Anarchism, Power, and Government

Anarchist protestors against the police

Today, when anarchism has become le mot du jour in radical circles, the differences between a society based on anarchy and one based on the principles of social ecology should be clearly distinguished.

Therefore, just as elsewhere I have distinguished between politics and statecraft, I must now also point out the distinction between governments and states. All anarchists, and indeed most left libertarians, dismiss every government as a state. The fact is that no society can exist without an orderly way of administering itself, which necessarily implies administration or regulation of some kind.

Not Every Government is a State

All states are governments, but not all governments are states. A government is a set of organized and responsible institutions that are minimally an active system of social and economic administration. They handle the problems of living in an orderly fashion. A government may be a dictatorship; it may be a monarchy or a republican state; but it may also be a libertarian formation of some kind. But without a rudimentary body of institutions to sort out the rights and duties of its members, hopefully in a democratic way, society would simply dissolve into a disorderly aggregation of individuals.

Indeed, the very notion of community is meaningless unless those who claim allegiance to it take on obligations that allow it to function, flourish, and meet everyone’s needs. Even self-government is therefore a form of government, for under systems of self-government community members contribute to its functioning. It is possible, and indeed necessary, for human beings to govern themselves in civilized and rational institutions. In fact, institutions as such are necessary for social organization.

Social revolutionaries have traditionally sought a social order that is concerned with “the administration of things, instead of the administration of men,” but people must first be organized institutionally in such a way that they can administer things. One, in effect, cannot be done without the other. Thus if a society is to socially own or control property, if it is to produce goods to meet the needs of all instead of allow profit for a few, if it is to organize a system of distribution so that all rather than an elite share equitably in the material means of life—then clearly definable administrative institutions have to be established that not only make them workable but also constrain irrational behavior. In short, forms of authority have to be created that are meant not to exploit or oppress human beings, but rather to ensure that some human beings are not exploited or oppressed by others and to ensure the means for acquiring the good life.

Such institutions must exist in a society, even a libertarian one. Their absence would lead to a prevalence of chaos, disorder, instability, and disequilibrium—none of which necessarily has revolutionary or liberatory implications. That revolutions produce instability does not mean that instability is somehow a desirable condition or that it must produce a libertarian revolution. If “anarchy is the highest form of order,” as some anarchists have said, then it is also the highest form of administration and stability.

What kinds of governments, then, are not states? Tribal councils, town meetings, workers’ committees, soviets (in the original sense of the word), popular assemblies and the like are governments, and no amount of juggling with words can conceal that fact. They are organized institutions that serve generalized human needs, such as those of a revolutionary proletariat or peasantry, in a libertarian fashion. The end that a government serves, no less than its structure, is an integral part of its nature and definition.

A state, by contrast, is a government that is organized to serve the interests of a privileged and often propertied class at the expense of the majority. This historic rise of the state transformed governance into a malignant force for social development. When a government becomes a state—that is, a coercive mechanism for perpetuating class rule for exploitative purposes—it invariably acquires different institutional characteristics. First, its members are professionalized to one degree or another, in order to separate them from the mass of the population and thereby impart to them an extraordinary status, which in turn renders them the full-time protectors of a ruling class. Second, the state, aided by military and police functionaries, enjoys a monopoly over the means of violence. The members of a state’s armies and police may be drawn from the very classes they are organized to coerce—that is irrelevant; once they are separated from the population at large, uniformed, rigorously trained, disciplined, and placed in an explicit chain of command, they cease to belong to any class and become professional men and women of violence who are at the service of those who command them. The chain of command binds them together and places them at the disposal of their commanders. The tendency of anarchists to classify all governments as states is a mischievous distortion (just as the tendency of anarchists to identify constitutions and laws as such with statism verges on the absurd). Both tendencies are the product of a radical ego-orientation that denies the need for any constraints—indeed, that unthinkingly sees all constraints as evil.

