by Ernestan (Ernest Tanrez, 1898-1954).
Translated by Paul Sharkey from Tu es anarchiste (Editions du ‘Libertaire’, Paris, no date [circa 1948]). Illustrated by Richard Warren. Introduction by Nick Heath.
First English translation published by the Kate Sharpley Library 2009.
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Introduction. The activist writer: Ernestan
Ernestan was the pen name of Ernest Tanrez (1898-1954) who came from a middle class family, with a French speaking father and a Flemish mother. Deeply effected by the slaughter of the First World War, from 1921 he began writing for the Belgian libertarian press, for Bulletin Libertaire and l’Emancipateur and then for the international anarchist press (Le Libertaire, Combat Syndicaliste, CNT). He also published several pamphlets like Socialism Against Authority and the Libertarian Socialist Manifesto. To support the Spanish Revolution, he started a paper Rebellion. In 1940, taking refuge in France from the Nazi invasion, he was denounced to the Vichy government and spent 3 months in the concentration camp at Vernet. Freed from there, he returned to Belgium. There, he was arrested by the Gestapo as a supporter of the Communist Party (a joke, but a very unpleasant one) and interned. His imprisonment had a terrible effect on his health and he emerged physically diminished.
After the war he continued with his conferences where he explained his libertarian ideas and his collaboration with the anarchist press, writing for Volonta, the Italian paper and for Pensee et Action (Thought and Action) a review published in Brussels. His last pamphlet was The Value of Liberty, and the one before that was Tu es Anarchiste [The title literally reads You are an Anarchist, but I think You Anarchist, You! captures the mood better: PS]. In this pamphlet, Ernestan uses the technique developed by the Italian anarchist Malatesta in which a conversation takes place between two people. Here, an anarchist, Frank [originally Francois] meets an acquaintance, Pete [Pierre], who is vaguely socialist and out on strike. Francois talks about the great socialist ideas: anarchism is not disorganisation it IS organisation and free association, Leninism is the dictatorship of a minority, there can be no socialism without liberty. Little by little, Pete is convinced and ends up feeling more anarchist and revolutionary than Frank!
‘Writers for anarchism’ in Organise #64, Summer 2005.
You Anarchist, You!
Frank: Well, well, what’s happening here, Pete my old mate? I just happened by the front of the plant and I see all these folks looking a bit worked up. Looks like some sort of a strike. You work here, so you must know what’s going on?
Pete: To be honest, nobody’s too sure: we’ve been waiting out here for the past two hours and there’s utter confusion. The only thing we can say for certain is that yesterday afternoon the workshops came out on strike and this morning we don’t know whether the dispute is over or whether it’s “one out, all out”. They say there are talks being held with the management and, besides, the union committee is meeting. In short we are waiting and on tenterhooks. What’s your own guess?
Frank; Oh me? I’m not working myself, but I’m no striker. Quite the opposite I would say: the boss let me go, or so he told me, on account of my “subversive propaganda among the workforce“. Third time in a year I’ve had that sort of thanks.
Pete: That’s the life of the rebel for you.
Frank: I might be a subversive and a rebel like you say, but I still have to eat and take it from me, it wasn’t bravado on my part that led to my being shown the door. Unfortunately, in my line as a truck driver, the bosses care more about the machinery than about their human resources. All too often they forget that the driver, unlike the truck, has to eat and rest and sleep on a regular basis. But I don’t and I’m not afraid to tell them. So now I’m looking for work. But no matter. You were saying something about waiting, waiting for what?
Pete: Well, I’ll tell you: whatever the bosses and the trade union leadership decide.
Frank: Great fun, waiting. And, to be sure, the proletariat has been waiting for as long as it has been in existence… The full workforce of the plant is gathered here, so what’s keeping you from deciding for yourselves what needs doing? Are you not grown-up enough or something?
Pete: Please, this is no time for teasing. We all know they don’t call you “Frankie the Anarchist” for nothing. But that’s no reason to poke fun at us.
Frank: Too right I’m an anarchist. As for my poking fun at you all, you couldn’t be more wrong. Quite the opposite, I’m deadly serious. If you actually understood where we anarchists are coming from, you’d know that …
Pete: Listen, Frankie, you’re a sound guy, but, once and for all, give my head peace with your politics. Talk to me if you want about workers’ action, solidarity, whatever you please, but politics turns my stomach and, if you don’t mind my saying so, chum, I’m nothing these days, nothing. And proud of it.
Frank: No, no, you are something. For as long as I’ve known you and from what I’ve seen, I think I know you better than you think and better than you know yourself. And you are an anarchist.
Pete: Oh, here we go!
Frank: Yes, you are an honest, dyed-in-the-wool anarchist of the finest stripe and I can prove that wherever and whenever you like.
Pete: I’d like to see you try.
Frank: Right now, if you like. Listen, it’s still early in the day: let’s leave these others to await their instructions and counter-instructions from their bosses and trade union bosses. Why don’t you and I step over there to the grassy area where we can have a quiet chat and sort things out at our leisure.
