On ‘Authoritarianism’

This was originally published under the Fenway Socialists Blog.

‘Authoritarian’ is a popular term nowadays in political discourse. Of course, it has been for a while, but with the rise of Donald Trump and what the media calls ‘populism’, it is now being used on the daily by journalists, politicians, and political commentators. On top of that, authoritarianism is also a major topic of discussion amongst the left. A lot of tendencies on the left, such as democratic socialists, left libertarians, anarchists, and socialists in general have criticized socialist states, past and present, such as the USSR, China, Cuba, and Venezuela, for being authoritarian. They seek to find an alternative, anti-authoritarian model of socialist organizing. ‘Authoritarianism’ as a concept relies on the presence of its opposite: libertarianism or freedom in general. On the one hand, you have authoritarian leaders, movements, states, etc., and on the other you have no leaders, a horizontal organization, and a non-authoritarian state. However, at its core, this dichotomy doesn’t really exist. 

The main proponents of the usage of ‘authoritarian’ as a concept are conservatives, liberals, and anarchists. For conservatives, authoritarianism is directed at socialist social formations where the free market is constrained. However, these social formations are really only authoritarian for bourgeois businessmen. If they can’t sell or invest in, let’s say Cuba, then Cuba is authoritarian. If Cubans can’t choose to buy from a wide array of commodities, then Cuba is authoritarian. If the Chinese have certain forms of media censored, then China is authoritarian. For conservatives, authoritarianism refers to anything that restricts the freedom of capitalists to exploit others labor and exchange their commodities for money, or anything that restricts potential consumers from purchasing their commodities. Therefore, conservatives direct authoritarianism at any person, organization, or country that disrespects the interests of the capitalist class. For example, conservatives have called Democrats like Obama authoritarian for wanting to regulate the activities of corporations and the aforementioned socialist countries for disrupting the US’s economic and political hegemony.

For liberals, authoritarianism is directed at anything or anyone who disrespects human rights and the rule of law, and it is even directed at individual’s personalities. For example, Donald Trump is authoritarian because of his migrant policies, his use of concentration camps (even though Obama opened and funded the camps), and because of his personality, which they say is similar to other authoritarians. In other words, he openly disrespects and disparages the media, other politicians, and leaders of other countries. Authoritarianism is mostly charged against other countries when they threaten human rights. For example, China is authoritarian because they allow sweatshops, they censor the media, and because of their former one child policy. The USSR was authoritarian because they didn’t allow freedom of speech. Of course, this invokes a certain conception of ‘human rights’ that is based on capitalist logic where human rights are all very abstract. Freedom of speech, freedom from being tortured and enslaved, the right to a free education, and so on are all considered human rights according to the UN. But in the United States, these rights are not protected for everyone. When the Black Panthers and other radical groups began organizing and challenging the state, they were arrested (based on flimsy and fabricated evidence), jailed, surveilled, and in some cases murdered (see Fred Hampton). On top of that, the US is a country that enslaved an entire race of people for hundreds of years, and then when they abolished slavery they gave no reparations and allowed the former slave holders to hold their power while providing no help to the former slaves. This is also a country that systematically tortures prisoners domestically, at the border, and even in other countries. It is clear to see how many people are excluded from the language of human rights. Furthermore, human rights also excludes basic needs. What about the rights to eat food, drink clean water, and to have a healthy, well maintained home? In this country, like other capitalist countries, millions of people have to sleep on the streets every night. Millions of people live in disgusting apartments with rats, sewage problems, and unhealthy drinking water. Where are their “human rights”? Is it not authoritarian and violent when people are homeless when they don’t need to be? Is it not authoritarian when people have to work for a wage or else they won’t be able to eat and have shelter? Thus it is clear to see that the United States, and the capitalist system in general, is authoritarian. 

Authoritarianism is also charged by both liberals and conservatives against countries that have one party states. According to them, since the country only has one party in a position of power, this is authoritarian because the party can impose their will on the rest of the country. Of course, this ignores the reality that countries who this charge is directed at like China or Cuba do in fact have representatives from other political parties holding governmental positions. In Cuba specifically, all representative bodies of state power are elected and subject to recall and the masses control the activity of the state agencies, the deputies, delegates and officials.1 The Western media, however, calls these “sham” elections even though in the United States, where most of the voters come from privilege and half the country doesn’t vote (incarcerated people can’t), the only true voting power people have is undermined by superdelegates and corporate investments. Are these not sham elections? Regardless, Walter Rodney says the idea that one party states are authoritarian ignores the real issue. In the United States, “there are two major parties that both represent the interests of capitalists and white people. If they were to merge, it would make no difference whatsoever.” 2 A good example of this is US foreign policy. Regardless of which party was holding political power, the United States has exploited other countries resources through finance capital, and when these countries resist, the US invades and/or sanctions them. In short, “the number of parties in existence is quite irrelevant. The real issue is, to whom are they responsible? And whose class interests do they represent?” 3

