Gerrard Winstanley on Power – Real and Imagined

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iain McKay on the Spanish Revolution

I am a few weeks late for marking the anniversary of the Spanish Revolution, but here is a recent piece on that topic by Iain McKay. I included a chapter on Spanish anarchism and the Spanish Revolution in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

Anti-Fascist and Anti-Capitalist

The Spanish Civil War is usually considered as a forerunner of the Second World War – a struggle between the Spanish Republic and Franco’s fascist forces. This is not quite the case for the Spanish Labour movement [which], thanks to the influence of anarchists, was the most revolutionary one in the world. The CNT, a mass anarcho-syndicalist union, rightly saw the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s as a product of capitalism’s fear of revolution.

To fight fascism effectively meant to fight the system that spawned it. Hence the CNT National Committee on 14 February 1936:

“We are not the defenders of the Republic, but we fight against fascism relentlessly, we will contribute all of the forces that we have to rout the historical executioners of the Spanish proletariat [… to] ensure that the defensive contribution of the masses leads in the direction of real social revolution, under the auspices of libertarian communism…”

“Either fascism or social revolution. Defeating the former is the duty of the whole proletariat and all those who love freedom, weapons in hand; that the revolution be social and libertarian must be the deepest concern of Confederates.”

In short, the CNT was not fighting fascism to maintain an exploitative and oppressive system in which a nominally democratic government protects an economic system mired in years of depression. It was fighting fascism for a better society – and it was this fear which had driven ruling classes across Europe to embrace fascism to protect themselves.

Spanish Revolution Timeline

These were the ideas which were commonplace in working class circles in many parts of Spain in 1936. Yet, as Noam Chomsky noted, the social revolution of 1936 dates back decades and starts in 1868 with the formation of the Spanish section of the International Workers’ Association. State repression soon saw this smashed but it was replaced by other union federations which suffered the same fate.

Then, in 1911 the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) was founded – and was quickly banned. Legalised again, it surged in membership as workers in Spain (as elsewhere) were radicalised by the First World War and the Russian Revolution. 1919 saw the CNT declare at its national congress that its objective was libertarian communism. It was soon banned by the quasi-fascist Primo de Rivera regime. While the CNT was banned in the 1920s, in 1927 the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI) – a specially anarchist federation – was founded.

In 1931 the Second Republic was created. The CNT re-organises and leads countless strikes and revolts – all faced repression by the liberal republic. Two years later, in 1933, a right-wing government was elected and, again, numerous libertarian revolts were crushed and the CNT repressed. In 1934 an insurrection in Asturias and Catalonia called by the UGT-run Workers Alliance is crushed. 1936 is the year of civil war and revolution as 19th February sees the Popular Front elected. The CNT starts to re-organise. On 17th July the Army revolts against the Republic, starting in Morocco but soon spreads across Spain. The government is paralysed – the workers’ organisations, with the CNT and FAI at their head, respond and draw upon their years of experience in the class struggle to resist the army.

I cannot cover all the popular resistance and so will concentrate on what happened on the 19th of July in Barcelona. The troops started to leave their barracks around 5am, with the officers claiming to be defending the republic against (yet another) anarchist uprising. The CNT declares a general strike and factory sirens called the masses onto the streets. Libertarians seize weapons wherever they could and barricades are built — some assault and civil guards join the resistance. Fighting takes place all day and into the next. The Army revolt is finally ended with the storming of the final rebel barracks (the Andreu barracks).

All this, I must stress, was no spontaneous response. It was prepared and organised by libertarian “committees of defence” in Barcelona’s working-class neighbourhoods as well as by CNT unions – not to mention years of strikes, rent strikes, street fighting, etc. However, while the fighting was organised the subsequent Revolution was spontaneous – it was created by militants who had taken Kropotkin’s call to “act for yourselves” seriously.

The Revolution Begins

Where the army had been defeated, the people took the opportunity to transform society into one worthy of human beings. Anarchist militant Enriqueta Rovira paints a vivid picture:

“The atmosphere then, the feelings were very special. It was beautiful. A feeling of – how shall I say it – of power, not in the sense of domination, but in the sense of things being under our control, if under anyone’s. Of possibility. We had everything. We had Barcelona: It was ours. You’d walk out in the streets, and they were ours – here, CNT; there, comite this or that. It was totally different. Full of possibility. A feeling that we could, together, really do something. That we could make things different.”

The workers did not go back to being wage-slaves but expropriated their workplaces. The days and weeks following the 19th of July saw the collectivisation of industry and the land. About eight million people directly or indirectly participated, with over 60% of the land collectively cultivated by the peasants without landlords while in Catalonia almost all the industries run by workers and their committees, without capitalists, well-paid managers or the state. Every branch of industry was taken over and run by their workers – factories, mills, workshops, transportation, public services, health care, utilities, even football teams. As visitor Emma Goldman recounted:

“I was especially impressed with the replies to my questions as to what actually had the workers gained by the collectivisation [. . .] the answer always was, first, greater freedom. And only secondly, more wages and less time of work. In two years in Russia I never heard any workers express this idea of greater freedom.”

The Spanish Revolution created a socialism which was based on workers’ control rather than, as in the Russian Revolution, controlled workers. The new collectives were structured like the CNT and its strikes and so based on, as historian Martha A. Ackelsberg put it, “general assemblies of workers [which] decided policy, while elected committees managed affairs on a day-to-day basis”. The collectives showed that capitalists were not needed for investment and innovation either, for “they maintained, if not increased, agricultural production, often introducing new patterns of cultivation and fertilisation […] collectivists built chicken coups, barns, and other facilities for the care and feeding of the community’s animals. Federations of collectives co-ordinated the construction of roads, schools, bridges, canals and dams.”

While individual workplaces were taken over by their workers, federations were seen as a means to co-ordinate and socialise the economy. The CNT was well aware of the need “[t]o socialise an industry” as “partial collectivisation will in time degenerate into a kind of bourgeois co-operativism”. As anarchist theorists had predicted, the process of federation and socialisation took time and developed unevenly. However, as CNT militant Saturnino Carod reminds us:

“For it can never be forgotten that it was the working class and peasantry which, by demonstrating their ability to run industry and agriculture collectively, allowed the republic to continue the struggle for thirty-two months. It was they who created a war industry, who kept agricultural production increasing, who formed militias […] Without their creative endeavour, the republic could not have fought the war”.

Getting the economy running again was not the pressing task facing the members of the CNT. Franco had only been defeated across two-thirds of Spain and so the defence of the revolution predicted by anarchist thinkers had an even greater urgency. This led to the organisation of militias by the CNT and other unions and parties. However, the CNT’s armed forces were based on libertarian principles as militant Buenaventura Durruti summarised:

“I don’t believe—and everything happening around us confirms this— that you can run a workers’ militia according to classical military rules. I believe that discipline, coordination, and planning are indispensable, but we shouldn’t define them in the terms of the world that we’re destroying. We have to build on new foundations.”

It should be noted that only the CNT militias were democratic, those organised by Marxist parties like the POUM and PSUC were modelled on the [Soviet] Red Army.

As well as organising militias to free those under Army rule elsewhere in Spain, the workers of the CNT took the initiative in creating war industries by the conversion of existing industry to produce home-made armed vehicles, grenades, etc. However, it was not forgotten that a key measure to defend the revolution and defeat the forces of reaction was the interest and active participation of the many rather than power to a few. As Pilar Vivancos, a collective member, put it:

“It was marvellous to live in a collective, a free society where one could say what one thought, where if the village committee seemed unsatisfactory one could say. The committee took no big decisions without calling the whole village together in a general assembly. All this was wonderful.”

As well as transforming the economy, the social revolution also looked to transform all aspects of social life. Women activists of the CNT and FAI created the Mujeres Libres (Free Women) movement which was organised to fight against the “triple enslavement to ignorance, as women, and as producers” and recognised the interwoven nature of social oppressions and hierarchies:

We could not separate the women’s problem from the social problem, nor could we deny [its] significance […] by converting women into a simple instrument for any organisation, even our own libertarian organisation. The intention […] was much much broader: […] to empower women to make of them individuals capable of contributing to the structuring of the future society, individuals who have learned to be self-determining”

This was needed because, in spite of a theoretical awareness of the need for sexual equality, many male anarchists in Spain practiced manarchy in action. Thus patriarchy within the libertarian movement also had to be combated as Kyralina, a Mujeres Libres activist, argued:

“All those compañeros, however radical they may be in cafes, unions, and even affinity groups, seem to drop their costumes as lovers of female liberation at the doors of their homes. Inside, they behave with their compañeras just like common husbands.”

