ANARCHISM AS PROPHYLACTIC. Excerpts from Robert Michels’ Political Parties. A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy (1915) PART FIVE: ATTEMPTS TO RESTRICT THE INFLUENCE OF THE LEADERS.

Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis (1846 –1919)


Anarchists were the first to insist upon the hierarchical and oligarchical consequences of party organisation. Their view of the defects of organisation is much clearer than that of socialists and even than that of syndicalists. They resist authority as the source of servility and slavery, if not the source of all the ills of the world. For them constraint is “synonymous with prison and police.” 1 They know how readily the individualism of the leaders checks and paralyses the socialism of the led. In order to elude this danger, anarchists, notwithstanding the practical inconveniences entailed, have refrained from constituting a party, at least in the strict sense of the term. Their adherents are not organized under any stable form. They are not united by any discipline. They know nothing of obligations or duties, such as elections, pecuniary contributions, participation in regular meetings, and so on.

  1. Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis, Der staatssozialistische Charakter der Sozialdemokratie, “Archiv für Sozialw.,” xxviii, fase. i, p. 144.

It is a necessary consequence of these peculiarities that the typical anarchist leader differs considerably from the typical socialist leader, the characteristic product of the last twenty-five years. Anarchism has no party organisation that can offer lucrative positions, nor does the anarchist pathway lead to parliamentary honours. Consequently there are fewer opportunities for contagion, fewer temptations, and much less field for personal ambition. Thus it may be expected, as a logical consequence of the theory that environment makes character, that in the average anarchist leader idealism should be more conspicuous than in the average socialist leader. The anarchist lives remote from the practice of politics, with all its passions, all its appetites, and all its allurements; consequently he is more objective in his judgment of persons and of things, more contemplative, more self-enclosed— but also more of a dreamer, more remote from reality. Among anarchist leaders we find many learned, cultivated, and modest men who have not lost the sentiment of true friendship, and to whom it is a pleasure to cultivate and nourish that sentiment: sincere and high-minded men, such as Peter Kropotkin, Elisée Reclus, Christian Cornelissen, Enrico Malatesta, and many others less famous.2 But though the anarchist leaders are as a rule morally superior to the leaders of the organised parties working in the political field, we find in them some of the qualities and pretensions characteristic of all leadership. This is proved by a psychological analysis of the characteristics of the individual anarchist leader. The theoretical struggle against all authority, against all coercion, to which many of the most eminent anarchists have sacrificed a large portion of their lives, has not stifled in them the natural love of power. All that we can say is that the means of dominion employed by the anarchist leader belong to an epoch that political parties have already outlived. These are the means utilised by the apostle and the orator: the flaming power of thought, greatness of self-sacrifice, and profundity of conviction. Their dominion is exercised, not over the organisation, but over minds; it is the outcome, not of technical indispensability, but of intellectual ascendancy and moral superiority.

  1. We find some admirably drawn character sketches of anarchist leaders in the work of Peter Kropotkin, Memoirs of a Revolutionist, Smith, Elder, London, 1899, vol. ii, and p. 196. See also the psychological portrait of an unnamed anarchist in De Amicis, Lotte civili, Nerbini, Florence, 1904, pp. 128 et seq.

Whilst anarchists repudiate the formation of political parties, they adhere none the less to the principle of organisation in the economic field. * Some of them, even, explicitly recognise the need for the technical guidance of the masses; ^ whilst others declare their conviction that it would suffice to restrict the functions of the leaders to purely administrative work, to eliminate, once for all, the differences, so dangerous to the organisation, which arise between the leaders and the led.« As if the technical and administrative superiority of the leaders were not alone sufficient to establish their supremacy over the masses in all other respects! Not even Bakunin proposed to exclude the principles of organization and discipline, but he desired that they should be voluntary instead of automatic.3 He conceived the anarchist regime as a federation of perpetual barricades, and proposed to institute a council of the revolutionary commune, consisting of delegates, one or two in number from each barricade, or from each street or quarter, these delegates having an imperative mandate. The communal council thus composed would nominate from among its own members special executive committees for all the branches of the revolutionary administration of the commune. The capital, having effected a successful insurrection and constituted it as a commune, would then declare to the other municipalities of the country that it put forward no claim to exercise any supremacy over them. But it would invite them to provide themselves also with a revolutionary organization, and to send delegates to a meeting-place to be determined by agreement, in order to establish a federation of insurgent associations, communes, and provinces, and thus to create a revolutionary power sufficiently strong to oppose any possible reaction. As Marx justly pointed out, these executive committees, if they were to do anything at all, must be furnished with powers, and must be sustained by public force. The federal parliament would have no reason for existence unless it were to organize this public force. Besides, this parliament could, just like the communal council, delegate its executive power to one or more committees, and each of these would in fact be invested with an authoritative character that the needs of the struggle would not fail continually to accentuate. In a word, according to Marx, the whole Bakuninist scheme would be characterized by an ultra-authoritative stamp.4

