Abstentionism and anarchism


An article by Camillo Berneri arguing that electoral abstentionism should not be considered dogma by anarchists, written shortly after the victory of the Popular Front in the Spanish elections of February 1936. The translation does not imply endorsement.

In a letter to Gambuzzi (Locarno, November 6, 1870), Bakunin wrote that he was happy [to hear] that the former had returned to Naples to try to get elected as a deputy, and added:

You will perhaps be surprised to see me, a determined and passionate abstentionist, pushing my friends to get elected as deputies now. The truth is that things and circumstances have changed. First of all, my friends, starting with you, have been so insistent about our ideas, about our principles, that there is no danger that they could ever forget them, dishonor them, sacrifice them, and fall back into their old political habits.

Moreover, the times have become so grave, the danger that threatens the freedom of all countries so formidable, that it is necessary that men of goodwill everywhere rise to the occasion, and above all, that our friends be in a position where their influence is as effective as possible. Cristoforo (Fanelli) promised to write me and to keep me informed about your electoral struggles, which interest me enormously.

Fanelli was elected deputy for Torchiara in December 1870, and Friscia was reelected in Sicily.

When the most active organizers of the First International were elected as deputies, Bakunin saw in this the organization’s empowerment due to the [resulting] increased material ease (free travel), the possibility of broader connections, greater influence among the masses, and greater freedom of propaganda. Faced with the parliamentary institution, he remained an anti-parliamentarian and an abstentionist, and his conduct in 1870 was not at all close to that of Andrea Costa1 nor that of F. S. Merlino2.

For Bakunin, the problem was one of strategy and not of tactics. Not distinguishing between the former and the latter leads to an abstentionist cretinism that is no less childish than the cretinism of parliamentarism. What is the difference between strategy and tactics? I will use a very simple example to which one should attribute no meaning that goes beyond that of serving as an illustration.

I find myself barricaded at home, surrounded by a mob of fascists shouting: “Die!” The police arrive and try to prevent the attackers from breaking down the door of my house. It would be idiotic and absurd for me to start shooting at the policemen from the window. If I did so, I would commit a serious error of strategy.

I find myself at a demonstration in a city square. The police shoot at the demonstrators. I take the floor and explain to the crowd that the policemen represent the repressive power of the State and as such should find before them armed and determined demonstrators, etc. If instead I spoke of the policemen who arrest the insane, who save people during floods, etc., I would make an error of tactics.

With this difference cleared up, a problem arises: if it is clear that parliamentarism cannot be reconciled with anarchism, is abstentionism a question of strategy or a question of tactics for anarchists?

This question occurred to me for the first time in 1921 as a result of the following little adventure. My postman was a socialist. Seeing that I was receiving leftist newspapers, he treated me with a certain familiarity, although we would never exchange more than greetings or a quick comment about the political situation, and he would show his sympathy for me by asking my family when he would not see me: “And Camillo? How is Camillo?” Not far from my home there was a workers’ house inhabited by socialists and communists, and when I passed by on spring or summer evenings, the tenants who were enjoying the fresh air would greet me cordially, even though I had only become friends with one of them.

The shoemaker, in front of his shop that I used to go past every day, would greet me too, even though I was not a client of his.

The house searches, the arrests, being often seen in the company of workers – all of that won me the sympathy of the “people” of the neighborhood. One afternoon, though, I saw the postman enter my studio along with other youths unknown to me. It was election time and they came to pick me up as a voter. “We have a car”, they told me. I replied: “If I wanted to vote, I would walk or take the tram; it’s not out of laziness that I don’t go to the polls.” And… there I gave them a lesson in anarchism, of which – no doubt through a fault of my own, but also because they were all heated up about the “electoral battle” – they understood so little that they left with the “We will remember this!” of the sans-culottes of 1789. That same day I realized that the “people” of the neighborhood had judged me a “deserter” and that my… popularity was compromised.

The trouble was that for the first time, I wondered whether abstentionism was always appropriate. Those who know just what sort of thing the election of 1921 was3 will perhaps excommunicate me, but they will certainly not shoot me if I tell them that I refrained from abstentionist propaganda and that I turned against the vestal virgins of anarchism to defend the few comrades of the Florentine Anarchist Union (two or three) from the ostracism to which they were condemned for having gone to the polls. I said it then and I will say it again: the error is one of strategy and not of tactics; it is a venial sin rather than a mortal sin.

