Patricia Crone on 9th Century Muslim Anarchists

Patricia Crone (1945-2015) was an academic historian with a focus on the history of early Islam. In her article, “Ninth-Century Muslim Anarchists,” Past and Present, No. 167 (May, 2000), pp. 3-28, Patricia Crone describes two 9th century Muslim groups as anarchist libertarians.

The first group that she describes as being religious and political “libertarians” were the Najdiyya. They believed that everyone “was responsible for his own road to salvation,” and therefore should “have no master apart from God.” [“Ninth-Century Muslim Anarchists,” Past and Present, No. 167 (May, 2000), pp. 3-28, p. 26] In their support for freedom of thought, the Najdiyya included the freedom to make honest mistakes, “for God would not punish [someone] for a mistaken conclusion reached in ignorance.” [“A Statement by the Najdiyya Kharijites on the Dispensability of the Imamate,” Studia Islamica, No. 88 (1998), pp. 55-76, p. 70] The only legitimate polity would be one with a chief “elected by the community, supervised by it and deposed by it if he was found to stray: he would merely be the community’s agent.” [“Ninth-Century,” p. 25]

Crone sees the Najdiyya ideal “as an Islamic restatement of the small face-to-face society of the tribal past in which no free man had been subjected to another in either political or religious terms.” [“Statement,” p. 76]The Najdiyya reclamation of a more egalitarian tribal past is similar to early Daoists harkening back to the perceived virtues of prehierarchical societies in China.

The “religious” anarchism of the Najdiyya is comparable to the 1st century Jewish Fourth Philosophy’s and Zealots’ rejection of any master other than God. However, the scope of Najdiyya “libertarianism” was very limited. The only people free to follow their own road were the Najdiyya themselves, the only true Muslims: “All others were infidels who could in principle be enslaved, dispossessed and exterminated by the Najdiyya, should the latter choose” to do so. [“Ninth Century,” p. 26] Najdiyya “anarchism,” like that of the early Stoics, was limited to the initiates.

Crone describes another 9th century CE Muslim group, the Mu‘tazilites, as “anarchist,” but the resemblance to modern anarchism is even more tenuous than that of the Najdiyya. To begin with, the Mu‘tazilites did not seek to transform their existing “inegalitarian society;” rather, they sought to free that society from the tutelage of the state. They thought that “wrongful government made property immoral, not that property engendered wrongful government.” Do “away with the head of state and, implicitly, his army and bureaucracy,” and “society would be fine,” despite continuing disparities in wealth and power.

Like modern-day laissez-faire capitalists who like to call themselves “libertarians,” the Mu‘tazilites did not object to “the existence of coercive power but rather its distribution,” preferring to see it more dispersed and decentralized. [“Ninth Century,” p. 22] They believed “in the dispensability of government,” not in the abolition of hierarchy, domination and exploitation. [“Ninth-Century,” p. 5] At best they were what would be described today as “philosophical anarchists” who disputed the legitimacy of even their own Muslim rulers, but who did not believe that government could or should be abolished “altogether.” [Ninth Century,” p. 21]

The comparison between the Mu‘tazilites and modern day capitalist “libertarians” is apt considering the former’s acceptance and endorsement of corporal and capital punishment for violations of Islamic law, much like capitalist “libertarians” endorse carceral punishment for property crimes through private police forces and courts. The Islamic punishments of “amputation of thieving hands” and “the execution of murderers” would still be meted out, but by individuals on an ad hoc basis, rather than by a state apparatus. [“Ninth Century,” p. 17] Some “Mu‘tazilites proposed that trustworthy and learned leaders of households, districts, tribes and towns should apply the law within their jurisdiction,” with power thereby reverting “to patriarchs and local leaders – domestic tyrants and local thugs in modern parlance.” [“Ninth Century,” p. 17]

For Crone then to describe the Mu‘tazilites as anarchists simply illustrates her own misunderstanding of anarchism, which is based on her very narrow definition of anarchism as any “belief in the dispensability of government.” [“Ninth Century,” p. 5] For Crone to claim further that the modern anarchist “alternative to the state is more often than not authoritarianism of another, and frequently more thoroughgoing, kind,” is completely insupportable [“Ninth Century,” p. 21] You will search long and hard before finding any modern anarchists who endorse carceral, corporal, or capital punishment, or authoritarianism of any kind. A thoroughgoing anti-authoritarianism has been a central theme of modern anarchism from its very beginnings. I hope that Mohamed Abdou’s recently published book, Islam and Anarchism, presents a more sophisticated analysis.

Robert Graham

Published in: on December 2, 2022 at 12:01 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The First International and the Birth of the Anarchist Movement

I recently did an interview with Final Straw Radio to discuss the International Workingmen’s Association (the “First” International) and the birth of the anarchist movement, which you can listen to here:

Also check out my book,We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement, published by AK Press.

Hope you enjoy it!

The Legacy of the St. Imier Congress

This September 15th marks the 150th anniversary of the St. Imier Congress in Switzerland, when delegates representing sections of the International Workingmen’s Association reconstituted the International along anti-authoritarian lines, following the expulsion of Michael Bakunin and James Guillaume from the International at the behest of Marx and Engels at the Hague Congress on September 7, 1872. I prepared the following article on the St. Imier Congress and its aftermath for Black Flag Anarchist Review’s Summer 2022 issue on anarchism and the First International. The special conference to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the St. Imier Congress has been postponed to July 2023:

Saint Imier

The St. Imier Congress and the Birth of Revolutionary Anarchism

The September 1872 St. Imier Congress of federalist and anti-authoritarian sections and federations of the International Workingmen’s Association (the “IWMA”), otherwise known as the “First International,” marks a watershed moment in the history of socialism and anarchism.

Just over a week earlier, at the Hague Congress of the International (September 2 – 7, 1872), Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had engineered the expulsion of Michael Bakunin and James Guillaume from the International on trumped up grounds, and then had the General Council of the International transferred from London to New York, despite the General Council having been granted increased powers to ensure ideological uniformity. The Hague Congress had also passed a resolution mandating the formation of national political parties for the purpose of achieving political power.

While Marx and Engels’ allies at the Hague Congress, notably the French Blanquists (followers of Auguste Blanqui, a radical French socialist who advocated revolutionary dictatorship), had supported the expulsions of Bakunin and Guillaume, they were taken by surprise when Marx and Engels succeeded in transferring the executive power of the International, the General Council, to New York, and had quit the International in disgust. The New York based “International” quickly became an irrelevant rump.

Much to the surprise and consternation of Marx and Engels, far from neutralizing the federalist and anarchist elements of the International through the expulsion of Bakunin and Guillaume and the transfer of the General Council to New York, these actions helped solidify support for a reconstituted International that embraced federalist principles and rejected centralized power.

A majority of the International’s sections and federations did not support the resolutions of the Hague Congress. Barely a week after the Hague Congress, several of them held their own congress in St. Imier, Switzerland, where they reconstituted the International independent of the shell organization now controlled by Marx and Engels through the General Council.

The opponents of the Marxist controlled International were united in their opposition to the concentration of power in the General Council, regardless of whether the Council sat in London or New York. They also shared a commitment to directly democratic federalist forms of organization. Some were completely opposed to the formation of working class political parties to achieve state power, while others were opposed to making that a mandatory policy regardless of the views of the membership and local circumstances. The reconstituted anti-authoritarian wing of the International was to have anarchist, syndicalist and, for a time, reformist elements.

The St. Imier Congress began on September 15, 1872, just eight days after the Hague Congress. It was attended by delegates from Spain, France, Italy and Switzerland, including Guillaume and Adhémar Schwitzguébel from Switzerland; Carlo Cafiero, Errico Malatesta, Giuseppi Fanelli, and Andrea Costa from Italy; Rafael Farga-Pellicer and Tomás González Morago from Spain; and the French refugees, Charles Alerini, Gustave Lefrançais, and Jean-Louis Pindy.  Bakunin, although living in Switzerland, attended as an Italian delegate.

A “regional” congress of the Swiss Jura Federation was held in conjunction with the “international” congress, with many of the same delegates, plus members of the Slav Section, such as Zamfir Arbore (who went under the name of Zemphiry Ralli) and other French speaking delegates, including Charles Beslay, an old friend of Proudhon’s who went into exile in Switzerland after the brutal suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871. 

Virtually all of the participants were either anarchists or revolutionary socialist federalists, and many of them went on to play important roles in the development of anarchist and revolutionary socialist movements in Europe.

The assembled delegates adopted a federalist structure for a reconstituted International (or the “anti-authoritarian International”), with full autonomy for the sections, declaring that “nobody has the right to deprive autonomous federations and sections of their incontrovertible right to decide for themselves and to follow whatever line of political conduct they deem best.” For them, “the aspirations of the proletariat can have no purpose other than the establishment of an absolutely free economic organization and federation, founded upon the labour and equality of all and absolutely independent of all political government.” Consequently, turning the Hague Congress resolution regarding the formation of political parties for the purpose of achieving political power on its head, they proclaimed that “the destruction of all political power is the first duty of the proletariat.”

