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Notes on Anarchist Organization

category international | anarchist movement | opinion / analysis author Sunday April 06, 2008 16:01author by Karl Blythe Report this post to the editors

In this essay I will examine some selections from the "Organizational Platform" together with some of the writings of Nestor Makhno, as a starting point in the question of anarchist organization. So as to avoid lengthy explanations of historical context, I will assume the reader is familiar with most of these materials. Note that this is not meant as a comprehensive analysis of the Platform, so much as a look at certain of its shortcomings or weaknesses which I would like to repair. After going through these I will then conclude with some general propositions as to how we might construct and/or improve our organization, taking off from my discussion of the Organizational Platform.

Notes on Anarchist Organization

In this essay I will examine some selections from the Organizational Platform together with some of the writings of Nestor Makhno, as a starting point in the question of anarchist organization. So as to avoid lengthy explanations of historical context, I will assume the reader is familiar with most of these materials. For those who are not, I refer as a main source and starting point for research to the work of Alexandre Skirda (Facing the Enemy: A History of Anarchist Organization from Proudhon to May 1968, with a translation and discussion of the Platform) and to The Struggle Against the State and Other Essays by Makhno. Note that this is not meant as a comprehensive analysis of the Platform, so much as a look at certain of its shortcomings or weaknesses which I would like to repair. After going through these I will then conclude with some general propositions as to how we might construct and/or improve our organization, taking off from my discussion of the Organizational Platform.

For the reasons stated above, I will avoid a longwinded description of the Platform, and simply jump ahead into my analysis. Of particular interest for the purposes of this essay is the “organizational part” at the end of the Platform, given that the principles outlined in it have more or less defined “Platformist” ideas since then. Strange to say, this section is in my view where the Platform suffers most of its shortcomings, which is unfortunate for a document of such value and importance. The first two principles of ideological and tactical unity (i.e. unity of theory and practice) are rather vaguely defined, with minimal elaboration on what these principles would consist of in practice. In particular, it is unclear as to whether ideology being “common to all the persons and organizations affiliated to the General Union” is a matter of internalized belief or formal accordance. Nor does it present any clear method as to how ideological unity is to be achieved beyond a mere formality along the lines of some “revolutionary catechism.”

Tactical unity may in fact be lumped together with the third principle of collective responsibility, since neither one means much without the other and the two principles serve more or less the same purpose. Here I believe that Makhno (one of the main authors of the Platform) explained the idea rather better in two separate essays. In his essay “Anarchism and Our Times,” he writes [1]:

Personally, I am inclined to accept as the most appropriate and most necessary organizational format … a Union of anarchists constructed on the basis of the principles of collective discipline and concerted direction of all anarchist forces …. The activities of local organizers can be adapted, as far as possible, to suit local conditions: however, such activities must, unfailingly, be consonant with the pattern of the Union of anarchists covering the whole country.
Here we find perhaps the best summary of what the Platform aims to achieve (although it should be noted that elsewhere the authors specify that the “General Union of Anarchists” would not encompass all anarchists, but simply those in agreement with its basic principles)—namely, to generalize and coordinate effective patterns and methods of local resistance, otherwise confined to isolated groups and individuals. That is in fact the very essence of revolutionary organization—without it there is no coherent direction and victory is impossible.

Makhno also writes in his essay “On Revolutionary Discipline”: “I take revolutionary discipline to mean the self-discipline of the individual, set in the context of a strictly prescribed collective activity equally incumbent upon all.” This is an idea of fundamental importance for those who wish to understand the difference between submission and free self-direction as proposed by anarchists. Yet this idea is also inconsistent with the definition of “collective responsibility” in the Platform, when it states: “Revolutionary social activity … cannot be based upon the personal responsibility of individual militants…,” followed by the proposal that “the Union as a body will be answerable for the revolutionary and political activity of its members” and “likewise, each member will be answerable for the … activity of the Union as a whole.”

The second part of this principle is not necessarily problematic—it is simply rather vague, much like the definition of “ideological unity.” However, to say that revolutionary activity cannot be based on personal responsibility stands in flat contradiction with elementary anarchist principles—principles which Makhno makes perfectly clear throughout his essays (see for instance “The ABC of the Revolutionary Anarchist,” where he states that “In anarchism, Right means the responsibility of the individual…” etc.)—and specifically conflicts with his own definition of revolutionary discipline as quoted above. Further in the essay he writes:

That is why I am speaking about a libertarian organization that rests upon the principle of fraternal discipline. Such an organization would lead to the crucial understanding between all of the living forces of revolutionary anarchism and would assist it in taking its rightful place in the struggle of Labor against Capital.
While here it is uncertain what exactly is meant by “fraternal discipline,” we might point to Bakuninist line of “ongoing fraternal monitoring of each by all” (mentioned several times by Skirda) as a precedent to this concept. Assuming the word “fraternal” to indicate a spirit of mutual aid and camaraderie, it seems to me that this “principle of fraternal discipline,” together with the above definition of revolutionary discipline, provides a much better solution to the problem of collective responsibility. In fact, it is in keeping with the statement that “the Union as a body will be answerable for the revolutionary and political activity of its members” and vice versa. However, it clearly stands apart from (and in my view above) the idea that “revolutionary activity cannot be based upon personal responsibility,” since it effectively combines both personal and collective responsibility.