Pete: All right, here I am and I’m listening: but before we start I’d like to clear up a misunderstanding. I was a bit short with you just now. I know you won’t have taken it to heart. I’m well aware that you’re not one of these politicians I just can’t bring myself to trust, but I bridled at the very idea of your trying to drag me on to that ground and into party political squabbles and I make no apology for it.
Frank: Go for it. Say whatever’s on your mind.
Pete: As you know my roots are in the country where I was raised until the age of 18 and I’ve been working in these parts for the past six years now. But you’ll also be aware that I haven’t been a shrinking violet: I have - passionately in fact - followed the rallies, read the papers, turned up for meetings and given one and all a fair hearing. But you see, deep down maybe I’m still the disgruntled peasant, but with me it all boils down to an issue of trust. Now, I’ve seen all the party leaders saying white one day and black the next and grey the day after that. I’ve heard them all making their promises and honouring none of them. I can see them noisily debating in Parliament and in front of the public but hob-nobbing behind the scenes and all the other lousy business you know as well as I do. And even though I cannot make head nor tail of it all, something tells me that all of these leaders and their parties are primarily out for themselves and that they look on workers as the poor buggers they pretend to serve but which they actually turn to their own service … I’ll leave it at that if you don’t mind. Which is why, even though I have a high regard for you, whenever I’ve heard you quoting such and such a programme and such and such an anarchist organization, I’ve said to myself that, honest and sincere though you may be, once you become powerful you’ll go the same way as the rest. Then again, where anarchists are concerned, there is a whole heap of other things to be considered …
Frank: True, where anarchists are concerned there is a huge number of things to know and say. But if I may, let’s try to take it a step at a time and let me address your main worries. No matter what you may say about anarchists, this much is certain: that it is nonsense to class them with other parties and groups who lobby for the workers’ trust. For the very simple reason that all of those parties share a single goal which guides their every move: the conquest of power, or at any rate, a share in power. Now, by definition, anarchists not only do not want to take power but want to do away with it. That seems plain enough to me.
Pete: Plain to be sure, but a bit too pat. What comes after that? You cannot seriously imagine a society that lacks direction, where everyone could do whatever might enter his head, where everybody and nobody was in control. I can therefore pretty much understand that in these conditions many might take anarchy to mean disorder, chaos and nonsense in charge.
Frank: Look, Pete, I’m sorry to find a man like you mouthing such things, but I don’t hold it against you as I am only too well aware of the confusion that reigns on this score. Power, government, authority, State, order, regime - all of these terms are used inter-changeably. Which is why, before we go any further, we have to have clarity, starting with an ABC approach to the social question. Let me remind you therefore that: 1. people live in society, 2. society implies organization, 3. the organization of society implies economic and administrative leadership. That said, the point is to know who is to lead and how. All political parties argue that this leadership should be provided through the vesting of authority in one faction or to some coalition of factions, whereas we anarchists declare ourselves opposed to authority and want to see society organized on a basis of equality and freedom.
Pete: Maybe so, but the fact remains that you yourself acknowledge that in an anarchist society as well as in any other there will, of necessity, be leadership. Meaning that there will be folk who give orders and folk who will have to obey, so there won’t really be any equality and freedom.
Frank: Yet again I can see how so many otherwise unprejudiced people remain blinded by words and traditions. Just think: ever since the world began it has been subject to systems of oppression and exploitation and the masters, all of the masters, pull the wool over their victims’ eyes by falsifying the basic facts and bandying words.
Pete: Sorry, but I think you’ll find I am not such a ninny. I didn’t need you to tell me there have always been profiteers and victims. Which is yet another reason why I have my misgivings about all political theories, even ones as novel as your own.
Frank: Your outburst doesn’t bother me because it shows precisely what you have failed to grasp. You concede that the people have always been oppressed and exploited, that there have always been masters and slaves, poor and rich. But how come there have always been people around who turn out to be victims and above all, how come they put up with being cast in the role of dupes?
Pete: Well, let’s see. Because they have always been the weaker ones, right?
Frank: Admit it, you only said that for something to say and it doesn’t stand up: given that in every society the oppressed have always infinitely outnumbered their oppressors. Let me tell you the truth. On a thousand and one pretexts, people have always let their freedom be snatched from them and have always believed that the authority that their masters take for themselves was legitimate and necessary. You’re telling me that that since some social arrangement is necessary, not everyone can be in charge or indulge in all manner of fantasy and other nonsense. Far be it from me to make any comparisons, but you remind me of that glorious dimwit who said to me once: “But in this anarchist society of yours, there’ll be no more concerts since it takes a leader to conduct an orchestra and you people want no leaders.”
Pete: That’s ridiculous.
Frank: That’s what I was hoping to get you to say: that it is ridiculous. And this is the point I want to get over to you. You see, Pete, authority is not the conductor’s baton, nor the expertise of the technician and his “edge” on the working man, nor is it the application of order and method to every realm of economic and social life. Authority - and let’s be clear about this - authority is the privileged wealth or power that individuals, classes, castes or parties have seized through trickery or force. Privileges that they use to oppress or exploit those whom they have stripped of their assets and their rights.
