Why Revolutionaries Become Reactionaries

19 minute read

Anarchist individualism as we understand it – and I say we because a substantial handful of friends think this like me – is hostile to every school and every party, every churchly and dogmatic moral, as well as every more or less academic imbecility. Every form of discipline, rule and pedantry is repulsive to the sincere nobility of our vagabond and rebellious restlessness! — Renzo Novatore, Anarchist Individualism and the Social Revolution

The first important effect of taking a new perspective on anarchism, like the general perspective I described in the introduction to this series, is always going to be that it changes one’s understanding of the proper methods for achieving anarchy. After all, one of the most important aspects of anarchism is that its methods prefigure its goals — anarchist organizing is an exercise in practice and demonstration, showing why and how a world without authority is possible by demonstrating that things can be achieved through horizontal means. Thus, when one’s understanding of anarchism changes, so, too, must one’s understanding of how to go about achieving anarchism! Once you start seeing anarchism as an ongoing process of learning, adaptation, and experimentation, responsive to local conditions and particular needs, instead of a project of social planning, you will quickly start to see why an insurrection, not a revolution, is what is needed.

The Contradictions of Revolution

What is the difference between an insurrection and a revolution? The first hint is contained within the words themselves: a revolution aims at just exactly what it sounds like — revolving the wheel of history and society, exchanging the current unsatisfactory order for a new, different one. The aim is therefore not just to overthrow the hierarchy and domination of the current order, but to establish some new state of affairs. The simple rejection of authority does not place itself in authority over everyone else because it does not have a plan for how everyone else should live, just the simple rejection of anyone deciding how I live except for me. The rejection of authority alone institutes no positive ideas, only clears the space once held by fixed ideas so that new ideas can flourish and grow, as unique as the individual that thinks them. In comparison, the institution of a totalizing social plan must dictate how others choose to live, and so must either enforce their cooperation, over and against their interests, or it must convince them of itself as a fixed idea, without regard to their interests — either way, creating only more subjugation, more authority. This is the inherent contradiction to be found in revolutionary anarchism.

Since a revolution aims to establish a particular new vision of society in place of the old, with largely the same scope and generality, over mostly the same people, instead of just overthrowing the old system, it requires centralized organization, in order to make the intellectual and physical enforcement that it needs to ensure commonality possible, and in order to spread the social plan as much as possible so that enough of society supports it, as a sacred idea, so that they can actually implement it. This means that everyone must be organized under one Party or some other similar kind of authority. This is why you see, among revolutionary anarchists, the impulse to “mass movement politics” — the desire to appeal to as many people as possible, often by throwing marginalized and Othered people under the bus so as to attract “the masses” who are themselves responsible for that marginalization — which poisons so much discourse. The need to bring everyone under one roof, one ideology, and one organization, to ensure that everyone acts in unison toward the same idea, to ensure that the broad support needed to enact a totalizing social plan is achieved, and to avoid infighting over which single correct social plan will be adopted, as well as conflict through lack of coordination in what picture of society everyone is trying to achieve.

This is why revolutions have almost always come with purges of those who weren’t “with the program”: because everyone, even the ones purged, generally speaking, has the same idea in their head that a single plan must be enacted for the whole society, so when their understandings of the plan don’t align, conflict is unavoidable — they cannot merely live and let live. This is of course worse for authoritarian visions of revolution, but it is also, to one degree or another, implied by any totalizing vision of society after “the revolution.”

A demonstration of the necessity of successful revolutions purging all serious ideological competitors, which in turn demonstrates that such ideological centralization and authority is inherent in revolutions as a concept, we can look at the “power vacuum” supposedly left behind by the collapse or overthrow of states, which can occur, for example, when a revolution overturns a state without first establishing a centralized organization or Party with a unified vision of what must replace that state, through murdering or assimilating all their opposition. It is not that there is inherently a “power vacuum” in human society in the absence a state, after all — as if all human societies must, by some ineffable law of nature, have a state, as if every society has an invisible “hole” in its social structures where a state must go, like the Christian claim that “everyone has a God-shaped hole in their hearts”! To claim something like that is simply preposterous: humans are completely capable — and this has been seen historically! — of constructing a society without a state through establishing a culture of anti-authoritarianism, egalitarianism, and conscious leveling mechanisms, which would lead people to create a balance of power through a plurality of polycentric organizations to handle what functions the state performs now that are actually needed without the state itself creating distortions of the social fabric. The real reason these “power vacuums” form when states collapse is because nobody actually got rid of the statist totalizing mindset of the social planner — everyone assumes that somebody must rule the whole society, or if not somebody, at least some idea, some plan about how society should work, be it Kropotkinite anarchist communism or something else. This obviously creates conflict, because it makes everyone compete for the same thing — control of society — and it also creates complacency and prevents the formation of the social structures that could be capable of preventing unending social conflict.

