Authoritarianism / Antiauthoritarianism 1872-2022

Gian Piero de Bellis

Authoritarianism / Antiauthoritarianism



A clarification concerning the ever present tendency towards authoritarianism within the anarchist movement.

In any group, association, community, there are individuals that try to prevail and would like to impose to everybody their ideas and way of doing. This is called authoritarianism (not to be confused with personal “authority” [e.g. expertise] that can be voluntarily and temporarily accepted). [1]
Unfortunately, authoritarianism can take roots also within the anarchist movement.
A classic case to be remembered and pondered about are the forced collectivisations carried out by self-proclaimed anarchists during the Spanish Civil War (1936). [2]

However, within the anarchist conception there are strong principles whose implementation might succeed in overcoming the virus of authoritarianism:

  1. The principle of non-aggression (against dominance and impositions)
  2. The principle of decentralisation (against the concentration of power)
  3. The principle of voluntariness (in favour of autonomy)
  4. The principle of variety (in favour of federalism)

Despite these principles, the history of the anarchist movement is characterized by a certain factionalism that might be taken as the almost inevitable outcome of the fact that voluntariness (autonomy of decisions) and variety (plurality of styles of life and social organization) are the main features of the conception.
The problem arises when factionalism becomes authoritarian sectarianism (I know better, I am right, you are wrong).

Moreover, some anarchists have taken the anarchist conception as an ideology that they want to be adopted by everybody, willingly or unwillingly. To this aim, they have created semi-bureaucratic structures on the model of national parties for spreading and implementing that ideology.
Another aspect to be mentioned is that, within the anarchist movement, the tendency accepted by most of the anarchists at a certain point in time was assumed, by many, to be the generally recognized ideology of the movement, valid for everybody.

So, from the early individualism (Stirner) the movement moved to Mutualism (Proudhon). Then, after mutualism, we had the rise of the idea of collectivism (Bakunin). With the disappearance of Bakunin and the arrival on the scene of Kropotkin and Malatesta as the most known and prolific figures, anarcho-communism became the dominant tendency, with anarcho-syndicalism occupying, for a while, a quite relevant role, at least in France.

This clearly is a very sketchy summary of a very complex and multifaceted history.
But, just to clarify what came out from this dynamic (i.e. the majoritarian component wanted to be the unique expression of the movement) let us refer to a passage by Max Nettlau: “It has come to this, that at the French Communist Anarchist Congress held in Paris last year (1913) Individualism was regularly stigmatised and placed outside the pale of Anarchism by a formal resolution. If ever an international Anarchist Congress was held on these lines, endorsing a similar attitude, I should say good-bye to all hopes placed in this kind of sectarian Anarchism.“ [3]

Facing this situation, many anarchist voices emerged, from the very start, to oppose expulsions and discriminations suggested or perpetrated by authoritarian socialists and anarchists. Their proposals were meant to find a solution that would keep voluntariness and variety ever present within the vast movement fighting for liberation and for the end of domination and exploitation.
Amongst the various attempts to go beyond authoritarianism and sectarianism we focus briefly on the following ones:

The Anti-authoritarian Congress. The anarchist expelled from The Hague Congress of the International Workingmen’s Association (2–7 September 1872) convened in Saint-Imier (15–16 September 1872) to reaffirm their opposition to any authoritarian posture and practice, even from the so-called socialists. To stress this, following the viewpoint suggested by James Guillaume, they called their meeting not the Anarchist’s Congress but the Congress of the Anti-authoritarian International. [4]

Voluntary communities. One of the most consistent opponents of authoritarianism and sectarianism has been the historian of the anarchy, Max Nettlau. In 1909 he wrote an article advocating full freedom of action and movement for everybody so that each one could build the society of his/her dreams. [5] In a subsequent article (1914) he stressed the fact that anarchy was suitable to communists and individualists, and not just for one to the exclusion of the other. [3]

Anarchy without adjectives. In 1890, Tarrida del Mármol, witnessing the contrasts that were opposing the different components of the French anarchist movement wrote a letter advocating an “anarchy without adjectives”, meaning that the core of the anarchist conception was the common principle of non-authoritarianism and not the specific tendencies favoured by each anarchist (individualism, collectivism, communism, syndicalism, etc.) [6]

The Anarchist Synthesis. In 1924, Voline put forward the Anarchist Synthesis to overcome sectarianism. For him it was necessary to re-conciliate the three currents of the anarchist movement (anarcho-syndicalism, libertarian communism, anarchist individualism) for advancing on the way to universal freedom. This vision was taken up by Sébastien Faure in 1928 and reiterated by Voline in 1934 in an article for the Anarchist Encyclopedia. [7]

Anarchy without Hyphens. In 1980, the exhortation put forward 90 years before by Tarrida del Mármol was taken up by Karl Hess. “A person who describes a world in which everyone must or should behave in a single way, marching to a single drummer, is simply not an anarchist. “ “Liberty, finally, is not a box into which people are forced. Liberty is a space in which people may live. It does not tell you how they will live.“ [8]

Post-left anarchy. In more recent times, Bob Black, Jason McQuinn and others have tried to disentangle the anarchist conception from the suffocating stronghold of so-called leftist anarchists, for whom anarchy, that is freedom, is a leftwing concept and all those who do not share their view are outside the anarchist movement and should be singled out and practically expelled. [9]

In the course of time, many others within the anarchist scene have expressed similar ideas.

