Revolution Revisited

[By Julius Gavroche. Originally published in Autonomy No. 1 (1989).]

“We must learn to think differently before the revolution can come. That alone can bring the revolution.” — Alexander Berkman

Ibañez’s claim (Farewell to the Revolution) that the concept of revolution is incompatible with anarchism, and that the union of these two ideas within the bosom of anarchism has led to confusion and to inconsistent actions in the history of the anarchist movement, is provocative and disturbing. I believe that there is much that is noteworthy in Ibañez’s contentions, but I wish to argue, in opposition to his thesis, that the contradiction is not so much between anarchism and revolution, as between two notions of revolution: one, totalizing and authoritarian, the other, evolutionary, piecemeal and libertarian. This opposition is present in both anarchist theory and practice. By examining them both, in light of Ibañez’s three arguments for the incompatibility of anarchism and revolution, the contradictions in anarchism may be discerned more concretely.

Ibañez states that the idea of revolution implies a belief in social determinism — that is, the idea that one can actually intervene in society so as to bring about a complete revolution presupposes the belief that one may acquire a more or less adequate knowledge of the causal consequences of one’s actions. Without such a knowledge, revolutionary action is unimaginable, for it would be to act blindly. In acting, one has some idea of what the consequences of that action will be. In the case of revolution, as a global transformation, that knowledge is all the more essential. But this is conceivable only if one assumes that society can be adequately understood, and that it operates in a causal fashion. For Ibañez, this both ignores the fact that society is more properly understood as a holistic organism, which is largely unpredictable in its functioning, and it uncritically accepts the determinist and scientistic ideology of technocratic societies.

Throughout the writings of the anarchist tradition, there is a profound tension between the belief in universal determinism and free will. As early as Proudhon, the claim is made that revolution will be a consequence of natural laws, as embodied in a social necessity [1] And Bakunin goes as far as to completely deny free will:

Socialism, being founded upon positive science, absolutely rejects the doctrine of “free will.” It recognizes that whatever is called human vice and virtue is absolutely the product of the combined action of nature and society. Nature, through its ethnographical, physiological, and pathological action, creates faculties and dispositions which are called natural, and the organization of society develops them, or on the other hand halts and falsifies their development. All individuals, with no exception, are at every moment of their lives what Nature and society have made them.[2]

In his eagerness to reject religious doctrines of human sin, and contractual theories of the state, Bakunin conceives a determinism in which there is little room for human initiative, the consequence of which is a revolutionary quietism.

Revolutions are not improvised. They are not made at will by individuals, and not even by the most powerful associations. They come about through force of circumstances, and are independent of any deliberate will or conspiracy. They can be foreseen … but never can their explosion be accelerated.[3]

Combined with this belief in social necessity is a strong faith in the progressive and liberating potentials of science; so much so that Kropotkin identifies it with anarchism.

Anarchism is a world-concept based upon a mechanical explanation of all phenomena, embracing the whole world of nature — that is, including in it the life of human societies and their economic, political, and moral problems. Its method of investigation is that of the exact natural sciences, and, if it pretends to be scientific, every conclusion it comes to must be verified by the method by which every scientific conclusion must be verified.[4]

Ibañez’s case thus appears to be substantiated, insofar as the anarchist advocacy of revolution was underlined by a nineteenth-century mechanistic world view. And the potential for authoritarian models of social control is apparent, for with the acquisition of scientific knowledge comes power: power of prediction and technical manipulation. Bakunin recognized as much: “Knowledge is power, ignorance is the cause of social impotence.”[5] The potential for authoritarianism lies in the fact that reality cannot be exhausted by such knowledge, and that therefore to act in accordance with such a framework is to suppress other dimensions of life.

But this world vision is no longer unquestionable, and one may ask whether its rejection leads to a rejection of revolution. I believe not: this vision was never universally nor consistently held by anarchists, and in opposition to it, there is an alternative basis for revolution.

Anarchists have always emphasized the spontaneity of peoples in rising up against oppression and in organizing their own lives. Yet this spontaneity was not understood to exist in a vacuum, for it arose from the traditions of the very people who acted. Here is that essential integration of freedom and necessity, which appears to be so lacking in the above statements. Furthermore, the stress on the importance of expanding human consciousness — with the consequent commitment to projects of alternative education — indicate a recognition on the part of anarchists that social) necessity would never be sufficient to bring about social revolution. The latter required, in addition, the conscious intervention of human agency. Bakunin’s own insurrectionary activity betrays his theoretical rejection of free will.