This brings us to the fourth principle of federalism. The first thing to be said here is that we must distinguish between the bourgeois notion of federalism and a conception of anarchist or libertarian federalism which has unfortunately been poorly defined for the most part. In the case of the Platform, however, we are provided something of a general definition of (presumably anarchist) federalism, as follows:

Federalism means free agreement of individuals and organizations upon collective endeavor geared towards a common objective. Now, such agreement and federative union based thereon become reality … only if the essential condition is fulfilled that all parties to the agreement and to the Union fully honor the obligations they assume and abide by the decisions reached in common.
In introducing this concept, it is also stated (a little more typically):
The system of centralization relies upon the stunting of the spirit of criticism, initiative and independence of every individual and upon the masses’ blind obedience to the “center.” … Contrary to centralism, anarchism has always professed … the principle of federalism, which reconciles the individual’s or organization’s independence … with service to the common cause.
In regard to the above definition of federalism, there are two things to be said. First is that the idea of free federation (i.e. free association) as essentially put above, is itself fundamental to anarchist principles. Furthermore, this concept is in full agreement with the idea of revolutionary discipline as discussed earlier. On the other hand, there is some confusion between the notion of free federation as an organizing process, and “federalism” as an organizational format. There is a difference between the two, as there is also a difference between the “individual’s independence” and the “organization’s independence” (although they are often lumped together). I personally would criticize the orthodox anarchist emphasis on autonomy of organizations within federations—which is merely a technical issue, and no different from bourgeois federalist models—and the simplistic lumping of “centralist” organizations into the authoritarian category (as we can observe in the second quotation). This seems to me something of an inconsistency of logic within the Platform, which in one place speaks of “unitary” organization (when discussing tactical unity), and in the next place denounces all forms of centralism as authoritarian and calls instead for “federalism.” The choice of words is confusing, in part because in all other circles and in any standard definition “unitary” would be considered as substantially no different from “centralist,” and federalism would be viewed as conflicting with either “unitary” or “centralist” organization.

On a similar note, I would argue that not all forms of centralism stunt “the spirit of criticism, initiative and independence.” Theoretically speaking, the Leninist notion of “democratic centralism” achieves exactly what the Platform ascribes to federalism: combines individual initiative and freedom with organizational discipline and unity. The problem with Bolshevism (an issue very relevant to the authors of the Platform) when it comes to internal organization lay largely in the fact that it did not really practice democratic so much as bureaucratic centralism. In fact, it must be said that the ideas of “democratic centralism” and “federalism” (as defined in the Platform —“free agreement of individuals and organizations upon collective endeavor”), and for that matter revolutionary discipline as described by Makhno, when applied to individual groups, are practically identical except in terminology.

As I see it, the key to an effective revolutionary organization is to combine certain elements of libertarian federalism (free federation of individuals and groups) with the theoretical sense of democratic centralism (e.g. “freedom of speech, unity of action”). This means that the emphasis must not be placed on the autonomy of component organizations but on the coordination of the whole organization through direct correspondence of groups with each other and with the central organization (including the “Executive Committee” and the “Congress of the General Union”). As far as central organization goes, I am inclined to favor direct election of delegates and membership votes on general policy as a more participatory and democratic method, insofar as we should favor such formal institutions in the first place. While one would think this was a given for a libertarian organization, unfortunately many anarchist federations have resorted instead to systems of indirect representation said to assure greater autonomy to component organizations. In any case, whatever the intentions of such “federalist” groupings, it seems to me that an organization which at all levels and in its entirety is guided more directly by its base is always superior to one that is controlled and guided by a minority (as is the nature of indirect representation, given the filtering out process that occurs when leadership is separated from the base).

Additionally, I would argue that regional sub-organizations (i.e. component organizations above the local level) ought to be reduced as far as possible (if not outright dismissed) to the intermediary role of channeling local initiative into the central organization. (To put it another way, organizational direction should be “polarized” between the local and central levels, thus minimizing or eliminating the “middle man” level.) In these ways (more direct participation and “polarization” of leadership) the power of local groups will be increased while providing an effective central organization to coordinate and generalize local activities. This will be further aided by devising and elaborating an ideological and practical program to guide the organization in its various actions—all of this in order to reduce bureaucracy while improving cohesion and discipline. All that is needed beyond this for an effective organization is a thorough understanding and internalization of our ideals and methods, and a personalized sense of purpose and commitment by every militant (i.e. revolutionary consciousness).

