Summary of Chapter 4: The Forms of Freedom
[As I am using a truncated pdf, this is the last chapter, "Listen, Marxist!" and the essays on May 1968, etc. having been cut off for some reason.]
In this short chapter, Bookchin discusses the political organization of a revolutionary society of the future. He summarizes the successes, failures, and lessons he finds in historical forms of revolutionary and egalitarian social organization, then ends with some thoughts on how to get “from here to there.”
However personalized, individuated or dadaesque may be the attack upon prevailing institutions, a liberatory revolution always poses the question of what social forms will replace existing ones. At one point or another, a revolutionary people must deal with how it will manage the land and the factories from which it acquires the means of life. It must deal with the manner in which it will arrive at decisions that affect the community as a whole. Thus if revolutionary thought is to be taken at all seriously, it must speak directly to the problems and forms of social management. (165)
The social organization of a society is important not least because it shapes how individuals, and relations between individuals, are formed:
Every personal relationship has a social dimension; every social relationship has a deeply personal side to it. Ordinarily, these two aspects and their relationship to each other are mystified and difficult to see clearly.
In reality, there exists no strictly “impersonal” political or social dimension; all the social institutions of the past and present depend on the relations between people in daily life.
Bourgeois society takes the mediation of human social relations to the extreme, by treating everyone as objects and interposing commodities as mediators (a la monetary exchange). B discusses the history of the link between mediation and hierarchy, back to the ancient establishment of chiefs and priests as mediators; the precapitalist mediation by men (e.g., councils, chiefs) is replaced in capitalism by mediation by things/commodities. B notes contemporary youth demands for tribalism and community; these are are sometimes depicted as temporally “regressive,” but they are fundamentally progressive, pointing to a renewed future community.
By contrast, the traditional revolutionary demand for council forms of organization (what Hannah Arendt describes as “the revolutionary heritage”) does not break completely with the terrain of hierarchical society. (167)
B reiterates his view that workers are not an inherently revolutionary class in the Marxist sense; instead, workers’ councils would simply reflect workers’ interests:
For the present, it suffices to say that most advocates of workers’ councils tend to conceive of people primarily as economic entities, either as workers or nonworkers. This conception leaves the onesidedness of the self completely intact. Man is viewed as a bifurcated being, the product of a social development that divides man from man and each man from himself. (168)
There is more to B’s idea of revolution than the transferal of economic decision-making from owners to workers: more than just having worker input on management, etc., we must “transform the work into a joyful activity, free time into a marvelous experience, and the workplace into a community” (168) to have actual liberation, and not just “perpetuate the limitations of the proletariat as a product of bourgeois social conditions.”
Council organizations, as advocated by Marxists, etc., are “forms of mediated relationships rather than face-to-face relationships” and so will recreate hierarchy and thus fail to be fully and truly revolutionary. He discusses various limitations of traditional workers’ council ideas; factory committees of course are/will be an important step, but just an initial, not the final, step.
He summarizes the history of earlier revolutionary attempts at reorganizing society; all were too short-lived or “distorted” to serve as models, with the exception of the Spanish Revolution.
Starting off with the Paris Commune of 1870, he states that it was really just a council/democracy with elected representatives; although it co-existed with more revolutionary popular clubs, neighborhood vigilance committees, and battalions of the national guard:
Had the Paris Commune (the Municipal Council) survived, it is extremely doubtful that it could have avoided conflict with these loosely formed street and militia formations. (170)
B argues the Commune was mostly not proletarian, but rather sans-culottes, lumpens and other groups; in a footnote he takes aim at what he identifies as the Situationist tendency to
describe any social stratum as “proletarian” (as the French Situationists do) simply because it has no control over the conditions of its life... This giddy approach to social analysis divests the industrial proletariat and the bourgeoisie of all the historically unique features which Marx believed he had discovered (a theoretical project that proved inadequate, although by no means false); it slithers away from the responsibilities of a serious critique of Marxism and the development of “laissez-faire” capitalism toward state capitalism, while pretending to retain continuity with the Marxian project. (171)
He moves on to discuss the Russian Soviets of 1905 and of 1917:
The Soviets of 1917 reveal all the limitations of “sovietism.” Though the Soviets were invaluable as local fighting organizations, their national congresses proved to be increasingly unrepresentative bodies. The congresses were organized along very hierarchical lines. Local Soviets in cities, towns and villages elected delegates to district and regional bodies; these elected delegates to the actual nationwide congresses. In larger cities, representation to the congresses was less indirect, but it was indirect nonetheless—from the voter in a large city to the municipal soviet and from the municipal soviet to the congress. In either case the congress was separated from the mass of voters by one or more representative levels. (173)
The soviet congresses met once every three months, which was far too long an interval; an executive committee was in permanent session, but still too unwieldy; it handed over responsibilities to the smaller Council of People’s Commissars, and the Bolsheviks used this hierarchy to seize and consolidate power.
