An Anarchist FAQ - J.2 What is direct action?
PDF version of Section J.
J.2 What is direct action?
Direct action, to use Rudolf Rocker's words, is "every method of immediate warfare by the workers [or other sections of society] against their economic and political oppressors. Among these the outstanding are: the strike, in all its graduations from the simple wage struggle to the general strike; the boycott; sabotage in all its countless forms; anti-militarist propaganda, and in particularly critical cases . . . armed resistance of the people for the protection of life and liberty." [Anarcho-Syndicalism, p. 78]
Not that anarchists think that direct action is only applicable within the workplace. Far from it. Direct action must occur everywhere! So, in non-workplace situations, direct action includes rent strikes, consumer boycotts, occupations (which, of course, can include sit-down strikes by workers), eco-tage, individual and collective non-payment of taxes, blocking roads and holding up construction work of an anti-social nature and so forth. Also direct action, in a workplace setting, includes strikes and protests on social issues, not directly related to working conditions and pay. Such activity aims to ensure the "protection of the community against the most pernicious outgrowths of the present system. The social strike seeks to force upon the employers a responsibility to the public. Primarily it has in view the protection of the customers, of whom the workers themselves [and their families] constitute the great majority" [Op. Cit., p. 86]
Basically, direct action means that instead of getting someone else to act for you (e.g. a politician), you act for yourself. Its essential feature is an organised protest by ordinary people to make a change by their own efforts. Thus Voltairine De Cleyre's excellent statement on this topic:
"Every person who ever thought he had a right to assert, and went boldly and asserted it, himself, or jointly with others that shared his convictions, was a direct actionist. Some thirty years ago I recall that the Salvation Army was vigorously practicing direct action in the maintenance of the freedom of its members to speak, assemble, and pray. Over and over they were arrested, fined, and imprisoned; but they kept right on singing, praying, and marching, till they finally compelled their persecutors to let them alone. The Industrial Workers [of the World] are now conducting the same fight, and have, in a number of cases, compelled the officials to let them alone by the same direct tactics.
"Every person who ever had a plan to do anything, and went and did it, or who laid his plan before others, and won their co-operation to do it with him, without going to external authorities to please do the thing for them, was a direct actionist. All co-operative experiments are essentially direct action.
"Every person who ever in his life had a difference with anyone to settle, and went straight to the other persons involved to settle it, either by a peaceable plan or otherwise, was a direct actionist. Examples of such action are strikes and boycotts; many persons will recall the action of the housewives of New York who boycotted the butchers, and lowered the price of meat; at the present moment a butter boycott seems looming up, as a direct reply to the price-makers for butter.
"These actions are generally not due to any one's reasoning overmuch on the respective merits of directness or indirectness, but are the spontaneous retorts of those who feel oppressed by a situation. In other words, all people are, most of the time, believers in the principle of direct action, and practisers of it." [The Voltairine De Cleyre Reader, pp. 47-8]
So direct action means acting for yourself against injustice and oppression. It can, sometimes, involve putting pressure on politicians or companies, for example, to ensure a change in an oppressive law or destructive practices. However, such appeals are direct action simply because they do not assume that the parties in question we will act for us -- indeed the assumption is that change only occurs when we act to create it. Regardless of what it is, "if such actions are to have the desired empowerment effect, they must be largely self-generated, rather than being devised and directed from above" and be "ways in which people could take control of their lives" so that it "empowered those who participated in it." [Martha Ackelsberg, Free Women of Spain, p. 55]
So, in a nutshell, direct action is any form of activity which people themselves decide upon and organise themselves which is based on their own collective strength and does not involve getting intermediates to act for them. As such direct action is a natural expression of liberty, of self-government, for direct action "against the authority in the shop, direct action against the authority of the law, direct action against the invasive, meddlesome authority of our moral code, is the logical, consistent method of Anarchism." [Emma Goldman, Red Emma Speaks, pp. 76-7] It is clear that by acting for yourself you are expressing the ability to govern yourself. Thus it is a means by which people can take control of their own lives. It is a means of self-empowerment and self-liberation.
Anarchists reject the view that society is static and that people's consciousness, values, ideas and ideals cannot be changed. Far from it and anarchists support direct action because it actively encourages the transformation of those who use it. Direct action is the means of creating a new consciousness, a means of self-liberation from the chains placed around our minds, emotions and spirits by hierarchy and oppression.
As direct action is the expression of liberty, the powers that be are vitally concerned only when the oppressed use direct action to win its demands, for it is a method which is not easy or cheap to combat. Any hierarchical system is placed into danger when those at the bottom start to act for themselves and, historically, people have invariably gained more by acting directly than could have been won by playing ring around the rosy with indirect means. Direct action tore the chains of open slavery from humanity. Over the centuries it has established individual rights and modified the life and death power of the master class. Direct action won political liberties such as the vote and free speech. Used fully, used wisely and well, direct action can forever end injustice and the mastery of humans by other humans.
In the sections that follow, we will indicate why anarchists are in favour of direct action and why they are against electioneering as a means of change.
Simply because it is effective and it has a radicalising impact on those who practice it. As it is based on people acting for themselves, it shatters the dependency and marginalisation created by hierarchy. This is key:
"What is even more important about direct action is that it forms a decisive step toward recovering the personal power over social life that the centralised, over-bearing bureaucracies have usurped from the people . . . we not only gain a sense that we can control the course of social events again; we recover a new sense of selfhood and personality without which a truly free society, based in self-activity and self-management, is utterly impossible." [Murray Bookchin, Toward an Ecological Society, p. 47]
By acting for themselves, people gain a sense of their own power and abilities. This is essential if people are to run their own lives. As such, direct action is the means by which individuals empower themselves, to assert their individuality, to make themselves count as individuals by organising and acting collectively. It is the opposite of hierarchy, within which individuals are told again and again that they are nothing, are insignificant and must dissolve themselves into a higher power (the state, the company, the party, the people, etc.) and feel proud in participating in the strength and glory of this higher power. Direct action, in contrast, is the means of asserting your individual opinion, interests and happiness, of fighting against self-negation:
"man has as much liberty as he is willing to take. Anarchism therefore stands for direct action, the open defiance of, and resistance to, all laws and restrictions, economic, social and moral. But defiance and resistance are illegal. Therein lies the salvation of man. Everything illegal necessitates integrity, self-reliance, and courage. In short, it calls for free independent spirits, for men who are men, and who have a bone in their back which you cannot pass your hand through." [Emma Goldman, Red Emma Speaks, pp. 75-6]
In addition, because direct action is based around individuals solving their own problems, by their own action, it awakens those aspects of individuals crushed by hierarchy and oppression -- such as initiative, solidarity, imagination, self-confidence and a sense of individual and collective power, that what you do matters and that you with others like you can change the world. Direct action is the means by which people can liberate themselves and educate themselves in the ways of and skills required for self-management and liberty:
"Direct action meant that the goal of . . . these activities was to provide ways for people to get in touch with their own powers and capacities, to take back the power of naming themselves and their lives . . . we learn to think and act for ourselves by joining together in organisations in which our experience, our perception, and our activity can guide and make the change. Knowledge does not precede experience, it flows from it . . . People learn to be free only by exercising freedom. [As one Spanish Anarchist put it] 'We are not going to find ourselves . . . with people ready-made for the future . . . Without continued exercise of their faculties, there will be no free people . . . The external revolution and the internal revolution presuppose one another, and they must be simultaneous in order to be successful.'" [Martha Ackelsberg, Free Women of Spain, pp. 54-5]
So direct action, to use Bookchin's words, is "the means whereby each individual awakens to the hidden powers within herself and himself, to a new sense of self-confidence and self-competence; it is the means whereby individuals take control of society directly." [Op. Cit., p. 48]
In addition, direct action creates the need for new forms of social organisation. These new forms of organisation will be informed and shaped by the process of self-liberation, so be more anarchistic and based upon self-management. Direct action, as well as liberating individuals, can also create the free, self-managed organisations which can replace the current hierarchical ones (see section I.2.3). For example, for Kropotkin, unions were "natural organs for the direct struggle with capitalism and for the composition of the future order." [quoted by Paul Avrich, The Russian Anarchists, p. 81] In other words, direct action helps create the new world in the shell of the old:
"direct action not only empowered those who participated in it, it also had effects on others . . . [it includes] exemplary action that attracted adherents by the power of the positive example it set. Contemporary examples . . . include food or day-care co-ops, collectively run businesses, sweat equity housing programmes, women's self-help health collectives, urban squats or women's peace camps [as well as traditional examples as industrial unions, social centres, etc.]. While such activities empower those who engage in them, they also demonstrate to others that non-hierarchical forms of organisation can and do exist -- and that they can function effectively." [Ackelsberg, Op. Cit., p. 55]
Also, direct action such as strikes encourage and promote class consciousness and class solidarity. According to Kropotkin, "the strike develops the sentiment of solidarity" while, for Bakunin, it "is the beginnings of the social war of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie . . . Strikes are a valuable instrument from two points of view. Firstly, they electrify the masses, invigorate their moral energy and awaken in them the feeling of the deep antagonism which exists between their interests and those of the bourgeoisie . . . secondly they help immensely to provoke and establish between the workers of all trades, localities and countries the consciousness and very fact of solidarity: a twofold action, both negative and positive, which tends to constitute directly the new world of the proletariat, opposing it almost in an absolute way to the bourgeois world." [quoted by Caroline Cahm, Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism 1872-1886, p. 256 and pp. 216-217]
Direct action, therefore, helps to create anarchists and anarchist alternatives within capitalism and statism. As such, it plays an essential role in anarchist theory and activity. For anarchists, direct action "is not a 'tactic' . . . it is a moral principle, an ideal, a sensibility. It should imbue every aspect of our lives and behaviour and outlook." [Bookchin, Op. Cit., p. 48]
Simply because electioneering does not work. History is littered with examples of radicals being voted into office only to become as, or even more, conservative than the politicians they replaced.
As we have discussed previously (see section B.2) any government is under pressure from two sources of power, the state bureaucracy and big business. This ensures that any attempts at social change would be undermined and made hollow by vested interests, assuming they even reached that level to begin with (the de-radicalising effects of electioneering is discussed in section J.2.6). Here we will highlight the power of vested interests within democratic government.