With respect to organized resistance to capitalism, the delegates to the St. Imier Congress affirmed their position that the organization of labour, through trade unions and other working class forms of organization, “integrates the proletariat into a community of interests, trains it in collective living and prepares it for the supreme struggle,” through which “the privilege and authority” maintained and represented by the State will be replaced by “the free and spontaneous organization of labour.”

While the anti-authoritarian Internationalists entertained no illusions regarding the efficacy of strikes in ameliorating the condition of the workers, they regarded “the strike as a precious weapon in the struggle.” They embraced strikes “as a product of the antagonism between labour and capital, the necessary consequence of which is to make workers more and more alive to the gulf that exists between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat,” bolstering their organizations and preparing them “for the great and final revolutionary contest which, destroying all privilege and all class difference, will bestow upon the worker a right to the enjoyment of the gross product of his labours.”

Here we have the subsequent program of anarcho-syndicalism: the organization of workers into trade unions and similar bodies, based on class struggle, through which the workers will become conscious of their class power, ultimately resulting in the destruction of capitalism and the state, to be replaced by the free federation of the workers based on the organizations they created themselves during their struggle for liberation.

The resolutions from the St. Imier Congress received statements of support from the Italian, Spanish, Jura, Belgian and some of the English speaking American federations of the International, with most of the French sections also approving them.  In Holland, three out of the four Dutch branches sided with the Jura Federation and the St. Imier Congress.  The English Federation, resentful of Marx’s attempts to keep it under his control, rejected “the decisions of the Hague Congress and the so-called General Council of New York.”  While the longtime English member of the International, John Hales, did not support revolution, he advised the Jura Federation that he agreed with them on “the principle of Federalism.”  At a congress of the Belgian Federation in December 1872, the delegates there also repudiated the Hague Congress and the General Council, supporting instead the “defenders of pure revolutionary ideas, Anarchists, enemies of all authoritarian centralisation and indomitable partisans of autonomy.”

However, there was a tension in the resolutions adopted at the St. Imier Congress. On the one hand, one resolution asserted the “incontrovertible right” of the International’s autonomous federations and sections “to decide for themselves and to follow whatever line of political conduct they deem best.” On the other hand, another resolution asserted that “the destruction of all political power is the first duty of the proletariat.”

The resolution regarding the autonomy of the federations and sections in all matters, including political action, was meant to maintain the International as a pluralist federation where each member group was free to follow their own political approach, so that both advocates of participation in electoral activity and proponents of revolutionary change could co-exist.

However, the call for the destruction of all political power expressed an anarchist position. The two resolutions could only be reconciled if the destruction of political power was not necessarily the “first duty of the proletariat,” but could also be regarded as a more distant goal to be achieved gradually, along with “the free and spontaneous organization of labour.”

The tension between these two resolutions continued to exist within the reconstituted International for several years. James Guillaume supported political pluralism within the International and sought to convince some of the sections and federations that had gone along with Marx, such as the Social Democrats in Germany, to rejoin the anti-authoritarian International, and to keep the English Internationalists who had rejected Marx’s centralist approach, such as Hales, within the reconstituted International.

Although the German Social Democrats never officially joined the reconstituted International, two German delegates attended the 1874 Brussels Congress. English delegates attended both the September 1873 Geneva Congress and the September 1874 Brussels Congress, where there was an important debate regarding political strategy, including whether there was any positive role for the state.

The Geneva Congress in September 1873 was the first full congress of the reconstituted International.  It was attended by delegates from England, France, Spain, Italy, Holland, Belgium and Switzerland. The English delegates, John Hales and Johann Georg Eccarius (Marx’s former lieutenant), had been members of the original International. They were interested in reviving the International as an association of workers’ organizations, and in disavowing the Marxist controlled General Council and International that had been transferred by Marx and Engels to New York. They had not become anarchists, as Hales made clear by declaring anarchism “tantamount to individualism… the foundation of the extant form of society, the form we desire to overthrow.” Accordingly, from his perspective, anarchism was “incompatible with collectivism” (a term which at the time was synonymous with socialism). 

The Spanish delegate, José Garcia Viñas, responded that anarchy did not mean disorder, as the bourgeois claimed, but the negation of political authority and the organization of a new economic order. Paul Brousse, a French refugee who had recently joined the Jura Federation in Switzerland, agreed, arguing that anarchy meant the abolition of the governmental regime and its replacement by a collectivist economic organization based on contracts between the communes, the workers and the collective organizations of the workers, a position that can be traced back to Proudhon.

Most of the delegates to the Congress were anti-authoritarian federalists, and the majority of them were clearly anarchist in orientation, including “Farga-Pellicer from Spain, Pindy and Brousse from France, Costa from Italy, and Guillaume and Schwitzguebel from Switzerland.”  Also within the anarchist camp were Garcia Viñas from Spain, who was close to Brousse, Charles Alerini, a French refugee now based in Barcelona associated with Bakunin, Nicholas Zhukovsky, the Russian expatriate who remained close to Bakunin, François Dumartheray (1842-1931), another French refugee who had joined the Jura Federation, Jules Montels (1843-1916), a former provincial delegate of the Commune who was responsible for distributing propaganda in France on behalf of the exiled group, the Section of Revolutionary Socialist Propaganda and Action, and two of the Belgian delegates, Laurent Verrycken and Victor Dave.

The American Federal Council sent a report to the Congress, in which it indicated its support for the anti-authoritarian International. The Americans were in favour of freedom of initiative for the members, sections, branches and federations of the International, and agreed with limiting any general council to purely administrative functions. They felt that it should be up to each group to determine their own tactics and strategies for revolutionary transformation. They concluded their address with “Long live the social revolution! Long live the International.”

At the 1873 Geneva Congress, it was ultimately agreed to adopt a form of organization based on that followed by the Jura Federation, with a federal bureau to be established that “would be concerned only with collecting statistics and maintaining international correspondence.” As a further safeguard against the federal bureau coming to exercise authority over the various sections and branches, it was to “be shifted each year to the country where the next International Congress would be held.”

The delegates continued the practice of voting in accordance with the mandates that had been given to them by their respective federations. Because the International was now a federation of autonomous groups, each national federation was given one vote and the statutes were amended to explicitly provide that questions of principle could not be decided by a vote. It was up to each federation to determine its own policies and to implement those decisions of the congress that it accepted.

Eccarius also attended the next Congress in Brussels in September 1874 as the English delegate. He and the two German delegates remained in favour of a workers’ state and participation in conventional politics, such as parliamentary elections.

The most significant debate at the Brussels Congress was the one over public services. César De Paepe, on behalf of the Belgians, argued that if public services were turned over to the workers’ associations, or “companies,” the people would simply “have the grim pleasure of substituting a worker aristocracy for a bourgeois aristocracy” since the worker companies, “enjoying a natural or artificial monopoly… would dominate the whole economy.” Neither could all public services be undertaken by local communes, since “the most important of them,” such as railways, highways, river and water management, and communications, “are by their very nature fated to operate over a territory larger than that of the Commune.” Such intercommunal public services would therefore have to be run by delegates appointed by the federated communes. De Paepe claimed that the “regional or national Federation of communes” would constitute a “non-authoritarian State… charged with educating the young and centralizing the great joint undertakings.”

However, De Paepe took his argument one step further, suggesting that “the reconstitution of society upon the foundation of the industrial group, the organization of the state from below upwards, instead of being the starting point and the signal of the revolution, might not prove to be its more or less remote result… We are led to enquire whether, before the groupings of the workers by industry is sufficiently advanced, circumstances may not compel the proletariat of the large towns to establish a collective dictatorship over the rest of the population, and this for a sufficiently long period to sweep away whatever obstacles there may be to the emancipation of the working class. Should this happen, it seems obvious that one of the first things which such a collective dictatorship would have to do would be to lay hands on all the public services.” 

De Paepe’s position was opposed by several delegates, including at least one of the Belgians, Laurent Verrycken. He spoke against any workers’ state, arguing that public services should be organized by “the free Commune and the free Federation of communes,” with the execution of the services being undertaken by the workers who provided them under the supervision of the general association of workers within the Commune, and by the Communes in a regional federation of Communes. Farga Pellicer (“Gomez”), on behalf of the Spanish Federation, said that “for a long time they had generally pronounced themselves in favour of anarchy, such that they would be opposed to any reorganization of public services that would lead to the reconstitution of the state.” For him, a “federation of communes” should not be referred to as a “state,” because the latter word represented “the political idea, authoritarian and governmental,” as De Paepe’s comments regarding the need for a “collective dictatorship” revealed. 

The most vocal opponent of De Paepe’s proposal was Schwitzguébel from the Jura Federation. He argued that the social revolution would be accomplished by the workers themselves “assuming direct control of the instruments of labor;” thus, “right from the first acts of the Revolution, the practical assertion of the principle of autonomy and federation… becomes the basis of all social combination,” with “all State institutions,” the means by “which the bourgeoisie sustains its privileges,” foundering in the “revolutionary storm.” With “the various trades bodies” being “masters of the situation,” having “banded together freely for revolutionary action, the workers will stick to such free association when it comes to organization of production, exchange, commerce, training and education, health, and security.”

