Were They Way Out, Way Back?

Sam Weiner and H. W. Morton are New York anarchists.

Submitted by Reddebrek on September 5, 2016

SOME ANARCHISTS FEEL THAT THE IDEAS of our 19th Century theoreticians have little or no practical validity as a solution to present-day problems. Let us examine a few of the thoughts of two — Proudhon and Kropotkin — to see if this is actually the case.

Pierre Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) advocated the establishment of a network of producers' and consumers' co-operatives, and mutual workshops, as well as mutual banks with free credit. These were to be federated on a local, provincial, national and international basis from below upwards. In these co-operatives all wages, profits, rent, interest, speculation and every other form of exploitation were to be eliminated. Instead there would be a system of non-profit free agreement. These were some of his specific suggestions to meet the conditions which obtained in his own day. As it happened many similar organisations were already functioning successfully in France in Proudhon's time so he proposed that they merely be federated and expanded in order to comprise a parallel counter-society right within, and competing with, the existing framework of France's financial-industrial feudalism. By the example of their own success these counter-societies would attract an ever-increasing number of adherents. He assumed, quite logically, that as these federations expanded, the authoritarian institutions around them would become progressively weakened. In his view the latter would eventually go bankrupt entirely, a process he intended to accelerate by popular solidarity and complete non-co-operation with the State. The moribund State would thereupon be replaced by political federation on a territorial basis (national and international) so that services of a public nature (e.g. the post office, libraries, health measures, etc.) could be provided. Thus the world wide, stateless, classless society could be attained Non-Violently. "I want the peaceable revolution," he wrote.

Although he underestimated the tenacity of the vested interests of his day and although some of his ideas are no longer applicable, Proudhon's basic principles-Non-Violence, Federation, Solidarity, Co-operation, Decentralisation, Free Contract, and Workers' Control — still offer as eminently feasible alternatives to the Statist approach. Even the brilliant but startling concept of a rival inner society is viable. In fact we can offer an excellent recent example: the Negro Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. Here the Negroes unwittingly utilized every one of the above Proudhon ideas and scored a magnificent victory over segregated bus seating. As everyone knows they applied only Non-Violent methods, although they attributed them to Gandhi instead of to Proudhon, But also they Federated their civic and church organizations into a Montgomery Improvement Association; and of course they employed Solidarity and Co-operation. Above all however they created a phenomenally successful, Decentralized Motor Pool based on Free Contract and Workers' Control — an entire transportation collective comprising 48 dispatch stations and 42 pick-up stations, whose schedule and, more important, whose revolutionary purpose they publicized by thousands of mimeographed leaflets. This was Proudhon's exact concept of a rival counter-organization right within the framework of existing society: an Anarchistic transportation system competing with the city-franchised bus company. The Negroes' triumph provides a fine object lesson on the practicality of these Proudhonian concepts.

Turning now to Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921), we find the theory that Anarchist Communism would be achieved only as the culmination of a series of deep-going social revolutions, each following a gestationary period of evolution. The revolutions he envisaged would be mass uprisings in which both industrial and agricultural workers would overthrow the existing governments and seize the factories, mines, mills and land just as they had usually done in the past. Such revolutions come in and of themselves whether or not Anarchists or anybody else want them to. No vanguard group can plan, nor even predict them. In other words Anarchists cannot conspire to cause a revolution; all they can hope to do is to encourage one to begin, and then try to influence it in an Anarchist direction. The revolution itself is always spontaneously generated by the accumulated bitterness and discontent resulting from starvation, injustice, oppression, wars and the internal depravity of the ruling classes.

Is it utopistic to argue that revolutions will come with or without Anarchist aid? Certainly not. Nor are revolutions passé by any means. In the last ten years alone there have been revolutions of every stripe all over the globe: popular in Hungary, authoritarian in Cuba, nationalistic in Africa, etc. Indeed most of Latin America, Asia, and Africa is in ferment right now. However in the popular (or social) revolution another factor enters: the rebellious people spontaneously develop new organizations and radicalize old ones. For example in the French Revolution of 1789 the people created their own Districts and Communes; a century later in 1871 they established Communes again in Paris, Lyons and other cities; in 1917 at the beginning of the Russian Revolution they spontaneously organized Factory Committees, as well as Soviets of Workers, Peasants and Soldiers; in the Spanish Revolution of 1936 they formed Collectives; and in both the Polish Uprising and the Hungarian Revolution in the 1950's they devised Peasants' and Workers' Councils.

We cite these historical examples as irrefutable proof that people have an inherent ability to combine, co-operate and co-ordinate without leaders. They can improvise any necessary organization in a non-authoritarian, or Anarchistic manner if left to themselves. They do this whether or not they've ever heard of Anarchism. Certainly the Montgomery Negroes were unaware of Proudhon, yet reflect on their methods. Co-operation, or Mutual Aid, is a biological, social, psychological and physiological capacity and necessity of mankind. Anarchists did not invent this capacity (it has always existed) but we lay great stress on it.

