Authoritarians, Vanguards and Anti-Capitalist Movements

An anarchist response to the Socialist Workers Party's criticisms of the anti-capitalist movement in the 2000s.

From Black Flag 220 (2001).

Submitted by Fozzie on February 4, 2021

The Socialist Workers Party are targeting "anti-capitalist" demonstrators as the next `big thing' and ideal recruiting fodder. Chris Bamberry, a leading member, puts it dearly enough: "The test for the SWP will be how it shapes and directs the anti-capitalist movement." Another, Julie Waterson, knows precisely what they want out of it: "A cadre of Bolsheviks," Again the SWP sees working class and radical movements purely as a means of increasing the size and influence of their party. Rather than their politics being informed by the class struggle they see the class struggle as a means of gaining members. Potential new members of the Party are urged to ignore their own experiences within their own movements and to follow instead a set of politics based on the "lessons" of experiences gained in a near pre-capitalist, absolutist state at the start of the last century. It is not surprising, then, that Leninists have played no part in the organisation of the anti-capitalist demonstrations. They expect working class people to relate to their predetermined political positions, whereas revolutionaries apply politics to the conditions we face as members of the working class.

The important issues facing the working class - and how to fight - are to be determined not by ourselves, but by the leadership of the party, who are the "vanguard of the working class". Unfortunately, as the recent anti-capitalist demonstrations show, the vanguard is busy trying to catch up with those in struggle. Not that this is an isolated case - the Russian Revolution is full of examples of the backward nature of the "vanguard party." Throughout 1917, it was the workers themselves, not the Bolshevik Party, who raised the issue of workers' self-management and control. As historian SA Smith summarises, the "factory committees launched the slogan of workers' control of production quite independently of the Bolshevik party. It was not until May that the party began to take it up." 1 .

Authoritarian or democratic?

The SWP are aware that the libertarian aspects of such groups as Reclaim the Streets (RTS) will make it hard for the vanguard to "direct" the anti-capitalist movement. A leading cadre, Alex Callinicos, tried. to combat the libertarian influence in that movement in Socialist Worker (May 13, p4) stating: "Reclaim the Streets proclaims its hostility to organised structures and denounces the Socialist Workers Party as `authoritarian'."

"Our crime is to believe that effective action depends on democratically-taken majority decisions binding on all involved. In the absence of this minimal level of democratic organisation and discipline you get what has been called the tyranny of structurelessness",

"Small groups are free to do their own thing without being held accountable to everyone else. Now that's real `authoritarianism'."

Callinicos does not mention that the term “the tyranny of structurelessness" was invented by anarcha-feminist Jo Freeman. Nor does he mention the fact that RTS has an organised structure (a weekly open meeting and various functional working groups springing from it). What RTS, anarchists and libertarians object to is not "organised structures" but rather hierarchical structures. Callinicos is peddling the usual Leninist nonsense that anarchists reject organisation. For anarchists, it is not a question of organisation versus non-organisation but rather authoritarian versus libertarian organisation and hierarchy versus self-management.

The SWP's crime is not a belief "that effective action depends on democratically taken majority decisions binding on all involved". Anarchists are firm believers in direct democracy. Self-managed, federal organisation from the bottom up is a key aspect of anarchist ideas. We see such organisation as reflecting the importance of individual liberty. The SWP's crime is to envision a form of "democracy" which is little more than top-down party rule.

Democracy and "effective action"