On the issue of political action, the Belgian delegates to the Brussels Congress continued to advocate working outside of the existing political system, albeit partly because they did not yet have universal suffrage in Belgium. Nevertheless, they claimed they did not expect anything from the suffrage or from parliament, and that they would continue to organize the workers into the trades bodies and federations through which the working class would bring about the social revolution, revealing that, as a group, the Belgian Federation did not yet share De Paepe’s doubts that the free federation of the producers would not be the means, but only the result, of a revolution.

The French delegate indicated that the French Internationalists remained anti-political, seeking to unite the workers “through incessant propaganda,” not to conquer power, but “to achieve the negation of all political government,” organizing themselves for “the true social revolution.” 

The Congress ultimately declared that it was up to each federation and each democratic socialist party to determine for themselves what kind of political approach they should follow.  Nevertheless, it is fair to say that as of September 1874, the majority of the anti-authoritarian International continued to embrace an anarchist or revolutionary syndicalist position. At the end of the 1874 Brussels Congress, the delegates issued a manifesto confirming their commitment to collectivism, workers’ autonomy, federalism and social revolution; in a word, nothing less than the original goal of the International itself: “the emancipation of the workers by the workers themselves.”

By the time of the October 1876 Bern Congress, the English had ceased participating in the anti-authoritarian International. The debate over the “public service” state continued, with De Paepe now openly advocating that the workers “seize and use the powers of the State” in order to create a socialist society.  Most of the delegates rejected De Paepe’s position, including Guillaume and Malatesta. 

Malatesta argued for “the complete abolition of the state in all its possible manifestations.”  While Guillaume and some of the other veteran anti-authoritarians liked to avoid the “anarchist” label, Malatesta declared that “Anarchy, the struggle against all authority … always remains the banner around which the whole of revolutionary Italy rallies.”  Both Malatesta and Guillaume made clear that in rejecting the state, even in a “transitional” role, they were not advocating the abolition of public services, as De Paepe implied, but their reorganization by the workers themselves. 

In September 1877, the anti-authoritarian International held a congress in Verviers, Belgium, which was to be its last. Guillaume and Peter Kropotkin, now a member of the Jura Federation, attended from Switzerland. The French refugees, Paul Brousse and  Jules Montels, also attended. In addition, there were Garcia Viñas and Morago from Spain. Otto Rinke and Emil Werner, both anarchists, “represented sections in both Switzerland and Germany, while there was a strong delegation from the Verviers region, the last stronghold of anarchism in Belgium.”  Costa represented Greek and Egyptian socialists who were unable to attend, as well as the Italian Federation. 

De Paepe did not attend the Congress, as he was preparing for his rapprochement with social democracy and parliamentary politics at the World Socialist Congress that was about to begin in Ghent. In anticipation of the Ghent Congress, the delegates to the Verviers Congress passed several resolutions emphasizing the limited bases for cooperation between the now predominantly anarchist oriented anti-authoritarian International and the social democrats. For the Verviers delegates, collective property, which they defined as “the taking of possession of social capital by the workers’ groups” rather than by the State, was an immediate necessity, not a “far-off ideal.” 

On the issue of political action, the delegates indicated that class antagonism could not be resolved by government or some other political power, but only “by the unified efforts of all the exploited against their exploiters.” They vowed to combat all political parties, regardless of “whether or not they call themselves socialists,” because they did not see electoral activity as leading to the abolition of capitalism and the state. While the majority of the delegates therefore supported anti-parliamentary socialism, none of the policies endorsed at the congresses of the reconstituted International were binding on the International’s member groups, who remained free to adopt or reject them.

With respect to trade union organization, the delegates confirmed their view that unions that limit their demands to improving working conditions, reducing the working day and increasing wages, “will never bring about the emancipation of the proletariat.” Trade unions, to be revolutionary, must adopt, “as their principal goal, the abolition of the wage system” and “the taking of possession of the instruments of labour by expropriating them” from the capitalists.

Unsurprisingly, despite Guillaume’s hopes for reconciliation between the social democratic and revolutionary anarchist wings of the socialist movement, no such reconciliation was reached at the Ghent Congress, or at any subsequent international socialist congresses, with the so-called “Second International” finally barring anarchist membership altogether at its 1896 international congress in London.

Despite the formal position taken at the St. Imier Congress regarding the freedom of each member group of the reconstituted International to determine its own political path, reaffirmed at the 1873 Geneva Congress, because the majority of the delegates to the anti-authoritarian International’s congresses, and its most active members, were either anarchists or revolutionary socialists opposed to participation in electoral politics, it was not surprising that eventually those in favour of parliamentary activity would find other forums in which to participate, rather than continuing to debate the issue with people who were not committed to an electoral strategy.

Only a minority of member groups in the reconstituted International ever supported or came to support a strategy oriented toward achieving political power – the English delegates, a few of the German delegates who did not officially represent any group, and then a group of Belgians, with the Belgian Federation being split on the issue. Other than the debate on the “public service state,” which again only a minority of delegates supported, most of the discussions at the reconstituted International’s congresses focused on tactics and strategies for abolishing the state and capitalism through various forms of direct action, in order to achieve “the free and spontaneous organization of labour” that the St. Imier Congress had reaffirmed as the International’s ultimate goal.

For example, there were ongoing debates within the reconstituted International regarding the role and efficacy of strikes and the use of the general strike as a means for overthrowing the existing order. Any kind of strike activity had the potential to harm the electoral prospects of socialist political parties, an issue that had arisen in the Swiss Romande Federation prior to the split in the original International. Once the focus becomes trying to elect as many socialist or workers’ candidates as possible to political office in order to eventually form a government, the trade unions and other workers’ organizations are then pressured to tailor their tactics to enhance the prospects of the political parties’ electoral success. Both the immediate and long term interests of the workers become subordinate to the interests of the political parties.

After socialist parties were established in western Europe in the 1880s, and workers began to see how their interests were being given short shrift, there was a resurgence in autonomous revolutionary trade union activity, leading to the creation of revolutionary syndicalist movements in the 1890s. Some of the syndicalist organizations, such as the French Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), adopted an “apolitical” stance, similar to the official stance of the reconstituted International. The CGT was independent of the political parties but members were free to support political parties and to participate in electoral activities, just not in the name of the CGT. Independence from the political parties was an essential tenet of the original CGT, so that it could pursue its strategy of revolutionary trade union organization and direct action unimpeded by the demands and interests of the political parties.

It is not fair to hold the anarchists and anti-parliamentary revolutionary socialists in the reconstituted International responsible for the exit of the groups that had decided to focus on electoral activity. The majority of the Belgian Internationalists would have changed their strategy from supporting an international federation of autonomous workers’ organizations to supporting the Belgian Socialist party regardless of the refusal of the anarchist and revolutionary socialist members of the reconstituted International to agree with such an approach.

The majority of those who chose to remain active in the reconstituted International based on the resolutions adopted at the St. Imier Congress believed above all that the International should not only remain independent of the socialist political parties, but that the International should continue to pursue its goal of achieving “the free and spontaneous organization of labour” through the workers’ own autonomous organizations, free of political interference and control. For those who chose instead to throw their lot in with the political parties, there really wasn’t much reason for them to remain involved in such an organization, even though there was no formal bar to their continued membership and participation. It was simply time for them to part ways.

Robert Graham

David Berry: Kropotkin’s Great French Revolution

PM Press is publishing a new edition of Peter Kropotkin’s The Great French Revolution (originally published in 1909), with an introduction by David Berry, who has kindly agreed to let me publish the following excerpts from his introduction to Kropotkin’s classic book to mark Kropotkin’s birthday on December 21, 1842.

For Kropotkin, as for so many others throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the French Revolution was where it all began…

Kropotkin’s claim to originality in The Great French Revolution did not lie in the discovery of previously unknown facts—unable to re-enter France for fear of being arrested, his research was not carried out in the Paris archives, but on published material, almost entirely among the British Museum’s albeit considerable holdings. His originality lay in his method, his approach and in his interpretation. Kropotkin’s background in the natural sciences had an influence on the way he worked and wrote, and he prided himself on this.[1] Not only is his work thoroughly researched and based on evidence gleaned from all the most up-to-date studies, his style is also very different from and notably less lyrical and digressive than that of many nineteenth and early twentieth-century historians, including Jaurès. It is scholarly, but written lucidly, in accessible language and with passion.

His anarchist communism also determined how he saw 1789: “You have seen, with Mutual Aid”, he wrote to Guillaume in 1903, “and you will see with The State: Its Historic Role, what a remarkable, powerful tool of investigation the anarchist tendency represents—the anarchist hypothesis in the language of science.”[2] And as he wrote of history in Words of a Rebel:

Do you not understand that history, today a convenient mythology regarding the greatness of kings, of notable personalities, of parliaments⸺must be entirely recast from the popular point of view, from the viewpoint of the work accomplished by the masses in the phases of human revolution?[3]

Such a perspective guarded Kropotkin against the various ‘legends’ that had been built up over the years by the more conventional histories⸺what he called the “legend of 4 August 1789”, for example, when the National Assembly is supposed to have abolished feudalism, but in fact included a clause insisting that feudal rights and tithes had to be redeemed (ie the peasants had to buy themselves out), a clause which set back the actual abolition by four years, when peasant revolts finally forced the government to act. (Besides, as Kropotkin emphasises in chapter 17: “The Assembly only sanctioned in principle and extended to France altogether what the people had accomplished themselves in certain localities. It went no further.”) Nor was the anarchist-communist Kropotkin unduly impressed by the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, “this profession of middle-class liberalism” (chapter 19), with its insistence on the sacredness of private property: “Like the American Constitutionalists assembled in the Congress of Philadelphia, the National Assembly kept out of its declaration all allusions to the economic relations between citizens.” (chapter 10)

There are thus several aspects to Kropotkin’s originality, a consequence of this anarchist-communist approach: the first was a kind of class analysis (quite different, as we shall see, from that of the Marxists) and his focus on the common people, and especially on the peasantry (who made up over 80% of the population at the end of the eighteenth century); secondly, the attention he paid to spontaneous experiments by the people in decentralisation and direct democracy; and thirdly, his attempt to trace the appearance and development during the course of the Revolution of embryonic forms of socialism, communism and anarchism.

