The Poverty of Historicism

daring future

Continuing with the installments from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in which I survey the historical development and evolution of anarchist ideas, here I summarize the anarchist critique of theories of history, such as Marx’s theory of historical materialism, which posit stages of historical development culminating in the achievement of socialism, with the working class being the agent of this historical process of revolutionary transformation.

poverty of statism

The Poverty of Historicism

The Impulso group remained committed to an essentially Marxist view of progressive historical development, the kind of view that Dwight Macdonald argued had literally been exploded by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Volume Two, Selection 13). One can no longer claim that from “out of present evil will come future good,” wrote Macdonald, when “for the first time in history, humanity faces the possibility that its own activity may result in the destruction not of some people or some part of the world, but of all people and the whole world for all time” (Volume Two, Selection 13).

The Impulso group clung to the view that as the result of an objective historical process, the working class developed “unitary, ongoing interests,” impelling it to fulfill its “historical role” of abolishing capitalism (Volume Two, Selection 38). That the working class has unitary interests is a concept that has been criticized by other anarchists since at least the time of Bakunin, who argued against Marx that city workers “who earn more and live more comfortably than all the other workers,” by virtue of their “relative well-being and semibourgeois position” form a kind of “aristocracy of labour… unfortunately only too deeply saturated with all the political and social prejudices and all the narrow aspirations and pretensions of the bourgeoisie” (1872: 294).

Macdonald pointed to the post-War “failure of the European masses to get excited about socialist slogans and programs,” suggesting that the “man in the street” feels “as powerless and manipulated vis-à-vis his socialist mass-organization as… towards his capitalistic employers and their social and legal institutions” (Volume Two, Selection 13). For Louis Mercier Vega (1914-1977), social stratification within the “working class” makes it necessary “to speak of several working classes,” each with conflicting interests. “Wage differentials,” for example, “make class consciousness that much harder to achieve… encouraging collusion between (private or state) management and privileged brackets of wage-earners. They accentuate rather than curtail the tendency to retain a sub-proletariat reduced to low wages and readily disposed of in the event of a crisis or economic slow-down, alongside groups of workers, employees and officials locked into complex [regulatory] arrangements wherein their docility and diligence are reflected in their wage levels” (Volume Two, Selection 45).

Marx's theory of history

Marx’s theory of history

The Impulso group implicitly accepted the Marxist view of historical stages of development which other anarchists, from Bakunin onward, have also challenged. Even before Bakunin’s conflict with Marx in the First International, one of the points of disagreement between Marx and Proudhon was whether an anarchist form of socialism could be achieved before capitalism created the technology that would produce an abundance of goods allegedly necessary to sustain a socialist society (Marx, 1847). Anarchists promoted peasant revolutions in a variety of circumstances, rather than waiting for the development of an urban proletariat as suggested by the Marxist view of history.

Gustav Landauer rejected that “artifice of historical development, by which—as a matter of historical necessity—the working class, to one extent or another, is called by Providence to take for itself the role of the present day ruling class” (Volume One, Selection 40). For Landauer, “the miracle that materialism and mechanism assume—that… fully-grown socialism grows not out of the childhood beginnings of socialism, but out of the colossal deformed body of capitalism—this miracle will not come, and soon people will no longer believe in it” (Volume One, Selection 49). Huang Lingshuang and Rudolf Rocker later put forward similar critiques of the Marxist theory of history.

popper poverty of historicism

In the 1950s, some anarchists were influenced by the contemporaneous critique of Marxist “historicism” that was being developed by philosophers such as Karl Popper (1957). Writing in the early 1960s, the Chilean anarchist Lain Diez urged anarchists to reject all “historicist systems” based on “the supremacy (in terms of decision making in men’s affairs) of History… which, unknown to men, supposedly foists its law upon them,” for this “new and jealous divinity has its intermediaries who, like the priests of the ancient religions, interpret its intentions, prophesying as they did and issuing thunderous anathemas against miscreants refusing to be awed by their revelations” (Volume Two, Selection 47). More recently, Alan Carter has presented a thoroughgoing anarchist critique of Marxist “technological determinism” (1988), emphasizing the role of the state in creating and enforcing “the relations of production that lead to the creation of the surplus that the state requires” to finance the “forces of coercion” necessary to maintain state power, turning Marx’s theory of history on its head (Volume Three, Selection 19).

Robert Graham

Alan Carter's anarchist critique of Marxism

Alan Carter’s anarchist critique of Marxism

Resistance or Revolution

Respect existence expect resistance

In this installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss the increasing differences between anarchists, not just in English speaking countries, but also in Europe, over how best to deal with the political realities emerging after the Second World War. These realities included the Cold War, and outright conflict, between the US and Soviet blocs, decreasing militancy among the working classes, and various struggles for personal liberation in the face of growing social conformity.

revolution-and-class-struggle-everyday-life-raoul-vaneigem

Resistance or Revolution

Not all anarchists were enamoured with the turn toward personal liberation, alternative lifestyles and cultural change in the aftermath of the Second World War. In Italy, the class struggle anarchists of the Impulso group denounced these anarchist currents as counter-revolutionary, much as Murray Bookchin did many years later (Bookchin, 1995).

The Impulso group described these approaches as “resistencialism,” a term suggested in 1949 by the French anarchist paper, Études Anarchistes, to describe the new perspectives and approaches being developed by anarchists in the English speaking countries in the aftermath of the Second World War which emphasized resistance to authoritarian and hierarchical modes of thought and organization, and the creation of libertarian alternatives here and now, regardless of the prospects of a successful social revolution.

What the Impulso group’s critique illustrates is the degree to which these new conceptions and approaches had spread beyond England and the USA by 1950, when they published their broadside, for much of their attack is directed toward the Italian anarchist journal, Volontà, belying the claim that the “new” anarchism was a largely “Anglo-Saxon” phenomenon (Volume Two, Selection 38).

The Volontà group, with which Camillo Berneri’s widow, and long time anarchist, Giovanna Berneri (1897-1962) was associated, had begun exploring new ideas and analyses which have since become the stock in trade of so-called “post-modern” anarchists (Volume Three, Chapter 12), including a critique of conventional conceptions of rationality and intellectual constructs which seek to constrain thought and action within a specific ideological framework. As one contributor to Volontà put it, “All ideologues are potential tyrants” (Volume Two, Selection 38).

volonta-movimento-anarchico-italiano-1948

The Impulso group denounced Volontà for celebrating “irrationalism” and “chaos,” turning anarchism into “a motley, whimsical subjective representation,” and for abandoning any concept of class struggle. For the Impulso group, anarchism was instead “the ideology of the working and peasant class, the product of a reasoned re-elaboration of revolutionary experiences, the theoretical weapon for the defence of the unitary, ongoing interests of the labouring class, the objective outcome of a specific historic process,” illustrating the degree to which the class struggle anarchists had incorporated into their outlook several Marxian elements (Volume Two, Selection 38).

For them, there were “three vital coefficients to the act of revolution: the crisis in the capitalist system… active participation by the broad worker and peasant masses… and the organized action of the activist minority.” To the criticism that the “masses” can never become self-governing if led by an elite activist minority, the Impulso group responded that an informed, consciously anarchist minority cannot betray the revolution because its theory “is not only the correct general theory” but the correct theory “especially in relation to the activist minority and its nature, its functions, [and] its limitations” (Volume Two, Selection 38).

This claim that an activist minority of anarchists would never effectively assume positions of authority because their general theory eschews such a role is not particularly persuasive on either theoretical or historical grounds. No matter how well informed by or committed to anarchist principles, the “activist minority,” armed with their “correct” theory will, as Malatesta had said of the Platformists, be prone “to excommunicate from anarchism all those who do not accept their program,” promoting sectarianism rather than creating a unified movement (Volume One, Selection 115).

Neno Vasco (1920) and other anarchists had long argued that the focus of anarchist minorities should instead be on fostering the self-activity of the masses. This is because by “acting directly,” as Murray Bookchin has written, “we not only gain a sense that we can control the course of social events again; we recover a new sense of selfhood and personality without which a truly free society, based on self-activity and self-management, is utterly impossible” (Volume Three, Selection 10). That being informed and guided by anarchist theory does not prevent one from assuming a more conventional leadership role was demonstrated by those CNT-FAI “militants” who joined the Republican government in Spain during the 1936-39 Revolution and Civil War (Volume One, Selections 127 & 128).

