…an approach to labor politics callled anarcho-syndicalism. Anarchosyndicalists take Flora Tristan’s slogan about working class self-liberation quite literally. Anarchosyndicalists believe that the working class can liberate itself from structures of oppression and exploitation by developing, "from below," its own mass social movement based on a wide-spread solidarity in the course of struggles with the dominating classes.

That working class liberation develops out of the class struggle is thus an assumption shared by both Marxism and anarchosyndicalism — and most social anarchists.

Through self-organization and their own collective action, working people people can develop a sense of having some collective power to change things, develop deeper insights into the nature of the system, and develop skills useful in advancing the struggle further. Through collective action and self-organization people can develop a greater sense of possibilities for change. The practical need for unity also helps in developing an understanding of the connections between captalism and things like racism and sexism and imperialism. A mass organization is also a site where radicals with ambitious ideas about social change can connect to the aspirations and grievances of of broader numbers of people.

The anarchosyndicalist advocacy of the direct democracy of worker assemblies comes from this idea of workers controlling and shaping — self-managing — their own collective struggles. This conception of a movement of workers "in union" with each other is opposed to bureaucratic business unionism, where a hierarchical structure of paid officials and staff becomes entrenched, and routine top-down bargaining narrows the issues and scope of the union’s aims and diminishes the ability of the union to address the concerns of workers on and off the job. A paid union hierarchy who don’t share the conditions of the job and often have incomes more akin to management are likely to "see management’s point of view" and will tend to see direct struggle as a risk to the union they would rather avoid.

The point to direct democracy comes from the fact it is the opposite of top-down control. The six-month fight of the Barcelona bus drivers to reduce their work week from six to five days in 2007-2008 illustrates this.

The bureaucratic unions at the Barcelona transit authority — the social-democratic UGT and Communist-influenced Workers Commissions — had sold out the workers on this demand for a shorter workweek in 2005 by signing a contract without a well-advertised contract ratification meeting.

In the fall of 2007 the anarcho-syndicalist CGT (www.cgt.org.es), which has a large section among the bus drivers, was able to persuade another independent bus drivers union (Spain has a system of "competitive unionism" that allows multiple unions in a workplace) to join it in sponsoring an open workers assembly "independent of the trade unions," to discuss the issues and plan a course of action.

Workers welcomed the rank and file of the UGT and Workers Commissions to attend, but not the paid officials. The assembly elected a rank and file committee to coordinate the struggle and publish a free newspaper for people in the city to explain their struggle. Over a period of six months the assembly conducted three strikes of several days duration, various demonstrations and marches, and gained the participation of a majority of the workers. After the third strike, the Socialist Party politicians who control the city government and transit authority in Barcelona finally capitulated to the workers’ demand.

The direct democracy of the workers assembly was crucial because it placed power over the struggle directly in the hands of the ranks, and gave bus drivers a real sense this was their movement. It gave them the power to decide if a management proposal was acceptable or not.

Direct democracy does not mean all decisions have to be made in meetings. It doesn’t mean there can be no delegation of tasks. But the idea is to avoid the development of a bureaucracy that has its own interests apart from the workers. Thus in the CGT Transport Union there are no paid officials and there is term limits for the executive committees.

Anarchosyndicalists have almost never advocated "consensus decision-making" for the mass organizations they have helped to organize or participate it — and this is true of most social anarchists in general. The interminable meetings and difficulty coming to clear decisions in a reasonable time — invariably a feature of consensus decision-making in settings with large numbers of people — would not be effective for working class people who have limited amounts of free time and are often exhausted from work. It’s particularly unlikely to work for working women who often have a "double day" — working for employers and also doing most housework for their families.

Part of the problem here, I think, is that people may confuse what works for a small, informal circle of like-minded friends and what is needed in a larger and more heterogeneous group of people. A small informal group of friends can make decisions through talking things out. But a social movement is not the same thing as a small group of like-minded friends.

Building consensus in a mass organization or movement is important. The more unified a movement is, the stronger it will be. This suggests that there does need to be an open discussion where people can air their views. But if discussion doesn’t end disagreement, then libertarian socialists propose a vote, and the majority carries the decision. Thus it is majoritarian direct democracy that social anarchists advocate, not "consensus decision-making." D’Amato ignores this distinction between different concepts of direct democracy.

The problem with "consensus decision-making" is its requirement of complete unanimity, and opposition to voting. I agree with Paul D’Amato’s criticism of consensus decision-making of the sort that existed in the ’70s/’80s period in anti-nuke groups like the Livermore Action Group or the Clamshell Alliance. Howard Ryan’s pamphlet "Blocking Progress" (http://www.connexions.org/CxLibrary/CX6187.htm) is good account of how destructive and elitist this was in the Livermore Action Group in the ’80s. But consensus decision making in those groups did not have its origins in social anarchism, but in Quakers and other radical pacifists, radical feminists, and individualist anarchists. Jo Freeman’s famous essay "The Tyranny of Structurelessness" was a critique of this approach to decision-making in radical feminist groups of that era.

