Some Thoughts on Federalism

I’ve been in a number of big organisations. In the ones large enough that they are made up of a number of smaller groups, there seems to be three basic ways the organisation can be structured: “centrally”, as a “federation”, or as a “network”. I will start by briefly explaining what I mean by “central” and “network” structures to give this some context. The main point of this article though is to talk about “federalism”. I will look at what it means (as I understand it), how it relates to direct democracy, how it is more than just a decision-making system, and what it’s advantages and disadvantages are.

If an organisation is “centralist”, all groups that make it up are co-ordinated by a “centre”. Normally this is called the “central committee”, the “national committee”, or something similar. Even if members of this committee are elected and their policies voted on, they will be able to make some decisions independently. The key point here is that the central committee has real decision-making power, even if it is limited by a constitution. So, in a “centralist” structure, the role of small groups is to carry out the will of the organisation – they are the platform that the centre uses to communicate with its members, and to co-ordinate their action. The opposite of this is a “network”. In a “network” the function of the organisation is solely to put groups in contact with each other, and to facilitate the sharing of resources between them. In a network there is no central decision making structure at all. So each group in a network stays completely autonomous (i.e. independent, and free from outside control), beyond what they agree to independently and between themselves. This means that in a “network” structure (if it is formal at all), the purpose of the organisation is to be a “communications platform” for the groups that are in it, and nothing more.

What about “federalism”? Federal organising is what happens when groups voluntarily get together to take coordinated action: working around what they have in common, based on an agreement between them (the word “federal” originally meant “pertaining to a treaty”). Each group that is federated remains completely independent. However, a federation will have a decision-making structure (such as regular meetings between representatives from each small group), that has been agreed upon by all groups that are part of the federation. Through this, collective action can be organised, efforts coordinated, and national structures formed (for example, an organisational newsletter). You could say that this is a middle ground between “network” and “centralist” structures: the groups in a federation keep their autonomy and individuality, yet clear and co-ordinated decisions are also made by the organisation as a whole.

It is worth pointing out that in practice, most “federal” organisations also tend to act partly as “networks” – groups that meet in a federation will talk informally and work together independently of the structure. So, these two kinds of organisation can work and exist together. Similarly, most groups in a centralist organisation will have a small degree of autonomy. Therefore, federalism is not absolute – there are degrees of federalism and centralism in most organisations.

Federalism is sometimes treated as being basically another word for “direct democracy” (democracy where decisions are made by everyone in the organisation, rather than their representatives). I think this is a mistake. As I understand the word, just because an organisation is “federal” does not mean it is even a democracy, let alone a direct democracy. So in theory, it would be possible to have a federation of dictators! However, direct democracy and federalism are very complementary. When they are combined, it tends to work like so: all decisions of the small group are made by direct democracy. If the decision relates to the entire organisation (for example, a call for a day of action), they make a proposal to the next “general meeting” (a meeting made up of delegates from each group in the federation). This proposal would be circulated to all groups, who would make a decision about whether to support it or not. These decisions would then form the “mandates” which each delegate takes to the general meeting. Delegates would not be allowed to make decisions for themselves on compromises, etc during the general meeting. Instead, their group would have to mandate them with clear decisions on what compromises they are willing to make, etc. So, we have: each proposal is debated and decided upon by small groups independently, and the general meeting of the organisation is made up only of “fully mandated” and recallable delegates that reach a decision based on this. Whether decisions at this level should be made by consensus, one delegate one vote, or with each delegate getting votes in proportion to the number they represent, is an open question. In some federations, a group that disagrees with a proposal is not expected to implement it (but they may well choose to anyway). In any case – each member of each group gets a say on all the decisions of the organisation, and never surrenders decision-making power to any individual or committee.

But if a federal organisation isn’t simply “direct democracy” on a mass scale, what is it? It is not just a different way of making decisions – though it may need one. More than that, I think federalism is about “decentralisation”. It is about, as much as possible, avoiding central positions of power and committees. If roles must exist, they can be given to groups rather than individuals, or at least regularly rotated (for example, in the anarchist federation, the national gatherings are organised by a different local group each year, rather than by an individual or a central committee). Federal organisation is also about supporting the diversity of all groups in the federation – so not having a common ‘position’ or set of beliefs unless it is absolutely necessary. Finally, it is about building a culture of “self-sufficiency” and “inter-dependency“ between groups in the federation – not relying on people in positions of power to give them guidance or training. If assistance needs to come from outside, it should be done on a basis of “mutual aid”, rather than ‘from the top’ (another example from when I was in the anarchist federation: we helped people to set up other local groups nearby to us – organising protests with them, giving workshops, etc – rather than this being done by some ‘national committee’ or ‘official organisers’)

As I see it, the main reasons for having a structure like this are:

  1.   individual groups keep their autonomy, so there is more freedom, more diversity, and hopefully less likelihood of splinter-groups forming around issues that aren’t “fundamental”. There is also less likelihood of anyone dominating the organisation or exploiting it for their private benefit. (compared with centralism)
  2.   it is possible to make clear, collective decisions that involve all groups and are democratic. Having a process for making decisions also makes it easier for people to take initiative rather than waiting for others to do things for them. So it is easier to make collective decisions, and harder for “informal hierarchies” to develop (compared with a network structure).
  3.   no (formal) positions of power are needed. Why I think this is an advantage probably needs an article on it’s own. I can’t really go into it in a way that appreciates all of the problems and complexities – so five brief reasons will have to do. Why ending formal positions of power is not enough and why we need to tackle informal positions of power too could also be an article on its own. Those issues aside, the first reason that having no formal positions of power is good, is that the organisation will avoid the problems that come from people abusing power (for example, using it for personal gain, to cover up messed-up behavior like rape, or to advance their careers). An issue similar to this, is that organised minorities tend to have a far bigger influence than they should in centralist organisations – often meeting secretly to plan how to get ‘their people’ elected to any positions of power that are available [1]. This would hopefully not happen in a federal organisation, as there are no positions of power to try and get people into. Thirdly, apathy is discouraged, because everybody can get involved in the decision making process and have a say, not just the elected few. The competition that comes along with positions of power is also avoided. This means that federal organisations can focus all of their resources and time on practical work, rather than on dealing with power-struggles and costly election campaigns. Finally, positions of power tend to be taken up disproportionately by straight, white, cis (ie, not transgendered or transsexual), men. Even in a committee with an equal split between genders, men still often dominate discussions. One of the reasons for this is that our society gives certain people-groups the tools to lead, and socialises them to be domineering and manipulative, while at the same time socialising other people-groups to be submissive to them. Having no formal positions of power at all sidesteps this problem, and means that the organisation is less likely to disproportionately represent the interests of straight, white, cis, men (there are more traits that could be added to this list!).

As for disadvantages, I think the major one is the slow speed of decision making. Since each decision needs to be first passed by each local group, and then discussed nationally; decision-making can be a slow process. One other objection that could be raised is that federalism is harder work than other structures, because of cultural difficulties. Most of us are only used to working within large, highly centralised groups, with clear hierarchies. It does takes a lot of work to get used to different structures and to the freedoms and responsibilities that come with them. However, I do not think this really counts as an objection – spending time learning how to stop thinking in hierarchies is time well spent. Not only will it make the group itself more inclusive, but creating spaces where things like hierarchies are challenged is also a critical part of changing society, which in itself is a good thing.

In conclusion, each of the structures I have written about can be thought of in two ways: both as ways of organising collective action, and also as perspectives on what big organisations are for in the first place. In my opinion, it is the second of these that is the most important. The practical consequence of the centralist way of thinking, is that organisations based on it tend to place a lot of power into the hands of a small group of people. Therefore, they can very easily become dominated by individuals seeking to exert power over others for their own ends. Since this must be avoided at all costs I believe that, when co-ordination between groups is needed at all, we should work only in organisations that are decentralised: federations where practical, and networks where necessary.

[1] In case this sounds too much like a conspiracy theory: an anarchist group I’m in was once approached by TWO different organisations, each trying to get help in taking over the organising committee of a local anti-cuts group. The reason they gave for this was that we needed to work together to stop the other group taking control!

Although this article was based mainly on reflection from personal experience, to an extent it also draws on:

The principle of federation” – P.-J. Proudhon (
The anarchist sociology of federalism” – Colin Ward (
Notes on Democratic Centralism” – Tony Cliff (
Untying the knot: The Tyranny of Structurelessnes and the Tyranny of Tyranny” – Intro by AFed, first article by Jo Freeman, second article by Cathy Levine (

Examples of federalism in action:

  •    The Anarchist Federation (aka AFed) has a federal structure. Descision-making is a combination of consensus and voting, and all decisions can be resolved by a ballot of members when demanded: . (also, appears to have active an LGBT group, and a “women’s caucus” active within the organisation – could be interesting for people looking at how to combine liberation campaigns and federal structures)
  •   The Solidarity Federation (anarcho-syndicalist, revolutionary union, aka SolFed) is an example of formal networks being used within a federation: (note – appears to approach liberation campaigns in a different way to AFed, in that SolFedf has an official “women’s officer”)
  •   The Seeds for Change guide to consensus decision making includes a section on large groups, and the system they propose is basically federal:
  •   Both the anarchist federation and the solidarity federation are part of international groups, which are essentially ‘federations of federations’. There is the International of Anarchist Federations: – and the International Workers Association:
  •   The Via Campesina may not necessarily describe themselves as federalist, but they put into action many of the elements described here, especially decentralisation:

Final note: Please feel free to copy/re-print/plagiarize this article however you like. If my name isn’t mentioned, then so much the better :-).


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