The people

His central concern, then, was with the oppressed, with the social and economic realities of their lives, with the practical implications for them of the many changes wrought by the Revolution. This is what set Kropotkin’s history apart. As he himself wrote in an article to mark the centenary:

The history of the French Revolution has been written and re-written. We know the slightest details of the drama played on the stages of the National Assembly, the Legislative Assembly, and the Convention. The parliamentary history of the movement is fully elaborated. But its popular history has never been attempted to be written.[4]

Historians had previously focussed only on what he called “the theatrical aspect”:[5] “Thanks to the fables churned out by the Jacobin bourgeoisie on the Great Revolution, the people have learnt nothing of their own history.”[6] But it was the people who were “the passionate heart of the Revolution” (chapter 11). […]

Decentralisation and direct democracy

Kropotkin had long been interested in the history of communes and the development of central states. In The Great French Revolution he insisted on the hitherto neglected importance of the alacrity with which the insurgents created “revolutionary communes”⸺the Commune of Paris being the prototype⸺without the need for legislation at national level:

It is chiefly by studying this method of action among the people, and not by devoting oneself to the study of the Assembly’s legislative work, that one grasps the genius of the Great Revolution—the Genius, in the main, of all revolutions, past and to come. (chapter 15)

And he emphasised the extent to which such communes represented a new form of direct democracy:

The Commune which sprang from the popular movement was not separated from the people. By the intervention of its “districts”, “sections” or “tribes”, constituted as so many mediums of popular administration, it remained of the people, and this is what made the revolutionary power of these organisations.[7] (chapter 24)

The significance here was that such developments were driven by the base, it was a revolution ‘from the bottom up’ and federatively organised:

The first attempt at constituting a Commune was thus made from below upward, by the federation of the district organisms; it sprang up in a revolutionary way, from popular initiative. […] [T]he masses were practising what was described later on as Direct Self-Government. […] They sought for unity of action, not in subjection to a Central Committee, but in a federative union. (chapter 24)

The corollary of this movement was the inevitable conflict with the statists—the “antagonism which arose between the governmental prejudices of the democrats of that time [ie the bourgeois politicians] and the ideas that dawned in the hearts of the people as to political decentralisation.” (chapter 3) This, for Kropotkin, was a question of class and was the root of all the conflicts which arose later in the Convention. It would be an aspect of the Revolution which Daniel Guérin also focussed on⸺something which would not endear him to Jacobin-admiring Communists: “As an anarchist”, Guérin commented approvingly, “Kropotkin always paid attention to the rivalry between the Commune and the central government”, and to the ways in which the Committee of General Security and the Committee of Public Safety gradually undermined the Commune’s autonomy.[8] […]


Alongside Jaurès’ Histoire socialiste, Kropotkin’s The Great French Revolution is one of the foundational texts of what would later come to be known as ‘history from below’, even if⸺inevitably, given the amount of research done since then on every aspect of the period—some details need correcting and some more recent avenues of research (including gender) are not touched upon at all. It can also be seen as a complement to Kropotkin’s other works, given the importance of its role in providing supporting historical evidence and example so essential for an understanding of the anarchist communism which Kropotkin elaborated over several decades. As Berneri remarked:

The epoch of the Communes and of the French Revolution were for Kropotkin […] the two historical fields in which he found the confirmation of his own federalist ideas and the elements of the development of his libertarian conception of life and politics.[9]

Throughout the history of the histories of the French Revolution, people have taken sides, identifying with certain characters or groups, turning some into heroes and demonising others. Among those so often treated in this way, Kropotkin’s sympathy was for Marat, or the enragés Varlet and Roux, rather than Danton (of whom he had a very low opinion) or Robespierre (whom he credits with at least being honest, but a very lukewarm revolutionary and a centralising authoritarian “ready […] to pass over the dead bodies of his opponents”[10]), and with the Cordeliers Club rather than the Jacobins or the Girondins (whose chief aim was “to prevent a rising of the people, to constitute a strong government, and to protect property”⸺chapter 39).[11] Whereas Lenin “saw in the Jacobins the model for revolutionaries, even though they were bourgeois, because they were firm, inflexible, decisive—the most consistent revolutionaries in the history of all the bourgeois revolutions” [12], Kropotkin not only points out that they were “chiefly well-to-do middle-class men”, “the educated, moderately democratic middle class”, he also stresses that “they did not lead the Revolution; they followed it.” (chapter 36) Robespierre “was powerfully seconded by the growing middle classes as soon as they recognised in him the “happy mean”⸺equally removed from the extremists and the moderates⸺the man who offered them the best guarantees against the “excesses” of the people.” (chapter 66) As for Babeuf, another hero of many twentieth-century communists..:

Babeuf—direct and pure descendant of the Jacobin Club of 1793⸺had conceived this idea that a revolutionary surprise attack, prepared by a conspiracy, could create a communist dictatorship in France. But once⸺true Jacobin⸺he had conceived the communist revolution as something which could be done by decrees, he came to two other conclusions: democracy first would prepare communism; and then a single individual, a dictator, provided he had the strength of will to save the world, will introduce communism.[13]

Before the publication of his history of the French Revolution, Kropotkin had already made clear his opinions with regard to ‘Jacobinism’, a term which derives from the French Revolution but came to serve as universal shorthand for the belief in the need for strong, centralised, and more or less authoritarian government. As he wrote in 1913:

It is sufficient to say that our conception of the coming social revolution is quite different from that of a Jacobin dictatorship, or the transformation of social institutions effected by a Convention, a Parliament, or a dictator. Never has a revolution been brought about on those lines; and if the present working-class movement takes this form, it will be doomed to have no lasting result. / On the contrary, we believe that if a revolution begins, it must take the form of a widely spread popular movement, during which movement, in every town and village invaded by the insurrectionary spirit, the masses set themselves to the work of reconstructing society on new lines… / Who guessed⸺who, in fact, could have guessed⸺before 1789 the role to be played by the Municipalities and the Commune of Paris in the revolutionary events of 1789-1793? It is impossible to legislate for the future. All we can do is vaguely guess its essential tendencies and clear the road for it.[14]

So like Proudhon before him, Kropotkin found the sans-culottes movement around the Paris Commune the most interesting. As he wrote in his conclusion of the The Great French Revolution, 1789-1793:

In any case, what we learn to-day from the study of the Great Revolution is, that it was the source and origin of all the present communist, anarchist, and socialist conceptions. We have but badly understood our common mother, but now we have found her again in the midst of the sans-culottes, and we see what we have to learn from her.

One final point should be made regarding the lessons Kropotkin drew from the experience of the French Revolution, and indeed from the lessons of the failed revolutions of 1848 and 1871 as well. In a pamphlet of 1913 on ‘The Revolutionary Idea in the Revolution’, he urges his readers to also read his history of the Great French Revolution and to absorb one important lesson above all others, and that was the importance of knowing what you want to achieve through revolutionary change and of having a plan of action:

Whatever may be the shortcomings of my study, it will make [any revolutionary who reads it] reflect on the necessity of bringing to the next revolution a set of constructive ideas (as well as destructive ones), of thinking them through carefully and pushing for their realisation with great vigour, and to reflect on the means at the people’s disposal to realise those ideas in society.[15]

[1] Kropotkin, an admirer of Darwin, has been criticised by some for applying an overly optimistic, even teleological understanding of evolution to history. Such criticisms are convincingly challenged in Matthew S. Adams, ‘Kropotkin: evolution, revolutionary change and the end of history’ in Anarchist Studies 19.1 (2011), pp.56-81.

[2] Kropotkin to Guillaume, 12 June 1903, quoted in Ruth Kinna, ‘Kropotkin’s Theory of Mutual Aid in Historical Context’, in International Review of Social History vol.40, no.2 (August 1995), pp.259-83 (p.279).

[3] Kropotkin, Words of a Rebel (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1992), p.57. Note that the original French has “evolution” rather than “revolution”⸺Paroles d’un révolté (Antony: TOPS, 2013), p.68.

[4] Kropotkin, ‘The Great French Revolution and its Lesson’ (1889).

[5] Kropotkin, L’Idée révolutionnaire dans la Révolution (Paris: Les Temps nouveaux, 1913), Publications des «Temps nouveaux» no.64, p.6. First published in La Révolte (1891) as ‘Etudes sur la Révolution’.

[6] Kropotkin, L’Idée révolutionnaire dans la Révolution, p.22.

