PDF version of Section J.
J.7 What do anarchists mean by “social revolution”?
In anarchist theory, “social revolution” means far more than just revolution. For anarchists, a true revolution is far more than just a change in the political makeup, structure or form of a society. It must transform all aspects of a society — political, economic, social, interpersonal relationships, sexual and so on — and the individuals who comprise it. Indeed, these two transformations go hand in hand, complementing each other and supporting each other — individuals, while transforming society, transform themselves in the process.
As Alexander Berkman put it, “there are revolutions and revolutions. Some revolutions change only the governmental form by putting a new set of rulers in place of the old. These are political revolutions, and as such they are often meet with little resistance. But a revolution that aims to abolish the entire system of wage slavery must also do away with the power of one class to oppress another. That is, it is not any more a mere change of rulers, of government, not a political revolution, but one that seeks to alter the whole character of society. That would be a social revolution.” [ABC of Anarchism, p. 34]
It means two related things. Firstly, it means transforming all aspects of society and not just tinkering with certain aspects of the current system. Where political revolution means, in essence, changing bosses, social revolution means changing society. Thus social revolution signifies a change in the social, economic and cultural and sexual in a libertarian direction, a transformation in the way society is organised and run. Social revolution, in other words, does not aim to alter one form of subjection for another, but to do away with everything that can enslave and oppress the individual. Secondly, it means bringing about this fundamental change directly by the mass of people in society, rather than relying on political means of achieving this end, in the style of Marxist-Leninists and other authoritarian socialists. For anarchists, such an approach is a political revolution only and doomed to failure. Hence the “actual, positive work of the social revolution must . . . be carried out by the toilers themselves, by the labouring people.” [Alexander Berkman, Op. Cit., p. 45]
That is not to say that an anarchist social revolution is not political in content — far from it; it should be obvious to anyone reading this FAQ that there are considerable political theories at work within anarchism. What we are saying, however, is that anarchists do not seek to seize power and attempt, through control of law enforcement and the military (in the style of governments) to bring change about from the top-down. Rather, we seek to bring change upward from below, and in so doing, make such a revolution inevitable and not contingent on the machinations of a political vanguard. As Durruti argued, “[w]e never believed that the revolution consisted of the seizure of power by a minority which would impose a dictatorship on the people . . . We want a revolution by and for the people. Without this no revolution is possible. It would be a Coup d’Etat, nothing more.” [quoted by Abel Paz, Durruti: The People Armed, pp. 135-7]
Thus, for anarchists, a social revolution is a movement from below, of the oppressed and exploited struggling for their own freedom. Moreover, such a revolution does not appear as if by magic. Rather, it is the case that revolutions “are not improvised. They are not made at will by individuals. They come about through the force of circumstance and are independent of any deliberate will or conspiracy.” [Michael Bakunin, quote by Brian Morris, Bakunin: The Philosophy of Freedom, p. 139] They are, in fact, a product of social evolution and of social struggle. As Malatesta reminds us:
“the oppressed masses . . . have never completely resigned themselves to oppression and poverty, and who today more than ever than ever show themselves thirsting for justice, freedom and wellbeing, are beginning to understand that they will not be able to achieve their emancipation except by union and solidarity with all the oppressed, with the exploited everywhere in the world. And they also understand that the indispensable condition for their emancipation which cannot be neglected is the possession of the means of production, of the land and of the instruments of labour.” [Anarchy, p. 30]
Thus any social revolution proceeds from the daily struggles of working class people (just as anarchism does). It is not an event, rather it is a process — a process which is occurring at this moment. Thus, for anarchists, a social revolution is not something in the future but an process which is occurring in the here and now. As German Anarchist Gustav Landauer put it:
“The State is not something that can be destroyed by a revolution, but it is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently.” [quoted by George Woodcock, Anarchism, p. 421]
This does not mean that anarchists do not recognise that a revolution will be marked by, say, insurrectionary events (such as a general strike, wide scale occupations of land, housing, workplaces, etc., actual insurrections and so on). Of course not, it means that we place these events in a process, within social movements and that they do not occur in isolation from history or the evolution of ideas and movements within society.
Berkman echoes this point when he argued that while “a social revolution is one that entirely changes the foundation of society, its political, economic and social character,” such a change “must first take place in the ideas and opinions of the people, in the minds of men [and women].” This means that “the social revolution must be prepared. Prepared in these sense of furthering evolutionary process, of enlightening the people about the evils of present-day society and convincing them of the desirability and possibility, of the justice and practicability of a social life based on liberty.” [Alexander Berkman, Op. Cit., p. 38] And such preparation would be the result of social struggle in the here and now, social struggle based on direct action, solidarity and self-managed organisations. While Berkman concentrates on the labour movement in his classic work, but his comments are applicable to all social movements:
“In the daily struggle of the proletariat such an organisation [a syndicalist union] would be able to achieve victories about which the conservative union, as at present built, cannot even dream. . . . Such a union would soon become something more than a mere defender and protector of the worker. It would gain a vital realisation of the meaning of unity and consequent power, of labour solidarity. The factory and shop would serve as a training camp to develop the worker’s understanding of his proper role in life, to cultivate his [or her] self-reliance and independence, teach him [or her] mutual help and co-operation, and make him [or her] conscious of his [or her] responsibility. He will learn to decide and act on his [or her] own judgement, not leaving it to leaders or politicians to attend to his [or her] affairs and look out for his [or her] welfare. . . He [or she] will grow to understand that present economic and social arrangements are wrong and criminal, and he [or she] will determine to change them. The shop committee and union will become the field of preparation for a new economic system, for a new social life.” [Op. Cit., p. 59]
In other words, the struggle against authority, exploitation, oppression and domination in the here and now is the start of the social revolution. It is this daily struggle which creates free people and the organisations it generates “bear . . . the living seed of the new society which is to replace the old one. They are creating not only the ideas, but also the facts of the future itself.” [Michael Bakunin, Bakunin On Anarchism, p. 255] Hence Bakunin’s comment that anarchists think socialism will be attained only “by the development and organisation, not of the political but of the social organisation (and, by consequence, anti-political) power of the working masses as much in the towns as in the countryside.” [Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, pp. 197-8] Such social power is expressed in economic and community organisations such as self-managed unions and workplace/community assemblies (see section J.5).
Anarchists try and follow the example of our Spanish comrades in the C.N.T. and F.A.I. who, when “faced with the conventional opposition between reformism and revolution, they appear, in effect, to have put forward a third alternative, seeking to obtain immediate practical improvements through the actual development, in practice, of autonomous, libertarian forms of self-organisation.” [Nick Rider, “The Practice of Direct Action: The Barcelona Rent Strike of 1931”, in For Anarchism, pp. 79-105, David Goodway (ed.), p. 99] While doing this, anarchists must also “beware of ourselves becoming less anarchist because the masses are not ready for anarchy.” [Malatesta, Life and Ideas, p. 162]
Therefore, revolution and anarchism is the product of struggle, a social process in which anarchist ideas spread and develop. However, “[t]his does not mean. . . that to achieve anarchy we must wait till everyone becomes an anarchist. On the contrary. . . under present conditions only a small minority, favoured by specific circumstances, can manage to conceive what anarchy is. It would be wishful thinking to hope for a general conversion before a change actually took place in the kind of environment in which authoritarianism and privilege now flourish. It is precisely for this reason that [we] . . . need to organise for the bringing about of anarchy, or at any rate that degree of anarchy which could become gradually feasible, as soon as a sufficient amount of freedom has been won and a nucleus of anarchists somewhere exists that is both numerically strong enough and able to be self-sufficient and to spread its influence locally.” [Errico Malatesta, The Anarchist Revolution, pp. 83-4]
Thus anarchists influence the struggle, the revolutionary process by encouraging anarchistic tendencies within those who are not yet anarchists but are instinctively acting in a libertarian manner. Anarchists spread the anarchist message to those in struggle and support libertarian tendencies in it as far as they can. In this way, more and more people will become anarchists and anarchy will become increasingly possible. We discuss the role of anarchists in a social revolution in section J.7.4 and will not do so now.
