Emancipation: Paths and Goals - Johannes Agnoli

Agnoli reading paper

Agnoli writes about restoring the relation of the paths to the goal, the means-end relationship, towards an emancipatory communism.

Emancipation: Paths and Goals appeared in What is to be Done? Leninism, anti-Leninist Marxism and the Question of revolution today, released in 2002. The full text of that book is available here.

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on October 25, 2023

Emancipation: Paths and Goals
Johannes Agnoli


The liberation of individuals from objectively coercive conditions (objective Sachzwänge) was already in antiquity an issue for some sophists, for the stoics and Epicureans. After Christendom was transformed from the ecclesia militans (with several emancipatory tendencies) into ecclesia triumphans, emancipation was continued by heretics and dissidents. In its contemporary form, where the essential issue is liberation from coercive conditions, emancipation is indebted to the French Revolution, itself the culmination of comprehensive social processes. These processes were economic – the freeing of production from the chains of the guilds and the corporate system of the estates – and, linked to that, political – the rise of the bourgeoisie and its emancipation from the bonds of feudalism and absolute monarchy. From this perspective, the beginnings of the capitalist mode of production and of the bourgeois state contained thoroughly emancipatory contents. It quickly became clear, however, that these emancipatory contents were contained in the course of their development, and above all that capitalism did lead to the liberation of production, but not, however, to the emancipation of individuals. The same is true of the form in which socio-economic structures of domination were translated into politics, that is, the form of the state. This is true in the first half of the nineteenth century with its whole series of revolutions and revolts. And this is especially true of the movement in the second half of the nineteenth century that powerfully posed the problem of social emancipation: the labour movement, that not only strove for the so-called emancipation of labour, but actually for general social emancipation. Much later, the same striving was reiterated in the women’s movement, even if it envisaged not so much general emancipation, but rather the emancipation of women from patriarchy. Meanwhile, there are a multitude of single-issue movements [Einzelbewegungen], all of which are oriented toward emancipation.

The matter, then, is to find the appropriate paths toward the goal of emancipation. And this is where the problem begins. All these movements of emancipation see themselves confronted with the question of what means and paths they should choose to reach this goal. Especially the particular political forms of the bourgeois constitutional state seem available as emancipatory means. This focus on the form of the state as a means of emancipatory transformation is not completely misguided, since precisely this form of the state is characterized by its open character that apparently makes it available as a vehicle for all possible social contents. However, the question that is not at all asked is whether this view corresponds to reality and whether therefore the bourgeois constitutional state can function as a means of emancipation. The relation of the paths to the goal, in other words, the means-end relationship, is removed from critical reflection. If the goal truly is social emancipation and the emancipation of individuals in society, then it is necessary to reflect in precise terms whether the means are really suitable to this end, the end of human emancipation.

The importance of determining in precise terms what kind of organizational means may truly serve emancipatory ends also holds true of other levels of social reality and attempts at human realization (Verwirklichung). Without question the negation of existing coercive conditions has to be organized. Yet here, too, the dilemma lies in the form of organization. Today, moreover, the question of organization is frequently discussed merely within associational parameters, rather than in terms of the goals. The tendency toward what Max Weber analysed as ‘autonomous organizational interests’ (autonomen Verbandsinteresse) is very strong. This leads to a focus on organizational continuity, numerical strength, and the so-called capacity to influence developments as something that is of more decisive importance than the orientation toward the desired end. More recently a new dimension has been added that was not an issue in either in the old workers’ movement – not even in Lenin’s perspective – or, at least not initially, in the women’s movement: the efficacy of the media. The predominance of the media confuses traditional notions of organization. The attempt to adapt to the media and become effective as a media-suited organization increases the danger of the autonomization of organizational self-interests as ends in themselves: the organization’s media image becomes most important. This is most obvious during elections when – leaving aside the associated personalization of the campaigns – the homogeneity and strength of the individual parties are more likely to have a greater effect than party political programmes and other declarations. In the German context, one casualty of these can be seen in the peculiar development of the ‘Greens’. They began as an ‘anti-party party’ and as a radical alternative to the political system. They integrated themselves into the system and in a very short time they themselves became ‘systematized’, that is, rather than changing the system from within, they became institutionalized and thus part of the earlier rejected system. But insofar as they continued to include a multiplicity of positions, they presented themselves to the voting population as a fractured party and were rewarded commensurately during the elections.

