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An anarchist critique of horizontalism

category international | the left | opinion / analysis author Monday February 24, 2014 20:51author by Andrew Flood - WSM - personal opinion Report this post to the editors

Horizontalism is an emerging term used to describe the key common characteristics of the waves of rebellion of the last decade. Occupy in 2011 was the peak to date but the term Horizontalism itself appears to originate the rebellion in Argentina after the 2001 banking crisis there. Marina Sitrin in her book on that rebellion says the term (in Spanish obviously) was used to describe the neighborhood, workplace & unemployed assemblies that emerged to form "social movements seeking self-management, autonomy and direct democracy."

Image by Author:Meeting in Gezi Park, June 2013


Horizontalism is a practice rather than a theory, which is to say in the various writings that use the term it has been described in practice rather than theorised as an ideal. It's easiest to see the practice in the context of the assembly-based movements that have come and gone since the rebellion in Argentina. Particularly of course the wave that built up from 2010 on in North Africa, Southern Europe and then went global in late 2011 with Occupy. What these movements had in common was not a single theoretical underlay but a set of developed common practices and to some extent common ways of looking at the world. I'm using the past tense there but of course they all still have some existence, with Gezi park this summer being a fresh blossoming somewhat along that common theme - although it lacked a single assembly. But because these are not formal organisations or even theoretical themes they largely exist in the moment even if in between such moments relatively small groups continue to organise under their various banners between those moments. This is both strength and a weakness.

Key point of Horizontalism

In writing about Occupy Sitrin listed the following characteristics which also apply generally across horizontalist movements

“To open spaces for people to voice their concerns and desires—and to do so in a directly democratic way."
"People do not feel represented by the governments that claim to speak in their name"
“Attempting to prefigure that future society in their present social relationships."
“They want the power of corporations contained and even broken, access to housing and education expanded, and austerity programs and war ended"
“Food, legal support, and medical care"

In a more critical look at Horizontalism, partially replying to Sitrin, David Marcus defined it as "part of a much larger shift in the scale and plane of Western politics: a turn toward more local and horizontal patterns of life, a growing skepticism toward the institutions of the state, and an increasing desire to seek out greater realms of personal freedom"

The qualification 'western' is probably unneeded as the movements in Egypt & Turkey share many of these same characteristics. Marxists and neo-reformists are increasingly inclined to see all these tendencies as a problem in challenging capitalism; anarchists on the other hand would broadly welcome them.

Horizontalism & Anarchism

Horizontalism includes aspects that are in parallel with anarchist methodology, in particular the emphasis on direct democracy and direct action. It also includes aspects of what are sometimes incorrectly described as anarchist methods, in particular consensus decision making, which actually entered radical politics via Quaker influence on the peace movement of the 60's. But most participants at least start off unaware of those historical links and WSM members involved in Occupy found that participants often imagined that these methods are entirely new concepts that were being invented by them on the spot. That is they were unaware of the very long history of experimentation through the anarchist and other movements that preceded their experiments

At least in the context of the Occupies we had some involvement in this was a significant weakness. A certain amount of skill and knowledge is required to make assembly processes effective. The inventing it from scratch approach resulted in the 'tyranny of structurelessness' problems of the loudest voices tending to dominate assemblies and dynamics of bullying, in group formation and various power games filling in the vacuum. Inevitably these reproduce the patterns of our patriarchal, racist society - if left unchecked conversations will tend to be almost completely dominated by white men who are comfortable in playing out their expected gender role. In places this produced such unhealthy dynamics that Post Occupy this has allowed authoritarian outfits like the SWP to claim that horizontal decision making in general always leads to such outcomes and so is 'not really democratic'.

Perhaps the greatest weakness of these horizontalist movements is that they either lack a class analysis, as was the case with Gezi Park, or replace it with a pretty crude wealth/corruption/corporations concept that lends itself a little too easily too conspiratorial and reformist approaches to fighting for change. This tends to reduce what is wrong to 'evil people making evil decisions’ and the idea that if this is exposed to the light of day change will come about.