For anarchists, the general nature of the state and its role within society is to ensure "the preservation of the economic 'status quo,' the protection of the economic privileges of the ruling class, whose agent and gendarme it is". [Luigi Galleani, The End of Anarchism?, p. 28] As such, the state and capital restricts and controls the outcome of political action of the so-called sovereign people as expressed by voting.
Taking capital to begin with, if we assume that a relatively reformist government were elected it would soon find itself facing various economic pressures. Either capital would disinvest, so forcing the government to back down in the face of economic collapse, or the government in question would control capital leaving the country and so would soon be isolated from new investment and its currency would become worthless. Either is an effective weapon to control democratically elected governments as before ensure that the economy would be severely damaged and the promised "reforms" would be dead letters. Far fetched? No, not really. As discussed in section D.2.1 such pressures were inflicted on the 1974 Labour Government in Britain and we see the threat reported everyday when the media reports on what "the markets" think of government policies or when loans are given only guarantee that the country is structurally adjusted in-line with corporate interests and bourgeous economic dogma.
As far as political pressures go, we must remember that there is a difference between the state and government. The state is the permanent collection of institutions that have entrenched power structures and interests. The government is made up of various politicians. It is the institutions that have power in the state due to their permanence, not the representatives who come and go. In other words, the state bureaucracy has vested interests and elected politicians cannot effectively control them:
"Such a bureaucracy consists of armed forces, police forces, and a civil service. These are largely autonomous bodies. Theoretically they are subordinate to a democratically elected Parliament, but the Army, Navy, and Air Forces are controlled by specially trained officers who from their schooldays onwards are brought up in a narrow caste tradition, and who always, in dealing with Parliament, can dominate that body by their superior technical knowledge, professional secrecy, and strategic bluff. As for the bureaucracy proper, the Civil Service, anyone who has had any experience of its inner workings knows the extent to which it controls the Cabinet, and through the Cabinet, Parliament itself. We are really ruled by a secret shadow cabinet . . . All these worthy servants of the State are completely out of touch with the normal life of the nation." [Herbert Read, Anarchy and Order, p. 100]
As an aside, it should be noted that while "in a society of rich and poor nothing is more necessary" than a bureaucracy as it is "necessary to protect an unfair distribution of property" it would be wrong to think that it does not have its own class interests: "Even if you abolish all other classes and distinctions and retain a bureaucracy you are still far from the classless society, for the bureaucracy is itself the nucleus of a class whose interests are totally opposed to the people it supposedly serves." [Op. Cit., p. 99 and p. 100]
In addition to the official bureaucracies and their power, there is also the network of behind the scenes agencies which are its arm. This can be termed "the permanent government" and "the secret state", respectively. The latter, in Britain, is "the security services, MI5, Special Branch and the secret intelligence service, MI6." Other states have their equivalents (the FBI, CIA, and so on in the USA). By the former, it is meant "the secret state plus the Cabinet Office and upper echelons of Home and Foreign and Commonwealth Offices, the Armed Forces and Ministry of Defence . . . and the so-called 'Permanent Secretaries Club,' the network of very senior civil servants -- the 'Mandarins.'" In short, the upper-echelons of the bureaucracy and state apparatus. Add to this "its satellites", including M.P.s (particularly right-wing ones), "agents of influence" in the media, former security services personnel, think tanks and opinion forming bodies, front companies of the security services, and so on. [Stephen Dorril and Robin Ramsay, Smear! Wilson and the Secret State, pp. X-XI]
These bodies, while theoretically under the control of the elected government, can effectively (via disinformation, black operations, bureaucratic slowdowns, media attacks, etc.) ensure that any government trying to introduce policies which the powers that be disagree with will be stopped. In other words the state is not a neutral body, somehow rising above vested interests and politics. It is, and always will be, a institution which aims to protect specific sections of society as well as its own.
An example of this "secret state" at work can be seen in the campaign against Harold Wilson, the Labour Prime Minister of Britain in the 1970s, which resulted in his resignation (as documented by Stephen Dorril and Robin Ramsay). Left-wing Labour M.P. Tony Benn was subjected to intense pressure by "his" Whitehall advisers during the same period:
"In early 1975, the campaign against Benn by the media was joined by the secret state. The timing is interesting. In January, his Permanent Secretary had 'declared war' and the following month began the most extraordinary campaign of harassment any major British politician has experienced. While this is not provable by any means, it does look as though there is a clear causal connection between withdrawal of Prime Ministerial support, the open hostility from the Whitehall mandarins and the onset of covert operations." [Dorril and Ramsay, Op. Cit., p. 279]
This is not to forget the role of the secret state in undermining reformist and radical organisations and movements. This involvement goes from pure information gathering on "subversives", to disruption and repression. Taking the example of the US secret state, Howard Zinn notes that in 1975:
"congressional committees . . . began investigations of the FBI and CIA.
"The CIA inquiry disclosed that the CIA had gone beyond its original mission of gathering intelligence and was conducting secret operations of all kinds . . . [for example] the CIA - with the collusion of a secret Committee of Forty headed by Henry Kissinger - had worked to 'destabilize' the [democratically elected, left-wing] Chilean government . . .
"The investigation of the FBI disclosed many years of illegal actions to disrupt and destroy radical groups and left-wing groups of all kinds. The FBI had sent forged letters, engaged in burglaries . . . opened mail illegally, and in the case of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, seems to have conspired in murder . . .
"The investigations themselves revealed the limits of government willingness to probe into such activities . . . [and they] submitted its findings on the CIA to the CIA to see if there was material the Agency wanted omitted." [A People's History of the United States, pp. 542-3]
Also, the CIA secretly employs several hundred American academics to write books and other materials to be used for propaganda purposes, an important weapon in the battle for hearts and minds. In other words, the CIA, FBI (and their equivalents in other countries) and other state bodies can hardly be considered neutral bodies, who just follow orders. They are a network of vested interests, with specific ideological viewpoints and aims which usually place the wishes of the voting population below maintaining the state-capital power structure in place.
Therefore we cannot expect a different group of politicians to react in different ways to the same economic and institutional influences and interests. Its no coincidence that left-wing, reformist parties have introduced right-wing, pro-capitalist ("Thatcherite/Reaganite") policies similiar to those right-wing, explicitly pro-capitalist parties have. This is to be expected as the basic function of any political system is to manage the existing state and economic structures and a society's power relationships. It is not to alter them radically, The great illusion of politics is the notion that politicians have the power to make whatever changes they like. Looking at the international picture, the question obviously arises as to what real control do the politicians have over the international economy and its institutions or the pattern of world trade and investment. These institutions have great power and, moreover, have a driving force (the profit motive) which is essentially out of control (as can be seen by the regular financial crises during the neo-liberal era).
This can be seen most dramatically in the military coup in Chile against the democratically re-elected (left-wing) Allende government by the military, aided by the CIA, US based corporations and the US government to make it harder for the Allende regime. The coup resulted in thousands murdered and years of terror and dictatorship, but the danger of a pro-labour government was ended and the business environment was made healthy for profits (see section C.11). An extreme example, we know, but an important one for any believer in freedom or the idea that the state machine is somehow neutral and can be captured and used by left-wing parties -- particularly as the fate of Chile has been suffered by many other reformist governments across the world.
Of course there have been examples of quite extensive reforms which did benefit working class people in major countries. The New Deal in the USA and the 1945-51 Labour Governments spring to mind. Surely these indicate that our claims are false? Simply put, no, they do not. Reforms can be won from the state when the dangers of not giving in outweigh any weakening of ruling class power implied in the reforms. In the face of economic crisis and working class protest, the ruling elite often tolerates changes it would otherwise fight tooth-and-nail in other circumstances. Reforms will be allowed if they can be used to save the capitalist system and the state from its own excesses and even improve their operation or if not bending will mean being broke in the storm of social protest. After all, the possibility of getting rid of the reforms when they are no longer required will always exist as long as class society remains.
This can be seen from the reformist governments of 1930s USA and 1940s UK. Both faced substantial economic problems and both were under pressure from below, by waves of militant working class struggle which could have developed beyond mere reformism. The waves of sit-down strikes in the 1930s ensured the passing of pro-union laws which allowed workers to organise without fear of being fired. This measure also partly integrated the unions into the capitalist-state machine by making them responsible for controlling "unofficial" workplace action (and so ensuring profits). The nationalisation of roughly 20% of the UK economy during the Labour administration of 1945 (the most unprofitable sections of it as well) was also the direct result of ruling class fear. As Conservative M.P. Quintin Hogg acknowledged in the House of Commons on the 17th February 1943: "If you do not give the people reform they are going to give you revolution". Memories of the near revolutions across Europe after the First World War were obviously in many minds, on both sides. Not that nationalisation was particularly feared as "socialism." Indeed it was argued that it was the best means of improving the performance of the British economy. As anarchists at the time noted "the real opinions of capitalists can be seen from Stock Exchange conditions and statements of industrialists than the Tory Front bench" and from these it be seen "that the owning class is not at all displeased with the record and tendency of the Labour Party." [Neither Nationalisation nor Privatisation, Vernon Richards (ed.), p. 9]
History confirms Proudhon's argument that the state "can only turn into something and do the work of the revolution insofar as it will be so invited, provoked or compelled by some power outside of itself that seizes the initiative and sets things rolling," namely by "a body representative of the proletariat be formed in Paris . . . in opposition to the bourgeoisie’s representation." [Le Représentant du Peuple, 5th May 1848] So, if extensive reforms have implemented by the state, just remember what they were in response to militant pressure from below and that we could have got so much more. In general, things have little changed since this anarchist argument against electioneering was put forward in the 1880s:
"in the electoral process, the working class will always be cheated and deceived . . . if they did manage to send, one, or ten, or fifty of them[selves to Parliament], they would become spoiled and powerless. Furthermore, even if the majority of Parliament were composed of workers, they could do nothing. Not only is there the senate . . . the chiefs of the armed forces, the heads of the judiciary and of the police, who would be against the parliamentary bills advanced by such a chamber and would refuse to enforce laws favouring the workers (it has happened); but furthermore laws are not miraculous; no law can prevent the capitalists from exploiting the workers; no law can force them to keep their factories open and employ workers at such and such conditions, nor force shopkeepers to sell as a certain price, and so on." [S. Merlino, quoted by Galleani, Op. Cit., p. 13]
As any worker will tell you, just because there are laws on such things as health and safety, union organising, working hours or whatever, it does not mean that bosses will pay any attention to them. While firing people for joining a union is illegal in America, it does not stop bosses doing so. Similarly, many would be surprised to discover that the 8 hour working day was legally created in many US states by the 1870s but workers had to strike for it in 1886 as it as not enforced. Ultimately, political action is dependent on direct action to be enforced where it counts (in the workplace and streets). And if only direct action can enforce a political decision once it is made, then it can do so beforehand so showing the limitations in waiting for politicians to act.
