Anarchist Centralism?

Anarchist Centralism?

A response to a C4ss article arguing for Anarchist centralism.

A major sticking point in the debate between Anarchists and Marxists has been the issue of centralism; that is to what degree specialized, hierarchical, concentrated divisions of labor are desirable. Typically the Anarchists have argued that maximal participation should replace such divisions of labor where as Marxists have seen them as a form of progress implemented by the capitalist mode of production and ultimately a step toward the social control of production. The battle lines have not always been clearly drawn, however. Lenin, perhaps the most important Marxist in history, vacillated between Paris Commune style people's democracy and arch centralism depending on the political climate he found himself in. In the early 20th century Anarcho-syndicalists debated the issue of centralism and some of them completely rejected the classical Anarchist Communist view of federated regional communes for an emphasis on preserving Fordist industrialism in a manner very reminiscent of the views held by the social democratic Marxists that expelled the forefathers of the Anarcho-syndicalists from their movement in 1896.

In this vein of heterodoxy an article was published on the C4ss website arguing for a balance between decentralization and centralism from an Anarchist point of view. According to the author Anarchists have been mistaken to view centralism as inherently wrong and thus failing to recognize it's practical use. The author maintains that the issue is one of organizational efficiency and not fundamental principles. Even further, the author denies that centralism has anything to do with hierarchy and asserts that it can function in a non-bureaucratic way. The article essentially sets out to outline a self-managed centralism, one with concentrated, specialized organization, without Lenin's Commissareaucracy. The author uses this idea to back up his assertion that Anarchists should accept a healthy dose of centralism. Does his argument have merit? If it does than Anarchists have surely had the wrong approach more often than not to this question historically. Do we need to rethink our analysis?


We need to start with definitions. Marxists like Lenin and Bukharin associated centralism with organizational coherence and scientific specialization and decentralization with parochial, handicraft isolation. To them centralism could never be critiqued by anyone who wasn't simply a wanna be merchant longing for the old village markets. This allowed them to ignore the real issue of the debate, i.e. to what degree participation is maximized. Thus the first major problem with this article becomes apparent. No summary definition of centralism, or decentralization, is even attempted. The author does describe what he thinks the characteristics of both are, but not in a coherent way that would allow us to grasp the full scope of his conception.

He starts out very strong, relating the issue directly to "decision-making power", he will continue to operate on this relation later in the article. Unfortunately, he then, for some reason, defaults to the Leninist/Bukharinite analysis and starts using centralization and decentralization as synonyms for coherence and parochialism respectively.

Some level of decentralization is necessary in an organization so that its organizational processes can be carried out smoothly. Besides abuses of power, there are purely practical reasons to avoid excessive centralization. An organization in which decision-making is highly centralized increases the distance of decision-makers from conditions on the ground, increasing the likelihood of a bad decision being made because of the decision maker’s ignorance of changing local conditions.1 High centralization also can overwhelm decision-makers with minutiae that’s better off being dealt with locally, negatively impacting the rate at which projects are undertaken and completed – i.e. excessive centralization can generate bottlenecks that impede progress.

This does not mean, however, that centralization is more trouble than it’s ever worth. Similar practical problems are associated with decentralized schemes. The most notable problem with decentralization is the lack of coordination between fully autonomous organizational subunits. In a decentralized scheme, there may be no actual coordination whatsoever, and the movement and development of the organization could be thought of as complexity generated by the interactions of the organization’s subunits rather than conscious coordination, i.e. mutual readjustment of plans, as such.

So the issue has once again been obfuscated from the degree of participation in social structures and movements to how parochial, or coherent social structures and movements should be. People like Luigi Fabbri had already dealt with this when it came out of the mouth of Bukharin.

One would need to know, for instance, what structural inadequacies debar a small community from managing a large unit, and how free contracts or free exchanges and so on are necessary obstacles to that. Thus, state communists imagine that ANARCHISTS ARE FOR SMALL SCALE DECENTRALISED PRODUCTION. Why small scale?

The belief is probably that decentralization of functions always and everywhere means falling production and that large scale production, the existence of vast associations of producers, is impossible unless it is centrally managed from a single, central office, in accordance with a single plan of management. Now that is infantile!

