How Engels "On Authority" answers the Occupy movement’s hostility to the organized working class
By the Liga Comunista of Brazil
Translation: Socialist Fight (UK)
It is 191 years this November 28 since the birth of one of the biggest giants of revolutionary thought and action that humanity and the class struggle has ever produced, Frederick Engels.
After his friend Karl Marx (who died in 1883), Engels was the finest scholar and teacher of the modern proletariat in the whole civilized world. From the time that fate brought Karl Marx and Frederick Engels together, the two friends devoted their life’s work to a common cause. And so to understand what Frederick Engels has done for the proletariat, one must have a clear idea of the significance of Marx’s teaching and work for the development of the contemporary working-class movement. Marx and Engels were the first to show that the working class and its demands are a necessary outcome of the present economic system, which together with the bourgeoisie inevitably creates and organizes the proletariat. They showed that it is not the well meaning efforts of noble-minded individuals, but the class struggle of the organized proletariat that will deliver humanity from the evils which now oppress it. On their scientific works, Marx and Engels were the first to explain that socialism is not the invention of dreamers, but the final aim and necessary result of the development of the productive forces in modern society. All recorded history hitherto has been a history of class struggle, of the succession of the rule and victory of certain social classes over others. And this will continue until the foundations of class struggle and of class domination – private property and anarchic social production – disappear. The interests of the proletariat demand the destruction of these foundations, and therefore the conscious class struggle of the organized workers must be directed against them. And every class struggle is a political struggle. (Friedrich Engels, v. i. Lenin, 1895).
For over a century Marxists have fought pacifism and abstentionism as bourgeois ideologies that make workers’ class struggle impotent, but little has been said about the practice of proceeding by 100% consent and therefore we will deal more specifically with this crucial issue. Marx and Engels advocated that the Communists fight for immediate goals and workingclass interests that they represent and defend the movement's future. And for this, highlighted Engels, it was necessary to know the proletariat: “The condition of the working-class is the real basis and point of departure of all social movements of the present because it is the highest and most unconcealed pinnacle of the social misery existing in our day. French and German working-class Communism are its direct, Fourierism and English Socialism, as well as the Communism of the German educated bourgeoisie, are its indirect products. A knowledge of proletarian conditions is absolutely necessary to be able to provide solid ground for socialist theories, on the one hand, and for judgments about their right to exist, on the other; and to put an end to all sentimental dreams and fancies pro and con.” (The Condition of the Working Class in England, Frederick Engels, 1845).
Today, where we see major movements governed by youth from Cairo to London, from Athens to Wall Street, which are led by degenerate opportunists parties (Social Democrats and Stalinists) and centrists (pseudo-Trotskyists), imbued with concepts which are not even at the level of liberal radicalism; anarchism itself is a variant of neo-autonomist nonsense. Although we know that this is not a homogeneous group, the demonstrators in Tahrir square and Occupy Wall Street differ from the indignant Spaniards who in turn, have little in common with the youth that shook the streets of London and that between them are also they are very heterogeneous, we highlight some common traits that stand out among the rest. Among these basic principles are the anti-politics, consensus decision-making (against the method of working democracy majority decision) and non-violence.
THE REACTIONARY FETISH OF CONSENSUAL DECISIONS
On the face of it the anti-authoritarian, pacifists and horizontalists are have more in common with the best traditions of the organization that led the proletariat to victory in the past than with the bourgeois order. But it is a sterile aversion planted in new generations against the building of a revolutionary authority to win the masses in the struggles; we must realise our most important historical tasks is to direct all social conflicts toward the emancipation of the proletariat. It is an antidote inoculated by the ideology of bourgeois democratic reaction that freezes the development of the consciousness of youth, diverting all their defiance to political impotence against the constitution of the Revolutionary Party and the violent seizure of power by the masses. Just see the question of the sacred cow of "consensus".
The following quote from Murray Bookchin's "What is Communalism? The Democratic Dimensions of Anarchism" (1) spells it out well, I do not deny that consensus may be an appropriate form of decision-making in small groups of people who are thoroughly familiar with one another. But to examine consensus in practical terms, my own experience has shown me that when larger groups try to make decisions by consensus, it usually obliges them to arrive at the lowest common intellectual denominator in their decision-making: the least controversial or even the most mediocre decision that a sizable assembly of people can attain is adopted --precisely because everyone must agree with it or else withdraw from voting on that issue. More disturbingly, I have found that it permits an insidious authoritarianism and gross manipulations – even when used in the name of autonomy or freedom.
