Revolutionary Organization: Horizontal or Vertical?

If we are really to take seriously the hope that 2011 has opened a new revolutionary era, expressed above in ‘Radical Emergence Year One,’ it behooves us to return to the question of ‘what happens after our revolution succeeds?’ This means investigating the underlying causes that make liberating mass revolutions degenerate and eventually turn into their own opposites. It means thinking of ways to avoid such perils. So we must ask ourselves, ‘given the democratic, egalitarian, participative society we seek as an end, what means are best suited to get us there?’ My argument is that in politics the means themselves determine the end in the last analysis. So we can rephrase our question as follows: ‘What form(s) of organization(s) will best enable the working people of the planet to unite, overthrow the existing order, take charge of the economy, reclaim the political sphere and create an egalitarian world?’

Since the 1990s, the concept of ‘Horizontalism’ has arisen out of the radical social movements in Latin America, particularly with relation to the experience of self-organized peasant and indigenous movements like the Zapatistas. It is rooted in the mass revolts that broke out in Argentina during the IMF-imposed debt crisis, when piqueteros, neighborhood assemblies and mass demonstrations drove out one government after another, rejecting the old parties with the slogan “Out With the Lot of ‘Em!” (¡Qué se vayan todos!). Some Argentinean workers also occupied their closed factories and started them up again as self-managed enterprises, trading their products with other occupied factories. One such occupation is the subject of Naomi Klein’s documentary film The Taking, and radical sociologist Marina Sitrin has edited a collection of testimony and analysis under the title Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Latin America.

Perhaps the most influential proponent of what has become known as the ‘Horizontalist’ current is the Marxist-oriented sociologist John Holloway, who has resided in Mexico since 1991. Holloway’s 2002 book, Change the World Without Taking Power is a brief for the horizontal cause based on his observations among the Zapatistas and Argentine piqueteros. His thesis has stimulated much debate on the Left, and an anthology of paired polemics by the most articulate representatives of both sides has been published under the title, Take Power to Change the World: Globalization and the Debate on Power.

Holloway makes a very useful distinction between ‘power over’ (the bosses, cops and bureaucrats), ‘power against’ (the revolt of the 99%) and ‘power to’ (the potential of humans to create, to build, to organize themselves). What he rejects is ‘power over’ other people, that is to say oppression, exploitation, economic and political dictatorship. I agree that we must get rid of oppressive power over’ both now and in any future society. However, I fear Holloway speaks out of a deep-seated (and not-unjustified) pessimism about the perspective for revolution; this angst makes his ‘anti-power’ which he calls ‘the scream’ against injustice all the more poignant.
This dark view leads Holloway to stress the need of eternal resistance with no positive end in sight, neglecting possible scenarios where masses of people using forceful non-violent tactics (not violent ‘power over’) might break the strangle-hold of capitalism and institute a new society based on their ‘power to’ and self-manage the economy. Since the rolling revolutions of 2011, it is now possible to visualize scenarios of masses gathering their ‘power against’ in strikes and boycotts and occupations to topple not just the political dictators but the economic dictators, the 1% for whom the tyrants and politicians front.

Sound good? The problem is “how to get there from here? We can start by asking: “What form(s) of organization(s) will best enable the working people of the planet to unite, overthrow the existing order, take charge of the economy, reclaim the political sphere and create such a world?” Note that we are not asking the question “what form of organization is likely to be most effective in enabling a revolutionary group to seize and hold power?” That is another question, which Robespierre, Lenin and Mao (as well as Mussolini, Hitler and the Ayatollah) have all answered concretely at different times and places.

Our question includes the problematic of what happens after the revolution: “How to take power without ending up under yet another new form of exploitative tyranny?” The issue is one of ends and means, but not in the moralistic sense of whether not positive ends ‘justify’ the use of negative means, but practical consequences of certain means as observed in history. In politics means and ends are inseparable because the ends you get have inevitably been shaped and affected if not determined by the means employed to get there.
With this relationship in mind, let us proceed with the unraveling of what Marxists used to call “the organizational question.”