The lack of reflection on the means-end relationship can also be seen in the development of the labour movement and in the intricacies and entanglements of the women’s movement. The labour movement long ago abandoned the perspective of emancipation and concerned itself – commendably – with the improvement of the quality of life for workers. In the women’s movement developments have been more problematic. Women’s emancipation became increasingly understood as access to hitherto patriarchially wielded power. Success has been neither thorough nor complete. But in the meantime women’s politics has come to consist of an alleged liberation by way of access to managerial positions in the economy, to parliamentary and executive positions in politics, and, paradoxically, in the gendering of job titles.

The problematic character in the relation of emancipatory movements to the state is not limited to the Western political arena. Even in the former states that called themselves really existing socialist states, the same problematic relation developed. Thus it was claimed in the former German Democratic Republic: the emancipation of women is not a problem, since the state had freed women from patriarchy. How a coercive organization – and the state is such – could accomplish emancipation is a secret of the politics of that time – a secret that certainly was not be based on Marx, but rather that recalls Fichte’s absurdity that people (Menschen) must be forced to be free.

In any case, in the questions of the relation to the bourgeois state and of the proper conduct in the corridors of power, as well as in the question of how this relation and conduct could be organized, the relation between ends and means remains unsolved.

Main Part

At the highpoint of the 1968 movement in Germany, there was a search for a strategic solution for future political work. There were many suggestions, several of an adventurous kind, aimed at the revolutionary creation of a communist council system in West Berlin and West Germany, and other more reasonable suggestions for the sustained development of mass demonstrations and social struggles. A different motto predominated, however, that seemed to unite both possibilities. In a rather daring analogy to the long march of the Chinese communists, there was talk of the long march through the institutions. This also included not only political institutions, but also social institutions: entry into the school system in order – so it was claimed – to socialize children for communism; entry into the unions in order to strengthen their left potential; entry into the factories in order to establish direct contact to the workers. Primarily, however, the emphasis was on state institutions: the building of appropriate organizations to participate in elections and gain entry into parliament, in order to force a breakdown of the political system from within. Little heed was paid to the warnings against that approach – warnings that pointed out the unique characteristics of state institutions. I can still recall my futile attempts to make this clear. In order to go through the institutions, one must first give oneself over to them. Or, as the ancient Egyptians put it, one must enter the ‘palace’ where power resides. The ‘palace’ certainly has many rooms and several stories: from the ground floor where the people and their representatives bustle about up to the top floor where the executive resides. However: the ‘palace’ has no back door. Marching through the institutions means, if anything, to ascend from the ground floor to the top floor. In Germany, the Greens succumbed to this logic: once they entered the ‘palace’, they by no means forced it to break down; rather they adapted to it and therewith opened the door for themselves to enter into government. While marching through the institutions, they simply forgot that these institutions have their own dynamic, that, as Marx had already insisted, is stronger than the will of the individual. State institutions do not allow themselves to be used in any manner whatsoever, for their logic is not their own, but is determined by the reality whose functioning they serve. State institutions are not there to realize either freedom or human rights, not to mention social emancipation; rather they have solely the responsibility of organizing and securing the social reproduction of a capitalist society. Their orientation is unquestionably that of the bonum comune in the Aristotelian tradition. It is precisely the orientation toward the bonum comune that appears to lend them the possibility of an alternative use. The bonum, however, that they serve, is commune only in the sense that everything really is in common: the bonum of the accumulation of capital under which everything – be it humans or spheres of life – is subsumed. In this regard they are in no way available for any purpose whatsoever, and certainly not for the otherwise always acclaimed alternative use. It is not that nothing could be accomplished through state institutions. On the contrary, through patient reform work, through the activity of social democratic politicians much has been achieved: improvement of the quality of life, better guarantees of particular freedoms, the establishing of so-called democratic principles. There definitely were many successes on the long road of state politics. Emancipation, however, fell by the wayside.

There is a similar dilemma in the question of organization with regard to possible emancipatory contents. In this context Lenin’s What is to be Done? is exemplary, for liberation was the goal among the Russian Social-Democratic successors of German Social Democracy. Its initial concern was the liberation of the proletariat, and its ultimate concern was universal human freedom in a society of the free and equal, that is: communism.

