Some Assembly Required: Beyond False Conceptions of Democracy

By Two Toronto Members

Democracy is a term of primary importance to liberals and radicals alike, used as a means of justifying the legitimacy of their power or political position. Whether the ability of all citizens to make decisions extends only to allowing them to periodically vote for their leaders, or whether it reaches the perceived-radical level of people directly making decisions on issues that affect them, it is democracy nevertheless. Similar to politicians who justify the legitimacy of their rule by pointing to a successful election result, the left points to our positions being the will of the people – or at least it would be, leftists tell themselves, if the working class ever had the opportunity to make decisions for themselves.

In this radical race to the most-democratic democracy, anarchists claim that directly democratic structures are the best way for the working class to make decisions according to their collective class interests. As anarchist communists, we herald a federated structure of assemblies and councils who provide delegates carrying directly-determined mandates to higher-scale decision-making bodies as the ideal decision-making structure, both as a way to bolster the class in workers’ bodies under capitalism, and the way to run a post-revolutionary society.

With the prevalence of Occupy, and the successes of the Québec student strike being attributed to CLASSE’s federated general assembly model, the topic of direct democracy has in the past couple years reached beyond the realm of anarchist lip-service, and become a more broadly talked about concept in the media, on the left, within universities and amongst community organizing bodies. What remains unclear is the political content of these discussions. Are leftists just looking to legitimize their positions and actions, as any politician does, by saying theirs is the will of the people, or is a true anarchist position being put forward: a decision-making process that assists in building an empowered working class ready for militant direct action, and free of the hierarchies and oppressions that are endemic in the current capitalist liberal democracy? One of these is revolutionary; the other is not.

As a mobilizing tactic, the general assembly model of CLASSE has been proven effective, but what we are left to contend with is whether these directly-democratic spaces are inherently positive and productive, and if not, how it is that we, as anti-authoritarian leftists, are to engage with these bodies. In a context where the working class is inculcated with bourgeois, patriarchal, and white supremacist mentalities, it may be that people will not make the decisions that we think are right or even in their own best interest. The balance that must be struck for any revolutionary anti-authoritarian leftist is to remain antiauthoritarian in this context, while confronting and not capitulating to, backwards politics. Without either idealizing or condescending to the working class, we must push for direct democracy while identifying that it is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for revolution to occur.

Assemblies in recent and historical times


As Occupy spread throughout North America in 2011, the concept of general assemblies garnered a lot of attention, and in many places, provided an easy target for those with the preconceived notion that direct democracy doesn’t work:decisions don’t get made; it’s slow and messy; marginalized people and minorities will be bulldozed by those in hegemonic positions; and in the end, nothing will get done.

In many ways, the Occupy general assemblies provided a quintessential example of how to utilize direct democracy in an ineffective way, especially for the development of radical politics. Though we want to avoid putting an undue level of focus on rules of order as a solution to political or social problems, putting thought into the structural elements of decision-making bodies is important - not so that we can avoid confronting more fundamental problems, but so that we create the best environment in which to do so.

At its inception, Occupy was a movement based on the assembly as a space of consensus decision-making. The idea behind this was that it would facilitate discussion and the creation of ideas, and ensure that minority opinions were not being ignored in the conversation. Although consensus is often seen as a friendlier and more inclusive way of making decisions, what is not being recognized are the often coercive and bullying aspects of this process, especially in large groups. People were told that to “block” or disagree with a proposal meant they were willing to leave the movement if that decision was made. The social pressure to not express dissent can create a false consensus, rather than inspiring the healthy expression of disagreement, and developing a culture of confronting reactionary or oppressive ideas. Most manifestations of Occupy soon realized that the ability of an individual to block the work of a large group of people was not practical or even principled, and switched to a modified consensus where a 90% majority vote was required to make decisions.

