Historical Evidence that Voluntary Federation Can Quickly Replace the Status Quo in a Revolution

by John Spritzler

September 11, 2012

In Thinking about Revolution Dave Stratman and I propose that a key part of our vision for a better society, and one of the chief goals of democratic revolution, is to remove the present dictatorship of the rich from power and to create a genuine democracy based on the principle of voluntary federation.

This raises the question, “Is it realistic to think that voluntary federation can quickly replace the status quo after a revolution?” If it is not realistic, then revolutionaries would need to think about less-than-ideal transitional ways of achieving the social order that people will understandably want. And if such a less-than-ideal transitional form of government is necessary in the short term, it raises the question that perhaps it is necessary in the longer term as well, and where does this leave the idea of voluntary federation as a practical notion?

I believe that the experience of Europe in the 20th century, as discussed by Hannah Arendt in her book, On Revolution [formerly online at http://www.scribd.com/doc/99732963/Arendt-Hannah-On-Revolution, and from which I obtained by cut and paste (with a few glitches--sorry) the excerpts below}, provides strong evidence that voluntary federation can very quickly replace the status quo in a revolutionary situation.

To start with, let’s briefly say what is meant by ‘voluntary federation.” Voluntary federation, as we use the term in Thinking about Revolution, means that local assemblies are the only bodies that make laws. Local assemblies are meetings open to all adults in the community who support the principles of no-rich-and-no-poor equality and mutual aid and democracy, and at which all have equal status in decision-making. Social order on a larger than local scale is achieved by local assemblies making voluntary agreements, facilitated by sending delegates to larger-region bodies (and these in turn sending delegates to even larger-region bodies) to craft proposals (not laws) for the local assemblies to accept or reject as they wish. Large-scale agreements are thus arrived at by negotiation among local assemblies.

What follows are excerpts from On Revolution that describe how voluntary federation, or at least something very similar to it, spread rapidly in Europe. A key sentence of Arendt’s is this one:

"The most striking aspect of these spontaneous developments is that in both instances it took these independent and highly disparate organs no more than a few weeks, in the case of Russia, or a few days, in the case of Hungary, to begin a process of co-ordination and integration through the formation of higher councils of a regional or provincial character, from which finally the delegates to an assembly representing the whole country could be chosen."

Please read the excerpted text below, and I think you will see that, based on the actual experiences of Europeans not that many years ago, it is perfectly reasonable to expect voluntary federation to replace the status quo after a revolution in a matter of weeks.

[full text from On Revolution starting at page 261 and continuing to page 267 begins here:]

Hence, no tradition, either revolutionary or pre-revolutionary,
can be called to account for the regular emergence and re-
emergence of the council system ever since the French Revo
lution. If we leave aside the February Revolution of 1848 in
Paris, where a commission pour les travailleurs, set up by the
government itself, was almost exclusively concerned with ques-
tions of social legislation, the main dates of appearance of these
organs of action and germs of a new state are the following:
the year 1870, when the French capital under siege by the Prus-
sian army 'spontaneously reorganized itself into a miniature
federal body', which then formed the nucleus for the Parisian
Commune government in the spring of 1871; 75 the year 1905,
when the wave of spontaneous strikes in Russia suddenly de-
veloped a political leadership of its own, outside all revolution-
ary parties and groups, and the workers in the factories organ-
ized themselves into councils, Soviets, for the purpose of repre-
sentative self-government; the February Revolution of 1917 in
Russia, when 'despite different political tendencies among the
Russian workers, the organization itself, that is the soviet, was
not even subject to discussion'; 76 the years 1918 and 1919 in
Germany, when, after the defeat of the army, soldiers and wor-
kers in open rebellion constituted themselves into Arbeiter- und
Soldatenrate, demanding, in Berlin, that this Ratesystem be-
come the foundation stone of the new German constitution,
and establishing, together with the Bohemians of the coffee
houses, in Munich in the spring of 1919, the short-lived Bavarian
Rdterepubli\'^ the last date, finally, is the autumn of 1956, when
the Hungarian Revolution from its very beginning produced the
council system anew in Budapest, from which it spread all over
the country 'with incredible rapidity'. 78