[7] Bear in mind that ‘commune’ in French is an administrative term meaning the lowest level of local government, ie a village, district or town. Before 1789 such local structures had been very varied, and during the Revolutionary period a number of changes were imposed by the central government in an effort to standardise them.

[8] Daniel Guérin, La lutte de classes sous la Pemière République, 1793-1797 (Paris: Gallimard, 1946; revised edition 1968), vol.II, pp.15, 375-6.

[9] Camillo Berneri, ‘Peter Kropotkin: His Federalist Ideas’, in The Raven: An Anarchist Quarterly no.31 (Autumn 1995); abridged version available at <;.

[10] Matt Adams discusses Kropotkin’s acknowledgement of Robespierre’s probity in an analysis of the relationship between anarchism and the idea of ‘civic virtue’: see his ‘Utopian civic virtue: Bakunin, Kropotkin, and anarchism’s republican inheritance’, in Political Research Exchange, 1:1 (2019), pp.1-27 (available here: <>).

[11] Kropotkin’s admiration for Marat was, incidentally, shared by the Bolsheviks, who named a battleship and a Leningrad street after him; they also admired Robespierre, however.

[12] Daline, ‘Lénine et le jacobinisme’, p.100. Plenty has been written about the Bolsheviks and the Jacobins; the most comprehensive study is Tamara Kondratieva, Bolcheviks et jacobins: Itinéraire des analogies (Paris: Payot, 1989; 2nd edition Les Belles Lettres, 2017). See also Albert Mathiez, Révolution russe et Révolution française, edited and with a useful introduction by Yannick Bosc and Florence Gauthier (Paris: Editions Critiques, 2017).

[13] Kropotkin, Modern Science and Anarchy (Oakland & Edinburgh: AK Press, 2018), p.366.

[14] Kropotkin, Modern Science and Anarchy, quoted in Becker, p.229.

[15] Kropotkin, L’Idée révolutionnaire dans la Révolution. This pamphlet discusses the same failing with regard to 1848 and 1871: the paucity of new and constructive ideas contrasting with the audacity of action.

Published in: on December 23, 2021 at 4:16 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Anarchy and the Golden Age of Piracy

Here is another excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Anarchist Current, a history of anarchist ideas.

Anarchy and the Golden Age of Piracy

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Madagascar was a haven for pirates. One story about them is that they established a utopian community on Madagascar called Libertalia. The story is told in The History of the Pyrates, Volume II (1728), by “Captain Charles Johnson,” thought by some to be a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731), author of Robinson Crusoe. Others have attributed the book to Nathaniel Mist (died 1737), who had spent some time as a sailor in the Caribbean, where piracy was then rampant. [A General History of the Robberies & Murders of the most notorious Pirates, Vols. I & II, ed J. Franzén (Independently published, 2017)] Whoever Captain Johnson really was, his two volume history of the pirates was very popular and widely read.

The History of the Pyrates, Volume II, has a chapter on Captain James Misson (Chapter XX), a French pirate whose name is not found in any other historical records. Purportedly active in the 1690s, Misson begins his seafaring adventures in the French navy, and then to develop an anarchist sensibility. While on shore leave in Rome, Misson observes the “licentious Lives of the Clergy” and the “Luxury of the Papal Court.” [page 3] He comes to realize that religion is used to fleece the people, with “the wiser Sort”  being well aware of this. [page 3] Those higher up in the Church hierarchy use religious beliefs to exploit the people and to further their own interests. In this regard they are no different from the aristocracy.

A dissident Catholic priest named Caraccioli joins Misson in his adventures, and convinces Misson and his crew that “all Religion was no other than human Policy.” [page 8] As for government, the priest argues that “every Man was born free, and has as much Right to what would support him, as to the Air he respired.” [page 10] Government arises from patriarchal authority, with the stronger patriarchs enslaving the weaker, laying the “first Foundation of Monarchy.” [page 11] The priest persuades Misson and his crew to become pirates, living “a Life of Liberty,” rather than  remaining under the command of the French monarchy. [page 13]

The crew confirm Misson as their captain, and choose “their subaltern Officers,” who are always to act in “the common Interest.” [page 14] The priest suggests that while obedience to a government that acts “for the common Good of all” is justified, the French government under whose flag they had been sailing was tyrannical, treating the people like slaves, and providing them with “nothing but Oppression, Poverty, and all the Miseries of Life.” [page 15] Nevertheless, the priest argues against adopting the black flag of the “Pyrates, who are Men of dissolute Lives and no Principles,” but to instead fly a white flag, with the motto, “for God and Liberty,” inscribed upon it, for theirs was “the Cause of Liberty,” not self-aggrandizement. [page 16]

The crew’s booty is kept in a chest to which every crew member has a key, with “Misson telling them, all should be in common.” [page 16] Misson advises the crew to treat each other as equals, with no one acting as a tyrant of another, and to remain united as brothers. They are free to quit the ship whenever they choose, at which time they will be given their share of the takings. [page 25] When it comes to determining where their ship should go next, the crew decides by a democratic vote. [page 27]

Misson instructs his crew to treat all prisoners humanely and generously. [page 18] They do not remain prisoners for long, either being set free or given the option of joining the crew to live a life of liberty on the high seas, an option often taken by sailors serving (often involuntarily) under a European national flag, subject to harsh conditions and discipline. Misson and his crew offer freedom to French Huguenots, members of a persecuted religious minority, and to African slaves found among the cargo of the vessels which they have captured. [pp. 25 & 28]

Misson tells his crew that “he had not exempted his Neck from the galling Yoak of Slavery, and asserted his own Liberty, to enslave others.” [page 28] He denounces racism, asserting that black Africans are equal to white Europeans, despite having different coloured skin, “Customs, or religious Rites,” and therefore should “be treated like Freemen.” [pp. 28 – 29] He argues that no one should have the “Power of Liberty of another,” and denounces religious justifications of slavery. [page 28] The crew heartily agree, and the Africans, freed of their chains, become equal members of the crew.

Whoever wrote the History of the Pyrates, whether it was Captain Johnson, Daniel Defoe, Nathaniel Mist, or someone else, appears to have been a Protestant of some kind, hence the white flag with “God and Liberty” inscribed on it. [page 16] It is institutionalized religion, particularly the Catholic Church, not religious belief, that Captain Misson is reported to have denounced.

This leads to a scene where Captain Misson threatens a Dutch crew with being “whipped and pickled” for using the Lord’s name in vain, and for drinking, because of the negative effects on Misson’s crew. [page 30] While many English pirates were nominally Protestant, and often anti-Catholic (providing a justification for plundering Spanish ships), it is doubtful any would have tried to ban swearing, and even more unlikely that any pirates would have sailed without alcohol (although one pirate captain reportedly shot a crew member for being “inattentive during mass” and for responding “to a rebuke with a blasphemy”). [Gabriel Kuhn, Life Under the Jolly Roger: Reflections on Golden Age Piracy (Oakland: PM Press, 2010), pp. 61 – 63.]

The interjection of the author’s personal moral views regarding the use of profanity and alcohol is inconsistent with the general portrait of Captain Misson as a freedom loving anti-authoritarian, illustrating the author’s own limitations in character development and tendency toward didacticism. Otherwise, the depiction of Captain Misson and his crew is of a kind of floating anarchist utopia, where all important decisions are made by consensus or democratic vote, everything is held in common, slaves are set free, and no one is master over another. Lacking the fantastical elements found in de Foigny’s imaginary Australia, the portrait of Misson and his crew retains sufficient plausibility to persuade readers that an anarchist society, at least on the scale of a ship, just may be possible.

The depiction of Libertalia, the pirate “utopia” founded by Misson and his crew on Madagascar, initially retains many of the libertarian aspects of the life led by Misson and his crew on board their ship. They are called the Liberi to emphasize everyone’s equal status regardless of their race or national origin. [page 47] Although they build a fort, much like any colonial power would when seeking to occupy an area already inhabited by others, they make an effort to establish a peaceful relationship with the local inhabitants, so that the primary purpose of the fort becomes defending Libertalia from external attack. [pp. 47 – 48 & 81 – 82]

Misson and his crew maintain their opposition to slavery. When the nearby villagers offer 45 men and woman, taken prisoner during some local conflict, as slaves to the Liberi, they accept the gift but immediately set the prisoners free, making them to “understand that they [the Liberi] were Enemies to Slavery.” [page 91] When in need of more ships, Misson gets another pirate captain, Tew, to capture a slave ship. All the slaves on board are set free, and then join the settlement at Libertalia, where they learn how to be sailors. [pp. 91 – 93] Soon they become equal members of the crews capturing ships in the Indian Ocean. [pp. 93 – 94]

After seizing a Portuguese treasure ship, with significant casualties among Misson’s crew, he persuades the Liberi to set the Portuguese crew free, despite the danger that they will report the location of Libertalia to the Portuguese authorities, opening it to attack. Misson assures the Portuguese prisoners that “he did not make War with the Oppressed, but the Oppressors.” [page 90] Misson has the released prisoners take an oath never to attack Libertalia, but later a small fleet of Portuguese war ships attempts an assault on the settlement.