Anarchists reject voting for other reasons. The fact is that electoral procedures are the opposite of direct action. They are based on getting someone else to act on your behalf. Therefore, far from empowering people and giving them a sense of confidence and ability, electioneering dis-empowers them by creating a "leader" figure from which changes are expected to flow. As Brian Martin observes:
"all the historical evidence suggests that parties are more a drag than an impetus to radical change. One obvious problem is that parties can be voted out. All the policy changes they brought in can simply be reversed later.
"More important, though, is the pacifying influence of the radical party itself. On a number of occasions, radical parties have been elected to power as a result of popular upsurges. Time after time, the 'radical' parties have become chains to hold back the process of radical change." ["Democracy without Elections", pp. 123-36, Reinventing Anarchy, Again, Howard J. Ehrlich (ed.), p. 124]
This can easily be seen from the history of various left-wing parties. Labour or socialist parties, elected in periods of social turbulence, have often acted to reassure the ruling elite by dampening popular action that could have threatened capitalist interests. For example, the first action undertaken by the Popular Front elected in France in 1936 was to put an end to strikes and occupations and generally to cool popular militancy, which was the Front's strongest ally in coming to power. The Labour government elected in Britain in 1945 got by with as few reforms as it could, refusing to consider changing basic social structures and simply replaced wage-labour to a boss with wage-labour to the state via nationalisation of certain industries. It did, however, manage to find time within the first days of taking office to send troops in to break a dockers' strike (this was no isolated event: Labour has used troops to break strikes far more often than the Conservatives have).
These points indicate why existing power structures cannot effectively be challenged through elections. For one thing, elected representatives are not mandated, which is to say they are not tied in any binding way to particular policies, no matter what promises they have made or what voters may prefer. Around election time, the public's influence on politicians is strongest, but after the election, representatives can do practically whatever they want, because there is no procedure for instant recall. In practice it is impossible to recall politicians before the next election, and between elections they are continually exposed to pressure from powerful special-interest groups -- especially business lobbyists, state bureaucracies and political party power brokers.
Under such pressure, the tendency of politicians to break campaign promises has become legendary. Generally, such promise breaking is blamed on bad character, leading to periodic "throw-the-bastards-out" fervour -- after which a new set of representatives is elected, who also mysteriously turn out to be bastards! In reality it is the system itself that produces "bastards," the sell-outs and shady dealing we have come to expect from politicians. In light of modern "democracy", it is amazing that anyone takes the system seriously enough to vote at all. In fact, voter turnout in the US and other nations where "democracy" is practiced in this fashion is typically low. Nevertheless, some voters continue to participate, pinning their hopes on new parties or trying to reform a major party. For anarchists this activity is pointless as it does not get at the root of the problem, it is the system which shapes politicians and parties in its own image and marginalises and alienates people due to its hierarchical and centralised nature. No amount of party politics can change that.
However, we should make it clear that most anarchists recognise there is a difference between voting for a government and voting in a referendum. Here we are discussing the former, electioneering, as a means of social change. Referenda are closer to anarchist ideas of direct democracy and are, while flawed, far better than electing a politician to office once every four years or so. In addition, Anarchists are not necessarily against all involvement in electoral politics. Some advocate voting when the possible outcome of an election could be disastrous (for example, if a fascist or quasi-fascist party looks likely to win the election). Some Social Ecologists, following Murray Bookchin's arguments, support actual standing in elections and think anarchists by taking part in local elections can use them to create self-governing community assemblies. However, few anarchists support such means to create community assemblies (see section J.5.14 for a discussion on this).
The problem of elections in a statist system, even on a local scale, means that the vast majority of anarchists reject voting as a means of change. Instead we wholeheartedly support direct action as the means of getting improvements in the here and now as well as the means of creating an alternative to the current system.
At its most basic, voting implies agreement with the status quo. It is worth quoting the Scottish libertarian socialist James Kelman at length on this:
"State propaganda insists that the reason why at least 40 percent of the voting public don't vote at all is because they have no feelings one way or the other. They say the same thing in the USA, where some 85 percent of the population are apparently 'apolitical' since they don't bother registering a vote. Rejection of the political system is inadmissible as far as the state is concerned . . . Of course the one thing that does happen when you vote is that someone else has endorsed an unfair political system . . . A vote for any party or any individual is always a vote for the political system. You can interpret your vote in whichever way you like but it remains an endorsement of the apparatus . . . If there was any possibility that the apparatus could effect a change in the system then they would dismantle it immediately. In other words the political system is an integral state institution, designed and refined to perpetuate its own existence. Ruling authority fixes the agenda by which the public are allowed 'to enter the political arena' and that's the fix they've settled on." [Some Recent Attacks, p. 87]
We are taught from an early age that voting in elections is right and a duty. In US schools, for example, children elect class presidents and other officers. Often mini-general elections are held to "educate" children in "democracy." Periodically, election coverage monopolises the media. We are made to feel guilty about shirking our "civic responsibility" if we do not vote. Countries that have no elections, or only rigged elections, are regarded as failures. As a result, elections have become a quasi-religious ritual. Yet, in reality, "elections in practice have served well to maintain dominant power structures such as private property, the military, male domination, and economic inequality. None of these has been seriously threatened through voting. It is from the point of view of radical critics that elections are most limiting." ["Democracy without Elections", pp. 123-36, Reinventing Anarchy, Again, Howard J. Ehrlich (ed.), p. 124]
Elections serve the interests of state power in other ways. First, voting helps to legitimate government; hence suffrage has often been expanded at times when there was little popular demand for it but when mass support of government was crucial, as during a war or revolution. Second, it comes to be seen as the only legitimate form of political participation, thus making it likely that any revolts by oppressed or marginalised groups will be viewed by the general public as illegitimate. It helps focus attention away from direct action and building new social structures back into institutions which the ruling class can easily control. The general election during the May '68 revolt in France, for example, helped diffuse the revolutionary situation, as did the elections during the Argentine revolt against neo-liberalism in the early 2000s.
So by turning political participation into the "safe" activities of campaigning and voting, elections have reduced the risk of more radical direct action as well as building a false sense of power and sovereignty among the general population. Voting disempowers the grassroots by diverting energy from grassroots action. After all, the goal of electoral politics is to elect a representative who will act for us. Therefore, instead of taking direct action to solve problems ourselves, action becomes indirect, though the government. This is an insidiously easy trap to fall into, as we have been conditioned in hierarchical society from day one into attitudes of passivity and obedience, which gives most of us a deep-seated tendency to leave important matters to the "experts" and "authorities." Kropotkin described well the net effect:
"Vote! Greater men that you will tell you the moment when the self-annihilation of capital has been accomplished. They will then expropriate the few usurpers left . . . and you will be freed without having taken any more trouble than that of writing on a bit of paper the name of the man whom the heads of your faction of the party told you to vote for!" [quoted by Ruth Kinna, "Kropotkin's theory of Mutual Aid in Historical Context", pp. 259-283, International Review of Social History, No. 40, pp. 265-6]
Anarchists also criticise elections for giving citizens the false impression that the government serves, or can serve, the people. As Martin remains us "the founding of the modern state a few centuries ago was met with great resistance: people would refuse to pay taxes, to be conscripted or to obey laws passed by national governments. The introduction of voting and the expanded suffrage have greatly aided the expansion of state power. Rather than seeing the system as one of ruler and ruled, people see at least the possibility of using state power to serve themselves. As electoral participation has increased, the degree of resistance to taxation, military service, and the immense variety of laws regulating behaviour, has been greatly attenuated" [Op. Cit., p. 126]
Ironically, voting has legitimated the growth of state power to such an extent that the state is now beyond any real popular control by the form of participation that made that growth possible. Nevertheless, the idea that electoral participation means popular control of government is so deeply implanted in people's psyches that even the most overtly sceptical radical often cannot fully free themselves from it.
Therefore, voting has the important political implication of encouraging people to identify with state power and to justify the status quo. In addition, it feeds the illusion that the state is neutral and that electing parties to office means that people have control over their own lives. Moreover, elections have a tendency to make people passive, to look for salvation from above and not from their own self-activity. As such it produces a division between leaders and led, with the voters turned into spectators of activity, not the participants within it.
All this does not mean, obviously, that anarchists prefer dictatorship or an "enlightened" monarchy. Far from it, democratising state power can be an important step towards abolishing it. All anarchists agree with Bakunin when he argued that "the most imperfect republic is a thousand times better that even the most enlightened monarchy." [quoted by Daniel Guerin, Anarchism, p. 20] It simply means that anarchists refuse to join in with the farce of electioneering, particularly when there are more effective means available for changing things for the better. Anarchists reject the idea that our problems can be solved by the very institutions that cause them in the first place!
There is no doubt that voting can lead to changes in policies, which can be a good thing as far as it goes. However, such policies are formulated and implemented within the authoritarian framework of the hierarchical capitalist state -- a framework which itself is never open to challenge by voting. On the contrary, voting legitimates the state framework ensuring that social change will be (at best) mild, gradual, and reformist rather than rapid and radical. Indeed, the "democratic" process has resulted in all successful political parties becoming committed to "more of the same" or tinkering with the details at best (which is usually the limits of any policy changes). This seems unlikely to change.
Given the need for radical systemic changes as soon as possible due to the exponentially accelerating crises of modern civilisation, working for gradual reforms within the electoral system must be seen as a potentially deadly tactical error. Electioneering has always been the death of radicalism. Political parties are only radical when they do not stand a chance of election. However, many social activists continue to try to use elections, so participating in the system which disempowers the majority and so helps create the social problems they are protesting against. It should be a widely recognised truism in radical circles that elections empower the politicians and not the voters. Thus elections focus attention to a few leaders, urging them to act for rather than acting for ourselves (see section H.1.5). If genuine social change needs mass participation then, by definition, using elections will undermine that. This applies to within the party as well, for working "within the system" disempowers grassroots activists, as can be seen by the Green party in Germany during the early eighties. The coalitions into which the Greens entered with Social Democrats in the German legislature often had the effect of strengthening the status quo by co-opting those whose energies might otherwise have gone into more radical and effective forms of activism. Principles were ignored in favour of having some influence, so producing watered-down legislation which tinkered with the system rather than transforming it.