He continues:

Anarchists are strenuously opposed to the authoritarian, centralist spirit of government parties and all statist political thinking, which is centralist by its very nature. So they picture future social life on the basis of federalism, from the individual to the municipality, to the commune, to the region, to the nation, to the international, on the basis of solidarity and free agreement. And it is natural that this ideal should be reflected also in the organization of production, giving preference as far as possible, to a decentralized sort of organization; but this does not take the form of an absolute rule to be applied everywhere in every instance. A libertarian order would in itse1f, on the other hand, rule out the possibility of imposing such a unilateral solution.

To be sure, anarchists do reject the marxists' utopian idea of production organized in a centralized way (according to preconceived, unilateral criteria regulated by an all-seeing central office whose judgment is infallible. But the fact that they do not accept this absurd marxist solution does not mean they go to the opposite extreme, to the unilateral preconception of “small communes which engage only in small scale production” attributed to them by the pens of “scientific” communism. Quite the opposite: from 1890 onwards Kropotkin took as his point of departure “...the present condition of industries, where everything is interwoven and mutually dependent, where each aspect of production makes use of all the others”; and pointed to some of the broadest national and international organizations of production, distribution, public services and culture, as instances (duly modified) of possible anarchist communist organizations.

Vadim Damier, in his scholarly history of 20th century Anarcho-syndicalism, described the typical
Anarchist view as one which rejected the capitalist division of labor based on specialized managerial hierarchy and sought to replace it with freely associated groupings of producers collectively specialized and thus involved in multiple functions. This is one that is the best suited to a desirable society, not just from the point of view of creating egalitarian social structures, but also from the scientific vantage point. The authority of specialists is only relevant based on their "disinterest". They must be reasonably non-invested in the results of their research so as to objectively evaluate those findings. In the construction of a social order, and thus for Anarchist purposes a socialist world-economy, their expertise is essentially worthless as a result. Nobody is disinterested in the world social order to any sufficient degree.

Macnair In Your Anarchism? More likely than you think..

The author of the article does not seem to draw any inspiration from him, but when reading the section of the article trying to detail a non-bureaucratic centralism one slogan from a certain Marxist legal scholar kept ringing in my head; "CONTROL THE BUREAUCRATS!". The person I am referring to is one Mike Macnair, a legal scholar who writes on socialist politics. He wrote an article titled with the above slogan. His basic argument was that specialist managerial divisions of labor were necessary for revolutionary social structures, so the task was for the rank and file to control the administration; elect, pay, recall it, and more fundamentally regulate it's scope and functions.

M Black (the author of the article we are examining) differs from Macnair at least rhetorically. He is strident that we need to dispense with the bureaucrats to have a productive centralism, not merely "control" them. However, inspecting his specific proposal reveals that this difference is more rhetorical than substantive.

Consider a regional anarchist confederation as an example. The confederation may have a central body with discretion over the publication of a collective journal chronicling member organizations’ theoretical output and practical activities. Although effectively centralized, such a structure would not be usurping control over local issues from member organizations, nor would it be dictating anything to them. A flexible enough federation could define such centralized functions as it pleases, without necessarily endangering the autonomy of member organizations over their own processes and resources. The autonomy of member organizations enables them to mutually recognize the need for discretion to some centralized function – not every organization needs to concern itself with running its own journal – and thereby enable them to focus their attention on what really matters. This means that centralization can, in some instances, enable units to better manage the complexity generated by their own organizational processes and their interactions with other groupings.

Now lets look at Macnair for comparison.

The consequence is that the workers’ movement needs to work out the institutional forms which will make a professional bureaucracy answerable to the lay members. It needs to work that out in the existing organisations of the working class. It needs to learn how to control power. It needs to develop institutions that go far beyond the thin, impoverished parties of today, which do not address different aspects of the cultural life of the class. Within this network or web of institutions under capitalism the proletariat needs to learn how to create its own power over its full-time apparatus.

Both Black and Macnair are essentially putting forth the same program. Some functions need to be managed by specialists, but the democratic, participatory norms of the organization must define the
boundaries of the functions the managers are allowed to control. If Macnair's slogan is "control the bureaucrats!", Black's is "control the central bodies!", two slogans that are identical in practice. What else could the center be besides the specialist managers? Black rightly defines bureaucracy as an administrative layer above the rank and file, but what else is a "central body with discretion over" a function such as a publication? It seems Anarcho-Macnarism has arrived, I never thought I'd see the day...

