Communities of Freedom

anarchist communities wingnut

Continuing my installments from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterward to Volume Three of my anthology of anarchist writings, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, below I deal with the resurgence of communitarian anarchism after the Second World War. One of the pioneers of communitarian anarchism was Gustav Landauer, who advocated the creation of networks of anarcho-socialist communities, eventually resulting in a “community of communities,” as his friend Martin Buber later phrased it. The revival of these sorts of ideas by people like Dwight Macdonald, David Dellinger, Paul Goodman and Murray Bookchin helped pave the way for the North American “back to the land” and communal movements of the 1960s.

anarchist communities brooklyn

Community and Freedom

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, Dwight Macdonald (1905-1982) wrote that the “brutality and irrationality of Western social institutions has reached a pitch which would have seemed incredible a short generation ago; our lives have come to be dominated by warfare of a ferocity and on a scale unprecedented in history,” leading him to conclude that the “Anarchists’ uncompromising rejection of the State, the subject of Marxian sneers for its ‘absolutist’ and ‘Utopian’ character, makes much better sense in the present era than the Marxian relativist and historical approach” (Volume Two, Selection 13).

Macdonald argued that in the face of these harsh realities, “we must reduce political action to a modest, unpretentious, personal level—one that is real in the sense that it satisfies, here and now, the psychological needs, and the ethical values of the particular persons taking part in it.” He suggested forming “small groups of individuals” into “families” who “live and make their living in the everyday world but who come together… to form a psychological (as against a geographical) community.” Through these groups their “members could come to know each other as fully as possible as human beings (the difficulty of such knowledge of others in modern society is a chief source of evil), to exchange ideas and discuss as fully as possible what is ‘on their minds’ (not only the atomic bomb but also the perils of child-rearing), and in general to learn the difficult art of living with other people.” The members of these groups would “preach” their “ideals—or, if you prefer, make propaganda—by word and by deed, in the varied everyday contacts of the group members with their fellow men,” working “against Jim Crow [racist laws]” in the United States, “or to further pacifism,” and supporting individuals “who stand up for the common ideals” (Volume Two, Selection 13).

The pacifist David Dellinger (1915-2004), writing a few years later in the anarchist journal, Resistance, went a step further, arguing for the creation of small communes “composed of persons who have the same type of disgust at the economic selfishness of society that the conscientious objector has concerning war and violence.” In these “experimental” communities, “economic resources” would be shared, “so that the total product provides greater strength and freedom for the members than they would be able to achieve, ethically, as isolated individuals,” while providing “daily pleasures and satisfactions” by “finding time to do things together that are fun” (Volume Two, Selection 40).

The “families” of like minded individuals proposed by Macdonald would today be described as affinity groups, a form of organization that had been utilized for decades by anarchists, particularly anarchist communists wary of the more formal organizational structures of the anarcho-syndicalists (Grave, Volume One, Selection 46). As Murray Bookchin pointed out, the FAI in Spain had been based on an affinity group structure. In the 1960s, Bookchin helped to popularize this intimate form of non-hierarchical organization, which combines “revolutionary theory with revolutionary lifestyle in its everyday behaviour.” Much like the “families” advocated by Macdonald, each affinity group would seek “a rounded body of knowledge and experience in order to overcome the social and psychological limitations imposed by bourgeois society on individual development,” acting “as catalysts within the popular movement.” For Bookchin, the aim of anarchist affinity groups is not to subordinate “the social forms created by the revolutionary people… to an impersonal bureaucracy” or party organization, but “to advance the spontaneous revolutionary movement of the people to a point where the group can finally disappear into the organic social forms created by the revolution” itself (Volume Two, Selection 62).

Similarly, the small-scale communes advocated by Dellinger had long been a part of many anarchist movements, in Europe, the Americas, and in China, arising from the need and desire of anarchists to create daily living arrangements consistent with their ideals, and as an alternative to hierarchical and authoritarian social institutions, such as the patriarchal nuclear family. What distinguished these types of communes from affinity groups were the factors highlighted by Dellinger himself, primarily living together and sharing financial resources. In the 1960s and early 1970s, there was a flourishing of communal groups, particularly in North America, created by disaffected youth seeking to create alternate lifestyles. In Europe, the various squatting movements often adopted communal living arrangements, for example in the Christiania “freetown” in Copenhagen.