But the vestal virgins concluded that I was “too young” not to be told that I had understood nothing of anarchism.

The appeal to principles leaves me cold, since I know that it is the opinions of men, and not of gods, that go under that name; opinions which got lucky for two or three years, for decades, or even for centuries, but which ended up looking baroque to everyone [involved]. Malatesta’s heresies are now sacrosanct principles for all the Malatestians. Now, it is true that Malatesta, being neither a priest nor a megalomaniac, expounded his ideas as opinions and not as principles. Principles only have legitimacy in experimental sciences, and even there they are but formulations of laws – approximate formulations.

An anarchist cannot but detest closed ideological systems (theories that are called “doctrine”) and cannot attribute to principles more than a relative value.

But this is a subject that would have to be expanded upon, so I will return to the explosive issue of abstentionism.

As I look upon the total weakness of the antiparliamentary critique in our press, a gap that seems very serious to me, I am not an abstentionist, since I do not believe, and have never believed, in the usefulness of abstentionist propaganda during election time, and I have always refrained from carrying it on, except occasionally in a face-to-face setting with someone who was, in my opinion, receptive to going from the ballot to the gun.

Abstentionist cretinism is that political superstition which considers the act of voting to be an injury to human dignity, or assesses the political situation by the number of non-voters – or even combines one of these childish behaviors with the other.

Malatesta already dealt with the former [belief] when he wrote to Fabbri in May 1931, observing that many comrades attributed extreme importance to the act of voting and did not understand the true nature of the electoral question. Malatesta cited typical examples.

One time, in London, a borough council distributed forms to ask the residents of the neighborhood whether they wanted a public library to be built. There were some anarchists who, even though they wanted a library, did not want to take part in the referendum because they believed that answering “yes” would amount to voting. In Paris and in London, anarchists would not raise their hands at assemblies to approve an agenda which was in accordance with their ideas and which was presented by a speaker whom they had just warmly applauded… so as to not vote.

If tomorrow a plebiscite were to be held (on disarmament versus armed national defense, autonomy for ethnic minorities, decolonization versus the keeping of colonies), there would still be some ossified anarchists who would believe it their duty to abstain.

This abstentionist cretinism is so extreme that it is not worthwhile to dwell on it. On the other hand, there is every reason to examine the oversimplification that is abstentionism. In the letter quoted above, Malatesta recalled that when Cipriani4 had been elected deputy in Milan, some of his comrades had been scandalized because, after having promoted abstention, he, Malatesta, had been pleased with the result of the election: “I said, and would say it again, that because there are those who, deaf to our propaganda, go to the polls, it is comforting to see that they vote for a Cipriani rather than for a monarchist or a clerical – not because of any practical effects that this may have, but because of the feelings it reveals.”

Now, I would like to be able to ask Malatesta the following question: if an electoral triumph of left-wing parties proved to be an invigorating drink raising the dejected morale of the working class, if that triumph caused the exponents of those parties to discredit themselves while at the same time weakening the fascist forces, if that triumph were a sine qua non for the possible development of a social revolution, how should an anarchist act?

One could reply that all these hypotheses are nothing but flights of fancy, but this response does not get around the problem: if an anarchist assesses a given political situation as one that is so exceptional that it requires the participation of anarchists in elections, will he stop being an anarchist and a revolutionary if – even though he does not carry on propaganda that nurtures electoral and parliamentarist illusions, and even though he does not strive to break the theoretical and tactical tradition of abstentionism – he goes to the polls without any wishful thinking about the programs and the candidates of the parties on the ballot, but rather wanting to contribute to the disappearance of the illusions that the masses have with regard to a popular government; wanting to contribute to the goal of getting the masses to go beyond their shepherds?

It is possible that the anarchist is mistaken in his assessment of the political moment, but the problem is whether, by judging a political moment in this manner and acting accordingly, he stops being an anarchist.

The problem, in short, is as follows: is abstentionism a tactical dogma that does not permit of any strategic exception?

It is a question I ask those who are now furious at the Spanish anarchists who have considered it useful not to fuel abstentionism. But before commenting on this specific case, allow me to explain how I view the issue of abstention in [the context of] the Spanish situation, which should not be equated with the French one.