The Impulso group saw themselves performing a “locomotive function,” pulling the masses toward liberation through the revolutionary upheaval that would inevitably result from the crisis of international capitalism, committing themselves to “a harsh self-discipline” (Volume Two, Selection 38), the kind of self-abnegation that Bakunin had warned against earlier (Volume One, Selection 20).

Despite the denunciations of the Impulso group, it was the “new” anarchism pioneered by the so-called “resistencialists” that was to inspire radicals in the 1960s, with people like the Cohn-Bendit brothers writing, “Act with others, not for them. Make the revolution here and now,” for “it is for yourself that you make the revolution,” not some abstract ideal to which all should be sacrificed (Volume Two, Selection 51).

Robert Graham

cohn bendit gauchisme

Leftism – remedy for the Communist senile disorder

Hurrah for Anarchy!

hurrah for anarchy

Recently Dissent magazine carried a rather lame critique of anarchism by Sheri Berman. Here I present an excellent rejoinder, posted by “Patrick” (also the author?) at For Student Power and the Black Rose Anarchist Federation website. As the article notes, Berman’s comments about the Paris Commune being an example of anarchism’s failure are particularly off the mark (for a different perspective, see my book, We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It). As for Dissent, I can’t resist recalling an old Woody Allen joke about Dissent merging with a similar magazine, Commentary, to create a new magazine, Dissentary.

volume-3

Another Day, Another Hatchet Job

Is just me, or has the quality of critiques of anarchism been getting worse lately?

Barnard Professor Sheri Berman’s contribution to Dissent’s Fall 2015 issue (“No Cheers for Anarchism”) makes it clear she holds anarchism — and anarchists — in contempt. I looked for, but sadly could not find, a well-argued reason why. Her essay is plagued by the kind of scattershot superficial analysis, innuendo, and guilt-by-association better suited to a publication like the Weekly Standard than such a storied journal of the left.

Berman’s trouble begins when she asserts a fundamental similarity between anarchists and libertarians:

Anarchists dream of a world without states, traditional political organizations, or any other structures that restrict individual freedom. Because they share such beliefs and goals with libertarians, anarchists are easily confused with them. In the American context, at least, the main distinction between the two concerns capitalism: anarchists view it as inherently coercive, while libertarians venerate it as the embodiment and guardian of individual rights. This has led the former to be viewed as left wing and the latter as right wing, but in reality, anarchists differ dramatically from other sectors of the modern left (just as libertarians differ dramatically from traditional conservatives and other factions of the modern right).

While it’s true that American libertarians essentially stole their appellation from us (“libertarian” at least in Europe still largely means anarchist), they sadly did not deign to import any of our ideas. Anarchist analysis is fundamentally social and structural, and is the common thread that links our opposition to capitalism and the state, our resistance to all forms of oppression and domination, and our proposal of common ownership of wealth and production through direct democracy. Libertarians, on the other hand, construct their world starting with the atomized individual, resting on a foundation of modern property rights: it is a thoroughly reactionary ideology.

no to anarcho-capitalism

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century anarchism’s rejection of traditional political organizations and activity led to its involvement in various uprisings and rebellions, the most important of which was the Paris Commune.

It is strange to see Berman assert that anarchists during that time rejected “traditional political organizations and activity.” I can only assume she means electoral and party politics, which given the time period were anything but traditional. Indeed, Europe has a much longer history of strikes, revolts, and revolutions than of parliaments. Modern European political parties only kicked off in earnest post-1848 while universal suffrage took even longer. And while she claims anarchism is a very different animal from its brethren on the left, anarchists made up a significant portion of the First International, and have joined arms with their fellow socialists in barricades, picket lines, and revolutions ever since.

Odder still, considering how few actual anarchists were there, is Berman’s implication that the Paris Commune was an “anarchist activity”:

Despite their often spectacular nature, anarchist activities were almost uniformly unsuccessful. For example, the Paris Commune’s lack of internal organization, leadership, or agreed-upon goals left it prone to infighting and vulnerable to counter-attack; it was brutally crushed by the forces of counter-revolution.

Given that both Marxists and anarchists spoke highly of the Commune, one suspects there is more to it than Berman lets on. While she pins the blame on a “lack of internal organization, leadership, or agreed-upon goals,” one of the anarchist critiques of the Commune is that while there was plenty of internal organization, it was hobbled by its centralized and bureaucratic nature. As Kropotkin put it:

But in 1871 the people of Paris, which had overthrown so many governments, was only involved in its first attempt at revolt against the governmental system itself: it submitted to governmental fetichism and gave itself a government. We know the consequence. It sent its devoted sons to the Hotel-de-Ville. Indeed, immobilised there by fetters of red tape, forced to discuss when action was needed, and losing the sensitivity that comes from continued contact with the masses, they saw themselves reduced to impotence. Paralysed by their distancing from the revolutionary centre — the people — they themselves paralysed the popular initiative.

Berman then claims that the fin-de-siecle left abandoned anarchism for political parties and trade unions, neglecting to mention that a large majority of anarchists at that time were already moving into the labor movement. While many socialist parties at the time saw trade unions as little more than party recruiting grounds and vehicles for turf wars with other socialists, anarchists placed labor struggles at the heart of revolutionary strategy (exemplified by the prominent rise of anarcho-syndicalism across Europe and Latin America).

Anarcho-Syndicalism

Anarcho-Syndicalism

Berman correctly notes that after World War I “socialists played a significant role” in governments across Europe:

During the interwar period socialist parties became the bulwarks of democracy in many parts of Europe. Defending democracy meant that socialists needed to win elections and attract the support of the majority, which would in turn require compromises, trade-offs and patience—none of which appealed to anarchists.

While socialists in power were quite successful at breaking strikes and attacking popular movements on their left, they failed at what was possibly their most important task: heading off the rise of nationalism and fascism. The world paid dearly for that failure. In Spain it was the election of a social democrat-led coalition, not anarchist agitation (as Berman alleges), that spurred Franco’s coup. Were it not for the immediate actions taken by the UGT and anarchist-led CNT trade unions to arm and mobilize the population, against a backdrop of paralysis on the part of the government, Franco’s victory likely would have been nearly instantaneous.

Similarly, Berman’s analysis of the 1960s is painfully incomplete. Claiming the post-1945 social democratic order “undergirded an unprecedented period of consolidated democracy, economic growth, and social stability in Europe and the West,” she neglects to mention the mountains of stolen resources and millions of bodies across Asia and Africa on which that order depended. Nor does she mention that the anti-colonial, anti-imperialist project was central to the radical left of the 1960s, simply stating that “many anarchist-influenced ‘New Left’ and counter-culture movements (including punk and the Yippies in the United States, and squatters movements in many European cities) attack[ed] the reigning ‘bourgeois, capitalist’ order.” The only time Berman bothers to reach outside the comforts of the West is for a few bogeymen:

Some praised the likes of Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, and Fidel Castro—hardly icons of freedom—and showed scorn for public opinion and for the “masses” who didn’t share their vision of the world.

Trying to hang those three around anarchism’s neck — none of whom were remotely anarchist, and in the case of Castro, actively jailed and murdered Cuban anarchists? The mind boggles.

Anti-Castro Cuban anarchist paper

Anti-Castro Cuban anarchist paper

In the post-Cold War era, anarchism has emerged as arguably the most energetic current on the left in the U.S. Berman dismisses Occupy Wall Street as a flash in the pan, little more than “theatrics” with “ephemeral impact.” While neither OWS nor the many successful campaigns and movements it birthed were majority anarchist, their tools, sensibilities and outlook drew heavily from that tradition. And too many progressives forget that over the course of a few months, OWS dramatically changed the bounds of mainstream economic and political debate (remember the summer preceding it, when matters of wealth inequality and Wall Street were permanently sidelined to debt ceilings and austerity packages?). That’s something for which the Elizabeth Warrens and Bernie Sanderses of the world should thank their friendly neighborhood anarchist.

Berman reaches peak superficiality as she concludes her essay by way of former congressman Barney Frank, a man whose blinkered conception of social change can only be measured in angry letters and phone calls to the Capitol switchboard:

In his recent book, Barney Frank, for example, contrasted the National Rifle Association’s persistent grassroots organizing and resultant ability to mobilize supporters to flood lawmakers’ offices with letters and calls and to vote as a bloc, with the inclination of many on the left to “hold public demonstrations, in which like-minded people gather to reassure each other of their beliefs.” Frank goes on to argue that “if you care deeply about an issue and are engaged in group activity on its behalf that is fun and inspiring and heightens your sense of solidarity with others . . . you are most certainly not doing your cause any good.”

