On The Understanding of Authority

On The Understanding of Authority

The second article I wrote about Engels' essay. It takes a new approach to the topic.

In the first "International Workingmen's Association", the first of what would be many international organizations of socialists, a rift developed demarcating the "libertarian" and "authoritarian" schools of socialism respectively. That rift is still with us and has not left us since the time of the first international. In fact the same debates that were had back in the 19th century have carried over ceaselessly into the 20th and then 21st centuries.1 The authoritarian socialists asserted that vertical forms of social organization were not to be done away with altogether, even if they were the result of an oppressive and unequal social order, because they could still pose some use to the socialist movement in influencing and thus transforming society. The most coherent and general exposition of the position that defines authoritarian socialism is a text by Marx's close associate, Fredrick Engels, entitled "On Authority".

The text is an attempt to refute the libertarian school of socialism. Unhappily for those that stand by it, including Engels himself, the text stands as historical documentary evidence that authoritarian socialism is built around a non-rigorous understanding of "authority". The text starts out by defining "authority". "Authority, in the sense in which the word is used here, means: the imposition of the will of another upon ours; on the other hand, authority presupposes subordination." So authority is that which creates subordination and concentrates power. So far libertarian socialists (in the text referred to as "anti-authoritarians") do not disagree. Engels then argues that authority, concentration of power by some over others, is necessary in social organization.

"Everywhere combined action, the complication of processes dependent upon each other, displaces independent action by individuals. But whoever mentions combined action speaks of organisation[....] Let us take by way of example a cotton spinning mill. The cotton must pass through at least six successive operations before it is reduced to the state of thread, and these operations take place for the most part in different rooms. Furthermore, keeping the machines going requires an engineer to look after the steam engine, mechanics to make the current repairs, and many other labourers whose business it is to transfer the products from one room to another, and so forth. All these workers, men, women and children, are obliged to begin and finish their work at the hours fixed by the authority of the steam, which cares nothing for individual autonomy. The workers must, therefore, first come to an understanding on the hours of work; and these hours, once they are fixed, must be observed by all, without any exception. Thereafter particular questions arise in each room and at every moment concerning the mode of production, distribution of material, etc., which must be settled by decision of a delegate placed at the head of each branch of labour or, if possible, by a majority vote, the will of the single individual will always have to subordinate itself, which means that questions are settled in an authoritarian way. The automatic machinery of the big factory is much more despotic than the small capitalists who employ workers ever have been. At least with regard to the hours of work one may write upon the portals of these factories: Lasciate ogni autonomia, voi che entrate! [Leave, ye that enter in, all autonomy behind!] If man, by dint of his knowledge and inventive genius, has subdued the forces of nature, the latter avenge themselves upon him by subjecting him, in so far as he employs them, to a veritable despotism independent of all social organisation. Wanting to abolish authority in large-scale industry is tantamount to wanting to abolish industry itself, to destroy the power loom in order to return to the spinning wheel. Let us take another example — the railway. Here too the co-operation of an infinite number of individuals is absolutely necessary, and this co-operation must be practised during precisely fixed hours so that no accidents may happen. Here, too, the first condition of the job is a dominant will that settles all subordinate questions, whether this will is represented by a single delegate or a committee charged with the execution of the resolutions of the majority of persona interested. In either case there is a very pronounced authority. Moreover, what would happen to the first train dispatched if the authority of the railway employees over the Hon. passengers were abolished? But the necessity of authority, and of imperious authority at that, will nowhere be found more evident than on board a ship on the high seas. There, in time of danger, the lives of all depend on the instantaneous and absolute obedience of all to the will of one."2

So according to Engels because social organization requires tempering of "individual will", or "autonomy", it must then require authority. This can't be inferred from the definition of authority that Engels gave at the outset. Here Engels seems to have forgotten key distinctive features of his own definition of the concept of authority. Tempering of individual will need not include subjugation through the concentration of power. It need only include limitation of unadulterated individual will via some means. As Engels demonstrates, that means does not have to be through the concentration of power where one is subjugated to another. Standards can be set collectively through free association and free delegation. Engels has only shown that social organization necessarily includes limitation of pure individual autonomy, not the imposition of "the will of another upon ours" through "subjugation", implying a centralization of power.

At the end of the text Engels makes a secondary argument which he also thinks is justified given the definition of "authority" he gave above. Again, Engels is mistaken and forgets the distinctive qualities of his own stipulated definition. "They [libertarian socialists] demand that the first act of the social revolution shall be the abolition of authority. Have these gentlemen ever seen a revolution? A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon — authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists. Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois? Should we not, on the contrary, reproach it for not having used it freely enough?"