As discussed in section H.3.9, the state is more complicated than the simple organ of the economically dominant class pictured by Marxists. There are continual struggles both inside and outside the state bureaucracies, struggles that influence policies and empower different groups of people. This can produce clashes with the ruling elite, while the need of the state to defend the system as a whole causes conflict with the interests of sections of the capitalist class. Due to this, many radical parties believe that the state is neutral and so it makes sense to work within it -- for example, to obtain labour, consumer, and environmental protection laws. However, this reasoning ignores the fact that the organisational structure of the state is not neutral. To quote Brian Martin:
"The basic anarchist insight is that the structure of the state, as a centralised administrative apparatus, is inherently flawed from the point of view of human freedom and equality. Even though the state can be used occasionally for valuable ends, as a means the state is flawed and impossible to reform. The non-reformable aspects of the state include, centrally, its monopoly over 'legitimate' violence and its consequent power to coerce for the purpose of war, internal control, taxation and the protection of property and bureaucratic privilege.
"The problem with voting is that the basic premises of the state are never considered open for debate, much less challenge. The state's monopoly over the use of violence for war is never at issue. Neither is the state's use of violence against revolt from within. The state's right to extract economic resources from the population is never questioned. Neither is the state's guarantee of either private property (under capitalism) or bureaucratic prerogative (under state socialism) -- or both." ["Democracy without Elections", pp. 123-36, Reinventing Anarchy, Again, Howard J. Ehrlich (ed.), p. 127]
It may be argued that if a new political group is radical enough it will be able to use state power for good purposes. While we discuss this in more detail in section J.2.6, let us consider a specific case, that of the Greens as many of them believe that the best way to achieve their aims is to work within the current political system.
By pledging to use the electoral system to achieve change, Green parties necessarily commit themselves to formulating their proposals as legislative agendas. But once legislation is passed, the coercive mechanisms of the state will be needed to enforce it. Therefore, Green parties are committed to upholding state power. However, our analysis in section B.2 indicated that the state is a set of hierarchical institutions through which a ruling elite dominates society and individuals. And, as we have seen in section E, ecologists, feminists, and peace activists -- who are key constituencies of the Green movement -- all need to dismantle hierarchies and domination in order to achieve their respective aims. Therefore, since the state is not only the largest and most powerful hierarchy but also serves to maintain the hierarchical form of all major institutions in society (since this form is the most suitable for achieving ruling-class interests), the state itself is the main obstacle to the success of key constituencies of the Green movement. Hence it is impossible in principle for a parliamentary Green party to achieve the essential objectives of the Green movement. A similar argument would apply to any radical party whose main emphasis was social justice, which like the goals of feminists, radical ecologists, and peace activists, depends on dismantling hierarchies.
As we argued in the previous section, radical parties are under pressure from economic and state bureaucracies that ensure that even a sincere radical party would be powerless to introduce significant reforms. The only real response to the problems of representative democracy is to urge people not to vote. Such anti-election campaigns can be a valuable way of making others aware of the limitations of the current system, which is a necessary condition for their seriously considering the anarchist alternative of using direct action and build alternative social and economic organisations. The implications of abstentionism are discussed in the next section.
At its most basic, anarchists support abstentionism because "participation in elections means the transfer of one's will and decisions to another, which is contrary to the fundamental principles of anarchism." [Emma Goldman, Vision on Fire, p. 89] For, as Proudhon stressed, in a statist democracy, the people "is limited to choosing, every three or four years, its chiefs and its imposters." [quoted by George Woodcock, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, p. 152]
If you reject hierarchy then participating in a system by which you elect those who will govern you is almost like adding insult to injury! For, as Luigi Galleani pointed out, "whoever has the political competence to choose his own rulers is, by implication, also competent to do without them." [The End of Anarchism?, p. 37] In other words, because anarchists reject the idea of authority, we reject the idea that picking the authority (be it bosses or politicians) makes us free. Therefore, anarchists reject governmental elections in the name of self-government and free association. We refuse to vote as voting is endorsing authoritarian social structures. We are (in effect) being asked to make obligations to the state, not our fellow citizens, and so anarchists reject the symbolic process by which our liberty is alienated from us.
Anarchists are aware that elections serve to legitimate government. We have always warned that since the state is an integral part of the system that perpetuates poverty, inequality, racism, imperialism, sexism, environmental destruction, and war, we should not expect to solve any of these problems by changing a few nominal state leaders every four or five years. Therefore anarchists (usually) advocate abstentionism at election time as a means of exposing the farce of "democracy", the disempowering nature of elections and the real role of the state.
For anarchists, then, when you vote, you are choosing between rulers. Instead of urging people to vote we raise the option of choosing to rule yourself, to organise freely with others -- in your workplace, in your community, everywhere -- as equals. The option of something you cannot vote for, a new society. Instead of waiting for others to make some changes for you, anarchists urge that you do it yourself. In this way, you cannot but build an alternative to the state which can reduce its power now and, in the long run, replace it. This is the core of the anarchist support for abstentionism.
In addition, beyond this basic anarchist rejection of elections from an anti-statist position, anarchists also support abstentionism as it allows us to put across our ideas at election time. It is a fact that at such times people are often more interested in politics than usual. So, by arguing for abstentionism we can get our ideas across about the nature of the current system, how elected politicians do not control the state bureaucracy, now the state acts to protect capitalism and so on. In addition, it allows us to present the ideas of direct action and encourage those disillusioned with political parties and the current system to become anarchists by presenting a viable alternative to the farce of politics. For, after all, a sizeable percentage of non-voters and voters are disillusioned with the current set-up. Many who vote do so simply against the other candidate, seeking the least-worse option. Many who do not vote do so for essentially political reasons, such as being fed up with the political system, failing to see any major differences between the parties, or recognition that the candidates were not interested in people like them. These non-voters are often disproportionately left-leaning, compared with those who did vote. So, anarchist abstentionism is a means of turning this negative reaction to an unjust system into positive activity.
So, anarchist opposition to electioneering has deep political implications which Luigi Galleani addressed when he wrote:
"The anarchists' electoral abstentionism implies not only a conception that is opposed to the principle of representation (which is totally rejected by anarchism), it implies above all an absolute lack of confidence in the State . . . Furthermore, anarchist abstentionism has consequences which are much less superficial than the inert apathy ascribed to it by the sneering careerists of 'scientific socialism' [i.e. Marxism]. It strips the State of the constitutional fraud with which it presents itself to the gullible as the true representative of the whole nation, and, in so doing, exposes its essential character as representative, procurer and policeman of the ruling classes.
"Distrust of reforms, of public power and of delegated authority, can lead to direct action [in the class struggle] . . . It can determine the revolutionary character of this . . . action; and, accordingly, anarchists regard it as the best available means for preparing the masses to manage their own personal and collective interests; and, besides, anarchists feel that even now the working people are fully capable of handling their own political and administrative interests." [Op. Cit., pp. 13-14]
Therefore abstentionism stresses the importance of self-activity and self-libertarian as well as having an important educational effect in highlighting that the state is not neutral but serves to protect class rule and that meaningful change only comes from below, by direct action. For the dominant ideas within any class society reflect the opinions of the ruling elite of that society and so any campaign at election times which argues for abstentionism and indicates why voting is a farce will obviously challenge them. In other words, abstentionism combined with direct action and the building of libertarian alternatives is a very effective means of changing people's ideas and encouraging a process of self-education and, ultimately, self-liberation.
In summary, anarchists urge abstentionism in order to encourage activity, not apathy. Not voting is not enough, and anarchists urge people to organise and resist as well. Abstentionism must be the political counterpart of class struggle, self-activity and self-management in order to be effective -- otherwise it is as pointless as voting is.
While many radicals would be tempted to agree with our analysis of the limitations of electioneering and voting, few would automatically agree with anarchist abstentionist arguments. Instead, they argue that we should combine direct action with electioneering. In that way (it is argued) we can overcome the limitations of electioneering by invigorating it with self-activity. In addition, they suggest, the state is too powerful to leave in the hands of the enemies of the working class. A radical politician will refuse to give the orders to crush social protest that a right-wing, pro-capitalist one would.
While these are important arguments in favour of radicals using elections, they ultimately fail to take into account the nature of the state and the corrupting effect it has on radicals. This reformist idea has met a nasty end. If history is anything to go by, the net effect of radicals using elections is that by the time they are elected to office the radicals will happily do what they claimed the right-wing would have done. In 1899, for example, the Socialist Alexandre Millerand joined the French Government. Nothing changed. During industrial disputes strikers "appealed to Millerand for help, confident that, with him in the government, the state would be on their side. Much of this confidence was dispelled within a few years. The government did little more for workers than its predecessors had done; soldiers and police were still sent in to repress serious strikes." [Peter N. Stearns, Revolutionary Syndicalism and French Labour, p. 16] Aristide Briand, another socialist politician was the Minister of the Interior in 1910 and "broke a general strike of railwaymen by use of the most draconian methods. Having declared a military emergency he threatened all strikers with court martial." [Jeremy Jennings, Syndicalism in France p. 36] These events occurred, it should be noted, during the period when social democratic parties were self-proclaimed revolutionaries and arguing against anarcho-syndicalism by using the argument that working people needed their own representatives in office to stop troops being used against them during strikes!
Looking at the British Labour government of 1945 to 1951 we find the same actions. What is often considered the most left-wing Labour government ever used troops to break strikes in every year it was in office, starting with a dockers' strike days after it became the new government. Again, in the 1970s, Labour used troops to break strikes. Indeed, the Labour Party has used troops to break strikes more often than the Conservative Party.