Consensus decision-making tends to lead to minority rule and empowers people who are better at talking…who are usually more educated. In any movement there is always a minority who agrees with the original aims and character of an organization. So even if this is proven disfunctional from experience, the group can’t evolve through learning from experience because changes can be blocked by small minorities. This is why consensus decision-making is essentially conservative.

Persons and Social Groups

Why is there this difference between individualist anarchism and social anarchism in the interpretation of direct democracy? I believe the explanation for this lines in a theoretical difference about the concept of the person.

Individualist anarchism was influenced by the classical liberal conception of the person as a kind of atom whose core personality or identity is separate from social groups. The idea of absolute personal autonomy, which is a feature of hyper-individualism, is built on this.

Individuals are viewed as prior to society because society and social groups are viewed as akin to associations that a person joins, such as a club or church or a union. This picture was influenced by the classical liberal concept of society being formed as a "social contract" among individuals. This is the source of individualist anarchist talk of society being based on "free agreement" or "voluntary association". Because the individual is conceived as an atom prior to society, the individual is seen as requiring an absolute autonomy apart from the social collectivity…and this is expressed in the requirement of unanimity in collective decisions that person participates in. The individual ego thus asserts its claim to veto the collectivity on its own. William Godwin expresses this thus: "There is but one power to which I can yield a heartfelt obedience, the decision of my own understanding, the dictates of my own conscience."(1)

The individualist conception comes close to agreeing with Margaret Thatcher’s slogan, "Society doesn’t exist, only individuals exist." The individualist concept of the person is an assumption that individualist anarchism shares in common with right-wing "free market" "libertarianism".

But in fact society — and many social groups — are not like an association. When you’re born into a particular social class, or a particular racial or ethnic group, or a family, or you’re a particular sex raised in a particular gender system, this shapes who you become. Many of your abilities, expectations in life, tastes, way of talking and other things are shaped by being a part of a social group. Social groups become part of your identity. The social group is part of you. And this also means that people will often have a tendency to agree or sympathize with needs of a group they are a part of.

This view of the person as shaped by groups he or she is a part of is called the social concept of the person. The social concept of the person is another assumption shared in common by Marx and social anarchism.

Bakunin is expressing his agreement with this view of the person in this passage:

"Even the most wretched individual of our present society could not exist and develop without the cumulative social efforts of countless generations. Thus the individual, his freedom and reason, are the products of society, and not the vice versa: society is not the product of individuals comprising it; and the higher, the more fully the individual is developed, the greater his freedom — and the more he is the product of society, the more does he receive from society and the greater his debt to it."(1)

This doesn’t mean each individual isn’t also unique, with his or her own aspirations and ability to make up one’s own mind.

It might help to contrast the social concept of the person with another view that I’ll call the totalitarian concept of the person. This is a view that is very far out of fashion these days. But in the ’20s and ’30s, in both fascist and Stalinist rhetoric, there was a tendency to reduce the needs and interests and aspirations of the person to some larger entity such as a class, the nation or the state. The person was seen as a mere expression of some collectivity. The social concept of the person stands mid-way between the two extremes of individualism and totalitarianism, acknowledging both an individual and collective aspect to people.

Because our lives occur in various group contexts, there are always situations where our will will be limited by the wills of others, and by our obligations to others. Thus the slogan "refusing to be ruled over" (the title of one of D’Amato’s articles) is ambiguous. It could express an opposition to being subordinate to bosses, to oppressive hierarchies…or it could express the idea of individual autonomy, of not being subject to any limitation by others. This second interpretation is the individualist anarchist idea of absolute individual autonomy. But a person is not oppressed simply because they lose a vote in a meeting.

Direct Democracy and Self-management

For anarchosyndicalism, self-management and direct democracy are aspects of both the strategy for social change and also part of the program for a self-managed socialist society. The direct self-activity and self-organization of the working class, in running their own struggles and mass organizations, "prefigures" a society where workers will directly govern their own work and the industries they work in. "Prefigurative politics" thus had its origins in the libertarian syndicalist wing of labor radicalism.

In the social anarchist view, self-managment is an innate human capacity and need. Humans have the ability to discuss among themselves, develop plans for what they want to achieve, for themselves and jointly with others, and have the ability to develop skills and tools and coordination needed to realize their purposes in real time. Self-management is part of the idea of "positive" freedom. The liberal concept of freedom as absence of external coercion or constraint, which is what right-wing "libertarians" mean by "freedom," is viewed by social anarchists as only part of what real freedom is. "Positive" freedom requires also that people have roughly equal access to the means to participate effectively in the spheres of decision-making that affect their lives.

