Does all power corrupt?

March 30, 2012

In any unequal, class-divided society, authority can't simply be "abolished."

ON ONE level, anarchists and Marxists want the same thing--in the words of Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta, a society "without bosses or gendarmes [cops]." But there are some fundamental differences between the two. This article focuses on just one: the question of authority.

Frederick Engels went to the heart of the question when he wrote about the Bakuninists--followers of one of the early founders of anarchism, Russian Mikhail Bakunin.

"As soon as something displeases the Bakuninists," wrote Engels, "the Bakuninists say: it's authoritarian, and thereby imagine that they have damned it forever" But a rejection of all authority is an absurdity.

As Engels argued:

No joint action of any sort is possible without imposing on some an extraneous will, i.e., an authority. Whether it be the will of a majority of voters, of a leading committee or of one man, it is still a will imposed on the dissentients; but without that single and directing will, no cooperation is possible.

Engels asks if Bakunin would get on a train if the switchmen and conductors could come and go as they pleased and weren't subject to strict rules about operating trains. Likewise, in the middle of a raging storm, would we consider the opinion of a ship's passenger with no sailing experience to be as valid as that of the captain or sailors on the ship?

These examples can be multiplied many times.

Both anarchists and socialists agree that some types of authority--the authority of the rich minority of exploiters over the exploited majority--should be abolished.

Both oppose the authority of the cop who brutalizes minorities and the poor, the judge who serves the wealthy and the manager who tries to squeeze more work out of us.

But for Marxists, the fundamental question of how to transform society comes down to one of power--the power of the majority of ordinary workers versus the power of big corporations and the institutions they rely on to rule.

We therefore can't agree with the point made in one article called "Introduction to Anarchism" that "power is inherently corrupting."

The problem is that, in our society, the majority of people are deprived of power--the power to make decisions that affect their lives, the power to determine their own destinies.

IN ANY unequal, class-divided society, authority can't simply be "abolished." If striking workers renounced the authority of the majority over the minority, then they would have to renounce the strike as a weapon.

For what is a strike if not the imposition of the authority of the majority who vote to strike over the minority who vote not to strike?

And if the workers are to win, they must organize picket lines that are large and militant in order to discourage scabs from exercising their "right" work during the strike.

The need for authority is even starker in times of revolution. "I believe the terms 'authority' and 'centralization' are being greatly abused," wrote Engels.

"I know nothing more authoritarian than a revolution, and when one's will is imposed on others with bombs and bullets, as in every revolution, it seems to me an act of authority is being committed."

Moreover, revolutionary "authority"--the imposition of the will of the majority over the minority--is necessary as long as the forces of the old order continue to resist the new.

Anarchists who sincerely believe in the creative potential of ordinary people to build a new society--a potential that can't be realized unless they use their collective power--can't reconcile this view with the idea that all forms of power corrupt.

For anarchists, force, authority and hierarchy--the state--are the cause of class inequality. Abolition of authority is their watchword.

For Marxists, the state is a byproduct of class antagonism--and can only disappear when class antagonisms disappear.

Marx expressed this most clearly:

What all socialists understand by anarchy is this: once the aim of the proletarian movement, the abolition of classes, has been attained, the power of the state, which serves to keep the great majority of producers under the yoke of a numerically small exploiting minority, disappears, and the functions of government are transformed into simple administrative functions."

First published in the September 1, 2000, issue of Socialist Worker.

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