Another, Soledad, stressed that [i]t was essential that we work and struggle together, because otherwise, there would be no social revolution. But we needed our own organisation to fight for ourselves.” This was based, to use the words of Lucia Sanchez Saornil, empowerment (capacitación):

“It is not [the man] who is called upon to set out the roles and responsibilities of the woman in society, no matter how elevated he might consider them to be. No, the anarchist way is to allow the woman to act freely herself, without tutors or external pressures; that she may develop in the direction that her nature and her faculties dictate.”

With this perspective Mujeres Libres were active across Republican Spain and created alternatives which undercut patriarchy wherever it raised its ugly head – including in the CNT and FAI.

Thus a new world was created across Spain, one which transformed every aspect of life – from the economic to the personal. A world which George Orwell vividly recounted when he arrived in Barcelona in December 1936:

“The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing. […] It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists […] Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.”

An Incomplete Revolution

After 19th July, the members of the CNT started to build the beginnings of Anarchy. Workplaces and land expropriated and collectivised under workers control while union- and party-based militias were organised to defeat Franco’s forces.

Yet, was the State smashed and replaced by a federation of workers’ organisations as anarchism had long argued? No – the CNT in Barcelona decided to cooperate with other anti-fascist groups in a Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias. As they later recounted, the leadership of the CNT decided “not to speak about Libertarian Communism as long as part of Spain was in the hands of the fascists.” This eventually led to the CNT joining the Catalan and Spanish governments [where they] were quickly marginalised.

The question is: why? Was this anarchist theory or the situation facing anarchists? As anarchist theory was ignored, it must be the second.

For, lest we forget, immediately after the defeat of the Army in Barcelona the CNT was isolated – it had no idea what the situation was elsewhere, even elsewhere in Catalonia. Then there was the danger of fighting on two fronts if libertarian communism was declared as there was a distinct possibility of having to fight Franco and the Republican State in that case. Then there was the fear of wider foreign intervention against the revolution beyond the help Franco received from Germany and Italy. Finally, there was optimism in the membership who had just defeated the Army in Barcelona and so were willing to tolerate the remnants of the State for a short period while Franco was defeated – particularly as there was so much else to do like organise militias and an economy.

All these factors help explain the decision to ignore Anarchist theory rather than push for libertarian communism even if it does not justify it nor make it correct.

The Counter-Revolution

Ultimately, the decision of the CNT to avoid fighting on two fronts did not mean it did not happen. The remnants of the State and the capitalist class regrouped and pursued a counter-revolution. At its head was the Communist Party – and this party soon created a civil war within the civil war.

In Spain, it sided with the urban and rural petit-bourgeois and bourgeois to (finally) get a mass base and undermined the gains of the revolution while USSR shaped Government Policy by supplying weapons (and to get its claws on Spanish gold). The attack on the revolution reached its climax in the May Days of 1937 which began with a government attack on Barcelona’s collectivised telephone exchange. This saw CNT members raise barricades across the city while the Communist and State forces assassinated anarchist activists (including Italian anarchist and refugee from Mussolini, Camilo Berneri). Elsewhere, saw the destruction of the rural collectives by use of troops and tanks while falsely claiming the peasants were forced to join – at the same time praising Stalin’s collectivisation!

As well as using troops and tanks against peasants rather than Franco’s troops, the State denied resources and weapons to libertarian troops and collectives. George Orwell stated the obvious:

“A government which sends boys of fifteen to the front with rifles forty years old and keeps its biggest men and newest weapons in the rear is manifestly more afraid of the revolution than the fascists”

Finally, I should note the political repression and trials of radicals – starting with the dissident Marxists of the POUM as “Trotsky-Fascists” (although Trotsky had few, if any, kind words for the party). It was experiencing this at first hand which forced Orwell – a member of the POUM militia – to flee Spain.

Lessons of the Revolution

Yes, ultimately the revolution was defeated but it must be stressed that every political grouping failed – anarchists, socialists, Stalinists, the POUM and the handful of Trotskyists.

In areas were the socialist UGT was bigger than the CNT the revolution was correspondingly less. As anarchist Abel Paz notes “in Madrid, thanks to the Socialist Party, bourgeois structures were left intact and even fortified: a semi-dead state received a new lease on life and no dual power was created to neutralise it.” In terms of the Stalinists, they defeated the revolution, replaced the militias with an army, placated the bourgeoisie but Franco still won. So the Communist solution completely failed – the People Armed won the revolution, the People’s Army lost the war.

The Spainish labour movement clearly vindicated the anarchist critique of Marxism. While the anarchist influenced unions remained militant, the socialists soon became as reformist as Bakunin predicted:

“the workers […] will send common workers […] to […] Legislative Assemblies. […] The worker-deputies, transplanted into a bourgeois environment, into an atmosphere of purely bourgeois political ideas, will in fact cease to be workers and, becoming Statesmen, they will become bourgeois, and perhaps even more bourgeois than the Bourgeois themselves. For men do not make their situations; on the contrary, men are made by them”.

Indeed, it was the libertarian labour movement which was the innovative trend – so much so, many Marxists often point to the Spanish Revolution as an example of socialist revolution! As such, Engels was completely wrong when he proclaimed in the 1870s that “we may safely predict that the new departure will not come from these ‘anarchist’ spouters, but from the small body of intelligent and energetic workmen who, in 1872, remained true to the [Marxist dominated wing of the] International.”

The reasons are clear enough – as anarchists had long argued, organising and fighting on the economic plain radicalised those involved rather than producing the apathy and reformism associated with electioneering. Likewise, the anarchist critique involved all social hierarchies and oppressions which meant – to use the words of historian J. Romero Maura – that “the demands of the CNT went much further than those of any social democrat: with its emphasis on true equality, autogestion [self-management] and working class dignity, anarcho-syndicalism made demands the capitalist system could not possibly grant to the workers.”

It should also be noted that Anarchism itself had predicted the failure of the revolution. Kropotkin, for example, had repeatedly stressed that “a new form of economic organisation will necessarily require a new form of political structure” but the CNT refused to do this out of a desire to promote anti-fascist unity. However, in practice this cooperation within non-worker organisations did little to aid the revolution nor even the fight against fascism. As Kropotkin had suggested:

“what means can the State provide to abolish this monopoly that the working class could not find in its own strength and groups? […] Could its governmental machine, developed for the creation and upholding of these [class] privileges, now be used to abolish them? Would not the new function require new organs? And these new organs would they not have to be created by the workers themselves, in their unions, their federations, completely outside the State?”

The experience of 1936 reinforces this argument for Anarchists did not fully apply Anarchist ideas and disaster resulted. In short, as British anarchist Vernon Richards put it, the CNT-FAI “failed to put their theories to the test, adopting the tactics of the enemy”. Rather than, to use Bakunin’s words, creating “the federative Alliance of all working men’s associations “in order to “constitute the Commune” and so “the federation of insurgent associations” to “organise a revolutionary force capable of defeating reaction,” the CNT in Barcelona [joined the] Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias. Instead of [joining] this body it should have called a full plenum of CNT unions and neighbourhood defence committees with delegates invited from the [socialist] UGT and unorganised workplaces. Only this would have built the popular federations which could have successfully resisted Franco and defended the revolution.

The decision to work with other anti-fascist parties and unions was understandable but such co-operation had to be based on popular organisation from below. Anti-Fascism is not enough – the need remains to destroy the system which spawns it. As Scottish Anarchist Ethel McDonald put it:

“Fascism is not something new, some new force of evil opposed to society, but is only the old enemy, Capitalism, under a new and fearful sounding name [. . .] Anti-Fascism is the new slogan by which the working class is being betrayed.”

However, the most important lesson of the revolution is that libertarian socialism worked – but this is usually downplayed or ignored by “objective” historians. As Noam Chomsky argues, “there is more than enough evidence to show that a deep bias against social revolution and a commitment to the values and social order of liberal bourgeois democracy has led the author to misrepresent crucial events and to overlook major historical currents.” The revolution shows that products and services can be provided to workers, by workers without bosses and bureaucrats. It shows that there is a viable alternative to both privatisation and nationalisation in the form of socialisation and associationism.

This is why the Spanish Revolution should be remembered today. As Orwell put it, it was “a foretaste of Socialism […] the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism. Many of the normal motives of civilised life – snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc. – had simply ceased to exist […] no one owned anyone else as his master […] One had breathed the air of equality”. It shows that a genuine socialist alternative exists and works. As Durruti memorably put it at the Aragon Front:

“We have always lived in slums and holes in the wall. We will know how to accommodate ourselves for a time. For, you must not forget, we can also build. It is we the workers who built these palaces and cities here in Spain and in America and everywhere. We, the workers, can build others to take their place. And better ones! We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth; there is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world here, in our hearts. That world is growing this minute.”

These words, like the revolution that inspired them, should inspire all seekers of liberty today.