The whole 1% meme could be a useful starting point to explain capitalism & class from and to move people away from seeing the posh/poor neighborhood down the road as the problem (a grim example of all politics being local). But it can also be a starting point for a conversation about how the Rothschild’s controls the world via secret meetings at Bilderberg and spraying us all with fluoride from jet planes. As was found at Occupy challenging these and the associated Freeman ideas becomes quite frustrating once you don't have the shorthand of the historic tradition of the left as a common point of origin under which they can quickly be dismissed as the latest manifestation of old and frequently anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

The question of winning

Horizontalism also differs from anarchism in that it doesn't have either a vision of what a free society might look like or a process to move us from here to there. I don't means some sort of detailed blueprint, I'm skeptical enough of the value of tiny number of people devoting time to planning a future for the entire world at that level of detail. I mean at the level of the picture anarchists share of a world where workplace assemblies take over the workplaces and neighbor assemblies take over and manage communities. It need not be detailed for it to be clearly enormously different to the world we live in today.

Anarchist processes to get from here to there tend to involve a process of mass participation (e.g. syndicalist unions) followed by a moment of insurrection, sometimes pictured as a general strike, sometimes as an armed populace on the streets but actually most often a blend of the two. While there is much that can be discussed around this, are armed insurrections even viable in the age of the helicopter gunship, it clearly is a transformative moment that can be imagined. What does that moment look like for Horizontalism? What would it look like to win?

Horizontalism also dispenses with and is often hostile to the idea of formal revolutionary organisation. Having seen how revolutionary movements tend to interact with social movements over many years we can sympathises with the reasons for this and around Occupy we decided to respect the bans on political organisation banners and paper sales at Occupy events. Technology has made this approach feasible to hold alongside trying to build mass movements for change. Once individuals who wanted such movements too emerge had to co-operate with revolutionary organisations because they needed access to their organisation resources, their press and their communication networks.

Parties knew this and thus didn't have to modify their behavior on the basis of accumulated negative experience; some organisations like the SWP instead turned isolating those who refused to tolerate negative behavior into an advanced art form. But that period appears to be over as the various tools of the Internet and mobile communications greatly weaken the link between mass organisations before mass communication. The old style party form has been spending its accumulated capital to resist that process, and as a result is starting to disintegrate as recruitment dries up and funds are exhausted. In extreme cases it faces hostility from without and rebellion from within as its own membership use these new technologies to route communications around the formal leadership.

Anarchism has a different approach to both horizontalism and the party form. Anarchist organisation was of course also about finding a way to fill a need for mass communication, but it also arose as recognition of a need to transmit lessons across time and space in a way that they would arrive and be trusted. And the need for a common platform around which solidarity could be built across distances and different experience and cultures. In the period since Occupy I've probably had conversations with anarchists who were involved in the region of twenty Occupies and are broadly share the WSM’s politics. All of these conversations quickly went to quite a deep level of critique because it was simple for us to quickly establish our own political and organisational common ground.

Reform by riot & electoralism

Paul Mason writes that "the power of the horizontalist movements is, first, their replicability by people who know nothing about theory, and secondly, their success in breaking down the hierarchies that seek to contain them. They are exposed to a montage of ideas, in a way that the structured, difficult-to-conquer knowledge of the 1970s and 1980s did not allow (...) The big question for horizontalist movements is that as long as you don’t articulate against power, you’re basically doing what somebody has called "reform by riot" a guy in a hoodie goes to jail for a year so that a guy in a suit can get his law through parliament"

Now Mason wants to deploy that argument for the creation of a new syndicalist party somewhat crudely in the tradition of De Leon or James Connolly. That is for a broad electoral formation that would provide Horizontalism with the vision of a new society and the electoral method it needs to bring that about. Not something we’d agree with. But he still has a point about ‘reform by riot’. Horizontalism without a vision and method for revolution simply provides then protest fodder behind which once one government can be replaced with another. That indeed is one of the lessons of the experiences of Argentina in 2001, the slogan 'they all must go' meant government after government went but after a while stability was reimposed and new stable governments came into power and stayed there.