For anarchists, a social revolution is the end product of years of social struggle. It is marked by the transformation of a given society and the breaking down of all forms of oppression and the creation of new ways of living, new forms of self-managed organisation, a new attitude to live itself. Moreover, we do not wait for the future to introduce such transformations in our daily life. Rather, we try and create as much anarchistic tendencies in today’s society as possible in the firm belief that in so doing we are pushing the creation of a free society nearer.
So anarchists, including revolutionary ones, try to make the world more libertarian and so bring us closer to freedom. Few anarchists think of anarchy as something in (or for) the distant future, rather it is something we try and create in the here and now by living and struggling in a libertarian manner. Once enough people do this, then a more extensive change towards anarchy (i.e. a revolution) is inevitable.
No, far from it. While most anarchists do believe that a social revolution is required to create a free society, some reject the idea. This is because they think that revolutions are by their very nature violent and coercive and so are against anarchist principles. In the words of Proudhon (in reply to Marx):
“Perhaps you still hold the opinion that no reform is possible without a helping coup de main, without what used to be called a revolution but which is quite simply a jolt. I confess that my most recent studies have led me to abandon this view, which I understand and would willingly discuss, since for a long time I held it myself. I do not think that this is what we need in order to succeed, and consequently we must not suggest revolutionary action as the means of social reform because this supposed means would simply be an appeal to force and to arbitrariness. In brief, it would be a contradiction.” [Selected Writings of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, p. 151]
Also they point to the fact that the state is far better armed than the general population, better trained and (as history proves) more than willing to slaughter as many people as required to restore “order.” In face of this power, they argue, revolution is doomed to failure.
Those opposed to revolution come from all tendencies of the movement. Traditionally, Individualist anarchists are usually against the idea of revolution, as was Proudhon. However, with the failure of the Russian Revolution and the defeat of the C.N.T.-F.A.I. in Spain, some social anarchists have rethought support for revolution. Rather than seeing revolution as the key way of creating a free society they consider it doomed to failure as the state is too strong a force to be overcome by insurrection. Instead of revolution, such anarchists support the creation of alternatives, such as co-operatives, mutual banks and so on, which will help transform capitalism into libertarian socialism. Such alternative building, combined with civil disobedience and non-payment of taxes, is seen as the best way to creating anarchy.
Most revolutionary anarchists agree on the importance of building libertarian alternatives in the here and now. They would agree with Bakunin when he argued that such organisations as libertarian unions, co-operatives and so on are essential “so that when the Revolution, brought about by the natural force of circumstances, breaks out, there will be a real force at hand which knows what to do and by virtue thereof is capable of taking the Revolution into its own hands and imparting to it a direction salutary for the people: a serious, international organisation of worker’s organisations of all countries, capable of replacing the departing political world of the States and the bourgeoisie.” [The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 323] Thus, for most anarchists, the difference of evolution and revolution is one of little import — anarchists should support libertarian tendencies within society as they support revolutionary situations when they occur.
Moreover, revolutionary anarchists argue that, ultimately, capitalism cannot be reformed away nor will the state wither away under the onslaught of libertarian institutions and attitudes. They do not consider it possible to “burn Property little by little” via “some system of economics” which will “put back into society . . . the wealth which has been taken out of society by another system of economics”, to use Proudhon’s expression. [Op. Cit., p. 151] Therefore, libertarian tendencies within capitalism may make life better under that system but they cannot, ultimately, get rid of it. This implies a social revolution, they argue. Such anarchists agree with Alexander Berkman when he writes:
“This is no record of any government or authority, of any group or class in power having given up its mastery voluntarily. In every instance it required the use of force, or at least the threat of it.” [ABC of Anarchism, p. 32]
Even the end of State capitalism (“Communism”) in the Eastern Block does not contradict this argument. Without the mass action of the population, the regime would have continued. Faced with a massive popular revolt, the Commissars realised that it was better to renounce power than have it taken from them. Thus mass rebellion, the start of any true revolution, was required.
Moreover, the argument that the state is too powerful to be defeated has been proven wrong time and time again. Every revolution has defeated a military machine which previously been claimed to be unbeatable. For example, the people armed is Spain defeated the military in two-thirds of the country. Ultimately, the power of the state rests on its troops following orders. If those troops rebel, then the state is powerless. That is why anarchists have always produced anti-militarist propaganda urging troops to join strikers and other people in revolt. Revolutionary anarchists, therefore, argue that any state can be defeated, if the circumstances are right and the work of anarchists is to encourage those circumstances.
In addition, revolutionary anarchists argue that even if anarchists did not support revolutionary change, this would not stop such events happening. Revolutions are the product of developments in human society and occur whether we desire them or not. They start with small rebellions, small acts of refusal by individuals, groups, workplaces, communities and grow. These acts of rebellion are inevitable in any hierarchical society, as is their spreading wider and wider. Revolutionary anarchists argue that anarchists must, by the nature of our politics and our desire for freedom, support such acts of rebellion and, ultimately, social revolution. Not to do so means ignoring people in struggle against our common enemy and ignoring the means by which anarchists ideas and attitudes will grow within existing society. Thus Alexander Berkman is right when he wrote:
“That is why it is no prophecy to foresee that some day it must come to decisive struggle between the masters of life and the dispossessed masses.
“As a matter if fact, that struggle is going on all the time. There is a continuous warfare between capital and labour. That warfare generally proceeds within so-called legal forms. But even these erupt now and then in violence, as during strikes and lockouts, because the armed fist of government is always at the service of the masters, and that fist gets into action the moment capital feels its profits threatened: then it drops the mask of ‘mutual interests’ and ‘partnership’ with labour and resorts to the final argument of every master, to coercion and force.
“It is therefore certain that government and capital will not allow themselves to be quietly abolished if they can help it; nor will they miraculously ‘disappear’ of themselves, as some people pretend to believe. It will require a revolution to get rid of them.” [Op. Cit., p. 33]
However, all anarchists are agreed that any revolution should be as non-violent as possible. Violence is the tool of oppression and, for anarchists, violence is only legitimate as a means of self-defence against authority. Therefore revolutionary anarchists do not seek “violent revolution” — they are just aware that when people refuse to kow-tow to authority then that authority will use violence against them. This use of violence has been directed against non-violent forms of direct action and so those anarchists who reject revolution will not avoid state violence directed against.