Conclusions

The experience of Spain in the 1930s shows that it is not enough to just oppose fascism for, after all, defending the status quo is hardly inspiring. This helps explain the often limited appeal of campaigns today against the far-right in which the critique of the social problems which the right blame on scapegoats is muted in the interest of widening the campaign. This portrays the left as being part of the problem rather than the solution by linking it with those who benefit from the system. As Chomsky noted long ago:

“Why should a liberal intellectual be so persuaded of the virtues of a political system of four-year dictatorship? The answer seems all too plain.”

It also shows that revolutions cannot be half-made. Even in the face of immanent threat of Franco’s troops, the so-called anti-fascist parties spent time and resources crushing the revolution and the CNT-FAI. It is hard to not draw the conclusion that the Republicans seemed to prefer fascism to anarchism. As such, attempts to limit the revolution were a fatal error by the CNT-FAI leadership.

However, we must not forget that Anarchists failed, not Anarchism. Unlike the Russian Revolution, which failed because Marxist theory was applied, in Spain the revolution failed because [anarchist] theory was not applied. Yet for all the errors and limitations, the social revolution of 1936 was Anarchy in Action and remains an inspiration for today – although, of course, one to be learned from rather than idolised.

Iain McKay

Insurgent Makhnovists: Down With Fratricide (1920)

Nestor Makhno and the Insurgent Army

In May – June 1920 the Makhnovist Insurgent Army in Ukraine was fighting the Czarist counter-revolutionaries and the Bolshevik Red Army, which was seeking to consolidate the burgeoning Bolshevik dictatorship. This is a manifesto issued by the Makhnovists, appealing to the Red Army soldiers to come over to the side of the anarchist social revolution.

Makhno, wife and comrades c. 1920

Down With Fratricide!

Brothers in the Red Army! The stooges of Nicholas kept you in the dark and ordered you to fratricidal war with the Japanese and then with the Germans and with many other peoples for the sake of increasing their own wealth; to your lot fell death at the front and complete ruin at home.

But the storm cloud and the fog, through which You could see nothing, lifted; the sun began to shine; You understood and were finished with fratricidal war. But it was the calm before a new storm. Now once again you are being sent to fight, against us, “insurgent Makhnovists,” in the name, supposedly, of a “worker-peasant” authority, which is once again dispensing chains and slavery to You and riches and joys to this horde of a million bureaucratic parasites, created with Your blood. Is it possible that in the course of three years of fratricidal war you have still to this day failed to understand this? Is it possible that even now You will shed your blood for the newly made bourgeoisie and for all the half-baked commissars who send You to war like cattle?

Is it possible that you still, to this day, have failed to understand that we, the “insurgent Makhnovists,” are fighting for total economic and political emancipation of the working people, for a free life without any of these authoritarian commissars, chekists, etc.?

Let day break in Your camp and show You the path which leads to the abolition of fratricidal wars between working peoples. By this path you will reach us and in our ranks you will continue to fight for a better future, for a free life. Before each encounter with us, in order to avoid shedding brotherly blood, send us a delegate for negotiations; but if this does not work and the commissars force You to fight after all, throw down the rifles and come to our brotherly embrace!

Down with fratricidal war among the working people!

Long live peace and the brotherly union of the working peoples of all countries and nationalities!

Insurgent Makhnovists

May 1920

Kropotkin: Against the State

Kropotkin Words of a Rebel Black Rose

This February marks the 99th anniversary of the death of Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921). Kropotkin’s funeral was the last anarchist mass demonstration of the Russian Revolution, which was coming to a close as the Bolsheviks consolidated their dictatorship. Today I reprint excerpts from Kropotkin’s article, “The Breakdown of the State,” which was included in his collection of essays, Words of a Rebel. This is from the George Woodcock translation published by Black Rose Books. Iain McKay is working on a new translation of Words of a Rebel, to be published by PM Press. Sadly, much of what Kropotkin wrote remains true today. The modern state remains in a condition of permanent crisis, which is then used to bolster its supports.

Kropotkin-Quote-In-existing-States-a-fresh-law-is-looked

The Breakdown of the State

Today the State takes upon itself to meddle in all the areas of our lives. From the cradle to the grave, it hugs us in its arms. Sometimes as the central government, sometimes as the provincial or cantonal government, and sometimes even as the communal or municipal government, it follows our every step, it appears at every turning of the road, it taxes, harasses and restrains us.

It legislates on all our actions. It accumulates mountains of laws and ordinances among which even the shrewdest of lawyers can no longer find his way. Every day it devises new cogwheels to be fitted into the worn out old engine, and it ends up having created a machine so complicated, so misbegotten and so obstructive that it repels even those who attempt to keep it going.

The State creates an army of employees like light-fingered spiders, who know the world only through the murky windows of their offices or through their documents written in absurd jargons; it is a black band with only one religion, that of money, only one care, that of attaching oneself to any party, black, purple, or white, so long as it guarantees a maximum of appointments with a minimum of work.

The results we know only too well. Is there a single branch of the State’s activity that does not arouse revolution in those unfortunate enough to have dealings with it? Is there a single direction in which the State, after centuries of existence and of patchy renovation, has not shown its complete incompetence?

The vast and ever growing sums of money which the States appropriate from the people are never sufficient. The State always exists at the expense of future generations; it accumulates debt and everywhere it approaches bankruptcy. The public debts of the European States have already reached the vast, almost incredible figure of more than five milliards, i.e. five hundred million francs! If all the receipts of the various States were employed to the last penny just to pay off these debts, it could hardly be done in fifteen years. But, far from diminishing, the debts grow from day to day, for it is in the nature of things that the needs of States are always in excess of their means. Inevitably the State seeks to extend its jurisdiction; every party in power is obliged to create new employment for its supporters. It is an irrevocable process.

Thus the deficits and public debts continue and will continue, always growing, even in times of peace. But as soon as a war begins, however small, the debts of the States increase at an alarming rate. There is no ending; it is impossible to find our way out of this labyrinth.

The States of the world are heading full steam for ruin and bankruptcy; and the day is not distant when the people, tired of paying four milliards of interest each year to the bankers, will declare the failure of State governments and send the bankers to dig the soil if they are hungry.

Say “State” and you say “war.” The State strives and must strive to be strong, and stronger than its neighbours; if it is not so, it will become a plaything in their hands. Of necessity it seeks to weaken and impoverish other States so that it can impose on them its laws, its policies, its commercial treaties, and grow rich at their expense. The struggle for preponderance, which is the basis of economic bourgeois organization, is also the basis of political organization. This is why war has now become the normal condition of Europe. Prusso-Danish, Prusso-Austrian, Franco-Prussian wars, war in the East, war in Afghanistan follow each other without a pause. New wars are in preparation; Russia, Prussia, England, Denmark, all are ready to unleash their armies. And at any moment they will be at each other’s throats. There are enough excuses for wars to keep the world busy for another thirty years.

But war means unemployment, economic crisis, growing taxes, accumulating debts. More than that, war deals a mortal blow to the State itself. After each war, the peoples realize that the States involved have shown their incompetence, even in the tasks by which they justify their existence; they are hardly capable of organizing the defence of their own territory, and even victory threatens their survival. Only look at the fermentation of ideas that emerged from the war of 1871, as much in Germany as in France; only observe the discontent aroused in Russia by the war in the Far East.

Wars and armaments are the death of the State; they accelerate its moral and economic failure. Just one or two great wars will give the final blow to these decrepit machines.

But parallel to war outside is war within.

Accepted originally by the people as a means of defending all men and women, and above all of protecting the weak against the strong, the State today has become the fortress of the rich against the exploited, of the employer against the proletarian.

Of what use in fact is this great machine that we call the State? Is it to hinder the exploitation of the worker by the capitalist, of the peasant by the landlord? Is it to assure us work? To protect us from the loan-shark? To give us sustenance when the woman has only water to pacify the child who weeps at her dried-out breast?

No, a thousand times no! The State is there to protect exploitation, speculation and private property; it is itself the by-product of the-rapine of the people. The proletarian must rely on his own hands; he can expect nothing of the State. It is nothing more than an organization devised to hinder emancipation at all costs.

Everything in the State is loaded in favour of the idle proprietor, everything against the working proletarian: bourgeois education, which from an early age corrupts the child by inculcating anti-egalitarian principles; the Church which disturbs women’s minds; the law which hinders the exchange of ideas of solidarity and equality; money, which can be used when needed to corrupt whoever seeks to be an apostle of the solidarity of the workers; prison-and grapeshot as a last resort-to shut the mouths of those who will not be corrupted. Such is the State.