Translated in August 2018 from Spanish (as published in Stefano D’Errico, ed. 2012. Anarquismo y política. El «programa mínimo» de los libertarios del Tercer Milenio. Relectura antológica y biográfica de Camillo Berneri. Burgos, Spain: Sindicato Unico de Trabajadores de la C.G.T., pp. 551–555, and available from periodicolaboina.wordpress.com) and revised according to the original Italian (published in L’Adunata dei Refrattari, New York City, April 25, 1936, and available from colvieux.wordpress.com).

  • 1. Andrea Costa (1851–1910) started out as an anarchist, helping organize the Congress of Rimini in 1872 where Italian sections of the International Workingmen’s Association formed an Italian Federation of the International that sided with Bakunin over Marx, and later joining the Anarchist International of St. Imier. In 1879, however, he renounced anarchism in his open letter “To my friends from Romagna”, causing an internal crisis in the Italian anarchist movement, and in 1882, he became the first socialist to get elected to the Italian Chamber of Deputies. In 1892, his Italian Revolutionary Socialist Party merged with two other groupings to form the Italian Socialist Party (PSI).
  • 2. Francesco Saverio Merlino (1856–1930), Italian lawyer and anarchist militant. Merlino attended the London Congress of the Anarchist International in 1881 along with Malatesta and Kropotkin; in 1897, however, he published an article in a bourgeois newspaper calling for support of socialist and republican candidates in the upcoming general elections. Following a subsequent polemic with Malatesta, he broke with anarchism and joined the Neapolitan section of the PSI in 1899.
  • 3. The Italian general election of 1921 led to a quick succession of weak liberal governments that ultimately ended with the Fascist March on Rome and the appointment of Mussolini as prime minister in October 1922.
  • 4. Amilcare Cipriani (1844–1918), Italian socialist and revolutionary. After representing Italy at the founding congress of the First International in 1864 and participating in the defense of the Paris Commune, he was elected to the Italian Chamber of Deputies in 1886, 1897, and 1913, but never took his seat as he refused to swear an oath of loyalty.

Posted By

Sep 1 2018 16:40


  • The problem, in short, is as follows: is abstentionism a tactical dogma that does not permit of any strategic exception?

    Camillo Berneri

Attached files


Sep 1 2018 15:30

Thank you for this sad piece. Sad because I always thought of Camillo Berneri in a different and more militant way

Sep 2 2018 16:54

Good premise, somewhat diminished by his later defection.

darren p
Sep 2 2018 17:23
jondwhite wrote:
Good premise, somewhat diminished by his later defection.

What are you talking about this time? Which premise is good and what defection?

Here's the wikipedia page on Beneri:

Sep 2 2018 17:32

I guess getting assisinatef by Stalinist agents consititues
defection. Wow. At least know some of the history before commenting
like that comrade

Sep 3 2018 21:40

Defection refers to anarchists turned socialists Costa and Merlino profiled in the footnotes. Re-reading this, it does not include Berneri who remained an anti-abstentionist anarchist to the end.

Black Badger
Sep 4 2018 16:07

Seems to me that Berneri is taking a look at the different levels/layers of electoralism and making distinctions between the local/neighborhood/municipality level and the state-wide or national level. He is trying to make the case that voting for a referendum is distinct from voting for representatives in a parliamentary body, and that abstentionism in the face of such distinctions is untenably dogmatic. That doesn't mean that I consider Berneri or any other anarchist similarly inclined to be a "defector"; it just means that I think they are being silly. The important aspect of any such discussion among anarchists and other self-identified revolutionaries is that electoralism not be the primary -- let alone exclusive -- strategy for promoting or engaging in social change -- now that would be defection. Personally, I find the distinctions between local/municipal and state-wide/national to be irrelevant since both levels presume that there is part of a government that is responsive to the needs and desires of its citizens from the standpoint of majorities against minorities, which means that someone or a lot of someones will continue to be unsatisfied, and even outlawed; as some smart anarchist once said (I'm paraphrasing): every new law creates new criminals.

The pro-electoralists have it backwards when they say that you can't complain in you don't vote. If you vote, you're a model democrat accepting majority rule; if you vote and get your way, you expect those who've lost to shut up (since the decision has been ratified by the game). So if you vote, you have no right to complain when the outcome isn't what you wanted.

