On Authority: Mistakes of Interpretation

A lot of anarchists will, in responding to Engels’ On Authority, say that his points are all good and well, but that that’s not what they mean when they talk about authority — this is a rebuke (“rebuke,” rather) so common and orthodox it can be found in Bakunin. This supposed response is laughable, as, firstly, Engels directly ridicules it in the text itself (one would be inclined to think they never even bothered to properly read it at all…):

“When I submitted arguments like these to the most rabid anti-authoritarians, the only answer they were able to give me was the following: Yes, that’s true, but there it is not the case of authority which we confer on our delegates, but of a commission entrusted! These gentlemen think that when they have changed the names of things they have changed the things themselves. This is how these profound thinkers mock at the whole world.”

That I am even writing these words at all, let alone the many conversations and interactions I’ve had over the years which have contributed to my doing so, is proof enough that the discourse has advanced precisely nowhere in the intervening 148 years, and that the anarchist response to us today is just as basic, and just as insufficient (indeed it is broadly identical) as the anarchist response one and a half centuries ago. If change in the face of scrutiny and new data is the mark of a theory’s coming into cognitive contact with reality, anarchism, on this, central issue at least, is clearly rather detached. To return to the point, however: secondly, and more seriously, this attempt at wriggling out of Engels’ critique (a smarmy, vapid attempt worthy of a theologian) shows that the anarchist has entirely missed the point. Engels is not saying that their definition of authority is wrong, per se, and that the Marxists’ is right, but rather that the entire category of authority, so employed, is meaningless: we Marxists are not arguing for one definition against another, but rather, we are arguing against the entire concept as a legitimate basis for the analysis of social and economic forms at all. This is why the Marxist conclusion is that ‘[t]he errors of the authoritarians and the errors of the libertarians are in principle equally metaphysical’; authority is a subjective measure, in any analysis, and subjectivity can never be the basis of an objective science (and if we are not attempting to elevate political action to a science, then what is the point? We may as well be ethicists!). If anarchists are anti-authoritarian, and Marxists are opposed to anarchists, then that must mean Marxists are pro-authoritarians, or at least pro-authority in certain circumstances; so runs the naïve line of thinking not just of many anarchists, but of a great many would-be Marxists too. Thus, the label of the “authoritarian left.” This is wrong. On the question of authority, Marxists have no stake in the “pro-” and “anti-” debate; we are neutral, as authority is every bit as metaphysical (as meaningless) a category as morality, and as such we do not consider authority to have any existence independent of other, material, processes (namely, class; the state is not a state because it has a monopoly on authority, but because it wields the authority of a class against other classes in a dialectical relationship; the authority is not “good” or “bad,” “just” or “unjust,” it simply is). Again, the positions of pro- and anti-authoritarianism are found by the scientific socialist to be equally metaphysical.

The anarchist view of authority is dripping in ethicism — indeed, it is, fundamentally, a moralising definition and stance (as is anarchism as a whole, of course) — so when they see Marxists critique them, they assume, implicitly or explicitly, that it is their ethics that are being criticised; a second-order critique, of the form “X is Y” (where Y is a positive moral value and X is the concept of authority), as opposed to theirs, which takes the form “X is Z” (where Z is a negative moral value). This can be seen in a common category of responses, such as ‘is there not a difference between punching up and punching down?’ (i.e., is there not a moral difference in the use of authority involved in repression and the use of authority involved in liberation?). They assume that we are engaging with the question on the same level they are. We are not. The Marxist critique does not occur at the level of second-order ethics: it occurs at the level of the first-order; it rejects the application of moral criteria to authority in the first place. This is one of the general points Engels was trying to get across when he despaired that ‘[h]ave these gentlemen ever seen a revolution?’: yes, authority is needed in order to fight and win a revolution, including the kind the anarchists want to wage; does this make them, or us, morally bad agents for doing so? Who cares! That is a liberal discussion for liberals to have; read what you will into the fact, therefore, that it is one that anarchists are desperately interested in.

Marxism is not a moral theory — Marx surmised this brilliantly in his pointing out that ‘[w]hat you think just or equitable is out of the question. The question is: What is necessary and unavoidable with a given system of production?’ — and so when we engage with the question of authority, we are not engaging in a moral question. It very much seems like the anarchists are. This is an easy explanation, after all, as to why the debate has not moved forward in all this time: moral language is not involved in making propositional claims about the world, and as such, are not truth-apt; they cannot be falsified or verified, as they are simply not that kind of statement. (See, for example, Ayer.) This certainly seems to capture the essence of the problem: we Marxists and anarchists are simply talking at and past each other; our arguments are not clashing, resulting in a resolution or at least new disagreements, because they are saying very different things: we are making a materialist, and they an idealist, analysis of the concept of authority. Marxism is a scientific socialism; anarchism, an idealist, utopian socialism. This is demonstrated yet again when looking at the question of authority. The anarchists cannot seem to understand that Engels is not offering a different value-judgement of authority in his text (the only language they seem to be able to understand); he is offering an entirely different way of understanding and appreciating — of critiquing — the concept altogether. This is just one of many places in which the vast chasm between the Marxist and the anarchist worldviews, deceptively lumped together under the nonsense fiction of “leftism,” is highlighted.

Philosophy. Writing on Marxism, eliminativism in philosophy of mind and metaethics, suffering(-focused ethics), and philosophical pessimism.

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