Many blame the individuals elected to office for these betrayals, arguing that we need to elect better politicians, select better leaders. For anarchists nothing could be more wrong as its the means used, not the individuals involved, which is the problem. Writing of his personal experience as a member of Parliament, Proudhon recounted that "[a]s soon as I set foot in the parliamentary Sinai, I ceased to be in touch with the masses; because I was absorbed by my legislative work, I entirely lost sight of the current events . . . One must have lived in that isolator which is called a National Assembly to realise how the men who are most completely ignorant of the state of the country are almost always those who represent it." There was "ignorance of daily facts" and "fear of the people" ("the sickness of all those who belong to authority") for "the people, for those in power, are the enemy." [The Anarchist Reader, p. 111] Ultimately, as syndicalist Emile Pouget argued, this fate was inevitable as any socialist politician "could not break the mould; he is only a cog in the machine of oppression and whether he wishes it or not he must, as minister, participate in the job of crushing the proletariat." [quoted by Jennings, Op. Cit., p. 36]
These days, few enter Parliament as radicals like Proudhon. The notion of using elections for radical change is rare. Such a development in itself shows the correctness of the anarchist critique of electioneering. At its most basic, electioneering results in the party using it becoming more moderate and reformist -- it becomes the victim of its own success. In order to gain votes, the party must appear "moderate" and "practical" and that means working within the system:
"Participation in the politics of the bourgeois States has not brought the labour movement a hair's-breadth nearer to Socialism, but thanks to this method, Socialism has almost been completely crushed and condemned to insignificance . . . Participation in parliamentary politics has affected the Socialist Labour movement like an insidious poison. It destroyed the belief in the necessity of constructive Socialist activity, and, worse of all, the impulse to self-help, by inoculating people with the ruinous delusion that salvation always comes from above." [Rudolf Rocker, Anarcho-Syndicalism, p. 54]
This corruption does not happen overnight. Alexander Berkman indicated how it slowly developed:
"In former days the Socialists . . . claimed that they meant to use politics only for the purpose of propaganda . . . and took part in elections on order to have an opportunity to advocate Socialism
"It may seem a harmless thing but it proved the undoing of Socialism. Because nothing is truer than the means you use to attain your object soon themselves become your object . . . Little by little they changed their attitude. Instead of electioneering being merely an educational method, it gradually became their only method to secure political office, to get elected to legislative bodies and other government positions. The change naturally led the Socialists to tone down their revolutionary ardour; it compelled them to soften their criticism of capitalism and government in order to avoid persecution and secure more votes . . . they have ceased to be revolutionists; they have become reformers who want to change things by law . . . And everywhere, without exception, they have followed the same course, everywhere they have forsworn their ideals, have duped the masses . . . There is a deeper reason for this constant and regular betrayal [than individual scoundrels being elected] . . . no man turns scoundrel or traitor overnight.
"It is power which corrupts . . . The filth and contamination of politics everywhere proves that. Moreover, even with the best intentions Socialists in legislative bodies or in governments find themselves entirely powerless to accomplishing anything of a socialistic nature . . . The demoralisation and vitiation take place little by little, so gradually that one hardly notices it himself . . . [The elected Socialist] finds himself in a strange and unfriendly atmosphere . . . and he must participate in the business that is being transacted. Most of that business . . . has no bearing whatever on the things the Socialist believes in, no connection with the interests of the working class voters who elected him . . . when a bill of some bearing upon labour . . . comes up . . . he is ignored or laughed at for his impractical ideas on the matter . . .
"Our Socialist perceives that he is regarded as a laughing stock [by the other politicians] . . . and finds more and more difficulty in securing the floor. . . he knows that neither by his talk nor by his vote can he influence the proceedings . . . His speeches don't even reach the public . . . He appeals to the voters to elect more comrades. . . Years pass . . . [and a] number . . . are elected. Each of them goes through the same experience . . . [and] quickly come to the conclusion . . . [that they] must show that they are practical men . . . that they are doing something for their constituency . . . In this manner the situation compels them to take a 'practical' part in the proceedings, to 'talk business,' to fall in line with the matters actually dealt with in the legislative body . . . Spending years in that atmosphere, enjoying good jobs and pay, the elected Socialists have themselves become part and parcel of the political machinery . . . With growing success in elections and securing political power they turn more and more conservative and content with existing conditions. Removal from the life and suffering of the working class, living in the atmosphere of the bourgeoisie . . . they have become what they call 'practical' . . . Power and position have gradually stifled their conscience and they have not the strength and honesty to swim against the current . . . They have become the strongest bulwark of capitalism." [What is Anarchism?, pp. 92-8]
So the "political power which they had wanted to conquer had gradually conquered their Socialism until there was scarcely anything left of it." [Rocker, Op. Cit., p. 55]
Not that these arguments are the result of hindsight, we must add. Bakunin was arguing in the early 1870s that the "inevitable result [of using elections] will be that workers' deputies, transferred to a purely bourgeois environment, and into an atmosphere of purely bourgeois political ideas . . . will become middle class in their outlook, perhaps even more so than the bourgeois themselves." As long as universal suffrage "is exercised in a society where the people, the mass of workers, are economically dominated by a minority holding exclusive possession the property and capital of the country" elections "can only be illusory, anti-democratic in their results." [The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 216 and p. 213] This meant that "the election to the German parliament of one or two workers . . . from the Social Democratic Party" was "not dangerous" and, in fact, was "highly useful to the German state as a lightning-rod, or a safety-valve." Unlike the "political and social theory" of the anarchists, which "leads them directly and inexorably to a complete break with all governments and all forms of bourgeois politics, leaving no alternative but social revolution," Marxism, he argued, "inexorably enmeshes and entangles its adherents, under the pretext of political tactics, in endless accommodation with governments and the various bourgeois political parties - that is, it thrusts them directly into reaction." [Bakunin, Statism and Anarchy, p. 193 and pp. 179-80] In the case of the German Social Democrats, this became obvious in 1914, when they supported their state in the First World war, and after 1918, when they crushed the German Revolution.
So history proved Bakunin's prediction correct (as it did with his prediction that Marxism would result in elite rule). Simply put, for anarchists, the net effect of socialists using bourgeois elections would be to put them (and the movements they represent) into the quagmire of bourgeois politics and influences. In other words, the parties involved will be shaped by the environment they are working within and not vice versa.
History is littered with examples of radical parties becoming a part of the system. From Marxian Social Democracy at the turn of the 19th century to the German Green Party in the 1980s, we have seen radical parties, initially proclaiming the need for direct action and extra-parliamentary activity denouncing these activities once in power. From only using parliament as a means of spreading their message, the parties involved end up considering votes as more important than the message. Janet Biehl sums up the effects on the German Green Party of trying to combine radical electioneering with direct action:
"the German Greens, once a flagship for the Green movement worldwide, should now be considered stink normal, as their de facto boss himself declares. Now a repository of careerists, the Greens stand out only for the rapidity with which the old cadre of careerism, party politics, and business-as-usual once again played itself out in their saga of compromise and betrayal of principle. Under the superficial veil of their old values -- a very thin veil indeed, now -- they can seek positions and make compromises to their heart's content . . . They have become 'practical,' 'realistic' and 'power-orientated.' This former New Left ages badly, not only in Germany but everywhere else. But then, it happened with the S.P.D. [The German Social Democratic Party] in August 1914, then why not with Die Grunen in 1991? So it did." ["Party or Movement?", Greenline, no. 89, p. 14]
This, sadly, is the end result of all such attempts. Ultimately, supporters of using political action can only appeal to the good intentions and character of their candidates. Anarchists, however, present an analysis of state structures and other influences that will determine how the character of the successful candidates will change. In other words, in contrast to Marxists and other radicals, anarchists present a materialist, scientific analysis of the dynamics of electioneering and its effects on radicals. Like most forms of idealism, the arguments of Marxists and other radicals flounder on the rocks of reality.
However, many radicals refuse to learn this lesson of history and keep trying to create a new party which will not repeat the saga of compromise and betrayal which all other radical parties have suffered. And they say that anarchists are utopian! "You cannot dive into a swamp and remain clean." [Berkman, Op. Cit., p. 99] Such is the result of rejecting (or "supplementing" with electioneering) direct action as the means to change things, for any social movement "to ever surrender their commitment to direct action for 'working within the system' is to destroy their personality as socially innovative movements. It is to dissolve back into the hopeless morass of 'mass organisations' that seek respectability rather than change." [Murray Bookchin, Toward an Ecological Society, p. 47]
Moreover, the use of electioneering has a centralising effect on the movements that use it. Political actions become considered as parliamentary activities made for the population by their representatives, with the 'rank and file' left with no other role than that of passive support. Only the leaders are actively involved and the main emphasis falls upon them and it soon becomes taken for granted that they should determine policy. Conferences become little more than rallies with politicians freely admitting that they will ignore any conference decisions as and when required. Not to mention the all-too-common sight of politicians turning round and doing the exact opposite of what they promised. In the end, party conferences become simply like parliamentary elections, with party members supporting this leader against another.
Soon the party reflects the division between manual and mental labour so necessary for the capitalist system. Instead of working class self-activity and self-determination, there is a substitution of a non-working class leadership acting for people. This replaces self-management in social struggle and within the party itself. Electoralism strengthens the leaders dominance over the party and the party over the people it claims to represent. The real causes and solutions to the problems we face are mystified by the leadership and rarely discussed in order to concentrate on the popular issues that will get them elected. Ultimately, radicals "instead of weakening the false and enslaving belief in law and government . . . actually work to strengthen the people's faith in forcible authority and government." [Berkman, Op. Cit., p. 100] Which has always proved deadly to encouraging a spirit of revolt, self-management and self-help -- the very keys to creating change in a society. Thus this 1870 resolution of the Spanish section of the First International seems to have been proven to be correct:
"Any participation of the working class in the middle class political government would merely consolidate the present state of affairs and necessarily paralyse the socialist revolutionary action of the proletariat. The Federation [of unions] is the true representative of labour, and should work outside the political system." [quoted by Jose Pierats, Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution, p. 169]
Instead of trying to gain control of the state, for whatever reasons, anarchists try to promote a culture of resistance within society that makes the state subject to pressure from outside (see section J.2.9). And, we feel, history has proven us right time and time again.
