The Emergence of the New Anarchism: Marie Louise Berneri

In Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, subtitled The Emergence of the New Anarchism (1939-1977), I included three selections from Marie Louise Berneri (1918-1949), the talented anarchist journalist and writer. Berneri was born in Italy, one of the daughters of Camillo Berneri and Giovanna Berneri, prominent anarchists at the forefront of the struggle against fascism. They were forced to flee Italy in 1926. Marie Louise went to university in France, where she worked with Louis Mercier Vega (I included excerpts from Mercier Vega’s 1970 essay, “Yesterday’s Society and Today’s,” in Volume Two as Selections 45 & 66). In May 1937, Camillo Berneri was murdered in Spain, probably by Stalinist agents. Marie Louise ended up in England, where she campaigned on behalf of the Spanish anarchists and helped revitalize the English anarchist movement. She wrote prolifically for the English anarchist papers, Spain and the World, then War Commentary, then Freedom. After her untimely death in 1949, a collection of her articles was published under the title, Neither East Nor West (1952), emphasizing the anarchist rejection of the false Cold War dichotomy posed by the ideologists of the capitalist West and the Communist East, and the need for an anarchist alternative. The following excerpts are from her 1944 essay, “By Fire and Sword,” later included in the chapter in Neither East Nor West on the “price of war,” from which I reproduced additional extracts in Volume Two of the Anarchism anthology as Selection 4. I also included in Volume Two of Anarchism – The Emergence of the New Anarchism, excerpts from her study of literary utopias, Journey Through Utopia (1949), as Selection 15, and her 1945 article, “Wilhelm Reich and the Sexual Revolution,” as Selection 75.


Paris 1944

IN THE PREFACE to the Baedeker for Paris and its surroundings, published in 1881, one finds a description of the “most deplorable recent disasters caused by the fiendish proceedings of the Communists during the second ‘reign of Terror,’ 20th-28th May, 1871.” According to the writer, “Within that week of horrors no fewer than twenty-two important public buildings and monuments were wholly or partly destroyed, and a similar fate overtook seven railway stations, the four principal public parks and gardens, and hundreds of dwelling- houses and other buildings.”

If Baron Karl Baedeker would have had to write a preface to a guide to Paris in the years which will follow the present war he would probably have had to record far more “fiendish” proceedings on the parts of the retreating German army and the victorious bulldozing, all-levelling armies of “liberation”. There will be a difference, however; the scars that Paris, like the other French towns of Caen, Cherbourg and many more will wear will be noble scars of which the French people will be asked to be proud, and it is doubtful if they will receive slighting references, such as those levelled at the Commune, by the generations of guide-writers to come.

It is the privilege of revolutions that the acts of violence to which they give rise have always received the utmost publicity in newspapers, history books, novels, plays, films… and even travellers’ books. The horrors of war are forgotten or are glorified for the benefit of tourists, like the ruins of Verdun. But everything conspires to keep alive in people’s minds the acts of violence which have taken place during revolutions. Ask any French schoolboy what was the most bloody period in the history of France and he will most probably mention the period of the Terror during the French Revolution. A few thousand people were killed during that period, a small number compared with the Napoleonic wars; an infinitesimal figure compared with the casualties in the war of 1914-1918. Yet the French school boy will know all about the horrors of the French Revolution, the killing of priests and nobles, the death in captivity of Louis the Sixteenth’s heir and the beheading of Marie-Antoinette. But he will know nothing about the million dead of the First World War and the hundreds of thousands of children who died of starvation and disease as a result of it.

Revolutions spell wholesale murder and destruction not only to schoolchildren. How many times have experienced socialist politicians and learned Fabian professors advocated submission and compromise with the ruling class by waving the spectre of bloody revolution in front of the misguided masses? It was with tears in his eyes that Leon Blum asked the French people not to intervene in the Spanish revolution. It was in order to “spare lives” that he watched one of the most splendid revolutionary movements suffocated and allowed the Fascist powers to gain military experience to fight a world war. Of course, when the present war started, Leon Blum forgot all his sensitive love for humanity and urged French people to go to the massacre. As everyone knows revolutions are bloody affairs but to die wholesale for the motherland is called supreme and sublime sacrifice, so that in these cases death does not really count.

One can easily prophesy that after this war there will still be those people to talk about the horrors of the Commune and of the shooting of fascists, capitalists and priests in Spain. But the bombing of Hamburg, Paris and London; the bombardment of Caen; the sinking of troopships; the death in the skies of thousands of young men; the starvation and pestilence devastating scores of countries: these will all be classified as necessary evils, unavoidable curses which humanity must be proud to endure. Revolutionists once again will be considered bloodthirsty fellows who had better be kept locked up and if the choice between war and revolution again presents itself, Christians, socialists and communists no doubt will, on humanitarian grounds, again choose war.

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