In this installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss the increasing differences between anarchists, not just in English speaking countries, but also in Europe, over how best to deal with the political realities emerging after the Second World War. These realities included the Cold War, and outright conflict, between the US and Soviet blocs, decreasing militancy among the working classes, and various struggles for personal liberation in the face of growing social conformity.
Resistance or Revolution
Not all anarchists were enamoured with the turn toward personal liberation, alternative lifestyles and cultural change in the aftermath of the Second World War. In Italy, the class struggle anarchists of the Impulso group denounced these anarchist currents as counter-revolutionary, much as Murray Bookchin did many years later (Bookchin, 1995).
The Impulso group described these approaches as “resistencialism,” a term suggested in 1949 by the French anarchist paper, Études Anarchistes, to describe the new perspectives and approaches being developed by anarchists in the English speaking countries in the aftermath of the Second World War which emphasized resistance to authoritarian and hierarchical modes of thought and organization, and the creation of libertarian alternatives here and now, regardless of the prospects of a successful social revolution.
What the Impulso group’s critique illustrates is the degree to which these new conceptions and approaches had spread beyond England and the USA by 1950, when they published their broadside, for much of their attack is directed toward the Italian anarchist journal, Volontà, belying the claim that the “new” anarchism was a largely “Anglo-Saxon” phenomenon (Volume Two, Selection 38).
The Volontà group, with which Camillo Berneri’s widow, and long time anarchist, Giovanna Berneri (1897-1962) was associated, had begun exploring new ideas and analyses which have since become the stock in trade of so-called “post-modern” anarchists (Volume Three, Chapter 12), including a critique of conventional conceptions of rationality and intellectual constructs which seek to constrain thought and action within a specific ideological framework. As one contributor to Volontà put it, “All ideologues are potential tyrants” (Volume Two, Selection 38).
The Impulso group denounced Volontà for celebrating “irrationalism” and “chaos,” turning anarchism into “a motley, whimsical subjective representation,” and for abandoning any concept of class struggle. For the Impulso group, anarchism was instead “the ideology of the working and peasant class, the product of a reasoned re-elaboration of revolutionary experiences, the theoretical weapon for the defence of the unitary, ongoing interests of the labouring class, the objective outcome of a specific historic process,” illustrating the degree to which the class struggle anarchists had incorporated into their outlook several Marxian elements (Volume Two, Selection 38).
For them, there were “three vital coefficients to the act of revolution: the crisis in the capitalist system… active participation by the broad worker and peasant masses… and the organized action of the activist minority.” To the criticism that the “masses” can never become self-governing if led by an elite activist minority, the Impulso group responded that an informed, consciously anarchist minority cannot betray the revolution because its theory “is not only the correct general theory” but the correct theory “especially in relation to the activist minority and its nature, its functions, [and] its limitations” (Volume Two, Selection 38).
This claim that an activist minority of anarchists would never effectively assume positions of authority because their general theory eschews such a role is not particularly persuasive on either theoretical or historical grounds. No matter how well informed by or committed to anarchist principles, the “activist minority,” armed with their “correct” theory will, as Malatesta had said of the Platformists, be prone “to excommunicate from anarchism all those who do not accept their program,” promoting sectarianism rather than creating a unified movement (Volume One, Selection 115).
Neno Vasco (1920) and other anarchists had long argued that the focus of anarchist minorities should instead be on fostering the self-activity of the masses. This is because by “acting directly,” as Murray Bookchin has written, “we not only gain a sense that we can control the course of social events again; we recover a new sense of selfhood and personality without which a truly free society, based on self-activity and self-management, is utterly impossible” (Volume Three, Selection 10). That being informed and guided by anarchist theory does not prevent one from assuming a more conventional leadership role was demonstrated by those CNT-FAI “militants” who joined the Republican government in Spain during the 1936-39 Revolution and Civil War (Volume One, Selections 127 & 128).
The Impulso group saw themselves performing a “locomotive function,” pulling the masses toward liberation through the revolutionary upheaval that would inevitably result from the crisis of international capitalism, committing themselves to “a harsh self-discipline” (Volume Two, Selection 38), the kind of self-abnegation that Bakunin had warned against earlier (Volume One, Selection 20).
Despite the denunciations of the Impulso group, it was the “new” anarchism pioneered by the so-called “resistencialists” that was to inspire radicals in the 1960s, with people like the Cohn-Bendit brothers writing, “Act with others, not for them. Make the revolution here and now,” for “it is for yourself that you make the revolution,” not some abstract ideal to which all should be sacrificed (Volume Two, Selection 51).