Nor do revolutionary anarchists think that revolution is in contradiction to the principles of anarchism. As Malatesta put it, “[f]or two people to live in peace they must both want peace; if one insists on using force to oblige the other to work for him and serve him, then the other, if he wishes to retain his dignity as a man and not be reduced to abject slavery, will be obliged, in spite of his love of peace, to resist force with adequate means.” [Malatesta, Life and Ideas, p. 54] Under any hierarchical system, those in authority do not leave those subject to them in peace. The boss does not treat his/her workers as equals, working together by free agreement without differences in power. Rather, the boss orders the worker about and uses the threat of sanctions to get compliance. Similarly with the state. Under these conditions, revolution cannot be authoritarian — for it is not authoritarian to destroy authority! To quote Rudolf Rocker:
“We . . . know that a revolution cannot be made with rosewater. And we know, too, that the owning classes will never yield up their privileges spontaneously. On the day of victorious revolution the workers will have to impose their will on the present owners of the soil, of the subsoil and of the means of production, which cannot be done — let us be clear on this — without the workers taking the capital of society into their own hands, and, above all, without their having demolished the authoritarian structure which is, and will continue to be, the fortress keeping the masses of the people under dominion. Such an action is, without doubt, an act of liberation; a proclamation of social justice; the very essence of social revolution, which has nothing in common with the utterly bourgeois principle of dictatorship.” [Anarchism and Sovietism]
Errico Malatesta comments reflect well the position of revolutionary anarchists with regards to the use of force:
“We neither seek to impose anything by force nor do we wish to submit to a violent imposition.
“We intend to use force against government, because it is by force that we are kept in subjection by government.
“We intend to expropriate the owners of property because it is by force that they withhold the raw materials and wealth, which is the fruit of human labour, and use it to oblige others to work in their interest.
“We shall resist with force whoever would wish by force, to retain or regain the means to impose his will and exploit the labour of others. . .
“With the exception of these cases, in which the use of violence is justified as a defence against force, we are always against violence, and for self-determination.” [Op. Cit., p. 56]
This is the reason why most anarchists are revolutionaries. They do not think it against the principles of anarchism and consider it the only real means of creating a free society — a society in which the far greater, and permanent, violence which keeps the majority of humanity in servitude can be ended once and for all.
One objection to the possibility of social revolution is based on what we might call “the paradox of social change.” This argument goes as follows: authoritarian institutions reward and select people with an authoritarian type of personality for the most influential positions in society; such types of people have both (a) an interest in perpetuating authoritarian institutions (from which they benefit) and (b) the power to perpetuate them; hence they create a self-sustaining and tightly closed system which is virtually impervious to the influence of non-authoritarian types. Therefore, institutional change presupposes individual change, which presupposes institutional change, and so on. Unless it can be shown, then, that institutions and human psychology can both be changed at the same time, hope for a genuine social revolution (instead of just another rotation of elites) appears to be unrealistic.
Connected with this problem is the fact that the psychological root of the hierarchical society is addiction to power — over other people, over nature, over the body and human emotions — and that this addiction is highly contagious. That is, as soon as any group of people anywhere in the world becomes addicted to power, those within range of their aggression also feel compelled to embrace the structures of power, including centralised control over the use of deadly force, in order to protect themselves from their neighbours. But once these structures of power are adopted, authoritarian institutions become self-perpetuating.
In this situation, fear becomes the underlying emotion behind the conservatism, conformity, and mental inertia of the majority, who in that state become vulnerable to the self-serving propaganda of authoritarian elites alleging the necessity of the state, strong leaders, militarism, “law and order,” capitalist bosses, etc. Hence the simultaneous transformation of institutions and individual psychology becomes even more difficult to imagine.
Serious as these obstacles may be, they do not warrant despair. To see why, let’s note first that “paradigm shifts” in science have not generally derived from new developments in one field alone but from a convergence of cumulative developments in several different fields at once. For example, the Einsteinian revolution which resulted in the overthrow of the Newtonian paradigm was due to simultaneous progress in mathematics, physics, astronomy and other sciences that all influenced, reacted on, and cross-fertilised each other (see Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962). Similarly, if there is going to be a “paradigm shift” in the social realm, i.e. from hierarchical to non-hierarchical institutions, it is likely to emerge from the convergence of a number of different socio-economic and political developments at the same time. We have discussed these developments in section J.4 and so will not repeat ourselves here. In a hierarchical society, the oppression which authority produces resistance, and so hope. The “instinct for freedom” cannot be repressed forever.
That is why anarchists stress the importance of direct action and self-help (see sections J.2 and J.4). By the very process of struggle, by practising self-management, direct action, solidarity people create the necessary “paradigm shift” in both themselves and society as a whole. In the words of Malatesta, “[o]nly freedom or the struggle for freedom can be the school for freedom.” [Life and Ideas, p. 59] Thus the struggle against authority is the school of anarchy — it encourages libertarian tendencies in society and the transformation of individuals into anarchists. In a revolutionary situation, this process is accelerated. It is worth quoting Murray Bookchin at length on this subject:
“Revolutions are profoundly educational processes, indeed veritable cauldrons in which all kinds of conflicting ideas and tendencies are sifted out in the minds of a revolutionary people. . .
“Individuals who enter into a revolutionary process are by no means the same after the revolution as they were before it began. Those who encounter a modicum of success in revolutionary times learn more within a span of a few weeks or months than they might have learned over their lifetime in non-revolutionary times. Conventional ideas fall away with extraordinary rapidity; values and prejudices that were centuries in the making disappear almost overnight. Strikingly innovative ideas are quickly adopted, tested, and, where necessary, discarded. Even newer ideas, often flagrantly radical in character, are adopted with an elan that frightens ruling elites — however radical the latter may profess to be — and they soon become deeply rooted in the popular consciousness. Authorities hallowed by age-old tradition are suddenly divested of their prestige, legitimacy, and power to govern. . .
“So tumultuous socially and psychologically are revolutions in general that they constitute a standing challenge to ideologues, including sociobiologists, who assert that human behaviour is fixed and human nature predetermined. Revolutionary changes reveal a remarkable flexibility in ‘human nature,’ yet few psychologists have elected to study the social and psychological tumult of revolution as well as the institutional changes it so often produces. Thus much must be said with fervent emphasis: to continue to judge the behaviour of a people during and after a revolution by the same standards one judged them by beforehand is completely myopic.
“I wish to argue [like all anarchists] that the capacity of a revolution to produce far-reaching ideological and moral changes in a people stems primarily from the opportunity it affords ordinary, indeed oppressed, people to exercise popular self-management — to enter directly, rapidly, and exhilaratingly into control over most aspects of their social and personal lives. To the extent that an insurrectionary people takes over the reins of power from the formerly hallowed elites who oppressed them and begins to restructure society along radically populist lines, individuals grow aware of latent powers within themselves that nourish their previously suppressed creativity, sense of self-worth, and solidarity. They learn that society is neither immutable nor sanctified, as inflexible custom had previously taught them; rather, it is malleable and subject, within certain limits, to change according to human will and desire.” [The Third Revolution, vol. 1, pp. 6-7]
So, social revolutions are possible. Anarchists anticipate successful co-operation within certain circumstance. People who are in the habit of taking orders from bosses are not capable of creating a new society. Tendencies towards freedom, self-management, co-operation and solidarity are not simply an act of ethical will which overcomes the competitive and hierarchical behaviour capitalism generates within those who live in it. Capitalism is, as Malatesta argued, based on competition — and this includes the working class. Thus conflict is endemic to working class life under capitalism. However, co-operation is stimulated within our class by our struggles to survive in and resist the system. This tendency for co-operation generated by struggle against capitalism also produces the habits required for a free society — by struggling to change the world (even a small part of it), people also change themselves. Direct action produces empowered and self-reliant people who can manage their own affairs themselves. It is on the liberating effects of struggle, the tendencies towards individual and collective self-management and direct action it generates, the needs and feelings for solidarity and creative solutions to pressing problems it produces that anarchists base their positive answer on whether social revolution is possible. History has shown that we are right. It will do so again.