There’s quite a bit of confusion here, not least of which is the implication that social movements (let alone anarchist-inspired ones) desire the same scope and scale of change that the NRA does. I for one am glad that so many movements reject the Berman-Frank model of social change. From immigrant rights (in both the Americas and Europe) to service sector unionization, from campaigns against fossil fuel projects to the 2012 Québec student strike, anarchists are at the forefront and in the trenches, helping shape analysis and strategy. Instead of petitioning their elected officials, they are doing what every successful movement has done: changing the reality on the ground so starkly and fundamentally that political and economic elites are forced to accommodate.

chomsky on anarchism

Ultimately, the shadow that hangs over Berman’s entire essay is cast not by anarchism, but by the colossal wreckage of social democracy.

Berman approvingly quotes François Mitterand’s denunciation of Paris protesters in May 1968: “what a mish-mash of quasi-Marxism, what hotch-potch, what confusion.” While she contents to caricature one of the most important events of the twentieth century, the quote much more accurately describes Mitterand’s own panicked and confused descent into austerity when faced with all the terrible demands of capital but none of the workers and youth on the streets to force him to live up to his socialist promises.

For decades now, social democratic parties across the West have taken up the mantle of hatchet men for the interests of capital. It is austerity imposed by the “left” that cuts deepest and is hardest to oppose. This slow self-immolation by socialist parties, stretching from London to Athens and Paris to Berlin, reminds us that we can’t administer our way out of the horrors of capitalism. While those on the electoral left — the true starry-eyed utopians — propose yet another round of minor fixes to capitalism’s foundational deformities, anarchists and our allies will keep fighting for and building a liberated world, one that needs neither capitalists nor their reluctant stewards.

January 2016

A different perspective

A different perspective

The Art of Living/Living Anarchy in the Modern Era

art and anarchy

In the next installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss anarchist ideas about making life itself a kind of art, which drew from various modern art movements, such as surrealism, which I discussed in the previous installment.

Flavio Costantini

Flavio Costantini

The Art of Living

In the 1940s, Herbert Read, who had helped introduce Surrealism to English audiences, extolled modern art for breaking through “the artificial boundaries and limitations which we owe to a one-sided and prejudiced view of the human personality.” For Read, all “types of art are not merely permissible, but desirable… Any kind of exclusiveness or intolerance is just as opposed to the principles of liberty as social exclusiveness or political intolerance.” He argued that only in an anarchist society would everyone be free to develop “the artist latent in each one of us” (Volume Two, Selection 19).

Alex Comfort agreed with Read that “in truly free communities art is a general activity, far more cognate with craft than it can ever be in contemporary organized life.” He looked forward to the creation of communities in which “art could become a part of daily activity, and in which all activity [is] potentially creative” (Volume Two, Selection 20).

As Richard Sonn has put it, “In the anarchist utopia the boundaries between manual and intellectual labour, between art and craft, dissolve. People are free to express themselves through their work. Artistry pervades life, rather than being restricted to museum walls and bohemian artist studios” (Volume Three, Selection 38). In contrast, as David Wieck (1921-1997) noted, in existing society we “take it for granted that a small number of people, more or less talented, shall make—one would say ‘create’—under the usual consumption-oriented conditions of the market, our ‘works of art,’ our ‘entertainment,’ while the rest of us are spectators” (Volume Two, Selection 39).

Holley Cantine, Jr. (1911-1977) saw art as a form of play which “must disguise itself” in adulthood “as useful work in order to be socially acceptable.” The artist must either find a market for his or her art, put him or herself at the service of some cause, or live the life of an impoverished bohemian—in neither case “is the artist really free… Only a relative handful of spontaneous artists, who give no thought to any standards but their own satisfaction, can be said to function in the realm of pure art.”

For Cantine, a free society is one in which everyone “works, according to his capacity, when there is work to do, and everyone plays the rest of the time,” much as people do in “non-status societies,” where “play is regarded as natural for everyone, whenever the immediate pressure of the environment permits” (Volume Two, Selection 21), an observation confirmed by the anthropological studies conducted by Pierre Clastres (1934-1977) in South America (Volume Two, Selection 64).

Judith Malina and Julian Beck

Judith Malina and Julian Beck

In New York, Julian Beck (1925-1985) and Judith Malina (1926-2015) founded the Living Theatre in 1947, which sought to break down the barriers between playwright and performer, and between performer and audience. The Living Theatre staged plays by people like Paul Goodman, whose use of “obscene” language in the late 1940s and 1950s helped keep the Theatre in trouble with the authorities, when censorship laws were much stricter than in the USA today.

The Theatre developed a more and more improvisational approach, with the actors designing their own movements and the director ultimately “resigning from his authoritarian position” (Volume Two, Selection 24). By the late 1960s, the Theatre abandoned the confines of the playhouse altogether, pioneering guerilla street theatre and performance art in Europe and Latin America (Volume Two, Selection 25).

Richard Sonn has argued that only “anarchists can claim that not the state, not the military, not even the economy, but rather culture is central to it both as movement and as ideal” (Volume Three, Selection 38).

For Max Blechman, art “acts as a reminder of the potential joy of life, and as an anarchic force against all that which usurps it. It functions as a perpetual reminder that all meaningful life involves a stretching of the limits of the possible, not toward an absolute, but away from absolutes and into the depths of imagination and the unknown. This creative adventure, at the bottom of all great art, is the power which, if universalized, would embody the driving force of social anarchy” (Volume Three, Selection 39).

Robert Graham

Allan Antliff Art

2015: Year in Review

Circle A

Just got my annual report from WordPress. During the past year, my three most popular posts were “Libertarian Revolution in Rojava,” David Graeber’s “There is a real revolution in Rojava,” and “Further Reflections on the Revolution in Rojava” by Janet Biehl. For more recent stories about the Kurdish struggle for self-determination, particularly for women, see this article in the Washington Post, and this article in the Huffington Post regarding Murray Bookchin’s continuing influence among the Kurds. Here is an excerpt from an article from last fall by Carne Ross on the situation in Rojava, noting the war that Turkey is waging against the Kurds, a war largely ignored by the mainstream media, which likes to pretend that Turkey is helping in the fight against ISIS. The full article can by found here on Ross’ blog. I included material from Kurdish anarchists and Janet Biehl’s interview with Kurdish “democratic confederalists” in Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

anarchy_rojava_STIM

Power to the People of Rojava

I visited Rojava last month while filming a documentary about the failings of the western model of democracy. The region covers a substantial “corner” of north-east Syria and has a population of approximately 3m, yet it is not easy to get to. The only passage is by small boat or a creaky pontoon bridge across the Tigris from Iraq.

Turkey has closed its borders with Rojava, preventing all movement from the north, including humanitarian supplies to Kurdish-controlled areas. To the south, in Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government does not make access easy; permits for journalists are not straightforward and, we were told, repeat visits are discouraged.

The isolation is not only physical. Turkey regards the Syrian Kurd YPG militia that is fighting the jihadi organisation Isis in Rojava as synonymous with the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), a longstanding enemy inside Turkey. The YPG’s advance against Isis along Syria’s northern border has been halted by the declaration by Turkey of a so-called “safe zone” to the west of the Euphrates between the front line and the Kurdish-controlled canton of Afrin in the north-west. For the Kurds, the motive seems transparently clear: to prevent the formation of a contiguous area of Kurdish control along Turkey’s southern border.

The KRG, which collaborates with Turkey against the PKK, has also been reluctant to support the YPG, even though they share a common enemy in the shape of Isis. Turkey has likewise pressured the US to eschew the Syrian Kurds, although in the past few days Washington has come out in more open support, including delivering arms supplies to the YPG. Meanwhile, the Kurds maintain an uneasy truce with the Syrian regime, which keeps two small bases in Rojava but otherwise has no military presence here — a tacit deal whereby the Kurds control the territory in return for not fighting the regime.

Those journalists that do get here naturally gravitate to the front lines like the devastated city of Kobani; similarly, images of the photogenic young women who make up the female Kurdish militia, the YPJ, are more eye-catching than the village hall meetings that comprise the reality of an innovative grassroots democracy. But it is in those dusty assemblies across Rojava that a democratic revolution is taking place.