How Revolutionaries Become Reactionaries

All of this is a damning enough indictment of a revolutionary mindset to someone seriously committed to anarchist principles, but we should also consider what a revolutionary, social planning approach to anarchism does to an anarchist society after the revolution. In particular, the fact that it is always the most fervent revolutionaries, those most committed to whatever glorious ideal they espouse, that become the staunchest reactionaries after the revolution. As Novatore says,

every form of society, born from the fragments of the old one that fell resoundingly into the void, has the conviction that it is the only perfect one. And it is precisely this dogma of perfection that drives [it] to be so utterly reactionary toward the restless Rebel who does not at all intend to bow before the new God… wouldn’t a very large portion of those who pretend to be furiously revolutionary today, themselves be the fiercest reactionary conservatives of tomorrow? — Renzo Novatore, Cry of Rebellion

Why does this happen? It flows naturally from the flawed nature of social planning in the first place.

People who are facing a certain problem getting together and trying to figure out how to fix it is fine; so is theorizing about the various ways different problems could be solved, as long as no one tries to prescribe those theories as the only correct way to do it. Those are not the senses of social planning I mean. Instead, I am referring to the distinct phenomenon of constructing a theoretical set of social norms and institutions, as I’ve been discussing, which one believes to be the single correct method of organizing, or nearly so, and therefore wishes to see become the uniform, totalizing blueprint after which society is modeled. The natural anarchist response to such social planning is, or should be, to follow Novatore, when he says:

To all those demagogues of politics and of philosophy that carry in their pockets a beautiful system made by mortgaging a corner of the future, we respond with Bakunin: Oafs and weaklings! Every duty that they would like to impose on us we will furiously trample under our sacrilegious feet. Every shady phantom that they would place before our eyes, greedy for light, we will angrily rip up with our daringly profaning hands. — Renzo Novatore, Anarchist Individualism and the Social Revolution

Like Novatore, if someone presents me with an absolute plan for society which must be followed to the letter, even if it is amenable to my sensibilities and interests, my instinct must always be to “trample it under my sacrilegious feet,” because I refuse to bow, or ask anyone else to bow, to an idea. But it is not only for purely egoistic reasons that social planning is antithetical to anarchy. Totalizing social plans are also inherently authoritarian, because they always require top-down enforcement, with the accompanying tendency to centralization, even after the revolution, just like they do before the revolution.

The Failure of Social Planning

Totalizing social plans require top-down enforcement because they cannot naturally maintain themselves in the face of the natural pressures of local or even individual conditions, desires, knowledge, and experience. They are also not flexible enough to allow the sort of ongoing social experimentation and learning, the decentralized spread and sharing of new ideas and ways of doing things, that are fluidly and naturally adopted by those for whom the ideas work, that makes progress in society possible. That kind of fluid experimentation and change can only exist in opposition to and rebellion against totalizing social plans, only in the plan’s blind spots and interstices, and that simply isn’t enough. Moreover, social plans are not flexible enough to incorporate the knowledge and experience that is the fruit of such experimentation, and so it must inevitably reveal itself as unsatisfactory and outdated, and fall to yet another revolution.

There is no solid common foundation on which to safely situate a social plan. Everyone has unique and incommensurable life experiences, different situations, a different perspective, and unique values, personal interests, and causes. No matter how rational everyone is (if rationality is even to be taken as a necessarily good thing!), we are all ultimately living in our own worlds, our own incommensurate spheres of subjectivity, constructing our understandings of the world using different data and assumptions, our own different standpoints or starting places, and can never completely overcome that, since rationality itself is merely a tool that uncovers what is already contained within its premises. This means that rational disagreement between individuals is not only possible, but inevitable, even if not all perspectives are inherently “equal.” We will inevitably not only arrive at a different understanding of what the costs and benefits of any social system are, but will evaluate even the costs and benefits that are identified intersubjectively differently. This is especially true for something like social norms and institutions, which often effect people in very personal and far-reaching, and also very disparate, ways, and the evaluation of which often requires detailed and epistemically uncertain speculation about things like sociology, economics, and history.