While many try and paint revolutions (and anarchists) as being violent by their very nature, the social revolution desired by anarchists is essentially non-violent. This is because, to quote Bakunin, “[i]n order to launch a radical revolution, it is . . . necessary to attack positions and things and to destroy [the institution of] property and the State, but there will be no need to destroy men and to condemn ourselves to the inevitable reaction which is unfailingly produced in every society by the slaughter of men.” [Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, pp. 168-9]
As Bakunin noted elsewhere, the end of property is also non-violent:
“How to smash the tyranny of capital? Destroy capital? But that would be to destroy all the riches accumulated on earth, all primary materials, all the instruments of labour, all the means of labour. . . Thus capital cannot and must not be destroyed. It must be preserved . . . there is but a single solution — the intimate and complete union of capital and labour . . . the workers must obtain not individual but collective property in capital . . . the collective property of capital . . . [is] the absolutely necessary conditions for of the emancipation of labour and of the workers.“ [The Basic Bakunin, pp. 90-1]
The essentially non-violent nature of anarchist ideas of social revolution can be seen from the Seattle General Strike of 1919. Here is a quote from the Mayor of Seattle (we do not think we need to say that he was not on the side of the strikers):
“The so-called sympathetic Seattle strike was an attempted revolution. That there was no violence does not alter the fact . . . The intent, openly and covertly announced, was for the overthrow of the industrial system; here first, then everywhere . . . True, there were no flashing guns, no bombs, no killings. Revolution, I repeat, doesn’t need violence. The general strike, as practised in Seattle, is of itself the weapon of revolution, all the more dangerous because quiet. To succeed, it must suspend everything; stop the entire life stream of a community . . . That is to say, it puts the government out of operation. And that is all there is to revolt — no matter how achieved.” [quoted by Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, pp. 370-1]
If the strikers had occupied their workplaces and local communities can created popular assemblies then the attempted revolution would have become an actual one without any use of violence at all. This indicates the strength of ordinary people and the relative weakness of government and capitalism — they only work when they can force people to respect them.
In Italy, a year latter, the occupations of the factories and land started. As Malatesta pointed out, “in Umanita Nova [the daily anarchist newspaper] we . . . said that if the movement spread to all sectors of industry, that is workers and peasants followed the example of the metallurgists, of getting rid of the bosses and taking over the means of production, the revolution would succeed without shedding a single drop of blood.” Thus the “occupation of the factories and the land suited perfectly our programme of action.” [Life and Ideas, p. 135]
Therefore the notion that a social revolution is necessarily violent is a false one. For anarchists, social revolution is essentially an act of self-liberation (of both the individuals involved and society as a whole). It has nothing to do with violence, quite the reverse, as anarchists see it as the means to end the rule and use of violence in society. Therefore anarchists hope that any revolution is essentially non-violent, with any violence being defensive in nature.
Of course, many revolutions are marked by violence. However, as Alexander Berkman argues, this is not the aim of anarchism or the revolution and has far more to do with previous repression and domination than anarchist ideas:
“We know that revolution begins with street disturbances and outbreaks; it is the initial phase which involves force and violence. But that is merely the spectacular prologue of the real revolution. The age long misery and indignity suffered by the masses burst into disorder and tumult, the humiliation and injustice meekly borne for decades find vents in facts of fury and destruction. That is inevitable, and it is solely the master class which is responsible for this preliminary character of revolution. For it is even more true socially than individually that ‘whoever sows the wind will reap the whirlwind;’ the greater the oppression and wretchedness to which the masses had been made to submit, the fiercer the rage [of] the social storm. All history proves it . . .” [ABC of Anarchism, p. 50]
He also argues that “[m]ost people have very confused notions about revolution. To them it means just fighting, smashing things, destroying. It is the same as if rolling up your sleeves for work should be considered the work itself that you have to do. The fighting bit of the revolution is merely the rolling up of your sleeves.” The task of the revolution is the “destruction of the existing conditions” and “conditions are not destroyed [by] breaking and smashing things. You can’t destroy wage slavery by wrecking the machinery in the mills and factories . . . You won’t destroy government by setting fire to the White House.” He correctly points out that to think of revolution “in terms of violence and destruction is to misinterpret and falsify the whole idea of it. In practical application such a conception is bound to lead to disastrous results.” [Op. Cit., pp. 40-1]
Thus when anarchists like Bakunin speak of revolution as “destruction” they mean that the idea of authority and obedience must be destroyed, along with the institutions that are based on such ideas. We do not mean, as can be clearly seen, the destruction of people or possessions. Nor do we imply the glorification of violence — quite the reserve, as anarchists seek to limit violence to that required for self-defence against oppression and authority.
Therefore a social revolution may involve some violence. It may also mean no-violence at all. It depends on the revolution and how widely anarchist ideas are spread. One thing is sure, for anarchists social revolution is not synonymous violence. Indeed, violence usually occurs when the ruling class resists the action of the oppressed — that is, when those in authority act to protect their social position.
The wealthy and their state will do anything in their power to prevent having a large enough percentage of anarchists in the population to simply “ignore” the government and property out of existence. If things got that far, the government would suspend the legal rights, elections and round up influential subversives. The question is, what do anarchists do in response to these actions? If anarchists are in the majority or near it, then defensive violence would likely succeed. For example, “the people armed” crushed the fascist coup of July 19th, 1936 in Spain and resulted in one of the most important experiments in anarchism the world has ever seen. This should be contrasted with the aftermath of the factory occupations in Italy in 1920 and the fascist terror which crushed the labour movement. In other words, you cannot just ignore the state even if the majority are acting, you need to abolish it and organise self-defence against attempts to re-impose it or capitalism.
We discuss the question of self-defence and the protection of the revolution in section J.7.6.
Social revolution necessitates putting anarchist ideas into daily practice. Therefore it implies that direct action, solidarity and self-management become increasingly the dominant form of living in a society. It implies the transformation of society from top to bottom. We can do no better than quote Errico Malatesta on what revolution means:
“The Revolution is the creation of new living institutions, new groupings, new social relationships; it is the destruction of privileges and monopolies; it is the new spirit of justice, of brotherhood, of freedom which must renew the whole of social life, raise the moral level and the material conditions of the masses by calling on them to provide, through their direct and conscious action, for their own futures. Revolution is the organisation of all public services by those who in them in their own interest as well as the public’s; Revolution is the destruction of all of coercive ties; it is the autonomy of groups, of communes, of regions; Revolution is the free federation brought about by a desire for brotherhood, by individual and collective interests, by the needs of production and defence; Revolution is the constitution of innumerable free groupings based on ideas, wishes, and tastes of all kinds that exist among the people; Revolution is the forming and disbanding of thousands of representative, district, communal, regional, national bodies which, without having any legislative power, serve to make known and to co-ordinate the desires and interests of people near and far and which act through information, advice and example. Revolution is freedom proved in the crucible of facts — and lasts so long as freedom lasts. . .” [Life and Ideas, p. 153]
This, of course, presents a somewhat wide vision of the revolutionary process. We will need to give some more concrete examples of what a social revolution would involve. However, before so doing, we stress that these are purely examples drawn from previous revolutions and are not written in stone. Every revolution creates its own forms of organisation and struggle. The next one will be no different. Just as we argued in section I, an anarchist revolution will create its own forms of freedom, forms which may share aspects with previous forms but which are unique to themselves. All we do here is give a rough overview of what we expect (based on previous revolutions) to see occur in a social revolution. We are not predicting the future. As Kropotkin put it:
“A question which we are often asked is: ‘How will you organise the future society on Anarchist principles?’ If the question were put to . . . someone who fancies that a group of men [or women] is able to organise society as they like, it would seem natural. But in the ears of an Anarchist, it sounds very strangely, and the only answer we can give to it is: ‘We cannot organise you. It will depend upon you what sort of organisation you choose.'” [Act for Yourselves, p. 32]
And organise themselves they have. In each social revolution, the oppressed have organised themselves into many different self-managed organisations. These bodies include the Sections during the Great French Revolution, the workers councils (“soviets” or “rate”) during the Russian and German revolutions, the industrial and rural collectives during the Spanish Revolution, the workers councils during the Hungarian revolution of 1956, assemblies and action committees during the 1968 revolt in France, and so on. These bodies were hardly uniform in nature and some were more anarchistic than others, but the tendency towards self-management and federation existing in them all. This tendency towards anarchistic solutions and organisation is not unsurprising, for, as Nestor Makhno argued, “[i]n carrying through the revolution, under the impulsion of the anarchism that is innate in them, the masses of humanity search for free associations. Free assemblies always command their sympathy. The revolutionary anarchist must help them to formulate this approach as best they can.” [The Struggle Against the State and Other Essays, p. 85]
In addition, we must stress that we are discussing an anarchist social revolution in this section. As we noted in section I.2.2, anarchists recognise that any revolution will take on different forms in different areas and develop in different ways and at different speeds. We leave it up to others to describe their vision of revolution (for Marxists, the creation of a “workers’ state” and the seizure of power by the “proletarian” vanguard or party, and so on).
