One of the reasons we read and teach the works of political philosophy from bygone eras is that they can help us work through problems in our own times. That’s why the history of anarchism is so important to Utopias: it’s a tradition of thought that has always existed in a cult form, flying under the mainstream of political life in the modern era, that in its current non-violent organizations occupies a place where experiments in new ways to run a society can happen.
Because there are many fronts in contemporary politics where the left is falling down. One is in the collisions of racial inequalities and cultural segregation with the universal militarization of domestic police forces in the United States after the September 11 attacks. These have been growing in tension over the years, but have finally come to a grotesque and catastrophic head in the last days of mass rioting in Ferguson, Missouri.
|No city has suffered greater romantic idealization of its|
political revolutions than Paris.
But I’m not here to talk about institutionalized racism in all its levels. That’s actually a little outside of my expertise, though I’m knowledgeable enough to get incredibly upset about it. I’m actually here to talk about a remarkable insight in the texts of Mikhail Bakunin about the vulnerabilities of the union movement. When Bakunin himself was writing his last essays that make up the bulk of his philosophical texts, he was working in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War and the destruction of the Paris Commune. He was also writing as a senior Yoda figure for Europe’s union movement, the organization of workers’ associations, particularly their networking organization, the International Workingmen’s Association.
The First International was first intended to be an organization of revolutionary communists, reformist socialists, and trade unions throughout Europe. It was the network by which these different organizations around the continent would communicate, share ideas, solve problems, and help in the local struggles of each one. When the strike funds of a trade union were on the verge of running out, allied organizations would send money to support their workers. The International was always intended to be a network of localities, its programs determined from the bottom up. Bakunin wrote that the International should not be “vested with any official authority or political power whatsoever.” It should only be a network allying diverse actors.
In Bakunin’s last years, conflicts over whether the International was to be a network or an authority ended up destroying the organization. At the Hague conference of 1872, Karl Marx and his supporters wanted to enforce ideological uniformity across the International, leaning on all the member organizations to conform their political activities to Marxist orthodoxy. Bakunin and the members who thought similarly resisted, advocating that the International remain a network, and were ejected for their trouble.
Antonio Gramsci would eventually make similar critiques of the Third International – better known as the Comintern – in his prison writings. The direction of Stalin destroyed its genuinely revolutionary potential. It would only work to liberate people as a network to connect allied organizations whose goals, strategies, and ideologies were developed for the particular circumstances of their own local struggles. If a political and social ideology and program for revolutionary agitation were imposed from a centralized authority (such as the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in Moscow), then its activity would never actually liberate people from unjust political and social institutions around Europe. It would only replace one repressive authority with another.
Liberation of an oppressed community can never come from following a leader or some imposed political program with pretensions to universality. The only universality is the non-ideological connections of diverse actors through a network, Bakunin’s vision of the International which he saw snapped away from him under the banner of Marxist authoritarianism.
Pete Townshend would still be right. When you meet the new boss, he’s the same as the old boss. A network has no boss.