Some Leninist socialists (like the British Socialist Workers Party and its offshoots) argue that we should urge people to vote for Labour and other social democratic parties. In this they follow Lenin's 1920 argument against the anti-Parliamentarian left that revolutionaries "help" elect such parties as many workers still follow their lead so that they will be "convinced by their own experience that we are right," that such parties "are absolutely good for nothing, that they are petty-bourgeois and treacherous by nature, and that their bankruptcy is inevitable." If we "want the masses to follow us", we need to "support" such parties "in the same way as the rope supports a hanged man." In this way, by experiencing the reformists in official, "the majority will soon become disappointed in their leaders and will begin to support communism." [The Lenin Anthology, p. 603, p. 605 and p. 602]
This tactic is suggested for two reasons. The first is that revolutionaries will be able to reach more people by being seen to support popular, trade union based, parties. If they do not, then they are in danger of alienating sizeable sections of the working class by arguing that such parties will be no better than explicitly pro-capitalist ones. The second, and the more important one, is that by electing reformist parties into office the experience of living under such a government will shatter whatever illusions its supporters had in them. The reformist parties will be given the test of experience and when they betray their supporters to protect the status quo it will radicalise those who voted for them, who will then seek out real socialist parties (namely the likes of the SWP and ISO).
Libertarians reject these arguments for three reasons.
Firstly, it is deeply dishonest as it hides the true thoughts of those who support the tactic. To tell the truth is a revolutionary act. Radicals should not follow the capitalist media by telling half-truths, distorting the facts, hiding what they believe or supporting a party they are opposed to. If this means being less popular in the short run, then so be it. Attacking nationalism, capitalism, religion, or a host of other things can alienate people but few revolutionaries would be so opportunistic as to hold their tongues on these. In the long run being honest about your ideas is the best way of producing a movement which aims to get rid of a corrupt social system. Starting such a movement with half-truths is doomed to failure.
Secondly, anarchists reject the basis of this argument. The logic underlying it is that by being disillusioned by their reformist leaders and party, voters will look for new, "better" leaders and parties. However, this fails to go to the root of the problem, namely the dependence on leaders which hierarchical society creates within people. Anarchists do not want people to follow the "best" leadership, they want them to govern themselves, to be self-active, manage their own affairs and not follow any would-be leaders. If you seriously think that the liberation of the oppressed is the task of the oppressed themselves (as Leninists claim to do) then you must reject this tactic in favour of ones that promote working class self-activity.
The third reason we reject this tactic is that it has been proven to fail time and time again. What most of its supporters seem to fail to notice is that voters have indeed put reformist parties into office many times. Lenin suggested this tactic in 1920 and there has been no general radicalisation of the voting population by this method, nor even in reformist party militants in spite of the many Labour Party governments in Britain which all attacked the working class. Moreover, the disillusionment associated with the experience of reformist parties often expresses itself as a demoralisation with socialism as such, rather than with the reformist's watered down version of it. If Lenin's position could be persuasive to some in 1920 when it was untried, the experience of subsequent decades should show its weakness.
This failure, for anarchists, is not surprising, considering the reasons why we reject this tactic. Given that this tactic does not attack hierarchy or dependence on leaders, does not attack the ideology and process of voting, it will obviously fail to present a real alternative to the voting population (who will turn to other alternatives available at election time and not embrace direct action). Also the sight of a so-called "socialist" or "radical" government managing capitalism, imposing cuts, breaking strikes and generally attacking its supporters will damage the credibility of any form of socialism and discredit all socialist and radical ideas in the eyes of the population. If the experience of the Labour Government in Britain during the 1970s and New Labour after 1997 are anything to go by, it may result in the rise of the far-right who will capitalise on this disillusionment.
>By refusing to argue that no government is "on our side," radicals who urge us to vote reformist "without illusions" help to disarm theoretically the people who listen to them. Working class people, surprised, confused and disorientated by the constant "betrayals" of left-wing parties may turn to right wing parties (who can be elected) to stop the attacks rather than turn to direct action as the radical minority within the working class did not attack voting as part of the problem. How many times must we elect the same party, go through the same process, the same betrayals before we realise this tactic does not work? Moreover, if it is a case of having to experience something before people reject it, few state socialists take this argument to its logical conclusion. We rarely hear them argue we must experience the hell of fascism or Stalinism or the nightmare of free market capitalism in order to ensure working class people "see through" them.
Anarchists, in contrast, say that we can argue against reformist politics without having to associate ourselves with them by urging people to vote for them. By arguing for abstentionism we can help to theoretically arm the people who will come into conflict with these parties once they are in office. By arguing that all governments will be forced to attack us (due to the pressure from capital and state) and that we have to rely on our own organisations and power to defend ourselves, we can promote working class self-confidence in its own abilities, and encourage the rejection of capitalism, the state and hierarchical leadership as well as the use of direct action.
Finally, we must add, it is not required for radicals to associate themselves with the farce of parliamentary propaganda in order to win people over to our ideas. Non-anarchists will see us use direct action, see us act, see the anarchistic alternatives we create and see our propaganda. Non-anarchists can be reached quite well without taking part in, or associating ourselves with, parliamentary action.
Possibly. However anarchists don't just say "don't vote", we say "organise" as well. Apathy is something anarchists have no interest in encouraging.
The reasons why people abstain is more important than the act. The idea that the USA is closer to anarchy because around 50% of people do not vote is nonsense. Abstentionism in this case is the product of apathy and cynicism, not political ideas. So anarchists recognise that apathetic abstentionism is not revolutionary or an indication of anarchist sympathies. It is produced by apathy and a general level of cynicism at all forms of political ideas and the possibility of change.
That is why anarchist abstentionism always stresses the need for direct action and organising economically and socially to change things, to resist oppression and exploitation. In such circumstances, the effect of an electoral strike would be fundamentally different than an apathy induced lack of voting. "If the anarchists", Vernon Richards argued, "could persuade half the electorate to abstain from voting this would, from an electoral point of view, contribute to the victory of the Right. But it would be a hollow victory, for what government could rule when half the electorate by not voting had expressed its lack of confidence in all governments?" The party in office would have to rule over a country in which a sizeable minority, even a majority, had rejected government as such. This would mean that the politicians "would be subjected to real pressures from people who believed in their own power" and acted accordingly. So anarchists call on people not to vote, but instead organise themselves and be conscious of their own power. Only this "can command the respect of governments, can curb the power of government as millions of crosses on bits of paper never will." [The Impossibilities of Social Democracy, p. 142]
For, as Emma Goldman pointed out, "if the Anarchists were strong enough to swing the elections to the Left, they must also have been strong enough to rally the workers to a general strike, or even a series of strikes . . . In the last analysis, the capitalist class knows too well that officials, whether they belong to the Right or the Left, can be bought. Or they are of no consequence to their pledge." [Vision on Fire, p. 90] The mass of the population, however, cannot be bought off and if they are willing and able to resist then they can become a power second to none. Only by organising, fighting back and practicing solidarity where we live and work can we really change things. That is where our power lies, that is where we can create a real alternative. By creating a network of self-managed, pro-active community and workplace organisations we can impose by direct action that which politicians can never give us from Parliament. Only such a movement can stop the attacks upon us by whoever gets into office. A government (left or right) which faces a mass movement based upon direct action and solidarity will always think twice before proposing cuts or introducing authoritarian laws.
Of course, all the parties claim that they are better than the others and this is the logic of this question -- namely, we must vote for the lesser evil as the right-wing in office will be terrible. But what this forgets is that the lesser evil is still an evil. What happens is that instead of the greater evil attacking us, we get the lesser evil doing what the right-wing was going to do. Let us not forget it was the "lesser evil" of the Democrats (in the USA) and Labour (in the UK) who first introduced, in the 1970s, the monetarist and other policies that Reagan and Thatcher made their own in the 1980s.
This is important to remember. The central fallacy in this kind of argument is the underlying assumption that "the left" will not implement the same kind of policies as the right. History does not support such a perspective and it is a weak hope to place a political strategy on. As such, when people worry that a right-wing government will come into power and seek to abolish previous social gains (such as abortion rights, welfare programmes, union rights, and so forth) they seem to forget that so-called left-wing administrations have also undermined such reforms. In response to queries by the left on how anarchists would seek to defend such reforms if their abstentionism aided the victory of the right, anarchists reply by asking the left how they seek to defend such reforms when their "left-wing" government starts to attack them.
Ultimately, voting for other politicians will make little difference. The reality is that politicians are puppets. As we argued in section J.2.2, real power in the state does not lie with politicians, but instead within the state bureaucracy and big business. Faced with these powers, we have seen left-wing governments from Spain to New Zealand introduce right-wing policies. So even if we elected a radical party, they would be powerless to change anything important and soon be forced to attack us in the interests of capitalism. Politicians come and go, but the state bureaucracy and big business remain forever! Simply put, we cannot expect a different group of politicians to react that differently to the same economic and political pressures and influences.
Therefore we cannot rely on voting for the lesser evil to safe us from the possible dangers of a right-wing election victory. All we can hope for is that no matter who gets in, the population will resist the government because it knows and can use its real power: direct action. For the "only limit to the oppression of government is the power with which the people show themselves capable of opposing it." [Malatesta, Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, p. 196] Hence Vernon Richards:
"If the anarchist movement has a role to play in practical politics it is surely that of suggesting to, and persuading, as many people as possible that their freedom from the Hitlers, Francos and the rest, depends not on the right to vote or securing a majority of votes 'for the candidate of ones choice,' but on evolving new forms of political and social organisation which aim at the direct participation of the people, with the consequent weakening of the power, as well of the social role, of government in the life of the community." ["Anarchists and Voting", pp. 176-87, The Raven, no. 14, pp. 177-8]
We discuss what this could involve in the next section.
While anarchists reject electioneering and voting, it does not mean that we are politically apathetic. Indeed, part of the reason why anarchists reject voting is because we think that voting is not part of the solution, it is part of the problem. This is because it endorses an unjust and unfree political system and makes us look to others to fight our battles for us. It blocks constructive self-activity and direct action. It stops the building of alternatives in our communities and workplaces. Voting breeds apathy and apathy is our worse enemy.
Given that we have had universal suffrage for some time in the West and we have seen the rise of Labour and Radical parties aiming to use that system to effect change in a socialistic direction, it seems strange that we are probably further away from socialism than when they started. The simple fact is that these parties have spent so much time trying to win elections that they have stopped even thinking about creating socialist alternatives in our communities and workplaces. That is in itself enough to prove that electioneering, far from eliminating apathy, in fact helps to create it.
So, because of this, anarchists argue that the only way to not waste your vote is to spoil it! We are the only political movement which argues that nothing will change unless you act for yourself, take back the power and fight the system directly. Only direct action breaks down apathy and gets results. It is the first steps towards real freedom, towards a free and just society. Unsurprisingly, then, anarchists are the first to point out that not voting is not enough: we need to actively struggle for an alternative to both voting and the current system. Just as the right to vote was won after a long series of struggles, so the creation of a free, decentralised, self-managed, libertarian socialist society will be the product of social struggle.