Lenin was centrally concerned with an immediate task: the prerequisite for the success of the social-democratic movement was the overthrow of czarism. That the task of overthrowing the liberal regime was added later rendered the set task of emancipation more problematic. Lenin focused not on the goal of the movement, but on the immediate means. And this means consisted solely of the seizure of power by the vanguard of the proletariat. In her critique of Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg had already insisted that his emphasis on the central committee as the locus of power was not only aimed at the overthrow of czarism, but was intended as the principle of organization. The continuity of Lenin’s thinking about power was also evident later, after the October Revolution. In the attempt to insure production and reproduction, Lenin pointed to the alleged necessity of maintaining the principle of rigid leadership in the economy and politics: the will of hundreds and thousands was to be subordinated to the will of a single person. Later the well-known General Secretary of the Party began relentlessly to inject this principle into all aspects of social life. As soon as the critique of Stalin’s politics began, his critics in all communist movements gladly disremembered Lenin’s directives on the locus and exercise of power and spoke in an obscurantist manner about the cult of personality.

Lenin’s notion of organization was thoroughly successful, even if – as was later shown – not eternally. The Party vanguard seized power and the system was consolidated. Emancipation failed to materialize.

Regardless of how historically and practically different they are, both approaches – the long march through the institutions by an initially oppositional force in a constitutional state and Lenin’s notion of organization – have one thing in common: they both rigorously separate the form (of organization) from every content; in so doing they do not pay attention to the fact that no political or organizational form is autonomous, but is rather the form of a specific content. Lenin’s conception led to a political form of the mode of production (though one does not exactly know how to specify it) that was based first and foremost on structures of command. The constitutional state is first and foremost the political form in which a capitalistically producing bourgeois society that reproduces itself by means of coercive structures is organized.

In both cases, the form is simply hypostatized and made into a kind of value in itself. The content may even be arbitrary. But the form is firmly held onto. Thus, on the one hand the party is beyond all social content and is in itself the decisive power. As was repeatedly stated in the former German Democratic Republic, ‘The Party is always right’. On the other hand – and here too without consideration of the contents and without any indication of emancipation – the constitutional state is valued as the best of all political worlds. The social opposition gives itself over to the state institutions and feels itself at home in them. For this reason alone, the opposition seeks to defend and maintain the institutions.

One objection can be raised against this analysis, namely that the political system of capitalist society is full of contradictions and that these mirror the contradictory character of the society itself. This thesis is well known and has always been adduced to justify the entry into the system in order to rupture it from the inside out. Whether these contradictions actually permit an alternative use of state power has not yet been proven. The notion of the contradictory character of the system often serves as a pretext to justify one’s adaptation to it. It is certain that bourgeois society is characterized by contradictions. It is just as certain that these contradictions are always absorbed by or, indeed, belong immanently to the system itself. One might think for example of the contradiction of capitalist society, that is, not of the so-called contradiction of capital and labour, but of the contradictory relations between individual capitalists, of the principle of competition. Competition, as is well known, in no way leads to the abolition of the capitalist mode of production, but belongs rather to its inner dynamic. One even hears that competition provides for the democratic character of the market. In this context, the freedom of the consumer is happily pointed out, but here too as a mere form without any elaboration of the content. This argument acts as if the freedom of choice among consumer products had something in common with social freedom, as if the possibility to choose between a Ford and a Volvo had an emancipatory character.

There is, however, one institution that initially pointed toward emancipation: universal suffrage. We are dealing here with a genuine historical accomplishment that it would be foolish to relinquish. Universal suffrage appeared world-historically not only in the form of a possible alternative use, but as an alternative in itself. Beginning with Marsilius of Padua and the Monarchomachen1 the idea of popular sovereignty, that the ruled are to determine their rulers, entered into history. The successors of the Monarchomachen, the Levellers and Diggers in Cromwell’s revolutionary army concretized this demand. In their negotiations with the officers they demanded an equal vote for all. Later, impressed by the electoral success of Social Democracy, the elderly Engels aligned himself to the alternative use of the suffrage as a means of social transformation. He became effusive, writing that the bourgeoisie had more fear of the ballot than of weapons. Engels, however, interpreted the general male suffrage introduced by Bismarck differently than did the bourgeoisie itself. The bourgeoisie relatively quickly realized that in contrast to weapons, that at that time were still a possible means of emancipation, the ballot was an effective instrument of integration. This was, of course, not the initial reaction of the bourgeoisie to the suffrage before it was universal; existing restrictions of the suffrage meant that, in the hands of the bourgeoisie, it allowed for the identity between rulers and ruled, that is, the bourgeoisie ruled itself by itself. The recognition of its integrative capacity developed gradually, and was coupled with the increasing presence of the dependent masses in the political arena. Today the integrative and non-emancipatory character of universal suffrage is increasingly obvious. However indispensable it might be for emancipation, the general and free election is in the bourgeoisie constitutional state nothing more than a mechanism for consensus building.