This issue is by no means an idle discussion. It played a pivotal role during the Spanish Revolution of 1936–37, a history that even has profound implications for the future of left libertarian theory and practice.

Libertarian Government in Revolutionary Spain

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Spain was the most important locus of worldwide anarcho-syndicalism. Here, uniquely, anarchists and syndicalists conjointly developed a mass movement that persisted for at least two generations. The National Confederation of Labor (CNT), formed in 1910 in Barcelona, was by the mid-1930s the largest anarcho-syndicalist union in the world. It was a strong and vital force, particularly on the eastern coast of Spain.

Despite or perhaps because of its breadth, the CNT was based on at least two distinct ideologies that were frequently in tension with each other. The first, syndicalism, was perhaps the most highly organized of all libertarian ideologies. Syndicalism emphasized discipline and unity, and its high regard for the importance of organizing the exploited classes could surpass even that of socialism. Syndicalists would have agreed strongly with the words of Joe Hill as he faced a firing squad in Utah: “Don’t mourn—organize!”

For their part, anarchists historically distrusted organization. Leading figures of Spanish anarchism such as Anselmo Lorenzo and Federico Urales viewed the formation of the CNT with deep suspicion, if not outright hostility. Achieving a creative union between the more madcap members of the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI), who in fact were true to their anarchist precepts, and the syndicalists was difficult; fractious disputes often shredded the CNT and, in the early 1930s, led to an outright split. (1)

The outbreak of the Spanish Revolution in 1936 created a decisive crisis that tested the very integrity of the CNT. In the process, it challenged anarchism to deal with the serious question of acquiring and holding power.

On July 21, 1936, the workers of Catalonia and especially its capital, Barcelona, defeated the rebel forces of General Francisco Franco and thereby gained control over one of Spain’s largest and most industrialized provinces, including many important cities along the Mediterranean coast and a considerable agrarian area. In the face of the conflict, the Catalan state institutions either floundered helplessly or dissolved. Something unprecedented in modern history then took place: an anarcho-syndicalist movement found itself in a position of power. Partly as the result of an indigenous libertarian tradition and partly as a result of the influence exercised by the CNT, Spain’s mass revolutionary-syndicalist trade union was possessed of the authority to create a libertarian communist society and the institutions to structure it.

The CNT membership proceeded to create a dazzling series of libertarian institutions. In the cities it organized a huge network of defense, neighborhood, factory, supply, and transportation committees and assemblies, while in the countryside the more radical peasantry (a sizable part of the agrarian population) took over and collectivized the land. Catalonia and its population were protected against a possible counterattack by a revolutionary militia, which, notwithstanding its often archaic weapons, was sufficiently well armed to have defeated the rebel army and police force. This committee system assumed control over the economic and political life of eastern coastal Spain and parts of the peninsula’s interior. It controlled nearly every aspect of social life in Barcelona, from the feeding of the city’s population to its safety.

The committee structure had not been created by an elite group, such as the Bolsheviks. On the contrary, it decidedly emerged, under the guidance of CNT militants, from the workers and peasants of Catalonia themselves—to the surprise and even the patent unease of most of the CNT’s regional and national leaders, who seemed to be unnerved and thrown off balance by the rapid tempo of revolutionary events.

Notwithstanding their reputation for indiscipline, the majority of CNT members, or cenetistas, were libertarian syndicalists rather than anarchists; they were strongly committed to a well-structured, democratic, disciplined, and coordinated organization. In July 1936 they acted, often on their own initiative, to create these councils, committees, and assemblies, breaking through all predetermined ideologies within the revolutionary movement.