So what would a libertarian social revolution involve? Firstly, a revolution “it is not the work of one day. It means a whole period, mostly lasting for several years, during which the country is in a state of effervescence; when thousands of formerly indifferent spectators take a lively part in public affairs . . [and] criticises and repudiates the institutions which are a hindrance to free development; when it boldly enters upon problems which formerly seemed insoluble.” [Peter Kropotkin, Op. Cit., pp. 25-6] Thus, it would be a process in which revolutionary attitudes, ideas, actions and organisations spread in society until the existing system is overthrown and a new one takes its place. It does not come overnight. Rather it is an accumulative development, marked by specific events of course, but fundamentally it goes on in the fabric of society. For example, the real Russian revolution went on during the period between the 1917 February and October insurrections when workers took over their workplaces, peasants seized their land and new forms of social life (soviets, factory committees, co-operatives, etc.) were formed and people lost their previous submissive attitudes to authority by using direct action to change their lives for the better (see The Unknown Revolution by Voline for more details and evidence of this revolutionary process in action). Similarly, the Spanish Revolution occurred after the 19th of July, 1936, when workers again took over their workplaces, peasants formed collectives and militias were organised to fight fascism (see Collectives in the Spanish Revolution by Gaston Leval for details).
Secondly, “there must be a rapid modification of outgrown economical and political institutions, an overthrow of the injustices accumulated by centuries past, a displacement of wealth and political power.” [Op. Cit., p. 25]
This aspect is the key one. Without the abolition of the state and capitalism, not real revolution has taken place. As Bakunin argued, “the program of social revolution” is “the abolition of all exploitation and all political or juridical as well as governmental and bureaucratic oppression, in other words, to the abolition of all classes through the equalisation of economic conditions, and the abolition of their last buttress, the state.” That is, “the total and definitive liberation of the proletariat from economic exploitation and state oppression.” [Statism and Anarchy, pp. 48-9]
We should stress here that, regardless of what Marxists may say, anarchists see the destruction of capitalism occurring at the same time as the destruction of the state. We do not aim to abolish the state first, then capitalism as Engels asserted we did. This perspective of a simultaneous political and economic revolution is clearly seen when Bakunin wrote that a city in revolt would “naturally make haste to organise itself as best it can, in revolutionary style, after the workers have joined into associations and made a clean sweep of all the instruments of labour and every kind of capital and building; armed and organised by streets and quartiers, they will form the revolutionary federation of all the quartiers, the federative commune. . . All . . .the revolutionary communes will then send representatives to organise the necessary services and arrangements for production and exchange . . . and to organise common defence against the enemies of the Revolution.” [Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 179]
As can be seen from Bakunin’s comments just quoted that an essential part of a social revolution is the “expropriation of landowners and capitalists for the benefit of all.” This would be done by workers occupying their workplaces and placing them under workers’ self-management. Individual self-managed workplaces would then federate on a local and industrial basis into workers’ councils to co-ordinate joint activity, discuss common interests and issues as well as ensuring common ownership and universalising self-management. “We must push the workers to take possession of the factories, to federate among themselves and work for the community, and similarly the peasants should take over the land and the produce usurped by the landlords, and come to an agreement with the industrial workers on the necessary exchange of goods.” [Errico Malatesta, Op. Cit., p. 198 and p. 165]
In this way capitalism is replaced by new economic system based on self-managed work. The end of hierarchy in the economy, in other words. These workplace assemblies and local, regional, etc., federations would start to organise production to meet human needs rather than capitalist profit. While most anarchists would like to see the introduction of communistic relations begin as quickly as possible in such an economy, most are realistic enough to recognise that tendencies towards libertarian communism will be depend on local conditions. As Malatesta argued:
“It is then that graduation really comes into operation. We shall have to study all the practical problems of life: production, exchange, the means of communication, relations between anarchist groupings and those living under some kind of authority, between communist collectives and those living in an individualistic way; relations between town and country, the utilisation for the benefit of everyone of all natural resources of the different regions [and so on] . . . And in every problem [anarchists] should prefer the solutions which not only are economically superior but which satisfy the need for justice and freedom and leave the way open for future improvements, which other solutions might not.” [Op. Cit., p. 173]
No central government could organise such a transformation. No centralised body could comprehend the changes required and decide between the possibilities available to those involved. Hence the very complexity of life, and the needs of social living, will push a social revolution towards anarchism. “Unavoidably,” argued Kropotkin, “the Anarchist system of organisation — free local action and free grouping — will come into play.” [Op. Cit., p. 72] Without this local action and the free agreement between local groups to co-ordinate activity, a revolution would be dead in the water and fit only to produce a new bureaucratic class structure, as the experience of the Russian Revolution proves. Unless the economy is transformed from the bottom up by those who work within it, socialism is impossible. If it is re-organised from the top-down by a centralised body all that will be achieved is state capitalism and rule by bureaucrats instead of capitalists.
Therefore, the key economic aspect of a social revolution is the end of capitalist oppression by the direct action of the workers themselves and their re-organisation of their work and the economy by their own actions, organisations and initiative from the bottom-up. As Malatesta argued:
“To destroy radically this oppression without any danger of it re-emerging, all people must be convinced of their right to the means of production, and be prepared to exercise this basic right by expropriating the landowners, the industrialists and financiers, and putting all social wealth at the disposal of the people.” [Op. Cit., p. 167]
However, the economic transformation is but part of the picture. As Kropotkin argued, “throughout history we see that each change in the economic relations of a community is accompanied by a corresponding change in what may be called political organisation . . . Thus, too, it will be with Socialism. If it contemplates a new departure in economics it must be prepared for a new departure in what is called political organisation.” [Op. Cit., p. 39] Thus the anarchist social revolution also aims to abolish the state and create a confederation of self-governing communes to ensure its final elimination. To really destroy something you must replace it with something better. Hence anarchism will destroy the state by a confederation of self-managed, free communities (or communes).