Carne Ross, October 2015

Emma Goldman "Happy New Year"

Emma Goldman “Happy New Year”

Kropotkin on Christmas

Kropotkin santa

Every year I usually post something by Kropotkin around December 21st (his birthday) but this year I was a bit too busy. Someone else beat me to reposting this article by Ruth Kinna about Kropotkin’s views regarding Christmas and Santa Claus, which reminded me to do so as well. Is the true spirit of Christmas the Spirit of Revolt?

The Christmas Spirit of Revolt

The Christmas Spirit of Revolt

An Anarchist Guide to Christmas

It’s no surprise to discover that anarchist theorist Pyotr Kropotkin was interested in Christmas. In Russian culture, St. Nicholas (Николай Чудотворец) was revered as a defender of the oppressed, the weak and the disadvantaged. Kropotkin shared the sentiments. But there was also a family link. As everyone knows, Kropotkin could trace his ancestry to the ancient Rurik dynasty that ruled Russia before the upstart Romanovs and which, from the first century CE, controlled the trade routes between Moscow and the Byzantine Empire. Nicholas’s branch of the family had been sent out to patrol the Black Sea. But Nicholas was a spiritual man and sought an escape from the piracy and brigandage for which his Russian Viking family was famed. So he settled under a new name in the southern lands of the Empire, now Greece, and decided to use the wealth that he had amassed from his life of crime to alleviate the sufferings of the poor.

Unpublished archival sources recently discovered in Moscow reveal that Kropotkin was fascinated by this family tie and the striking physical similarity between himself and the figure of Father Christmas, popularised by the publication of ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ (better known as ‘The Night Before Christmas’) in 1823.

Kropotkin was not quite so portly as Klaus, but with a cushion stuffed up his tunic, he felt he could pass. His friend Elisée Reclus advised him to drop the fur trim on the outfit. That was a good idea as it would also allow him to wear a bit more black with the red. He’d decided to follow Elisée’s advice on the reindeer, too, and to use a hand driven sleigh. Kropotkin wasn’t normally given to dressing up. But exploiting the resemblance to spread the anarchist message was excellent propaganda by the deed.

Anticipating V, Kropotkin thought that we could all pose as Santa Claus. On the edge of one page Kropotkin writes: “Infiltrate the stores, give away the toys!”

Faint remnants on the back of a postcard read:

On the night before Christmas, we’ll all be about
While the people are sleeping, we’ll realise our clout
We’ll expropriate goods from the stores, ‘cos that’s fair
And distribute them widely, to those who need care.

His project notes also reveal some valuable insights into his ideas about the anarchistic features of Christmas and his thinking about the ways in which Victorian Christmas rituals might be adapted.

“We all know”, he wrote, “that the big stores – John Lewis, Harrods and Selfridges – are beginning to exploit the sales potential of Christmas, establishing magic caves, grottos and fantastic fairylands to lure our children and pressurise us to buy gifts that we do not want and cannot afford”.

“If you are one of us”, he continued, “you will realise that the magic of Christmas depends on Father Christmas’s system of production, not the stores’ attempts to seduce you to consume useless luxuries”. Kropotkin described the sprawling workshops at the North Pole, where elves worked all year, happily because they knew that they were producing for other peoples’ pleasure. Noting that these workshops were strictly not-for profit, craft-based and run on communal lines, Kropotkin treated them as prototypes for the factories of the future (outlined in Fields, Factories and Workshops).

Some people, he felt, thought that Father Christmas’s dream to see that everyone received gifts on Christmas day, was quixotic. But it could be realised. Indeed, the extension of the workshops – which were quite expensive to run in the Arctic – would facilitate generalised production for need and the transformation of occasional gift-giving into regular sharing. “We need to tell the people”, Kropotkin wrote, “that community workshops can be set up anywhere and that we can pool our resources to make sure that everybody has their needs met”!

Kropotkin santa B & W

One of the issues that most bothered Kropotkin about Christmas was the way in which the inspirational role that Nicholas’s had played in conjuring Christmas myths had confused the ethics of Christmas. Nicholas was wrongly represented as a charitable, benevolent man: saintly because he was beneficent. Absorbed in the figure of Father Christmas, Nicholas’s motivations for giving had become further skewed by the Victorian’s fixation with children.

Kropotkin didn’t really understand the links, but felt that it reflected an attempt to moralise childhood through a concept of purity that was symbolised in the birth of Jesus. Naturally he couldn’t imagine the creation of the Big Brother Santa Claus who knows when children are asleep and awake and comes to town apparently knowing which have dared to cry or pout.

But sooner or later, he warned, this idea of purity would be used to distinguish naughty from nice children and only those in the latter group would be rewarded with presents.

Whatever the case, it was important both to recover the principle of Nicholas’ compassion from this confusing mumbo-jumbo and the folkloric origins of Santa Claus. Nicholas gave because he was pained by his awareness of other peoples’ hardship. Though he wasn’t an assassin (as far as Kropotkin knew), he shared the same ethics as Sofia Petrovskaya. And while it was obviously important to worry about the well-being of children, the anarchist principle was to take account of everyone’s suffering.

Similarly, the practice of giving was mistakenly thought to require the implementation of a centrally-directed plan, overseen by an omniscient administrator. This was quite wrong: Father Christmas came from the imagination of the people (just consider the range of local names that Nicholas had accrued – Sinterklaas, Tomte, de Kerstman). And the spreading of good cheer – through festivity – was organised from the bottom up.

Buried in Christmas, Kropotkin argued, was the solidaristic principle of mutual aid.

Kropotkin appreciated the significance of the ritual and the real value that individuals and communities attached to carnivals, acts of remembrance and commemoration. He no more wanted to abolish Christmas than he wished to see it republicanised through some wrong-headed bureaucratic re-ordering of the calendar.

It was important, nonetheless, to detach the ethic that Christmas supported from the singularity of its celebration. Having a party was just that: extending the principle of mutual aid and compassion into everyday life was something else. In capitalist society, Christmas provided a space for special good behaviours. While it might be possible to be a Christian once a year, anarchism was for life.

Kropotkin realised his propaganda would have the best chance of success if he could show how the anarchist message was also embedded in mainstream culture. His notes reveal that he looked particularly to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to find a vehicle for his ideas. The book was widely credited with cementing ideas of love, merriment and goodwill in Christmas. Kropotkin found the genius of the book in its structure. What else was the story of Scrooge’s encounter with the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future than a prefigurative account of change?

By seeing his present through his past, Scrooge was given the chance to alter his miserly ways and re-shape both his future and the future of the Cratchit family. Even if it was only remembered once a year, Kropotkin thought, Dickens’s book lent anarchists a perfect vehicle to teach this lesson: by altering what we do today, by modelling our behaviours on Nicholas, we can help construct a future which is Christmas!

Ruth Kinna is the editor of the journal Anarchist Studies and professor of Political Theory at Loughborough University. She is the author of Anarchism: A Beginners Guide and also William Morris: The Art of Socialism. This article was originally published by STRIKE! magazine.

Peter-Kroptkin birthday

Resplendent Anarchy (Anarchism after WWII)

refusglobal

A short installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, discussing some of the post-World War II artistic movements that embraced anarchist ideas.

Refusal Global/Global Refusal

Given the difficult political circumstances faced by anarchists in the aftermath of the Second World War, it should not be surprising that there was a resurgence of anarchist attitudes in the arts, for it was on the cultural terrain that anarchists had the greatest freedom of action. In Quebec, the Automatistes, who were loosely affiliated with the Surrealists, issued their “ Global Refusal” manifesto in 1948, in which they foresaw “people freed from their useless chains and turning, in the unexpected manner that is necessary for spontaneity, to resplendent anarchy to make the most of their individual gifts” (Volume Two, Selection 22).

The Surrealists recognized their affinity with the anarchists, sharing their “fundamental hostility towards both power blocs,” and seeking with them to bring about “an era from which all hierarchy and all constraint will have been banished” (Volume Two, Selection 23). André Breton (1896-1966) noted that it was “in the black mirror of anarchism that surrealism first recognized itself,” but admitted that the surrealists, along with many others on the left, had for too long supported the Soviet Union, mesmerized by “the idea of efficiency” and the hope for a worldwide social revolution. Now it was time “to return to the principles” which had allowed the libertarian ideal “to take form,” arriving at a conception of anarchism as, in the words of Georges Fontenis (1920-2010), “the expression of the exploited masses in their desire to create a society without classes, without a State, where all human values and desires can be realized” (Volume Two, Selection 23).