The result was that they shattered the bourgeois state-machine and created a radically new government or polity in which they themselves exercised direct control over public and economic affairs through institutions of their own making. For several months the CNT’s grassroots proletarian and peasant militants provided rare examples of the use of federative principles of economic control, in contrast to private or statist methods, to effectively manage production in the cities and the countryside. Put bluntly, they took power by destroying the old institutions and creating radically new ones whose form and substance gave the masses the right to determine the operations of economy and polity. (2)

What they created was a libertarian government, one that constituted the authentic power in the expansive areas in which they existed. (3) The anarcho-syndicalist workers clearly desired to prevent the liberals and conservatives who had run the official Spanish state (and under whose cover the army rebels had plotted and executed their rebellion) from returning to power. The committee structure institutionally embodied the desire of most workers in the large area where it was established to take over society and manage it in the interests of the oppressed; in fact, in the interests of humanity as a whole. Never was anarcho-syndicalism in a more favorable position in its history to declare libertarian communism, their stated social goal. Many of the committees were eager to believe that the CNT would ideologically legitimate their existence and provide them with the guidance needed to achieve a libertarian communist society. They therefore turned to CNT—or rather to the union’s “influential militants” (as CNT leaders were euphemistically called)—to coordinate the new institutions into an effective government.

The Downfall of Spanish Anarchism

The structure the Catalan workers and peasants had created in fact stood at odds with the individualism emphasized by anarchism. In this situation, the anarchist ideology embraced by the CNT leadership gave them no tools to function appropriately. After all, pure anarchism has nothing to do with government—indeed it rejects government, even libertarian, popular government, on the basis that all governments are inherently states.

Nonetheless, almost as a matter of course, the CNT membership gave its union leadership the authority to organize a revolutionary government and provide it with political direction. After all, for years the CNT had continuously propagated revolutions and uprisings; in the early 1930s it had taken up arms again and again, without the least prospect of actually being able to change Spanish society. Now in 1936, as its membership looked to it for coordination, the CNT leadership could finally have a significant impact on society.

What did it do? Apparently it stood around with a puzzled look, as if orphaned by the very success of its working-class members in achieving the goals embedded in its rhetoric. This confusion was not the result of a failure of nerve; it stemmed from a failure of the CNT’s theoretical insight. For in the eyes of the “influential militants,” the committee structure that the revolutionary works had created, and that now ran a very large part of Spain, bore some resemblance to that perennial nightmare that haunted the anarchist tradition from its inception: a state.

On July 23, a mere two days after the workers’ victory over the Francoist uprising, a Catalan regional plenum of the CNT convened in Barcelona. Here the CNT leadership would decide what to do with the power that the workers and peasants had fought for in the streets and villages and then offered up to it. The leadership could have accepted that power and decided to use it to transform the social order in the considerable and strategic area of Spain that was now under the union’s de facto control. It could have declared libertarian communism and the end of the old political and social order. It could have created a “Barcelona Commune,” one that might have been no more permanent than the “Paris Commune” but would have been far more memorable and inspiring to later generations. A few delegates from the militant Bajo de Llobregat region (on the outskirts of the city), and the CNT militant Juan García Oliver, fervently demanded that the plenum do just this: claim the power it already possessed and proclaim libertarian communism.

But to the astonishment of these militants, the plenum’s members found themselves reluctant to take this decisive measure. Federica Montseny and the arguments of Diego Abad de Santillán (two CNT leaders) urged the plenum not to take this move, denouncing it as a “Bolshevik seizure of power.” Their oratory prevailed. Betraying the historic trust of its class, the CNT plenary instead voted to establish a coalition government along with all the other parties in Barcelona that had opposed the military rebellion. This new body, called the Anti-Fascist Militia Committee, included the bourgeois liberals and the Stalinists. In effect, the CNT leadership surrendered its own power by entering into this “People’s Front” style government. Incredibly, all these parties and unions were granted representation on the basis of parity, not in proportion to their memberships, which would have certainly provided the CNT with a commanding majority on the committee.