Lastly, there is the anarchist critique of authoritarianism which is primarily directed at socialist countries after their revolutions. For anarchists, the question of authoritarianism boils down to the role of the state. For them, the state is inherently authoritarian because the state stamps their power on the rest of society, forcing everyone to be subordinate to the interests of the state. Anarchists’ perspective is premised on their affirmation of the individual over the collective. Whereas the starting point for all socialists should be the subordination of our individuals egos in the service of the collective. Regardless, Marxist-Leninists somewhat agree that the state is authoritarian, they just don’t think that is necessarily bad. Lenin argues in State and Revolution that all states are the manifestations of irreconcilable class antagonisms.4 The state is formed to regulate and maintain order in the face of class antagonisms. For Lenin though, the state is always the dictatorship of one class or bloc of classes over other classes. Therefore, in capitalist countries the state is the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat. Lenin claims that after a socialist revolution, classes will still exist as the bourgeoisie isn’t completely eliminated in one stroke. This means, which really separates Lenin from anarchists, that a socialist state must become a dictatorship of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. The former oppressed class or classes must suppress the former ruling class after a revolution. But isn’t this authoritarian according to anarchists? It is clear to see that for anarchists, authoritarianism is really just directed at those who wield power in general. It doesn’t question who holds power, and who power is held against. It obscures power relations to claim all power relations are the same. On top of that, anarchists believe in revolution, but isn’t that authoritarian? Engels adds, 

“Have these gentlemen ever seen a revolution? A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon-authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionaries.” 5

For proponents of the term, authoritarianism really means ‘force’. Individuals are forced to do things by the authority of the state, an organization, a ‘despot’, or whoever/whatever else is considered authoritarian. This presupposes that in normal instances, humans are free to live as we please with no constraints offered by society. Or in other words, this presupposes that we as individuals are not forced to do anything. This presupposition is obviously wrong as Engels has once argued. 

In an article, “On Authority”, Engels criticizes the tendency exhibited mostly by anarchists to call things ‘authoritarian’.6 By authority, Engels interprets that it refers to the imposition of the will of one person or persons over another group of people. Engels wants to see if there could be another social system, based on the present conditions of society (for him this was 1872), in which authoritarianism wouldn’t exist. He says, “Whoever mentions combined action speaks of organisation; now, is it possible to have organisation without authority?” 7

Engels’ argument is premised on the fact that any large scale organization which wishes to run competently must have some decision making process. Regardless of how decisions are made, not everyone will agree with every decision. He says in regards to a socialist society based on large scale industry that:

“The workers must, therefore, first come to an understanding on the hours of work; and these hours, once they are fixed, must be observed by all, without any exception. Thereafter particular questions arise in each room and at every moment concerning the mode of production, distribution of materials, etc., which must be settled at once on pain of seeing a production immediately stopped; whether they are settled by decision of a delegate placed at the head of each branch of labour or, if possible, by a majority vote, the will of the single individual will always have to subordinate itself, which means that questions are settled in an authoritarian way.” 8

He then concludes, “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 upon us together with the material conditions under which we produce and make products circulate.” 9  Engels is saying that the liberal illusion, where in our natural states nobody is forced to do anything, is absurd, especially so considering the level of the development of the productive forces under capitalism. The idea that we live our normal lives free from all authority until the state, an organization, or a despot takes away that freedom is absurd. We as individuals in general do not control the complex socio-political forces that shape our lives. We are forced to work in order to live under capitalism, we are forced to rely on each other for social stimulation and happiness, and we are forced, as the memes say, to live in a society. And it is not bad to have to rely on each other and our communities for support and happiness! Nobody can live happily in a solipsistic bubble. 

Every society that has ever existed is authoritarian according to anti-authoritarian logic, and any social formation that could ever exist will have to be authoritarian. This is because individuals cannot exist on their own and interactions with other people are inevitable and necessary. How can any society with large amounts of people function without some level of individual subordination to the collective? It can’t! Further, socialists should renounce capitalistic, Western individualism which places the interests of the individual above everyone else. Especially so considering the only reason some of us in the West have better qualities of life is because of centuries of exploitation, domination, and colonization in the rest of the world that has stripped billions of their resources and ways of life. Any socialist revolution will involve some level of self-sacrifice for those that are privileged now. 

In short, authoritarianism is a meaningless term that presupposes the liberal dichotomy of authoritarianism versus libertarianism. As I mentioned earlier, for those who use authoritarianism, it’s really just directed at those who wield power in general. It doesn’t question who holds power, and who power is held against. It obscures power relations to claim all power relations are the same.


  1.  Chapter IX, Cuban Constitution
  2. Walter Rodney, The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World, Verso (2018), p. 237 (Ebook Version).
  3. Rodney, The Russian Revolution, 237).
  4.  Vladimir Lenin, The State and Revolution, https://www.marxists.org/ebooks/lenin/state-and-revolution.pdf, page 7.
  5. Friedrich Engels, “On Authority,” https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1872/10/authority.htm.
  6. Engels, “On Authority.”
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.

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