3. Bakunin, Oeuvres, ed, cit., vol. ii, p. 297.

4. Karl Marx, L’ Alliance de la Démocratie socialiste et I ‘Association internationale des Travailleurs, ed. cit., p. 14.

Like the syndicalists, the anarchists have extolled “direct action,” which, they consider, possesses the value of an ethical principle. Direct action, ”in contradistinction to the tactics of negotiation, of mutual compromise, of hierarchical organisation, and of the representative system, tends to secure a higher standard of life for the workers, and the emancipation of the proletariat from capitalism and political centralization — to secure these advantages by the immediate self-help of the workers.”5

5. Erich Mühsam, Die direkte Aktion im Befreiungskampfe der Arbeiterschaft, “Generalstreik,” monthly supplement of “Der Freie Arbeiter,” anno i, October 1905.

Notwithstanding this, anarchism, a movement on behalf of liberty, founded on the inalienable right of the human being over his own person, succumbs, no less than the socialist party, to the law of authoritarianism as soon as it abandons the region of pure thought and as soon as its adherents unite to form associations aiming at any sort of political activity. Nieuwenhuis, the veteran champion of anarchising socialism with a frankly individualist tendency, showed on one occasion that he had a keen perception of the dangers which anarchism runs from all contact with practical life. At the Amsterdam congress of 1907, after the foundation of the new anarchist international, he raised a warning voice against the arguments of the Italian Enrico Malatesta, an anarchist attached to the school of Bakunin. Malatesta, having dilated upon the strength of bourgeois society, declared that nothing would suit this society better than to be faced by unorganised masses of workers, and that for this reason it was essential to counter the powerful organisation of the rich by a still more powerful organisation of the poor. “If that is your thought, dear friend,” said Nieuwenhuis to Malatesta, “you can go peacefully over to the socialists. They won’t tell you anything else.” In the course of this first anarchist congress there were manifest, according to Nieuwenhuis, the symptoms of that diplomatic mentality which characterises all the leaders of authoritarian parties. 6

  1. Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis, Die Nieuwe Internationale, “De Vrije Socialist,” Hilversum, September 1907, vol. x, No. 71.

Ostrogorski has proposed to substitute for party organisation, which invariably leads to the institution of anti-democratic forms, a system of temporary associations, which should come into existence only for the attainment of definite ends, and should be dissolved as soon as these ends have been secured (league system).7 He considers that the adoption of this system would tend to restore to political struggles the sincerity, honesty, and clarity which they lack to-day. Now, the analysis of political parties that has been effected authorises us to doubt the efficiency of the proposed method. Its adoption would not secure any real progress, even were it possible to suppress by a simple decree the organizations which have been brought into existence by the necessary determinants of historical evolution, “Whilst anarchism, which presents to us the most abstract and most idealistic vision of the future, has promised to the world an order from which all concentration of power shall be excluded, it has not known how to establish, as a part of anarchist theory, the logical elements of such an order.8 .

7. M. Ostrogorski, La Démocratie et l’ Organisation des Partis politiques, ed. cit., vol. ii, pp. 618 et seq.

  1. “Most once said that only the dictatorial and the servile could be sincere opponents of anarchism. Even if the use of the ‘only’ be left uncriticized, these words seem to me to display a fatal defect in the psychological foundations of anarchism. For, in view of the natural endowments of human beings, it seems probable that the majority will always continue to belong to one or other of the two types here characterised by Most.” (Walter Borgius, Die Ideenwelt des Anarchismus, Dietrich, Leipzig, 1904, p. 58).