Robert Graham

Andre Breton

Andre Breton

We Do Not Fear Anarchy: A Summary

we do not fear the book cover

I prepared an article for the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review summarizing the main points from my latest book, We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It: The First International and the Emergence of the Anarchist Movement, which was published in ASR #63 (Winter 2015). It’s a bit long for my blog, but here it is. The full book can be ordered from AK Press or your local bookseller.

The Spirit of Anarchy

The Spirit of Anarchy

We Do Not Fear Anarchy: A Summary of My Book on the First International and the Emergence of the Anarchist Movement

September 2014 marked the 150th anniversary of the founding of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWMA – in the Romance languages, the AIT – now commonly referred to as the First International). While much is often made of the dispute between Marx and Bakunin within the International, resulting in Bakunin’s expulsion in 1872, more important from an anarchist perspective is how anarchism as a distinct revolutionary movement emerged from the debates and conflicts within the International, not as the result of a personal conflict between Marx and Bakunin, but because of conflicting ideas regarding working class liberation.

Many members of the International, particularly in Italy, Spain and French speaking Switzerland, but also in Belgium and France, took to heart the statement in the International’s Preamble that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the workers themselves. They envisioned the International as a fighting organization for the daily struggle of the workers against the capitalists for better working conditions, but also looked to the International as a federation of workers across national borders that would provide the impetus for revolutionary change and the creation of a post-revolutionary socialist society based on workers’ self-management and voluntary federation. It was from out of these elements in the International that the first European anarchist movements arose.

When the International was founded in September 1864 by French and British trade unionists, any anarchist tendencies were then very weak. The French delegates at the founding of the First International regarded themselves as “mutualists,” moderate followers of Proudhon, not anarchist revolutionaries. They supported free credit, workers’ control, small property holdings and equivalent exchange of products by the producers themselves. They wanted the International to become a mutualist organization that would pool the financial resources of European workers to provide free credit for the creation of a system of producer and consumer cooperatives that would ultimately displace the capitalist economic system.

Founding Congress of the International, September 28, 1864

Founding Congress of the International, September 28, 1864

The first full congress of the International was not held until September 1866, in Geneva, Switzerland, with delegates from England, France, Germany and Switzerland. Although the French delegates did not call for the immediate abolition of the state, partly because such radical talk would only result in the International being banned in France, then under the dictatorship of Napoleon III, they did express their rejection of the state as a “superior authority” that would think, direct and act in the name of all, stifling initiative. They shared Proudhon’s view that social, economic and political relations should be based on contracts providing reciprocal benefits, thereby preserving the independence and equality of the contracting parties. The French delegates distinguished this “mutualist federalism” from a communist government that would rule over society, regulating all social and economic functions.

At the next Congress of the International in Laussane, Switzerland, in September 1867, César De Paepe, one of the most influential Belgian delegates, debated the more conservative French mutualists on the collectivization of land, which he supported, arguing that if large industrial and commercial enterprises, such as railways, canals, mines and public services, should be considered collective property to be managed by companies of workers, as the mutualists agreed, then so should the land. The peasant and farmer, as much as the worker, should be entitled to the fruits of their labour, without part of that product being appropriated by either the capitalists or the landowners. De Paepe argued that this “collectivism” was consistent with Proudhon’s “mutualist program,” which demanded “that the whole product of labour shall belong to the producer.” However, it was not until the next congress in Brussels in September 1868 that a majority of delegates adopted a collectivist position which included land as well as industry.

At the Brussels Congress, De Paepe also argued that the workers’ “societies of resistance” and trade unions, through which they organized and coordinated their strike and other activities, constituted the “embryo” of those “great companies of workers” that would replace the “companies of the capitalists” by eventually taking control of collective enterprises. For, according to De Paepe, the purpose of trade unions and strike activity was not merely to improve existing working conditions but to abolish wage labour. This could not be accomplished in one country alone, but required a federation of workers in all countries, who would replace the capitalist system with the “universal organization of work and exchange.” Here we have the first public expression within the International of the basic tenets of revolutionary and anarchist syndicalism: that through their own trade union organizations, by which the workers waged their daily struggles against the capitalists, the workers were creating the very organizations through which they would bring about the social revolution and reconstitute society, replacing capitalist exploitation with workers’ self-management.

The First International

The First International

After the Brussels Congress, Bakunin and his associates applied for their group, the Alliance of Socialist Democracy, to be admitted into the International. The Alliance stood for “atheism, the abolition of cults and the replacement of faith by science, and divine by human justice.” The Alliance supported the collectivist position adopted at the Brussels Congress, seeking to transform “the land, the instruments of work and all other capital” into “the collective property of the whole of society,” to be “utilized only by the workers,” through their own “agricultural and industrial associations.”

In Bakunin’s contemporaneous program for an “International Brotherhood” of revolutionaries, he denounced the Blanquists and other like-minded revolutionaries who dreamt of “a powerfully centralized revolutionary State,” for such “would inevitably result in military dictatorship and a new master,” condemning the masses “to slavery and exploitation by a new pseudo-revolutionary aristocracy.” In contrast, Bakunin and his associates did “not fear anarchy, we invoke it.” Bakunin envisaged the “popular revolution” being organized “from the bottom up, from the circumference to the center, in accordance with the principle of liberty, and not from the top down or from the center to the circumference in the manner of all authority.”

In the lead up to the Basle Congress of the International in September 1869, Bakunin put forward the notion of the general strike as a means of revolutionary social transformation, observing that when “strikes spread out from one place to another, they come very close to turning into a general strike,” which could “result only in a great cataclysm which forces society to shed its old skin.” He also supported, as did the French Internationalists, the creation of “as many cooperatives for consumption, mutual credit, and production as we can, everywhere, for though they may be unable to emancipate us in earnest under present economic conditions, they prepare the precious seeds for the organization of the future, and through them the workers become accustomed to handling their own affairs.”

Bakunin argued that the program of the International must “inevitably result in the abolition of classes (and hence of the bourgeoisie, which is the dominant class today), the abolition of all territorial States and political fatherlands, and the foundation, upon their ruins, of the great international federation of all national and local productive groups.” Bakunin was giving a more explicitly anarchist slant to the idea, first broached by De Paepe at the Brussels Congress, and then endorsed at the Basle Congress in September 1869, that it was through the International, conceived as a federation of trade unions and workers’ cooperatives, that capitalism would be abolished and replaced by a free federation of productive associations.

Jean-Louis Pindy, a delegate from the carpenters’ Chambre syndicale in Paris, expressed the views of many of the Internationalists at the Basle Congress when he argued that the means adopted by the trade unions must be shaped by the ends which they hoped to achieve. He saw the goal of the International as being the replacement of capitalism and the state with “councils of the trades bodies, and by a committee of their respective delegates, overseeing the labor relations which are to take the place of politics,” so that “wage slavery may be replaced by the free federation of free producers.” The Belgian Internationalists, such as De Paepe and Eugène Hins, put forward much the same position, with Hins looking to the International to create “the organization of free exchange, operating through a vast section of labour from one end of the world to another,” that would replace “the old political systems” with industrial organization, an idea which can be traced back to Proudhon, but which was now being given a more revolutionary emphasis.

The Basle Congress therefore declared that “all workers should strive to establish associations for resistance in their various trades,” forming an international alliance so that “the present wage system may be replaced by the federation of free producers.” This was the highwater mark of the federalist, anti-authoritarian currents in the First International, and it was achieved at its most representative congress, with delegates from England, France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy and Spain.

Bakunin speaking at the Basel Congress 1869

Bakunin speaking at the Basel Congress 1869

Bakunin attended the Congress, drawing out the anarchist implications of this position. He argued that because the State provided “the sanction and guarantee of the means by which a small number of men appropriate to themselves the product of the work of all the others,” the political, juridical, national and territorial State must be abolished. Bakunin emphasized the role of the state in creating and perpetuating class privilege and exploitation, arguing that “if some individuals in present-day society do acquire… great sums, it is not by their labor that they do so but by their privilege, that is, by a juridically legalized injustice.”

Bakunin expressed his antipathy, shared by other members of the International, to revolution from above through a coercive state apparatus. With respect to peasant small holders, he argued that “if we tried to expropriate these millions of small farmers by decree after proclaiming the social liquidation, we would inevitably cast them into reaction, and we would have to use force against them to submit to the revolution.” Better to “carry out the social liquidation at the same time that you proclaim the political and juridical liquidation of the State,” such that the peasants will be left only with “possession de facto” of their land. Once “deprived of all legal sanction,” no longer being “shielded under the State’s powerful protection,” these small holdings “will be transformed easily under the pressure of revolutionary events and forces” into collective property.