During a struggle or revolution unexpected events occur, new developments arise and new information appears, requiring decisions to be made and as quickly as possible. So who makes those decisions? Either it is those directly involved (i.e. the "small groups" Callinicos mentions) or it is someone else. Callinicos says these decisions must be made by "the majority." Which "majority"? The majority of those involved with the event? The majority of all in a given organisation or demonstration? The majority of the working class? On these questions, he remains silent (for good reason, as we shall see). In some cases, it is practical and possible for the majority of all involved in a movement to make a decision on policy. For example, the congresses of the anarcho-syndicalist union, the CNT were based on mandated delegates co-ordinating the policy decisions of all the membership. However, often it is impossible to do this. Workers on strike cannot continually submit every decision to the whole union membership. Striking workers in each area must make decisions appropriate to their needs and co-ordinate their activities later, in a riot or revolution, small groups have to act without being bound by "democratically-taken majority decisions" which are, in practice, impossible to organise in the heat of a confrontation with the forces of the state. Workers act spontaneously to show solidarity, occupy their workplaces, create new forms of organisation and so on. Any struggle or revolution is dependent on people making decisions spontaneously, at the appropriate time and level otherwise it will fail. Co-ordination of struggle, wide-scale collectively agreed action and organisation is essential but to complement local actions and decisions and not to replace or subordinate them.

The logical conclusion of Callinicos' argument is to condemn society to bureaucratic inertia, In a strike, the workers involved could not, say, organise a picket line without first balloting the rest of their union. In a socialist society, workers in a factory could not decide to reorganise production in more libertarian ways without getting a majority of the workers across the globe to agree to the change.

Of course, in practice, Trotskyists recognise that to involve the majority in every decision would be impossible. So they argue for "democratic centralism” where the party membership elect a leadership who make the day to day decisions which the party has to implement. Rather than "effective action" being the result of "democratically-taken majority decisions binding on all involved" they in fact mean "decisions made by a few leaders at the top of the party, binding on all involved". In other words, a representative government whose decisions are binding on all subject to it - a radically different concept.

It was this vision of centralised. top-down "democratic" decision making which provided the Bolsheviks with the justification to eliminate the functional democracy associated with the factory committees and soldiers’ committees. In place of workers' and soldiers' self-management, the Bolsheviks appointed managers and officers and justified this on the grounds that a workers' party was in power. The "democratically-taken majority decisions binding on all involved" which elected the Bolsheviks into power became the means by which democracy was eliminated in area after area of Russian working class life.

Bolshevism in power

In fact, the Bolshevik tradition has always been happy to let individuals ignore and revoke the democratic decisions of collective groups — as long as the individuals in question were the leaders of the Bolshevik Party. The leading lights of the Leninist tradition happily placed the rights of the party before the rights of working people to decide their own fate. Thus Callinicos' attack on RTS can be applied to his own politics, with far more justification.

For example, in response to the "great Bolshevik losses in the soviet elections" during the spring and summer of 1918 "Bolshevik armed force usually overthrew the results of these provincial elections." In May, in the city of lzhevsk for example "the Mensheviks and SRs won a majority... In June, these two parties also won a majority of the executive committee of the soviet. At this point, the local Bolshevik leadership refused to give up power .„ [and by use of the military] abrogated the results of the May and June elections and arrested the SR and Menshevik members of the soviet and its executive committee," In addition, "the government continually postponed the new general elections to the Petrograd Soviet, the term of which had ended in March 1918. Apparently, the government feared that the opposition parties would show gains" 2 .

In the workplace, the Bolsheviks replaced workers' economic democracy with "one-man management" selected by the state ("The elective principle must now be replaced by the principle of selection" Lenin). Trotsky admits that had the civil war... not plundered our economic organs of all that was strongest, most independent, most endowed with initiative, we should undoubtedly have entered the path of one-man management in the sphere of economic administration much sooner and much less painfully".3 .

He pushed the ideas of "militarisation of labour" as well as abolishing democratic forms of organisation in the military — "elective basis is politically pointless and technically inexpedient and has already been set aside by decree" 4

Moreover, in spite of Callinicos' claim that it is the Leninist tradition which is democratic we find Lenin arguing in April 1918 that the "irrefutable experience of history has shown that the dictatorship of individual persons was often the vehicle, the channel of the dictatorship of the revolutionary classes". 5

The elimination of democracy continued after the end of the Civil War. In May 1921, the All-Russian Congress of the Metalworkers' Union met. The

"Central Committee of the [Communist] Party handed down to the Party faction in the union a list of recommended candidates for union leadership. The metal-workers' delegates voted down the list, as did the Party faction in the union... The Central Committee of the Party disregarded every one of the votes and appointed a Metalworkers' Committee of its own. So much for 'elected and revocable delegates'. Elected by the union rank and file and revocable by the Party leadership!"6

These are just a few examples of Trotsky's argument that you cannot place

"the workers' right to elect representatives above the party. As if the Party were not entitled to assert its dictatorship even if that dictatorship clashed with the passing moods of the workers' democracy!"

