On Authority and the Author

I think Engels is sometimes unfairly maligned. There was long a tendency, and it has not ever fully ended, to treat Engels as if he were the author of every failure and error in Marxism. And perhaps the work most responsible for cementing his position as the sin eater of Marxism is On Authority.

This text is, on the surface an aggressive repudiation of an Anarchist tendency to want to obliterate hierarchy, level all power differentials, and leave everybody equal. This sort of flat equality had never been the objective of Marxism and Engels is critical of it as lacking an understanding of the depth of power. “Everywhere combined action, the complication of processes dependent upon each other, displaces independent action by individuals. But whoever mentions combined action speaks of organization; now, is it possible to have organization without authority?” He asks.

And yet I think the greatest problem with On Authority is the number of readers of Engels who stop there and who never develop the necessary introspection to turn a later statement at themselves or the heads of state they admire, “These gentlemen think that when they have changed the names of things they have changed the things themselves.” And yet, for many readers of Engels the decision is to do just that!

It’s the people’s jail; completely different from a regular prison. And the prison is important here because I think a more productive read of On Authority would be to see it as an anticipation of Discipline and Punish. Engels quite rightly points out how the technologies that existed in the late 19th century helped form an authoritarian subjectivity. He demonstrates that a factory worker or a steam ship operator must, by necessity, create a form of authority in order to accomplish their tasks.

This, in a way, echoes Foucault’s suggestion that the epistemological shift that created the conditions for the prison was far vaster than a mere building of stone and steel. Engels diagnoses the problem of authority in much the same way Foucault diagnoses the problem of discipline. The principal difference is that Engels, in the 1870s says, we cannot abandon this yet, while Foucault, a century later, says, we should have abandoned this long ago.

Engels is arguing that the power relationship of authority, the idea that one person could subordinate the will of the other to achieve a collective aim, is necessary for conducting the violence of the revolution. ” Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois?” And he’s not entirely wrong. He almost comes to a profound understanding: the problem of authority is not that it exists but rather that it persists. Tari comes to this realization when he points to the example of Subcomandante Marcos who dissolved back into the anonymity of the people after his role as a spokesperson for the Zapatistas was no longer needed. “Authority and autonomy are relative things whose spheres vary with the various phases of the development of society.” Engels says and this suggests an understanding that authority is, and must be, contingent.

The problem that arises is that this authority congeals into an institution and this, like the prison and the disciplinary society it is a part of, continues long after the moment it should have been struck down.

And so, you can see, we can construct an Engels who speaks against Lenin, Stalin and all the authoritarian Marxists who follow in their wake from the very essay from which they build their case for the people’s jail.

But this raises the question of whether this is an authentic Engels. Certainly I’m reading into the text things that simply could not be there. Engels assumes inevitability and yet I demand he sees contingency. I divide him against himself.

There are certain people who might shrug at this and suggest that whether Engels saw authority as an inevitable product of a productive society or as a contingent phenomenon tied to a vast network of other contingencies is irrelevant to how an audience receives a text. And in doing so they take my divided Engels and split him fully: we have the Engels of the inevitable and we have the Engels of the contingent. This situates the discursive power of the text fully in its interpretation. A message is only as strong as the receipt of it.

But, of course, there is another possibility ignored by this very dialectically divided Engels. And that is that both of these divided figures occupy the same space. We can start by stepping back and asking whether I divided Engels in the interpretation or if these contradictions were there in the text, equally present but irreconcilable. It is a misunderstanding of contingency to suggest it is flat. In a fully contingent universe even contingency is contingent and we must expect to see the accretion of consistency.

From within a domain of consistency that consistency likely seems inevitable. It occludes the contingency on the horizon. But this is only ever metastable. After all: the consistency is contingent. Transformation may occur at any moment. When they have changed the names of things they may not have changed the things themselves but a transformation of a thing will also require a transformation of its name. And yet none of this is erased. No matter how much I unfold destitution out of On Authority the inevitable Engels of Stalin remains too.

This is the nature of authorship. We cannot erase intent; it will always be there in the text. However we cannot assume intent is singular. Intent changes; intent becomes other to itself. Even the dead Engels can change his mind when contradictory thoughts exist on the page. This is not to say that there is a unity between my destituent Engels and the Engels of the inevitable. Such an encounter is, to paraphrase Deleuze, as absurd as an authentic encounter between a sadist and a masochist. And so we cannot simply re-unify Engels into one who contains both. He is already fragments. As are we all. But these fragments can coalesce too; new consistencies can be achieved that are wholly alien to the ones before. These remain metastable and contingent, of course, and this is why the work of liberation will never be done. Even if we perfected society we could not assume it would stay perfect. But it’s precious to remember, in the aftermath of a disaster especially, that destitution and constitution are dynamic processes that never reach unity but also can never achieve totality. The marks of the past will always be upon us. But we don’t live there. And over the horizon is something different.