Pete: So, if I understand you correctly, anarchists see authority as the number one evil.
Frank: Precisely: in fact we pose the question in its proper terms. None of the other so-called social reformers have ever attacked anything more than the effects of the evil: we are alone in attacking the very principle, or, if you’d rather, attacking it at the roots. For all of the abuses, all the crimes, all the cruel injustices that have been visited upon people were only possible because certain people wielded authority and, first and foremost, State authority.
Pete: There we have it. I just knew that was where you were heading. I heard you once before saying things about the State that I couldn’t quite get my head around. I think I get the point now as to what authority actually is. But the State? You yourself say that there cannot be any society without some sort of a structure and public administration. Where does that leave us?
Frank: Pete, Pete, Pete… Do I have to rehearse all of the points I made to you concerning the traditional brainwashing about authority? Because if you agree that the authority principle is an evil, please tell me by what practical means those who wield authority stay in place and reap the benefits of their privileges?
Pete: I have no idea: by means of all that their authority implies, I suppose.
Frank: Spot on. Which is to say by means of the State which is the governing machinery or system that guarantees the privileges and on occasion creates them. The State is more than just what you have in mind: it is more than merely the administration of public services (in which workers can cope perfectly well without it). The State represents the centralization of power in the hands of politicians. These people may claim to be on the right, on the left or in the centre but when it comes right down to it they always serve the interests and ambitions of those who possess privileges on the basis of their wealth or social standing.
Pete: Which would account for all the shenanigans of the politicians and parties which, as I was saying before, leave a sour taste in my mouth.
Pete: But here, Frankie boy, pray tell who appoints these politicians who run the State? Why, the voters. There is a measure of democracy in this part of the world and the vast majority of voters are certainly not capitalists and the proof is in the fact that they vote for “the Left”. What do you have to say about that?
Frank: You’re not really telling me that with much conviction, are you? You are well aware of the extent of the farce whereby, every four years or so, the citizens are asked to accord a sort of blank cheque to some gent on whom most of them have never laid eyes. If one of these self-styled “representatives of the people” possessed even one half of the merits claimed for him, there would be only one thing left for him to do: step down and rejoin the struggle from among the people, on the people’s behalf. Indeed, how could anybody delude themselves as to the value of parliamentarism in this capitalist society of ours? As if anybody could believe that the country was actually being run by all the real forces and vested interests it contains. That the workers are to be included as one of those forces: the unfortunate fact is that as long as capitalism or the State endures, the proletariat will obviously be on the losing side since capitalism and the State have no reason for existing other than to exploit and oppress said proletariat.
Pete: It is true to say that, deep down, I have never been one to swallow the elections sham. But one thing gives me pause for thought. How come socialists of every hue have always entered into electoral coalitions? I can see how the spokesmen and leaders secure themselves cosy jobs or glory by participating in such coalitions, but I have known perfectly disinterested and genuine activists to throw themselves wholeheartedly into election campaigns.
Frank: Now here, my friend, we are touching upon a serious issue and a rather dismal history: on everything that sets us anarchists against all other socialist persuasions. Besides, these are matters that go back a long way, to the very formative stages of our doctrine and movement.
Pete: I don’t mind. For a start, just to take things from the beginning, where does this label “anarchist” come from?
Frank: Here’s a potted history: first you need to know that anarchism’s origins are absolutely inseparable from the origins of socialism in general. Obviously I am not about to go into every wheel and turn of those origins. Just know that by about 1865 the socialist movement consisted of a number of small scattered and divided groups which were nevertheless in agreement about doing away with man’s exploitation of his fellow man. And then in 1866 substantial unity was achieved through the formation of the First International. Everything was going swell until the time came to give serious consideration to the means whereby the move could be made from the capitalist to the socialist society. The majority, in keeping with their principles and common sense, asserted that the workers should use all means in order to overthrow the capitalist State and replace it with a workers’ association, that is, by economic and social activity’s being organized by and for the workers.
But one faction led by Karl Marx announced that whilst it was in one hundred per cent agreement as to the goal to be achieved, the workers should nevertheless and first set themselves up as political parties. That these parties were duty-bound to set their caps at the conquest of political power, meaning conquest of the State and, once in possession of State power, use this to build socialism.
Pete: Hang on a minute: you’ve lost me there. Since the number one target was the destruction of the capitalist State, once authority and privileges had been demolished, I don’t see why another State apparatus had to be built up … another monopolistic authority, with all that that entails?
Frank: You’ve hit the nail on the head and this is very basic, but Marx and his followers didn’t see it like that. They launched into such convoluted explanations that, to this day, there is still a debate about where they meant to finish up. If you are interested, I can let you have a mass of documents so that you can try to work it out. It is a question of a transitional state which is not a state but is a state at the same time. A State “whose first act is simultaneously its last“. A State that voluntarily brings the curtain down on itself … so to speak. In short, the upshot is that whilst Marx devised a philosophical system that has proved a great success, he was clueless as to the profoundly libertarian nature of socialism. It was in opposition to this ghastly marxist deviation that all those supporters of the First International who had kept faith with true socialist principles made their stand.