The Basle Congress was the last truly representative congress of the International. The Franco-Prussian War in 1870 and the Paris Commune in 1871 made it difficult to hold a congress, while the Hague Congress of 1872 was stacked by Marx and Engels with delegates with dubious credentials. One must therefore look at the activities of the various International sections themselves between 1869 and 1872 to see how the anti-authoritarian, revolutionary collectivist currents in the International eventually coalesced into a European anarchist movement.

In France, Eugène Varlin, one of the International’s outstanding militants, described the position adopted “almost unanimously” by the delegates at the Basle Congress as “collectivism, or non-authoritarian communism.” Varlin expressed the views of many of the French Internationalists when he wrote that the workers’ own organizations, the trade unions and societies of resistance and solidarity, “form the natural elements of the social structure of the future.” By March 1870, he was writing that short “of placing everything in the hands of a highly centralized, authoritarian state which would set up a hierarchic structure from top to bottom of the labour process… we must admit that the only alternative is for the workers themselves to have the free disposition and possession of the tools of production… through co-operative associations in various forms.”

Bakunin & Fanelli with other Internationalists

Bakunin & Fanelli with other Internationalists

The revolutionary syndicalist ideas of the Belgians and Bakunin’s more explicitly anarchist views were also being spread in Spain. Echoing De Paepe’s comments from the Brussels Congress, the Spanish Internationalists described the International as containing “within itself the seeds of social regeneration… it holds the embryo of all future institutions.” They founded the Federación Regional Española (FRE – Spanish Regional Federation) in June 1870, which took an anarchist position. One of its militants, Rafael Farga Pellicer, declared that: “We want the end to the domination of capital, the state, and the church. Upon their ruins we will construct anarchy, and the free federation of free associations of workers.” In addition, the FRE adopted a form of organization based on anarchist principles, “from the bottom upward,” with no paid officers or trade union bureaucracy.

In French speaking Switzerland, as a result of a split between the reformist minority, supported by Marx, and the anti-authoritarian collectivist majority, allied with Bakunin, the Jura Federation was created in 1870. The Jura Federation adopted an anarchist stance, declaring that “all participation of the working class in the politics of bourgeois governments can result only in the consolidation and perpetuation of the existing order.”

On the eve of the Franco-Prussian War during the summer of 1870, the French Internationalists took an anti-war stance, arguing that the war could only be a “fratricidal war” that would divide the working class, leading to “the complete triumph of despotism.” The Belgian Internationalists issued similar declarations, denouncing the war as a war of “the despots against the people,” and calling on them to respond with a “war of the people against the despots.”

This was a theme that Bakunin was soon to expand upon in his Letters to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis, published in September 1870. Although many of the French Internationalists abandoned their anti-war stance, Bakunin argued that revolutionaries should seek to transform the war into a country wide insurrection that would then spread the social revolution across Europe. With the French state in virtual collapse, it was time for the “people armed” to seize the means of production and overthrow their oppressors, whether the French bourgeoisie or the German invaders.

bakunin letters to a frenchman

For the social revolution to succeed, Bakunin argued that it was essential that the peasants and workers band together, despite the mutual distrust between them. The peasants should be encouraged to “take the land and throw out those landlords who live by the labour of others,” and “to destroy, by direct action, every political, juridical, civil, and military institution,” establishing “anarchy through the whole countryside.” A social revolution in France, rejecting “all official organization” and “government centralization,” would lead to “the social emancipation of the proletariat” throughout Europe.

Shortly after completing his Letters, Bakunin tried to put his ideas into practice, travelling to Lyon, where he met up with some other Internationalists and revolutionaries. Bakunin and his associates issued a proclamation announcing the abolition of the “administrative and governmental machine of the State,” the replacement of the judicial apparatus by “the justice of the people,” the suspension of taxes and mortgages, with “the federated communes” to be funded by a levy on “the rich classes,” and ending with a call to arms. Bakunin and his confederates briefly took over City Hall, but eventually the National Guard recaptured it and Bakunin was arrested. He was freed by a small group of his associates and then made his way to Marseilles, eventually returning to Switzerland. A week after Bakunin left Marseilles, there was an attempt to establish a revolutionary commune there and, at the end of October, in Paris.

In Paris, the more radical Internationalists did not take an explicitly anarchist position, calling instead for the creation of a “Workers’ and Peasants’ Republic.” But this “republic” was to be none other than a “federation of socialist communes,” with “the land to go to the peasant who cultivates it, the mine to go to the miner who exploits it, the factory to go to the worker who makes it prosper,” a position very close to that of Bakunin and his associates.

paris_commune-popular-illustration

After the proclamation of the Paris Commune on March 18, 1871, the Parisian Internationalists played a prominent role. On March 23, 1871, they issued a wall poster declaring the “principle of authority” as “incapable of re-establishing order in the streets or of getting factory work going again.” For them, “this incapacity constitutes [authority’s] negation.” They were confident that the people of Paris would “remember that the principle that governs groups and associations is the same as that which should govern society,” namely the principle of free federation.

The Communes’ program, mostly written by Pierre Denis, a Proudhonist member of the International, called for the “permanent intervention of citizens in communal affairs” and elections with “permanent right of control and revocation,” as well as the “total autonomy of the Commune extended to every township in France,” with the “Commune’s autonomy to be restricted only by the right to an equal autonomy for all the other communes.” The Communards assured the people of France that the “political unity which Paris strives for is the voluntary union of all local initiative, the free and spontaneous cooperation of all individual energies towards a common goal: the well-being, freedom and security of all.” The Commune was to mark “the end of the old governmental and clerical world; of militarism, bureaucracy, exploitation, speculation, monopolies and privilege that have kept the proletariat in servitude and led the nation to disaster.”

For the federalist Internationalists, this did not mean state ownership of the economy, but collective or social ownership of the means of production, with the associated workers themselves running their own enterprises. As the Typographical Workers put it, the workers shall “abolish monopolies and employers through adoption of a system of workers’ co-operative associations. There will be no more exploiters and no more exploited.”

The social revolution was pushed forward by female Internationalists and radicals, such as Nathalie Lemel and Louise Michel. They belonged to the Association of Women for the Defence of Paris and Aid to the Wounded, which issued a declaration demanding “No more bosses. Work and security for all — The People to govern themselves — We want the Commune; we want to live in freedom or to die fighting for it!” They argued that the Commune should “consider all legitimate grievances of any section of the population without discrimination of sex, such discrimination having been made and enforced as a means of maintaining the privileges of the ruling classes.”

Nevertheless, the Internationalists were a minority within the Commune, and not even all of the Parisian Internationalists supported the socialist federalism espoused in varying degrees by Varlin, Pindy and the more militant Proudhonists. The federalist and anti-authoritarian Internationalists felt that the Commune represented “above all a social revolution,” not merely a change of rulers. They agreed with the Proudhonist journalist, A. Vermorel, that “there must not be a simple substitution of workers in the places occupied previously by bourgeois… The entire governmental structure must be overthrown.”

The Commune was savagely repressed by French state forces, with the connivance of the Prussians, leading to wholesale massacres that claimed the lives of some 30,000 Parisians, including leading Internationalists like Varlin, and the imprisonment and deportation of many others, such as Nathalie Lemel and Louise Michel. A handful of Internationalists, including Pindy, went into hiding and eventually escaped to Switzerland.

Executed Communards

Executed Communards

For Bakunin, what made the Commune important was “not really the weak experiments which it had the power and time to make,” but “the ideas it has set in motion, the living light it has cast on the true nature and goal of revolution, the hopes it has raised, and the powerful stir it has produced among the popular masses everywhere, and especially in Italy, where the popular awakening dates from that insurrection, whose main feature was the revolt of the Commune and the workers’ associations against the State.” Bakunin’s defence of the Commune against the attacks of the veteran Italian revolutionary patriot, Guiseppe Mazzini, played an important role in the “popular awakening” in Italy, and the rapid spread of the International there, from which the Italian anarchist movement sprang.

The defeat of the Paris Commune led Marx and Engels to draw much different conclusions. For them, what the defeat demonstrated was the necessity for working class political parties whose purpose would be the “conquest of political power.” They rammed through the adoption of their position at the September 1871 London Conference of the International, and took further steps to force out of the International any groups with anarchist leanings, which by this time included almost all of the Italians and Spaniards, the Jura Federation, many of the Belgians and a significant proportion of the surviving French members of the International.

