“These people think that when you change the names of things, the nature of the things themselves change.” — Friedrich Engels
After thirty years in a grave dug by neoliberalism and imperialism, communism and socialism have been resurrected and a new generation is ready to take up its cause. Learning from the successes and failures of revolutionaries of the twentieth century alike, a bright-eyed youth is guided through the darkness of economic and climate doom by the light of a socialist future. The collective understanding of such a perilous forecast was grappled by the Zoomers, and in what seems to be the eleventh hour on climate action, the youngest are standing up to demand a habitable life on this planet. A life like this demands public ownership of utilities, land, and a centrally planned economy in which the collective benefit of the workers and climate overrule the moral bankruptcy of profit.
Simultaneously, in the West–where capitalism is in decay and a product of more than a century of anti-communist rhetoric– there seems to be a keen vigilance towards keeping the movement away from “authoritarianism”. Anything that is too authoritarian in nature is to be condemned in its entirety. Many who take up this anti-authoritarian crusade are newcomers to the idea of socialism, while some are decade-old organizers that come out of the New Left tradition, one of what they call “democratic socialism”, a uniquely Western term. The time spent on decrying the authoritarian nature of former or present existing socialisms often takes up large segments of the worker’s movement in their respective regions, and thus it should be wrestled with in a careful yet decisive way.
If the reader has ever glanced at Friedrich Engels’ On Authority, they will find many similarities to this analysis. The aim is to flesh out the concerns of the contemporary socialist movement on authority and bring Engels’ ideas into the 21st century. With that in mind, let us quote Engels’ in defining authority itself:
Authority, in the sense in which the word is used here, means: the imposition of the will of another upon ours; on the other hand, authority presupposes subordination. Now, since these two words sound bad, and the relationship which they represent is disagreeable to the subordinated party, the question is to ascertain whether there is any way of dispensing with it, whether — given the conditions of present-day society — we could not create another social system, in which this authority would be given no scope any longer, and would consequently have to disappear.
Every socialist would agree that we currently live in an authoritarian world under capitalism. To maintain a survivable quality of life, you are required to spend a third of your life working for a wage. In these jobs, we have all been put in dangerous, embarrassing, uncomfortable, or questionable situations. If a worker asks for any improvements in job quality, they can be fired at will, losing their income, and possibly their livelihood entirely. As capital authoritatively dictates our lives on a microscale, so has it historically been carried out on a macroscale. The dealings of a few bankers caused 643,000 Americans to become homeless in 2009. One of the most read papers in the United States, The Washington Post, a paper that claims “Democracy Dies in Darkness”, is owned by Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man who does not allow his workers the right to bathroom breaks. More than three-quarters of the world’s carbon emissions come from only 100 corporations.
In the current state, it could seem to some that authority is the guiding characteristic that perpetuates these evils. The will of the bourgeoisie, the capitalist, the boss, the minority, is exerted on us, the people who carry out the work for a wage. But it wasn’t always this way.
Engels reminds us that in his time, capitalism had replaced what he termed “isolated action” with “combined action”. The organization of our labor has only continued into the present day. To keep a capital enterprise afloat, and inversely to keep a job, the workers and the owner must coordinate their labor to keep things stocked, show up to work on time, make sure certain duties are fulfilled, et cetera. Even in socialist states, commerce is judged by its power to efficiently guide productive forces in order to meet the needs of the masses. This without a doubt requires just as much agreement among workers.
But this phenomenon is not exclusive to commerce and labor. Any action within society can only be carried out efficiently and effectively through such coordinated action. For a candidate to win office, many people will agree to canvass at certain times of the day, and directed to which neighborhoods they will knock on doors. Those on the Left are well aware that when we demand people to be at a certain place at a certain time, we expect those who care about the relevant cause to attend. We expect the masses to march a route determined for them and repeat the chants that the organizers have come up with in advance. In these examples, any form of organizing structure could be implemented, and the pervasive role of authority and exertion of the organizers’ will is enacted no matter what.
Regardless of the nature of collective action, the authority of some sort is enacted on others. To speak in absolutes, to declare that authority is inherently worthy of condemnation, is simply childish. Authority is far less about personal freedom as it is about a willingness to organize within a disciplined and efficient mass movement.