This consensus ends up by silencing vital aspects of conflict; passionate dialogue and dissent. When it decides by a majority, the defeated minority can resolve to reverse a disastrous decision for the collective through persistent articulation of openly disagreements with potentially persuasive fundamental arguments.
The consensus, in turn, wills the minority to silence it in favour of a "metaphysical consensus" group. It suppresses the creative role of dissent and its value as a democratic phenomenon tends to disappear in the grey uniformity required by consensus. Anybody of libertarian ideas aimed at dissolving the hierarchy, the classes, domination and exploitation, ends up being a hostage of the dictatorship of the lowest common denominator against the vanguard who are more aware of the fight or are subjected to duress of a minority that blocks decision-making by a majority of a collective. On the other hand, you could create a dictatorship of a minority to sabotage any collective decision, suppress the dialectic of struggle of ideas that develops in the confrontation of the opposition and situation, leading the movement to an ideological cemetery.
This methodology is totally undemocratic, because it does not allow decisions by simple majority. It is all based on individual bourgeois rights as opposed to the collective methods of workers struggle, above all, the fight for enforcing their historical interests through the dictatorship of the proletariat by means of a hierarchically centred Bolshevik-type party. These methods and revolutionary class interests are more hated by these movements than they are "outraged" by the capitalists.
This methodology emphasized "outrage" that is they are hostage to bourgeois trends in the youth and prevent such bourgeois movements combining with the struggle of the working class. After all, how to pass days and week camping in the middle of squares and at the same time organize the fight for control of production in the workplace by attacking the capitalist where it hurts, in the pocket? This fashion juxtaposes individualism to the organization of the proletariat as a militant Bolshevik-type party based on democratic centralism This is the only international instruments that can reverse the correlation of forces which today favour imperialist reaction.
So we recommend Engels to the struggles of new generations! This youth is malformed by ideological counter-revolutionary anticommunist reaction and, born after the end of the USSR under a massive bombardment of the most reactionary conceptions; individualism and the dregs of capitalist barbarism. They are demoralized by the historical betrayals of traditional goals of the mass movement. In order to refresh our memory of the fight within the mass movement against the individualist bourgeois influences we reproduce one of the most important texts of revolutionary Marxism ever written on the topic.
We publish below "On Authority" by Friedrich Engels, written Between October 1872 and March 1873 and first published in Italy in December 1873. In refuting the arguments raised by echoed by some Anarchists and Socialists, Engels pointed to the experience of the Paris Commune of March-May 1871, When the proletariat before the city Briefly Governed Being crushed by the French army with the support of German forces, with over 20.000 slaughtered. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the founders of scientific socialism, described the Paris Commune to the first historical expression of the dictatorship of the proletariat, ie, the state workers.
Friedrich Engels, 1872
Friedrich Engels, 1872
A number of Socialists have latterly launched a regular crusade against what they call the principle of authority. It suffices to tell them that this or that act is authoritarian for it to be condemned. This summary mode of procedure is being abused to such an extent that it has become necessary to look into the matter somewhat more closely.
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.
On examining the economic, industrial and agricultural conditions which form the basis of present-day bourgeois society, we find that they tend more and more to replace isolated action by combined action of individuals. Modern industry, with its big factories and mills, where hundreds of workers supervise complicated machines driven by steam, has superseded the small workshops of the separate producers; the carriages and wagons of the highways have become substituted by railway trains, just as the small schooners and sailing feluccas have been by steam-boats. Even agriculture falls increasingly under the dominion of the machine and of steam, which slowly but relentlessly put in the place of the small proprietors big capitalists, who with the aid of hired workers cultivate vast stretches of land.
Everywhere combined action, the complication of processes dependent upon each other, displaces independent action by individuals. But whoever mentions combined action speaks of organisation; now, is it possible to have organisation without authority?
Supposing a social revolution dethroned the capitalists, who now exercise their authority over the production and circulation of wealth. Supposing, to adopt entirely the point of view of the anti-authoritarians, that the land and the instruments of labour had become the collective property of the workers who use them. Will authority have disappeared, or will it only have changed its form? Let us see.
