Organization without authority?

October 13, 2016

What kinds of organization does the left need to build? Paul D’Amato, author of The Meaning of Marxism, looks at how the anarchist tradition views this important question.

IT IS a common misconception among socialists to equate anarchism with hostility to all forms of organization. As the 19th century Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta once wrote:

Organization which is, after all, only the practice of cooperation and solidarity, is a natural and necessary condition of social life; it is an inescapable fact which forces itself on everybody, as much on human society in general as on any group of people who are working towards a common objective.

It is natural, he wrote, that anarchists with a common objective should "agree among themselves, join forces, share out the tasks and take all those steps which they think will lead to the achievement of those objectives."

According to Malatesta, what distinguishes anarchism is the type of organization it wants--forms of organizing without "authority" or "compulsion." Malatesta then introduces a common concern among anarchists--that "an organization...presupposes an obligation to coordinate one's own activities with those of others; thus, it violates liberty and fetters initiative."

Errico Malatesta
Errico Malatesta

To this, he answers, "What really takes away liberty and makes initiative impossible is the isolation which renders it powerless." According to Malatesta, authoritarian forms emerge from "social disorganization."

He offers this example: "If the roads are unsafe and the people do not know what measures to take, a police force emerges which, in return for whatever services it renders, expects to be supported and paid, as well as imposing itself and throwing its weight around."


AND SO we arrive at our first contradiction: People who have a common goal should organize together to achieve it. If they do not organize to achieve it, they will merely be a collection of isolated, and therefore powerless, individuals without coherent direction--a reflection, in fact, of "social disorganization." But according to Malatesta, the result of social disorganization is the rise of an authoritarian force, like the police, to fill the vacuum.

If people organize themselves, they are submitting to authoritarian forms of organization; but if they don't organize, authoritarians will take advantage of their "social disorganization" to impose their own authority.

How do we get around the obvious problem that collective agreement to act implies subordination to the will of others--that is, submission to authority? Malatesta's answer is a muddle:

An anarchist organization must allow for complete autonomy, and independence, and therefore full responsibility, to individuals and groups; free agreement between those who think it useful to come together for cooperative action, for common aims; a moral duty to fulfill one's pledges and to take no action which is contrary to the accepted program...[D]ecisions are not binding, but simply suggestions, advice and proposals to submit to all concerned, and they do not become binding and executive except for those who accept them and for as long as they accept them...

In an anarchist organization individual members can express any opinion and use every tactic which is not in contradiction with the accepted principles and does not interfere with the activities of others. In every case a particular organization lasts so long as the reasons for union are superior to those for dissension; otherwise it disbands and makes way for other, more homogenous groupings.

How is it possible to have both "complete autonomy" while at the same insisting that participants "take no action which is contrary to the accepted program"? How can there be both "accepted principles" and the right to violate those principles, a right implied by the point that "decisions are not binding."

In effect, Malatesta here expresses a deep suspicion of organization--a backhanded acknowledgement that organization = authority--and argues that it can only be guarded against by ensuring the "right" of everyone to back out whenever they feel like it; in short, by guaranteeing "complete autonomy" of the individual.

So what we have here is a vicious circle. Organization is necessary for there to be action toward a common goal; but organization leads to the submission to a common agreement, not to mention delegation of responsibilities, that is, entrusting authority to others. Hence the very thing that anarchists need for success of their ideals leads away from what they want to achieve: a society free of all authority.


WITHIN MOST leftist organizations, the use of force is anathema. The majority of us are committed to open discussion and democratically arrived-at decisions.

The question is: Are members expected to abide by their own collective decisions or not? If so, then the organization must have the means both to enforce its decisions and ensure that the organization is protected against potential wreckers, including members who act violently against others in the organization. It must have the right and duty to remove such individuals from membership. One only has to think of the way the FBI infiltrated and tried to destroy groups in the 1960s from within to see the importance of this.

The problem becomes thornier when the question of how we fight for and create a new society against forces resisting it with all their might. Malatesta is quite clear that the anarchist tradition recognizes the necessity of violent revolution to achieve its aims:

From their first manifestations Anarchists have [been] nearly unanimous as to the necessity of recourse to physical force in order to transform existing society; and while the other self-styled revolutionary parties have gone floundering into the parliamentary slough, the anarchist idea has in some sort identified itself with that of armed insurrection and violent revolution.

And yet...he is aware of a deep contradiction in his argument, and states soon after this:

In my opinion, there can be no doubt that the Anarchist Idea, denying government, is by its very nature opposed to violence, which is the essence of every authoritarian system--the mode of action of every government.

As he clearly notes, anarchy is based on the idea that human beings must come together and freely determine their futures, "without forcibly imposing the will of any upon any others." Doing so, however, directly contradicts the first principles of anarchism.

Yet a new society cannot possibly be achieved without revolutionary action, notes Malatesta, for the reason that "barriers of iron," in the form of "soldiers and police," stand in the way. Moreover, "so long as the economic constitution of society remains what it is, freedom would still be impossible," because a minority of bosses control the economy and force the rest of us to work for them. He concludes:

The first thing to do, therefore, is to get rid of the armed force which defends existing institutions, and by means of the expropriation of the present holders, to place the land and the other means of production at the disposal of everybody. And this cannot possibly be done--in our opinion--without the employment of physical force.

Thus again, we have an insoluble contradiction. The expropriation of the current owners can only be achieved by revolution; but revolution is, by definition, authoritarian. Hence, it must be acknowledged that if we equate means and ends, then a revolution that puts an end to all coercive authority and exploitation is a contradiction in terms.


THANKFULLY, MEANS and ends are not, and should not be, identical. We do not reject tools because they don't prefigure the product they are created to help build. Force and compulsion both kept the slave in chains and freed the slave from bondage.

The social context--the degree of control exerted from below, the degree of self-consciousness in the action, the aim of the action--all of these things shape the outcome.

As Leon Trotsky notes at the end of his work Their Morals and Ours, the question is: What means will lead to the desired end? Only those means that actually lead to human liberation are permissible. For this reason, for example, acts of individual terror are rejected in favor of the self-conscious action of the mass:

When we say that the end justifies the means, then for us the conclusion follows that the great revolutionary end spurns those base means and ways which set one part of the working class against other parts, or attempt to make the masses happy without their participation; or lower the faith of the masses in themselves and their organization, replacing it by worship for the "leaders."...

The liberation of the workers can come only through the workers themselves. There is, therefore, no greater crime than deceiving the masses, palming off defeats as victories, friends as enemies, bribing workers' leaders, fabricating legends, staging false trials, in a word, doing what the Stalinists do. These means can serve only one end: lengthening the domination of a clique already condemned by history. But they cannot serve to liberate the masses.

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