A key way of understanding this is to understand that Horizontalism as constructed lacks power except the power of the individual bodies putting themselves in harm's way. Perhaps that is why nudity commonly spontaneously arises as a tactic. Anarchism has expressions of power in the form of the general strike or the people armed. Horizontalisms power consists of mobilising numbers to occupy spaces and block routes. In Argentina the power of the unemployed assemblies rested only in the power derived from blocking motorways and bringing the flow of commerce to a halt. With Occupy Wall Street the intention to block the Brooklyn Bridge was one key flash point, as were the attempts to block Wall Street itself. As long as the numbers can be sustained these can be powerful tactics but they are tactics of protest and not of transformation.

What anarchism offers as an alternative to Horizontalism is a vision and method that doesn't have simply repeat the endless pattern of government following government. We have a sense of what it might feel like to win even if the route from where we are to that point has yet to be discovered.

WORDS & IMAGE Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )

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author by Jan Makandalpublication date Mon Apr 07, 2014 21:05Report this post to the editors

I think the term Horizontalism is a created concept. No historical construct is related to it. It does falls under a dogmatic approach.

What is Dogmatism?
February 2014

Dogmatism is a manifestation of theoretical and/or ideological deficiencies, such as idealism (metaphysics), sectarianism, elitism or followership. It’s a significant obstacle to working class emancipation, which we must identify and comprehend in order to combat it. There are several variants and expressions, including:

A) The practice of conflating our concepts with reality (for example, arguing that the concept of democracy is the power of the people, and really existed in ancient Greece even though that was a slave society).
B) The attempt to make a concept become reality (for the dogmatist, God exists not as a concept but as reality).
C) The belief that a concept can create reality (utopian schemes).
D) The attempt to fit a concept into a reality (for example, the idea that we can shape our social relations to fit concepts like direct democracy or horizontalism, which have never existed historically except as concepts).
E) The belief in dogma: “unchangeable, immutable truths” that are to be taken for granted, unquestioningly, and that are not founded in reality. (Like quoting from some historically acclaimed figure to prove one’s point in a debate, as if that quote itself is enough to “prove” one’s point of view, as if historical conditions have not changed…)

Reality has an independent existence outside of our minds. Objective reality is the basis for constructing concepts, not the other way around. A concept does not precede objective reality, but is based on reality that is already manifested, whether in nature (the weather), socially (class struggle), or systems of thought (science, philosophy). For example, our thought process did not create DNA, but has simply developed a concept for it through our rationalization and centralization. We construct concepts to generalize and centralize patterns so we can recognize and interpret phenomena. For example, instead of apprehending each individual cluster of water vapor as a completely new phenomenon, the concept of “cloud” can help us interpret it based on our previous observations and experiences of other clouds.

In the development of our thought process, humanity has so far produced two main approaches. The foundation of both is the same: objective reality. In an antagonistic class divided society, these contrasting methods of thinking generally correspond to the conflicting interests of different classes. Each serves a specific class for its reproduction.

1) The metaphysical (idealist) approach asserts that our thought process creates objective reality. (The term "metaphysical" has various uses and definitions; it is taken here to mean “beyond physical,” referring to the belief that the mind, thought, soul, etc. supersedes objective reality). Usually, this approach to understanding all external manifestations of reality assigns their construction to a superior power that guides our mind. The metaphysical mode of thinking supports the interests of the class or classes that dominate society, by fostering belief in dogma, the acceptance of one’s role in society and the permanent reproduction of class relations. Religion, with its creation of God or gods, is an example of this.

2) The dialectical materialist approach strives to identify and comprehend the internal functioning that gives life to objective phenomena, especially the fundamental motor (contradiction) that allows for their reproduction. The dialectical materialist mode of thinking advances the interests of the dominated classes by fostering the appropriation of reality (especially social reality) as it actually exists outside our thought process, which opens the door for its transformation. For example, class struggle is a materialist conception of the relations of production in any class divided society.

Objective reality exists even when we are unaware of specific phenomena. Species of fish are swimming in the seas that we have no knowledge of. We don’t talk about them, define them or elaborate on their history, because our systems of senses have not encountered them. Objective reality precedes our thought process; our initial encounter with any phenomenon is usually made with our perception, the sensory level of our thought process enabled by our systems of senses: hearing, touch, sight, smell.