Anarchists are the last people to deny the importance of political liberties or the importance in wining the right to vote. The question we must ask is whether it is a more a fitting tribute to the millions of people who used direct action, fought and suffered for the right to vote to use that victory to endorse a deeply unfair and undemocratic system or to use other means (indeed the means they used to win the vote) to create a system based upon true popular self-government? If we are true to our (and their) desire for a real, meaningful democracy, we would have to reject political action in favour of direct action.
This obviously gives an idea of what anarchists do instead of voting, we agitate, organise and educate. Or, to quote Proudhon, the "problem before the labouring classes . . . consists not in capturing, but in subduing both power and monopoly, -- that is, in generating from the bowels of the people, from the depths of labour, a greater authority, a more potent fact, which shall envelop capital and the state and subjugate them." For, "to combat and reduce power, to put it in its proper place in society, it is of no use to change the holders of power or introduce some variation into its workings: an agricultural and industrial combination must be found by means of which power, today the ruler of society, shall become its slave." [System of Economical Contradictions, p. 398 and p. 397]
We do this by organising what Bakunin called "antipolitical social power of the working classes." [Bakunin on Anarchism, p. 263] This activity which bases itself on the two broad strategies of encouraging direct action and building alternatives where we live and work.
Taking the first strategy, anarchists say that by using direct action we can force politicians to respect the wishes of the people. For example, if a government or boss tries to limit free speech, then anarchists would try to encourage a free speech fight to break the laws in question until such time as they are revoked. If a government or landlord refuses to limit rent increases or improve safety requirements for accommodation, anarchists would organise squats and rent strikes. In the case of environmental destruction, anarchists would support and encourage attempts at halting the damage by mass trespassing on sites, blocking the routes of developments, organising strikes and so on. If a boss refuses to introduce an 8 hour day, then workers should form a union and go on strike or simply stop working after 8 hours. Unlike laws, the boss cannot ignore direct action. Similarly, strikes combined with social protest would be effective means of stopping authoritarian laws being passed. For example, anti-union laws would be best fought by strike action and community boycotts (and given the utterly ineffectual defence pursued by pro-labour parties using political action to stop anti-union laws who can seriously say that the anarchist way would be any worse?). Collective non-payment of taxes would ensure the end of unpopular government decisions. The example of the poll tax rebellion in the UK in the late in 1980s shows the power of such direct action. The government could happily handle hours of speeches by opposition politicians but they could not ignore social protest (and we must add that the Labour Party which claimed to oppose the tax happily let the councils controlled by them introduce the tax and arrest non-payers).
The aim would be to spread struggles and involve as many people as possible, for it is "merely stupid for a group of workers -- even for the workers organised as a national group -- to invite the making of a distinction between themselves and the community. The real protagonists in this struggle are the community and the State -- the community as an organic and inclusive body and the State as the representatives of a tyrannical minority . . . The General Strike of the future must be organised as a strike of the community against the State. The result of that strike will not be in doubt." [Herbert Read, Anarchy and Order, p. 52]
Such a counter-power would focus the attention of those in power far more than a ballot in a few years time (particularly as the state bureaucracy is not subject to even that weak form of accountability). As Noam Chomsky argues, "[w]ithin the constraints of existing state institutions, policies will be determined by people representing centres of concentrated power in the private economy, people who, in their institutional roles, will not be swayed by moral appeals but by the costs consequent upon the decisions they make -- not because they are 'bad people,' but because that is what the institutional roles demands." He continues: "Those who own and manage the society want a disciplined, apathetic and submissive public that will not challenge their privilege and the orderly world in which it thrives. The ordinary citizen need not grant them this gift. Enhancing the Crisis of Democracy by organisation and political engagement is itself a threat to power, a reason to undertake it quite apart from its crucial importance in itself as an essential step towards social change." [Turning the Tide, pp. 251-2]
In this way, by encouraging social protest, any government would think twice before pursuing authoritarian, destructive and unpopular policies. In the final analysis, governments can and will ignore the talk of opposition politicians, but they cannot ignore social action for very long. In the words of a Spanish anarchosyndicalist, anarchists "do not ask for any concessions from the government. Our mission and our duty is to impose from the streets that which ministers and deputies are incapable of realising in parliament." [quoted by Graham Kelsey, Anarchosyndicalism, Libertarian Communism and the State, p. 79] This was seen after the Popular Front was elected February 1936 and the Spanish landless workers, sick and tired of waiting for the politicians to act, started to occupy the land. The government "resorted to the time-tested procedure of expelling the peasants with the Civil Guard." The peasants responded with a "dramatic rebellion" which forced the politicians to "legalise the occupied farms. This proved once again that the only effective reforms are those imposed by force from below. Indeed, direct action was infinitely more successful than all the parliamentary debates that took place between 1931 and 1933 about whether to institute the approved Agrarian Reform law." [Abel Paz, Durruti in the Spanish Revolution, p. 391]
The second strategy of building alternatives flows naturally from the first. Any form of campaign requires organisation and by organising in an anarchist manner we build organisations that "bear in them the living seed of the new society which is replace the old world." [Bakunin, Op. Cit., p. 255] In organising strikes in the workplace and community we can create a network of activists and union members who can encourage a spirit of revolt against authority. By creating assemblies where we live and work we can create an effective countering power to the state and capital. Such a union, as the anarchists in Spain and Italy proved, can be the focal point for recreating self-managed schools, social centres and so on. In this way the local community can ensure that it has sufficient independent, self-managed resources available to educate its members. Also, combined with credit unions (or mutual banks), cooperative workplaces and stores, a self-managed infrastructure could be created which would ensure that people can directly provide for their own needs without having to rely on capitalists or governments. In the words of a C.N.T. militant:
"We must create that part of libertarian communism which can be created within bourgeois society and do so precisely to combat that society with our own special weapons." [quoted by Kelsey, Op. Cit., p. 79]
So, far from doing nothing, by not voting the anarchist actively encourages alternatives. As the British anarchist John Turner argued, we "have a line to work upon, to teach the people self-reliance, to urge them to take part in non-political [i.e. non-electoral] movements directly started by themselves for themselves . . . as soon as people learn to rely upon themselves they will act for themselves . . . We teach the people to place their faith in themselves, we go on the lines of self-help. We teach them to form their own committees of management, to repudiate their masters, to despise the laws of the country." [quoted by John Quail, The Slow Burning Fuse, p. 87] In this way we encourage self-activity, self-organisation and self-help -- the opposite of apathy and doing nothing.
Ultimately, what the state and capital gives, they can also take away. What we build by our own self-activity can last as long as we want it to and act to protect it:
"The future belongs to those who continue daringly, consistently, to fight power and governmental authority. The future belongs to us and to our social philosophy. For it is the only social ideal that teaches independent thinking and direct participation of the workers in their economic struggle. For it is only through the organised economic strength of the masses that they can and will do away with the capitalist system and all the wrongs and injustices it contains. Any diversion from this stand will only retard our movement and make it a stepping stone for political climbers." [Emma Goldman, Vision on Fire, p. 92]
In short, what happens in our communities, workplaces and environment is too important to be left to politicians -- or the ruling elite who control governments. Anarchists need to persuade "as many people as possible that their freedom . . . depends not on the right to vote or securing a majority of votes . . . but on evolving new forms of political and social organisation which aim at the direct participation of the people, with the consequent weakening of the power, as well as of the social role, of government in the life of the community." ["Anarchists and Voting", pp. 176-87, The Raven, No. 14, pp. 177-8] We discuss what new forms of economic and social organisations that this could involve in section J.5.
No. Far from it. The "apolitical" nature of anarchism is Marxist nonsense. As it desires to fundamentally change society, anarchism can be nothing but political. However, anarchism does reject (as we have seen) "normal" political activity as ineffectual and corrupting. However, many (particularly Marxists) imply this rejection of the con of capitalist politics means that anarchists concentrate on purely "economic" issues like wages, working conditions and so forth. By so doing, Marxists claim that anarchists leave the political agenda to be dominated by capitalist ideology, with disastrous results for the working class.
This view, however, is utterly wrong. Indeed, Bakunin explicitly rejected the idea that working people could ignore politics and actually agreed with the Marxists that political indifference only led to capitalist control of the labour movement:
"[some of] the workers in Germany . . . [were organised in] a kind of federation of small associations . . . 'Self-help' . . . was its slogan, in the sense that labouring people were persistently advised not to anticipate either deliverance or help from the state and the government, but only from their own efforts. This advice would have been excellent had it not been accompanied by the false assurance that liberation for the labouring people is possible under current conditions of social organisation . . . Under this delusion . . . the workers subject to [this] influence were supposed to disengage themselves systematically from all political and social concerns and questions about the state, property, and so forth . . . [This] completely subordinated the proletariat to the bourgeoisie which exploits it and for which it was to remain an obedient and mindless tool." [Statism and Anarchy, p. 174]
In addition, Bakunin argued that the labour movement (and so the anarchist movement) would have to take into account political ideas and struggles but to do so in a working class way:
"The International does not reject politics of a general kind; it will be compelled to intervene in politics so long as it is forced to struggle against the bourgeoisie. It rejects only bourgeois politics." [The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 313]
To state the obvious, anarchists only reject working class "political action" if you equate (as did the early Marxists) "political action" with electioneering, standing candidates for Parliament, local town councils and so on -- what Bakunin termed bourgeois politics. We do not reject "political action" in the sense of direct action to effect political changes and reforms. As two American syndicalists argued, libertarians use "the term 'political action' . . . in its ordinary and correct sense. Parliamentary action resulting from the exercise of the franchise is political action. Parliamentary action caused by the influence of direct action tactics . . . is not political action. It is simply a registration of direct action." They also noted that syndicalists "have proven time and again that they can solve the many so-called political questions by direct action." [Earl C. Ford and William Z. Foster, Syndicalism, p. 19f and p. 23]
So, anarchists reject capitalist politics (i.e. electioneering), but we do not ignore politics, wider political discussion or political struggles. Anarchists have always recognised the importance of political debate and ideas in social movements. Bakunin asked should a workers organisation "cease to concern itself with political and philosophical questions? Would [it] . . . ignore progress in the world of thought as well as the events which accompany or arise from the political struggle in and between states, concerning itself only with the economic problem?" He rejected such a position: "We hasten to say that it is absolutely impossible to ignore political and philosophical questions. An exclusive pre-occupation with economic questions would be fatal for the proletariat. Doubtless the defence and organisation of its economic interests . . . must be the principle task of the proletariat. But is impossible for the workers to stop there without renouncing their humanity and depriving themselves of the intellectual and moral power which is so necessary for the conquest of their economic rights." [Bakunin on Anarchism, p. 301]
Nor do anarchists ignore elections. As Vernon Richards suggested, anarchists "cannot be uninterested in . . . election results, whatever their view about the demerits of the contending Parties. The fact that the anarchist movement has campaigned to persuade people not to use their vote is proof of our commitment and interest. If there is, say, a 60 per cent. poll we will not assume that the 40 per cent. abstentions are anarchists, but we would surely be justified in drawing the conclusion that among the 40 per cent. there are a sizeable minority who have lost faith in political parties and were looking for other instruments, other values." [The Impossibilities of Social Democracy, p. 141] Nor, needless to say, are anarchists indifferent to struggles for political reforms and the need to stop the state pursuing authoritarian policies, imperialist adventures and such like.