The monumental nature of this error should be fully appreciated because it reveals all that is internally contradictory about anarchist ideology. By mistaking a workers’ government for a state, the CNT leadership rejected political power in Catalonia at a time when it was actually in their hands. In effect, the CNT turned the power that the workers’ committees had vested in their hands over to a new state—and eventually, a few months later, to the bourgeois Generalidad itself. The CNT remained “pure” ideologically, but only by acting as a conduit to transform workers’ power into capitalists’ power. That is, the plenum did not eliminate power as such; it merely transferred it to its treacherous “allies.” In taking its action, the CNT revealed that while it could militantly protest the abuses of capitalism, it lacked any theoretical and organizational capacity to replace it. It was incapable of distinguishing between a worker–peasant government that the masses had created from below and a capitalist state (or, even more pathetically, a Stalinist-type dictatorship) carefully contrived by the bourgeoisie from above. By expressly rejecting the taking of the power as “statist,” even “Bolshevistic” and “dictatorial,” it permitted the bourgeoisie to occupy the power arena. This ensured the actual transfer of power away from the workers and peasants and into the hands of the bourgeoisie and the Stalinists, who then proceeded to consolidate their power and eventually used it to destroy the workers’ and peasants’ government. Adding insult to injury, the CNT soon joined the Generalidad, and the power of the revolutionary workers and peasants thus passed to the bourgeois state.

Why did the CNT leadership decide to transfer its power to the Anti-Fascist Militia Committee? Diego Abad de Santillán, who was one of the principal architects of this curious policy, later articulated the twisted logic:

We could have remained alone, imposed our absolute will, declared the Generalidad null and void, and imposed the true power of the people in its place, but we did not believe in dictatorship when it was being exercised against us, and we did not want it when we could have exercised it ourselves only at the expense of others. The Generalidad would remain in force with President Companys at its head, and the popular forces would organize themselves into militias to carry on the struggle for the liberation of Spain.(4)

This statement, reiterated in different ways by nearly all the leading figures of the CNT, combines outright falsehood with numbing stupidity. Had the CNT taken the power, it would not have “remained alone.” All the revolutionary workers and, perhaps, a substantial number of the enlightened petty bourgeoisie in Catalonia would have supported it. Certainly the POUM, a large anti-Stalinist Marxist party in the province, would have actively supported a workers’ government. Even the Stalinist leadership of the PSUC and UGT (both of which were quite small in 1936) would most likely have been unable to prevent a majority of their members from supporting workers’ power in Catalonia.

Nor would a workers’ government have had to be a “dictatorship” in any usual sense of the term. It could have been quite democratic, indeed libertarian, and still functioned in the interests of the working class and other oppressed strata. Structured from the bottom up, it would have been a popular power or government that could have allowed a free press, free expression, and public criticism. Even the middle-class press, provided that it did not incite people to armed rebellion against the new workers’ regime, might have been allowed to publish its criticisms. True, the factories would have been taken over by workers’ committees, but former technicians and even owners could have been employed for their expertise. In one or another permutation, Catalonia could have been recreated as a tolerant, even open libertarian communist region from a civil liberties’ standpoint.

But this was not to be. The CNT’s “influential militants” were wedded to a pseudo-theory that perceived no distinction between a government and a state. They were blind to the fact that no bourgeois government such as the Generalidad would permit the anarcho-syndicalist movement to exercise effective power once early revolutionary enthusiasm among the masses waned. Thus the CNT’s shrewd opponents could lead the “influential militants” by the nose, step by step, into the clutches of the state apparatus.

Actually, in the intervening year, the CNT leaders discovered that their rejection of power for the Catalan proletariat and peasantry did not include a rejection of power for themselves as individuals. Four CNT-FAI leaders actually agreed to participate in the bourgeois state in Madrid, as cabinet ministers. But first, with a rather adolescent concern for form rather than content, they tried to get the prime minister, Largo Caballero, to change the state’s name from that of a cabinet to a “Defense Council.” Caballero, a humorless old social democrat, simply told the CNT to go to hell—whereupon the four anarcho-syndicalists, who were never notorious for their theoretical insights, meekly joined the Madrid state as outright ministers in the service of the bourgeoisie. There, they dutifully served the bourgeois state as long as they were useful, up to the closing days of the civil war.