Pete: This all seems quite clear to me but it looks to me as if these are rather theoretical disputes of interest only to those ‘in the know’. I’d rather know what practical significance they might have.
Frank: Plainly, at the time these were only frictions between rather theoretical trends and yet, my friend, that is how there came to be a split in the socialist ranks, a split of incalculable significance. Thanks to some treacherous chicanery, the marxists eventually expelled the anarchists from the First International and then declared it wound up shortly after that. The marxists went one way and the libertarian socialists another and the latter soon came to be referred to as anarchists (the belief being that this would discredit them). But as it turned out, the name suited them down to the ground and they embraced it. Let me remind you that “anarchy” derives from the Greek “an” which is a negation and from “archos“, meaning power or authority.
Pete: Fine, but to judge by the turn that events then took, you must admit that the marxist, statist school of thought has had a hell of a lot more success than the anarchist tendency.
Frank: I have no problem admitting that, if you will admit that it’s hardly surprising. As soon as the marxist parties were reconstituted, they plunged headlong into what they termed political realism and then resorted to electioneering demagoguery and hotly pursuing power by hook or by crook. Scarcely surprising that the inexperienced proletarian masses should have let themselves be carried along by those who promised great times to come and who asked only one thing of them: their trust. Unfortunately also, the path to the conquest of power is a terribly slippery one. Between one compromise and another, the red politicians who set out to conquer revolutionary socialist power finished up in ministerial armchairs alongside bourgeois colleagues with whom they got on like a house on fire. Even to the extent that nearly every European capitalist state has at some point or another had a socialist head of government. Not that this was what Karl Marx had wanted, but it became inevitable the moment his political and statist thinking was taken on board.
Pete: And what were the anarchists doing all this time?
Frank: Now that, chum, it would be hard to sum up in just a few words. Remember that anarchism is not at all like authoritarian marxism, not some absolute system or sort of religion asking folk simply to believe and obey. Then again, the anarchists were unable to compete with other parties on quite the same terms. By which I mean equipping themselves with leaders, dragooning the workers and leading them by the nose with rabble-rousing promises. Wherever they could, the anarchists resisted the social-reformist, electioneering tide of marxist dictatorship by means of protests, educational effort and exemplary action. Don’t forget, too, that on account of their particularly uncompromising stance on principle and because of their actions, anarchists were especially targeted for repression. In many instances, they were virtually outlawed. Of course there was no ministerial easy chair as a reward for anarchist activity; no, there was more likely a stool in some dungeon. Understandably, this meant fewer dilettantes, but let’s move on. No matter how successful their adversaries and regardless of the mistakes that a few of their number may well have made, the fact remains that anarchists are alone, mark you, in having clung to their reason for existing and potential for the future despite all of the betrayals of socialism. What anarchists have managed to preserve within socialism is the sense of freedom. Look, Pete, forget everything I’ve said to you if you like, but don’t forget this one point: Socialism without freedom is first and foremost a crock and secondly, it’s slavery.
Pete: Am I glad to hear that being said! I mightn’t have been able to put it as well as you have, but, deep down, I’ve been thinking along those lines for some time now. Whenever I would hear all these political and trade union leaders and second-stringers spouting, I sometimes used to say to myself: what’s to become of us little guys, rank-and-filers, ‘five-eights’ as they say around here, once these guys have their way and become the masters? What then? Will we merely have swapped one boss for another? And, to be blunt, will our chief right be the right to slog away and keep our mouths shut?
Frank: And, get this, the threat you foresee in the future is already upon us. Can you not see even now that in addition to the private capitalist boss lining up against the workers we already have a new master in the shape of what they call the referee State or employer State?
Pete: You’ve only to look at what’s happening to the workers in the nationalized industries, the railwaymen, the post office workers, and so on, not to mention government meddling in every social dispute. And let it be said, too, that it claims to be intervening ‘in the general interest’.
Frank: Always the same spiel with the very same outcome as far as the workers are concerned too. In reality, what we are witnessing is a sort of a revolution-in-reverse, with a very simple scenario. To recapitulate:
Stage One: Liberal capitalism is booming, flourishing and generating fabulous wealth. The State keeps its distance, other than to play the cop and maintain order.
Stage Two: Capitalism is beset by disastrous crises, with the State doing its best to intervene to prop up the floundering system and keep the workers sweet with promises and hand-outs.
Stage Three: Capitalism practically goes bust. In many instances the State is obliged to step into its shoes or to engage in a sort of makeshift expertism [dirigisme] with the likelihood of its taking over completely from a liberal capitalism that is on its last legs.
Pete: And then what?