While many anarchist communes were short-lived, some have been remarkably resilient. In Uruguay, for example, the Communidad del Sur group, which originated in the social struggles of the 1950s, sought to create libertarian communities based on self-management, including productive enterprises (Volume Three, Selection 56). Assets were shared, compensation was based on need, education, work and art were integrated, and people lived communally. Despite a long period of exile in Sweden that began in the 1970s due to growing state repression, the Communidad group eventually returned to Uruguay where it continues to promote the creation of a self-managed ecological society through its own ongoing experiments in community living. For the Communidad group, the “revolution consists of changing social relationships,” much as Gustav Landauer had argued previously (Volume One, Selection 49). Fleshing out their “ideals of equality and sociability in a free space,” the Communidad group has sought to inspire the creation of that “community of communities” long envisioned by anarchists like Landauer, Martin Buber, Paul Goodman and many others (Volume Two, Selection 60).

Robert Graham

Community garden

Community garden

Massacre in Turkey

An injured man hugs an injured woman after an explosion during a peace march in Ankara

THIS is not a historical or theoretical piece. It’s about a massacre of around 100 protesters in Turkey, including members of the Turkish anarchist movement. For some background, see my earlier post about the Turkish airforce bombing Kurdish targets with the tacit support of the USA and NATO, while pretending to go after ISIS (the article in the Guardian quoted below refers to Turkey’s so-called “synchronised” bombing campaign against ISIS and the PKK; in reality, most of the bombs have been dropped on people in Kurdish areas, not ISIS). The HDP is a pro-Kurdish party which recently won seats in the Turkish legislature. The PKK is a Kurdish political party and insurgency that has been fighting for Kurdish autonomy for decades.

One of the bombs explodes in the middle of the march

One of the bombs explodes in the middle of the march

For early coverage of the attack, see this article in the Guardian newspaper. It’s not hard to read between the lines. Here are some disturbing quotes from the article:

“Scum attacked in Ankara,” said the Haberturk newspaper…

Some witnesses said ambulances could not immediately reach the scene of the attack, and that police obstructed the quick evacuation of the wounded from the square…

The prime minister’s office banned media coverage of the attack, citing “security reasons”, though several local media groups said they would ignore the ministry’s orders. Access to social media services, such as Twitter, was temporarily only possible through VPN in Turkey.

Veysel Eroglu, minister for forestry and water, attempted to put the blame on the organisers of the peace rally. “Our people need to be careful of such provocateurs that organise terrorist demonstrations in order to incite discord in social harmony,” he said.

The HDP, one of the groups organising the peace rally, said in a statement that it had specifically been targeted. Several HDP members and parliamentary candidates are among the victims of the attack.

Selahattin Demirtaş, co-chair of the HDP party, said: “This attack is not targeting our state and national unity, it is perpetrated by the state against the people. We are witnessing a massacre here. A cruel and barbarian attack was carried out. The death toll is high.” Demirtas added that he did not expect that those responsible for the bombings would be brought to justice.

Asked at a press conference if he had considered resigning over the Ankara attack, interior minister Selami Altinok denied that there had been failures in security preparations for the planned peace rally. Only hours after the Ankara bomb attacks, the PKK declared a unilateral ceasefire and called on its fighters to halt all guerrilla attacks in Turkey, according to the Firat news agency…

A rally for the pro-Kurdish HDP party was bombed in June, ahead of last year’s general election, but this is the deadliest single attack on the country’s soil…

Turkey has been in a heightened state of alert since starting a “synchronised war on terror” in July, including airstrikes against Islamic State fighters in Syria and PKK bases in northern Iraq. It has also rounded up hundreds of suspected militants at home.

Turkish anarchist demonstration

Turkish anarchist demonstration

Here is a statement from the Turkish anarchist group, the DAF (Revolutionary Anarchist Action):


Today, on the 10th of October, the “Labor, Democracy and Peace Meeting” that was organized by various unions, associations and organizations has been attacked. Like in Amed on June and in Suruc on July, the bombs exploding in Ankara today has killed tens of people.