Spontaneity vs. Organization: a False Dichotomy

Among Marxists, the debate between Horizontalists and Verticalists is usually framed in terms of ‘spontaneity versus organization.’ This opposition is really rather simplistic and begs the question: nobody is suggesting that humanity can unite to change society without getting organized! Organization is our strongest weapon, anarchists, syndicalists and socialists all agree on that point. “Don’t mourn for me, organize!” were the famous last words of IWW Wobbly organizer and song-writer Joe Hill. Today, the name of the game is “billions versus billionaires,” and the only way for us 99%-ers to win is to organize.

The question is not one of organization, but of self-organization from below versus bureaucratic organization from above. The Polish-born revolutionary internationalist Rosa Luxemburg cut the Gordian knot of this false opposition with her analysis of The Mass Strike, based on her experience with the waves of general strikes that spread across the Russian Empire during the Revolution of 1905. She demonstrated that ‘spontaneous’ strikes (organized from below by the workers) were in most cases more likely to succeed than strikes organized by leaders of trade unions or socialist parties (including Lenin’s Bolsheviks).

Once past the false dichotomy ‘spontaneity/organization’ we are free to compare and contrast different forms of organization as they have appeared in history. On the one hand we find the traditional political party with a permanent apparatus and a definite program. On the other, we have the ephemeral self-organization of the masses into workers’ councils, soviets, mass assemblies, federated strike-committees and the like. These two forms have very different characteristics as they develop historically.

Party and State

The obvious great advantage of the party-form of organization is its enduring existence through time, its ability to absorb the lessons of past defeats and prepare itself for future struggles during periods when the mass movement has subsided. This advantage is particularly important in countries where dictatorship and repression make it necessary to maintain an underground network. Thus it is not surprising that over history, revolutionary workers have attempted to incarnate their will and intelligence in the more permanent and structured parties, associations and organizations that have sprung up to represent them in various countries at various times, with greater and lesser success.

The problem is that often the masses have not been able to control these organizations, which become alienated as bureaucracies and turn against them. The classic historic example dates back to 1914, when the leaders of the Socialist parties in France and Germany each voted to support their imperialist government and led the French and German workers into a fratricidal slaughter. In our time, living in France, I observed how the Socialist, Communist, and trade unions worked to contain the spontaneous general strikes of 1968 (restoring Gaullist normality via negotiations), the runaway wildcat strike of 1995 (that nonetheless succeeded in forcing the new conservative government to abandon it’s neoliberal legislative ‘reforms’) the nationwide mass revolt against pension ‘reform’ of 2002 and just recently, the heartbreaker of 2010 which after weeks of repeated one-day general strikes got diverted into the meaningless Presidential electoral campaign. The problem is not that such bureaucratic organizations ‘fail.’ It is that they succeed far too well – as agents of the class enemy among the workers. ‘Labor lieutenants of the bourgeoisie’ is what the American Socialist Daniel De Leon called them in my grandfather’s time.

Of course the word ‘party’ didn’t always mean a bureaucratic organization like the Socialists and the Communists or the Democrats and the Republicans. In the 19th Century, people often spoke of the ‘party’ of labor, the anti-slavery ‘party, the ‘party’ of capital, even the ‘party’ of caution using a small ‘p’ to indicate general opposing forces in society. This is how Marx and Engels used the word in their correspondence. For us moderns, the word refers exclusively to political Parties (large ‘P’) whether ‘Revolutionary’ or merely electoral. This difference in usage has led to ideological distortions. Thus the Stalinist Communists read Marx retrospectively through the lens of their vertical vanguard party fetish, when the context makes it clear that he was talking about the general movement of the workers’ self-organized struggle.

In this sense, the ‘actual movement,’ the historical party (small ‘p’) of worker socialism persists through time. It throws up its own thinkers (or co-opts professional intellectuals from other classes), develops its own world-view, theorizes its own struggles, and learns from its defeats and partial victories while attempting to unite to struggle for immediate objectives. Such critical thinkers are the ‘organic’ intellectuals of the oppressed class, their writings the record of its experience. They are, collectively, ‘of the party’ – the party of revolution – whatever their historical relation to the existing political parties of their place and time. They are part of what I call the invisible international.