The power of the local Soviets passed into the hands of the Executive Committee, the power of the Executive Committee passed into the hands of the Council of People’s Commissars, and finally, the power of the Council of People’s Commissars passed into the hands of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party. (174)
He argues that “that the Russian Soviets were incapable of providing the anatomy for a truly popular democracy is to be ascribed not only to their hierarchical structure, but also to their limited social roots;” by “limited social roots” he seems to argue that the peasants and other sectors were mostly uninvolved or withdrawn and inward looking: the power of the soviets was heavily working class and factory-centric.
Here we encounter a basic contradiction in class concepts of revolutionary power: proletarian socialism, precisely because it emphasizes that power must be based exclusively on the factory, creates the conditions for a centralized, hierarchical political structure. (174-5)
[This again is part of his argument for not taking the working class as the key revolutionary subject; while there coninues to be a distinct working class (tied to factories, etc., even if controlling them), their interests remain “particularistic” and thus fall short of the generalized revolution which he called for back in Chapter 1.]
However much its social position is strengthened by a system of “self-management,” the factory is not an autonomous social organism. The amount of social control the factory can exercise is fairly limited, for every factory is highly dependent for its operation and its very existence upon other factories and sources of raw materials. Ironically, the Soviets, by basing themselves primarily in the factory and isolating the factory from its local environment, shifted power from the community and the region to the nation, and eventually from the base of society to its summit. The soviet system consisted of an elaborate skein of mediated social relationships, knitted along nationwide class lines. (175)
He finds more hope in the anarcho-syndicalists in Spain during the civil war, because both workers and peasants were involved. The assemblies had power to revoke delegates to councils, and countermand council decisions: “Let there be no mistake about the effectiveness of this scheme of organization: it imparted to each member of the CNT a weighty sense of responsibility, a sense of direct, immediate and personal influence in the activities and policies of the union.” CNT control of Barcelona was a success, until it was put down by outside forces.
He dismisses several other abortive attempts, and summarizes:
The fact remains that council modes of organization are not immune to centralization, manipulation and perversion. These councils are still particularistic, one-sided, and mediated forms of social management. At best, they can be the stepping stones to a decentralized society—at worst, they can easily be integrated into hierarchical forms of social organization. (177)
He turns from mediated councils to unmediated forms: assembly and community.
The assembly probably formed the structural basis of early clan and tribal society until its functions were pre-empted by chiefs and councils. It appeared as the ecclesia in classical Athens; later, in a mixed and often perverted form, it reappeared in the medieval and Renaissance towns of Europe. Finally, as the “sections,” assemblies emerged as the insurgent bodies in Paris during the Great Revolution. The ecclesia and the Parisian sections warrant the closest study. Both developed in the most complex cities of their time and both assumed a highly sophisticated form, often welding individuals of different social origins into a remarkable, albeit temporary, community of interests. (177)
It does not minimize their limitations to say that they developed methods of functioning so successfully libertarian in character that even the most imaginative Utopias have failed to match in speculation what they achieved in practice. (177-8)
He discusses the Athenian ecclesia and its workings; making note of issues with patriarchism, slavery, etc.