He continued by stating the

"Party is obliged to maintain its dictatorship... regardless of temporary vacillations even in the working class... The dictatorship does not base itself at every moment on the formal principle of a workers' democracy" 7 .

RTS is correct. The Bolshevik tradition is deeply authoritarian - it is based on centralised party power riding rough-shod over the functional democracy of the working class. To quote Trotsky:

”the proletariat can take power only through its vanguard. In itself the necessity for state power arises from an insufficient cultural level of the masses and their heterogeneity. In the revolutionary vanguard, organised in a party, is crystallised the aspirations of the masses to obtain their freedom. Without the confidence of the class in the vanguard, without support of the vanguard by the class, there can be no talk of the conquest of power. In this sense the proletarian revolution and dictatorship are the work of the whole class, but only under the leadership of the vanguard."8 .


"a revolutionary party, even after seizing power ... is still by no means the sovereign ruler of society".9

This is, of course, true - there are still organs of working class self-management (such as factory committees, workers councils, trade unions, soldier committees) through which working people can still exercise their sovereignty. Little wonder Trotsky abolished independent unions, decreed the end of soldier committees and urged one-man management and the rnilitarisation of labour when in power. Callinicos’ arguments lose all credibility when considered in the light of the history of Marxist parties in power.

Democracy and Freedom

Callinicos' argument, taken to its logical conclusion, also implies the end of the free expression of individuality. Would he seriously defend a society that "democratically" decided that, say, homosexuals should not be allowed to associate freely? Or that inter-racial marriage was against "Natural Law"? Or that socialists were dangerous subversives and should be banned? He would, we hope, recognise the rights of individuals to rebel against the majority when that majority violate the spirit of association, freedom and equality which should give democracy its rationale.

Further, would he conclude that those members of the German (and other) Social Democratic Party who opposed their party's role in supporting the First World War were acting inappropriately? Rather than express their opposition to the war and act to stop it, according to his "logic" they should have remained in their party, accepted the "democratically-taken majority decision" and supported Imperialist slaughter in the name of democracy (indeed, many of the anti-war minority went along with the majority of the party in the name of "discipline" and "democratic" principles). Of course, he would reject such positions — in these cases the rights of minorities take precedence. This is because the majority is not always right and it is only through the dissent of individuals and minorities that the opinion of the majority can be moved towards the right one.

The Two Souls of Democracy

The real problem is that Callinicos fails to understand the rationale for democratic decision making, i.e. the idea that the majority is always right but that individual freedom requires democracy to express and defend itself. By placing a vaguely defined collective above the individual, Callinicos undermines democracy and replaces it with little more than tyranny by the majority (or, more likely, those who claim to represent the majority).

Simply put, Marxism (as Callinicos presents it here) flies in the face of how societies change and develop. New ideas start with individuals and minorities and spread by argument and by force of example. Progress is determined by those who dissent and rebel against the status quo and the decisions of the majority. That is why anarchists support the right of dissent in self-managed groups - in fact, dissent, refusal, revolt by individuals and minorities is a key aspect of self-management (and of the class struggle and of revolution).

In other words, for anarchists, self-management finds its rationale in the fact that individuals are capable of independent judgement, rational deliberation and of evaluating and changing their actions and relationships. Collective decisions may sometimes justifiably be broken. To promise to obey is to deny or limit individuals' freedom and equality and their ability to exercise these capacities. Liberalism and Leninism are based on this “promising to obey" vision of democracy - in which the minority must alienate their judgement and follow the decisions of the (representatives of) the majority regardless of the nature of those decisions and regardless whether they violate the equality and individual freedom which are the rationale of democracy.