Modern political parties – whether parliamentary or revolutionary — tend to be organized vertically, like pyramids, with information and power flowing downward from leaders. Parties thus reproduce the bourgeois division of labor, exalting the intelligence and will of the leaders (CEOs, Commissars, Ayatollahs). They encourage passivity and unthinking acceptance among the members (‘party discipline,’ ‘orthodoxy,’ ‘company loyalty’). Party leaders may be more or less democratically selected, but they tend to perpetuate themselves in office, where they are apt to accumulate privileges and special interests.

Furthermore, all such parties develop through their relation to the state. Their ultimate aim is to control the government’s monopoly of legal violence. Marx and Engels defined the ‘state’ as ‘special bodies of armed men, police, prisons etc.’ whose historical purpose has been to defend the power of the 1% – aristocrats, priests, capitalists, bureaucrats — over the 99%. Parties generally either aim at sharing state power through their influence in parliamentary and governmental institutions (electoralism, reformism, social-democracy) or at taking over state power through insurrection (as practiced by Blanquists, Bakuinists, Maoists, Castro/Guevarists on the Left, and nationalists, fascists, and religious fundamentalists on the Right). The ever-flexible Lenin used both tactics successfully, with Bolshevik representatives in the Duma and an underground cadre of professional revolutionaries. The Moslem Brothers also are adept at playing in both registers.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 proved that world capitalism was so ripe for revolution that a proletarian socialist party, backed by the peasantry, could take power in a semi-feudal country. It also proved that Engels was 1000 times right in his dire warning that “the worst possible thing” that could happen to a proletarian party would be to take power where conditions were not “ripe.” Engels predicted that this party would inevitably be turned into the instrument of other, powerful forces which it could not resist. And indeed, the Leninist Party/State did become the historical instrument by means of which Russian capital developed rapidly using the police methods rather than market methods to drive the peasants off the land and into the factories. Lenin’s Party/State was such an ideal instrument for this historic task that despite Stalin’s bloody mismanagement, it was able to build a Russian war machine powerful enough to defeat the most advanced and powerful capitalist nation in Europe – Nazi Germany.

The defenders of this Russian (and later Chinese) form of totalitarian state-capitalism described it as ‘actually existing socialism’ and thus distorted and degraded the word and the ideal for a whole epoch. The obvious conclusion drawn by the majority of workers of the 20th Century from the Russian experience was this: ‘Socialism equals shortages and a totalitarian police state. Never mind the excuses. We’ve seen the broken eggs. Now show us your omelette.’ Thus, by taking and holding power in backward Russia in the name of socialism, Lenin’s party inadvertently succeeded in closing off the revolutionary socialist alternative for a whole historic period and ended up paving the way for fascism. It is said that “power corrupts”. Once the Bolsheviks tasted power, they could never give it up. Subjectively, Lenin remained a libertarian. His last struggles were against Stalin’s brutality, bureaucracy, and what he called the “Commu-Lies” printed in the official press. Yet he remained unyielding on the dictatorship of the Communist Party — the only legal party in the state — and on the exclusion of contending factions within the official state Party. It fell to the bloody-minded Stalin to demonstrate that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The Russian Revolution teaches that the anarchists were 1000 times right to condemn the state as necessarily oppressive and to fear “workers’ dictators.” It is high time for all socialists to stop using Marx’s misleading (because ironic) phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat” as our goal. As if any intelligent 21st century worker hearing the word “dictatorship” would stay around long enough to listen to the explanation of what this phrase really means! What socialists should be doing is reaffirming the lessons that Marx AND the anarchists drew from the Paris Commune: Revolution doesn’t mean taking over the state. It means smashing the state and replacing it with expansive, democratic, self-created organs of workers’ power. Organs like the Commune, the Soviets, assemblies and workers’ councils under popular control with elected delegates paid workers’ wages and subject to recall.

A near-forgotten lesson of struggle

For Horizontalists, the essential lesson of 1917 was the discovery that workers’ councils (soviets in the Russian language) were the self-created form of workers’ power, the means by which the revolutionary masses could direct their own destiny. Just as the 1871 Commune finally answered, in practice, the question of the state in Marx’s time, so the new edition of the Commune, the federation of Soviets — self-organized workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ councils — answered it in the 20th century.