The belief in the progressive nature of science and its identification with anarchism was not everywhere so warmly espoused. Indeed, Malatesta openly rejected this identification. Science, like any other system of ideas, must not be blindly accepted as infallible; it is a study that only concerns itself with what is, and not with what ought to be, that is, with the aspirations, desires and wants of humanity. For Malatesta, anarchy is a product of the will, not of necessity. And as such, science cannot embrace it, because science “stops where inevitability ends and freedom begins.”[6]

Bakunln also, in his exchanges with Marx, came to see the dangers of a deified science. The prospect of an elite group of sages ruling society by virtue of their superior knowledge horrified him. “The domination of life by science can have no other result than the brutalization of mankind.”[7]

Bakunin’s own critique of the state was based upon a recognition of the finitude of human knowledge: no human institution could ever embrace all of social activity. But such was the rational for the socialist state. Human beings, incapable of organizing themselves for a better world, must be guided by a benevolent state authority, which to carry out its task, requires a command of all the available information about its population and nation.

for only in this way can it lead humanity to its promised land. But for Bakunin, such a vision was both totalitarian and profoundly ignorant of human limitations.

[It] is impossible even for the most intelligent, most energetic, most candid revolutionary authority to encompass at once the great number of questions and interests stirred up by the Revolution. For every dictatorship (individual as well as collective. Insofar as it is made up of several official persons) is necessarily very circumscribed, very blind, and is incapable of either penetrating the depths or comprehending the scope of people’s lives. Just as it is impossible for the largest and most powerful sea-going vessel to measure the depth and expanse of the ocean.[8]

what may be termed an anarchism of epistemological humility, and on the other, one of Promethean pride. The authoritarian potential of the latter can be seen; whereas to accept the former is to recognize that we cannot organize (even if we were in a position to do so) a totalizing revolution, which did not at the same time suppress one part or another of society. The revolution must be the conscious and free project of united individuals, whose realm of action will be limited to themselves and to what they can affect, without denying the freedom of others. If we accept the limitations of our knowledge of social reality. so must we accept the limitations of our action — otherwise we act in ignorance, deny what is other. Proudhon, in a letter to Marx, captured this spirit of self-recognized human finitude:

[When] we have demolished all a priori dogmas, do not let us think of indoctrinating the people in our turn …. Let us have a good and honest polemic. Let us set the world an example of wise and farsighted tolerance, but simply because we are leaders of a movement let us not instigate a new intolerance. Let us not set ourselves up as the apostles of a new religion, even if it be the religion of logic or of reason. Let us welcome and encourage all protests, let us get rid of all exclusiveness and all mysticism. Let us never consider any question exhausted, and when we have used up our very last argument, let us begin again, if necessary, with eloquence and irony.[9]

Ibañez’s two further arguments against revolution contend that it involves a subordination of the parts of society to the social whole, and that it hierarchizes values. In both cases, we have the potential for domination and justified sacrifice. Anarchism, here, also suffers from the same ambiguity.

Bakunin’s International Brotherhood has been criticized for being a potential dominating ideological elite. Whether this criticism is well founded or not is beside the point. The issue is that any advocacy of a vanguard holds the danger of degenerating into support for leadership cliques. Nowhere can this danger be more clearly seen than in the writings of Malatesta:

The great majority of anarchists, if I am not mistaken, hold the view that human perfectibility and anarchy would not be achieved even in a few thousand years, if first one did not create by the revolution, made by a conscious minority, the necessary environment for freedom and well being.[10]

We do not want to “wait for the masses to become anarchist before making the revolution,” the more so since we are convinced that they will never become anarchist if the institutions which keep them enslaved are not first violently destroyed. And since we need the support of the masses to build up a force of sufficient strength and to achieve our specific task of radical change of the social organism by the direct action of the masses, we must get closer to them, accept them as they are, and from within their ranks seek to “push” them forward as much as possible.[11]