After the Libertalians sink two of the war ships and capture a third, they find two of the released Portuguese prisoners among the crew. This is considered a terrible betrayal. This time, the Portuguese prisoners are put on trial before an assembly of the Liberi for violating their oaths. The former priest, Caraccioli, and Misson argue against the death penalty, for outside of battle, only God should have “Power over the Life of another.” [page 98] But Captain Tew convinces the assembly that if the prisoners “were again restored to that Liberty which they had already abused,” they would soon be back again to attack Libertalia. [page 98] The assembly then decides in favour of hanging the two prisoners, and they are put to death.

Another departure from the approaches advocated by Misson occurs when the Liberi capture a ship with pilgrims on board on their way to Mecca. Misson is unable to convince the crew to set all the prisoners free, with the crew insisting that they keep one hundred 12 – 18 year old unmarried females to bring back to Libertalia. [page 94] Both stories emphasize that ultimately the crews make the important decisions, but also that they are not as humane or as enlightened as Misson. Misson may be their Captain, but he does not exercise coercive authority over them.

Drawing on the work of the radical anthropologist, Pierre Clastres (Anarchism,Volume Two, Selection 64), Gabriel Kuhn has argued that pirate captains were similar to “chiefs” in stateless societies, and this appears particularly true in the case of Captain Misson. Clastres’ anthropological studies of stateless Amerindian societies led him to conclude that “the most notable characteristic of the [Amer-]Indian chief consists of his almost complete lack of authority.” [Pierre Clastres, as quoted in Kuhn, page 30] Misson, just like a chief in an Amerindian stateless society: 1. “is elected and replaceable. 2. His power rests on merit only. 3. His power is controlled by the community. 4. He is a peacemaker. 5. He is generous with his possessions” (in the case of Misson, to the point of implementing a form of communism among his crew, instead of claiming a greater share of the treasure, as was done by most pirate captains). “6. He is a good orator. 7. He is an able leader in war.” [Kuhn, page 30]

Up until the introduction of the character of Captain Tew (based on a real pirate active in the Indian Ocean in the 1690s), the portrait of Captain Misson and his crew is an idealized depiction of the pirate as a kind of “anti-pirate” – morally scrupulous, honourable, humane, pious, libertarian, egalitarian, anti-authoritarian and anti-slavery, with the white flag of “God and Liberty” instead of the black Jolly Roger. Under the moral, not coercive, authority of Captain Misson, assisted by the former priest, Caraccioli, the crew act as anarchist marauders liberating not only the treasures but the human cargo of the rich and powerful, regardless of the national flag under which the plundered ships may be sailing.

Betraying the more liberal sentiments of the author of the History of the Pyrates, this floating anarchist utopia begins to break down after the pirates establish Libertalia, and Captain Tew arrives with his own crew loyal to him. To maintain Libertalia as a permanent settlement, Misson’s crew decide to keep the captured young Muslim women as their wives. When dealing with the recaptured Portuguese prisoners whom Misson had previously persuaded his crew to set free, Captain Tew convinces his and Misson’s combined crews to implement capital punishment, against the objections of Misson and Caraccioli, showing that they are no longer able to maintain a general consensus among the Liberi regarding important issues.

Soon Captain Tew’s crew is quarrelling with Misson’s crew, with Tew advocating that the quarrel be settled “by the Sword.” [page 99] Caraccioli asks Tew to use “the Authority he had over his Crew” to instead resolve the conflict by “an amicable Agreement,” and then argues that to avoid future conflict, a formal system of government should be established. [page 99] Arguments common at the time in support of legal government are put forward, including that without “coercive laws, the weakest would always be the Sufferers,” and that disputes needed to be resolved by “calm and disinterested Persons” in accordance with “Reason and Equity,” rather than by the impassioned and partial disputants themselves. [pp. 99 – 100]

The assembled pirates choose a form of representative democracy as “the most agreeable” form of government, “where the People [are] themselves the Makers and Judges of their own Laws.” [page 100] They are divided into groups of ten, with each group electing a representative to join with the other representatives “in making wholesome Laws for the Good of the whole.” [page 100] But the representatives are to meet only once per year, with executive power being exercised by a “Conservator” (with Misson being the first) elected for a three year term, and a cabinet or executive council chosen by him.

In addition to abandoning their previous informal collective forms of decision-making, Misson and his crew, in formally uniting with Captain Tew and his men, give up the communist distribution of wealth that they had followed on their ship in favour of a system of private property. While the treasure and cattle that they had accumulated were to be “equally divided,” any land that any of them staked out was to “be deem’d his Property,” which could only be “alienated by a Sale.” [page 100]

The process by which Misson and his crew come to adopt a formal system of government, with coercive laws and an executive authority, together with a system of private property, mirrors the hypothetical accounts of the social contract theorists, most notably John Locke (1632-1704), of the transition from a “state of nature” to civil society. Locke published his Two Treatises of Government in 1689, just a few years before Captain Misson and his crew were allegedly active.

Locke’s description of the “state of nature” that precedes the creation of the state could also have been a description of life on board Misson’s ship prior to the creation of Libertalia. In Locke’s “state of nature,” everyone is free and equal and property is initially held in common. However, as people begin to claim ownership over land and other things, such as the goods that they produce, based on the labour that they have contributed to it, and to exchange things of economic value by means of contracts, it becomes necessary to establish a system of coercive laws to enforce contracts, to resolve conflicts, and to protect life, liberty and property. And this is what is depicted by the author of the History of the Pyrates regarding Misson and his crew.

While sailing their ship, Misson and his crew are in a “state of nature,” without a formal system of laws or political institutions, and everything is held in common. Once they go on shore and found Libertalia, they establish a regime of private property and enact “a great many wholesome Laws.” They entrust the running of their affairs to their elected representatives, who sit but once a year, and to the new executive power, led by Misson, transforming the anarchistic organization that they adopted while at sea into a kind of pirate “state” after they settle on land. [page 101]

It may be that the author of the History of the Pyrates thought that an egalitarian anarchistic society was possible on a small scale, like a ship, but that it was impractical with respect to larger groups or settlements on land, where everyone would not share the same purposes or interests, like those shared by a crew of pirates united in a common endeavour on board a ship where everyone had to do their part in order for the ship to function. Although the representative democracy that the Liberi adopt is much more radical than anything existing in Europe, and more radical even than the parliamentary democracy advocated by the Levellers in the English Revolution, it is not an anarchist form of social organization, coming closer to a liberal conception of politics.

The History of the Pyrates depicts another pirate settlement on Madagascar founded by a break away group from Captain Tew’s crew. At first they appear to be even more libertarian than the Liberi.  They regard themselves as being “free and independent of all the World,” and have no desire “to subject themselves to any Government.” One of them is elected “Governor” for three months at a time, but only to resolve “Matters of small Difference which might arise.” The incumbent Governor cannot run for re-election, so that every member of the group will have a turn in that position. [page 103] Up until this part of the story, their form of self-government is more radical than the representative democracy adopted at Libertalia, and comes closer to the kinds of self-organization advocated by some anarchists.

But then it turns out that they would like to be recognized as an English colony, willing to submit themselves “to any who shall come with a Commission from a lawful Government.” As with other real pirates, they wanted to rejoin civil society, and to have wiped “away the odious Appellation of Pyrates” to avoid punishment for their crimes. [page 103] Their current “Governor,” Tew’s former quarter master, presents Tew with a detailed proposal for the colony, which like any other colony will exploit the natural resources found on Madagascar, using cheap labour, including slaves, who are supposed to be much less expensive than the slaves used in the Caribbean. [page 104] The former quarter master even goes so far as to extoll the proposed colony as providing an effective “Curb on Pyrates”! [page 105]

While also likely fictitious, this other pirate settlement more accurately reflects the reality of Anglo-American piracy during its so-called “Golden Age” (roughly the 1690s to 1730). Unlike Captain Misson and his crew, when real pirates seized a ship containing slaves as part of the cargo, they would often be resold to slave traders, or used as slaves on board the pirates’ ship. [Kuhn, pp. 66 & 70 – 71]

The pirates operating out of Madagascar were actively involved in the slave trade, competing with the Royal Africa Company, which had been granted a monopoly by the English Crown over the slave trade along the west coast of Africa. By the 1690s, although the Dutch and French were most active in exporting slaves from Madagascar, the English and their North American merchant colonists were establishing a foothold, using pirates “as cultural brokers in the slave trade.” [McDonald, “ ‘A Man of Courage and Activity’: Thomas Tew and Pirate Settlements of the Indo-Atlantic Trade World, 1645-1730,” pp. 12 – 13] One of the actual pirate settlements on Madagascar was a trading post run by Adam Baldridge, who “served both pirates and slave traders.” [Kuhn, page 143] Establishing a slave trading post appears to have been one of the primary purposes of the settlement. [McDonald, pp. 13 – 14] Baldridge was run off Madagascar by the local indigenous people in 1697 after he had captured some of them to sell into slavery. [Kuhn, page 66]

Captain Misson and his crew, and their settlement, Libertalia, are utopian then not just in the sense of being an imaginary ideal, but in the more popular negative sense of the word as being unrealistic. Nevertheless, the story about Captain Misson, his crew, and Libertalia, may have suggested to some readers that another world is possible, a world in which people can live in freedom, without enslaving or exploiting others, adopting their own libertarian forms of self-organization.