Sep 4 2018 21:07
Black Badger wrote:
Seems to me that Berneri is taking a look at the different levels/layers of electoralism and making distinctions between the local/neighborhood/municipality level and the state-wide or national level. He is trying to make the case that voting for a referendum is distinct from voting for representatives in a parliamentary body, and that abstentionism in the face of such distinctions is untenably dogmatic.

He's not making any such distinctions (if that's not clear, sorry – it's my translation that is at fault, not Berneri). In the final paragraphs, he is suggesting that even electing representatives to a national-level parliamentary body is acceptable in some circumstances. Berneri's actual views were much closer to your own: for him, the distinction (as he clearly said) was one between tactics and strategy, between the mere act of voting on the one hand, and abandoning the requirement

as you wrote:
that electoralism not be the primary -- let alone exclusive -- strategy for promoting or engaging in social change

on the other.

That said, I'm sympathetic to what syndicalist says in their first comment; I was also surprised to read what position Berneri had taken on this issue. I don't think it makes sense to write about going to the polls "without any wishful thinking" and then go on to suggest that the victory of a particular political bloc could be "an invigorating drink raising the dejected morale of the working class", that it could "weaken the fascist forces" or "contribute to the goal of getting the masses to go beyond their shepherds" – if that's not wishful thinking, I don't know what is. Given how disastrous the Popular Front government proved to be for the Spanish revolution, I'm wondering if Berneri changed his mind about this.

Nov 18 2018 17:04

Interesting article, thank you for posting. I wish more of Berneri's writings were translated into English. Reading this it's clear that he's dissociating himself from 'revisionists' like Merlino and later cranks like Fontenis who wanted full participation in elections, anarchists standing as candidates, and so on. This article brings to mind Chomsky's rough lesser-evil position on this -- if the election is going to happen, and the act of voting is not going to increase the harms present, why not vote? The worst thing that could happen is your action having no effect, so why not do it?

Personally, I vote, at least in part because I live in a country where I'm forced to. If I don't I get a fine. The real evils of electoralism to me don't just lie in the mere act of voting, but in the way party struggle sap popular ones, how they promote cults of personality, how they make promises to turn the state into a benign institution, mislead people, etc.

Anecdotally I think one of the reasons an electoralist left has come to the fore in some countries like Greece (SYRIZA), the USA (the DSA, Ocasio-Cortez) and the UK (Corbyn) is because the radical left has been unable to effectively get our views across. The anti-electoralist position is a lot more nuanced and reasonable than silly slogans like "if voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal".

Noah Fence
Nov 18 2018 19:18
if the election is going to happen, and the act of voting is not going to increase the harms present, why not vote? The worst thing that could happen is your action having no effect, so why not do it?

That’s a very big if. As for the why...

party struggle sap popular ones, how they promote cults of personality, how they make promises to turn the state into a benign institution, mislead people, etc.

But that’s only part of it. As an anarchist, if you are not forced to vote but choose to, then you are participating in, and making a choice within, something that you are fundamentally opposed to. That’s just fucking ridiculous!
In the UK, I would say that almost all anarchists(?) that vote, would choose Labour, the very organisation that since its inception has not only proved itself to be vehemently anti working class, but has always been the false hope obstacle in the revolutionary road, a sponge to soak up working class discontent and rebellion. Where’s the harm? Fuck man, why on earth would we lend credibility to probably the best weapon our class enemies have to keep us quiet? Why would we perpetuate the lie that we can exercise control over our own destinies through the ballot box. It’s such fucking bollocks.

Nov 18 2018 22:53

The fact of the matter is, we live in this system, the thing we're fundamentally opposed to. It's near impossible to actually extract ourselves from it. We're constantly making compromises with it. I had a client at work who got beat within an inch of their lives, and wanted to go to the police to press charges. Was I compromising my commitment to anarchism by going along with him for support?

I don't believe the act of voting -- spending the ten minutes or whatever making a tick on a piece of paper and shoving it into a box -- legitimises the state, or supports the political process, or lends credibility to it, or whatever. The anarchist position is that the state is fundamentally illegitimate and can never have legitimacy or credibility; at best, all voting does is make minor changes to the current structure. My position on this is entirely in line with that.

