On authority (Friedrich Engels)

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On authority
AuthorFriedrich Engels
Written in1872
PublisherAlmanacco Republicano
First published1874
SourceRed Sails
AudiobookTankie Talk

A number of Socialists have recently launched a veritable crusade against what they call the principle of authority. It suffices to label this or that act authoritarian for them to condemn it. This summary procedure is abused to such an extent that it has become necessary to look into the matter more closely.

Authority, in the sense of the word we are concerned with, means the imposition of another will upon ours; authority presupposes submission. Since these two words sound bad and the relationship they describe is disagreeable to the subordinate party, the question arises as to whether there is any way of dispensing with it, whether — given the present conditions of society — we could not create another social system, in which this authority would no longer be given any scope, and would consequently have to disappear.

If we examine the economic, industrial and agricultural conditions which form the basis of contemporary bourgeois society, we find that they tend more and more to replace isolated activity with the combined activity of individuals. Modern industry, with its big factories and mills, where hundreds of workers supervise complicated steam-powered machines, has replaced the small workshops of isolated producers; the carriages and wagons of the highways have been replaced by trains, just as small rowboats and sailboats have been by steamboats. Machines and steam are gradually dominating even agriculture, slowly but surely replacing small landowners with big capitalists who cultivate large tracts of land with the assistance of wage labourers.

Everywhere combined activity displaces independent activity by individuals — we see processes becoming increasingly interdependent in complicated ways. And we cannot speak of combined activity without implying organisation. Now, is it possible to have organisation without authority?

Let us assume that a social revolution had dethroned the capitalists, whose authority currently directs the production and circulation of wealth. Let us assume, to adopt entirely the point of view of the anti-authoritarians, that the land and the instruments of labour had become the collective property of the workers who use them. Would authority have disappeared, or would it only have changed its form? Let us see.

Take, for example, a cotton mill. The cotton must pass through at least six successive operations before it is made into thread, and these operations take place for the most part in different rooms. Furthermore, keeping the machines going requires an engineer to look after the steam engine, mechanics to make ongoing repairs, and many other labourers whose business it is to transfer the products from one room to another, etc. All these workers — men, women, and children — are obliged to begin and finish their work at the hours fixed by the authority of the steam, which cares nothing for individual autonomy. The workers must, therefore, first come to an understanding on the hours of work; and these hours, once fixed, must be observed by all, without exception. Thereafter questions arise in each room and at every moment concerning the mode of production, distribution of material, etc., which must be settled by decision of a delegate placed at the head of each branch of labour or, if possible, by a majority vote, to which every individual will must submit; this means that the questions will be resolved in an authoritarian manner. The mechanical automaton of a large factory is far more tyrannical than the small capitalists have ever been at keeping the workers busy. At least with regard to the hours of work one may write upon the portals of these factories: Lasciate ogni autonomia, voi che entrate! [Abandon all autonomy, ye who enter here!]

If mankind, by dint of science and its inventive genius, has bent the forces of nature to its will, the latter avenge themselves by subjecting humanity, insofar as it employs them, to a true despotism independent of all social organisation. Abolishing authority in large-scale industry means wanting to abolish industry itself, destroying the power loom in order to return to the spinning wheel.

Take another example: the railway. Here too the cooperation of a multitude of individuals is absolutely necessary, and this cooperation must be performed at very specific hours so that there is no disaster. Here, too, the first condition of the job is a dominant will that pushes aside every subordinate question, whether this will is represented by a single delegate or by a committee entrusted with the execution of the decisions of a majority of interested parties. In either case, we are dealing with a very pronounced authority. Moreover, what would happen to the first outgoing train if the authority of the railway employees over the genteel passengers were abolished?

But the need for an authority, and a commanding authority at that, is nowhere more evident than on board a ship on the high seas. Here, in moments of danger, the lives of all depend on the instantaneous and absolute obedience of all to the will of one.

When I submitted arguments like these to the most die-hard anti-authoritarians, the only answer they could give was the following: “Yes, that’s true, but it’s not authority that we confer on our delegates, but a binding obligation!” These gentlemen think that by changing the names of things they have changed the things themselves. This is how these profound thinkers mock the whole world.

We have seen that, on the one hand, a certain authority, no matter how delegated, and, on the other hand, a certain subordination, are things which, independently of all social organisation, are imposed on us by the material conditions of production and circulation.

We have seen, besides, that these material conditions are inevitably expanded by large-scale industry and agriculture, and tend to expand the scope of this authority more and more. Thus it is absurd to speak of the principle of authority as being absolutely evil, and of the principle of autonomy as being absolutely good. Authority and autonomy are relative things; their scope varies in different phases of social development. If the autonomists contented themselves with saying that the social organisation of the future would restrict authority solely to those limits within which the conditions of production make it inevitable, we could understand each other; but they are blind to all facts that make the thing necessary, and bristle at the very word.

Why can’t the anti-authoritarians be satisfied railing against political authority, the state? All Socialists are agreed that the political state, and with it political authority, will disappear in the wake of the coming social revolution, that is, that public functions will lose their political character and will be transformed into the simple administrative functions of safekeeping the true interests of society. But the anti-authoritarians demand that the political state be abolished at once, even before the social conditions that gave rise to it have been destroyed. They demand that the first act of the social revolution be the abolition of authority.

Have these gentlemen ever seen a revolution? A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is. It is the act by which one part of the population imposes its will on the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannons — by the most authoritarian means possible; and the victors, if they do not want to have fought in vain, must maintain this rule by means of the terror which their arms inspire in the reactionaries. Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if the communards had not used the authority of the armed people against the bourgeoisie? Should we not, on the contrary, reproach them for not having used it enough?

Therefore, we must conclude one of two things: either the anti-authoritarians don’t know what they’re talking about, in which case they are only sowing confusion; or they do know, in which case they are betraying the proletarian movement. In either case, they serve reaction.