This raises the question with which I conclude this essay—and which I hope to discuss more thoroughly at some other time—of how we are to go about developing such a program as well as instill a personal understanding of our principles within each militant. This also relates back to my earlier question on “ideological unity” as called for in the Platform (see second paragraph). I now propose an answer to all of these questions: through ongoing patient study of revolutionary history, to explain and to compare with our present circumstances. More than that, it will also help us to explain and elaborate our program in concrete terms for those outside our movement. Not only is this the basis of our program, but it is the key to instilling a revolutionary consciousness that stands above mere individual self-interest. We might also ask how this sort of practice can be systematized beyond the lone research of individuals. To that my answer is, by preparing and putting together study groups to read and discuss the historical movements in which we are rooted, while putting them in a relatable context. Those partaking in such study groups who come to our same conclusions and wish to put them into practice, will find in them an excellent point of departure in forming their own specifically anarchist groups. From there it is only a matter of connecting with the rest of the movement and to the masses by involving ourselves in the struggles of the day.


1. I have underlined some parts of quotations to emphasize those aspects which I am specifically addressing.

author by Javierpublication date Tue Apr 08, 2008 05:14author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Many times anarchist communists have recognized that the "Workers Cause" group of russian anarchists abroad did not pretend to have a complete, clear and definitve answer to all the theoretical, political and organizational problems that are to be found in the anarchist movement if it is to take part in the workers struggle for the social revolution, for socialism and freedom but merely to provide with a first draft for discussion that would kickstart a process for the constitution of a General Union of anarchists wich would undoubtedly perfect it(1). However, the next logical step, that is criticizing the platform and its limitations is yet to be made. This article I think is a good step in the rigth direction as it tackled the problems and unclarities in the platform from the same viewpoint of its authors, making constructive criticisms and proposals and taking notice of the extensive and deep debate that ensued the Platform`s publication.

I agree with the author on focusing on the Organizational part as it is historically the one wich gave place to the polemics and accusations of autoritharianism as well as the one most unclear on its answers.

The point on ideological and tactical unity being poorly explained on the Platform is correct to me. i think we should interpret them as generally speaking a common policy for the whole organization decided directly by the whole organization. Thus, the recognition of class struggle as the main field of work for anarchists, the tactic of anarchists towards the unions, the practical social reconstruction program for the revolution, are matters in wich the General union should collectively discuss and reach a common position. I think it is very well explained in the Supplement to the Organizational Platform (Questions and Answers) available online(2). In the first point "THE QUESTION OF MAJORITY AND MINORITY IN THE ANARCHIST MOVEMENT " it clearly explains how they see the relation between the whole of the General Union and its executive comitees at all levels, the different alternatives for an Organization in the face of internal disagreements and how (in any of the three outcomes) the final decission must be made by the whole organization in contradiction to common leninist practice. Wothy of note are the comments on the importance of unity as the basis and reason of the General Union. But not unity out of submission to the will of a centre, a selection of alledgedly the best cadre, but an active participacion in the discussion and the decissions over common positions.

I agree completely on the authors interpretation of revolutionary discipline and the relation between personal and collective responsibility. I interpret the later responsibility towards the collective both expressed in the participation in policy making and in acting publiclly and politically in accordance to it. Also I too indeed find the plaform lacking in these aspects but I beleive that the answers are quite clear in the subsequent debates. If when it was originally published there were reasons to debate it due to the deficiencies of the document, the lack of knowledge of these discussions and the problems of communication (no internet plus repression) it certainly is a lot different rigth now and if the problem persists it is out of ignorance on the one hand and lack of care at discussing things with no serious study of the matter on the other.

I howevery think that the author misses the point on the issue of Federalism wich is to me one of the biggest misunderstandings common in anarchism.

The last paragraph on the matter in the Platform is the key to understand what it means in organizational terms to the authors in my opinion:

"As a result, the federalist type of anarchist organization, while acknowledging the right of every member of the organization to independence, freedom of opinion, personal initiative and individual liberty, entrusts each member with specific organizational duties, requiring that these be duly performed and that decisions jointly made also be put into effect."