It is noteworthy that Libertalia is not depicted as eventually collapsing due to internal conflict, which implies that the author thought it had a viable form of organization. Instead, Libertalia is destroyed by a surprise attack by the indigenous people, which appears inexplicable, as unlike Adam Baldridge, the Liberi never tried to enslave the local people. [History of the Pyrates, Vol. II, pp. 106 – 107] Misson and most of his surviving crew set off on a sloop, possibly to return to Europe, but they are all lost in a storm. [page 108]

This unhappy ending serves a number of purposes common in utopian stories – it explains why the utopian society/place no longer exists and why it is difficult to confirm the accuracy of the tale. Readers can then more readily accept that the story may be true, so that the story can serve as a source of inspiration to them. The ending also incidentally betrays the author’s own colonialist mentality, portraying the indigenous people’s attack on Libertalia as entirely unprovoked, in contrast to the reality of the situation, where the attack on Baldridge’s trading post was provoked by his attempt to enslave them. Nevertheless, some credit must be given to the author of Misson’s story for his eloquently articulated opposition to slavery, in contrast to the real pirates operating out of Madagascar.

A comparison between the likely fictitious Captain Misson and the real Captain Tew and his crew emphasizes the gulf between the idealized portrait of Misson as the good pirate, and the reality of piracy during its Golden Age. It is most improbable that Tew would have freed any slaves from a slave ship, on his own accord or at the direction of anyone else. When Tew went to Madagascar in the fall of 1693, his port of call was not the fictional Libertalia but Baldridge’s slave trading post. [McDonald, page 10]

While it does not appear that any of Tew’s men established their own settlement on Madagascar, “several dozen” of them stayed on at Baldridge’s trading post when Tew sailed back to Rhode Island and New York, where the merchants were in the process of establishing a cheaper supply of slaves from Madagascar. [McDonald, page 18] Fourteen of those who stayed behind, feeling strapped for cash, “divided themselves into two groups of seven to fight to the death on the beach, winner take all. The two survivors of the death match split the booty.” [McDonald, page 18] The reality of pirate life on Madagascar was neither edifying nor inspirational.

Published in: on November 12, 2021 at 9:10 am  Leave a Comment  
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Sign Open Letter Protesting Midwestern’s Treatment of Nathan Jun

If you have not done so already, please consider signing the following in protest of Nathan Jun’s treatment by Midwestern State University: 



You can also donate to Nathan’s GoFundMe page:

Published in: on September 25, 2021 at 8:31 am  Leave a Comment  

Gerrard Winstanley on Power – Real and Imagined

Gerrard Winstanley (1609-1676) first began publishing radical religious pamphlets in 1648, during the latter half of the English Revolution and Civil Wars. In January 1649, around the time of the execution of Charles I by the English Parliament, he published his first explicitly political pamphlet, The New Law of Righteousness (excerpted in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas). A few months later, he put his ideas into action. He and a group of like-minded people, who came to be called the Diggers, sought to reclaim “waste” (unoccupied) lands at St. George’s Hill in Surrey, England, and to create an agrarian, libertarian communist settlement. They were eventually run out of the area by hostile land owners, moving to Cobham Heath, where they were able to maintain a new settlement until they were again run off the land in April 1650. About a month beforehand,, Winstanley published one of his most anarchistic pamphlets, Fire in the Bush. Here, I provide an analysis of Winstanley’s pamphlet, which contains noteworthy parallels to the writings of Cornelius Castoriadis in the late 20th century.

From The Anarchist Current: A History of Anarchist Ideas – Gerrard Winstanley, Digger and Anarchist

Fire in the Bush, published in March 1650, was one of Winstanley’s last political writings before the Digger experiment was forcibly ended. In it, Winstanley develops an analysis of the psychopathology of hierarchical societies. He argues that in addition to the kingly powers that hold the people in bondage – coercive government, the legal system, private property and the ideological apparatus (the Church and universities) – there is another that dwells within us all: the “imaginary self ruling in man’s heart.” [Hill, page 235]

Just as the “Kingdom of Heaven,” or “universal love, or pure knowledge,” lies within everyone, so does the “selfish imaginary power […] of darkness,” which seeks fulfilment in things outside of the self, like wealth and power. [Hill, pp. 218, 221] Through the power of imagination, people deceive themselves into thinking that they could achieve happiness if only they had more wealth, more power, more pleasure. But this just leads to conflict, as each person seeks their own satisfaction at the expense of others, jealous of their power and possessions, and envious of other’s. They mistake good for evil, and evil for good, judging things in terms of whether they are for their own benefit or to their disadvantage. [Hill, pp. 220 – 221] The selfish imagination fills people with “fears, doubts, troubles, evil surmisings and grudges,” stirring up “wars and divisions,” as each person seeks more power, more riches and more pleasures. [Hill, page 221]

This way of thinking lies at the root of all “power, authority and government.” [Hill, pp. 223 -224] It “makes men envy, censure and destroy one another; and to take pleasure in none but what pleases self.” People seek power over others to stop them from having power over them. Man “will oppress others, lest others oppress him; and fears he shall be in want hereafter: therefore he takes by violence that which others have laboured for.” [Hill, page 226]

While earlier Christians, such as Pelagius, had pointed to the futility of seeking spiritual fulfilment through the satisfaction of earthly ambitions and desires, Winstanley expressly ties this avaricious psychology to the emergence of hierarchical societies and authoritarian institutions, like the church and the state.

Rather than seeing government as the only means of escaping the war of all against all (the so-called “state of nature”), as Thomas Hobbes did, Winstanley sees coercive government as the institutionalization of the state of nature, leading to the perpetuation of violence, domination, exploitation and conflict, instead of their supersession. The kingly powers create, rather than prevent, “divisions and war.” Winstanley makes the point that it is inaccurate therefore to describe the condition of social conflict that results in the creation of dominating institutions as a state of nature, for it is “nature or the living soul” that is held “in bondage” by the selfish imaginary power that is incarnated in these institutions. [Hill, page 268]   

The power of authoritarian institutions is ultimately based on an internalized ideological conceptualization of the self and society. People create their own imaginary chains that bind them to a society of domination. Winstanley’s social psychology of domination provides an explanation for the voluntary obedience to authority that de la Boétie found so perplexing.

Winstanley’s notion of the “selfish imaginary power” foreshadows, in a strikingly modern way, Cornelius Castoriadus’ concept of the “social imaginary.” For Winstanley, the various manifestations of the “kingly powers” are concrete expressions of a shared imaginary conception of social life as a competitive struggle for status. Similarly, Castoriadis argues that there is an “originary psychical core” that “we carry within us and which always dreams, whatever our age, of being all-powerful and at the center of the world.” [Castoriadis, Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), page 135.]

Unlike Castoriadis, however, Winstanley conceives of the “selfish imaginary power” as something entirely negative. He contrasts it with the “righteous spirit” of truth that each must find within themselves, the basis of “true community,” which makes “every one to seek the preservation and peace of others as of themselves,” no longer seeking fulfilment through the “outward objects” of prestige, status, power and property with which Satan tempts us. [Hill, page 222] Winstanley retains the radical Christian notion of the “kingdom of heaven within,” the spirit of Christ that “will have all saved.” [Hill, page 222] He straddles a more traditional religious conception of reality and a more modern conception of social transformation, through a process of self and social (re)creation, that nevertheless remains steeped in Christian imagery.

For Castoriadis, the social imaginary is not just constitutive of existing heteronomous social forms. The social imaginary has a radical aspect to it that provides a basis for creating collective autonomy. The “radical imaginary” allows for “the emergence of something new” that transcends the “underlying imaginary significations” of existing institutions. [Castoriadis, Vol. 1, pp. 30 – 31] The object of politics is not to achieve any particular end state, but “the instauration of a state of affairs in which man as a social being is able and willing to regard the institutions that rule his life as his own collective creations” that are in state of “perpetual” transformation and “renewal.” [Castoriadis, Vol. 1, page 31] This is a variation of the concept of “permanent revolution” first articulated by 19th century anarchists, whereas Winstanley’s view of social change retains an element of Christian eschatology, as he foresees the attainment of a “new Jerusalem” where all will “live in peace and rest.” [Hill, pp. 222 – 223]

But Winstanley and Castoriadis share the view that social and personal transformation must go hand in hand. For Winstanley, a libertarian communist society requires not only the abolition of the kingly powers, but a new way of relating to the world and to each other. People must attain a state of inner contentment and enlightenment in order to deliver themselves “from that bondage within,” so that they no longer seek fulfillment through greater riches and status. [Hill, page 271] Castoriadis argues in a like vein that “the conditions that make it possible for” a self-instituting society “to function have to be incorporated in a certain fashion into our social organization as well as into the organization of individuals’ psyches.” [Vol. 1, page 34]

Both Winstanley and Castoriadis extoll the virtues of an inner freedom. For Castoriadis, this is the ability to put a society’s “own imaginary into question.” Not only is “the mere absence of censure or repression” not enough to achieve this, it is sometimes easier to do “under tyrannical regimes” than “under apparently liberal regimes,” because the repressive imaginaries of tyrannical regimes are more readily apparent. [Vol. 1, pp. 34 – 35] Winstanley expresses similar views, writing that even “if I were in prison without,” I can still achieve “freedom within.” [Hill, page 229] The main difference between Castoriadis and Winstanley on this point is that, for Castoriadis, the process of putting social imaginaries into question is a never-ending one, whereas Winstanley looks forward to a time when people are able to achieve both inner and outer peace and freedom.