The prospect of a minoritarian revolution becoming authoritarian is evident; indeed, it is probably inevitable. Without the support of a large part of lilt, population, measures must be taken for the survival of the minority’s power, which can only involve the institutionalization of some form of social control. And if the “masses” are not, and cannot, become anarchists within their present surroundings, will the minority make them so after the revolution? The belief that the elimination of unjust social institutions will lead to some kind of spontaneous change of attitudes on the part of a large section of the population, which would be favourable to the anarchist minority, is naive. And if the enlightened minority nonetheless requires the support of a substantial part of the population to destroy these institutions, but who are nevertheless not anarchists, how does this minority propose to “push” the majority? By hidden agendas, deception, manipulation? The prospects are rather unsavoury. A revolution, led by a minority with the conviction that it possesses the sole truth — a conviction it must have, to so act as a minority — will invariably be forced to control and dominate a society not prepared for its beliefs, and it will demand sacrifices — even of life —in the name of its truth. “Revolution means war, and that implies the destruction of men and things.”[12]

But again, there is a tension within anarchist thought. On many occasions, revolution is not characterized as a global overthrow and destruction of the existing social system by an active minority. On the contrary, there is a strong belief in the evolutionary dimension of social change. Proudhon’s mutualism literally involved an economic hollowing-out of the existing economic system, until the latter simply collapsed for lack of support. For both Bakunln and Kropotkin, revolution was not a nihilistic apocalypse, but a bringing-forth of libertarian and communitarian traditions which have existed throughout human history, in opposition to political traditions. What Bakunin called the folk-instincts, and Kropotkin mutual aid, were ways of life which had always underlain political institutions, and which were essential for the latter’s survival: no political institution can embrace the whole of social life, its survival relying upon the existence of forms of social interaction which may operate independently of the state and which do not threaten that state. What anarchism has sought is a self-consciousness of these traditions, pointing out their opposition to the tradition of political domination. In doing so, it is hoped that the redundancy of the state may become apparent, for traditions of mutual aid indicate living examples of how people interact, without the forced intervention of external bodies. This vision of revolution is intrinsic to the belief that it is the people themselves who will be the authors of their liberation, for this is possible only if they already possess the living traditions of self-organization, and if this tradition comes to be felt in their own lives, as opposing of the state. In this context, even Bakunin’s violence was qualified. “Socialism will wage a ruthless war upon ‘social positions,’ but it will not war against men.”[13]

We have thus seen an opposition, within anarchism, between two notions of revolution. I believe that the latter sides of the contradiction are more true to anarchism, and as such, escape Ibañez’s critique and rejection of revolution. But hitherto, the discussion has been confined to theory. Is this debate, and has it been, at all relevant to the practice of anarchism? I believe that it has and that it continues to be, and one may see this contradiction lived out, with disastrous consequences, in the Spanish revolution.

The Spanish anarchists, upon defeating the fascist uprising in Barcelona, and finding themselves in de facto control of the city, posed the following dilemma to themselves, as expressed by Garcia Oliver: “Either we collaborate or we impose our dictatorship. Choose!”[14] That is, the anarchists did not represent a majority in non-fascist Spain, they could either collaborate with other socialist groups to defeat Franco, or move towards an anarchist revolution, which would have required an imposition of their ideology upon those non-anarchist groups. But the dilemma thus expressed was a false one for anarchists, as it was presented at the political or state level. In other words, anarchists could either collaborate with other sympathetic groups at the state level, or create their own state. But these should never have been alternatives faced by anarchists. The question for the latter has always been either overthrow the state or allow it to continue, in whatever guise it may lake.

In my view, Spanish anarchism was led to this position by a totalistic vision of revolution. The revolution either had to be absolute, or postponed until after the war. Believing the former to be impossible, given the consequences as they saw them, they chose collaboration, with all the negative consequences that this came to involve; indeed, one can provide a convincing argument that this step towards collaboration led to the ultimate defeat of Spanish anarchism in the revolution.

However, the situation could have been different; there was a historical precedent for a different kind of approach to such a revolutionary situation.