Though voting models also do not ensure that a culture of debate and the confrontation of ideas develop, it provides a better framework for this to happen. As Occupy Oakland expressed, “[t]he bulk of the work of
Occupy Oakland does NOT happen in the General Assembly. It happens in various committees, caucuses, and associated groups that report back to the general assembly.” It is outside of a general assembly that much of the real work, the real education, and the real debate has to take place.

It was those Occupy movements, such as Occupy Oakland, who were willing formulate a more explicit and specific political position that were able to create movements capable of initiating a port shutdown in conjunction with a one-day general strike, fight against foreclosures, and take action against community issues like police brutality. This is not to say that Occupy Oakland was a uniform group of people. As with many other Occupy encampments, anarchists were singled out as a destructive or divisive element. Particularly, the act of property destruction became a point of contention within the movement, with certain members of Occupy calling on people to unmask, photograph and physically attack anyone seen to be participating in black bloc tactics. In the spirit of openly confronting and not capitulating to backwards views, the response on the Occupy Oakland website, put forward by the Anti-Repression Committee, did not resort to some vague call for a diversity of tactics, but encouraged debate about tactics, while cautioning against Occupy Oakland members doing the work of the state to criminalize, demonize or persecute fellow activists.

In other Occupy camps, the lack of political direction and action was not just a product of the inefficiencies of their assembly model structure, but also of an unwillingness to clarify and develop the politics of the group beyond the populist 1% and corporate greed rhetoric. Leftists at Occupy Toronto often tried to incorporate their pre-existing activist struggles into the 1% rhetoric, as opposed to developing and challenging the politics of Occupy itself. Though we are not saying that Occupy Toronto was an ideal or even worthwhile space to organize in, this leads us to the question of what is the best way for radicals to push discourse forward in uninitiated organizing spaces.

The Québec student strike of 2012

The politics of the Québec student movement, as put forward by ASSE, involved an escalation of radical ideas and tactics throughout the strike of 2012. Embedded deep in their movement was the fundamental importance of direct democracy, to the extent that it became a defining characteristic, and a point of collective pride within their movement. It was the strength of this culture that prevented the strike from being demobilized when substandard deals presented by the government were brought back to their membership for a vote. As we know from labour disputes, a membership is highly likely to vote to accept a proposal once it goes to a ratification vote. Union leaderships who are attempting to demobilize their membership, and prevent a strike will often claim that they are being democratic and deferring to the will of the membership. They are aware, though, that their membership is disempowered and has been inculcated with a deference to authority based on an executive-heavy workers’ institution, and an expertise-modeled grievance process. Consequently, this appeal to the will of membership is an act of lip-service with a convenient conservatizing effect on the decision to be made. This is not, however, how things initially played out with the direct democracy, direct action-based ASSE, who made up the core and basis of the coalition CLASSE that was strategically created for the purpose of strike mobilization.

In April of 2012, leftists in Ontario were holding their breath after word had come in that an offer from the Liberal government in Québec was being brought back to the general assemblies of CLASSE for a vote: “would this be the end of the 2012 Québec student strike?”, we worried, based on our knowledge of how this power dynamic so often plays out in our own worker bodies here. We couldn’t have knowledge of how this plays out in our own student organizations, as no such struggle has ever occurred in Ontario. However, after a series of assemblies and the CLASSE delegate conference, the vote was unanimous: they rejected the government’s settlement. We had underestimated the extent of the political development that had occurred and the strength of their resolve, bolstered by their strong assembly model.

Beginning years earlier, ASSE began their plans to mobilize against an announced tuition increase. The idea was to reinvigorate the general assembly model and to increase support for the strike through autonomous organizing bodies known as mobilization committees. These mobilizing committees generally existed outside the sanctioned structures of their student unions or associations. Many students at the time were unaware of the planned tuition hike, and especially at the anglo schools, they were unaware or unsupportive of student strikes as a tactic of resistance. Before a strike could happen, this had to be dealt with.

The heavy-lifting of the organizing work done to contend with this was not done through well-worded interventions in assemblies, though this can be important. Rather, it was done through one-on-one conversations, on-the-ground mobilizations, and a concerted, sustained effort to argue with, present information, and listen to fellow students.