Thousands of people came together from many different cities of the geography against the politics of war, against war profiteering of different power groups. Today, the bombs that exploded, murdered the people who wanted peace, life and freedom against war.

This explosion, in which more than 30 people have lost their lives until now, is a reflection of the blood thirsty greed of the powers. The ones who murdered in Amed, in Pirsus, in Cizir, are now trying to intimidate the peoples, frustrate with war politics and discourage from the struggle for freedom, by murdering tens of people in Ankara.

The powers should know that by any means, be it arrests or murder with bombs, we will not be afraid of the powers or submit their war politics.

For a new world, a life of freedom, the murderers in Amed, in Pirsus, Cizir and Ankara, murdered ones

Revolutionary Anarchist Action (DAF)


Anarchism at the Beginning of the Second World War

English anarchist anti-war cartoon (1945)

English anarchist anti-war cartoon (1945)

In this installment from “the Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss anarchist responses to the death and destruction wrought by the Second World War.

Anti-Militarist Poster

Anti-Militarist Poster

Facing the War

At the beginning of the Second World War, a group of anarchists in Geneva wrote that it is “an indispensable right, without which all other rights are mere illusions”, that “no one should be required to kill others or to expose themselves to being killed.” For them, the “worst form of disorder is not anarchy,” as critics of anarchism claim, “but war, which is the highest expression of authority” (Volume Two, Selection 3). That expression of authority was to result in the loss of tens of millions of lives in Europe and Asia during the next six years, culminating in the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. As Marie Louise Berneri remarked, anarchist acts of violence pale in comparison. A single bombing raid “kills more men, women and children than have been killed in the whole history, true or invented, of anarchist bombs.” When Italian anarchists tried to assassinate Mussolini, they were denounced as terrorists, but when “whole cities” are rubbed “off the map” as part of the war effort, reducing “whole populations to starvation, with its resulting scourge of epidemics and disease all over the world,” the workers “are asked to rejoice in this wholesale destruction from which there is no escaping” (Volume Two, Selection 4).

When anarchists resort to violence, they are held criminally responsible, and their beliefs denounced as the cause. When government forces engage in the wholesale destruction of war, no one (at least among the victors) is held responsible, belief in authority is not seen as the cause, and the very nation states which brought about the conflict are supposed to bring, as Marie Louise Berneri remarked, “peace and order… with their bombs” (Volume Two, Selection 4).

In response to the comments of a U.S. Army sergeant surveying a bombed out area in Germany that in “modern war there are crimes not criminals… Murder has been mechanized and rendered impersonal,” Paul Goodman wrote that “it is ridiculous to say that the crime cannot be imputed or that any one commits it without intent or in ignorance… The steps [the individual] takes to habituation and unconsciousness are crimes which entail every subsequent evil of enslavement and mass-murder” (Volume Two, Selection 11).

Alex Comfort noted that modern bureaucratic societies “have removed at least one of the most important bars to delinquent action by legislators and their executive, in the creation of a legislature which can enact its fantasies without witnessing their effects, and an executive which abdicates all responsibility for what it does in response to superior orders.” The “individual citizen contributes to [this] chiefly by obedience and lack of conscious or effective protest” (Volume Two, Selection 26). Comfort argued that the individual, by making “himself sufficiently numerous and combative,” can render the modern state impotent “by his withdrawal from delinquent attitudes,” undermining “the social support they receive” and the power of the authorities “whose policies are imposed upon society only through [individual] acquiescence or co-operation” (Volume Two, Selection 26).

At the beginning of the war, Emma Goldman had written that the “State and the political and economic institutions it supports can exist only by fashioning the individual to their particular purpose; training him to respect ‘law and order’; teaching him obedience, submission and unquestioning faith in the wisdom and justice of government; above all, loyal service and complete self-sacrifice when the State commands it, as in war.” For her, “true liberation, individual and collective, lies in [the individual’s] emancipation from authority and from belief in it” (Volume Two, Selection 2).