Can it last? Will it last? Obviously not. A whole class of humanity, the class that produces everything, cannot sustain for ever an organization that has been created specifically in opposition to its interests. Everywhere, under Russian brutality as much as under the hypocrisy of the followers of Gambetta, the discontented people are in revolt. The history of our times is the history of the struggle of the privileged rulers against the egalitarian aspiration of the peoples. This struggle has become the principal occupation of the ruling class; it dominates their actions. Today it is neither principles nor considerations of the public good that determine the appearance of such-and-such a law or administrative decree; it is only the demands of the struggle against the people for the preservation of privilege.

This struggle alone would be enough to shake the strongest of political organizations. But when it takes place within States that for historical reasons are declining; when these States are rolling at full speed towards catastrophe and are harming each other on the way; when, in the end, the all-powerful State becomes repugnant even to those it protects: then all these causes can only unite in a single effort: and the outcome of the struggle cannot remain in doubt. The people, who have the strength, will prevail over their oppressors; the collapse of the States will become no more than a question of time, and the most peaceful of philosophers will see in the distance the dawning light by which the great revolution manifests itself.

Peter Kropotkin

Kropotkin The State

 

Emma Goldman and Peter Kropotkin

David Lester, illustrator, artist , writer and musician, is working on a graphic novel-biography of Emma Goldman. Above is an excerpt commemorating her deportation from the United States to Russia on December 21, 1919, which is also Kropotkin’s birthday. This reminded me of Goldman’s recollections of her meetings with Kropotkin. Below I set forth an excerpt from Goldman’s My Disillusionment with Russia, where Goldman  describes her visit with Kropotkin in the summer of 1920, when both were witnessing the consolidation of the growing Bolshevik dictatorship. Kropotkin suggested that rather than working with authoritarian state socialists, despite their revolutionary slogans, anarchists should work to strengthen revolutionary workers’ movements, like anarcho-syndicalism, and movements to create alternate economic relationships, such as the cooperative movement (both of which were being suppressed by Bolshevik regime). Less than a year later, Kropotkin was dead, with his funeral marking the last mass anarchist demonstration in Russia for about 75 years.

Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman at Kropotkin’s funeral

Peter was interested to know my impressions [of the Russian Revolution] since he saw me last. I related to him how confused and harassed I was, how everything seemed to crumble beneath my feet. I told him that I had come to doubt almost everything, even the Revolution itself. I could not reconcile the ghastly reality with what the Revolution had meant to me when I came to Russia. Were the conditions I found inevitable, the callous indifference to human life, the terrorism, the waste and agony of it all? Of course, I knew revolutions could not be made with kid gloves. It is a stern necessity involving violence and destruction, a difficult and terrible process. But what I had found in Russia was utterly unlike revolutionary conditions, so fundamentally unlike as to be a caricature.

Peter listened attentively; then he said: “There is no reason whatever to lose faith. I consider the Russian Revolution even greater than the French, for it has struck deeper into the soul of Russia, into the hearts and minds of the Russian people. Time alone can demonstrate its full scope and depth. What you see to-day is only the surface, conditions artificially created by a governing class. You see a small political party which by its false theories, blunders, and inefficiency has demonstrated how revolutions must not be made.”

It was unfortunate, Kropotkin continued, that so many of the Anarchists in Russia and the masses outside of Russia had been carried away by the ultra-revolutionary pretenses of the Bolsheviki. In the great upheaval it was forgotten that the Communists are a political party firmly adhering to the idea of a centralized State, and that as such they were bound to misdirect the course of the Revolution. The Bolsheviki were the Jesuits of the Socialist Church: they believed in the Jesuitic motto that the end justifies the means. Their end being political power, they hesitate at nothing. The means, however, have paralysed the energies of the masses and have terrorized the people. Yet without the people, without the direct participation of the masses in the reconstruction of the country, nothing essential could be accomplished.

The Bolsheviki had been carried to the top by the high tide of the Revolution. Once in power they began to stem the tide. They have been trying to eliminate and suppress the cultural forces of the country not entirely in agreement with their ideas and methods. They destroyed the cooperatives which were of utmost importance to the life of Russia, the great link between the country and the city. They created a bureaucracy and officialdom which surpasses even that of the old regime. In the village where he lived, in little Dmitrov, there were more Bolshevik officials than ever existed there during the reign of the Romanovs. All those people were living off the masses. They were parasites on the social body, and Dmitrov was only a small example of what was going on throughout Russia. It was not the fault of any particular individuals: rather was it the State they had created, which discredits every revolutionary ideal, stifles all initiative, and sets a premium on incompetence and waste. It should also not be forgotten Kropotkin emphasized, that the blockade and the continuous attacks on the Revolution by the interventionists had helped to strengthen the power of the Communist regime. Intervention and blockade were bleeding Russia to death, and were preventing the people from understanding the real nature of the Bolshevik regime.

Discussing the activities and role of the Anarchists in the Revolution, Kropotkin said: “We Anarchists have talked much of revolutions, but few of us have been prepared for the actual work to be done during the process. I have indicated some things in this relation in my ‘Conquest of Bread.’ Pouget and Pataud have also sketched a line of action in their work on ‘How to Accomplish the Social Revolution.’” Kropotkin thought that the Anarchists had not given sufficient consideration to the fundamental elements of the social revolution. The real facts in a revolutionary process do not consist so much in the actual fighting, that is, merely the destructive phase necessary to clear the way for constructive effort. The basic factor in a revolution is the organization of the economic life of the country. The Russian Revolution had proved conclusively that we must prepare thoroughly for that. Everything else is of minor importance. He had come to think that syndicalism was likely to furnish what Russia most lacked: the channel through which the industrial and economic reconstruction of the country may flow. He referred to Anarcho-syndicalism. That and the cooperatives would save other countries some of the blunders and suffering Russia was going through.

Emma Goldman

Kropotkin, Bakunin and Goldman – for anarchist socialism

Sébastian Faure: Anarchism as a Force For Revolution (1921)

Portrait of Sébastian Faure by André Claudot, June 1923

In his forthcoming anthology of libertarian socialist writings, A Libertarian Reader, Iain McKay has included a speech from January 1921 by the French anarchist, Sébastian Faure, in which he discusses various movements as forces for revolution – the socialist movement, free thought, trade unionism and the co-operative movement. Here, I reproduce his conclusion, in which Faure argues that anarchism represents a synthesis of the other forces. Within the anarchist movement itself, Faure advocated an “anarchist synthesis” combining the best aspects of anarchist individualism, syndicalism and communism. Faure had to admit that by 1921, anarchists had become a small minority on the revolutionary left, but argues that it is better to be clear and consistent in one’s ideas and actions than to achieve mass popularity by compromising one’s own principles. Faure’s speech was published as a pamphlet, including an English translation by Red Lion Press in 2005.

Anarchism as a Force for Revolution

Anarchism is, in fact, like the union of all the forces of which I have spoken tonight, it is, as I have said, the synthesis: anarchism is with free-thought in the struggle it wages against religion and against all forms of intellectual and moral oppression; – anarchism is with the Socialist Party in the struggle it pursues against the capitalist regime; – anarchism is with trade unionism in its struggle for the worker’s redemption against the exploitative employers of labour; – anarchism is with co-operation in its struggle against commercial parasitism and against the middlemen who are the profiteers of this parasitism. Was I not right to say that anarchism is like the synthesis of all the other forces of revolution; that it condenses them, crowns them and unites them all?

Yes, it is the summarisation and consummation! Anarchism respects no form of domination of man over man, no form of exploitation of man by man, since it attacks all forms of authority:

Political authority: the State.

Economic authority: Property.

Moral authority: Fatherland, Religion, Family.

Legal authority: Judiciary and Police.

All social powers interchangeably receive the well dealt, vigorous and incisive blows that anarchists bring them. After all, anarchism rises up against all oppression, against all constraints, it has no boundaries to its actions, for it considers the whole person in his body, in his mind and in his heart. It looks at human nature, it sees tears fall and blood flow; it looks at the person who suffers and asks him where his sufferings come from!

Where does his suffering come from? The anarchist knows that they are due almost entirely to a defective social state. I set aside the sorrows inherent in nature itself, but all the other sufferings, all the other sorrows are caused by a bad social organisation.

The anarchist, while considering human sorrows, is emotional, for he has a sensitive heart, he is revolted, for he has good conscience, and he is resolute, because he has a firm will.

After having, thanks to his lucid brain, considered the truth, the anarchist extends his helping hand towards those who suffer and says: “Fight with us against all those who make you suffer: against the property which makes you homeless and without bread; – against the State which oppresses you by unjust laws and crushes you with taxes; – against your boss who exploits your labour by giving you a meagre wage for eight, ten or twelve hours of work a day; – against all the Profiteers who devour you; – against all the Wolves who swindle you; – against all the evil Forces, against all the Powers of the day!…”

That is what the anarchist says to the oppressed, to the suffering.