Frank: Well, unless it responds with vigour, the proletariat is going to be rolled back and defeated by a new exploitation and oppression arrangement, namely Statism. Let me say it again: that system will introduce new arrangements for castes and classes, rich and poor, beneficiaries and victims.
Frank: You really seem to be getting the point now. Can it be that you’re not quite so irked now as you were that I should have described you as an anarchist?
Pete: No indeed and, to be honest, I’m amazed to find that, up to this point, I am as much an anarchist as you are. However, there are still lots of points I need cleared up. For example, there’s this thing which has been niggling me for ages and which I must put to you.
For as long as I’ve known you, I’ve found you a likable, genuine sort of a guy, but, to be honest, when you told me you were an anarchist, well, I’ll admit it cooled me off a bit. I can remember that whenever we, back home in the country, would mention anarchists, the word was practically synonymous with thieves and murderers. And even later on, when I had a bit more wit and had read a bit more, ‘anarchist’ dredged up the idea of bombs and daggers in my mind. In fact, whilst it is true that anarchists have often used violence, the way they have done so makes me squirm and just defies my understanding, especially if I judge by your own ideas which are such a far cry from that sort of thing.
Frank: You’re right. The anarchist ideal and the anarchist message do not at all imply the use of violence, let alone admire it. The only thing is that I would ask you to make an effort to shrug off all such hyperbole and reactionary-inspired penny dreadful novelistic notions designed to do all they can to blacken anarchists.
The fact remains that, especially towards the end of the 19th century, there was a flurry of outrages carried out by anarchists. Let me make the point right off that this was not exclusive to anarchists. The Russian revolutionary socialists in tsarist days took this sort of thing to such lengths as to make a cult of it. But how are we to explain away those anarchist attacks? For one thing, they were virtually all the handiwork of a single individual and, as a result, each instance stands alone. However, in general terms, we may say that these deeds were carried out by men eager to lay down an individual revolutionary marker, meaning that they did not want to wait around for the masses to act and their hope was that their act might act as propaganda and set an example. Personally, I reckon that, broadly speaking, their outlook was wrong. I think anarchists were driven to it as a result of disappointments and because of the enormous gulf between their ideal and the reality of society. Those anarchists were not quite equal to the requirements of a struggle that demanded patience, organization and experience. Hence these angry deeds of spectacularly violent protest. In short, it had to do with tactics, circumstances and personalities rather than matters of principle. Meaning that each and every one of us is free to form our own opinions of them.
Pete: I’m happy that that is the case and I have to tell you that I had long since tossed overboard any such laughable prejudices about anarchists being some sort of angry nutcases revelling in disorder.
Frank: By the way, let me tell you that as an anarchist myself I flatter myself that I am an ardent advocate of order … real order, that is. Which is why we are so determined in our opposition to the current set-up which amounts only to systematic, scandalous disorder.
Pete: I think I get the point you are making, but maybe you could explain yourself a bit better.
Frank: Let’s see … order is more than simply the triumph of force. Is order the right name for a regime in which millions of unemployed were ground into poverty when there was supposedly plenty? Or a set-up like Nazism which undertook to use crematoria to dispose of everybody who irritated it? Or the totalitarian State capitalism we find in Russia?
Real order, the order that anarchists crave, can only be a feature of a set-up based on solidarity and on harmony between human inclinations and aspirations.
Pete: That goes without saying and we shall come back to that anon, but let me take this opportunity to digress here on the subject of Russia, to which you’ve just referred. Let it be said that I no more admire the Russian regime than you do, yet it seems to me a serious matter that I’d like cleared up once and for all. To be blunt about it: what are we to make of the situation, where did it spring from and what potential does it have, and so on?
Frank: Now there, my friend, you’ve hit on an issue about which I could talk to you for hours if I wanted to. But the Bolshevist tragedy has been played out long enough now for us to be able to arrive at an overall appreciation.
In 1917 there was a revolt in Russia by the soldiers, workers and peasants who had had their fill of the war and who had also had enough of the utter ineptitude and corruption of tsarist rule. Moreover, in Russia there was a range of revolutionary socialist parties and groups of varying persuasions as well as a tiny party that called itself “Bolshevist” and which was marxist and statist, which is to say, authoritarian. Thanks to circumstances and not picky about the means it employed, it managed to seize power. Once in place, it went on to use force to pick off its rivals and then a goodly number of the “Old Bolsheviks”. So much so that the outcome was an absolute dictatorship of Stalin and his cronies.
After which the regime had to carry through to its awful conclusions: it turned its back on internationalist socialism and quite bluntly became, at home as well as abroad, a new imperialism. Which is how the Russian workers were turned into factory-fodder and cannon-fodder in the service of the State. And how, in the minds of the Russian leaders, the world’s proletariat became an army of pawns serving Russian foreign policy. As for the communist parties elsewhere, they are only committees of political agitators slavishly obedient to Stalin. They have been more or less successful depending on the naiveté of the proletariat they have been targeting. In short, it could be said that in fact the vocation of communist parties is to stymie and sabotage the real international workers’ movement.