Anarchism favours freedom and that implies two things - individual liberty and self-management (direct democracy) in free associations. Any form of "democracy" not based on individual freedom would be so contradictory as to be useless as a means to human freedom (and vice versa, any form of "individual freedom" — such a liberalism —which denies self-management would be little more than a justification for minority rule and a denial of human freedom). So anarchism does not reject democratic decision making, organised structures or collective action. It is obvious that individuals must work together in order to lead a fully human life and struggle against capitalism, the state and hierarchy. And so, "to join with other humans ... [the individual has three options] he [or she] must submit to the will of others (be enslaved) or subject others to his will (be in authority) or live with others in fraternal agreement in the interests of the greatest good of all (be an associate). Nobody can escape from this necessity" 10 .

Anarchists obviously pick the last option, association, as the only means by which we can work together as free and equal human beings, respecting the uniqueness and liberty of one another. Only within direct democracy can individuals express themselves, practice critical thought and self-government, so developing their intellectual and ethical capacities to the full. it is far better to sometimes be in a minority than be subject to the will of a boss all the time.

Anarchism rather than Trotskyism bases itself on the "effective action" that results from "democratically-taken majority decisions." This is because only anarchism recognises the relationships between individual liberty and self-managed groups, local action and co-ordination and the necessity of working from the bottom-up in federations rather than from the top-down in centralised bodies.

Leninism represents the formal, Lockean, elitist side of democracy, based on the notion that electing a government equals 'democracy." Anarchists represent the other, the functional, directly democratic side, that is expressed when oppressed people take management of their own affairs directly in associations created in the class struggle. The side that expressed itself in sections of the French Revolution, the soldier and factory committees of the Russian revolution, the self-managed unions and collectives of Spanish anarchism, strikers’ assemblies and so on through history. Precisely those kinds of functional democracy that the Bolsheviks eliminated in the name of formal democracy.


Of course Trotskyists like Callinicos try to blame the destruction of democracy in Russia on the Civil War. However, as indicated, the undermining of democracy started before the civil war started and continued after it had finished. The claim that the "working class" had been destroyed by the war cannot justify the fact that attempts by working class people to express themselves were systematically undermined by the Bolshevik party. Nor does the notion of an "exhausted" or "disappeared" working class make much sense when "in the early part of 1921, a spontaneous strike movement... took place in the industrial centres of European Russia" and strikes involving around 43,000 per year took place between 1921 and 192511 . While the working class was reduced in numbers by the civil war, it cannot be said to have been totally "exhausted". The working class survived the war and were more than capable of collective action and decision making. So rather than there being objective reasons for the lack of democracy under Lenin we can suggest political reasons - the awareness that, given the choice, the Russian working class would have preferred someone else in power!

Finally there is a certain irony in the usual Trotskyist argument that Stalinism can be explained purely by the terrible civil war Russia experienced. After all, Lenin himself stated that every "revolution... in its development, would give rise to exceptionally complicated circumstances" and "revolution is the sharpest, most furious, desperate class war and civil war. Not a single great revolution in history has escaped civil war. No-one who does not live in a shell could imagine that civil war is conceivable without exceptionally complicated circumstances"12 . If the Bolshevik political and organisational form cannot survive during a period of disruption and complicated circumstances, then it is surely a theory to be avoided at all costs.

  • 1Red Petrograd, p154
  • 2Samuel Farber - Before Stalinism pp22-24
  • 3M. Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers' Control, pp63 -71
  • 4quoted by Brinton, op cit pp37-38
  • 5Op cit p40
  • 6op cit p83
  • 7op cit p78
  • 8Stalinism and Bolshevism", Socialist Review 146, p16
  • 9Ibid.
  • 10Errico Malatesta, The Anarchist Revoluaon, p85
  • 11Samuel Farber, pp cit p18 & p88
  • 12Will the Bolsheviks Maintain Power?, p80 & p81