In 1934, with the entrance of the right-wing Confederación Española de Derechas Autonomás (CEDA) into the Spanish government, a general insurrection was proclaimed in Spain by all the major socialist parties and groups of the country. This call was most widely answered in Asturias , where the anarchists, socialists, and communists united under the slogan of ¡UHP! — ¡Unios, Hermanos Proletarios! What occurred in Austurias was a full-scale revolution, with all power falling into the hands of workers’ committees. Yet in no case was a party or group forced to compromise its principles for unity. Rather each group controlled those areas in which it had majority support, with each coming together in the face of the common enemy. The anarchists did not face the dilemma that arose in 1936, because they did not assume that their revolution must be the revolution of all. Rather, for the moment, they confined their efforts to their own areas hoping that through example and by appeal to the rank and file, they could win over the workers of the other groups. In Asturias, there was a recognition of a libertarian dimension to revolution. Seeing that political divisions were to a large extent ideological, the anarchists ignored the alternatives that their Barcelona comrades would later face, and appealed directly to workers’ unity. The Asturian revolution was short lived, but it did provide an historical example of a way of understanding revolution, different from the manner in which it was conceived two years later.

The anarchist dilemma, however, had implications beyond that of the general fate of the movement. In various villages, where anarchist collectives were established, the support of the population for such projects was not always ideal. Indeed, in many cases, the motivation for joining a collective was fear for one’s life, as the anarchists were the sole armed force in certain regions of the country. In other instances, individuals once belonging to republican or more conservative groups were forced to work the collectives.[15] This use of force was not a universal phenomenon on anarchist collectives, yet it was widespread enough to indicated a basic inconsistency in anarchist practice, viz., the forceful imposition of libertarianism.

Again, we see here the totalistic vision of revolution at work, in which all must be anarchists, or none will be. And yet, in many collectives, those persons who did not wish to partake of the collective project were permitted to work private farms as individuals, with the recognition that they would in turn renounce any possible benefits that might arise from collectivization. This tolerance reflected a belief that anarchism should only live through those who believe in it, and that it could win over those who disagree with it by force of example. The limitations of the revolution were recognized from the outset, and no appeal was made to force. And yet a revolution was begun, as opposed to destroying that revolution by the use of means which could only pervert the libertarian project.

There is a contradiction in anarchism, but not between revolution and anarchy, but rather between two notions of revolution. This is not to dismiss Ibañez’s arguments, for he does succeed in bringing to attention the authoritarian element in the general concept of revolution. But there is also another side to this concept — a libertarian side.

Revolution, if it is to remain consistent with the dream of anarchism, must come to be seen as a slow, evolutionary process of bringing forth the examples of mutual aid that continue to persist in our world, independently of the legislation of the state. Our critiques of society and our actions cannot be guided by what are taken to be transcendental values, but rather by values inherent in our culture, traditions, beliefs and so on; values inhering in our lives, which are, however, confined and distorted by other competing values. In this way, our criticisms are firmly rooted in the lives of the people, and are not simply the consequence of some abstract vision, which is incomprehensible to the great majority of the population.

This is not to reject the dream of utopia. It is to state, however, that the dream cannot be the basis of a critique of society without becoming abstract. At best (and this is of great importance), it serves to guide our thoughts and actions by helping us to differentiate between libertarian and authoritarian values already existing in our society. And it is on the basis of these actual values that the anarchist critiques can gain some import for a wider number of people.

One of the weaknesses of the anarchist movement has been its tenacious, and sometimes dogmatic, adoption of principles, which in turn are imposed upon reality, instead of letting reality speak for itself. I am not suggesting that principles be rejected, but rather that they be allowed to emerge from day-to-day practices of people so that they are felt to be relevant to those practices. And by joining our actions with these accepted principles, anarchism may gain legitimacy as a social vision, and not be simply dismissed as a naive dream, if not sheer madness.

The implication of this is a rejection of the totalizing revolutionary project. Our understanding of the traditions that motivate and guide people is never complete. We must therefore always act with the recognition that our projects may only satisfy, and thus only apply to, those actually engaged in them, for it is they who have adopted them as their own. This in turn leads to an evolutionary vision of social change, because revolution thus conceived can only, and must only, develop through the constant exchange of ideas and actions of the people involved.

The social revolution, therefore, is not an accident, not a sudden happening. There is nothing sudden about it, for ideas don’t change suddenly. They grow slowly, gradually, like the plant or flower. Hence the social revolution is a result, a development, which means that it is evolutionary. It develops to the point when considerable numbers of people have embraced the new ideas and are determined to put them into practice. When they attempt to do so· and meet with opposition, then the slow, quiet, and peaceful social evolution becomes quick, militant, and violent. Evolution becomes revolution.