However, unlike many other radical Christians and “antinomians,” Winstanley does not substitute for the kingly powers a power within that will ensure obedience to God’s will under threat of supernatural sanctions. Winstanley’s vision of an anarchist arcadia does not require that everyone carry a gendarme in their breast. While Winstanley would have agreed with Max Stirner that people’s actions are governed, to a certain extent, by “spooks” in their heads, for Winstanley the biggest spook is the selfish imaginary power, the very egoism that Stirner put at the centre of his philosophy.

It is in Fire in the Bush that Winstanley comes closest to proclaiming himself an anarchist. He poses the question that if what he says is true, then this “will destroy all government and all our ministry and religion,” answering yes, that when people find the kingdom of God within them, “all rule and all authority and all power” will have been put down. [Hill, page 243] The kingly powers “must be shaken to pieces.” [Hill, page 233 – 234] True “magistracy” is not the magistracy of the sword, but reason, truth, and ethics. It is not the power of the sword, but the power of love, that will bind people together, instead of making them enemies of one another. [Hill, pp. 244 – 245]

Winstanley’s anarchist writings of 1649 – 1650 remain a remarkable achievement. His critique of existing English institutions, the market economy, private property, wage labour, and other elements of the “agrarian capitalism” that was being consolidated in England, was unparalleled for its time. [Meikson Woods, Liberty and Property, page 280] So was his analysis of the inter-relationships between economic and political power, hierarchy and domination, and the social psychology that sustained and promoted the hierarchical social, economic and political structures and relations under which the English people then laboured.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti – Anarchist Poet

Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919 – 2021)

Here’s to Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021), anarchist, poet, publisher of the Beat poets, and host of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, who died on February 22, 2021 at the grand old age of 101, a month shy of his 102nd birthday.

I Am Waiting

I am waiting for my case to come up
and I am waiting
for a rebirth of wonder
and I am waiting for someone
to really discover America
and wail
and I am waiting
for the discovery
of a new symbolic western frontier
and I am waiting
for the American Eagle
to really spread its wings
and straighten up and fly right
and I am waiting
for the Age of Anxiety
to drop dead
and I am waiting
for the war to be fought
which will make the world safe
for anarchy
and I am waiting
for the final withering away
of all governments
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder
I am waiting for the Second Coming
and I am waiting
for a religious revival
to sweep thru the state of Arizona
and I am waiting
for the Grapes of Wrath to be stored
and I am waiting
for them to prove
that God is really American
and I am waiting
to see God on television
piped onto church altars
if only they can find
the right channel
to tune in on
and I am waiting
for the Last Supper to be served again
with a strange new appetizer
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder
I am waiting for my number to be called
and I am waiting
for the Salvation Army to take over
and I am waiting
for the meek to be blessed
and inherit the earth
without taxes
and I am waiting
for forests and animals
to reclaim the earth as theirs
and I am waiting
for a way to be devised
to destroy all nationalisms
without killing anybody
and I am waiting
for linnets and planets to fall like rain
and I am waiting for lovers and weepers
to lie down together again
in a new rebirth of wonder
I am waiting for the Great Divide to be crossed
and I am anxiously waiting
for the secret of eternal life to be discovered
by an obscure general practitioner
and I am waiting
for the storms of life
to be over
and I am waiting
to set sail for happiness
and I am waiting
for a reconstructed Mayflower
to reach America
with its picture story and tv rights
sold in advance to the natives
and I am waiting
for the lost music to sound again
in the Lost Continent
in a new rebirth of wonder
I am waiting for the day
that maketh all things clear
and I am awaiting retribution
for what America did
to Tom Sawyer
and I am waiting
for Alice in Wonderland
to retransmit to me
her total dream of innocence
and I am waiting
for Childe Roland to come
to the final darkest tower
and I am waiting
for Aphrodite
to grow live arms
at a final disarmament conference
in a new rebirth of wonder
I am waiting
to get some intimations
of immortality
by recollecting my early childhood
and I am waiting
for the green mornings to come again
youth’s dumb green fields come back again
and I am waiting
for some strains of unpremeditated art
to shake my typewriter
and I am waiting to write
the great indelible poem
and I am waiting
for the last long careless rapture
and I am perpetually waiting
for the fleeing lovers on the Grecian Urn
to catch each other up at last
and embrace
and I am awaiting
perpetually and forever
a renaissance of wonder
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “I Am Waiting” from A Coney Island of the Mind. Copyright © 1958 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Kropotkin Conference February 5 – 8, 2021

An ambitious online conference to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Kropotkin’s death begins this Friday, continuing through the weekend to some special commemorative events on Monday, February 8, 2021. Here is the link to the conference webpage:

Early Christianity and Anarchism

An anarchist Jesus?

Ever since anarchism emerged as a distinct doctrine in the 19th century (largely through the debates within the First International regarding the proper direction of working class and socialist movements), there have been Christians who have claimed that Jesus was a kind of pacifist anarchist. I examine these claims in my forthcoming book, The Anarchist Current, by reviewing the history of early Christianity. In this section, I compare the early Christians to the Jewish rebels against Roman rule, who appear to have been much closer to modern anarchists than Jesus and his followers.

Early Christianity and the Jewish Revolts in Palestine

When considering the alleged anarchism of Jesus and his followers, it is useful to compare them to the Jewish groups in Palestine who refused to pay taxes to the Roman Empire and denied the legitimacy of Roman authority. The refusal to pay Roman taxes pre-dated the so-called Jesus movement by about 30 years. Then between 66 and 70 CE, about 30 years after Jesus’ purported death, there was a protracted Jewish rebellion against Roman rule and the Jewish high priests and aristocrats who collaborated with the Romans. Some of the Jewish opponents of Roman authority, the “Fourth Philosophy” group, refused “to call any man master,” taking “God as their only leader.” [Horsley and Hanson, pp. 191 and 215; Horsley, p. 41] As we shall see, refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of any earthly authority is the basis of much of what is now described as “religious” anarchism.

During the rebellion, a group called the “Zealots” fought not only “against the alien Roman oppressors,” but also “a class war against their own Jewish nobility.” [H & H, p. 226] The Zealots opposed “hierarchical power and privilege,” and chose their priests by lot, which was meant to ensure that the priests were chosen by God, “the true ruler of society.” [H & H, pp. 233] Unlike other Jewish rebel groups, and the nascent Christian communities, the Zealots did not have individual leaders, but reached “decisions collectively.” [H & H, pp. 235] While 19th and 20th century anarchists did not believe in any master, including a divine one, they believed, as did the Zealots, that no person had the right to rule over others; they rejected hierarchy and privilege; many of them advocated class war against the aristocracy and the capitalists; and they also practiced forms of non-coercive collective decision-making.

The Zealots share more similarities with 19th and 20th century anarchists than Jesus and his followers, who do not appear to have participated in or to have supported the 66 – 70 CE Jewish rebellion against Roman rule, which was consistent with Jesus’ advice to suffer earthly authorities gladly. [Ekkehard and Wolfgang Stegemann, The Jesus Movement: A Social History of Its First Century (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), trans. O.C. Dean, Jr., p. 212] According to the early historian of Christianity, Eusebius (c.260–c.340 CE), the Christians left Jerusalem at the beginning of the rebellion to sit it out in areas that remained under Roman control. [Stegemann & Stegemann, p. 220]

The four gospels in the New Testament that purport to set forth Jesus’ life and teachings all post-date the 66 – 70 CE rebellion. Despite the fact that the Christians had not supported the rebellion, the Christian communities in Palestine suffered along with the Jewish ones as the Romans put down the rebellion and reasserted Imperial authority. [Horsley & Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs, p. 259] According to Horsley and Hanson, the “violent reimposition of the pax Romana […] meant that little survived of the concrete movement started by Jesus in Palestinian Jewish society.” [p. 259]

It is possible then that the authors of the gospels gave Jesus’ views a more spiritual slant in order to avoid further persecution by the Roman authorities. But even before the suppression of the 66 – 70 CE rebellion, Paul, perhaps Jesus’ most important disciple, was telling his fellow Christians that:

Every person must submit to the supreme authorities. There is no authority but by act of God, and the existing authorities are instituted by him; consequently anyone who rebels against authority is resisting a divine institution, and those who so resist have themselves to thank for the punishment they will receive (Romans 13:1–3).

This is anything but a religious anarchism denying the legitimacy of earthly authorities. Christian teachings like this provided support for the later transformation of Christianity into the official religion of the Roman Empire.

However, the transition of Christianity from an outlawed religious movement to state religion was to take over two hundred years. Regardless of whether the authors of the New Testament gospels tried to downplay the political significance of Jesus’ teachings, and despite Paul’s admonitions to the faithful to obey those in authority, as Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, Roman officials remembered that they had executed the founder of this sect as a dangerous rebel who claimed to be the Messiah. By around 117 CE, being a Christian had become a crime under Roman law. [Stegemann, pp. 323 – 324]

Robert Graham