Anarchy and Organisation


For anarchists the starting point about any discussion on organisation is our end-goal; a free egalitarian and self-managed society. Because we see means and ends as intrinsically linked, we try to foster as much of that end-goal in the here and now as possible. That means creating organisations that are run directly by those participating and that everyone has an equal say in how things are done.

I suppose you could say a basic anarchist thesis is that if you leave the running of things up to a minority then that minority will consolidate power at the expense of majority, partially because it's human nature, partially because they'll have the means to do so (time, resources of organisation), but also because the majority will have become used to a few making the decisions on their behalf and so it becomes unlikely that they will attempt to take the power back. This is where we are at now. Whether that minority is a property-owning class or the top echelons of the state is irrelevant. It is still a minority managing society at the expense of the population as a whole.

Bakunin spoke of the need to create the new world in the shell of the old, which makes sense when you think about it. It would be difficult to move straight to an anarchist-communist society if one was immersed in a capitalist and hierarchical mindset all of one's life. But if you've participated at some level in organising in a libertarian manner, whether that is a rank and file network in your workplace or an anti-war protest or a workers' co-op then you've gained that little bit of training for the future as well as, hopefully, making things better in the here and now.

I should remark that contrary to some misconceptions anarchists on the whole favour organisation. As Chomsky pointed out, gathering together people of like minds for a common purpose, which what essentially organisation is, breaks down feelings of isolation which are common in this society. Too often people think they're on their own with their radical opinions and that there's not much they can too to change things. And usually they're right, you can't do much on your own, but by hooking up with people of similar inclination you can start to make an impact. In addition your own opinions get reinforced, you no longer seem slightly crazy for thinking Labour and Fianna fail are more or less the same. After all a lot of others are thinking along the same lines! You also get to learn a lot from those who have had different experiences.

Organisation is a necessity in the face of such strong capitalist power. But I would go further and say that life itself demands organisation, for humans are fundamentally social animals and we would never be able to survive in isolation. It is also a good thing in itself for it brings people together. Perhaps the best thing in life is to be with other people. Bakunin mentioned that we are truly free when those around are free and while that cannot fully happen in a class-ridden society there is something to be said for all the decent people you encounter in the struggle for a better world.

I don't even feel the need to defend the statement that organisation is a necessity. But there are different types of organisation. There are very loose networks of like minded people, say something like the feminism in Ireland, there are specific groups which don't have formal memberships like the Dublin Grassroots Network, then there are mass formal organisations like Trade Unions, and also tiny tightly organised political groups like the WSM and there are political parties like the Greens, Fianna Fail and the SWP.

I think there is a role for all these types &endash; except for the political parties - and it isn't necessarily the case that one is better than another. It depends on the situation and the context. As well as the spectrum of groups ranging from informal to formal there is of course the difference between hierarchical and libertarian organisation. Anarchists favour libertarian organising in all types of groups, whether loose or tight. I am sceptical that there is ever a need for hierarchy and even if there is that the burden of proof is on those who say there is. It is a proof that needs to be constantly revisited as well.

Libertarian organisation comprises a few basics; meaningful participation of all affected on decisions of policy rather than it being decided by a core leadership even if that leadership has been elected; when a few people are delegated to implement decisions (such as a media spokespeople) that position is both electable (if necessary), recallable and rotated on a regular basis. For example the DGN press spokespeople resigned after Mayday, not because they were doing an awful job, but because they were aware of the dangers of getting too cosy in their role. The other crucial feature of anti-authoritarian organisation is local autonomy matched by wider federation. This preserves the dynamism of local initiative while facilitating as big an impact as possible.

Liberty and Participation brings out the best in people. One could see at local Bin tax meetings this time last year, well at the ones in Stoneybatter, that people were getting a kick out of having meaningful participation, where their voices counted as much as the next persons. Where decisions hadn't been pre-decided by a handful of activists and presented as a fait acompli. That was when we were at our healthiest. But once tactics began to be decided centrally, to call a blockade here, to call one off there, then attendance fell away as the feeling grew that we were pawns in the political game of others. The diminishing participation stems from the pointless of involvement rather than lack of interest.