Pete: What you’ve just said has of course cleared up a lot of points for me, but what I was really after was for you to expand upon your practical alternatives to such statist regimes and dictatorships.
Frank: We can do that.
Pete: That’s great because I was just about to say that everything you’ve told me about your ideal and principles struck a chord with me, but my primary interest is in finding out if your theories are feasible, if all these grand, beautiful principles can actually be put into practice. And I have to tell you straight off, my friend, that it strikes me that most people seem to be very incapable of knowing how to live in freedom.
Frank: That doesn’t surprise me in the least and in fact I’m glad to hear it. It is proof to me that you have a proper grasp of the beauty and truth of our ideas. Which is the very reason why reality as it stands scares you. Turning this society of ours into a libertarian society actually looks like a superhuman task to you. So let me address your concerns: One, it is a matter not of sentiment but of practical necessity. Two, we don’t aim to achieve a perfect society overnight and, anyway, I’d be hard put to it to describe it to you. The important point is to sweep existing regimes away and lay the foundations of an anarchist social organization and one that will carry on evolving in that direction.
Pete: But the anarchist ideal is the very opposite of every other system, they being authoritarian. You really must take care lest you too lapse into some sort of anarchist reformism that would swallow all manner of compromises like all the phony socialists we denounce.
Frank: You’ve hit the nail right on the head there. You’re much more of an anarchist than I am. But rest assured that what I’ve been saying was designed to show you that we are not simply dreamers living in the clouds, but have a very hard-headed approach to the question of practicalities.
To keep it clear and keep it short, you should know that a libertarian socialist system stands for three main things:
One: Recognition of the rights of the individual.
Two: Wholesale, direct proletarian democracy.
Three: Federalism in practice.
Pete: I think I can see that all three of these fit together and complement one another: but, starting with Number One, these individual rights you are talking about, wasn’t there a “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen” back in 1789?
Frank: But that famous declaration had all manner of things in it. Unfortunately, the worst criticism you can level against it is that the equality it proclaimed was equality before the law and that said law recognized a right to impound society’s wealth and use it to exploit the poor. You’ll have twigged right away that it was a sham and hypocrisy to proclaim, say, that the unemployed worker was the equal of the property-owning bigwig or banker.
No, what we recognize are the rights of man as a worker and as a human being, which is to say, a right to the full product of his labours (following deductions for social services) and the right to do what he will with his person. Meaning that no authority - no matter what the supposedly higher interest it may invoke - has the right to control an individual’s liberty or life. The only limit to one man’s freedom being the freedom of others.
Pete: That, of course, was what needed saying first of all, but you are still talking in terms of principles and I’d rather you turned the focus to practical organizational means.
Frank: Still principles of course, but you’ll admit that they needed spelling out and, besides, it is not just a matter of theory, as your impatience appeared to be making you say. These are positive social rights that make the individual the root of society and which assert that society is made to serve the individual and not the other way around. You’ll appreciate that this notion is radically opposed to all those systems wherein the individual is always called upon to make sacrifices for the sake of State, Homeland, Race or Nation, class or a whole heap of things, actual or illusory. And rest assured that unless we make up our minds to proclaim this new human social precept, there will never be any shortage of pretexts on which the common folk will be called upon to make sacrifices. Where none is available in the here and now, they can always invoke the happiness of generations yet unborn.
Pete: Reminds of the days when I was in catechism class when the priest would talk to us about the wonders of the afterlife and teach us that justice was not for this world.
Frank: And you’ll doubtless have found since then that, with the odd variation, that’s pretty much the message coming from the lay preachers of every state and every party. But let’s get back to what concerns us.
Pete: Yes: to condition number two of the anarchist society.
Frank: Well, it’s one approach and here I must dwell on the terms used. I was careful to say wholesale, direct proletarian democracy because there is no word so badly misrepresented and exploited as this word ‘democracy’.
It derives from ‘demos’, meaning ‘the people’ so it means: people’s power. In actuality, democracy has never been that and has only ever been the power of some faction exercising its power over the people. In the best of democracies, there was only ever some more or less complicated election game I referred to earlier, designed simply to give the people the illusion that they were the masters.
Here, yet again, libertarians are merely taking up and firmly reiterating what was expressly included in socialist principles. We want governance of the people for the people and by the people. The liberation of the workers is going to be the doing of the workers themselves and the essential thing is that they should stay free. For as soon as the direction or oversight of economic and social life slip out of the workers’ hands, there can no longer be any socialism worthy of the name.
Pete: So, as far as I can make out, we are talking about the thoroughgoing reorganization of society which that requires. Which holds no terrors for me but I am more worried that, if the workers are to be running everything, they should have the required competency. Which is where I am a bit skeptical, my friend. Which is not to say, of course, that I reject your schemes, but it’s not going to happen all by itself.