Both the metaphysical and the dialectical materialist modes of thinking begin with that first encounter. The idealist will assign a definition to a phenomenon in that initial moment, whereas the dialectical materialist will continue to another level of the thought process: rationalization.

Reality has its own motion, its own dynamic, and we initiate a system of thinking to interpret it. The process of rationalization is the constant development of our thought process from perceptual to rational, during the appropriation of reality. There is no permanency in this process except for the continuous reproduction of objective reality.

When a phenomenon no longer exists, it becomes simply historical evidence. At that point we can only learn from it, since the process of rationalization will no longer be needed. Though the clash between feudalism and capitalism still plays an important role in many social formations dominated by imperialism and in major conflicts worldwide, in most advanced capitalist social formations we don’t discuss feudalism as a current system, because it is no longer the dominant form of social organization. We merely continue to observe and note some remnants of feudalism, which are mostly in the superstructural field. We can identify this field as: conservatism.

Conservatism is an approach that refuses to identify the advancement of reality and the corresponding need for our thought process to advance with it. To assert that a concept has not incurred any changes in 300 years means that our thought process is stuck in reverse. For example, to define democracy as “the power of the people” is a conservative approach, because the mind is creating a reality that is totally distinct from (and even antagonistic to) objective reality. In a class divided society, in which one or more classes dominate others, how is it possible that everything that regulates this relation of domination is equally dispersed? How can slaves share power with the master? How can the exploited share the wealth that is being produced from their exploitation?

The other side of the same metaphysical coin, not fundamentally different from conservatism, is liberalism. Liberalism (also a term that has various uses and definitions) is an approach that superficially and pragmatically acknowledges the development of reality, and adapts to it for the purpose of satisfying the overall objective of capital (which promotes the valorization of everything that it comes across).

Liberalism and conservatism are both tendencies of dogmatism. In the final analysis, dogmatism is a metaphysical (idealist) way of thinking that serves the interests of the class or classes that dominate society. This fact is based on the incapacity of dogmatists not only to give an interpretation to the objective reality, but also to offer any guide to deal with it—because what they perceive as reality is not reality.

Because interpreting reality is a continuous process of rationalization, our thought process is contextual and conjunctural. Most of the time we will never be able to fully comprehend reality, though sometimes we can appropriate certain tendencies of particular phenomena and predefine their development. This was the case when Lenin identified tendencies and interpreted the development of capitalism toward its supreme stage of imperialism, and when Marx defined the theory of value. But these are rare occasions, and thus can’t be established as repetitive models of a thought process.

Usually, most attempts to extend our interpretations beyond the current context and conjuncture (make predictions) have proven to be erroneous. Marx predicted that the development of the productive forces creating a society of abundance would automatically lead to socialism. Clearly, it did not (even if the process of constructing abundance objectively facilitated socialized forms of social organization). This was based on an erroneous appreciation by Marx (and others) of the relationship between relations of production and productive forces. The determinant role of the relations of production has since been demonstrated.

Another danger in the process of rationalization is to prematurely jump to conclusions. Often, conclusions are drawn during the sensory/perceptual stage of our thought process or in the midst of a debate. For example calling people dogmatic (or any other label) in the midst of a debate (at the perceptual stage of thinking) is itself a dogmatic approach. When there is not enough evidence for that conclusion, then this is a case of confusing the ideas in one’s head with reality. This approach usually impedes any further development of thinking, because a conclusion has already been made.

The process of rationalization is a method of interpreting objective reality in any field of science. Discerning a pattern in the behavior of apples falling from trees (they always go down, never up or sideways, unless other external phenomenon, like wind, pertinently affect the dominant form of the apple's trajectory) led to the theory of gravity. The theory of resistance originated from labor practices. Peoples struggling for their reproduction gave us class struggle. These theories weren’t created out of thin air; they came from our interpretation of reality including our social practices.