So..Anarchist Centralism?

To be completely fair Black is not an "Anarcho-Macnairist", Macnair wasn't bringing anything new to the table. Marxists have always thought that specialist hierarchies, ironically those produced by capitalism, could be socially determined in a post-capitalist society. Instead of the managers facilitating the exploitation of labor they would facilitate the meeting of labor's needs. This is a pipe dream and the 19th century Anarchist Communists were right to call it out. All this does is graft industrialism on to a post-capitalist, supposedly socialist order. In reality there is no post-capitalist industrialism, industrial production is a feature of the capitalist world-economy. Thus, even if the Marxists could get their post-capitalist, specialist division of labor, it would carry with it none of the progressive characteristics of capitalist productive "revolutionizing". In fact, it would likely be much more parochial and stagnant.

With the endless accumulation of capital no longer the raison d'etre of the social system the inegalitarian social structures, including specialist divisions of labor, would once again become based on estates and vassals; the peasants vs the aristocracy. There would be no "controlling the bureaucrats" and certainly no practical balance between centralization and decentralization. Ironically black points to Feudal arrangements as those which can be hierarchical even when decentralized. Feudalism can only be said to be "decentral" if what you mean by this is "parochial", in the obfuscating Marxist tradition. There is much less than maximal participation in a system based on aristocrats exploiting the norod.

Credit should go to Black for having the guts to apply analytical rigor to the sacred cows of his own movements. The end result, however, ended up not being so rigorous. Instead we got an appeal to moderation, insisting that there is a "just right" amount of centralism, when the reality is that centralist social structures are basically incompatible with any kind of egalitarian socialism. Perplexingly black never actually engages with the decentralist Anarchist view. He only addresses the "market Anarchists" who typically read and write C4ss content. There is simply no mention of the concept of federalism in Bakunin, Kropotkin, or Puente, or it's implementation during the Spanish Civil War. This proposal is excluded by mere omission.

So..Anarchist Centralism? Na, I'll pass.


Posted By

Sep 30 2020 17:48


  • [i][b]the reality is that centralist social structures are basically incompatible with any kind of egalitarian socialism[/b][/i]

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Oct 3 2020 13:12

Reading the C4SS article, it seems the best advice you could give the author is to actually read about federalism, read Bakunin and Kropotkin and so on like you mention instead of Hayek and all the other random academics. I don't think they realise that by considering markets to be the pinnacle of "decentralism", they are basically stepping into the void of right-wing economists, eg Hayek and others. There's no actual argument there: they just say "we can reasonably argue that markets, taken as collections of agents making exchanges with one another, are decentralized systems". They don't actually say why it is reasonable to argue that markets are decentralised, they just say that we can reasonably argue it. Then it just proceeds into word salad about price signals and then ants.

If a "centralized organization need not imply hierarchy at all" then it's clearly not a centralised organisation we're talking about. How can one have centralism without hierarchy?

Oct 4 2020 12:33

Funnily enough, just blogged on this:

On Centralism and Federalism (and turncoats)

The whole point of federalism is to coordinate activity at the appropriate level and with the appropriate people/groups. Marxists tend to call any form of cordination "centralism" (see Lenin's comments on the Paris Commune in State and Revolution, for example). However, this suggests that they don't understand what federalism is -- and that they don't grasp the negative aspects of the centralism they argue for (unsurprisingly, for if they did then they would not argue for it).

Jan 15 2021 14:31

Ivysyn makes a good case against an easy target (which includes traditional marxist-leninists) as shurbu-kteer points out, but not sure all self-described anarchists have a very good understanding of what might be described as the best of anarcho-syndicalist 'federalism' in which ''co-ordinating activity at the appropriate level with the appropriate people'' inevitably requires a voluntary acceptance of a certain hierarchy of functions and the decisions made at higher levels of such functions Edit: (or if you prefer as between local and centrally organised functions and decisions). There is often a lot of unhelpful argument as between anarchist and marxist influenced communists which fails to get underneath the reality of their different use of the same terminology.