Every radical recognizes the existence, justification and undeniable rectitude of the Class Struggle. The infinitestimal ruling-class owns or controls all the land; owns or controls all the natural resources; owns or controls all the wealth; owns or controls all the patents on thousands of years of scientific and technological advance. Anyone who considers this an exaggeration or a distortion had best read a few books. The Power Elite, by C. Wright Mills (Oxford University Press, 1956) would be an excellent beginning. Another would be Changes in the Share of Wealth held by Top Wealth-Holders, 1922-1956, by Robert J. Lampman (National Bureau of Economic Research, 1960). The latter demonstrates that 1% of the population of the United States now owns outright 28% of the entire national wealth. This, incidentally, is exactly 3/10ths of 1% less than they owned when Roosevelt inaugurated his double-shuffle, the New Deal. In addition, 1.6% of the population owns 80% of all corporate stock and virtually 100% of all state and municipal bonds in the country. Remember that merely owning 5 or 10% of the stock in a given corporation allows a person or a group to control the entire assets of that corporation. Similarly this financial leverage factor enables the consolidated 28% of the national wealth to dominate the remaining 72%, and then to pyramid that control up to the international level. It must also be remembered that Lampman is considering only owners of legal record, an indefinite number of whom would be wives, widows, minor children and other nominal owners with no political interests whatsoever. By default the power of their wealth is wielded by the politically aggressive members of their class. Thus it is safe to assume that a mere fraction of 1% of the United States population literally owns and / or controls the country outright, manipulating its State Department so as to affect and jeopardize the lives and destinies of millions all over the world.

How did this fraction of 1% get to own control all these exclusive assets, sanctified by the Church and defended by the State, engendering the situation whereby the rest of us are forced to produce for them on their terms in order to earn enough of their devalued currency to buy back a few of their shoddy commodities, eat their adulterated foods, live in their miserable houses, be subject to brutality and extortion from their graft-ridden police, ever comforted by their lying newspapers and their voodoo churches, but always discouraged from looking heavenward with any scrutiny lest we notice the God-Damoclean sword of their nuclear bombs. Their explanation is that they legally bought (or inveigled) everything from the preceding owners, who in turn got it from the owners before them, and the ones before them, all the way back through time. But how did the original owners get everything? Did they buy it from God? Then let somebody show us a valid Celestial Bill of Sale. Until that is produced, the rest of us, the vast majority, have every right to stop begging for crumbs and try instead to get back our full share of this planet's stolen wealth. Thanks to the ubiquitous nuclear threat this is no longer the simple moral obligation it was twenty years ago — it is a matter of life and death.

So far all radicals agree, but from here on we differ. The authoritarians believe that people are absolutely hopeless, that they will have to be led by the nose to retrieve their rightful portion, and thereafter subjected to temporary governmental control lest they lose everything again. Anarchists, on the other hand, contend that any revolution which begins with leaders and followers will end with rulers and subjects. We feel that no "transitional government" can ever wither away because never in all history has any ruling, owning or even bureaucratic class ever relinquished power and privilege voluntarily. Furthermore the likelihood of this ever occurring in some future benevolent "Workers' State" is nil because as Errico Malatesta pointed out: though evil men want to remain in authority for their own power and graft, honest and sincere men also want to remain in authority — they believe it's their duty "for the benefit of the people." Come what may Anarchists contend that this whole argument is academic anyway because we need not even take this risk: if we leave people alone — merely free them for their obscene obeisance to the authority principle — they themselves will spontaneously create any organizational forms necessary for a new society, precisely as they did in France, later in Paris, Russia, Spain, Poland, Hungary, and Montgomery.

Furthermore we contend that any organization people create for themselves would be far more practical, imaginative, flexible, and ardently supported than something superimposed from above. This contention has also been proven in every popular revolution so far. For example even the White Citizens Council in Montgomery had to admit that the lowly "Nigras" had solved a transportation problem in a few nights which the professional managers of the franchised bus company had been grappling with for years. Then too, concomitant with mediocrity any superimposed organization is fraught with authoritarian and bureaucratic dangers. Thus even if popularly created organizations could be proven demonstrably less efficient, no amount of increased efficiency could offset the price of the freedom lost in the authoritarian approach.

We might add that this popular capacity for spontaneous organization, or Mutual Aid, is such a basic and powerful component of human nature that it can only be stifled, subdued or safely channelled by constant ruling class pressure in the form of economic or political threats and/or psychological manipulation. When the pressure is relaxed even slightly this basic urge bursts forth into multiple spontaneous organizations each expressing a political, economic or social will to freedom, invariably in direct conflict with the will to power of the authoritarian State. The will to power is of necessity stagnant, always operating to "keep things as they are" if not to make them worse. On the other hand the will to freedom is creative and revolutionary, striving inevitably toward progress and reduction of authority. Thus the will to freedom has been the cause of every single political, economic and social advance ever made. Beginning with the invention of the wheel, every instance of human progress without exception has been achieved only as a result of winning a battle over the combined forces of authority, reaction and the status quo. Kropotkin discovered this enabling factor and gave it the name Mutual Aid, a phrase borrowed from a Russian zoologist.

In view of Mutual Aid he suggested the practical function of the Anarchist is to encourage any and all revolutionary ferment, imbue people with Anarchist ideas both by words and example, but above all urge that if the government is overthrown the people retain their conquests for themselves instead of handing them over on a silver platter to another government. Consequently Anarchists should never create artificial organizations which in turn create an artificial revolution. They merely stimulate, inspire and assist the natural Mutual Aid tendencies in society to emerge.

Granting that no man is omniscient and that some of Kropotkin's ideas are inapplicable today, his major teachings still withstand the test of time just as do Proudhon's. Consider for example what Lewis Mumford wrote about the principle of industrial decentralization (in The Culture of Cities, Harcourt Brace, 1938, p.340): "What was bold prophecy when [Kropotkin] first published Fields, Factories and Workshops has now become a definite movement, as the technical means of economic regionalism and the social impulses that gave it direction have converged." Ashley Montague, Bertrand Russell, Martin Buber, Albert Camus, Albert Einstein, Erich Fromm, and a host of others from various schools of thought have all acknowledged the influence of Kropotkin as well as Proudhon, and have applied the ideas of both men to the practical solution of current social problems.