A documentary with English subtitles on Spanish anarchism and the Spanish Revolution. This time you can click on the play button to watch the film. Viva la anarquia!
A documentary with English subtitles on Spanish anarchism and the Spanish Revolution. This time you can click on the play button to watch the film. Viva la anarquia!
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?
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Unpublished archival sources recently discovered in Moscow reveal that Kropotkin was fascinated by this family tie and the striking physical similarity between himself and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”!
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.
Continuing with my installments from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in this section I discuss the contributions of Herbert Read to the development of anarchist ideas in response to the Spanish Revolution and Civil War. I included several selections from Read in Volumes One and Two of the Anarchism anthology. Read influenced people like Alex Comfort, Howard Zinn and Murray Bookchin, laying the groundwork for the new directions in anarchist theory that were to emerge from out of the aftermath of the Second World War.
Poetry and Anarchism
One of the anarchists involved in rethinking anarchism around the time of the Spanish Revolution and Civil War was the English poet, art critic and essayist, Herbert Read (1893-1968). In Poetry and Anarchism (1938), Read acknowledged that “to declare for a doctrine so remote as anarchism at this stage of history will be regarded by some critics as a sign of intellectual bankruptcy; by others as a sort of treason, a desertion of the democratic front at the most acute moment of its crisis; by still others as mere poetic nonsense.” Read sought to “balance anarchism with surrealism, reason with romanticism, the understanding with the imagination, function with freedom” (Volume One, Selection 130). He developed an ecological conception of anarchism emphasizing spontaneity and differentiation. He saw society as “an organic being” in which communities “can live naturally and freely” and individuals can “develop in consciousness of strength, vitality and joy,” with progress being “measured by the degree of differentiation within a society” (Volume Two, Selection 1). It was partly through Read’s writings that Murray Bookchin was later inspired to draw the connections between ecology and anarchism (Volume Two, Selection 48).
Read noted that even “if you abolish all other classes and distinctions and retain a bureaucracy you are still far from the classless society, for the bureaucracy is itself the nucleus of a class whose interests are totally opposed to the people it supposedly serves.” Taking advantage of the bureaucratic structure of the modern state, the professional politician rises to power, “his motive throughout [being] personal ambition and megalomania” (Volume One, Selection 130), a notion further developed by Alex Comfort in his post-war book, Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State, in which he argued that the bureaucratic state, through its power structures, provides a ready outlet for those with psychopathic tendencies (Volume Two, Selection 26).
Read sought to reverse the rise to power of professional politicians and bureaucrats by advocating a “return to a functional basis of representation,” by which he meant the development of decentralized but federated organs of self-management, as had long been advocated by anarchists from Proudhon and Bakunin to the anarcho-syndicalists. The professional politician would be replaced by the “ad hoc delegate,” who would continue to work within his or her area, such that there would be “no whole-time officials, no bureaucrats, no politicians, no dictators” (Volume One, Selection 130).
Arguing that “real politics are local politics,” Read proposed that local councils or “governments” composed of delegates from the community and the functional groups that comprise it “control all the immediate interests of the citizen,” with “remoter interests—questions of cooperation, intercommunication, and foreign affairs—[being] settled by councils of delegates elected by the local councils and the [workers’] syndicates.” Read admitted that this was a system of government, but distinguished this conception of local and functional organization from the “autonomous State,” which “is divorced from its immediate functions and becomes an entity claiming to control the lives and destinies of its subjects,” such that “liberty ceases to exist” (Volume One, Selection 130).
In this section from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss anarchist influences in the Korean national liberation movement prior to the Korean War.
Anarchism in the Korean Liberation Movement
Japan annexed Korea in 1910, around the same time that Japanese authorities had made their first attempt to destroy the nascent Japanese anarchist movement by executing several leading anarchists, including Kôtoku Shûsui (Volume One, Selection 102). The Japanese occupation of Korea gave rise to a national liberation movement to free the Korean people from Japanese exploitation and domination. Some of the more radical elements in the liberation movement gravitated toward anarchism.
In 1923, a prominent member of the movement, Shin Chaeho (1880-1936), published his “Declaration of the Korean Revolution” in which he argued that when driving out their Japanese exploiters, the Korean people must be careful not to “replace one privileged group with another.” The goal of the Korean revolution should be the creation of a world in which “one human being will not be able to oppress other human beings and one society will not be able to exploit other societies.” The revolution must therefore be a “revolution of the masses.” To succeed in constructing a free society, the revolution must destroy foreign rule, the “privileged class” that benefits from it, the “system of economic exploitation,” “social inequality” and “servile cultural thoughts” created by conformist forms of “religion, ethics, literature, fine arts, customs and public morals” (Volume One, Selection 105).
In emphasizing the constructive role of destruction, Shin Chaeho was expressing a viewpoint shared by many anarchists that can be traced back to Proudhon and Bakunin (Volume One, Selection 10). He also recognized that to win the masses over to the cause of the revolution, they must be convinced that the revolution will result in material improvements and greater freedom for themselves, not simply the expulsion of their foreign rulers. As Kropotkin put it, for “the revolution to be anything more than a word… the conquest of the day itself must be worth the trouble of defending; the poor of yesterday must not find themselves even poorer today” (Volume One, Selection 45).