The Russian workers themselves created this new Soviet form of mass self-activity and self-organization during the 1905 Revolution, but it was not ‘discovered’ by Marxist theoreticians like Lenin, Luxembourg or even Trotsky, who was President of the Petersburg Soviet in 1905, until it resurfaced in 1917. Lenin’s greatest theoretical contribution was to recognize this on the eve of revolution when he updated Marx’s study of the Paris Commune in his pamphlet State and Revolution at very the moment when the workers’, peasants and soldiers Soviets were contending against the Provisional Government in a situation of dual power. Indeed, the greatest deed in Lenin’s life was to carry out the program of State and Revolution by placing “All Power to the Soviets” on the banner of a reluctant Russian Social-Democratic Party (Bolshevik).

Unfortunately the discovery of workers’ councils was NOT the lesson that the historical Left –from Lenin on down through Stalin, Trotsky, and their present-day epigones — drew from the victory of the Soviets in 1917. Quite the contrary… For decades the Left neglected the importance of this precious example of worker self-organization. It buried the actual proof that socialism, defined as worker self-management, is possible; the full-scale example of how the socialist project flows from the actual movement of the developing working class rather than being spun from the heads of leaders. Instead, what we have heard repeated a thousand times as the lesson of 1917 is “The Party, The Party, The Party” — as if the example of Bolshevism could provide a magic formula for revolution in the 21st Century.

Indeed, “The Party, The Party, The Party” was already the wrong lesson when Lenin and the Bolsheviks founded the Comintern in Moscow 1919. As we show below in ‘The Invisible International,’ instead of spreading the idea of workers’ councils (which the German workers had already attempted to imitate, somewhat feebly), Lenin’s Party attempted to impose the Russian “magic formula” of the Party on European workers’ movements which were locked in combat not with a crumbling semi-feudal autocracy but with vigorous modern capitalist states, with no huge masses of land-hungry peasants for a workers’ movement to ally with.

It is humbling to recall that as early as the 1920s there were lucid Marxists like the Dutch Communists Anton Pannekoek and Herman Gorter who clearly saw these contradictions, developed the concept of “Council Communism,” and predicted that Lenin’s government could only lead to state-capitalism. I have never understood why later Marxists like Tony Cliff and Raya Dunayevskaya — once they had broken with the Trotskyist position of defending Russia as a some form of “workers’ state” and analyzed the full-blown Stalinist regime as “state-capitalist” – did not return to or even pay much tribute to those veterans of the early Communist movement who had seen state-capitalism coming and resisted it 20 years earlier. Perhaps it was because the so-called ‘Infantile Leftists’ of the 1920s were expelled from the Comintern not by Stalin, but by Lenin, thus breaking the fetishistic taboos of Communist ancestor-worship and offending the religious Leninism of those theoretical leaders.

Perhaps it was also because the Council Communists rejected not only state-capitalism but also the Leninist concept of the Party, considered as a bureaucratic, anti-socialist, ultimately bourgeois restrictive power over the workers who had created their own form of democratic, expansive self-organization historically beginning with the Soviets of 1905. This form of self-organization, rediscovered as we have seen during 1917-1921 in Russian and Germany, was yet again rediscovered in the 1956 Hungarian Workers Councils, the form taken by the first full-scale workers’ revolution against Stalinist state-capitalism. Perhaps it was because Tony Cliff and even Raya Dunayevskaya were, despite their profound critique of Russian state-capitalism masquerading as Communism, the leaders of Leninist-type parties (or sects) unconsciously hoping to franchise a monopoly on the revolutionary truth, even as they consciously struggled for democracy and against totalitarianism.

Marxism discredited?

Paradoxical as it may seem, I believe that the collapse of Stalinist ‘Communism’ in 1989, its subsequent transformation into nomenklatura capitalism, and its incorporation into the system of globalized neo-liberal capitalism have simplified many questions that have divided the Left for years. Although it appears that the fall of “Communism” has discredited both Marxism and the very idea of revolution – the media take this as dogma – it is only the appearance of fact. As I argue below in Part V, Stalinist Communism was the very opposite of Marxism – an exploitative, oppressive, anti-¬worker bureaucratic tyranny. Indeed, the collapse of this totalitarian system actually vindicates genuine Marxism as well as anarchism and all the other revolutionary philosophies which analyzed and criticized the bureaucratic system from the beginning.