This destruction of the state is essential. This is because “those workers who want to free themselves, or even only to effectively improve their conditions, will be forced to defend themselves from the government . . . which by legalising the right to property and protecting it with brute force, constitutes a barrier to human progress, which must be beaten down . . . if one does not wish to remain indefinitely under present conditions or even worse.” Therefore, “[f]rom the economic struggle one must pass to the political struggle, that is to the struggle against government.” [Malatesta, Op. Cit., p. 195]
Thus a social revolution will have to destroy the state bureaucracy and the states forces of violence and coercion (the police, armed forces, intelligence agencies, and so on). If this is not done then the state will come back and crush the revolution. Such a destruction of the state does not involve violence against individuals, but rather the end of hierarchical organisations, positions and institutions. It would involve, for example, the disbanding of the police, army, navy, state officialdom etc. and the transformation of police stations, army and naval bases, state bureaucracy’s offices into something more useful (or, as in the case of prisons, their destruction). Town halls would be occupied and used by community and industrial groups, for example. Mayors’ offices could be turned into creches, for example. Police stations, if they have not been destroyed, could, perhaps, be turned into storage centres for goods. In William Morris’ utopian novel, News from Nowhere, the Houses of Parliament were turned into a manure storage facility. And so on. Those who used to work in such occupations would be asked to pursue a more fruitful way of life or leave the community. In this way, all harmful and useless institutions would be destroyed or transformed into something useful and of benefit to society.
In addition, as well as the transformation/destruction of the buildings associated with the old state, the decision making process for the community previously usurped by the state would come back into the hands of the people. Alternative, self-managed organisations would be created in every community to manage community affairs. From these community assemblies, confederations would spring up to co-ordinate joint activities and interests. These neighbourhood assemblies and confederations would be means by which power would be dissolved in society and government finally eliminated in favour of freedom (both individual and collective).
Ultimately, anarchism means creating positive alternatives to existing institutions which provide some useful function. For example, we propose self-management as an alternative to capitalist production. We propose self-governing communes to organise social life instead of the state. “One only destroys, and effectively and permanently,” argued Malatesta, “that which one replaces by something else; and to put off to a later date the solution of problems which present themselves with the urgency of necessity, would be to give time to the institutions one is intending to abolish to recover from the shock and reassert themselves, perhaps under other names, but certainly with the same structure.” [Op. Cit., p. 159] This was the failure of the Spanish Revolution, which ignored the state rather than abolish it via new, self-managed organisations (see section I.8).
Hence a social revolution would see the “[o]rganisation of social life by means of free association and federations of producers and consumers, created and modified according to the wishes of their members, guided by science and experience, and free from any kind of imposition which does not spring from natural needs, to which everyone, convinced by a feeling of overriding necessity, voluntarily submits.” [Errico Malatesta, Life and Ideas, p. 184]
These organisations, we must stress, are usually products of the revolution and the revolutionary process itself:
“Assembly and community must arise from within the revolutionary process itself; indeed, the revolutionary process must be the formation of assembly and community, and with it, the destruction of power. Assembly and community must become ‘fighting words,’ not distinct panaceas. They must be created as modes of struggle against existing society . . . The future assemblies of people in the block, the neighbourhood or the district — the revolutionary sections to come — will stand on a higher social level than all the present-day committees, syndicates, parties and clubs adorned by the most resounding ‘revolutionary’ titles. They will be the living nuclei of utopia in the decomposing body of bourgeois society” In this way, the “specific gravity of society . . . [will] be shifted to its base — the armed people in permanent assembly.” [Post-Scarcity Anarchism, pp. 167-8 and pp. 168-9]
Such organisations are required because, in the words of Murray Bookchin, “[f]reedom has its forms . . . a liberatory revolution always poses the question of what social forms will replace existing ones. At one point or another, a revolutionary people must deal with how it will manage the land and the factories from which it requires the means of life. It must deal with the manner in which it will arrive at decisions that affect the community as a whole. Thus if revolutionary thought is to be taken at all seriously, it must speak directly to the problems and forms of social management.” [Op. Cit., p. 143] If this is not done, capitalism and the state will not be destroyed and the social revolution will fail. Only be destroying hierarchical power by abolishing state and capitalism by self-managed organisations can individuals free themselves and society.
As well as these economic and political changes, there would be other changes as well — far too many to chronicle here. For example, “[w]e will see to it that all empty and under-occupied houses are used so that no one will be without a roof over his [or her] head. We will hasten to abolish banks and title deeds and all that represents and guarantees the power of the State and capitalist privilege. And we will try to reorganise things in such a way that it will be impossible for bourgeois society to be reconstituted.” [Malatesta, Op. Cit., p. 165] Similarly, free associations will spring up on a whole range of issues and for a whole range of interests and needs. Social life will become transformed, as will many aspects of personal life and personal relationships. We cannot say in which way, bar there will be a general libertarian movement in all aspects of life as women resist and overcome sexism, gays resist and end homophobia, the young will expect to be treated as individuals, not property, and so on.
Society will become more diverse, open, free and libertarian in nature. And, hopefully, it and the struggle that creates it will be fun — anarchism is about making life worth living and so any struggle must reflect that. The use of fun in the struggle is important. There is no incongruity in conducting serious business and having fun. We are sure this will piss off the “serious” Left no end. The aim of revolution is to emancipate individuals not abstractions like “the proletariat,” “society,” “history” and so on. And having fun is part and parcel of that liberation. As Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution.” Revolutions should be “festivals of the oppressed” — we cannot “resolve the anarchic, intoxicating phase that opens all the great revolutions of history merely into an expression of class interest and the opportunity to redistribute social wealth.” [Murray Bookchin, Op. Cit., p. 277f]
Therefore a social revolution involves a transformation of society from the bottom up by the creative action of working class people. This transformation would be conducted through self-managed organisations which will be the basis for abolishing hierarchy, state and capitalism. “There can be no separation of the revolutionary process from the revolutionary goal. A society based on self-administration must be achieved by means of self-administration. . . . If we define ‘power’ as the power of man over man, power can only be destroyed by the very process in which man acquires power over his own life and in which he not only ‘discovers’ himself, but, more meaningfully, formulates his selfhood in all its social dimensions.” [Murray Bookchin, Op. Cit., p. 167]
All the great social revolutions have been spontaneous. Indeed, it is cliche that the revolutionaries are usually the most surprised when a revolution breaks out. Nor do anarchists assume that a revolution will initially be libertarian in nature. All we assume is that there will be libertarian tendencies which anarchists are work within and try and strengthen. Therefore the role of anarchists and anarchist organisations is to try and push a revolution towards a social revolution by encouraging the tendencies we discussed in the last section and by arguing for anarchist ideas and solutions. In the words of Vernon Richards:
“We do not for one moment assume that all social revolutions are necessarily anarchist. But whatever form the revolution against authority takes, the role of anarchists is clear: that of inciting the people to abolish capitalistic property and the institutions through which it exercises its power for the exploitation of the majority by a minority.” [Lessons of the Spanish Revolution, p. 44]
For anarchists, their role in a social revolution is clear. They try to spread anarchist ideas and encourage autonomous organisation and activity by the oppressed. For example, during the Russian Revolution anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists played a key role in the factory committee movement for workers’ self-management. They combated Bolshevik attempts to substitute state control for workers’ self-management and encouraged workplace occupations and federations of factory committees (see Maurice Brinton’s The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control for a good introduction to the movement for workers’ self-management during the Russian Revolution and Bolshevik hostility to it). Similarly, they supported the soviets (councils elected by workers in their workplaces) but opposed their transformation from revolutionary bodies into state organs (and so little more than organs of the Communist Party and so the enemies of self-management). The anarchists tried to “work for their conversion from centres of authority and decrees into non-authoritarian centres, regulating and keeping things in order but not suppressing the freedom and independence of local workers’ organisations. They must become centres which link together these autonomous organisations.” [G. P. Maksimov in Paul Avrich (ed.) The Anarchists in the Russian Revolution, p. 105]
Therefore, the anarchist role, as Murray Bookchin puts it, is to “preserve and extend the anarchic phase that opens all the great social revolutions” by working “within the framework of the forms created by the revolution, not within the forms created by the party. What this means is that their commitment is to the revolutionary organs of self-management . . . to the social forms, not the political forms. Anarcho-communists [and other revolutionary anarchists] seek to persuade the factory committees, assemblies or soviets to make themselves into genuine organs of popular self-management, not to dominate them, manipulate them, or hitch them to an all-knowing political party.” [Post-Scarcity Anarchism, p. 215 and p. 217]
Equally as important, “is that the people, all people, should lose their sheeplike instincts and habits with which their minds have been inculcated by an age-long slavery, and that they should learn to think and act freely. It is to this great task of spiritual liberation that anarchists must especially devote their attention.” [Malatesta, Op. Cit., pp. 160-1] Unless people think and act for themselves, no social revolution is possible and anarchy will remain just a tendency with authoritarian societies.