Let us take by way if example a cotton spinning mill. The cotton must pass through at least six successive operations before it is reduced to the state of thread, and these operations take place for the most part in different rooms. Furthermore, keeping the machines going requires an engineer to look after the steam engine, mechanics to make the current repairs, and many other labourers whose business it is to transfer the products from one room to another, and so forth. All these workers, men, women and children, are obliged to begin and finish their work at the hours fixed by the authority of the steam, which cares nothing for individual autonomy. The workers must, therefore, first come to an understanding on the hours of work; and these hours, once they are fixed, must be observed by all, without any exception. Thereafter particular questions arise in each room and at every moment concerning the mode of production, distribution of material, etc., which must be settled by decision of a delegate placed at the head of each branch of labour or, if possible, by a majority vote, the will of the single individual will always have to subordinate itself, which means that questions are settled in an authoritarian way. The automatic machinery of the big factory is much more despotic than the small capitalists who employ workers ever have been. At least with regard to the hours of work one may write upon the portals of these factories: Lasciate ogni autonomia, voi che entrate! [Leave, ye that enter in, all autonomy behind!] (2)
If man, by dint of his knowledge and inventive genius, has subdued the forces of nature, the latter avenge themselves upon him by subjecting him, in so far as he employs them, to a veritable despotism independent of all social organisation. Wanting to abolish authority in large-scale industry is tantamount to wanting to abolish industry itself, to destroy the power loom in order to return to the spinning wheel.
Let us take another example — the railway. Here too the co-operation of an infinite number of individuals is absolutely necessary, and this co-operation must be practised during precisely fixed hours so that no accidents may happen. Here, too, the first condition of the job is a dominant will that settles all subordinate questions, whether this will is represented by a single delegate or a committee charged with the execution of the resolutions of the majority of persona interested. In either case there is a very pronounced authority. Moreover, what would happen to the first train dispatched if the authority of the railway employees over the Hon. passengers were abolished?
But the necessity of authority, and of imperious authority at that, will nowhere be found more evident than on board a ship on the high seas. There, in time of danger, the lives of all depend on the instantaneous and absolute obedience of all to the will of one.
When I submitted arguments like these to the most rabid anti-authoritarians, the only answer they were able to give me was the following: Yes, that's true, but there it is not the case of authority which we confer on our delegates, but of a commission entrusted! These gentlemen think that when they have changed the names of things they have changed the things themselves. This is how these profound thinkers mock at the whole world.
We have thus seen that, on the one hand, a certain authority, no matter how delegated, and, on the other hand, a certain subordination, are things which, independently of all social organisation, are imposed upon us together with the material conditions under which we produce and make products circulate.
We have seen, besides, that the material conditions of production and circulation inevitably develop with large-scale industry and large-scale agriculture, and increasingly tend to enlarge the scope of this authority. Hence it is absurd to speak of the principle of authority as being absolutely evil, and of the principle of autonomy as being absolutely good. Authority and autonomy are relative things whose spheres vary with the various phases of the development of society. If the autonomists confined themselves to saying that the social organisation of the future would restrict authority solely to the limits within which the conditions of production render it inevitable, we could understand each other; but they are blind to all facts that make the thing necessary and they passionately fight the world.
Why do the anti-authoritarians not confine themselves to crying out against political authority, the state? All Socialists are agreed that the political state, and with it political authority, will disappear as a result of the coming social revolution, that is, that public functions will lose their political character and will be transformed into the simple administrative functions of watching over the true interests of society. But the anti-authoritarians demand that the political state be abolished at one stroke, even before the social conditions that gave birth to it have been destroyed. They demand that the first act of the social revolution shall be the abolition of authority. Have these gentlemen ever seen a revolution? A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon — authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists. Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois? Should we not, on the contrary, reproach it for not having used it freely enough?
Therefore, either one of two things: either the anti-authoritarians don't know what they're talking about, in which case they are creating nothing but confusion; or they do know, and in that case they are betraying the movement of the proletariat. In either case they serve the reaction.
(1) Murray Bookchin "What is Communalism? The Democratic Dimensions of Anarchism" http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/anarchist_archives/bookchin/cmmnl2.mcw.html
(2) Ye who enter here abandon all autonomy! - This is a parallel to the original text of Dante Alighieri, the Divine Comedy. Dante and Virgil arrive at the entrance of hell and read this haunting inscription, "Lasciate ogne portal: speranza, voi ch intrate"-"Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here ".