The same goes for apathy generally which also stems from the pointlessness of participation in the current political process rather than a lack of interest. There isn't any democracy in most workplaces and precious little in running the community. Why should people get involved in political activity? Your input will be useless and after all they will only be used as a means by which others gain power. Not a very attractive prospect.

I've spoken in general about anarchist attitudes to organisation and how the type of organisation that is necessary depends on the circumstances. But given the title perhaps I should say a few words about the role of the anarchist organisation. Internally, of course, we in the WSM organise in the libertarian fashion I described above. The role of a group like ours is to popularise the aims and methods of anarchism amongst working class people. This means doing simple things like producing our newsletter, pamphlets and leaflets. It means arguing for anarchist methods as much as possible in campaigns we are involved in. So for the bin tax we did a lot of arguing for a local group structure which would federate to facilitate coordination. Unfortunately the anarchist influence was very weak relatively speaking and effectively apart from the ISN I don't think there was much interest.

We also facilitate other groups getting going like the DGN or indeed the Grassroots Gathering itself. For example, I think it's fair to say if we hadn't played a consistent role in the early days, doing simple things like getting the buses and posters, taking minutes then DGN (or its earlier incarnation) wouldn't have lasted or even started. Now it's got a bit of momentum and doesn't need us nearly as much, which is great. A good few Grassroots Gatherings have been organised without our involvement at all and probably newer participants are unaware that it originated from a proposal from the WSM so complete is our lack of control

In terms of labour struggles, where admittedly we are weak at the moment, our function is to popularise the libertarian idea amongst workers. Without the infection of that idea it is unlikely that workers will go beyond in a sustained manner demanding improvements on 'bread and butter issues'. One of the reasons the Spanish Labour movement was so radical prior to the 2nd World War was that the leading ideas animating it were libertarian.

Some of the basic ideas we put forward would be analysing capitalist and hierarchical society, outlining a vision of a libertarian future, and stressing how anarchism can provide a useful method of moving from capitalism to the happy land of anarchist-communism.

It is important to stress that ideas don't fall from the sky, they are material things that hop from mind to mind, by books, tv, the internet or simply by talking to people. If someone hasn't come across libertarian thinking before, it very possible they will never do so unless pointed in the right direction. There are, after all, lots of wrong directions. Some will certainly make it on their own. But many won't, for whatever reasons, one being that they will be seduced by other plausible ideas, such as nationalism, religion, or too often in working class history, Marxist-Leninism.

People's natural inclination towards libertarian practice is often stymied by the wide-spread acceptance that you do in fact need leaders to make decisions on your behalf. So, it is a useful contribution to have anarchists regularly assert the case for liberty and self-management and make some practical suggestions as to how this can be done. Once the broader group acts in a consciously directly democratic manner for a while then they are loath to give up to a few individuals the power to take decisions on their behalf.

WSM then, as an organisation, acts as a type of mid-wife from time to time. We help out in developing events, but don't do the real work and are conscious that it's not our baby, so we don't think we have the right to impose our wishes. So, to take an example, we don't do the direct organising of a large event, say like the grassroots Mayday protests, but our members are involved via a bigger, broader organisation, in this case the DGN and do things under that banner and we would follow the policy of that organisation even if it conflicted with our own ideas. The same would apply for all campaigns we are involved in. In the DGN, for example, we'll argue a particular tactic at any one time, but we won't be in a position to impose it as there simply isn't a central committee that we control with which we can ram our policy through. At the end of the day a WSM member has only the same voice or vote as everybody else; sometimes our proposals are adopted, often they're not. But I think we provide a useful function in regularly bringing ideas to the table, both for the events themselves and about internal organisation. We also bring a bit of stability in helping see that decisions are carried out.

Doing things under the broader group rather through ourselves ensures that the focus remains on achieving victory, rather than promoting our organisation. And victories are what we need right now, they would give us confidence to continue the struggle. It's one reason why the WSM doesn't try to constantly recruit people, particularly those who are new to politics. We'd prefer if they got involved with the broader group first and if after a while they find they are in agreement with us on anarchism, they'll probably end up coming close to us anyway.