It was hoped that such a high philosophy, such a pure doctrine, would be spared from the harmful influence of the [First World] War! Alas! this did not happen. I say this to our shame and disgrace! Amongst the most notorious anarchists, including those we were accustomed to consider as spiritual guides – not as leaders, there are none amongst us, but you know as well as I do that there are voices which are listened to more than others and minds which seem to reflect the minds of other anarchists – we had the anguish to see that some of those whom we regarded as our elder brothers, as our spiritual guides, suffered accursed failure! They believed that this war was not like the others, that France had been attacked and needed to vigorously defend herself; they became collaborators in the “Sacred Union” and made a pact with the defenders of the nation, they were warriors, diehards…

And the misfortune is that, since then, they have not recognised their mistake either; they dug in their heels. Go and ask someone who thinks he has the makings of a leader to recant! Do ask someone who until then had proclaimed truths before which others seemed to bow without question, go ask that man to recognise that he made a mistake! This man, believing himself an anarchist, will look down on you and never admit he could be wrong.

Like all the chiefs and leaders of people, like all drivers of the masses, the anarchist-warriors have been victims of their hubris, and they have placed their personal vanity above all else. And yet, I imagine that when a mistake has been committed, it is proper and dignified to recognise it honestly and the only way to correct it is to proclaim it publicly.

We did not need, we anarchists, to expel these diehards, to drive them out: they understood that they had nothing in common with us, that they had to remove themselves, and they stayed at home.

I mention no names, but you all know them, those who, anarchists before the war, after having declared for twenty years that there was no holy war, that all war was accursed, and that, if it broke-out, the duty of every anarchist was to refuse to serve, they urged their fellows to the massacre. After betraying, after denying their past, these men are now alone. Without having taken any sanction against them, without having made any condemnation against them[1], they condemned themselves voluntarily to solitary confinement, and this is their punishment; they are surrounded today only by their loneliness and abandonment…

Of all the forces of revolution I have mentioned, anarchism is perhaps the least numerous. We do not deceive ourselves about our numerical strength, we know that we do not have, like the Socialist Party, trade unionism and co-operation, compact battalions: the anarchists have always been a minority, and – remember what I say – they will always remain a minority. It is inevitable.

Ah! we, too, would like to recruit, that is understood and we do it; but recruitment is not easy amongst us. First, our ideal is so high and so broad! Moreover, it is an almost limitless ideal that becomes daily, with events, higher and broader, so that, to embrace this ideal, to follow it and propagate it, advanced men are needed, so to speak.

I do not look very modest saying that, and yet I must say it because it is the truth and it is my feeling; and then, there is no vanity to speak favourably of yourself and your comrades, when you do it frankly and honestly.

Yes, you must be part of an elite, you must be an advanced man to rise to such heights, to rise to such altitudes, to rise to the heights where the anarchist idea soars. What makes anarchist recruitment especially difficult is that there is nothing to gain with us; nothing to gain and everything to lose… We have, after all, no tenures, no positions, no remits, no anything… not even notoriety to offer to our adherents.

I am mistaken: there is, on the contrary, much to gain amongst us; but these gains of which I want to speak without doubt only attract this minority, this elite of which I spoke a moment ago.

There is nothing to gain like a position or money, but there is much to be gained if you are willing to be content, by way of compensation, with the pure and noble joys of a satisfied heart, of a tranquil mind, of a raised consciousness. And, indeed, the anarchist finds incomparable joys and which are worth infinitely more in his eyes than material advantages and baubles of vanity.

We are therefore a minority, but such is the common destiny of all new ideas; these never gather around them but a small minority. When an idea begins to group around it an imposing minority, it is that reality which is in motion (and it is always without every stopping) had brought forth a new idea, more exact or more youthful, and it is this idea, which is younger, bolder, more just, which groups around it the elite. Under the Empire, the minority (that is to say the elect) was formed by the reds, by the republicans; during the first years of the Republic, and as recently as ten or fifteen years before socialism became petty-bourgeois and reformist, socialism was only a tiny minority, it was the elite of that time. Today, it is anarchism that unites this elite.

A minority, yes: but it is not necessary to be many to do a lot of work; it is even better, sometimes, to be less numerous and be the best: here the quality outweighs the quantity. I prefer a hundred individuals who are everywhere, who go where there is work to be done, where there is intelligence and activity to be deployed; I prefer a hundred individuals who speak, who write, who act, in a word who are engaged passionately in propaganda, than a thousand who remain quietly at home and imagine that they have done their duty when some have made donations and others have voted.

Anarchists are and will therefore always be a few, but they are everywhere. They are what I will call the yeast that raises the dough. Already, you see them permeating everywhere. Beside the few thousand declared anarchists who are organised, we see thousands and thousands who are in other groups: some in Free-Thought, others in the Socialist Party, others in the C.G.T. [French trade union federation]. I even know a large number, in such-and-such small towns and in the countryside who, feeling the need to do something, driven by the desire to become involved with local struggles and the propaganda being made amongst them and around them, join the socialist movement; they do not abandon their anarchist ideas; there are also some in trade unionism, in co-operation, there are everywhere… There are even some who are unaware! For as soon as they are told what anarchism is, they say: “But if that is true, I am an anarchist! I am with you!” Yes, anarchism is everywhere…

Such are the forces of revolution that it was essential to review this evening. I conclude, for it is almost two hours since we started. It would have taken a whole lecture to examine each of these forces and we would not even have covered everything. Tonight I delivered a simple monograph on each current, on each organisation, a quick and brief monograph, of the forces that deserve a more detailed description: I have merely produced a sketch and I neglected a certain number of other currents, other forces, other groupings which are not without value and which, on the day of the Revolution, would influence the general movement;  these are, for example, feminist groups and neo-Malthusian, temperance and anti-militarist currents, and amongst others, the Republican Veterans Association, which has the purpose of grouping in particular those who are the victims of the last war. Lastly, we have above all the socialist, trade unionist and anarchist youth, nurseries of the active militants of tomorrow. It is this youth who are our hope and who, today the seed, will be the abundant harvest of tomorrow!

There is then, as you see, a whole legion of groups full of good will and eager to move forward.

I spoke this evening only of the great currents because I obviously could not dwell on each of these smaller but real forces.

The great currents of which I have spoken tonight are autonomous; the forces we have just examined are independent; each of them largely deploys its flag on the terrain that is particular to it. The enemy senses the danger, it is organised and united: never has the repression been so severe, never have the bosses been so firmly organised, never has the police been so arrogant, never has the judiciary handed out sentences with such a tireless hand, never, in a word, was the enemy more stoutly defended. It is therefore a question of engaging in battle with all our forces united. For that, we ask no one to sacrifice his principles, his doctrines, his methods, his action: we wish, on the contrary, that each group keeps and preserves its methods, its doctrine, its principles, so that all these can be used when the time comes, because we have a goal to reach, a great work to accomplish, and all these associated forces will be indispensable. The social structure threatens doom. It is not ready to collapse, make no mistake: there are cracks; however, the social structure is still solid and it will take a hard shove to destroy and overthrow it. What is needed at the present time is that a powerful wind of revolt rises and passes over all men of good will, for the arrogance of our masters is made from our servility, their strength is made from our weakness, their courage is made from our failure and their wealth is made from our poverty! The spirit of submission has lowered personalities, revolt will raise them; the habit of obedience has bowed backs, revolt will straighten them; centuries of resignation weighing heavily on humanity have been its ruin, the revolution will save it.

As for us anarchists, we do not want to live as slaves anymore. We declared a ruthless war on Society, yes, a war to the knife. We know that we have to conquer or die, but we are resolved. We are therefore determined to do battle, constant battle with all shackles and all constraints: Religion, Capital, Government, Militarism, etc.

And we are determined to fight this battle until victory is complete. We want not only to be free ourselves, but also that all men be [free] like us. As long as there are chains, even if they are gilded, even if they are light, even if they are loose and weak, even if they bound only one of our fellows, we will not lay down our arms: we want all chains to fall, everyone and forever!

Sébastien Faure, January 25, 1921

[1] It must be noted that many anarchists did write articles refuting the pro-war anarchists in the anarchist press, reiterating the anarchist position on war that they had so recently advocated. For example, Kropotkin was answered by the likes of Malatesta, Berkman and Rocker (amongst others). [Note by Iain McKay]

George Barrett: Direct Action v. Parliamentarianism

Freedom Press in England has recently published a collection of essays on anarchism by George Barrett (1888-1917), Our Masters Are Helpless, edited by Iain McKay. Barrett wrote for the London based anarchist paper, Freedom, and published his own paper, The Anarchist, and several pamphlets on anarchism. Two of his best known pamphlets were the posthumously published Objections to Anarchism (Freedom Press, 1921) and The Anarchist Revolution (Freedom Press, 1920). Here I reproduce his answer from Objections to Anarchism about why Parliament cannot be used to achieve a social revolution, and the section on direct action from The Anarchist Revolution, in which Barrett sets forth the anarchist alternative to parliamentary (or electoral) methods. Both topics retain their relevance today, particularly with respect to the current political debacle in Britain regarding its exit from the European Union and Boris Johnson’s attempts to usurp the British Parliament.