Practically, this means the encouragement of self-management and direct action. Anarchists thus “push the people to expropriate the bosses and put all goods in common and organise their daily lives themselves, through freely constituted associations, without waiting for orders from outside and refusing to nominate or recognise any government or constituted body in whatever guise . . . even in a provisional capacity, which ascribes to itself the right to lay down the law and impose with force its will on others.” [Malatesta, Op. Cit., p. 197] This is because, to quote Bakunin, anarchists do “not accept, even in the process of revolutionary transition, either constituent assemblies, provisional governments or so-called revolutionary dictatorships; because we are convinced that revolution is only sincere, honest and real in the hands of the masses, and that when it is concentrated in those of a few ruling individuals it inevitably and immediately becomes reaction.” [Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 237]
As the history of every revolution shows, “revolutionary government” is a contradiction in terms. Government bodies mean “the transferring of initiative from the armed workers to a central body with executive powers. By removing the initiative from the workers, the responsibility for the conduct of the struggle and its objectives [are] also transferred to a governing hierarchy, and this could have no other than an adverse effect on the morale of the revolutionary fighters.” [Vernon Richards, Lessons of the Spanish Revolution, pp. 42-3] Such a centralisation of power means the suppression of local initiatives, the replacing of self-management with bureaucracy and the creation of a new, exploitative and oppressive class of officials and party hacks. Only when power rests in the hands of everyone can a social revolution exist and a free society created. If this is not done, if the state replaces the self-managed associations of a free people, all that happens is the replacement of one class system by another. This is because the state is an instrument of minority rule — it can never become an instrument of majority rule, its centralised, hierarchical and authoritarian nature excludes such a possibility (see section H.3.7 for more discussion on this issue).
Therefore an important role of anarchists is to undermine hierarchical organisation by creating self-managed ones, by keeping the management and direction of a struggle or revolution in the hands of those actually conducting it. It is their revolution, not a party’s and so they should control and manage it. They are the ones who have to live with the consequences of it. “The revolution is safe, it grows and becomes strong,” correctly argues Alexander Berkman, “as long as the masses feel that they are direct participants in it, that they are fashioning their own lives, that they are making the revolution, that they are the revolution. But the moment that their activities are usurped by a political party or are centred in some special organisation, revolutionary effort becomes limited to a comparatively small circle from the which the large masses are practically excluded. The natural result of that [is that] popular enthusiasm is dampened, interest gradually weakens, initiative languishes, creativeness wanes, and the revolution becomes the monopoly of a clique which presently turns dictator.” [Op. Cit., p. 65]
The history of every revolution proves this point, we feel, and so the role of anarchists (like those described in section J.3) is clear — to keep a revolution revolutionary by encouraging libertarian ideas, organisation, tactics and activity. To requote Emma Goldman:
“No revolution can ever succeed as factor of liberation unless the MEANS used to further it be identical in spirit and tendency with the PURPOSE to be achieved.” [Patterns of Anarchy, p. 113]
Anarchists, therefore, aim to keep the means in line with the goal and their role in any social revolution is to combat authoritarian tendencies and parties while encouraging working class self-organisation, self-activity and self-management and the spreading of libertarian ideas and values within society.
To some, particularly Marxists, this section may seem in contradiction with anarchist ideas. After all, did Marx not argue in a diatribe against Proudhon that anarchist “abolishing the state” implies the “laying down of arms” by the working class? However, as will become very clear nothing could be further from the truth. Anarchists have always argued for defending a revolution — by force, if necessary. Anarchists do not think that abolishing the state involves “laying down arms.” We argue that Marx (and Marxists) confuse self-defence by “the people armed” with the state, a confusion which has horrific implications (as the history of the Russian Revolution shows — see the appendix on “What happened during the Russian Revolution?” for details).
So how would an anarchist revolution (and by implication, society) defend itself? Firstly, we should note that it will not defend itself by creating a centralised body, a new state. If it did this then the revolution will have failed and a new class society would have been created (a society based on state bureaucrats and oppressed workers as in the Soviet Union). Thus we reject Marx’s notion of “a revolutionary and transitory form” of state as confused in the extreme. [Marx quoted by Lenin, Essential Works of Lenin, p. 315] Rather, we seek libertarian means to defend a libertarian revolution. What would these libertarian means be?
History, as well as theory, points to them. In all the major revolutions of this century which anarchists took part in they formed militias to defend freedom. For example, anarchists in many Russian cities formed “Black Guards” to defend their expropriated houses and revolutionary freedoms. In the Ukraine, Nestor Makhno helped organise a peasant-worker army to defend the social revolution against authoritarians of right and left. In the Spanish Revolution, the C.N.T. and F.A.I. organised militias to free those parts of Spain under fascist rule after the military coup in 1936.
(As an aside, we must point out that these militias had nothing in common — bar the name — with the present “militia movement” in the United States. The anarchist militias were organised in a libertarian manner and aimed to defend an anti-statist, anti-capitalist revolution from pro-state, pro-capitalist forces. In contrast, the US “militia movement” is organised in a military fashion, defend property rights and want to create their own governments.)
These anarchist militias were as self-managed as possible, with any “officers” elected and accountable to the troops and having the same pay and living conditions as them. Nor did they impose their ideas on others. When a militia liberated a village, town or city they called upon the population to organise their own affairs, as they saw fit. All the militia did was present suggestions and ideas to the population. For example, when the Makhnovists passed through a district they would put on posters announcing:
“The freedom of the workers and the peasants is their own, and not subject to any restriction. It is up to the workers and peasants to act, to organise themselves, to agree among themselves in all aspects of their lives, as they themselves see fit and desire. . . The Makhnovists can do no more than give aid and counsel . . . In no circumstances can they, nor do they wish to, govern.” [quoted by Peter Marshall, Demanding the Impossible, p. 473]
Needless to say, the Makhnovists counselled the workers and peasants “to set up free peasants’ and workers’ councils” as well as to expropriate the land and means of production. They argued that “[f]reedom of speech, of the press and of assembly is the right of every toiler and any gesture contrary to that freedom constitutes an act of counter-revolution.” [No Gods, No Masters, vol. 2, pp. 157-8] The Makhnovists also organised regional congresses of peasants and workers to discuss revolutionary and social issues (a fact that annoyed the Bolsheviks, leading to Trotsky trying to ban one congress and arguing that “participation in said congress will be regarded as an act of high treason.” [Op. Cit., p. 151] Little wonder workers’ democracy withered under the Bolsheviks!).