Bear in mind, then, that evolution and revolution are not two separate and distinct things. Still less are they opposites as some people wrongly believe. Revolution is merely the boiling point of evolution.[16]

But, it may be objected, such a goal may never be attained, and it is a conception of social change which ignores possible social and economic developments that may undermine a society independently of the ideas and will of the individuals of that society.

That a change, as I describe, may take a long time, I do not deny. And indeed, it may fail. But if so, we have failed because people have chosen to reject us, and not because, in our enthusiasm, we succeed in establishing some anarchist society with only minority support, which can only take on an authoritarian character. It may be the case that social and economic conditions may accelerate the disintegration of society. That, however, hardly assures us of a libertarian revolution. How many revolutions have Tailed because the people involved did not have a sufficient understanding of what the new social order should be like, how it should be attained? Alexander Berkman, reflecting on his experiences of the Russian revolution, wrote:

… thorough understanding by the masses of the true aim of revolution guarantees the right development of the new life. On the other hand, lack of this understanding and of preparation means certain defeat, either at the hands of a reaction or by the experimental theories of would-be political party friends.[17]

If we are to succeed in realizing our dream of freedom, we must act in accord with it. Only liberty can serve as the womb of liberty. In practical terms, and given our numbers and available means, this suggests projects of alternative ways of living, which may challenge the many facets of contemporary society. I am not advocating hermit-like communes, but rather alternative communities with diverse ends, providing a space for relatively free creativity, and which equally serve as a basis of support for our actions — giving us a relative position of strength and nurturing our hopes. What I am suggesting may be termed revolutionary reformism: revolutionary, because it rejects all existing power structures as arenas for social activity, and reformist, because it sees revolution as an evolutionary process. This is not far from Ibañez’s own alternative to traditional anarchist practice. But what he failed to discern is that this alternative is as much a part of the anarchist concept of revolution as that which he criticizes. Ibañez rejects revolution because he only sees it in its authoritarian guise. Anarchism, however, cannot reject revolution without becoming a mere shell of its former self. But it must be a revolution of liberty.

“No revolution has yet tried the true way of liberty. None has had sufficient faith in it. Force and suppression, persecution, revenge and terror have characterized all revolutions in the past and have thereby defeated their original aims. The time has come to try new methods, new ways. The social revolution is to achieve the emancipation of man through liberty, but if we have no faith in the latter, revolution becomes a denial and betrayal of itself. Let us then have the courage of freedom: let us replaces suppression and terror. Let liberty become our faith and our deed and we shall grow stronger therein.”[18]


  1. [1]Edward Hyams, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (New York: Tapllnger Publishing Company, 1979), p. 182.
  2. [2]Mikhail Bakunin, The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, edited by G.P. Maximoff (New York: The Free Press, 1953), p. 155
  3. [3]Bakunin, The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 155.
  4. [4]Peter Kropotkin, The Essential Kropotkin, edited by Emile Capouya and Keitha Tompkins (New York: Liveright, 1975), p. 160
  5. [5]Bakunin, The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 355
  6. [6]Errico Malatesta, Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, edited by Vernon Richards (London: Freedom Press, 1977), p. 40
  7. [7]Mikhail Bakunin, Bakunin on Anarchism, edited by Sam Dolgoff (Mondtreal: Black Rose Books, 1980), p. 327
  8. [8]Bakunin, Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 397
  9. [9]P. Joseph Proudhon. Selected Writings, edited by S. Edwards (London: Macmillan, 1970), pp. 150-151
  10. [10]Malatesta, Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, p. 154
  11. [11]Malatesta, Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, pp. 155-156
  12. [12]Bakunin, Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 372
  13. [13]Bakunin, Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 412
  14. [14]Ronald Fraser, Blood of Spain (New York: Pantheon Books, 1979), p. 184
  15. [15]Fraser, Blood of Spain, pp. 349-369
  16. [16]Alexander Berkman, ABC of Anarchism (London: Freedom Press, 1980), p. 37
  17. [17]Berkman, ABC of Anarchism, p. 39
  18. [18]Berkman, ABC of Anarchism, pp. 85-86
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