Objections to Anarchism No. 2

The House of Commons and the Law have been used by the present dominant class to gain their ends; why cannot they be used by us to gain ours?

This question is based upon an extraordinary misunderstanding. It seems to be taken for granted that Capitalism and the workers’ movement both have the same end in view. If this were so, they might perhaps use the same means; but as the capitalist is out to perfect his system of exploitation and government, whilst the worker is out for emancipation and liberty, naturally the same means cannot be employed for both purposes. This surely answers the question sufficiently so far as it is a definite question. In so far, however, as it contains the vague suggestion that government is the agent of reform, progress, and revolution, it touches the very point upon which Anarchists differ from all political parties. It is worthwhile, then, to examine the suggestion a little more closely.

It is thought by the enthusiastic politicians that once they can capture government, then from their position of power they would be able very quickly to mould society into the desired shape. Pass ideal laws, they think, and the ideal society would be the result. How simple, is it not? We should thus get the Revolution on the terms promised us by the wonderful Blatchford — “without bloodshed, and without losing a day’s work,” But, alas! the short cut to the Golden Age is an illusion. In the first place, any form of society shaped by law is not ideal. In the second place, law cannot shape society; indeed, rather the reverse is true. It is this second point which is all-important.

Those who understand the forces behind progress will see the law limping along in the rear, and never succeeding in keeping up with the progress made by the people; always, in fact, resisting any advance, always trying to start reaction, but in the long run always having to give way and allow more and more liberty. Even the champions of government recognise this when they want to make a drastic change, and then they throw aside the pretence of the law and turn to revolutionary methods.

The present ruling class, who are supposed to be a living proof that the Government can do anything, are in themselves quite candid in the admission that it can do very little. Whoever will study their rise to power will find that to get there they preach in theory, and establish in fact, the principle of resistance to the law. Indeed, curious as it may seem, it is a fact that immediately after the Revolution it was declared seditious to preach against resistance to law, just as today it is seditious to speak in favour of it.

To sum up, then, if there was any logic in the question, which there is not, we might restate it thus: “Since the present dominant class were unable to gain their ends by use of the House of Commons and the Law, why should we hope to gain ours by them?”

Direct Action

To make it quite clear what is meant by the expression Direct Action, let us take an illustration. Not very many years ago, if there was a great national calamity, such as an outbreak of plague, the religious people used to declare that the only remedy was for us as a nation to pray that God might remove his curse. These good people were very much shocked when scientists came along and began taking merely sanitary precautions to stamp out the disease. The first was the indirect method: prayers were sent up to heaven so that God might send down his good influence on the plague. This was a very indirect route to reach a disease which was, so to speak, next door. The scientist attended to the disease itself, studied its nature, and tried to find a means of stamping it out. This was direct action.

To-day in very much the same way the people are divided with two methods. In their factories and homes they find themselves discontented, and some of them propose to influence the chief of society — the Parliament — so that it will exercise its power to put things right. These in their turn are shocked when advanced thinkers come along and declare that the way to get a remedy is to study the nature of the trouble and apply the cure directly to it. The former believe in the indirect or legislative method, for it is a long way from home to Westminster and back home again. The latter are the direct actionists, and they recognise that if anyone is going to put the factories in order, it will be the workers who spend their lives in them, and not the politicians.

Imagine the utter absurdity of a group of politicians sitting in the House of Commons earnestly discussing the welfare of the people. While they are doing so, are there not countless bakers, builders, and tailors walking about the streets, unemployed, and cut off, by the laws which these same politicians have passed, from the means of production, machinery, and tools with which they might produce what they need. To break down the laws and allow these people to produce what is necessary for their welfare, on equal terms with the other workers, is the way to abolish poverty.

It is clear that, if we are to rid ourselves of the troubles that best us at present, we must organise an entirely new system of wealth distribution. I do not mean by this that we must divide up, but I mean that the wealth which is produced must be stopped from flowing to the rich man who produces nothing; the stream must be diverted so that it will come to the producer.

But who is it that distributes the wealth? Is it the politician? Certainly not; as a matter of fact, it is the transport workers. If, then, the workers who produce want an alteration in the present distribution, to whom must they apply? To their comrades, the transport workers, and not to the politicians, who have nothing to do with the matter. Similarly when better conditions are needed in the factories — larger sheds, better floors, and more efficient lighting and ventilation — who are the only people capable of doing this? It is the workers who need these reforms, and the workers who can carry them out. The task before the worker to-day is as it has been in the past: the slave class must rid itself of the dictating class — i.e., of those in authority.

Such is the simple logic of the Direct Actionist, and it is already clear how it necessarily leads to the Anarchist Revolution. We must, however, be careful how we follow this principle — not that we fear being taken too far, but lest it does not take us far enough. The expression has been used so much in contradistinction to legislation, that any one who throws a brick through a window is generally supposed to be a Direct Actionist. He may be and he may not.

To be logical and true to the real meaning of the term, every act should, of course, be on the direct road towards the desired end — in our case, the Social Revolution. Sometimes it is difficult to be entirely consistent, but it is nevertheless of the utmost importance that there should be at least a minority of the workers who understand what is the direct road, so that every skirmish may be made by them a step towards the final overthrow of Capitalism.

At the risk of repeating myself, then, let me try to state the position very clearly. We have two classes — the governing, ruling, and possessing people on the one hand, and those governed and without property on the other; in a word, a master class and a slave class.

When this slave class becomes discontented and restive, it has several courses to consider before deciding which will give better conditions. It may be argued:

  1. That since the present masters do not give enough of the good things of life, these must be turned out and a new set selected from among the slave class; or
  2. That since the slave class is composed of the producers, and the master class is, therefore, dependent on it, the former is clearly in a position to force the masters to give them more food and everything that may be desired; or
  3. That since the slave class is the producer of all that is necessary for life, there is no need to either ask or demand anything from the master class. The slave class need simply to cut off supplies to the masters and start feeding themselves.

The first of these arguments, it will be seen, is that of the politicians; and it may be dismissed without further comment, since, as will be understood after what has been already said, it obviously misses the point. It is not a question of who shall be master, but it is a matter of the essential relationship between master and slave, quite irrespective of who either of them may be.

The second argument is that of the non-Parliamentary but non-Revolutionary Trade Unionist. It is right in that it recognises where lies the true power of the workers in their fight against the capitalists, but it is wrong in that it proposes no change in the relationship between these two.

If the slave class is to be better housed, fed, and clothed from the masters’ store, it means that the slaves will become more and more completely owned by the masters. It is not revolutionary, because it proposes to retain master and slave, and merely attempts to better the conditions of the latter.

The third argument is, of course, that of the revolutionist. It agrees with the second as to the weapon to be used, but it says that the task before the workers is to feed, house, clothe, and educate themselves, and not to spend their energies in making better masters of the capitalists.

To cut off supplies to the capitalist and to retain what is produced for the workers are the main points of the revolutionary fight.

In every industrial dispute there are really two, and only two, essentials. On the one hand are the factories, warehouses, railways, mines, etc., which may be termed industrial property; on the other, the workers. To unite these two is to accomplish the revolution; for with them will be built the new society.

The capitalist and master class in general can hold their position only so long as they can keep the workers outside the warehouses and factories, for within are the means of life, and the common people must be allowed to use these only on the strict understanding that they make profit and submit to the conditions dictated. To come out on strike, then, is merely rebellion, and is essentially not the revolution, however thoroughly it is done; to stay in and work in the condition of equality, free from the dictates of a useless master class, is the real object of the revolutionist.

Direct action, therefore, in this strictly revolutionary sense would mean the taking possession of the means of production and the necessities of life by the workers who have produced them, and the reorganisation of industry according to the principles of freedom.

The doctrine of Direct Action does not boast of bringing the workers easy salvation. It is, indeed, a recognition of the terribly simple fact that nothing can save us except our own intelligence and power. We, the workers, are the creative force, for is it not we who have produced all the food, clothing, and houses? Assuredly it is we who need them. What, then, has the politician to do with this? Nothing, absolutely nothing! What use is it to hand over to the master class all that we produce, and then keep up a continuous quarrel as to how much we shall be allowed back? Instead of this we have to stop supplies, reorganise our industries, not from above but from their source below, and see that in future all that is produced goes to the producer and not to the dominant class. This is the meaning of direct action, and it is Anarchism.