There was a dedication to honesty about what a strike would entail, and an unwavering commitment to argue that these were risks worth taking. This was all essential work that happened outside assembly spaces, and was done with the intention of involving as many students as possible in the struggle.

The escalation of tactics that occurred was a clear one. They tried petitions; they tried rallies; they tried one day strikes, the whole time making the political and strategic argument that what they required was an action without a time limit – an unlimited general strike that would end when the tuition hike was revoked. The escalation of ideas that occurred was even more ingenious. There was a progression of messaging from the mobilization committees depending on the political culture within departments or a particular school. The general trajectory went from arguments against this tuition hike, to critiques of the austerity agenda, to the role of education as public good, to being against tuition entirely and ending up in a clear anti-capitalist sentiment. Combining this anti-capitalism with their direct action orientation and basis of direct democracy, this was a movement made for (and actually, in a large way by) anarchists.

With CLASSE, and even more so ASSE, there was a clear basis of unity. To join, a student association must have voted on a strike mandate through a general assembly, ensuring that they practice direct democracy, and furthermore, must ensure that their student association meets the following criteria: they must have a mandate to resist any increase in tuition costs with the goal of free education; the general assembly must be the supreme decision-making authority of the student association; the student body must vote to join CLASSE in the general assembly or a referendum; a financial contribution is made to CLASSE; and that they are willing to hold a meeting to vote on the idea of having an unlimited general strike. The reason for these principles was that the goal in creating CLASSE was to expand the strike beyond just ASSE, without watering down the politics in such a way to make further participation unhelpful.

What ASSE proved more than anything else was that a smaller association with better politics is more valuable than a larger association which lacks political cohesion - or lacks the will to see things through utilizing militant tactics. With all of this being done right and with CLASSE reaching such amazing heights of mobilization, what then went wrong with the Québec student strike that led to students becoming demobilized when an election was called? We would argue that it was a consolidation of strategic and political power within the executive of ASSE.

Though they claimed to act only as spokespeople and facilitators, directed by the mandates of their membership, there were clear leaders of the Québec student strike of 2012. The executive of ASSE still possesses a level of power that does not truly meet anarchist ideals, and in the end, this was the undoing of the strike. Though this dynamic was unclear to many anarchist outsiders during the strike,we finally saw touches of it playing out in CLASSE as the strike votes failed, and the elements of the structure that were counter to our anarchistic principles became evident.

Word has now spread that the poster child of the Québec student strike, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois colluded early in the struggle with unions and politicians to direct the mobilizations of CLASSE towards an electoral end. Rather than argue the facts of this case, we should analyze not the details of exactly how this happened, but why it is that an individual in a directly democratic institution would even hold such power. This is a structural liability from an anarchist perspective: the executive of the institution, whose job is to ensure that the mandates of the assemblies are followed, should not also be responsible for the strategic orientation of the larger body. In struggles, it is essential that there is long-term strategic political planning, but this shouldn’t be delegated to those who possess official positions within the institution. Historically, a solution to this problem has been the creation of specific anarchist organizations. However, this leads to its own particular set of considerations and concerns - a critical point being whether the strategies of the anarchist organization are implemented through control of power positions, or through argument in open assembly spaces with the rank-and-file.

The CNT and the Spanish Civil War

When thinking about the problem of reformism as a current that must be addressed within assembly-based revolutions, one of the most salient examples for anarchists is the Spanish Revolution of 1936. While the CNT succeeded in broadening the anarcho-syndicalist conception of sites of production to include neighbourhoods, an anemic anarchist ideology persisted within the organization in regards to the state and representative democracy. What was proposed in 1927 was a separate anarchist organization the FAI (Federación Anarquista Ibérica), which would attempt to direct the ideological development of the CNT. This directive did not, however, develop through thorough integration within the CNT rank-and-file, but focused instead on taking control within a developing representative leadership, which ultimately may have been the undoing of the revolution itself.