The Makhnovists declared principles were voluntary enlistment, the election of officers and self-discipline according to the rules adopted by each unit themselves. Remarkably effective, the Makhnovists were the force that defeated Denikin’s army and helped defeat Wrangel. After the Whites were defeated, the Bolsheviks turned against the Makhnovists and betrayed them. However, while they existed the Makhnovists defended the freedom of the working class to organise themselves against both right and left statists. See Voline’s The Unknown Revolution and Peter Arshinov’s History of the Makhnovist Movement for more information or the appendix on “Why does the Makhnovist movement show there is an alternative to Bolshevism?” of this FAQ.
A similar situation developed in Spain. After defeating the military/fascist coup on 19th of July, 1936, the anarchists organised self-managed militias to liberate those parts of Spain under Franco. These groups were organised in a libertarian fashion from the bottom up:
“The establishment of war committees is acceptable to all confederal militias. We start from the individual and form groups of ten, which come to accommodations among themselves for small-scale operations. Ten such groups together make up one centuria, which appoints a delegate to represent it. Thirty centurias make up one column, which is directed by a war committee, on which the delegates from the centurias have their say. . . although every column retains its freedom of action, we arrive at co-ordination of forces, which is not the same thing as unity of command.” [No Gods, No Masters, vol. 2, pp. 256-7]
Like the Makhnovists, the anarchist militias in Spain were not only fighting against reaction, they were fighting for a better world. As Durruti argued, “Our comrades on the front know for whom and for what they fight. They feel themselves revolutionaries and they fight, not in defence of more or less promised new laws, but for the conquest of the world, of the factories, the workshops, the means of transportation, their bread and the new culture.” [Op. Cit., p. 248]
When they liberated towns and villages, the militia columns urged workers and peasants to collectivise the land and means of production, to re-organise life in a libertarian fashion. All across anti-Fascist Spain workers and peasants did exactly that (see section I.8 for more information). The militias only defended the workers’ and peasants’ freedom to organise their own lives as they saw fit and did not force them to create collectives or dictate their form.
Unfortunately, like the Makhnovists, the C.N.T. militias were betrayed by their so-called allies on the left. The anarchist troops were not given enough arms and were left on the front to rot in inaction. The “unified” command by the Republican State preferred not to arm libertarian troops as they would use these arms to defend themselves and their fellow workers against the Republican and Communist led counter-revolution. Ultimately, the “people in arms” won the revolution and the “People’s army” which replaced it lost the war. See Abel Paz’s Durruti: The People Armed, Vernon Richards Lessons of the Spanish Revolution and George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia for more information.
While the cynic may point out that, in the end, these revolutions and militias were defeated, it does not mean that their struggle was in vain or a future revolution will not succeed. That would be like arguing in 1940 that democracy is inferior to fascism because the majority of democratic states had been (temporarily) defeated by fascism or fascist states. It does not mean that these methods will fail in the future or that we should embrace apparently more “successful” approaches which end in the creation of a society the total opposite of what we desire (means determine ends, after all, and statist means will create statist ends and apparent “successes” — like Bolshevism — are the greatest of failures in terms of our ideas and ideals). All we are doing here is pointing how anarchists have defended revolutions in the past and that these methods were successful for a long time in face of tremendous opposition forces.
Thus, in practice, anarchists have followed Malatesta’s argument for the “creation of a voluntary militia, without powers to interfere as militia in the life of the community, but only to deal with any armed attacks by the forces of reaction to re-establish themselves, or to resist outside intervention by countries as yet not in a state of revolution.” [Op. Cit., p. 166] This militia would be based on an armed population and “[t]he power of the people in arms can only be used in the defence of the revolution and the freedoms won by their militancy and their sacrifices.” [Vernon Richards, Lessons of the Spanish Revolution, p. 44] It does not seek to impose a revolution, for you cannot impose freedom or force people to be free against their will.
Hence anarchists would seek to defend a revolution because, while anarchism “is opposed to any interference with your liberty . . . [and] against all invasion and violence” it recognises that when “any one attacks you, then it is he who is invading you, he who is employing violence against you. You have a right to defend yourself. More than that, it is your duty, as an anarchist to protect your liberty, to resist coercion and compulsion. . . In other words, the social revolution will attack no one, but it will defend itself against invasion from any quarter.” [Alexander Berkman, ABC of Anarchism, p. 81]
As Berkman stresses, this revolutionary defence “must be in consonance with th[e] spirit [of anarchism]. Self-defence excludes all acts of coercion, of persecution or revenge. It is concerned only with repelling attack and depriving the enemy of opportunity to invade you.” Any defence would be based on “the strength of the revolution . . . First and foremost, in the support of the people . . . If they feel that they themselves are making the revolution, that they have become masters of their lives, that they have gained freedom and are building up their welfare, then in that very sentiment you have the greatest strength of the revolution. . . Let them believe in the revolution, and they will defend it to the death.” Thus the “armed workers and peasants are the only effective defence of the revolution.” [Op. Cit., pp. 81-81]
Part of this strength lies in liberty, so no attempt would be made to “defend” the revolution against mere talk, against the mere expression of an opinion. To “suppress speech and press is not only a theoretical offence against liberty; it is a direct blow at the very foundations of the revolution. . . It would generate fear and distrust, would hatch conspiracies, and culminate in a reign of terror which has always killed revolution in the pass.” [Op. Cit., p. 83]
Moreover, in the case of foreign intervention, the importance of international solidarity is important. As Bakunin argued, “a social revolution cannot be a revolution in one nation alone. It is by nature an international revolution.” [Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 49] Thus any foreign intervention would face the problems of solidarity actions and revolts on its own doorstep and not dare send its troops abroad for long, if at all. Ultimately, the only way to support a revolution is to make your own.
Within the revolutionary area, it is the actions of liberated people than will defend it. Firstly, the population would be armed and so counter-revolutionaries would face stiff opposition to their attempts to recreate authority. Secondly, they would face liberated individuals who would reject their attempts:
“The only way in which a state of Anarchy can be obtained is for each man [or woman] who is oppressed to act as if he [or she] were at liberty, in defiance of all authority to the contrary . . . In practical fact, territorial extension is necessary to ensure permanency to any given individual revolution. In speaking of the Revolution, we signify the aggregate of so many successful individual and group revolts as will enable every person within the revolutionised territory to act in perfect freedom . . . without having to constantly dread the prevention or the vengeance of an opposing power upholding the former system . . . Under these circumstance it is obvious that any visible reprisal could and would be met by a resumption of the same revolutionary action on the part of the individuals or groups affected, and that the maintenance of a state of Anarchy in this manner would be far easier than the gaining of a state of Anarchy by the same methods and in the face of hitherto unshaken opposition.” [Kropotkin, Op. Cit., pp. 87-8]
Thus any authoritarian would face the direct action of a free people, of free individuals, who would refuse to co-operate with the would-be authorities and join in solidarity with their friends and fellow workers to resist them. The only way a counter-revolution could spread internally is if the mass of the population can become alienated from the revolution and this is impossible in an anarchist revolution as power remains in their hands. If power rests in their hands, there is no danger from counter-revolutionaries.
In the end, an anarchist revolution can be defended only by applying its ideas as widely as possible. Its defence rests in those who make it. If the revolution is an expression of their needs, desires and hopes then it will be defended with the full passion of a free people. Such a revolution may be defeated by superior force, who can tell? But the possibility is that it will not and that is what makes it worth trying. To not act because of the possibility of failure is to live half a life. Anarchism calls upon everyone to live the kind of life they deserve as unique individuals and desire as human beings. Individually we can make a difference, together we can change the world.
Women chase the Boss from their Workplace, Barcelona 1936 – Illustration by Clifford Harper.