It is common for social planners to appeal to the results of “science” as the common, objective, universal knowledge which can be used to guide a totalizing social plan, but this technocratic tendency is inherently flawed at its base. First of all, all science that is relevant to the organization of human societies can only speak about averages, ranges, and probabilities. Thus there are always the exceptional cases, where the broad generalizations which science can make about human life break down, and in such cases the unique and marginalized, the outliers, must either be ground to dust beneath the almighty heel of the scientific priesthood, or they must be given the tools to decide for themselves what must be done. Science can tell us what is common, but not what is absolute, and it can tell us what means typically achieve which ends, but such instrumental knowledge must always begin by assessing the environment and the actual situation: does the situation we have here match up with the preconditions for the application of this scientific knowledge? And that must be left up to those who have the most knowledge about such a situation. Furthermore, science cannot actually tell us what to value — what is important, and that will always differ between people and communities. Thus science can offer choices, can help us build out the payoff matrix, but ultimately the decision returns to us as to what to do. Thus, science can play the role of advisor, but it can never assume the absolute station of ruler, because there will always be some implicit assumptions about values hidden behind that rulership, deciding how to act on the practical advice that science provides; even those who claim to be only practical, neutral, and objective, when they make science-based suggestions, are doing so based on implicit values, just values that they haven’t made transparent or haven’t even examined themselves. You can value aiding people’s own individual lives, fulfillment, bolstering and strengthening their choices about how they want to live, for instance, or you can value enforcing statistical averageness, normality, on everyone, or something else entirely.

In the face of this inevitable disagreement, what can a social planner do but either cease to be a social planner, or become a reactionary?

They can attempt to add more and more details and nuance to their plans to make sure that the plan is always beneficial to each person and community to follow, so that it does not need to be enforced but, on the whole, follows naturally in enough cases that it enforces itself, but that is a failing task. Such an attempt is impossible. Trying to explicitly include all of the local and individual conditions, needs, histories, experiences, perspectives, desires, and interests necessary, as well as allowing the proper experimentation and adaptability, and integrating the fruits of that, is a Sisyphean job — you will always leave something to be desired. Eventually, as Proudhon understood, trying to do that will inexorably lead to the dissolution of the social plan, and its transformation into a sort of general social theory.

This is partly because of the limitations of the human mind and human life-span and time, and partly because the very project of creating a social plan is inherently that of abstraction to principles and reduction to generalizations, the process of removing details and simplifying categorizations (details and distinctions which might be very important at the local scale) in order to make a comprehensible large scale picture. The process of removing detail is inherently in conflict with the process of adding it back, and either one or the other must be annihilated for the project to come to completion — either you create a map that exactly corresponds to the territory, and render it laughably useless, or you simplify the map but make it flexible and up to the people that have full knowledge of the piece of territory they are on to decide how to use the map! To quote a cliche, the map is not and cannot be the territory, and pretending that it can be is the road to disaster. In light of all this, the would-be social planner will be forced to create a more open theory, with space for personality, adaptation, and experimentation — thus creating a social theory instead of a social plan. A toolkit that suggests and offers advice, that shows what the natural result of doing some thing or other might be, ready to be filled in and modified by the specifics of the situation, instead of a commanding assertion of what must be done.

Within this theory, it will be easier to rule out what cannot work — what cannot serve everyone’s interests because it requires domination and hierarchy — than to outline what exactly will, which is exactly what you see in my philosophy and in Neo-Proudhonian theory in general. This is a fundamental insight, I think, and why individual autonomy and the anarchic encounter are the twin keys that I see as the main positive thrust of my anarchism: it is only in clearing the space for individual experimentation and decision-making that it is possible to create a society that is truly free and treats the interests of all equally, meeting everyone’s needs. This is why I like to say that the way that guides is not the constant way: anything specific enough to provide meaningful guidance in a particular situation is also specific enough to be no longer applicable somewhere.