Taken as a whole, this was a remarkable system of social management; run almost entirely by amateurs, the Athenian polis reduced the formulation and administration of public policy to a completely public affair. ... At its best, Athenian democracy greatly modified the more abusive and inhuman features of ancient society. (180)
B argues that slavery was different, and more humane, in ancient Greece, [than what we are accustomed to from the history of the US]:
On balance, the image of Athens as a slave economy which built its civilization and generous humanistic outlook on the backs of human chattels is false ... (181)
[My guess is that he wants to argue this, to show that the democracy of Athens was overall a humanizing experience; the responsibility and public-mindedness of the men partaking in it has been a point of his, so they should thus also be producing a more humane society, than that of the colonial/capitalist system that produced the much more dehumanizing modern form of slavery. There is a bit of a valid point here but it also opens up a much bigger can of worms, and really I think he is being far too dismissive. The interesting case of Diogenes being captured and sold into slavery (“sell me to the man who wants a master”), could be considered: the story plays up a role reversal between master and servant, but the idea that one person can buy and sell another is not questioned. In any case the tendency of Bookchin, like many other thinkers, to fetishize the limited democracy of ancient Athens has come under substantial and warranted critique.]
His next example is the Parisian sections of the French Revolution, called into existence as part of the state apparatus, then refusing to give back power:
After performing their electoral functions, the assemblies were required to disappear, but they remained on in defiance of the monarchy and constituted themselves into permanent municipal bodies. By degrees they turned into neighborhood assemblies of all “active” citizens, varying in form, scope and power from one district to another. (182)
This “active” vs “passive” citizens distinction was later abolished, and the sans-culottes invited to participate; according to Bookchin, this radicalized and energized the sections. The sections were not just fighting organizations but “genuine forms of self-management” (182-3); he details the responsibilities they took on.
It must be borne in mind that this complex of extremely important activities was undertaken not by professional bureaucrats but, for the most part, by ordinary shopkeepers and craftsmen. The bulk of the sectional responsibilities were discharged after working hours, during the free time of the section members. The popular assemblies of the sections usually met during the evenings in neighborhood churches. Assemblies were ordinarily open to all the adults of the neighborhood. (183)
This echoes his discussion in an earlier chapter about keeping the “doors of the revolution open.” Also important were the ad hoc and fluid, rather than rigidified, relationships between sections:
The Paris Commune of the Great Revolution never became an overbearing, ossified institution; it changed with almost every important political emergency, and its stability, form, and functions depended largely upon the wishes of the sections. (184)
Having relied on the sections to fasten their hold on the Convention, the Jacobins began to rely on the Convention to destroy the sections.
[Just as with the Bolsheviks, once again a hierarchical system (in this case the Convention over the sections) allows for a centralization and suppression of the true revolution]. B describes how the Jacobins limited the power of the sections and centralized power in their own hands; he needles Marx in a footnote for his “short-sightedness” in admiring the Jacobins in this regard.
The sections had been subverted by the very revolutionary leaders they had raised to power in the Convention. (185)
Having gone from critiques of the state and council forms of social organization, to the more hopeful examples of the Athenian ecclesia and Parisians sections, he concludes with a discussion of how to get “from here to there,” most notably the perils that need to be avoided.
The factors which undermined the assemblies of classical Athens and revolutionary Paris require very little discussion. In both cases the assembly mode of organization was broken up not only from without, but also from within—by the development of class antagonisms. There are no forms, however cleverly contrived, that can overcome the content of a given society. Lacking the material resources, the technology and the level of economic development to overcome class antagonisms as such, Athens and Paris could achieve an approximation of the forms of freedom only temporarily—and only to deal with the more serious threat of complete social decay.
[Whatever “social decay” is... anyway with the nod at “material resources,” he ties this to his overall post-scarcity argument.]
Both the ecclesia and the sections were undermined by the very conditions they were intended to check—property, class antagonisms and exploitation—but which they were incapable of eliminating. What is remarkable about them is that they worked at all, considering the enormous problems they faced and the formidable obstacles they had to overcome. (186)
He points out that Athens and Paris were large cities, not villages; this shows that these egalitarian forms were able to handle the complexity involved in running these urban centers (though he will contradict this at the end of the essay, with a call for the dissolution of large cities). Paris, like Athens, was run by amateurs, in this case working men who ran the assemblies after they had spent the day at labor:
There is no evidence that these assemblies and the committees they produced were inefficient or technically incompetent. On the contrary, they awakened a popular initiative, a resoluteness in action, and a sense of revolutionary purpose that no professional bureaucracy, however radical its pretensions, could ever hope to achieve.