To sum it up and to be extremely clear about it, the essential contraposition was not and is not: Bakuninists vs. Marxists or individualists vs. communists. Or, to use a current terminology, it is not anarcho-capitalists vs. anarcho-communists or, for the French speaking world, libertaires vs. libertariens.

It is, simply and essentially, the ever-recurring contraposition between authoritarians vs. non authoritarians; and the authoritarians can be found in any tendency (leftwing, rightwing) and under any label (socialists, collectivists, communists, individualists, etc.).

A possible explanation for the emergence of the authoritarian personality within the anarchist movement is the fact that the authoritarians stress so much their ideological position attached to their being anarchists (anarcho-communist, anarcho-collectivist, anarcho-individualist , etc.) that the ideological label seems to prevail to the detriment of their being anarchists. They consider their chosen ideology the best for everybody and are so keen to supporti it to the point of imposing it to everybody for the supposed salvation and wellbeing of the entire humanity.

As pointed out by John Zube: “In the political and economic sphere they [the sectarian-authoritarian anarchists] want us to fill our shopping basket only with the same assortment of goodies that are “officially sanctioned” by the anarchist movement – or their particular section of it.“ [10]
However, in doing so they totally betray the antiauthoritarian spirit and practice of anarchy.




[1] Authority
(1871) Mikhail Bakunin, What is Authority? [English]
(1871) Mikhail Bakunin,, Qu’est-ce que l’autorité? [Français]

[2] Spanish Civil War
(1937) Franz Borkenau, The Spanish Cockpit [English]
(1961) Burnett Balloten, The Grand Camouflage [English]

[3] Against sectarianism
(1914) Max Nettlau, Anarchism: Communist or Individualist? Both [English]
(1914) Max Nettlau, Anarquismo: ¿Comunista o Individualista? Ambos [Español]
(1914) Max Nettlau, Anarchia: comunista o individualista? Entrambe [Italiano]

[4] The Anti-authoritarian Congress
(1872) Le Congrès de l’Internationale Anti-autoritaire (Saint-Imier, 15-16 Septembre) [Français]
(1872) The Congress of the Anti-authoritarian International (Saint-Imier, 15-16 September) [English]
(1872) Il Congresso dell’Internazionale Anti-autoritaria (Saint-Imier, 15-16 Settembre) [Italiano]

(1922) Max Nettlau, The St. Imier Congress of the International [English]
(1922) Max Nettlau, Les origines de l’Internationale antiautoritaire [Français]

[5] Voluntary communities
(1909) Max Nettlau, Panarchie. Eine verschollene Idee von 1860 [Deutsch]
(1909) Max Nettlau, Panarchy. A forgotten idea of 1860 [English]
(1909) Max Nettlau, Panarchie. Une idée oubliée de 1860 [Français]
(1909) Max Nettlau, Panarchia. Una idea dimenticata del 1860 [Italiano]
(1909) Max Nettlau, Panarquia. Una olvidada idea de 1860 [Español]

[6] Anarchy without adjectives
(1890) Fernando Tarrida del Mármol, Questions de Tactique ou L’anarchie sans adjectifs [Français]
(1890) Fernando Tarrida del Mármol, Questions of Tactics or Anarchy without adjectives [English]
(1890) Fernando Tarrida del Mármol, Questiones de Tactica o La anarquia sin adjetivos [Español]

[7] The Anarchist Synthesis
(1928) Sébastien Faure, La synthèse anarchiste [Français]
(1928) Sébastien Faure, The Anarchist Synthesis [English]

(1934) Voline, La synthèse anarchiste [Français]

[8] Anarchy without Hyphens
(1980) Karl Hess, Anarchy without Hyphens [English]
(1980) Karl Hess, Anarchia senza additivi ideologici [Italiano]
(1980) Karl Hess, La Anarquía sin Guiones [Español]

[9] Post-left anarchy
[1997] Bob Black, Anarchy after Leftism [English]
[2009] Jason McQuinn, Post-left Anarchy [English]

[10] John Zube
(1986) Further Notes on Panarchism and Anarchism [English]

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