We might generically call uprisings and imposition of the "will" of the oppressed on the rulers that have hitherto oppressed them. However, we can not say that it is a subjugation of the rulers to the will of the oppressed in such a way that the oppressed now posses some kind of concentrated power over their rulers. In fact, authority, is just what the uprising is challenging. In a social revolution the oppressed strata destroy the authority which subjects their will to their oppressors. A new concentration of power, and thus constitution of new authority, then, would in fact mean the end of the social upheaval. Engels adds that to not be stamped out a rebellion must hold it's ground, however given the above this constitutes a defense against the re-imposition of authority, not consolidation of authority. Lets take the example of the Paris Commune. Would we describe as "authority" the Theirs counterrevolution that killed, arrested, and exiled thousands, or the commune's doomed fight to preserve their uprising against this repression?

Apparently Engels himself had heard this objection to the point that he tried to respond to it in On Authority. "When I submitted arguments like these to the most rabid anti-authoritarians, the only answer they were able to give me was the following: Yes, that's true, but there it is not the case of authority which we confer on our delegates, but of a commission entrusted! These gentlemen think that when they have changed the names of things they have changed the things themselves. This is how these profound thinkers mock at the whole world."

Engels accuses the libertarian socialists of playing a word game by proposing that what Engels assumes is authority is not actually so. However, words are used to streamline analysis, anyone can "change the name of things" to the point where they describe totally different "things themselves" and everyone does do this all the time. What Engels has failed to understand is the same concept that the libertarian socialists do understand, and oppose, meaning that Engels has failed to understand what it is he is arguing/attempting to argue for.

If authority means jointly; subjugation of one/some to another/others then it makes no sense to talk of the "authority" involved in free association, or the "authority" involved in rebellion. Free association means that limitations on individual authority are freely obliged and rebellion means an attack on the prevailing authority. Thus Engels has failed to draw warranted inferences from the concept of authority and his case collapses.

Since Engels authoritarian socialists have sought to justify the notion of some usefulness of vertical forms of social organization. Here the father of German Marxism, Karl Kautsky, echoes Engels' musings on social revolution; "The anarchist thus will, as soon as the revolution breaks out, decree the abolition of the state, and, supposing that he has more luck than Bakunin on 28 September 1870 in Lyon, destroy the state with its means of power, army, bureaucracy, police, etc., and hereupon leave it to each individual person, to carry out as best as possible the transition from the old to the new society. Now what will happen? The influence of the revolution will naturally in the given case, where it has no means of power, no army, no bureaucracy, no police, be able to extend itself only so far as the revolution itself. Every country however has its Vendée, its Tirol, its Pomerania. There the state organisation stays in existence, there the counter-revolution finds a fixed stronghold, while the revolution strains everything to disorganize itself. The loyal Pomeranians, Tyroleans and Vendéans march in compact masses, destroying one "free" group and commune after the other. And at the same time the supporters of the overthrown system rise themselves up and organize the reaction within the zone of the revolution. What is to be done? One organizes hurriedly what one has destroyed, an army against the external foe, a police against the internal foe and a bureaucracy, to raise the means to maintain both of these, one spurs a committee of public safety, or whatever one may name the thing, thus a government, in short one does everything what a ruling class does in order to keep its sway – the state is again there. If the first act of the revolution were to consist in destroying of the state, then the second act for the sake of self preservation, would have to consist in building the state again."3

It does not bode well for this tradition of socialism that Engels has provided us libertarian socialists with an unwitting refutation of many of the arguments the authoritarians have been using for some time. By failing to properly conceptualize authority Engels has provided a faulty foundation for authoritarian socialism; condemning it to carry forward based on false premises. Of coarse there are more arguments for the usefulness to the socialist movement of vertical social organization, but Engels' On Authority is as close to a foundational argument of this kind that one can get. In my personal interactions with socialists of the authoritarian school of thought I have encountered many who think that On Authority shuts the door on libertarian socialism once and for all. Clearly a basic analytical interrogation of that text shows these authoritarians to be mistaken.


1. This is despite the fact that even if the libertarian socialist school of thought has not been proven correct by history, history has indeed pulverized the assumptions holding up the authoritarian school. On this see Wallenstein's essays dealing with state socialism and Leninism.

2. I apologize for the large quotes in this article, but I felt I could not avoid quotations of this size if I was to do justice to the propositions I am arguing against.

3. The Abolition Of The State, Kautsky

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Apr 25 2020 22:25


  • Engels has provided a faulty foundation for authoritarian socialism; condemning it to carry forward based on false premises

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Apr 26 2020 14:31


Perhaps you could map out the footnotes using the footnote tags? 1

  • 1. like this?
Apr 26 2020 20:31


I forgot you could do that on this site.

Jul 21 2020 17:58

Ivysyn, thank you for another debunking of a "socialist" icon. Engels suggests that industrialism itself, not just capitalist industrialism, requires centralized authority. If he is correct, then anti-authoritarians must reject both capitalist and socialist industrialism. Classical Marxism is useful for understanding some underling principles of capitalism, but many have mistaken it for an anti-authoritarian philosophy when it is anything but that.