Nevertheless, anti-authoritarians present their case, and commonly through the anarchist movement within Republican Spain. In the Spanish Civil War, the National Confederation of Labor-Iberian Anarchist Federation (CNT-FAI) was led by the words “Ni Dios, ni Estado, ni Patrón” (“Neither God, Nor State, Nor Boss”). This segment of the Republican Faction embodied the aims of an anarchist movement. These are people who studied and understood what anarchism meant. It should be noted that the CNT-FAI was only a segment of the Republican Faction that ranged from classical liberals to Marxist-Leninists, but nonetheless they are held in high regard among most if not all anarchists and libertarian socialists.
Now, in the time in which the CNT-FAI was in power in segments of Spain, what did a non-authoritarian building of socialism look like? Were there councils that all came to a collective agreement on justice towards political prisoners? Did these anarchists show the Soviets how you can fight reaction without creating gulags and concentration camps to hold political prisoners? Did they prove that you actually don’t need to command workers into building what many libertarian socialists describe as “state capitalism”, otherwise known as central planning? Did they resist the temptation to forcibly collectivize farms and workplaces like the authoritarian Soviet Union? Did they protect the right to religion and spirituality?
The answers to these questions will likely surprise you. Take the case of a justice system. In place of an absolutist position on prison abolition and consensus-based justice, what many would assume libertarian socialists are in favor of enacting, there were judges. These judges, in the words of CNT anarchist Minister of Justice Juan García Oliver, “created his own justice and administered it himself.” When convicting these persons, the justice system was indiscernible from most other justice systems that one would be familiar with. Political prisoners were in fact put in concentration camps, and sentenced to forced labor. Again, Juan García Oliver illuminates this in a remark about political prisoners:
The weeds must be torn out by their roots. There cannot be and must not be pity for the enemies of the people, but… their rehabilitation through work, and that is precisely what the new ministerial order creating “work camps” seeks… great irrigation canals, roads, and public works must be built immediately.
So it seems that there was actually no clear difference between the carceral practices of the Authoritarian Bolshevik Revolution and anarchist Spain. Still, though, many libertarian socialists will contend that the notion of central planning and forced collectivization warranted the belief that the Soviet Union and other authoritarian socialist states are not truly democratic, and do not truly represent the will of the working class. What did the CNT-FAI, an anarchist unionist organization, do to promote workplace democracy and an egalitarian form of labor production? The Spanish Civil War: Revolution and Counterrevolution by Burnett Bolloten offers further insight into anarchist labor conditions. Bolloten, an anarchist themselves, shares the words of CNT member Albert Perez Bara to illustrate the labor conditions:
After the first few days of euphoria, the workers returned to work and found themselves without responsible management. This resulted in the creation of workers’ committees in factories, workshops and warehouses, which tried to resume production with all the problems that a transformation of this kind entailed. Owing to inadequate training and the sabotage of some of the technicians who remained, many others had fled with the owners, the workers’ committees and other bodies that were improvised had to rely on the guidance of the unions…. Lacking training in economic matters, the union leaders, with more goodwill than success, began to issue directives that spread confusion in the factory committees and enormous chaos in production. This was aggravated by the fact that each union… gave different and often contradictory instruction.
Inevitably, on 24 October 1936, the CNT decreed that all factories and workplaces in anarchist Spain were required to collectivize if they contained 100 workers or more. Where does “authoritarian” collectivization end and “libertarian” collectivization begin? While this alone shows no significant distinction between the Soviet collectivization process, what occurred after can only be described as central planning. Deliberate attempts to restructure the economy would continue, and in many cases, as Bolloten writes, the CNT militias would be enforcing collectivization across anarchist-controlled areas of Spain.
It is worth noting that this is not a condemnation of collectivization. In fact, this action by the CNT led to one notable success of the civil war era. Another anarchist writer by the name of Eddie Conlon from the Workers Solidarity Movement wrote the following:
Production greatly increased. Technicians and agronomists helped the peasants to make better use of the land. Modern scientific methods were introduced and in some areas yields increased by as much as 50%. There was enough to feed the collectivists and the militias in their areas. Often there was enough for exchange with other collectives in the cities for machinery. In addition, food was handed over to the supply committees who looked after distribution in the urban areas.
