In Defense of A/S: Centralism and Decentralism

In Defense of A/S: Centralism and Decentralism

discussing the Anarcho-syndicalist approach to centralism

This is the third in a series of posts here on the Antisystemic blog which defend Anarcho-syndicalism from various criticisms. This edition of "In Defense of A/S" will deal with the issue of "centralism". Anarcho-syndicalism and Anarchism more broadly are often criticized for supposedly fetishizing decentralization. The Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin, in his critique of Anarchism, states that Anarchists advocate small scale market economies rather than working class control of society at large.1 I have personally encountered criticisms of Anarchism and Anarcho-syndicalism which contend that there can not be a rationally planned system of production without top down central planning which Anarchism and Anarcho-syndicalism are presumed to be allergic to.

Anarcho-syndicalism advocates workers' self-management, which means that workers collectively organize their affairs in free associations. Thus Anarcho-syndicalists also advocate self-managed social movements, that is social movements which are collectively organized by their members in free associations. This leads Anarcho-syndicalists to reject the concentration of power either in society, or in social movements. Anarcho-syndicalists are advocates of self-management because we understand that a hierarchical division of labor where processes are organized by a few at the top are incompatible with a free and equal society. Workers' self-management is designed to eliminate the oppressive division of labor in production that allows the capitalist class to extract surplus produced by the workers while self-managed movements are designed to put organizing efforts in the hands of the masses of people rather than a few professional activists and bureaucrats.

There are certainly some leftists who can not conceive of a social movement, or society which is self-managed. Lets address the argument that there cannot be a rationally planned system of production without top down planning via a central committee, or something similar. A rationally planned system of production would require the organization of production according to the needs of those which depend on it, the members of society at large. Central planning, where those at the top make decisions for those at the bottom, does not produce this type of organization. If production is to be organized by those at the top, rather than with the input of every person at every level equally, then it is taken out of the hands of society at large and put at the service of a group of elites doing the planning. Self-management is a requirement for a rationally planned system of production because the latter requires equal input at every level of production, thus production being organized through a series of free associations and democratic decision making.

The Marxist thinkers Lenin and Kautsky argued against self-managed movements on the basis that workers would only achieve a trade union consciousness. Lenin argued that socialist ideas were only expressed through the intellectuals of "the propertied classes" rather than the workers' themselves. He and Kautsky thus argued that a cadre, or political party of Marxist theorists would need to guide workers to a Marxian analysis of the world.2 This estimation of working class consciousness is wrong. All we have to do to prove this is look at the Russian Revolution which delivered Lenin and the Bolsheviks to power. It was made in large part by masses of peasants who had been armed during the first World War taking over land from the gentry.3 In addition Russian workers mobilized in the soviet councils and the red army.4 It was the Bolsheviks who in 1918 eroded the democratic organization of the soviets so that by the time of the Stalin era they were mere mechanisms of the state bureaucracy.5 The Bolsheviks certainly considered themselves the vanguard of the revolution in Russia, but originally, as Moshe Lewin points out, the Bolsheviks were not the leaders of the soviets. That distinction went to the Social Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks, who themselves were certainly not any kind of revolutionary vanguard given their obsession with the fictional prospect of establishing a bourgeois democracy. Yet the soviets were the only thing close to a stable form of governance in Russia during the revolutionary months.6

The other flaw in the analysis of Lenin and Kautsky is that the "intellectuals of the propertied classes" are not a group with any general interest in radical ideas. Intellectuals in the world capitalist system are members of "cadres" who are allocated some of the fruits of capital accumulation in exchange for extolling the ideology of the system. In this way intellectuals, as Wallerstein points out, are members of the capitalist class.7

Let us turn to Bukharin's argument. There were a subset of individualist Anarchists in Europe, such as Emile Armand, who advocated something like small scale exchange of goods between producers, but the history of class struggle Anarchism, i.e. libertarian socialism, is much different. Anarcho-syndcialists advocate a working class movement organized for the take over of production and communities by the working class. In this sense the opposite of what Bukharin claims is true. Bukharin bases his argument on the fact that Anarchists reject the Marxist concept of "dictatorship of the proletariat", in which the working class seizes state power in order to transform society. As Luigi Fabbri argues in his rebuttal to Bukharin, Anarchists are not in opposition to working class power, but attempts to conquer the state.

Anarchists have always regarded all such forms of free organisation of the proletariat and of the revolution as acceptable, despite those who nonsensically describe anarchists as being opposed to mass organisations and accuse them of steering clear of participation in organised mass activity "on principle". The truth of the matter is quite different. Anarchists see no incompatibility between the broad, collective action of the great masses and the more restricted activity of their free groups: far from it, they even strive to link the latter with the former so as to give it as far as possible the proper revolutionary sense of direction. And if anarchists do often discuss and criticise those proletarian organisations led by their opponents, they are not thereby fighting against organisation as such, but only against its taking a reformist, legalistic, authoritarian and collaborationist direction. - this being something, by the way, which the authoritarian communists likewise engage in everywhere where they themselves are not the leaders of the proletarian organisation.

According to anarchists, the essence of the state is not (as the authoritarian communists imagine) the mechanical centralisation of production - which is a different issue, that we spoke of earlier - but, rather, centralisation of power OR TO PUT IT ANOTHER WAY THE COERCIVE AUTHORITY of which the state enjoys the monopoly, in that organisation of violence known as "government"; in the hierarchical despotism, juridical, police, and military despotism that imposes its laws on everyone, defends the privileges of the propertied class and creates others of its own.

-Luigi Fabbri.8

1. Anarchy and Scientific Communism, N. Bukharin
2. What Is To Be Done, V.I. Lenin
3. The Soviet Century, M. Lewin
4. Ibid, From The Russian Revolution of 1917 To Stalinist Totalitarianism, A. Guillamon
5. Samual Farber points this out in his book on Cuba since the revolution of 1959.
6. The Soviet Century, M. Lewin
7. Historical Capitalism, I. Wallerstein
8. Anarchy and "Scientific" Communism, Luigi Fabbri

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Nov 1 2019 04:32


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Nov 1 2019 10:10

The opening text seems oversimplified. How about then some centralisation from the bottom upwards rather than the top down?, maintaining some form of division of labour that isn't necessarily oppressive, and of course a hierarchical organisational structure of society which operates in a two way process? Surely 'centralisation' and 'decentralisation' are both relevant descriptions for different aspects of social organisation rather than exclusive opposites in practice? If we are talking here about a libertarian communist society on a global scale and not some potentially competitive decentralised local self-managed communities?

Jan 6 2020 15:51


I'm not sure how'd you have a Libertarian Communist social order with social hierarchy, nor social hierarchy that "operates in a two way process". In the article I specified that what is meant by "centralisation" and "decentralisation" is what matters. Thus the only view espoused in the article is that centralism as the accumulation of power in the hands of those at the top be it capitalists, or members of a politburo, should be rejected for decentralization in the form of collective control of decision making.