But, alas! it is easier to accomplish a revolution on paper with cold logic than it is to bring it about in industrial life. We have to fight the lack of understanding on the part of the worker and the craft of the politician ever at work to increase this; and in addition we have the certainty that the class in power will attempt to resist the change, with the only argument that remains on their side — brute force. While, therefore, it is important to understand that direct action properly applied means the actual “conquest of bread” and the taking possession of the factories, we must be content probably for some little while longer to use our weapon of direct action simply according to the second of the three arguments given above — that is, to demand better conditions from the capitalist class.

It is not, however, too much to hope that in the very near future the Anarchists will form a militant section of the workers, which will give to every great industrial rebellion the revolutionary character which is its true meaning. Worker as well as capitalist is beginning to recognise that a well-planned scheme for feeding the strikers is more than possible. Such a scheme would entail the capturing of the bakeries, and this is surely the first step of the revolution.

Beside this real problem, simple but great, how hollow and grotesque are the promises of the politicians. How absurd the idea of gaining liberty through the ballot-box. These hopeless government men, who talk with such sublime imbecility of feeding, housing, and clothing, only add insult to injury. The House they stand in to make their senseless speeches was built and furnished by the workers, and it is the workers who house and feed them.

And beyond our own doubt and hesitation, what, after all, stands in our way? Let us gain inspiration from the hopeless position of our foes. How helpless they are! Is not the policeman’s baton shaped by the worker, and his absurd uniform stitched by underpaid women? The soldier’s rifle is certainly not made by the master class — in every particular they are hopelessly our dependents. Every instrument of oppression is supplied to them by us, and we keep them alive by feeding them day by day. Surely, then, it is apparent that this change must come. Those above are powerless for good, or for evil; the revolution can be brought only by an upheaval from below — from the one vital section of society, the workers.

George Barrett

Malatesta: Revolution in Practice (Umanità Nova, 1922)

Some more Malatesta, in the lead up to the 100th anniversary of the founding of the (then daily) anarchist paper, Umanità Nova, in February 1920, a publication of the Italian Anarchist Federation (FAI). An anarchist festival celebrating Umanità Nova is being held today and tomorrow in Gragnana, Italy.

Revolution in Practice

We want to make the revolution as soon as possible, taking advantage of all the opportunities that may arise.

With the exception of a small number of “educationists”, who believe in the possibility of raising the masses to the anarchist ideals before the material and moral conditions in which they live have changed, thus deferring the revolution to the time when all will be able to live anarchically, all anarchists agree on this desire of overthrowing the current regimes as soon as possible: as a matter of fact, they are often the only ones who show a real wish to do so.

However, revolutions did, do and will happen independently from the anarchists’ wish and action; and since anarchists are just a small minority of the population and anarchy cannot be made by force and violent imposition by few, it is clear that past and future revolutions were not and will not possibly be anarchist revolutions.

In Italy two years ago the revolution was about to break out and we did all we could to make that happen. We treated like traitors the socialists and the unionists, who stopped the impetus of the masses and saved the shaky monarchical regime on the occasion of the riots against the high cost of living, the strikes in Piedmont, the Ancona uprising, the factory occupations.

What would we have done if the revolution had broken out for good?

What will we do in the revolution that will break out tomorrow?

What did our comrades do, what could and should they have done in the recent revolutions occurred in Russia, Bavaria, Hungary and elsewhere?

We cannot make anarchy, at least not an anarchy extended to all the population and all the social relations, because no population is anarchist yet, and we cannot either accept another regime without giving up our aspirations and losing any reason for existence, as anarchists. So, what can and must we do?

This was the problem being discussed in Bienne, and this is the problem of greatest interest in the present time, so full of opportunities, when we could suddenly face situations that require for us to either act immediately and unhesitatingly, or disappear from the battle ground after making the victory of others easier.

It was not a matter of depicting a revolution as we would like it, a truly anarchist revolution as would be possible if all, or at least the vast majority of the people living in a given territory were anarchist. It was a matter of seeking the best that could be done in favour of the anarchist cause in a social upheaval as can happen in the present situation.

The authoritarian parties have a specific program and want to impose it by force; therefore they aspire to seizing the power, regardless of whether legally or illegally, and transforming society their way, through a new legislation. This explains why they are revolutionary in words and often also in intentions, but they hesitate to make a revolution when the opportunities arise; they are not sure of the acquiescence, even passive, of the majority, they do not have sufficient military force to have their orders carried out over the whole territory, they lack devoted people with skills in all the countless branches of social activity… therefore they are always forced to postpone action, until they are almost reluctantly pushed to the government by the popular uprising. However, once in power, they would like to stay there indefinitely, therefore they try to slow down, divert, stop the revolution that raised them.

On the contrary, we have indeed an ideal we fight for and would like to see realized, but we do not believe that an ideal of freedom, of justice, of love can be realized through the government violence.

We do not want to get in power neither we want anyone else to do so. If we cannot prevent governments from existing and being established, due to our lack of strength, we strive, and always will, to keep or make such governments as weak as possible. Therefore we are always ready to take action when it comes to overthrowing or weakening a government, without worrying too much (I say ‘too much’, not ‘at all’) about what will happen thereafter.

For us violence is only of use and can only be of use in driving back violence. Otherwise, when it is used to accomplish positive goals, either it fails completely, or it succeeds in establishing the oppression and the exploitation of the ones over the others.

The establishment and the progressive improvement of a society of free men can only be the result of a free evolution; our task as anarchists is precisely is to defend and secure the evolution’s freedom.

Here is our mission: demolishing, or contributing to demolish any political power whatsoever, with all the series of repressive forces that support it; preventing, or trying to prevent new governments and new repressive forces from arising; in any case, refraining from ever acknowledging any government, keeping always fighting against it, claiming and requiring, even by force if possible, the right to organize and live as we like, and experiment the forms of society that seem best to us, as long as they do not prejudice the others’ equal freedom, of course.

Beyond this struggle against the government imposition that bears the capitalistic exploitation and makes it possible; once we had encouraged and helped the masses to seize the existing wealth and particularly the means of production; once the situation is reached whereby no one could impose his wishes on others by force, nor take away from any man the product of his labour, we could then only act through propaganda and by example.

Destroy the institution and the machinery of existing social organizations? Yes, certainly, if it is a question of repressive institutions; but these are, after all, only a small part of the complex of social life. The police, the army, the prisons, and the judiciary are potent institutions for evil, which exercise a parasitic function. Other institutions and organizations manage, for better or for worse, to guarantee life to mankind; and these institutions cannot be usefully destroyed without replacing them by something better.

The exchange of raw material and goods, the distribution of foodstuffs, the railways, postal services and all public services administered by the State or by private companies, have been organized to serve monopolistic and capitalist interests, but they also serve real needs of the population. We cannot disrupt them (and in any case the people would not in their own interests allow us to) without reorganizing them in a better way. And this cannot be achieved in a day; nor as things stand, have we the necessary abilities to do so. We are delighted therefore if in the meantime, others act, even with different criteria from our own.

Social life does not admit of interruptions, and the people want to live on the day of the revolution, on the morrow and always.

Woe betide us and the future of our ideas if we shouldered the responsibility of a senseless destruction that compromised the continuity of life!

Errico Malatesta, Umanità Nova, No. 191, October 7, 1922

Ba Jin: Toward a Free Society (1921)

Ba Jin (Li Feigan)

Ba Jin (1904-2005) was a well known novelist active in the Chinese anarchist movement during the 1920s, when the anarchists were still one of the leading forces on the Chinese revolutionary left. His most famous work is the novel, The Family, about the younger generation in China seeking liberation from traditional mores and institutions, published in 1933. As with many other Chinese anarchists, he was influenced by Kropotkin. He also corresponded with Emma Goldman, whom he regarded as his “spiritual mother.” The Chinese anarchist movement declined under the Guomindang in the late 1920s, and was completely suppressed by the Communists after their seizure of power in 1949. Ba Jin and his wife were persecuted during the so-called “Cultural Revolution” during the 1960s. I included some of Ba Jin’s anarchist writings from the 1920s in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. In Volume Three, I included some reflections by Ba Jin from 1984 on the harmful effects of state power on literature. This article is from Ba Jin’s most active anarchist period during the 1920s. It originally appeared under Ba Jin’s real name, Li Feigan. The translation is by Paul Sharkey, and can be found on the Kate Sharpley Library website. I was reminded of Ba Jin’s struggles against Communist censorship and his treatment during the Cultural Revolution by the current demonstrations in Hong Kong against the attempts by the Communist dictatorship in China to further restrict people’s freedoms.

How are we to establish a truly free and egalitarian society?

These days these words “freedom and equality” are part of the vocabulary of each and every one of us. But make a few inquiries and ask: What is freedom? and you will be told “Freedom means freedom of opinion, freedom of the press, freedom of association and assembly, the freedom of secrecy of correspondence”.