Interpretations can be idealist (metaphysical) or materialist. In our initial, sensory contact with objective reality, both tendencies are present. Idealism will lead to an interpretation external to reality, while dialectical materialism will attempt to appropriate the internal functioning of that reality. Dialectical materialism is the constant struggle of the materialist field against the idealist field for the triumph of materialism.

The idealist field is permanent, making it dogmatic. Its permanence necessitates the reproduction of class divided society, of class dominance. The materialist field is constant but not permanent; we can enter a river at the same place and time of day for 100 years, but it will never be the same river. The materialist field is for radical change.

No fundamental difference exists between the left dogmatic practice of casting the analysis of previous revolutionaries in stone, and the right dogmatic attachment to the Bible. The interpretation of democracy by left dogmatists is no different from its interpretation by right dogmatists. Both are creating reality from ideas existing solely in their heads.

Left dogmatists will sooner or later transition to right dogmatism. We have seen many proponents of a mechanical transition to a non-wage society entering the same practice as the reactionary organized labor establishment in the US. In the worst cases, they are transporting the same traditions from the Labor Day of establishment labor organizations to May Day, in an attempt to replace revolutionary working class ideology with liberalism, for the permanency of capitalism.

For the working class, dogmatism is a dangerous approach in theory and in practice. It is bourgeois theory in our midst. Dogmatists are incapable of formulating a political line correspondent to reality, because they have no interpretation of the internal fundamental functioning of reality. Whatever approach they do offer is metaphysical, based on superficial elements or on the merely external aspects and expressions of internal contradictions (rather than based on the actual contradictions themselves). Any interpretation that is based on superficiality, on external expression, will only lead to reformism. History has already proven this many times.

Theory is not reality, but an interpretation of it. Theory is not a creation from nothing, but is constructed by our efforts to understand reality. It is constructed in the dialectical relation of theory and practice, determined and validated by practice.

Revolutionary and progressive militants and movements must constantly struggle against dogmatism. Dogmatism is a manifestation of capitalist ideological domination, a mode of thinking of and for the capitalist class, and serves nothing but the reproduction and the continued valorization of capital.

The continuous production of proletarian theory is for our constantly developing understanding of objective reality, leading and allowing us to deal with undeniably opposite and antagonistic phenomena: the process of capital accumulation and the process of proletarian struggle. Dialectical materialism is crucial for the victory of proletarian struggle, or at least to allow history to advance in the interest of the masses. It is, by far, the most advanced revolutionary method of interpreting objective reality.

author by Andrewpublication date Wed Apr 09, 2014 19:06Report this post to the editors

I'd argue dogmatism is the tendency to imagine a very long cut & paste of a generalised argument is a reply to a piece dealing with quite a specific set of movements. Seriously you haven't even added a single line try to relate it to this context!

author by Jan Makandalpublication date Sun Apr 13, 2014 01:38Report this post to the editors

But I did. My first line was to show a level of unity with your assessment on horizontalism. At least, I was agreeing with you and putting in the context of a dogma. As you correctly observed it "Horizontalism is a practice rather than a theory, which is to say in the various writings that use the term it has been described in practice rather than theorised as an ideal" and for me, it is a manifestation of dogmatism. It falls under those categories in my piece:
B) The attempt to make a concept become reality (for the dogmatist, God exists not as a concept but as reality).
C) The belief that a concept can create reality (utopian schemes).
D) The attempt to fit a concept into a reality (for example, the idea that we can shape our social relations to fit concepts like direct democracy or horizontalism.

Many other concepts you used such as direct democracy are as well in the same category of created concept and making them a dogma. They are a dogma since no history or historical evidence are confirming the existence of these concepts. It is dogmatist since it is trying to fit an idea to a reality. The concept of God is a dogma as well since it basically shared the same content of attempting to fit an idea to a reality. My posting of Dogmatism was simply to put in context my agreement with some of the content of your post. Concept must be originated in our attempt to analyze a reality. So, they must have an historical value to them. We can't create them. We must construct them.
Horizontalism as many other dogma than become a formula to mechanically address tendencies that appears in practice such as bureaucraticism.
No need to be defensive when my approach was done on in spirit of unity to consolidate an agreement with you and my attempt to put in context.

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