Thus did anarcho-syndicalism follow the unrelenting logic of events to the edge of the political cliff—and ignominiously jump off, by its presence legitimating a state that it was committed to oppose. Needless to emphasize, the old ruling classes in Catalonia, the CNT’s capitalist and petty-bourgeois opponents, celebrated it all. Aided by the Stalinists, they exhibited no qualms in accepting the power that the anarchists had donated to them. Inevitably, they used the power the workers had won to constitute their own state and systematically demolish all the strategic gains the workers had made.

In the autumn of 1936, the newly reempowered parties set out to dismantle the workers’ government in the region. Under the circumstances, that process opened the door to an authoritarian Stalinist regime. Indeed, the reborn Catalan state, in order to eviscerate the power of the CNT workers, soon became a violently counter-revolutionary instrument of the bourgeoisie and the Stalinists. Systematically and with armed force, it swept away the committee system, it restored the old police forces (under new names), and it so abridged workers’ control and management of the factories that their role for the rest of the civil war was ineffective. Eventually, it hunted down, arrested, and often executed militant CNT and POUM members. It finally booted the CNT out of the Catalan government, and the Stalinists had a free hand to further efface the revolution and hound its supporters. Rather than refuse the political and economic power that its own members had offered to it, the CNT plenum should have accepted it and legitimated and approved the new institutions they had already created. Instead, the tension between metaphorical claims and painful realities finally became intolerable, and in May 1937 resolute CNT workers in Barcelona were drawn into open battle with the revived Catalan state in a brief but bloody war within the civil war. Finally the bourgeois state suppressed the last major uprising of the syndicalist movement, butchering hundreds if not thousands of CNT militants. How many were killed will never be known, but we do know that before it was over, the internally contradictory ideology called anarcho-syndicalism lost the greater part of the following it had possessed in the summer of 1936.

Addressing Power

Pure anarchism seeks above all the emancipation of individual personality from all ethical, political, and social constraints. In so doing, it fails to address the concrete issue of power that confronts all revolutionaries in a period of social upheaval. Rather than address how the people, organized into confederated popular assemblies, might capture power and create a fully developed libertarian society, anarchists have traditionally conceived of power as a malignant evil that must be destroyed. Proudhon, for example, once stated that he would divide and subdivide power until, in effect, it ceased to exist. Proudhon may well have intended that government should be reduced to a minimal entity, but his statement perpetuates the illusion that power can actually cease to exist.

Spain revealed the inability of this anti-intellectual, anti-theoretical, and ego-oriented ideology (however sincere and radical its adherents) to cope with the compelling issues of power and social reconstitution. Having staged no less than three insurrections in 1933, the Spanish anarchists and their syndicalist allies seem never to have asked themselves what they would do if they actually succeeded in overthrowing the republic. As a matter of self-defining dogma, anarchism eschews the creation of institutional power. But in Spain anarchists could not tolerate even an entity that had sprung from its own loins: the revolutionary workers’ committees. To stand at the head of these committees and simply take control over Catalonia and other areas would have violated a self-defining principle, but one that assured anarchism’s ineffectuality in a revolutionary period.

Power always exists, and it must always be institutionalized—whether in democratic forms like popular assemblies, committees, and councils, or perniciously, in chiefdoms, aristocracies, monarchies, republics, dictatorships, and totalitarian regimes. To suggest that power can be abolished, and that “everyone” may come to feel “personally empowered,” is to play with psychological fallacies that have in the past led more than one libertarian movement to come to grief. Confusion over the nature of popular power contributed to popular disempowerment, and to the disempowerment of popular institutions such as the sectional assemblies of 1794, the revolutionary clubs of 1848, the neighborhood committees of 1871, the soviets of 1917, and the committees and assemblies of 1936.