Frank: Let me say straight away that, even though your comment is valid, I have never claimed that the building of a libertarian socialist society “will happen all by itself”, the way you say. Nothing happens all by itself, any more than the regimes we endure: except that they are inescapably leading us towards the direst catastrophe. And if the workers are incapable of lifting a finger to help themselves …
Pete: Sorry but that is not quite what I was meaning to say. I was merely raising the issue of the workers’ ability to manage and give a lead.
Frank: We’ll come to that. I say again that the democracy we are talking about does not means some factory hand playing at being an engineer or some semi-literate guy becoming head bookkeeper. That is something you’d be more likely to find under capitalist rule or under dictatorship. That’s where you’d see some know-nothing but phrase-mongering demagogue popping up as railways minister or minister for fine arts. Our democracy, by contrast, awards a man only whatever responsibility he is competent to perform.
Pete: Spot on … a worker then?
Frank: I argue that even the most ignorant worker knows one thing - the work he does. And I say that he should have some say in anything relating to his work. But let me take a more general example. Who is it that runs a big capitalist industrial firm at present?
Pete: Why … its technicians and engineers.
Frank: And presiding over them?
Pete: The manager of course.
Frank: And over him?
Pete: I’ve no idea. It depends.
Frank: The details may very well vary but ultimately the answer is plain. Over the workers, the technicians and managers there is a board of directors, a bank, a trust or some supreme body controlling the firm’s capital. Now, most of these real masters of the firm never play any part in its real working and sometimes some of them have never even set foot in the premises. So is it nonsense to imagine that these top management bodies might profitable be manned by delegates and experts appointed by the workforce of the firm involved?
Pete: Absolutely not.
Frank: And would it be nonsensical if, by means of an organization which I cannot describe in detail, these different company councils were to be connected in such a way as to ensure that production as a whole is coordinated, within a single industrial sector and then every sector?
Pete: Obviously I see no problem and on this score it strikes me that the trade unions are especially well-equipped for the function. A libertarian socialist economic organization thus strikes me as perfectly feasible. But economics is not everything. There’s the whole life of society and every realm of human activity, the general collective interest and so on.
Frank: Hold on, please. A couple of minutes from now you’ll be asking me for a complete, specific, detailed blueprint for the society of the future. I’m not going to follow you down that path. I’ve spelled out our general principles. In order to implement them we must start by overthrowing the economic powers-that-be in the shape of capitalism and the political authority for which the State stands. We must then organize society in such a way that authority does not bounce back in some new form. Which is why we want all the economic and social management agencies to be directly appointed by the workers and to remain under their permanent supervision. That much, I imagine, is clear. As for predicting the detailed operation of that society and describing it in advance, I refuse to do that. The details will not be determined by you or by me. The workers, grappling with the facts and with their own experience under their belts will do that.
Pete: You’re right there, but what do you expect? It’s only human and people have always had this tendency to imagine the future, especially when it looks filled with promise. But I can see how I was stopping you from moving on to organization principle number three, federalism.
Frank: Actually anarchist organizational principle number three flows naturally from our ideas as a whole. It consists simply of adopting a tack opposite to the expected Statism, and Statism is, by definition, centralist.
Pete: I get the point that you’re against centralism but there will always be a need to coordinate production, administration and all that …
Frank: Unwittingly you have just hit the nail right on the head. For whilst I hate play on words, it is important that we see eye to eye about what they mean. Your word was coordinating and that’s the term best fitted to a definition of federalism. In fact, under the authority and exploitation system, all power comes from the top down, which is to say flows from a centre that presides over the entire life of society: under a federalist arrangement, social life is nothing other than coordination of all of the activities of economic, administrative, cultural and other groups. To put that another way, whereas authoritarian rule is founded upon master-servant relationships, a libertarian federalist arrangement is rooted in association, every single member of which enjoys the same rights. And note that this approach to society - coordination - is the only one that is a perfect fit for human and social, and I dare say, scientific reality.
Pete: Oh please don’t go off into some scientific explanation on my account for there’s every chance it’ll just go over my head.
Frank: Hear me out nevertheless, even though it might at first glance seem to be wandering off the point a bit. I would even venture to say that libertarian federalist organization is a natural thing and you can prove that by answering my questions. Here goes with question number one. What is the central organ bringing order and control to your physical existence?
Pete: I couldn’t really say … there are several …
Frank: That’s the point. There are several, which is to say, there is no single one. No, there’s no bodily organ in charge of your life: neither the brain, nor the heart nor the lungs, for these are all equally important and crucial for your existence. In other words, your life is coordination of what are rightly termed your vital organs.
Now to question number two. Where is and of what does the power that governs the movements of the stars consist?
Pete: How would I know, chum? I’m no bleeding astronomer.
Frank: I’m no more an astronomer than you are, but take it from me, if the answer were known, we would know it too. The answer is the same again: there is none. There is no more authority to be found in the heavens than in your body. The stars, the suns, the planets - including the one we live on - operate according to coordinated forces with not one of those billions of stars exclusively empowered to order the lives or movements of the rest.