The mere enumeration of these dates suggests a continuity
that in fact never existed. It is precisely the absence of con-
tinuity, tradition, and organized influence that makes the same-
ness of the phenomenon so very striking. Outstanding among
the councils' common characteristics is, of course, the spontaneity
of their coming into being, because it clearly and flagrantly con-
tradicts the theoretical 'twentieth-century model of revolution -
planned, prepared, and executed almost to cold scientific exact-
ness by the professional revolutionaries'. 79 It is true that wher-
ever the revolution was not defeated and not followed by some
sort of restoration the one-party dictatorship, that is, the model
of the professional revolutionary, eventually prevailed, but it
prevailed only after a violent struggle with the organs and insti-
tutions of the revolution itself. The councils, moreover, were
always organs of order as much as organs of action, and it was
indeed their aspiration to lay down the new order that brought
them into conflict with the groups of professional revolution-
aries, who wished to degrade them to mere executive organs of
revolutionary activity. It is true enough that the members of
the councils were not content to discuss and 'enlighten them-
selves' about measures that were taken by parties or assemblies;
they consciously and explicitly desired the direct participation of
every citizen in the public affairs of the country, 80 and as long as
they lasted, there is no doubt that 'every individual found his
own sphere of action and could behold, as it were, with his own
eyes his own contribution to the eyents of the day'. 81 Witnesses
of their functioning were often agreed on the extent to which
the revolution had given birth to a 'direct regeneration of
democracy', whereby the implication was that all such regenera-
tions, alas, were foredoomed since, obviously, a direct handling
of public business through the people was impossible under
modern conditions. They looked upon the councils as though
they were a romantic dream, some sort of fantastic Utopia come
true for a fleeting moment to show, as it were, the hopelessly
romantic yearnings of the people, who apparently did not yet
know the true facts of life. These realists took their own bear-
ings from the party system, assuming as a matter of course that
there existed no other alternative for representative government
and forgetting conveniently that the downfall of the old regime
had been due, among other things, precisely to this system.

For the remarkable thing about the councils was of course
not only that they crossed all party lines, that members of the
various parties sat in them together, but that such party mem-
bership played no role whatsoever. They were in fact the only
political organs for people who belonged to no party. Hence,
they invariably came into conflict with all assemblies, with the
old parliaments as well as with the new 'constituent assemblies',
for the simple reason that the latter, even in their most ex-
treme wings, were still the children of the party system. At this
stage of events, that is, in the midst of revolution, it was the
party programmes more than anything else that separated the
councils from the parties; for these programmes, no matter how
revolutionary, were all 'ready-made formulas' which demanded
not action but execution - 'to be carried out energetically in
practice', as Rosa Luxemburg pointed out with such amazing
clearsightedness about the issues at stake. 82 Today we know
how quickly the theoretical formula disappeared in practical
execution, but if the formula had survived its execution, and
even if it had proved to be the panacea for all evil s, social and
political, the councils were bound to rebel against any such
policy since the very cleavage between the party experts who
'knew' and the mass of the people who were supposed to
apply this knowledge left out of account the average citizen's
capacity to act and to form his own opinion. The councils,
in other words, were bound to become superfluous if the spirit
of the revolutionary party prevailed. Wherever knowing and
doing have parted company, the space of freedom is lost.

The councils, obviously, were spaces of freedom. As such,
they invariably refused to regard themselves as temporary or-
gans of revolution and, on the contrary, made all attempts at
establishing themselves as permanent organs of government.
Far from wishing to make the revolution permanent, their ex-
plicitly expressed goal was 'to lay the foundations of a republic
acclaimed in all its consequences, the only government which
will close forever the era of invasions and civil wars'; no para-
dise on earth, no classless society, no dream of socialist or com-
munist fraternity, but the establishment of 'the true Republic'
was the 'reward' hoped for as the end of the struggle. 83 And
what had been true in Paris in 1871 remained true for Russia
in 1905, when the 'not merely destructive but constructive' inten-
tions of the first Soviets were so manifest that contemporary wit-
nesses 'could sense the emergence and the formation of a force
which one day might be able to effect the transformation of the
State'. 8 *