This, then, poses for an emancipatory movement a unique problem. However much it may criticize the increasingly instrumental character of political elections, an emancipatory movement must confront the problem of what stance to take toward them. An abstract renunciation is insufficient. It is worth recalling that even Bakunin, a resolute opponent of all state forms, announced his preference during American presidential elections. What stance, then, should an emancipatory movement take: make electoral recommendations? Though surely not itself offering candidates for election, should it support one party or the other? To call for a boycott of elections seems in fact more appropriate, but that is a two-edged sword. On the one had, a mass boycott might bring about ruptures. This is how it appears when one considers the concerns that the major parties feign in the face of the decline of the number of voters. On the other hand, refusing to participate in elections does not necessarily amount to a social renunciation of the political system: silence equals consent. With this problem or dilemma of elections, I arrive at an:


There is one thing of lasting importance in Lenin’s text: the title. Still one hundred years later, any movement that considers itself emancipatory must confront the question of what is to be done. This question is significant in terms of both the relationship of the movement to the state and the organizational problem. There are only a few basic rules that have been established as indubitable and that one should unconditionally follow. Emancipation as a social movement can only develop outside of state institutions. This is of course no simple matter, for the state more or less affects all aspects of life. Extra-institutional opposition is however simply necessary in order to avoid integrative consequences. Outside of state institutions does not mean, of course, outside of society. The risk of, and even the descent into, insignificance lie in the temptation of accomplishing emancipation through the idyllic retreat into private life. The formation of small, autonomous, mostly agricultural units of production leads nowhere, nor does an orientation toward so-called non-profit undertakings. As soon as the latter become large enough to be of economic significance in the marketplace, they become in the short or long run subject to the laws of the competitive market economy and become negotiable on the stock exchange; in this way they simply participate in the globalization of capital. To act extra-institutionally within society assures the possibility of influence. In this regard, the experience of the 1968 movement is very instructive. It was able to exert political influence only for as long as it did not participate in a direct and immediate sense in state politics (Staatspolitik). Its ratio emancipationis (Vernunft) came into play as long as it assembled in the streets; its Vernunft went astray as soon as the movement began the long institutional march.

The question of organization is more complex, because the organization is supposed to unite in itself two seemingly contradictory elements: organization of the social negation and of emancipation. This, too, is a rather simple matter that is, however, so difficult to achieve. For one thing is certain: against a powerful opponent that is thoroughly and strongly organized, the organization of emancipatory negation must function without any form of central committee, oligarchy or hierarchy. Hic rhodus, hic saltus: the organization must anticipate the goal of emancipation and determine its character on the basis of this goal. How this is possible cannot be determined theoretically. It is a practical question. Both individually as well as collectively, and also in daily life, this notion can only be realized in and through practical activity. For that, a theoretically developed and clever plan of organization is useless. What is to be done must be tried out in practice. For: ‘Man must prove the truth, i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice…All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice’ (Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, author’s emphasis).

Translated from German by Joseph Fracchia

  • 1Editors’ Note: The Monarchomachen stood for the right of popular resistance against rulers who misuse their power, including the killing of the ruler. During the sixteenth Century, the doctrine of tyrannicide was extended from its earlier Greek reference to the usurper to so-called legitimate rulers. The doctrine developed in connection with natural law theory and formed part of the doctrine of popular sovereignty and the right of popular resistance against unjust rulers. According to this theory, the power of the people can not be given away: the ruler is merely the deputy of the people and should delegated power be misused, the people have the right to dismiss him and, if need be, to kill him. See Agnoli’s Subversive Theorie (Ça ira, Freiburg, 1996) for an introduction into the history of subversive thought.