We can think of self-management of industry as a layered or nested structure of spheres of decision-making. Where groups of people are mainly affected by some sphere of decision-making, there are assemblies there that institutionalize collective control. Some decisions affect an entire plant in a roughly equal way, and there are general assemblies of the whole plant to control those decisions. Other decisions affect mainly one department or a small work group, and they have their separate meetings. Some decisions affect only one person and that person gets to "call the shots" in that area. Collective self-management doesn’t mean that all decisions are made in meetings or that delegation of tasks doesn’t occur. The point to the direct democracy of the assemblies is that it acts as the control for collective self-management.

Nor is self-management simply equivalent to a system of formal democracy. Existing corporate capitalism generates hierarchies where expertise and decision-making authority is concentrated…hierarchies of managers and high-end professionals who work closely with them, such as engineers and lawyers. This hierarchy is part of how class oppression strips from workers their ability to control their lives. The ability of people to effectively participate in decisions that affect them requires also a change in the educational system and the design of work, so that conceptual and decision-making tasks in work are re-integrated with the physical doing of the work. Thus Kropotkin advocated "integration of labor": "A society where each individual is a producer of both manual and intellectual work."

But the point to the direct democracy of the assemblies is that they are needed as a replacement for the formal hierarchical power of dominating classes, the formal subordination of workers in social production.

I need to make three additional points about workers self-management of industry as this occurs in the thinking of most social anarchists.

First: The anarchosyndicalist view of workers self-management is that it arises in the transformation of society, out of the conflict between classes.

It’s hard to see how an end to the oppression and exploitation of people as workers could come to an end except through a general takeover of the management of social production and distribution by the people who work in these industries. This doesn’t mean, however, that anarchosyndicalism conceives of a socialized economy as the same as the existing economy, but with workers running the workplaces. Rather, the idea is that an entirely different logic of development would ensue, and the technologies used and mix of products and services would change.

The syndicalist strategy is different than the Proudhonian idea of forming worker cooperatives within the cracks of the present capitalist framework. Most social anarchists support altnernative institutions such as worker and housing cooperatives and social centers and so on, both because they are useful for the social movements at the present time, and because they illustrate that workers’ management is an idea that works. However, forming cooperatives in the cracks of capitalism is not the same as the syndicalist strategy, which is rooted in the class struggle.(2)

Second: Most social anarchists and anarchosyndicalists do not advocate an ideal of workers self-management in the form of competing cooperatives in a market-driven economy, but as part of a socialized economy in which the land and means of production would be owned in common by the whole society. In 1936, during the Spanish revolution, the anarchosyndicalist theorist Diego Abad de Santillan wrote that the worker organizations controlling the various industries are not "proprietors" of the industries but are "only administrators at the service of the entire society."(3)

Third: Although most social anarchists still advocate workers self-management of industry as part of a larger program for social transformation and social empowerment, workers self-management of industry was not all there is to what anarchosyndicalism advocated historically for social transformation nor is it all that social anarchists advocate today, far from it.

The power of the dominating classes isn’t limited to the workplaces, and struggles that affect working class people spread out in other areas of society — struggles of tenants, for immigrant rights, against police brutality, and so on. To develop its power the working class needs to address the issues of the day and counter its own solutions to those of the dominating classes.

Also, struggles of working people are not just around class because working class people are women, immigrants, people of color. Various forms of oppression and exploitation overlap in a society built on a complex forms of structural inequality.

Thus the overwhelming focus on class oppression and exploitation, which was characteristic of both Marxism and social anarchism in the 19th century and early 1900s, has evolved into an understanding of oppression and exploitation as more multifaceted. The workplace is only one site of conflict and movement-building.

Thus, for example, in its response to the present global capitalist crisis, the CGT — the Spanish anarchosyndicalist union — proposes to tighten and deepen its relationships with the various social movements in Spain — women’s groups, ecologists, the housing movement, immigrants rights, and so on. Thus they see the struggle against the elite imposing the costs of the crisis on the working class as built on the basis of a labor/social movement alliance.

The idea of self-emancipation applies in general to all oppressed and exploited people, and the various forms of oppression also generate forms of self-activity and movements in opposition. Thus the picture of the agent of social transformation becomes more complex, as it requires an alliance among the various oppressed and exploited groups, as they confront the power of the dominating classes. The framework for this conflict is a class framework, but the working class movement itself requires a mass alliance in the spirit of "An injury to one is the concern of all," if it is to have the unity and social strength to push aside extremely powerful and entrenched elites.

comments to: tomwetzel@riseup.net

Next: Social Anarchism, Leninism and the State


(1) Quoted in Murray Bookchin, Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism, 5-6.

(2) Marxists are often confused on this point. For example, in his new book Envisioning Real Utopias, Erik Olin Wright identifies the Proudhonian strategy as "the anarchist strategy."

(3) Abad Diego de Santillan, statement from December, 1936, appended to the 1937 addition of After the Revolution, 121.

Leave a comment