Anarchism and Asymmetry

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This is an old forum post from October 2012. I sought it out recently as I needed the Cliff reference for something I am currently working on in relation to asymmetry as a basic anarchist strategic principle, alongside prefiguration. I repost it here for my own records and future reference convenience.

[in answer to the question: "What's the absolute minimum someone has to believe in order to be an anarchist]

If we look beyond the "patriotism of the label" - i.e. people are generally categorised as anarchists because they self-indentify as such, and make reference to the legacy, organisational and theoretic, of the historical anarchist movement - then I think it is possible to tease out a couple of distinctive principles. But they may not be the ones people would normally think of - e.g. solidarity, class struggle, mutual aid, direct action, communism as the abolition of wage labour (without indeterminately long "transitional periods") etc. All of the previous principles or ideas could be accepted by one or other post-Leninist tendencies of what we sometimes refer to as "authoritarian socialism", by shorthand (ok, except maybe the "transitional period" bit). Even the libertarian vs authoritarian socialism dichotomy doesn't hold up very well in this day and age, when every post-Stalinist is keen to express their "radical democratic" credentials - who now would accept or admit the label of "authoritarian socialist"? Certainly not the SWP, SPEW, etc. Hence their insistence on making strawman arguments about "the State", to draw the sting of the only remaining label that still sticks - "state socialist".

The differentiating principles I would propose are - prefiguration and asymmetry - which are of course entangled. You could add "horizontalism" to that pair, but I don't think it adds much analytically - athough from the point of view of having a conversation or dialogue, the latter word is less unfamiliar and more grounded in recent history (Argentina).


Centralism is necessary for obvious reasons. The ruling class is highly centralistic, and we can’t fight the enemy unless we have a symmetrical organisation to it, and every strike is centralistic. The worker goes to work as an individual. When he goes on strike he acts as a collective. Revolution is the most centralistic thing in the world

(from Tony Cliff, "Nothing so romantic: an interview with Nicholas Walter", 1970)

and again


To overcome this sectionalism, this narrow experience, you need to centralise all the experience and division. Again you need the centralism because the ruling class is highly centralised. If you are not symmetrical to your enemy you can never win.


I was never a pacifist. If someone uses a stick on me I have to have a bigger stick! I don’t believe a quotation from Marx’s Capital will stop a mad dog attacking me. We have to be symmetrical to our enemies. That is why I cannot understand the anarchists when they come and say they don’t need a state. The capitalists have a state. How do you smash a state without an opposition state?

(from Tony Cliff, "Marxism at the Milleneum", chapter 2 "Why do we need a revolutionary party?", 2000)

Symmetrism is the basic urge to mimic the enemy. They have a stick? We need a stick too! They have hierarchy, cops and prisons? We need them too! Irish republicans are past masters at this. In their eternal quest to challenge British administration of capitalism in Ireland, they first mimc the Brits military forms, then their political forms and then, hey presto, they end up being in charge of administering capitalism in Ireland in the Brits stead, as their compradors. The excluded reps wail about betrayal, and begin the cycle afresh.

Asymmetry is the recognition that the class war is a war fought most sucessfully by means of asymmetric warfare. From the simple "march on the boss" to larger and more elaborate forms of struggle, we always seek to make use of the asymmetry between us - they have the money but we have the numbers.

But also, the asymmetric perspective recognises that, socialised as we are into the forms, culture and ideology of existing society, every attempt at self-organisation always runs, as a primary danger, the risk of recreating the very forms and hierarchies that shape the society that shaped us. The DNA of capitalist alienated relations lies within each and every one of us, and in order to prevent the development of organs of counterpower being simply subverted and recuperated into adjuncts to the established power, a conscious effort must be made, to break the symmetry, break the chain of the endless reproduction of "more of the same".