Noah Fence
Nov 19 2018 10:09
It's near impossible to actually extract ourselves from it.

Absolutely right, on a daily basis I am forced to compromise the principles I believe in - I work for the profit of others, I make purchases that create profit for others, I obey rules that are not there to protect me but rather to protect the interests of those that oppress me. However, these things make a direct material difference to my wellbeing, even the ability of myself and others around me to survive. It’s crass to draw a comparison between such actions and the futile self indulgence of placing a voting card in a ballot box. In the UK we are not forced to vote so to do so is to wilfully perpetuate the myth of liberal self determination.
Anecdotally, I’m aware that many, if not most votes for Labour placed by those with alleged radical politics is a vote against the Tories. Anti Toryism goes hand in hand with advocating for Labour, a practice that diverts the blame from the system itself onto a handful of individuals that working class people hate as much for their posh accents as anything else. What an absolutely wanky reason to do anything, let alone such a pitiful act of submission!
I really don’t think you’ve answered my objections even nearly adequately, in fact, you haven’t even answered your own!
Btw, I don’t mean to be confrontational with you which I know I have a propensity to come across as, I’m just speaking plainly on something I feel very strongly about.

Jun 17 2019 15:49

I think I'm only now understanding what Berneri is saying now upon rereading after a few months. It's not as simple as wanting to allow participation in elections, what I think he's trying to say is that conceiving of anarchism as something that allows or disallows actions is misunderstanding anarchism. The implications of this go beyond electoralism. Putting forward our opinions as principles is the business of "priests and megalomaniacs"; to describe someone advocating for electoralism as someone betraying anarchist principles is tantamount to conceiving of anarchism as a religion, not the dynamic kind of politics that it is.

If we think of it as a religion, then, as Berneri suggests, we get into 'cretinism'; an act as insignificant as stuffing a piece of paper in a box is suddenly treated as a great heresy, an act that in some way legitimises the state, as if it is an institution that can ever be made legitimate. Personally, I see this flaw: one of our main points about voting is that it is the most diluted, disempowering method of political change imaginable – it is, in the grand scheme of things, insignificant. Yet some of us who would criticise it for being insignificant implicitly treat it as if it were significant by, say, running a postering campaign telling people not to vote. Anarchists have a very strong criticism of electoral politics as being almost spiritual: that because the people tick a box every four years, the state mystically represents the will of that people. But you will see some anarchists treating an anarchist who votes as someone who has done something morally wrong, as a sinner, almost.

What Berneri is challenging us to do, I suppose, is to press us to provide a case against electoralism that does not invoke these kinds of dogmatisms. Like what he says, principles can only ever have value relative to particular circumstances of the time. In order to retain the strength of anarchism – much of which comes from our open-endedness, our free-thinking, our critique of mysticism – we have to express ourselves avoiding fixed principles. And it's not like we don't already do this! Probably most of the recent anti-electoral work I've seen from groups like Black Rose stress that electoralism (understood as something greater than merely voting) is bad because it destroys social struggles. That stuff is great and should be encouraged. But, there is that tendency you see sometimes, of people that would rather think of anarchists who participate in elections as heretics, not just comrades who may be wrong.

I still don't really understand Berneri's distinction between strategy and tactics, though, as in the examples he gives he seems to be describing the same kind of error. I will try to read more Berneri to see if I can understand what he means. Unfortunately not a great deal of his work has been translated into English but hopefully that will change one day (thanks to important efforts like OP's). It is clear he was a very unique thinker and I don't think a reader would grasp this if all they read were his works currently available in English.

Also, on the changes of him being less militant than we'd hope – Berneri was probably better and more militant than all of us, having been a leader of a mixed anarchist-liberal column in the Spanish war and dying for our cause. He certainly didn't hold back from defending the anarchy against, say, the militarisation of the militia, which is more than you can say of many anarchists of the time... Anyway, speaking of "mixed anarchist-liberal", it would probably be worthwhile to read this text in the context of the relationship that had developed between the Italian anarchists and the idiosyncratic liberal Giustizia e Libertá movement, that would later develop into a military collaboration during the war. In its prewar phase, it is described well in this article in the Kate Sharpley Library.