Thus the charge anarchists are apolitical or indifferent to politics (even capitalist politics) is a myth. Rather, "we are not concerned with choosing between governments but with creating the situation where government can no longer operate, because only then will we organise locally, regionally, nationally and internationally to satisfy real needs and common aspirations." For "so long as we have capitalism and government, the job of anarchists is to fight both, and at the same time encourage people to take what steps they can to run their own lives." ["Anarchists and Voting", pp. 176-87, The Raven, No. 14, p. 179]
Part of this process will be the discussion of political, social and economic issues in whatever self-managed organisations people create in their communities and workplaces (as Bakunin argued) and the use of these organisations to fight for (political, social and economic) improvements and reforms in the here and now using direct action and solidarity. This means, as Rudolf Rocker pointed out, anarchists desire a unification of political and economic struggles as the two as inseparable:
"Within the socialist movement itself the Anarchists represent the viewpoint that the war against capitalism must be at the same time a war against all institutions of political power, for in history economic exploitation has always gone hand in hand with political and social oppression. The exploitation of man by man and the domination of man over man are inseparable, and each is the condition of the other." [Anarcho-Syndicalism, p. 11]
Such a unification must take place on the social and economic field, not the political, as that is where the working class is strongest. So anarchists are well aware of the need to fight for political issues and reforms, and so are "not in any way opposed to the political struggle, but in their opinion this struggle . . . must take the form of direct action, in which the instruments of economic [and social] power which the working class has at its command are the most effective. The most trivial wage-fight shows clearly that, whenever the employers find themselves in difficulties, the state steps in with the police, and even in some cases with the militia, to protect the threatened interests of the possessing classes. It would, therefore, be absurd for them to overlook the importance of the political struggle. Every event that affects the life of the community is of a political nature. In this sense every important economic action . . . is also a political action and, moreover, one of incomparably greater importance than any parliamentary proceeding." In other words, "just as the worker cannot be indifferent to the economic conditions of his life in existing society, so he cannot remain indifferent to the political structure of his country. Both in the struggle for his daily bread and for every kind of propaganda looking towards his social liberation he needs political rights and liberties, and he must fight for these himself with all his strength whenever the attempt is made to wrest them from him." So the "focal point of the political struggle lies, then, not in the political parties, but in the economic [and social] fighting organisations of the workers." [Rocker, Op. Cit., p. 77, p. 74 and p. 77] Hence the comments in the CNT's newspaper Solidaridad Obrera:
"Does anyone not know that we want to participate in public life? Does anyone not know that we have always done so? Yes, we want to participate. With our organisations. With our papers. Without intermediaries, delegates or representatives. No. We will not go to the Town Hall, to the Provincial Capitol, to Parliament." [quoted by Jose Pierats, Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution, p. 173]
Indeed, Rudolf Rocker makes the point very clear. "It has often been charged against Anarcho-Syndicalism," he wrote, "that it has no interest in the political structure of the different countries, and consequently no interest in the political struggles of the time, and confines its activities entirely to the fight for purely economic demands. This idea is altogether erroneous and springs either from outright ignorance or wilful distortion of the facts. It is not the political struggle as such which distinguishes the Anarcho-Syndicalist from the modern labour parties, both in principle and tactics, but the form of this struggle and the aims which it has in view . . . their efforts are also directed, even today, at restricting the activities of the state . . . The attitude of Anarcho-Syndicalism towards the political power of the present-day state is exactly the same as it takes towards the system of capitalist exploitation" and "pursue the same tactics in their fight against . . . the state." [Op. Cit., pp. 73-4]
As historian Bob Holton suggests, the notion that syndicalism is apolitical "is certainly a deeply embedded article of faith among those marxists who have taken Lenin's strictures against syndicalism at face value. Yet it bears little relation to the actual nature of revolutionary industrial movements . . . Nor did syndicalists neglect politics and the state. Revolutionary industrial movements were on the contrary highly 'political' in that they sought to understand, challenge and destroy the structure of capitalist power in society, They quite clearly perceived the oppressive role of the state whose periodic intervention in industrial unrest could hardly have been missed." For example, the "vigorous campaign against the 'servile state' certainly disproves the notion that syndicalists ignored the role of the state in society. On the contrary, their analysis of bureaucratic state capitalism helped to make considerable inroads into prevailing Labourist and state socialist assumptions that the existing state could be captured by electoral means and used as an agent of through-going social reform." [British Syndicalism, 1900-1914, pp. 21-2 and p. 204]
Thus anarchism is not indifferent to or ignores political struggles and issues. Rather, it fights for political change and reforms as it fights for economic ones -- by direct action and solidarity. If anarchists "reject any participation in the works of bourgeois parliaments, it is not because they have no sympathy with political struggles in general, but because they are firmly convinced that parliamentary activity is for the workers the very weakest and most hopeless form of the political struggle." [Rocker, Op. Cit., p. 76] Anarchists reject the idea that political and economic struggles can be divided. Such an argument just reproduces the artificially created division of labour between mental and physical activity of capitalism within working class organisations and within anti-capitalist movements. We say that we should not separate out politics into some form of specialised activity that only certain people (i.e. our "representatives") can do. Instead, anarchists argue that political struggles, ideas and debates must be brought into the social and economic organisations of our class where they must be debated freely by all members as they see fit and that political and economic struggle and change must go hand in hand. Rather than being something other people discuss on behalf of working class people, anarchists, argue that politics must no longer be in the hands of so-called experts (i.e. politicians) but instead lie in the hands of those directly affected by it. Also, in this way the social struggle encourages the political development of its members by the process of participation and self-management.
In other words, political issues must be raised in economic and social organisations and discussed there, where working class people have real power. As Bakunin put it, "the proletariat itself will pose" political and philosophical questions in their own organisations and so the political struggle (in the widest scene) will come from the class struggle, for "[w]ho can entertain any doubt that out of this ever-growing organisation of the militant solidarity of the proletariat against bourgeois exploitation there will issue forth the political struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie?" Anarchists simply think that the "policy of the proletariat" should be "the destruction of the State" rather than working within it and we argue for a union of political ideas and social organisation and activity. This is essential for promoting radical politics as it "digs a chasm between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat and places the proletariat outside the activity and political conniving of all parties within the State . . . in placing itself outside all bourgeois politics, the proletariat necessarily turns against it." So, by "placing the proletariat outside the politics in the State and of the bourgeois world, [the working class movement] thereby constructed a new world, the world of the united proletarians of all lands." [Op. Cit., p. 302 p. 276, p. 303 and p. 305]
History supports Bakunin's arguments, as it indicates that any attempt at taking social and economic issues into political parties has resulting in wasted energy and their watering down into, at best, reformism and, at worse, the simple ignoring of them by politicians once in office (see section J.2.6). Only by rejecting the artificial divisions of capitalist society can we remain true to our ideals of liberty, equality and solidarity. Every example of radicals using electioneering has resulted in them being changed by the system instead of them changing it. They have become dominated by capitalist ideas and activity (what is usually termed "realistic" and "practical") and by working within capitalist institutions they have, to use Bakunin's words, "filled in at a single stroke the abyss . . . between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie" that economic and social struggle creates and, worse, "have tied the proletariat to the bourgeois towline." [Op. Cit., p. 290]
In addition, so-called "economic" struggles do not occur in a vacuum. They take place in a social and political context and so, necessarily, there can exist an separation of political and economic struggles only in the mind. Strikers or eco-warriors, for example, face the power of the state enforcing laws which protect the power of employers and polluters. This necessarily has a "political" impact on those involved in struggle. By channelling any "political" conclusions drawn by those involved in struggle into electoral politics, this development of political ideas and discussion will be distorted into discussions of what is possible in the current system, and so the radical impact of direct action and social struggle is weakened. Given this, is it surprising that anarchists argue that the people "must organise their powers apart from and against the State." [Bakunin, The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 376]
To conclude, anarchists are only "apolitical" about bourgeois elections and the dubious liberty and benefits associated with picking who will rule us and maintain capitalism for the next four or five years as well as the usefulness of socialists participating in them. We feel that our predictions have been confirmed time and time again. Anarchists reject electioneering not because they are "apolitical" but because they do not desire to see politics remain a thing purely for politicians and bureucrats. Political issues are far too important to leave to such people. Anarchists desire to see political discussion and change develop from the bottom up, this is hardly "apolitical" -- in fact with our desire to see ordinary people directly discuss the issues that affect them, act to change things by their own action and draw their own conclusions from their own activity anarchists are very "political." The process of individual and social liberation is the most political activity we can think of!
Anarchist FAQ Index
Table of Contents
Section A - What is anarchism?
Section B - Why do anarchists oppose the current system?
Section C - What are the myths of capitalist economics?
Section D - How do statism and capitalism affect society?
Section E - What do anarchists think causes ecological problems?
Section F - Is "anarcho"-capitalism a type of anarchism?
Section G - Is individualist anarchism capitalistic?
Section H - Why do anarchists oppose state socialism?
Section I - What would an anarchist society look like?
Section J - What do anarchists do?
Appendix - Anarchism and "Anarcho"-capitalism
Appendix - The Symbols of Anarchy
Appendix - Anarchism and Marxism
Appendix - The Russian Revolution