If you want to mull that over for a moment or two, you’ll definitely discover a profound meaning there. At the very least it will equip you to bite the nose off the pretentious idiots who will tell you that there can be no order in the absence of authority. You have only to answer them: “Look at man, look at nature and the universe.” That will also teach the marxist pseudo-scientists that anarchism is infinitely more scientific than their claptrap. Besides, we can come back to that another day.
Pete: All of which strikes me as very interesting but I appreciate that it’s going to take me more than a day to get it straight in my head and I still have quite a few questions to put to you.
Frank: I should hope so and I hope too that you won’t be daunted by that. If you believed that in one hour you were gong to learn everything you need to know, if you believed that I was going to come up with the definitive, absolute answer to the problems of human society just like that, you’d be wasting your time here with me. I am speaking to you like this because I can see you are a man and not some sort of “sucker”. For suckers there are the election posters. “For a country that is prosperous, free and happy“, vote Such-and-Such. They promise the farmers that they can sell their wheat for a good price, the workers that they’ll have cheap bread and the bakers that they’ll be raking it in. But we anarchists have no promises to offer. All we can say to the workers is that the only way of running their affairs properly is to run them for themselves. That naturally this requires some effort on their part and in every regard. But let me stop there: I would only be repeating myself. Let’s get back to your questions.
Pete: Let me get back to the basics, to the problem of freedom. All in all, I have a handle on the foundations you want society to be built on and I understand your principles and methods are fair and practicable and the very opposite of disorder.
Frank: Which just goes to show, by the way, the extent to which it is gibberish to talk about the current chaos being “capitalist anarchy”. As if capitalism lacked authority when it is actually one of the most terrifying forms of it.
Pete: I was saying that whilst I believe in the worthiness of libertarian socialism, meaning socialist anarchism, I am still uneasy. I wonder if such a society can survive and whether it might not be nurturing within itself forces that will resurrect authority, the State, exploitation and oppression. To put that another way: will the libertarian society be able to defend itself against its enemies?
Frank: My dear Pete, I’m happy to hear you say you’re an anarchist, which, by the way, I knew you were, but I have to tell you that you’ve jumped the gun a bit there. You’re forgetting that the advent of a libertarian arrangement represents a complete break with the past. That there has never been a people organized into an authority-free society. Granting, however, that such a society might witness attempts to bring back oppression and exploitation, such attempts would run up against opposition from the very people whom they would like to be exploiting and oppressing.
Pete: Goes without saying.
Frank: And what would these would-be authoritarians be relying on, what force? What means would they have of bringing pressure to bear? What sanctions? What resources?
Pete: I honestly don’t know.
Frank: Which is why I was right when I said just now that, in eradicating the authority principle from society, anarchism is eradicating not an effect of a blight but its root cause.
Pete: Forgive me if I’ve forced you to repeat what I now have a complete handle on. I believe, furthermore, that that might be enough for today. Our conversation has been a real eye-opener for me. Whilst I have often had glimpses of all this, I’d never have been able to achieve clarity without your assistance.
But the time has come to wind things up. I have still to learn what there is for me to do. No doubt my duty would be to get involved in your struggle to achieve success for your ideal. Yet I wonder whether people like myself are cut out for that?
Frank: Why wouldn’t you be?
Pete: You know me. I’m no public speaker. I’m no writer, have no experience and it seems to me I have none of the qualities of a militant.
Frank: Stop right there. For a second I thought you were going to come out with this sentence that always rocks me back on my heels: “I am only a worker.”
Pete: I didn’t say that.
Frank: Maybe not but aren’t you a man? With a heart, a brain and arms, like all the rest. So when are you and your like going to cast aside your spirit of submission and slavish mentality and assert your human dignity?
Pete: Don’t take the needle. You’ve misunderstood me. I was merely seeking your advice and trying to find out if a man like me would be at home in your ranks, whether he might make a difference there?
Frank: Did you ever doubt it? As long as I’ve known you, I’ve known that you belonged among us. What do you make of our organizations? Could they be anything other than free organizations filled with free people? Besides, haven’t I been blunt enough to get you to understand that such freedom does not mean that just about anybody can join us and do just about anything? We all see eye to eye about the principles you know about and about our goal, which you also know about. As for the rest, whatever we do is a product of our freely and fraternally given consent. That’s all I am suggesting, friend. Become one of us and in our ranks, playing your part in our common endeavour, you’ll find no profit and no glory but you will know the profound joys of working for the only path to salvation still left open to the proletariat and humanity.
Pete: It’s a deal. Where and when can I meet up with you and your friends again?
Ernestan (Ernest Tanrez): Tu es anarchiste (Editions du ‘Libertaire’, Paris, no date [circa 1948])
*Ernest Tanrez aka Ernestan, Belgian anarchist (1898-1954).
The title reads You are an Anarchist, but I think You Anarchist You! captures the mood better.
dirigisme: Dirigisme is the practice of a centrally driven planned economy (capitalist or communist) with the government and experts setting plans and targets for core economic sectors.
Translated by: Paul Sharkey.