It was nothing more or less than this hope for a transforma-
tion of the state, for a new form of government that would per-
mit every member of the modern egalitarian society to become
a 'participator' in public affairs, that was buried in the disasters
of twentieth-century revolutions. Their causes were manifold
and, of course, varied from country to country, but the forces
of what is commonly called reaction and counter-revolution are
not prominent among them. Recalling the record of revolution in
our century, it is the weakness rather than the strength of these
forces which is impressive, the frequency of their defeat, the
ease of revolution, and - last, not least - the extraordinary insta-
bility and lack of authority of most European governments res-
tored after the downfall of Hitler's Europe. At any rate, the role
played by the professional revolutionaries and the revolutionary
parties in these disasters was important enough, and in our
context it is the decisive one. Without Lenin's slogan, 'All power
to the soviets\ there would never have been an October Revolu-
tion in Russia, but whether or not Lenin was sincere in pro-
claiming the Soviet Republic, the fact of the matter was even
then that his slogan was in conspicuous contradiction to the
openly proclaimed revolutionary goals of the Bolshevik party
to 'seize power', that is, to replace the state machinery with the
party apparatus. Had Lenin really wanted to give all power to
the Soviets, he would have condemned the Bolshevik party to
the same impotence which now is the outstanding characteristic
of the Soviet parliament, whose party and non-party deputies
are nominated by the party and, in the absence of any rival
list, are not even chosen, but only acclaimed by the voters. But
while the conflict between party and councils was greatly
sharpened because of a conflicting claim to be the only 'true'
representative of the Revolution and the people, the issue at
stake is of a much more far-reaching significance.

What the councils challenged was the party system as such,
in all its forms, and this conflict was emphasized whenever the
councils, born of revolution, turned against the party or parties
whose sole aim had always been the revolution. Seen from the
vanguard point of a true Soviet Republic, the Bolshevik party
was merely more dangerous but no less reactionary than all the
other parties of the defunct regime. As far as the form of govern-
ment is concerned - and the councils everywhere, in contradis-
tinction to the revolutionary parties, were infinitely more interested in the political than in the social aspects of revolution 85 - the
one-party dictatorship is only the last stage in the development
of the nation-state in general and of the multi-party system in
particular. This may sound like a truism in the midst of the
twentieth century when the multi-party democracies in Europe
have declined to the point where in every French or Italian elec-
tion 'the very foundations of the state and the nature of the
regime' are at stake. 86 It is therefore enlightening to see that in
principle the same conflict existed even in 1871, during the
Parisian Commune, when Odysse Barrot formulated with rare
precision the chief difference in terms of French history between
the new form of government, aimed at by the Commune, and
the old regime which soon was to be restored in a different, non-
monarchical disguise : 'En tant que revolution sociale, 1871 pro-
cede directement de 1793, qu'il continue et qu'il doit achever.
... En tant que revolution politique, au contraire, 1871 est re-
action contre 1793 et un rct o u J" a 1789 • • • H a efface du pro-
gramme les mots "une et indivisible" et rejette l'idee autoritaire
qui est une idee toute monarchique . . . pour se rallier a l'idee
federative, qui est par excellence l'idee liberale et republicaine'* 1
(my italics [Arendt’s, not J.S.’s.]).

These words are surprising because they were written at a
time when there existed hardly any evidence - at any rate not for
people unacquainted with the course of the American Revolu-
tion - about the intimate connection between the spirit of
revolution and the principle of federation. In order to prove
what Odysse Barrot felt to be true, we must turn to the Febru-
ary Revolution of 1917 in Russia and to the Hungarian Revolu-
tion of 1956, both of which lasted just long enough to show in
bare outlines what a government would look like and how a
republic was likely to function if they were founded upon the
principles of the council system. In both instances councils or
Soviets had sprung up everywhere, completely independent of
one another, workers*, soldiers', and peasants' councils in the
case of Russia, the most disparate kinds of councils in the case
of Hungary : neighbourhood councils that emerged in all resi-
dential districts, so-called revolutionary councils that grew out
of fighting together in the streets, councils of writers and artists
born in the coffee houses of Budapest, students' and youths'
councils at the universities, workers' councils in the factories,
councils in the army, among the civil servants, and so on. The
formation of a council in each of these disparate groups turned
a more or less accidental proximity into a political institution.
The most striking aspect of these spontaneous developments is
that in both instances it took these independent and highly dis-
parate organs no more than a few weeks, in the case of Russia,
or a few days, in the case of Hungary, to begin a process of
co-ordination and integration through the formation of higher
councils of a regional or provincial character, from which finally
the delegates to an assembly representing the whole country
could be chosen. 88 As in the case of the early covenants, 'cosocia-
tions', and confederations in the colonial history of North
America, we see here how the federal principle, the principle of
league and alliance among separate units, arises out of the
elementary conditions of action itself, uninfluenced by any
theoretical speculations about the possibilities of republican
government in large territories and not even threatened into
coherence by a common enemy. The common object was the
foundation of a new body politic, a new type of republican
government which would rest on 'elementary republics' in such
a way that its own central power did not deprive the constituent
bodies of their original power to constitute. The councils, in
other words, jealous of their capacity to act and to form opinion,
were bound to discover the divisibility of power as well as its
most important consequence, the necessary separation of powers
in government.

[End of excerpted text here]




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