Both added great cultural achievements to this:
The arena for these achievements was not the traditional state, structured around a bureaucratic apparatus, but a system of unmediated relations, a face-to-face democracy organized into public assemblies. (187)
Another issue in getting from “here” to “there” is our ability to imagine a more free society, to begin with:
The goal of dissolving propertied society, class rule, centralization, and the state is as old as the historical emergence of property, classes, and states. In the beginning, the rebels could look backward to clans, tribes, and federations; it was still a time when the past was closer at hand than the future. Then the past receded completely from man’s vision and memory, except perhaps as a lingering dream of the “golden age” or the “Garden of Eden.”
Thus the dream of liberation has come to be founded, not on memory but on imagination; it has become “speculative and theoretical, and like all strictly theoretical visions its content was permeated with the social material of the present.” He argues that this has resulted in the problems/absurdities of visions such as More’s Utopia, with its slaves, kings, etc., as well as the centralization and bureacratization of the Soviet Union as a once-revolutionary experiment.
In envisioning the complete dissolution of the existing society, we cannot get away from the question of power—be it power over our own lives, the “seizure of power,” or the dissolution of power. In going from the present to the future, from “here” to “there,” we must ask: what is power? Under what conditions is it dissolved? And what does its dissolution mean? How do the forms of freedom, the unmediated relations of social life, emerge from a statified society, a society in which the state of unfreedom is carried to the point of absurdity—to domination for its own sake? (188)
He emphasizes the historical lesson that almost all revolutions were spontaneous: “Whosoever calls himself a revolutionist and does not study these events on their own terms, thoroughly and without theoretical preconceptions, is a dilettante who is playing at revolution.”
Nearly all the great revolutions came from below, from the molecular movement of the “masses,” their progressive individuation and their explosion—an explosion which invariably took the authoritarian “revolutionists” completely by surprise. (189)
There can be no separation of the revolutionary process from the revolutionary goal. A society based on self-administration must be achieved by means of self-administration.
B articulates his concept of a revolutionary “self”:
This implies the forging of a self (yes, literally a forging in the revolutionary process) and a mode of administration which the self can possess.
... “selfhood” is not only a personal dimension but also a social one. The self that finds expression in the assembly and community is, literally, the assembly and community that has found self-expression—a complete congruence of form and content.
“If we define “power” as the power of man over man, power can only be destroyed by the very process in which man acquires power over his own life and in which he not only “discovers” himself but, more meaningfully, formulates his selfhood in all its social dimensions.
Again, this can only be achieved by “molecular” action from below, not imposed or “delivered” by the plans of a revolutionary vanguard:
Assembly and community must arise from within the revolutionary process itself; indeed, the revolutionary process must be the formation of assembly and community...
Assembly and community must be recognized as “modes of struggle” not “theoretical or programatic abstractions" (190):
they will be the arenas of demassification, for the very essence of the revolutionary process is people acting as individuals.
[a touch of the 1960s Marcuse-esque, etc. language of mass vs individual in the above]
Two problems will then need to be faced: 1) the competing power of the existing bourgeois state from which the assemblies are attempting to be free; and 2) the “incipient state” or “tendency to create mediated social forms” which must be fought within the revolutionary organizations [to avoid the failures of the councils and earlier discussed forms]
The specific gravity of society, in short, must be shifted to its base—the armed people in permanent assembly. (190-1)
Here he critiques what he sees as the inherently counter-revolutionary aspect of the “modern bourgeois city,” in terms Merrifield takes issue with in his own book:
As long as the arena of the assembly is the modern bourgeois city, the revolution is faced with a recalcitrant environment. The bourgeois city, by its very nature and structure, fosters centralization, massification and manipulation. Inorganic, gargantuan, and organized like a factory, the city tends to inhibit the development of an organic, rounded community. In its role as the universal solvent, the assembly must try to dissolve the city itself. (191)
As first the young, then the old, leave to found “nuclear ecological communities,” the modern city “begins to shrivel, to contract and to disappear”. The factory, another artificial “particularized” creation of class relations, dissolves into the community.
The dissolution of the factory into the community completes the dissolution of the last vestiges of propertied, of class, and, above all, of mediated society into the new polis. And now the real drama of human life can unfold, in all its beauty, harmony, creativity and joy.