The fact that the Stalinist-type systems in Russia, China and elsewhere were able to make smooth transitions to market capitalism without a bloody, restorationist counter¬-revolution is proof that these systems were already based on the exploitation of labor by a privileged minority. Indeed, the discrediting of the state-capitalist model of what was euphemistically called “actually existing socialism” by its Left apologists may prove to have been the necessary pre-condition for the emergence of a genuine socialist alternative. But only on the condition that we socialists rethink our organizational models, in particular the role of the vanguard party.

The discrediting of Stalinism opens a space for revolutionaries to revisit the dissident revolutionary tendencies which opposed vanguardism in the past, beginning with the anarchists, the council communists, the Dutch Left, and the Luxembourgists who were already critical in Lenin’s time. It compels us to reconsider the ambivalent history of Trotskyism, which both criticized and tail-ended Stalinism for 60 years. It invites us to study the positions of the post-Trotskyists from B. Rizzi and Max Shachtman to Raya Dunayevskaya, C.L.R. James, Cornelius Castoriadis, Tony Cliff, and company who, beginning in the 1940s, attempted to analyze the exploitative Stalinist system through the lens of Marxist economic and social theory.

To return to the ‘party-principle,’ all political parties aim at mobilizing the masses to put their leaders in power – whether by “the bullet or the ballot” as Malcolm X succinctly put it. Theoretically, the benefits of power should flow back or trickle down to the masses as reforms or as revolutionary decrees overthrowing capitalism and instituting socialism. The leaders can begin raising wages and cutting hours, improving the status of women, providing housing for the poor, feeding the hungry, improving health and education, protecting the environment. And indeed, reformist or revolutionary governments can and do accomplish many positive social objectives. But their fidelity to the original egalitarian cause depends to a great extent on the degree of internal democracy, the honesty of the leadership, and its commitment to principle as well as on the level of pressure from below.

These leaders are also severely limited by outside pressures like the world market and from the U.S. imperialism and recent rival imperialisms, like China. The ultimate solutions to these problems can only be international. The new alliance of Left-leaning Latin American countries has challenged U.S. hegemony in the region, which is an historical achievement of momentous proportions. On the other hand, class tensions are obvious today in struggles within Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela. For example, economic powerhouse Brazil’s new pretensions as a regional hegemon, Venezuela’s Populist President Chavez’s embrace of Libya’s Khadaffi and Syria’s unspeakable Assad, and Evo Moralez’ conflicts with indiginous peoples protecting the rain forest from corporate development are all indications if the inner malaise of these regimes.

Horizontal self-organization

Now let us look at the organizational pyramid from the base up. Here we find various horizontal forms of self-organization like strike committees, councils, networks, committees of correspondence and mass assemblies. Their basic mode of operation is that information and power flow upward from the base and that information circulates both horizontally and vertically. Such assemblies, for example the revolutionary Paris sections in the 1791-93 French Revolution, the Paris Commune of 1871, the self-organized Russian soviets of 1905 and 1917, the sit-in strikers of 1936 and 1968, the Argentine piqueteros and assemblies, and most recently the Occupiers of 2011 often remain in permanent session. Their participants are able to pool their information, analyze it, come to decisions and respond to changing circumstances rapidly and flexibly. They unite thinking and doing, combining “legislative” and “executive” functions (as Marx said of the Paris Commune). They are in direct connection with the mass movement. They sense its moods and can respond rapidly to changes, take advantage of favorable moods, or fall back when militancy declines. Their activists are part of an emergent whole, a self-constituted movement larger than themselves, yet they retain their autonomy – like individual dancers in a group danse, as I suggested above in my Manifestival.