As the more politically developed anarchists aimed to take power within the CNT, they were unable to contend with a growing membership that was not averse to narrow economistic concerns or reformist politics, which were swelling the ranks as the revolution took root. Ultimately, this led to reformists being elected to the CNT leadership, and some of these so called leaders joining a popular front government. Though the popular front government was largely in ruins after the July days, the CNT reformists decided not to disband it, and left to recover, it eventually acted to take control of key sites of production and propaganda through military action. These incidents led to many CNT militants leaving the front to fight against newly strengthened republican forces back in Barcelona, and their traitorous acts. It is perhaps hyperbole to claim this is the only factor that contributed to the fall of anarchist Spain; fascist forces of both Germany and Italy were ready, along with Franco, to crush revolutionary forces in Catalonia - but the CNT leadership joining the popular front government certainly weakened the revolution, as elements of the CNT went back to Catalonia to defend their once secure gains. What is highlighted here, is the danger of both structural representational leadership, and the weakness of political neutrality, or more precisely a lack of strong political development within the ranks.

What remains interesting about the CNT’s faltering in regards to disbanding the republic was that it was not just a byproduct of its reformist leadership, but also its fear that this was a form of ‘substitutionalism’, as the CNT’s membership represented slightly less than half of the working class at the time. Anarchists have always been wary of substituting themselves for the class, as this is the hallmark of vanguardism, but the nature of the state itself is a form of the very substitutionalism they feared. State forms of representation, regardless of their proclaimed political character must never be understood as true representatives of the class. This very substitution is a Bolshevik turn, which lead to the dismantling of the Soviet system of democracy following the 1917 revolution.

An anarchist approach to revolution is that the so-called false consciousness of the class can never be ameliorated by a vanguard party state, elected or otherwise. No state is capable of reorganizing society so that false consciousness is destroyed: it is the very process of building assemblies and councils towards collective self-management of the economy and all aspects of daily life that ensures revolutionary consciousness. These organs of a new society will not necessarily be revolutionary unless their growth is integrated with a developing and explicit anarchist politics within their ranks. At the crucial moment, the state cannot be left as the supposed representative of the class - as it is this final hesitation that has led to the downfall of some of the most promising revolutionary moments in history.

The Industrial Workers of the World

The IWW in North America exhibits similar flaws to the CNT, but in what is possibly a more extreme form. The CNT has a rule in its constitution that no one who is a member of a political party can hold an officer position within the union. It is for the same reason that the IWW does not allow, in their constitution, to be associated with a political group or tendency: to keep out the Socialist and Communist parties. Though there is nothing wrong with these declarations, these types of rules are only valuable when they are at the behest of a rank-and-file who have participated in a political debate around the subject, and not the attempts of a political vanguard to safeguard themselves against co-option through the use of rules instead of rank-and-file development. These political tendencies need to be contended with openly, and in a group like the IWW who have historically had large turnover in membership, these political debates need to be had often.

Particularly in the United States - where there was a peak membership in the 1920s of approximately 40,000 members with a sharp decline in the late 20s - what needs to be acknowledged about these membership figures is that people often joined the IWW during strikes in their place of work, but didn’t stick around much after that. When their militancy saw better results than more institutionalized and conservative labour organizations like the American Federation of Labour, people were glad to sign a card, but a sustained membership requires sustained political development outside of these struggles over immediate material benefit. As radical institutions, we certainly must produce results to prove our efficacy, but to continue the struggle we must fight against the syndicalist tendency to ignore ideas, instead of contending with them.