This was one of the reasons why Kropotkin had entitled his most sustained argument in favour of anarchist communism The Conquest of Bread (Volume One, Selection 33). When Korean anarchists began publishing their own paper in 1928, they called it Talhwan, or Conquest, and championed anarchist communism, calling for the abolition of capitalism and government (Volume One, Selection 108). They also rejected the Marxist “state capitalism” that was being created in the Soviet Union through the “despotic and dictatorial” policies of the Soviet Communist Party (the Bolsheviks).
Korean anarchists, including Shin Chaeho, were instrumental in forming the Eastern Anarchist Federation in 1927, which had members from Korea, China, Vietnam, Taiwan and Japan. Most of their work and publications had to be carried out from exile, and even then at great risk to themselves. Shin Chaeho was arrested by Japanese authorities in Taiwan in 1928 and died in prison in 1936. However, after the defeat of Japan in the Second World War, it was only in Korea that a significant anarchist movement reemerged in southeast Asia.
In China, the Marxist Communists under the leadership of Mao Zedong had seized control by 1949. They no more tolerated an independent anarchist movement than had the Communists in the Soviet Union. In Japan, the U.S. occupiers engineered the purging of radicals, whether Marxist or anarchist, from positions of influence within the trade union movement, and the reform of rural landholdings, creating “a new class of landowning small farmers” who “then became a bastion of political conservatism” hostile rather than sympathetic toward anarchism (Crump, 1996).
During the war, some Korean anarchists participated in the Korean Provisional Government in exile. Their desire for Korean independence superseded their commitment to anarchist ideals. Before the war, the Korean Anarchist Federation had rejected the establishment of a “national united front” (Volume One, Selection 108). After the war, Yu Lim, who had served as a cabinet minister in the Provisional Government, urged the anarchists to support an independent Korean government to prevent Korea from falling “into the hands of either the Stalinists to the north or the imperialistic compradore-capitalists to the south” (Volume Two, Selection 9).
Other Korean anarchists, while seeking “to cooperate with all genuinely revolutionary nationalist groups of the left,” continued to call for “total liberation” through the “free federation of autonomous units covering the whole country” (Volume Two, Selection 9). At the conclusion of the war in 1945, grass roots committees for the reconstruction of Korea sprang up across the country, and peasants and workers began forming independent unions. However, this process of social reconstruction “from the bottom upward” came to a halt after the Soviet Union and the United States imposed their own “national” governments in the north and south in 1948, leading to the divisive and inconclusive Korean War (1950-1953).
Continuing with my installments from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, here I discuss anarchism in Japan prior to the Second World War. I included several selections from pre-War Japanese anarchists in Volume One of the Anarchism anthology, and in Volume Three, I included an update on Japanese anarchism since the 1960s.
Class Struggle and ‘Pure’ Anarchism in Japan
In contrast to the decline of the Chinese anarchist movement in the 1920s, according to John Crump, “the anarchists in Japan were organisationally stronger than ever before, and there was a corresponding flowering of ideas and theories, particularly among the anarchist communists” (Crump, 1996). The anarchist communists identified themselves as “pure anarchists.” They criticized the anarcho-syndicalist concept of workers’ control of the existing means of production. As Hatta Shûzô (1886-1934) put it, “in a society which is based on the division of labour, those engaged in vital production… would have more power over the machinery of coordination than those engaged in other lines of production.”
The Japanese “pure anarchists” therefore proposed a decentralized system of communal production “performed autonomously on a human scale,” where “production springs from consumption,” being designed to meet local and individual wants and needs, in contrast to existing systems of production, where consumption is driven by the demands of production. Under such a system of decentralized human scale production, people “can coordinate the work process themselves,” such that there is no need for a “superior body and there is no place for power” (Volume One, Selection 106).
Japanese anarcho-syndicalist advocates of class struggle agreed that the existing authoritarian system of production should be replaced by “communal property… where there is neither exploiter nor exploited, neither master nor slave,” with society being “revived with spontaneity and mutual free agreement as an integral whole” (Volume One, Selection 107). However, in order to create such a society a profound revolutionary transformation was required. The anarcho-syndicalists argued that it was only by participating in the workers’ daily struggles against the capitalist system that anarchists would be able to inspire a revolutionary movement capable of creating the anarchist community to which the “pure anarchists” aspired.
Contrary to the claims of the “class struggle” anarcho-syndicalists though, the “pure anarchists” did not hold themselves aloof from the workers’ struggles but convinced the anarchist Zenkoku Jiren labour federation to adopt a “pure anarchist” position which emphasized that their goal was not to take over the existing means of production, replacing the capitalists and the government with a trade union administration, but to create a decentralized system of communal production based on human-scale technology, a position similar to that developed by Murray Bookchin in the 1960s (Volume Two, Selections 48, 62 & 74).
The Zenkoku Jiren reached out to Japanese tenant farmers, seeing them “as the crucial social force which could bring about the commune-based, alternative society to capitalism” advocated by the “pure anarchists” (Crump, 1996). The appeal of this vision to radical Japanese workers and farmers is illustrated by the fact that by 1931, the Zenkoku Jiren had about 16,000 members, whereas the more conventional anarcho-syndicalist federation, the Jikyô, had only 3,000.
In the early 1930s, as the Japanese state began a concerted push for imperialist expansion by invading Manchuria, the state authorities renewed their campaign against the Japanese anarchist movement, which was staunchly anti-imperialist. In the face of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, the Japanese Libertarian Federation had called on all people to “cease military production, refuse military service and disobey the officers” (Volume One, Selection 110). Anarchist organizations were banned and hundreds of anarchists arrested. By 1936, the organized anarchist movement in Japan had been crushed.