Herbert Read held a similar position, but focused on the role of modern education in creating a submissive populace, much had Francisco Ferrer before him (Volume One, Selection 65). Through the education system, “everything personal, everything which is the expression of individual perceptions and feelings, is either neglected, or subordinated to some conception of normality, of social convention, of correctness.” Read therefore advocated libertarian education, emphasizing the creative process and “education through art” (1943), arguing that it “is only in so far as we liberate” children, “shoots not yet stunted or distorted by an environment of hatred and injustice, that we can expect to make any enduring change in society” (Volume Two, Selection 36).

Paul Goodman described the school system as “compulsory mis-education” (1964), which perpetuated a society in which youth are “growing up absurd” (1960). His friend Ivan Illich was later to advocate “deschooling society” as a way of combating the commodification of social life, where everything, and everybody, becomes a commodity to be consumed (Volume Two, Selection 73). By the 1960s and 1970s, people were again experimenting in libertarian education (Volume Two, Selection 46), something which anarchists had been advocating since the time of William Godwin.

Robert Graham

Paul Goodman quote-humankind-is-innocent-loving-and-creative-you-dig-it-s-the-bureaucracies-that-create-paul-goodman-37-35-71

The Turkish Anarchist Movement

DAF -may 1st march

In Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included material by Kurdish anarchists and about anarchist influences on the Kurdish liberation movement. Space considerations prevented me from including material from the anarchist movement within Turkey. Periodically, I have been posting material from the Turkish anarchist movement about events in Turkey and in Kurdish areas where the Kurds are struggling to establish a freer and more just society. Below, I reproduce excerpts from a May 2015 interview with anarchists from the Turkish Devrimci Anarşist Faaliyet (DAF, or Revolutionary Anarchist Action), describing the multi-faceted approach taken by anarchists in Turkey, supporting and participating in workers’ and women’s struggles, the ecology movement, the cooperative movement, the anti-militarist movement, and supporting the Kurdish movement against oppression, whether by the Turkish and Syrian states, or by ISIS. The DAF anarchists interviewed refer to the influence of Errico Malatesta (1853-1932) on their approach. Malatesta’s ideas about the social struggle have been rearticulated by Davide Turcato in his book, Making Sense of Anarchism, which I recently excerpted on this blog.

DAF marchers

Building an Anarchist Movement in Turkey

The main issue for DAF is to organize anarchism within society. We try to socialize anarchism with struggle on the streets. This is what we give importance to. For nearly nine years we have been doing this.

On an ideological level we have a holistic perspective. We don’t have a hierarchical perspective on struggles. We think workers’ struggle is important but not more important than the Kurdish struggle or women’s struggles or ecological struggles.

Capitalism tries to divide these struggles. If the enemy is attacking us in a holistic way we have to approach it in a holistic way.

Anarchy has a bad meaning for most people in society. It has a link with terrorism and bombs. We want to legitimize anarchism by linking it to making arguments for struggles against companies and for ecology. Sometimes we try to focus on the links between the state, companies and ecological damages, like the thing that Corporate Watch does.

We like to present anarchy as an organized struggle. We have shown people on the streets the organized approach to anarchism.

From 1989 to 2000 anarchism was about image. About wearing black, piercings and Mohawks. This is what people saw. After 2000, people started to see anarchists who were part of women’s struggles and workers’ struggles.

We are not taking anarchism from Europe as an imitation. Other anarchists have approached anarchism as an imitation of US or European anarchism or as an underground culture. If we want to make anarchism a social movement, it must change.

DAF’s collectives are Anarchist Youth, Anarchist Women, 26A cafe, Patika ecological collective and high school anarchist action (LAF). These self-organizations work together but have their own decision-making processes.

Anarchist Youth makes connections between young workers and university students and their struggles. Anarchist Women focuses on patriarchy and violence toward women. For example, a woman was murdered by a man and set on fire last February. On 25 November there were big protests against violence against women.

LAF criticises education and schooling in itself and tries to socialize this way of thinking in high schools. LAF also looks at ecological and feminist issues, including when young women are murdered by their husbands.

PATIKA ecological collective protests against hydro electric dams in the Black Sea region or Hasankey [where the Ilisu dam is being built]. Sometimes there is fighting to prevent these plants from being built.

