Untying the Knot

"The Tyranny of Structurelessness", by Jo Freeman and "The Tyranny of Tyranny", by Cathy Levine

OrganizationFREEMAN, JoLEVINE, Cathy

We reproduce two important texts on libertarian organisation from the 1970’s & 80’s, "The Tyranny of Structurelessness" by Jo Freeman and a reply to it "The Tyranny of Tyranny" by Cathy Levine (previously published together as Untying the Knot: Feminism, Anarchism and Organisation, Rebel Press 1984).


Politically we seem to be at a watershed. On the one hand organisations and institutions once tightly organised and disciplined seem to be withering away. Ideologies are unravelling, lines are becoming blurred. Old notions of organisation seem no longer to be so effective while the certainties of life - whether ideas, relationships, alliances or structures - are disintegrating. On the other hand, less formal ways of organising and structuring life and managing change are arising but seem so far to have no firm foundation or ability to transcend the self-chosen but limited fronts and environments in which people act.

Is there something wrong with "organisation"?

If true this raises many questions. Is there something intrinsically wrong with ‘organisation’ ? Are the failures of the ‘Old Left’, the splintering of the feminist movement and mistrust of revolutionary ideology amongst environmentalists inevitable because of the way they organise or a product of specific times and cultures ? Is there any science of relating, organising or deciding on which a libertarian society can be built ? Is it possible to bring about revolutionary change without organisation ?

It is our belief that current movements for change, including the anarchist, libertarian and environmental can learn from the recent histories of other groups in struggle. This pamphlet consists of two articles re-published in the 1980s, followed by some thoughts on organisation from the Anarchist Federation.

The articles are statement and response by two people deeply engaged in the women’s liberation movement, displaying many of the features of an intellectually-led movement for radical change. Initially it spreads, unnoticed; there is a gradual upwelling of thought and sentiment. Ideas begin to be articulated, challenges made. Coalescing and cross-fertilising ideas create a movement. Groups cluster and spin off, going towards different destinations. Action brings reaction and confrontation; the movement adapts. Divisions open as strategy and tactics are debated. The debate spreads ideas but dissipates energy; the movement becomes distracted. Confusion sets in and groups splinter and re-splinter. Distorted by struggle it is gradually drained by histories and dogmas that cripple and restrict. Struggle becomes ritualised, channelled, contained.

In the “Tyranny of Structurelessness”, Jo Freeman argues that de-structuring restricts the range of activities mutual and affinity groups can perform to simple “consciousness-raising”. Since liberation movements are intent on radical change they need different forms. She argues that the basis of such groups (friendship, affinity, mutual experience) are insufficient to prevent elitism and build mass organisations. The end of consciousness-raising leaves people with no place to go and the lack of structure leaves them with no way of getting there. This statement has a familiar ring. Unless a movement for change can overcome this problem it will not develop but become inward-looking, trapped in sterile rituals, dominated by elites. To break the authority of structurelessness she attempts to show that, in fact, all groups have structure, no less real for being informal. These structures based on knowledge, association and experience create in-groups that confer power and out-groups who are disempowered. To protect status and authority, in-groups create criteria by which people are judged: they are ‘allowed’ to join, they participate but only in prescribed roles or channels.

A key dilemma she poses is the question of power: If the movement continues deliberately not to select who shall exercise power, it does not thereby abolish power. All it does is abdicate the right to demand that those who do exercise power and influence be responsible for it. Without formal structure, hierarchies develop in which some people are free to act without reference to the group while others find themselves blocked at every turn. Close observation show which are the effective people, the leaders who always get their way and who are the ‘spear-carriers’, the legitimisers. She suggests a series of ‘solutions’ to the processes of inclusion, participation, sharing, decision-making, endorsing. Her main concern is that without the means to make progress, organisation or structure, the women’s liberation movement will fragment, become absorbed by other struggles and movements.

In reply Cathy Levine takes a class position. “The Tyranny of Tyranny” defends the voluntary association model of organising and emphasises the need for the development of a ‘culture’ in the radical milieu which offers respect, is inclusive and participatory, nurtures and sustains people and avoids the competitiveness that seems to characterise large organisations and divided movements. As well as organising ourselves we must develop personally. The tyranny of tyranny has prevented us from relating to individuals or from creating organisations in ways that do not obliterate individuality with prescribed roles. We must continue to raise consciousness and create cultures of exploration and development that are themselves liberating. If we only adopt the forms necessary to create a movement, we run the risk of replicating the conditions and processes capitalism uses to control us.

This is certainly an analysis the Anarchist Federation would endorse as well as her statement that the reason for building a movement on a foundation of collectives is that we want to create a revolutionary culture consistent with our view of the new society. The strength of her argument is primarily based in the historical experiences of the working class. In particular, though anarchists have not yet created an enduring libertarian society, the organisational ideas of anarchism, applied in certain places and at certain times, have provided the best examples of an empowered, liberated and progressive working class defining itself and determining its own future.

As ideologies and organisational forms among libertarians converge, questions of power, participation, organisation, responsibility, accountability and delegation become more important. The vital task of spreading consciousness remains: voluntary association, affinity groups and open networks must continue to play a big part. Without progress we run the risk of being absorbed, decaying gradually over time unless they can develop a broad culture of resistance. These articles raise our consciousness by giving us insights we ignore at our peril.