In response, the Jura Federation organized a congress in Sonvillier, Switzerland, in November 1871. Prominent Communards and other French refugees also attended. They issued a Circular to the other members of the International denouncing the General Council’s actions, taking the position that the International, “as the embryo of the human society of the future, is required in the here and now to faithfully mirror our principles of freedom and federation and shun any principle leaning towards authority and dictatorship,” which was much the same position as had been endorsed by a majority of the delegates to the 1869 Basel Congress.

The Belgian, Italian and Spanish Internationalists supported the Jura Federation’s position, with the Italian and Spanish Internationalists adopting explicitly anarchist positions. Even before the London Conference, the Spanish Internationalists had declared themselves in favour of “collective property, anarchy and economic federation,” by which they meant “the free universal federation of free agricultural and industrial workers’ associations.” The Italian Internationalists rejected participation in existing political systems and in August 1872 called on the federalist and anti-authoritarian sections of the International to boycott the upcoming Hague Congress and to hold a congress of their own. Marx and Engels manipulated the composition of the Hague Congress to ensure a majority that would affirm the London Conference resolution on political action, expel Bakunin and his associate, James Guillaume of the Jura Federation, from the International, and transfer the General Council to New York to prevent the anti-authoritarians from challenging their control.

hague congress

Barely a week after the Hague Congress in September 1872, the anti-authoritarians held their own congress in St. Imier where they reconstituted the International along federalist lines. The St. Imier Congress was attended by delegates from Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland and Russia. For them, “the aspirations of the proletariat [could] 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 London Conference’s resolution on its head, they declared that “the destruction of all political power is the first duty of the proletariat.”

They regarded “the strike as a precious weapon in the struggle” for the liberation of the workers, 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 were ratified by the Italian, Spanish, Jura, Belgian and, ironically, the American federations of the International, with most of the French sections also approving them. The St. Imier Congress marks the true emergence of a European anarchist movement, with the Italian, Spanish and Jura Federations of the International following anarchist programs. While there were anarchist elements within the Belgian Federation, by 1874, under the influence of De Paepe, the Belgians had come out in favour of a “public administrative state” that the anarchist federations in the anti-authoritarian International opposed. The French Internationalists contained a prominent anarchist contingent, but it was not until 1881 that a distinctively anarchist movement arose there.

In his memoirs, Kropotkin wrote that if the Europe of the late 1870s “did not experience an incomparably more bitter reaction than it did” after the Franco-Prussian War and the fall of the Paris Commune, “Europe owes it… to the fact that the insurrectionary spirit of the International maintained itself fully intact in Spain, in Italy, in Belgium, in the Jura, and even in France itself.” One can say, with equal justification, that anarchism itself, as a revolutionary movement, owes its existence to that same revolutionary spirit of the International from which it was born in the working class struggles in Europe during the 1860s and early 1870s. It was from those struggles, and the struggles within the International itself regarding how best to conduct them, that a self-proclaimed anarchist movement emerged.

Robert Graham

Malatesta quote 2

 

George and Louise Crowley: ‘Chaos” – or Else

Vietnam War Protest

Vietnam War Protest

Below, I set forth excerpts from an article by George and Louise Crowley, “‘Chaos’ – or Else,” originally published in the Seattle Group Bulletin, a mimeographed broadsheet published in Seattle from 1965 to 1971. The Seattle Group Bulletin was broadly anarchist in orientation, and contained articles on anarchism, women’s liberation, the Vietnam War and many other topics. The Bulletins are now available online here. They are a great example of the renaissance of anarchist ideas and practice in the 1960s, a portion of which I tried to document in Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. George and Louise Crowley had been active in the U.S. Communist Party in the 1930s, but left the party because, according to Louise, they had “too much of a sense of humor.” Louise was a committed feminist who helped start some of the “second wave” feminist groups in Seattle in the 1960s, publishing the feminist Lilith magazine. This article, published in 1966, is reminiscent of George Woodcock’s earlier broadside, Anarchy or Chaos, with both Woodcock and the Crowleys arguing that the only real alternative to the insanity of modern warfare, capitalism, sexism, racism and the state is a positive form of anarchy.

Seattle group

“CHAOS” – OR ELSE

Recently a desperate and exasperated citizen asked through the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s “Personals” column: “In the name of God what can be done to end the senseless sacrifice of human lives in Vietnam”. That paper refused to accept our ad toward a constructive answer.

Two days later, a Sunday, a young man jumped to his death from the Freeway bridge. The note he left behind stated that he no longer wanted to be a part of the life into which he had been born.

Monday the United States resumed indiscriminate bombardment of the cities and people of North Vietnam.

There is a common denominator that bonds these events. It is frustration – a deep, demoralizing sense of futility which springs from our power-mad executive’s forward divergence from that steam of tolerance and humanism now in explosive upsurge around the world.

Quickly let us review the facts. The Kennedy administration built an enormous body of good will by backing away from the mess it inherited in Cuba. That administration’s apparent efforts to disengage the Cold War and withdraw from brinkmanship created a great resource of hope and popular favor which it bequeathed to LBJ and his government.

The Johnson campaign was based on what to millions of Americans sounded like a firm promise to make war on poverty instead of on people. In his maiden address to the UN, Johnson, with true insight, equated imperial adventurism with the rampant domestic exploitation that preceded the disaster of 1929. His promise to promote a world New Deal was taken at face value by millions both at home and abroad.

The current government (both the administration and its loyal opposition) have wantonly betrayed that mandate. No action great or small, real or imagined, can alter or justify that fact.

Thus have we arrived at this momentous hour of personal decision. We cast our ballots in overwhelming mandate and were repudiated. We protested to proper channels by millions and were ignored. We demonstrated in the streets by thousands and have been scornfully denounced although counter demonstrations couldn’t raise a corporal’s guard.

Hundreds of young men, faced with the insufferable demand that they join in the monstrous genocide of a weak and inoffensive people far, even, from the traditional spheres of Yankee dominance, have laid their futures on the line and said NO! and have been persecuted therefore.

Several persons, despairing completely of impressing a callous government by any means within the American tradition of petition and protest, have by demonstration in deeds given up their lives in horrible immolation like the Buddhists of Vietnam. The administration has mocked and ridiculed their sacrifice. Where can you go beyond this point!

Historically the area beyond, the transition to tyranny, was left to the revolutionary solution. Time was when this sufficed, but revolution (or the threat of revolution) in the classic sense is no longer a functional deterrent to tyrannical contempt for public will. The evolution of scientific police technology renders next to impossible the success of a revolution of other than coup d’etat nature in any advanced country…

Historically the stricken citizen could draw solace from a certainty that his tyrant would in time raise a community of opposition as his ambitions clashed with other sovereign states, and that an alliance would be raised to abate the horror. The coalition against the Third German Reich was the last such example we have. Reasoned hindsight suggests serious reservations as to whether the awful price of that war had any valid compensation to humanity.

But all such considerations became moot in the holocaust that was Nagasaki and Hiroshima. With the advent of the nuclear age the question of war and peace ceased to be a matter of game probabilities; “victory” and “defeat” now have the same meaning: the end of the world. Indeed, the last US and USSR “tests” came closer to this gruesome finality than any disciple of authority and force is prepared to concede.

The matter does not end here. Advanced weapons systems are so failproof, so intricately interlocked, so linked to the response of the opposite or “enemy” equivalent, that the slightest mishap could unleash a fatal chain reaction irreversible by any human act. Life on earth remains an accident away from extinction until the overkill mechanism that is the insane glory of our power structure has been dismantled.

Just as the reign of the despotic state was traditionally transitory, so was the capacity of any state limited in its control over its subjects. The state could kill the individual against his will; but any other action, even imprisonment, entailed a degree of acquiescence on the part of the victim. Such acquiescence is always conditional and to a large degree temporary. Therefore, to the extent that the tyrant eliminated the will of the populace, to relax his vigilance was to risk destruction.

Further, to the degree that the state used death to quiet opposition or to cow its populace, it cheapened life value and thereby raised the readiness to rebel…

Because such oppressions were transitory and because they effected no permanent modification of his nature, man was able to adopt several rationalizations to make them tolerable. The nihilist could completely surrender his control over an environment to which he ascribed no reality, and could still rationalize a freedom of thoughts. This becomes untenable now in the face of the burgeoning array of pharmaceutic modifiers of the central nervous system. The stoic, accepting all events including death as governed by divine law, could do as he would with calm assurance that thus did he fulfill his destiny. This rationalization now comes to naught with the development of clinical modification of will. The theist and revolutionary alike could bear up with grim fortitude, each confident of his own forthcoming day of reckoning. Today this line of thinking offers no comfort in the face of imminent prescribed genetic modification, and the threat of a premature Armageddon.