One feature of our anarchism is that it is essentially outward looking. Though the group itself is very coherent in terms of having agreement on basic policy, the function of the organisation is to spread awareness of the idea as much as possible and that means talking to as many people as possible. That means involving oneself in activity with those who don't agree with you as much as those who do. We need to interact with the general population. That's why we produce a very easy to read newsletter, it's why we involve ourselves with organisations such as trade unions, however flawed they may be, and community groups.

One thing to remember is that we don't see change as being brought about by a small organisation like ourselves. Sure we'll happily take part and play our role, but the impetus and control must be exercised by the working class as a whole using organisations they consider appropriate, which probably will be some form of Workers' and Community Councils. It would be a disaster for a small political group to take control and implement its policies over the heads of the population. It will never result in the collective self-management of society whatever else happens. And we have to take into account the very real possibility that having a leadership controlling a revolution opens the door to a totalitarian nightmare as predicted by Bakunin and the early anarchists, a prediction borne out by the development of the Bolshevik Party in Russia.

We dislike the representative system where a party claims to represent a particular segment of the population, or sometime all of it. It maintains the class system, you have a class of rulers on the one hand and a class of ruled on the other. So as anarchists that is never going to be acceptable! In any case there are major problems with that model from a democratic point of view. Particularly when it comes to implementing socialism for what is the mechanism by which the party can genuinely ascertain the will of the class? There is always a gap between the party and the class as a whole which makes it both dangerous and arrogant for any minority to assume power on the majority's behalf. The ultimate function of a political party is to insert itself at the top of the bureaucratic machine that is the state and from there to control it and society as a whole.

We do think anarchist ideas are good, obviously, but we're not so confident that we are in possession of all the truths necessary to run society that we should be given the task. I think that it would be a hell of a lot more efficient if the whole of society runs it rather than leave it up to a few. After all what do anarchists know about, say, the health service that those working there don't? Apart from a few ideas on social organisation not much. Once libertarian ideas become part of the wider culture, it is utterly pointless for a minority to take power. If that happens there will be a conflict between the organisations of popular democracy, community and workers' councils and the minority, namely the state. In the Russian and Spanish Revolutions the minority, principally Marxists for what it is worth, succeeded in suppressing these popular organs. The anarchists involved made their fair share of mistakes, but perhaps that's a story for another day.

To sum up; the function of the anarchist organisation is to popularise through propaganda and struggle the aims and means of libertarian socialism. But there is a big difference between putting forward ideas, no matter how thoroughly one does it, and imposing them. The anarchist organisation in contrast to political parties always refuses to take power. That, as I said, is for the wider population to do and anarchists have confidence the capacity of the working class people to make a revolution and run society themselves.

The relation of anarchist organisations to what in the title of this workshop is called "the new movements" should be fairly obvious: With them, as ever, the relation of the anarchists is "be involved, but not in power". And with the fall and discrediting of Marxist-Leninism after 1989 there is renewed interest in anti-authoritarian methods in these anti-capitalist movements and they have, therefore, proved very receptive to anarchism.

Talk for the 2004 Irish Social Forum, re-posted here for historical purposes as well as the continued relevance of much of the material. This talk concentrated on introducing anarchist ideas. Kieran Allen of the SWP and Dermot Connelly formerly of the Socialist Party spoke from a Marxist-Leninist viewpoint.This is the text of the talk I gave a couple of weeks back at the Irish Social Forum. A number of workshops were merged into that one, the SWP had requested one on the Party and the Anti-Capitalist movment, ourselves on anarchism, and somebody else on alliances, fronts and left organisations. So this talk concentrated on introducing anarchist ideas on and left it up to the discussion from the floor afterwards to see where things went. Kieran Allen of the SWP and Dermot Connelly formerly of the Socialist Party spoke from a Marxist-Leninist viewpoint.

Thanks to all the people in the ISF for putting the work in to make the weekend, at least, possible.