Ask: What is equality? and you will be told: “All citizens are equal before the law, with no difference between the high-born and the yokel.” Now, such narrow definitions have nothing to do with true freedom, true equality. Don’t believe me? Then have a read of the following.

The blight upon the people’s freedom is the State. Ever since the State came into existence, we have stopped being free. No matter what we do or say, the State sticks its nose in. All we ask is to live in love with our brethren from other nations, but the State would have us patriots at any price, enrols us in its armies and forces us to murder our neighbours. And here in China the situation is even worse: here we have Chinese murdering other Chinese. For a number of years now, in Hunan and Shaanxi and Szechuan, “the tide of blood has been running high and the corpses are piling up”.

What horror! So much for the benefits that the State has brought us. Arrogating to themselves the resources that are the common wealth of our planet, the capitalists grind us into a poverty that denies us the right to live. Not that the State punishes them for it: worse still, it protects them through a battery of laws.

The people has nothing to eat and has no option but to steal its food: it goes naked and has no option but to steal clothes: it has no option but to steal all that it needs. The people is driven to all this by the capitalists. And there goes the State, in its grandeur, dismissing us as brigands and decreeing that we are fit for nothing but the execution picket. We are gunned down merely for recouping – in contravention of the law, to be sure – a fraction of what we had lost, whereas the capitalists who loot the commonwealth of our planet are allowed to live in peace. If we are refused the right to steal, there is nothing left for us but to become beggars. Lo and behold, the capitalists, offended by the spectacle, bestow alms upon the poor and afford them a little of the money that they have stolen from them: and upon this they bestow the fine-sounding name of charity. Some of them even have the effrontery to insult us because we beg for our pittance instead of working for it.

Gentlemen! Can you be so sure that we do not want to work? It is more a case of our being denied work. Yet we are showered with insults. Looking at it from this angle, we can see that the “freedom and equality” of which we have just been speaking are alien to the people! Indeed, can one speak here of “freedom” and “equality”? I refuse to credit that there can be any freedom of that sort! Any equality of that stripe! But what then are real freedom and real equality?

Here comes my answer: Anarchy. That is the real freedom. And communism is the real equality. Only a social revolution can allow us to build a really free and really egalitarian society.

But what is Anarchy?

Anarchy is the placing of the State and its accessory institutions upon the Index and collective ownership of the means of production and goods produced. Every individual contributing in accordance with his ability and receiving in accordance with his needs. And work shared out according to the ability of the individual: whoever has the ability to be a doctor does the doctoring, and whoever has the ability to mine does the mining. More time devoted to straightforward tasks and less time squandered on complicated or tiresome ones. An agency to find you food when you are hungry, clothing to wear and a roof under which to shelter. Everybody in receipt of the same education, with no distinction drawn between the clever and the slow-witted.

Time and again, one French anarchist has reiterated: “Every individual need work only two hours a day if all the needs of society are to be met”. And Kropotkin too has stated: “If everyone works four hours a day, that will be enough – indeed, more than enough – to meet society’s needs.”

I imagine that such a proposition, cutting working hours to the bone, could not help but attract universal support. Without the State and its laws, we would have real freedom: without the capitalist class, we would have real equality.

Friends of the world of labour, can you see just how free a society rid of all authoritarian power would be? Can you see how egalitarian it would be? Are you willing to build such a society of freedom and equality? Well then, make the social revolution and have done with these rascally politics.

For the sake of the advent of a society of freedom and equality, let us hope that you and your friends will soon come together as one! As long as you endure it all with resignation, you will be fodder for the capitalists!

If you do not believe me, you will see for yourselves!

Ba Jin

Banyue (Fortnight), Chengdu, China, No 17, 1 April 1921

Élisée Reclus: Why We Are Anarchists (1889)

Elisée Reclus (1830-1905)

Élisée Reclus was one of the most important anarchist intellectuals of the 19th century. He was involved in the debates within the anti-authoritarian International in the mid- to late-1870s that led to the creation of a self-avowed revolutionary anarchist movement. He was one of the first proponents of anarchist communism, and a well-respected geographer. In this piece from 1889, Reclus explains why he and others are anarchists. The translation is by Iain McKay and is taken from Volume 1 of his forthcoming Libertarian Reader, an anthology of libertarian socialist writings from the 1850s to 2016. While there is some overlap between the Libertarian Reader and my Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas (three volumes of anarchist writings from ancient China to 2012), this selection by Reclus is one of many that is only in the Libertarian Reader, which promises to be another invaluable source book of original anarchist and libertarian socialist writings.

Why Are We Anarchists?

The following lines do not constitute a programme. They have no other purpose than to justify the usefulness of elaborating a draft programme which would be subject to the study, to the observations, to the criticisms of all communist revolutionaries.

Perhaps, however, they contain one or two considerations that could fit into the project that I am asking for.

We are revolutionaries because we want justice and everywhere we see injustice reigning around us. The products of labour are distributed in an inverse ration to the work. The idler has all the rights, even that of starving his neighbour, while the worker does not always have the right to die of hunger in silence: he is imprisoned when he is guilty of striking. People who call themselves priests peddle miracles so that they can enslave intellects; people called kings claim to be from a universal master to be master in their turn; people armed by them cut, slash and shoot at their pleasure; people in black robes who say they are justice par excellence condemn the poor, absolve the rich, often sell convictions and acquittals; merchants distribute poison instead of food, they kill in detail instead of killing in bulk and thereby become honoured capitalists.[2] The sack of coins is the master, and he who possesses it holds in his power the destiny of other men. All this seems despicable to us and we want to change it. We call for revolution against injustice.

But “justice is only a word, a mere convention,” we are told. “What exists is the right of force!” Well, if that is so, we are no less revolutionary. It is one or the other: either justice is the human ideal and, in this case, we claim it for all; or else force alone governs societies, and in that case we will use force against our enemies. Either the freedom of equals or an eye for an eye [la loi du talion].

But why the rush, all those who expect everything in time tell us, to exempt themselves from taking action. The slow evolution of events suffices for them, revolution scares them. History has pronounced [judgement] between us and them. Never has any partial or general progress been achieved by mere peaceful evolution; it has always been made through a sudden revolution. If the work of preparation takes place slowly in minds, the realisation of ideas occurs suddenly: evolution occurs in the brain, and it is the arms that make the revolution.

And how to bring about this revolution that we see slowly preparing in Society and whose advent we are aiding with all our efforts? Is it by grouping ourselves in bodies subordinate to each other? Is it by constituting ourselves like the bourgeois world that we fight as a hierarchical whole, with its responsible masters and its irresponsible inferiors, held as tools in the hand of a boss? Will we begin to become free by abdicating? No, because we are anarchists, that is to say men who want to keep full responsibility for their actions, who act in accordance with their rights and their personal duties, who impart to a [human] being his natural development, who has no one as a master and is not the master of others.

We want to free ourselves from the grasp of the State, no longer to have above us superiors who can command us, putting their will in the place of ours.

We want to rip apart all external law, by holding ourselves to the conscious development of the inner laws of our nature. By suppressing the State, we also suppress all official morality, knowing beforehand that there can be no morality in obeying misunderstood laws, in obeying a practice which they do not even try to justify. There is morality only in freedom. It is also by freedom alone that renewal remains possible. We want to keep our minds open, amenable in advance to any progress, to any new idea, to any generous initiative.

But if we are anarchists, enemies of every master, we are also international communists, because we understand that life is impossible without social organisation. Isolated, we can do nothing, while through close union we can transform the world. We associate with each other as free and equal men, working for a common task and regulating our mutual relations by justice and reciprocal goodwill. Religious and national hatreds cannot separate us, since the study of nature is our only religion and we have the world for our homeland.

The main cause for savagery and wickedness will cease to exist amongst us. The land will become collective property, barriers will be removed and henceforth the ground belonging to all can be adapted to the enjoyment and well-being of all. The required products will be precisely those which the land can best provide, and production will respond exactly to needs, without ever wasting anything as in the disorderly work that is done today. In the same way the distribution of all these riches amongst men will be removed from the private exploiter and will be done by the normal functioning of society at large.

We do not have to sketch in advance the picture of the future society: It is the spontaneous action of all free men that is to create it and give it its shape, moreover incessantly changing like all the phenomena of life. But what we do know is that every injustice, every crime violating human dignity [lèse-majesté humaine] we always find us rising to fight them. As long as iniquity exists, we, international communist-anarchists, we will remain in a state of permanent revolution.

Élisée Reclus, La Société nouvelle, Year 5, No. 2, 1889

[2] Reclus writes “tuent en detail,” a play on words as “vente en detail” means retail sale. (Editor)