Failed Social Plans Make Reactionaries

The other alternative for the social planner is, of course, to become a reactionary — to enforce from above the simplified social plan they have in mind, inevitably benefiting some at the cost of others and subjugating everyone to an idea, thereby creating social distortions that will eventually bubble up into disobedience which will need to be put down in an endless war against the very people the planner sought to “save” through their plan. This, ultimately, must spiral out of control into the destruction of the society itself, through another revolution (or, it is to be hoped, insurrection). As Proudhon says:

All ideas are false, that is to say contradictory and irrational, if one takes them in an exclusive and absolute sense, or if one allows oneself to be carried away by that sense; all are true, susceptible to realization and use, if one takes them together with others, or in evolution.

Thus, whether you take for the dominant law of the Republic, either property, like the Romans, or communism, like Lycurgus, or centralization, like Richelieu, or universal suffrage, like Rousseau,—whatever principle you choose, since in your thought it takes precedence over all the others,—your system is erroneous. There is a fatal tendency to absorption, to purification, exclusion, stasis, leading to ruin. There is not a revolution in human history that could not be easily explained by this. — Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, The Philosophy of Progress

This is how it is already, under the current state, which wages an endless counter-insurgency war against its own populace in order to maintain the gross inequalities and power imbalances that have been created as a result of, ultimately, Western Enlightenment and Christian social planning. This enforcement can take the form of social pressure and intolerance, the distributed consequences so necessary to enforcing anything in society being adapted to the task of the suppression of the different, anything that falls outside the lines of the plan; but it will always eventually transform, once the distortions get worse than any possible social censure could be, into outright ongoing violence.

What I have just described is, unfortunately, precisely the most natural outcome for the fervent revolutionary. In order to become a revolutionary, you must have a social plan or set of institutions you wish to establish, and you must be confident in the perfection of your system, comfortable in the knowledge of its eternal capacity to fulfill the needs of all people, or its supremacy over needs. Thus you must become blinded to other valid ways of organizing social forces anarchistically, deafened to the needs and interests of people — in other words, possessed by a fixed idea of what society must look like. Then, once this end-state is achieved, you will become dead set against any change, because your perfect idea of society has been achieved at last! To allow it to change now would be to have it move away from your social plan, your desired end-state for society, and thus would be as bad as letting the revolution go to waste, to fail, and you cannot allow that to happen. Thus, you must protect it against change at all costs, just as smug in your assurance that this social arrangement must be the right one as the capitalist apologists are today, which ultimately leads you down the same path of hierarchical, top-down enforcement.


Thus, both before and after “the revolution,” a revolutionary mindset creates subjugation to an idea: it must introduce a hierarchy of thought, an incorporeal rulership over the individual will, which in turn often leads to a very corporeal sort of rulership, with the accompanying need for both intellectual and physical enforcement to ensure that everyone stays in line. “The revolution was not directed against the existent, but against this existent, against a particular existence.” Therefore, revolutionary anarchism is internally inconsistent, at odds with itself, as its means lead to exactly the opposite of the ends which it wishes to achieve. It inevitably leads to an inflexible, suspicious, conservative society which does not allow any change or experimentation, any learning. This is why prefigurative politics, the application of properly and truly anarchist means in the struggle for anarchism against capitalism and the state is so crucially important.

The solution to all this is to adopt an insurrectionary perspective on anarchism, which necessarily means an egoist, individualist perspective, one that does not see moral imperatives and social plans, societies and obligations, but instead sees individual desires and forces. Unlike a revolution, an insurrection is merely the destruction of the old order, the elimination of hierarchy and domination through direct action, sabotage, asymmetrical warfare, resistance, strike, self-defense and community defense, all done in solidarity or individually, with no need for a central thrust or organization. Its purpose is to fertilize the fields of society with its blood and tears so that a million individual arrangements can flourish and grow, not planned, nor ruled by any system. To quote Stirner, “the revolution is aimed at new arrangements, while the insurrection leads us to no longer let ourselves be arranged, but rather to arrange ourselves.” Thus, while revolution creates absolutism and the struggle for power through the assumption that a new system must be put in place, insurrection does away with all that. Insurrectionary anarchism has none of the internal contradictions that revolutionary anarchism has, and thus, especially in light of the idea that justice arises from the proper conditions, not out of particular formulas or outcomes, it is obvious that insurrectionary means are the only proper way to achieve anarchist ends.

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