This dynamic of high-turnover rank-and-file membership, and the maintenance of the membership of a cadre of dedicated leftists has affected the modern state of the IWW. Currently, there is a tendency towards one of two branch dynamics: the first, the existence of a small radical wobbly branch who still hold illusions in making large numbers of workers and workplaces in their city unionized under the IWW. If they were successful in doing so, the likely result would be an intellectual and political vanguard within a wobbly branch who would determine the overall strategic orientation of the organization, while their rank-and-file members dealt only with organizing within their own workplace. The second is that the wobblies act as a radical cadre within, more often than not, an already unionized environment and push towards workplace councils and more radical action, while either trying to radicalize their legal union, or acting pretty much autonomously from it. The latter is arguably less politically questionable than the former, but the real point is that the IWW needs to decide what it wants to be.

Often, anarchists say that the IWW is “basically” an anarchist union, but we should think critically about what we mean by that. It certainly argues for more militant workplace action, wildcat strikes, and increased worker control of the workplace, but it also has a central executive board that has full power and authority over all IWW publications, guides policy, and oversees the organization between yearly conventions. On a local level, with its current insular form, there is a significant risk of the creation of an unofficial political leadership if their membership does ever swell with rank-and-file workers. And as we’ve seen from the example of the CNT and the IWW in the early 20th century, the near-apolitical syndicalist idea that through industrial unionism, we will have a revolution is insufficient. On top of workplace struggle, there must be concerted effort put towards the empowerment of the rank-and-file in strategic and political debate. As we noted with ASSE, direct democracy hasn’t gone far enough if a membership is only ratifying motions or deciding when to take a particular action, but is otherwise absent in the highest level of political conversations happening within an organization.

The Movement for Justice in El Barrio

The Movement for Justice in El Barrio is a community group in New York, founded by mostly immigrants and low-income people of colour to fight against gentrification and displacement in East Harlem, inspired by the structures and organizing methodology of the Zapatistas. Based on principles of autonomy, self-determination and participatory democracy, they are a perfect example of an organization that is not explicitly anarchist, but which works using democratic principles that are so in-line with our politics that we should see them as a near-optimal mass organization. Though they largely focus on protest, not direct action, and have utilized legal action where it seems beneficial, they have taken a strong stance against electoralism as a solution to the problems that they face. The fundamental element of their organization is assemblies based out of buildings. In order to join the Movement for Justice in El Barrio, they require that 50% of a building’s tenants wish to join.

Organizing in a grassroots, non-activist heavy space, they have managed a principled and firm position against white supremacy, patriarchy, and hetero and gender-normative chauvinism. Particularly, they describe themselves as fighting “for the liberation of women, immigrants, gays, lesbians, the transgender community, people of color, and indigenous communities.” Their way of enforcing this within organizing spaces and assemblies has not been through policies or equity statements, but by confronting the bigotry and chauvinism of people in their community head-on, and prioritizing it as an essential part of their struggle. For instance, in buildings with entrenched racism between hispanic and black tenants, they have prioritized the creation of mixed race committees to deal with the organizing or logistical work of the assembly. Their thought being that if people who have reservations about each other based on cultural differences or preconceived bigoted notions could work together on projects where they have a common goal, their racism or even just racially insular behaviour would be broken down, and a collective free of this intra-class expression of racial oppression would be achieved. They also readily admit that there is no step-by-step guide on how to deal with oppressive behaviour. To do so requires people to be dynamic and responsive. What is clear is that these issues must be prioritized and contended with; that these won’t be easy to deal with; and that to not do so will provide fault lines within our organizing body that will be utilized by the ruling class to create cross-class alliances with working class people in order to subjugate people of particular races, genders and sexualities.

This is not to say, as the CNT national secretary Galo Díez Fernández argues in his treatise “The ideological essence of syndicalism” that there is a revolutionary need to re-educate women because they are a weak point, even a reformist liability, in the class. In fact, it’s closer to the opposite. By dealing with issues of white supremacy, patriarchy, and hetero and gender-normative chauvinism expressed within the working class, it prevents more privileged members of the class from being the easy target for cross-class alliances. Consequently, it is the more privileged workers who form the weak points in the class, as they are the most likely to both be offered this kind of buy-off, and the most likely to sell out their fellow workers - who they anachronistically see as lesser, or as a liability in struggle.