The fact is that power is as ubiquitous as gravity. Just as gravity is one of the forces that hold the universe together, so power is one of the forces that hold any society together. A defining feature of any society—whether it is tribal, slave, feudal, capitalist, socialist, communist, or even anarchist—is not whether power is being exercised but how. To argue that social power as such is somehow wrong or “evil” is fallacious. What counts is whether it belongs to the people, and by what kind of institutions is it being exercised. Communalism, to take one example, seeks as I have argued to transfer power from the state to organized confederations of popular assemblies.

The Spanish anarchist experience cannot be judged as an anomalous event, possible only on an isolated peninsula south of the Pyrenees. If we are to learn anything from this crucial error by the CNT leadership, it is that power is always a feature of social and political life. The real question that every revolutionary movement faces is not whether power has been eliminated, but where it is located: in institutions that serve the interests of oppressive classes and strata, or in those that serve the oppressed; will it rest in the hands of an elite or in the hands of the people?

That which is “pure” exists only within the confines of the laboratory and the workings of the human brain. In the real world, where real people, animals, and plants live, impurity is unavoidable; any development, change, or dialectic yields new elements and phenomena that instantly adulterate a seemingly pure process. Many of the stark dictums historically posed by the Left have been shown to belie the authenticity of the real world, yielding false results for social expectations. During the classical period of socialism many Marxists believed it inevitable that socialism would be achieved; similarly, many anarchists believe it inevitable that freedom can emerge without being conditioned by necessity. Unless those of us on the libertarian left are to accept the absurd notion of a decivilized “autonomous individual,” we must concede that society cannot exist without organized institutions that abridge pure autonomy by situating the individual within contextual limitations.

Power that is not placed securely in the hands of the masses must inevitably fall into the hands of their oppressors. There is no closet in which it can be tucked away, no bewitching ritual that can make it evaporate, no superhuman realm where it can be placed in reserve—and no simplistic ideology can make it disappear. Self-styled radicals may try to ignore the problem of power, as the CNT leaders did in July 1936, but it will remain hidden at every meeting, lie concealed in public activities, and appear and reappear at every rally.

Social revolutionaries, far from removing the problem of power from their field of vision, must address the problem of how to give power a concrete institutional emancipatory form. To be silent with respect to this question, and to hide behind superannuated ideologies that are irrelevant to the present overheated capitalist development, is merely to play at revolution, even to mock the memory of the countless militants who have given their all to achieve it.



1. As Ronald Fraser observes in Blood of Spain (in my view the best book to date on the Spanish Revolution): “The two differentiated but linked concepts which comprised anarcho-syndicalism, as its hyphenated name suggested, could by the 1930s be schematically stated in a series of polarities: rural/urban, local/ national, artisanal/industrial, spontaneous/organized, autarkic/ interdependent, anti-intellectual/intellectual.” Ronald Fraser, Blood of Spain: An Oral History of the Spanish Civil War(New York: Pantheon Books; 1972), p. 542. These polarities were never reconciled; indeed, the civil war of 1936–39 exacerbated them to a near breaking point.

2. These revolutionary syndicalists conceived the means by which they had carried out this transformation as a form of direct action. They meant by that term well-organized and constructive activities directly involved in managing public affairs. Direct action, in their view, meant the creation of a polity, the formation of popular institutions, and the formulation and enactment of laws, regulations, and the like—which authentic anarchists regarded as an abridgment of individual will or autonomy.

3. The Spanish socialists of the UGT, who rivaled the CNT among the workers, also created an appreciable number of these committees or participated in them, but the committee structure was primarily—and in Catalonia, entirely—in the hands of CNT workers.

4. Quoted in Pierre Broué and Emile Témine, The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain, trans. Tony White (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1970), p. 131.

Editorial Comment

"Anarchism, Power, and Government" was one of the essays prepared for Murray Bookchin's Free Cities: Communalism and the Left.