Another similar quote is made by the author. It is true that many anarchists have a different interpretation of federalism closer to the idea of informal organizaing that is not organizing into an organization but simply relating, keeping ties, communication, etc wether in a sythesist type of organization or outside it (this is defended historically by the individualists and recently by the insurrectionists). That contradiction on the interpretation of federalism between different anarchist schools of thougth is the reason to me behind confusing federalism with "free federation of individuals and groups". This definition it is something inevitable and thus pointless, common even to leninist parties as no group nor individual can be forced to join an organization. The confussion is even clearer when democratic centralism is defined in the following line and in opposition to federalism as "freedom of speech, unity of action" wich is nothing but a statement of intention. The problem is not one of freedom or autonomy in the context of an organization, as the authors of the Platform explain in the Supplement referenced above they have no doubts that the whole organization should have the last say in matters of disagreements. The distinction between federalism and centralism strives in who takes that decission and who sets policy. Centralism means moving the center of gravity of decission making from the base, that is the whole organization, to higher more reduced bodies and indeed that is standard marxist-leninist (and military and bureaucratical) practice no matter that Lenin defined the aims of democratic centralism as "freedom of speech, unity of action". This has been how Bakunin and many other remarkable militants interpreted federalism both before, during and after Lenin. It is not a matter of autonomy or freedom of the individual or organization from the whole organization (he is obviously allowed to leave but that is hardly an organizational principle) but how are decissions reached if by the whole organization or a center. This is indeed the debate that cuased the split of the First International. Coordinating bodies and mandated delegates should thus be executive in function as the platform proposes and not centralist in nature. Even having mechanisms to answer rapidly to ongoing events in the lines of pre-established policy does not contradict this altough it clearly is not done because it is seen as a better way of doing things but as a needed and unavoidable exception. The exception becomes the rule and the rule becomes a farce in democratic centralism because of the bureaucratic practice (and organizational structure) of most if not all leninist parties. I recognize that the overall hegemony of leninism means that the leninist left vocabulary is more widely known and used and indeed the alledged intentions of Lenin when formulating Democratic Centralism asre confused with the actual structure he proposed (wich was centralist) and so it is very hard to argue that what we propose is federalism and its not democratic centralism but we are correct both historically and actually because of real leninist practice.

As a comrade recently put it:

"The anarchist system combines elaborate structures of directly democratic policy formation, mandated delegates, operational autonomy and a wide range of oversight, checks and balances, all conducted in a completely transparent and accountable way.

The Leninist idea of the leadership combines policy formation, executive functions and operational control in a small group of people, without any usable mechanisms for scrutiny or accountability.

To take the two concepts and draw an equals sign between them is to take an elaborate palace and equate it with a cardboard box - they are both dwellings after all."

I agree with the rejection of indirect methods of decission making as undemocratic but I also beleive that over long distances and for large groups of people the subdivision of an organization is needed to avoid it becoming bureaucratic. But I see it in a different way from the author. For example, the CNT had regionals with its secretariats (as the authors of the platform suggest in one of the documents) and these regionals indeed has their newspapers and their congress wich set regional policy in regional matters always in accord with the more general policy line of the whole organization. This without making it indirectly democratic as there could be (and were) national congresses of union delegates and not only national congresses of regional delegates (one or the other would be called depending on urgency and the polemics it arose to settle the issue). Also it is not unheard of congress rulings being submitted to the base for the direct vote of all militants instead of being assumed as policy. There are cases where a congress ellaborates two different and even contradictory positions to be decided by the base. thus it is not a matter of middlemans wich are to be avoided but of operational and political flexibility and creating intermediary stances of coordination.

I look forward to the nest articles on this series comrade, I think it will help us to clarify and discuss concepts in a much needed way.

All quotations except when noted are from the latest versions of the documents available in, the Makhno Archive:

(1) In their words:

Organizational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists (Draft) - Introduction
"The only approach which can lead to a solution of the general organizational problem is, as we see it, the recruitment of anarchism's active militants on the basis of specific theoretic, tactical and organizational positions, which is to say on the basis of a more or less perfected, homogeneous programme.

Drawing up such a programme is one of the primary tasks which the social struggle of recent decades demands of anarchists. And it is to this task that the Group of Russian Anarchists Abroad has dedicated a substantial part of its efforts.

The “Organizational Platform” published below represents the outline, the skeleton of such a programme and must serve as the first step towards gathering anarchist forces into a single active, revolutionary anarchist collective capable of struggle: the General Union of Anarchists.

We have no illusions about the various deficiencies in the platform. As in any new, practical and, at the same time, critical departure, there are undoubtedly gaps in the platform. It may be that certain essential positions have been left out of the platform, or that certain others have not been developed adequately, or that still others may be too detailed or repetitive. All of this is possible, but that is not the issue. What is important is that the groundwork be laid for a general organization, and that aim is achieved, to the necessary extent, by this platform. It is the task of the general collective - the General Anarchist Union - to further elaborate and improve the platform so as to turn it into a complete programme for the whole anarchist movement."

(2) See

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