The Appropriate Revolutionary Anarchist Orientation

Of the examples above, we argue that revolutionary anarchist principles of democracy are most active within the Movement for Justice in El Barrio. A troubling conclusion for us, in that the others are almost universally granted a distinct democratic standing by anarchists. More troubling is anarchists uncritically aspiring to democratic standards that, upon further examination, leave much to be desired, and the prospect of being blindsided time and again by the inherent deficiencies born of a refusal to take on the sacrosanct standing of historical movements that, while they achieved much, ultimately fell short of victory for similar reasons. Assemblies are often used by political vanguards or executive committees to validate their positions, and to increase the mobilization of the masses to benefit the organizing of radicals, without the true empowerment of the rank-and-file through political development, debate and decision-making. This is evident structurally, through the consolidation of intellectual and strategic work in executives and political vanguards; in the end, this leaves movements open to co-option by less radical groups or individuals, and vulnerable to state-initiated demobilization via the presentation of electoral solutions.

If we insist on seeing the downfall of the CNT or the failures of ASSE as products of unique circumstance, and refuse to criticize them because they got closer to success than we have in Ontario, we fall into the same trap as state communists and Stalinists who claim that the downfall of the Soviet Union was exceptional, and not a clear product of their politics or the logical end-result of a particular trajectory. We identify the flaws of their political orientation, not to be armchair revolutionaries and shit on everything from the sideline, but so that we can do things right by identifying the best way forward. If and when we fail, we should critique ourselves just as harshly, because the goal here isn’t just to pat each other on the back, but to have a revolution.

We must fight to break down formal and informal leadership structures as they develop within directly democratic bodies. We need to be constantly vigilant about the formation of an intellectual elite, or political vanguard who keep higher level strategic concerns away from the rank-and-file. Strategic political planning is required for success, but should not be delegated to those in official positions, carried out behind closed doors and out-of-reach of the general membership. Here is where we see the value of specific anarchist organizations to participate in strategic conversation, but who can only have these plans enacted if they win the battle of ideas in an open, democratic forum. We must constantly remind ourselves that even though taking control through power positions may lead to short term gains, if the development of the general membership hasn’t reached the same level, it will most definitely lead to long-term failure.

Anarchists need to question more deeply whether the groups we label anarchist actually are. The problem with the CNT isn’t that they didn’t call themselves anarchist, but in critical ways and at critical times, they didn’t act like anarchists. Similarly, with ASSE, we see that groups that run in a directly democratic fashion and who espouse direct action as their main tactic may still exhibit a consolidation of power and a deference to authority that will be their undoing. So even though what they did was better – even much better – than other political organizations, the weaknesses of these movements are clear, and in fact, are almost too politically convenient for us anarchists. They failed because they weren’t anarchist enough.

A reader of this piece may be forgiven if they conclude these to be the uninvested criticisms of hair-splitting armchair revolutionaries... it is not. As organizers, the concerns and conclusions herein should and do intimidate us. History has time and again attempted to clarify for us that there are no shortcuts to an informed, empowered working class movement, and there are no revolutionary tricks or slights of hand that will lead to revolution. Anarchist communism is a long haul that need necessarily build and root itself in popular institutions capable of mounting a truly democratic resistance that can take power on its own behalf. It follows that we can’t take comfort in a moderately attended rally of activists or the removal from office of a particularly vicious politician. The temporary satisfaction we derive from a victorious power grab within our unions or militant one-off actions involving confrontations with police or the destruction of property are simply that – temporarily satisfying. Therein is what intimidates us. The small victories and misconceptions we afford ourselves may, in fact, be our undoing. The truth is, the revolution is a far way off and it will be a struggle every step of the way. We put forward this perspective not to be demoralizing or to put off action till later, but because if we can get past spinning our wheels in this type of short-term, satisfying work, we can begin to move towards the kind of organizing that will actually build something revolutionary.

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.