In this line, we shade into the other principle of action - prefiguration. Prefiguration, in the shape of the 1872 Sonvilier circular, can lay claim to being at the very origins of the Marxist/Anarchist split of the First International. Its basic insight is that the instrumentalist principle that "the means justifies the ends" is fatal to any project for real social change. That is, prefiguration sees that the means cannot be in contradiction to the ends, they must at least be compatible with them. However, in my opinion, prefiguration needs to be distinguished from utopianism - the idea that simply pretending that the new world already exists, and acting accordingly. This distinction is going against the grain a bit, given the current popularity of taking the instrumentalist's identification of prefiguration with utopianism at face value, and simply inverting its valence (see for e.g. Weeks, Graeber, Kaufman, etc). But that's another argument...

Anyway, that's my tuppence-worth. Despite the obscurantist terminology, it's my experience that in virtually any political encounter, regardless of whether the participants have any awareness of left political ideas at all, if you listen carefully to what people are saying in their contributions, you will find people making "symmetrical" arguments, and other people baulking at them, similarly with "means justifies the end" type arguments. These are usually a pretty good indicator of where people are at, in terms of their latent politics, and who's likely to end up in the allies vs obstructors camps in the future.





Even from a purely

Even from a purely instrumentalist POV though, the 'symmetrist' argument doesn't work. Being at different ends of the class antagonism means having different opportunities available for the strategic deployment of force. We don't have tanks and helicopter gunships, or police stations and prisons, or security cameras on every street, or any of the biopolitical mechanisms or ideological state apparatuses that sustain class society, nor do we have the institutional knowledge of how to deploy bourgeois tactics. Even if it weren't likely to devolve into an authoritarian nightmare on attaining power, the strategy of building a counterpower that mirrors the power of the bourgeois is utterly hopeless.

 Agreed. And yet many people,

 Agreed. And yet many people, far more than just Tony Cliff's followers, still do adopt this approach, whether consciously or unconsciously. And this doesn't especially spring from any malicious intent or conscious perversity on anybody's part, in most cases. If we accept the idea of society having a "dominant ideology", not in the sense of an explicit set of articulated beliefs, but more a "common sense" set of tacit presuppositions that come not from organised indoctrination or propaganda, but grow naturally out of the experiences of everyday life in society, then a default "this is just the way things are done" position is to be expected.

What then does Anarchism have

What then does Anarchism have to say about how the capitalist state, those armed bodies of men in the army, the police and elsewhere can either be won to support the revolution or irrevocably defeated and broken? How can a purely horizontal movement prevent the premature rising of one region when others are not fully won over to revolution? This latter point is also crucial because premature risings can present the rulings class with the perfect excuse and opportunity to bloodily crush the whole movement, setting it back years whilst leading activists are murdered or jailed.

 First of all, anarchism is

 First of all, anarchism is not a "purely horizontal movement". See federalism as advocated by anarchists* from Proudhon and Bakunin onwards. Secondly I think nearly all 21st century class-struggle anarchists accept that the Spanish FAI's line in 1936 that there was no need to either seize or liquidate the Catalonian state as, having seized control of the means of production, it would "wither away", was at best a dangerous delusion, at worst an opportunistic and cynical excuse. So yes, in a revolutionary situation there is a need to win over or dissolve the military force of the state and to establish a workers militia to defend against counter-revolution. A no, a workers militia as an "armed body" does not constitute a state, unless hunter-gatherers, or any other weapon-bearer, constitutes a state, in which case "state" becomes an empty category that refers to everything and nothing.

The problem of premature risings is neither solved nor even mitigated by any imagined "iron disciplined" centralised authoritarian revolutionary party - history proves that. 

* or proto-anarchists in Proudhon's case - long story... (and one in which Anarcho and I disagree)

Two questions regarding the

Two questions regarding the 'principle of asymmetry': (1) Seeing that one side has the numbers and the other side the money, how does that constitute an asymmetry in power? Is asymmetry a given or are these two types of power even commensurable to begin with? How does this concept relate to 'direct action'? (2) Seeing that the nature of the system is to reproduce existing inequalities and that any oppressed group which rebels against its oppression is just as likely to become the oppressor, are there any steps that can be taken to prevent that from happening? Or is history doomed to repeat itself, first as tragedy, then as farce?

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