Thus the crisis is joined not in the 21st century, not tomorrow, but here and now. Each must ask, and answer, in all seriousness.

Could any conceivable chaos be more awesome or deadly that that first, and last, globe-encircling flash of nuclear incineration? Could any “setback” to human progress be comparable to the finality of extinction?

Could any degree of “security” be an equitable or reasonable exchange for surrender of man’s free will?

We must end this war. We must dry up its sources of compliant manpower. We must cut its channels of supply. We must halt production of the goods that sustain it. And whatever bald and imaginative new means must be taken to achieve this, those means we must take. Johnson, MacNamara, Rusk and Company must be left alone to fight, without a shred of civilized support, this war that they alone want and that their decisions alone are perpetuating.

Since our government has ceased to be responsive to lawful and traditional expressions of the public will, it is futile and self-deluding to continue to limit our resistance to forms appropriate to a democracy but which the willful obstinacy of the Johnson administration has rendered ineffective.

Each of us must live, and die, with himself. Ultimately, it is to our own consciences alone that we must answer, to ourselves that we must be true. If today in the United States to live in accord with one’s principles has become treason for all thoughtful and informed people of good will, then with full consciousness we must make the most of it, for there is no other honorable course. The present administration came to power by murder, and holds power by lies. We owe it no allegiance. We do owe, to ourselves and our otherwise doomed posterity, whatever endeavor may be needed to restore our country to humane and responsible citizenship among the nations of the world. Only deceit and despotism enjoin the young men of America to become hateful predators in an Asian jungle, to be killed from ambush like other beasts, in a dishonorable cause. Only ignorance, servility, or malice could accede to such debasement. The extent to which we resist is the measure of our humanity, not to be compassed by conformism nor limited by law.

Each of us must do these things, and more, now. No longer can we delude ourselves with faith in the gradual processes of education and organization, slow at best and now invalidated by the impact of controlled mass media and the abrogation of constitutional safeguards. No longer can we depend on the organizations of labor, corrupted now by a share of the profits of war; nor do we have time to build new ones, even if the workers were at all inclined to accept them. And they are not; for war, after all, sustains the present high rate of employment. It is in the collapse of such hopes, traditional, familiar, and warmed by human comradeship, that the present frustration has its roots. Yet to succumb to despair is equally fruitless; and moreover, beyond this crisis, if we but survive it, an infinitely better life awaits us. Let us then assert the resiliency of the human spirit. If an era has passed, let us not futilely seek to recall it nor nostalgically mourn its passing, nor burden ourselves with its now useless baggage.

To protest this war, to refrain from all direct or supportive participation in it, to obstruct its continuance by all possible means – these are necessary but no longer enough.

Conventional forms of resistance to despotism, up to and including revolution, have been wrestled with the manifestations of force. Against force, they have posed counterforces, without seriously attacking the premises of authority as such. Where the basic premises have been shaken, they have been shaken only incidentally and new power has promptly entered the breach. Thus successful revolutions have but brought to power new governments, lacking only time to themselves become despotic. In the interval the populace could enjoy a welcome respite from oppression, and be gratified that much of benefit had been accomplished by overturn of the old regime.

For many millennia, acceptance of authority provided a functional method of harnessing human activity on behalf of an evolutionary direction counter to nature’s line of least resistance. Societies that took other paths developed no adequate defenses against the incursions of authority-organized expansionist peoples, and had little or no opportunity to contribute their values to the line of societal evolution that has now culminated in overkill force. Authority is so prevalent as to seem eternal and universal; shaped as we are by our authority-oriented culture, most of us imagine the dominance of man over man to be rooted in immutable natural law, or at least to be the only viable instrument for civilization. The organs of authority have of course found it advantageous to perpetuate this view, and suppress, denigrate, and smother any questioning of its validity and any exploration of alternatives. Even revolution has been kept within its bounds.

In this new era, resistance so limited is bound to fail. The administration’s intransigence over Vietnam is but the focal point of a multifarious campaign by which all organs of authority seek now to solidify their power against the imminent obsolescence of the props that have hitherto sustained it. The last vestiges of supernaturalism are condemned by the current scientific revolution, and in the normal course of events other forms of unreason could not long survive their loss. Economic scarcity, the whiphand of power, becomes untenable with development of cybernated productive complexes virtually unlimited in their capacity. At this juncture the war in Vietnam provides the domestic “affluence” needed to maintain stability while unshakable new props for a totally ordered society are being shifted into place.

Between the Scylla that would destroy the planet and the Charybdis that would negate our humanity there is no safe passage. The current crisis is thus a dilemma irresolvable within the framework of an authority-motivated and force-implemented society. Our efforts must now be directed toward shattering the basic premises upon which authority rests. We must expose the myth of its indispensability; we must discredit its claim to social worth; we must strip off its false cloak of natural law and proclaim its nakedness for all to see. We must dispel fear of the void by making manifest the outlines of the new anarchic society…

George and Louise Crowley

[Seattle Group Bulletin #14 from Seattle 1966 Spring; Bulletins 9 thru 17 of the Seattle Group, published Seattle, Washington. Transcription by Dotty DeCoster, October 31, 2011.]

Seattle feminists' Lilith magazine

Seattle feminists’ Lilith magazine

Ron Sakolsky: Mutual Acquiescence or Mutual Aid

breaking_loose

Ron Sakolsky has a new book out: Breaking Loose: Mutual Acquiescence or Mutual Aid? He will be talking about the book at Spartacus Books in Vancouver, Canada, on November 30, 2015, starting at 7 PM (3378 Findlay Street). Ron edits and publishes the Oystercatcher, and has written several books relating to anarchism and surrealism: Creating Anarchy (Fifth Estate,2005), Swift Winds (Eberhardt, 2009), and Scratching The Tiger’s Belly (Eberhardt, 2012). Here I present some excerpts from the Preface to Breaking Loose (the article which gave rise to the book can be found here). In Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian IdeasI included pieces on anarchism and surrealism by Andre Breton and the French surrealists.

Mutual Acquiescence or Mutual Aid

Ron Sakolksy

Ron Sakolksy

The story of this book starts with the coining of the term “mutual acquiescence.” It first appeared as part of a single sentence in a 2006 thought piece that I wrote for Green Anarchy magazine under the title of “Why Misery Loves Company” in which I stated: “What I call mutual acquiescence is the polar opposite of the anarchist concept of mutual aid in that it paralyzes revolt rather than facilitating it”…

To be clear from the start, I did not create the term mutual acquiescence as part of a doom and gloom scenario of despair in which misery rules our lives, but as a way of understanding why and how people become immersed in the dead end of believing that misery is the only reality. The latter “realistic” state of mind is what surrealists call miserabilism. I see the relevance of the concept of mutual acquiescence here as bringing the historical connection between surrealism and anarchy into the present moment. For my part, the operative idea was that if we could understand the contemporary phenomenon of mutual acquiescence, we could begin to figure out how to transform its socially ingrained relationships of subservience into vibrant ones of mutual aid. I had no illusions that accomplishing such a task would be an easy one in practice, but assumed that the crossroads of mutual acquiescence and mutual aid would offer us a place to start in that journey toward anarchy…

However, I did not want the title to inadvertently lead to the depressing conclusion that mutual acquiescence made the realization of anarchy impossible. Instead, it needed a dynamic title that would make it clear that in order for the flowing waters of mutual aid to run freely, the dam of mutual acquiescence must be destroyed. Rather than simply blaming all of our woes on the state or capitalism, we can begin the processes of individual and social transformation by understanding the toxic nature of the everyday social relationships that prevent us from breaking loose.
If there is any subtext to this book, written in between the lines is the idea that we all hold a piece of the puzzle called anarchy. In so saying, I do not mean to oversimplify the profoundly complex differences between anarchist ideas from individualist to communitarian ones and from those which prize negation to those that emphasize affirmation. Rather, it is my contention that we need to recognize anarchy as a mosaic rich with diversity and not let any of the internal theoretical contradictions therein make us forget what we have in common. Together in mutual aid and as individuals in revolt, we can take back our lives. We can break loose from the dead weight of mutual acquiescence and set sail for the beckoning shores of anarchy.

Ron Sakolsky

ron creating_anarchy2013_xvi8-wc

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 543 other followers