Such forms of self-organization encourage,develop and depend on the initiative and clear thinking of their participants; they thus overcome the ‘let-George-do-it’ passivity of many union and party members who are tempted to look to the leadership for direction instead of thinking for themselves. Luxemburg first observed these initiatives spreading during the great strike waves of 1905. Today, we are able to recognize in the social phenomenon which Luxemburg analyzed a century ago as a form of what scientists call ‘emergent’ behavior: self-organization from below. Over the past twenty years in fields as far-ranging as subatomic physics, cosmology, biochemistry, brain physiology and cybernetics, the Newtonian/Cartesian Positivist model of cause/effect, conductor/orchestra has been superceded by the more dialectical paradigm of order emerging – under certain conditions — out of the chaos of myriad interactions. Like the Internet, for which today’s global movements have an affinity, bottom-up forms of social self-organization are by nature expansive.

Horizontal power: federation and delegation.

On this Horizontal model, when social movements grow beyond the factory or local level, they learn to network and federate on the industry, regional, national and now (with Internet and airplanes) global levels — without any need for a pre-existing bureaucratic structure likely to become a locus of power. This was the concept behind the first International Workers Association of 1863 (discussed below in ‘The Invisible International’) a well as of the revolutionary anarcho-syndicalist groups like the French CGT and the American Wobblies that emerged around 1905, just when the Russian workers were inventing their first soviets.

To be sure, in order to federate, councils and assemblies must delegate authority. But delegation does not necessarily mean creating a new ruling elite; not when delegates are chosen from the ranks for specific purposes with limited mandates to express their comrades’ views at regional assemblies and to bring back reports of what is happening elsewhere. In principle, such delegates are paid at normal workers’ wages, and their mission accomplished, they rejoin the mass, while others replace them, thus developing leadership skills of confidence, communication, and strategizing. As has been observed repeatedly at the assemblies and occupations of 2011, such responsible activities are truly ‘schools of communism’ – not for an elite leadership but for the participants as individuals and as a group, be they workers, farmers, neighbors, student activists, etc. These practical ‘schools’ develop the confidence and self-reliance which alone can turn multitudinous individuals into a revolutionary force.

Today, scientists study such feedback-loops by means of which amalgamations of individual cells learn to learn. They are observed for example in development of the infant human brain, the growth of cities in history, and the algorithms of ‘smart’ computer programs designed to model such emergent behavior. The only problem is, such organizational forms have proven ephemeral. When the mass movement ebbs, they tend to disappear or get pushed aside by more centralized, structured groups, like the Islamicists in Iran in 1979 and most recently in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, as structured groups like the Moslem Brotherhood upstaged the democratic mass movement and filled the power-vacuum the mass demonstrations (from which they held aloof) had created by forcing out a dictator.

Weaknesses of the Horizontal model

As we have seen, the tragic history of Leninist-type parties shows, in the starkest terms, the fatal flaws in the vertical model of organization. But we must also look at look at the weaknesses of the workers’ council model of organization. The most obvious weakness is precisely that such phenomena tend to be ephemeral. They mainly spring up in periods of intense militancy, in pre-revolutionary and revolutionary situations, and they tend to dissolve when this militancy declines or is defeated. They may remain as informal networks of workers and in the memory of the participants, as they did in Russia between 1906 and 1917. But otherwise, they left no trace except in workers’ memories in the theories of the ‘Council Communists’. Workers’ councils, mass assemblies and strike committees are creatures of revolution, like the legendary salamander that lives only in fire. They must either triumph as they did in 1917 — in which case they become the nerves and lineaments of the new society to which they have given birth — or disappear into history, perhaps to rise again from their ashes like that other creature of fire, the phoenix. They are the incandescent incarnation of the socialist project, illuminating future possibilities.Short of a victorious revolution (which in a globalize economy must be planetary), they remain ephemeral.

Let us not, for all of that, despair. The Soviets of 1905, forgotten by Bolshevik and Menshevik socialists alike, came spontaneously to life again in 1917, and that year they overthrew Czarism and then pushed aside the pro-Allied bourgeois Provisional Government in order to achieve ‘Bread, Peace, and Land.’ So not to worry. As Rosa Luxemburg wrote, “The revolution says I am, I was, I will be.” She also wrote, ‘Every revolution is doomed to fail … except the last one.’ And that ‘last one’ must, to succeed, be global. It is to that problem we turn next in ‘The Invisible International.’


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