On the subject of religious freedom, much anti-communist rhetoric revolves around the forced state atheism of many historical socialist states. Many libertarian socialists will decry the treatment of religious individuals in socialist states, perhaps misunderstanding or underestimating the role certain organized religious groups play in counterrevolutionary movements. Michael Seidman’s book Workers Against Work: Labour in Paris and Barcelona During the Popular Fronts illustrates what had happened at this time in Spain:
Solidaridad Obrera [CNT Newspaper] proclaimed, Down with the Church, and the CNT daily reported attacks on churches in working-class neighborhoods. Nearly every church in Barcelona was set afire; in the so-called red terror almost half the victims were ecclesiastics. According to clerical sources, 277 priests and 425 monks were assassinated
That number is actually almost 400 deaths greater than the Bolshevik persecution of Orthodox Clergy during the Russian civil war (estimated at 322 total). Now, this is not to say that either instance is necessarily the correct action to take towards working-class people of faith, but yet again just another example in which the supposed differences between the CNT-FAI and the Bolsheviks are for all intents and purposes, nonexistent. In this case, however, anarchists within Spain carried out a much more brutal campaign against religion.
A revolution is possibly the most authoritarian political act. A revolution is, in essence, demanding that the working class is treated only with the greatest amount of dignity and empowerment, by any means necessary. In that vein, the effort to categorize any revolutionary cause as authoritarian is purely meaningless. The CNT was seen as an authority to many workers in Spain because they claimed that authority, the same can be said for every socialist movement that experienced some form of success in any way.
Now don’t be mistaken. Autocracy and authoritarianism should not be conflated. Socialist states of the past and present have been characterized as led by dictators with totalitarian powers. A socialist state guided by a vanguard party that practices democratic centralism has always carried out decisions through thorough and diverse debate, coming to a unified decision after a vote. Simply because there is an elected party secretary atop does not equate to totalitarianism. A fierce inter-party debate within Communist Parties are forever existent, and ignoring this fact is to write off virtually every Communist Party’s work as superficial.
In contrast, when those on the libertarian left speak of horizontal leadership, and consensus-based organization, there are two phenomena that must be addressed. One, as just mentioned, is the complete erasure and neglect of historical truths, being that socialist organizational structures of the 20th century onwards were void of any proletarian character. This in itself is easily disproved and simply reeks of Western chauvinism and distrust of non-Western comrades across the globe. There are not many greater forms of entitlement to speak on the material conditions of a land in which one has never been to, does not speak the language, and truly never interacted with fellow socialists organizing within that country.
Second, however, is the complete neglect to consider the multiple misgivings of their own idealized organizing structures. In their discourse, the issue of soft power among horizontalism or decentralized movements is rarely if ever considered. While such influence is ubiquitous among groups of all natures and goals, the solution presented by the libertarian socialists seems to simply not acknowledge its existence. Forms considered authoritarian/Stalinist/et cetera such as democratic centralism actually consider this issue. These authoritarians promote the belief of “diversity in debate, unity in action”, where an organization should encourage internal debate, but act as a strong united force in their public work only after both a thorough discussion and a democratically-elected decision have been made. In fighting global capitalist and imperialist powers, our enemies will exploit any modicum of disagreement and use it to further divide socialists. We have every right to discuss and litigate internally our issues, but will only find success through unity in public forums and spaces.
Circling back to climate justice, how are we to combat the existential threat of environmental disaster without declaring ourselves, as socialists, the authority on how we should develop and incorporate renewable and carbon-free alternatives into our energy grids across the globe? Only through central planning can a government successfully coordinate the installation of such renewable infrastructure while making national production. Further, the punishment of the petrocrat class (those being the elite that have made wealth on petroleum and thus profited off the destruction of the Earth) will require an authoritative body to arrest, prosecute, and sentence those which have knowingly misled the international community about Carbon emissions in order to profit off of fossil fuels.
This question of “Do we want authoritarian socialism?” is akin to asking “Do we want to build a sustainable successful movement that will defeat capitalism and imperialism once and for all?” If that means taking up arms, censoring fascist or even liberal media, persecuting political opponents who seek to undo the progress we have built, then so be it! Call the vanguard a revolutionary council. Call the act of collectivizing industry and central planning workplace democracy. Call it whatever you prefer, anarchists at their most successful moments in history employ their authority in the effort to build a better world. Buenaventura Durutti understood this, Joseph Stalin understood this, we must understand this! Onwards to a future of working-class empowerment. Onwards to authority!