26A Café is a self organization focusing on anti-capitalist economy. Cafes were opened in 2009 in Taksim and 2011 in Kadıköy [both in Istanbul]. The cafes are run by volunteers. They are aimed at creating an economic model in the place where oppressed people are living. It’s important to show people concrete examples of an anarchist economy, without bosses or capitalist aims. We talk to people about why we don’t sell the big capitalist brands like Coca Cola. Of course the products we sell have a relation to capitalism but things like Coke are symbols of capitalism. We want to progress away from not-consuming and move towards alternative economies and ways of producing.

Another self organization, PAY-DA – ‘Sharing and solidarity’ – has a building in Kadıköy, which is used for meetings and producing the Meydan newspaper. PAY-DA gives meals to people three times a day. It’s open to anarchists and comrades. The aim of PAY-DA is to become a cooperative, open to everybody. We try to create a bond which also involves the producers in the villages. We aim to have links with these producers and show them another economic model. We try to evolve these economic relations away from money relations. The producers are suffering from the capitalist economy. We are in the first steps of this cooperative and we are looking for producers to work with.

All of these projects are related to DAF’s ideology. This model has a connection with Malatesta’s binary model of organization.

These are anarchist organizations but sometimes people who aren’t anarchists join these struggles because they know ecological or women’s struggles, and then at the end they will learn about anarchism. It’s an evolving process.

As DAF we are trying to organize our lives. This is the only way that we can touch the people who are oppressed by capitalism.

There is also the Conscientious Objectors’ Association, which is organized with other groups, not just anarchists. Our involvement in this has a relation with our perspective on Kurdistan. We organize anti-militarist action in Turkey outside of military bases on 15 May, conscientious objector’s day. In Turkey the military is related to state culture. If you don’t do your military duty, you won’t find a job and it’s difficult to find someone to marry because they ask if you’ve been to the army. If you have been to the army, you’re a ‘man’. People see the state as the ‘Fatherland’. On your CV they ask whether you did military service. ‘Every Turk is born a soldier’ is a popular slogan in Turkey.


Drawing the Line

Read Anarchy & Order

During the Second World War, those anarchists who were still able to do so began to rethink anarchist approaches to social revolution. Revolution, conceived as a mass, armed uprising, was appearing more and more remote, as the warring states created more and more lethal weaponry in their struggles for world domination. Some anarchists in England and the United States, such as Herbert Read, Alex Comfort and Paul Goodman, began to not only advocate non-violent direct action and mass civil disobedience, but to advocate a kind of “revolution of everyday life,” a phrase later made popular by the Situationists. They no longer  thought it was possible to take on state power on its own terms, the terrain of mass military mobilization and destructive fire power, culminating with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the War. Instead, they argued that rather than trying to substitute a new order for the old one, anarchists should seek to expand the “spheres of freedom” until they encompassed all of social life. In more modern parlance, they advocated creating ever widening autonomous zones (see Hakim Bey, “TAZ,” in Anarchism, Volume 3, Selection 11). The following brief summary of their views is taken from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to my anthology of anarchist writings from ancient China to the present day, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

Drawing the Line

Drawing the Line

Bearing in mind the difficulties recently faced by the Spanish anarchists in the Spanish Revolution and Civil War, at the beginning of the Second World War Herbert Read warned against the revolutionary seizure of power, instead looking forward to “a spontaneous and universal insurrection” (Volume Two, Selection 1), but one which would employ nonviolent methods, for people “cannot struggle against” the modern state, armed with atomic bombs, “on the plane of force… Our action must be piecemeal, non-violent, insidious and universally pervasive” (Volume Two, Selection 36). Alex Comfort took a similar position, arguing that the “very states which are able to make and use atomic weapons are singularly vulnerable, by their very complexity, to the attacks of individual disobedience” (Volume Two, Selection 12).

Paul Goodman described this process as “Drawing the Line, beyond which [we] cannot cooperate.” But although we “draw the line in their conditions; we proceed on our conditions,” replacing “the habit of coercion [with] a habit of freedom… Our action must be aimed, not at a future establishment; but… at fraternal arrangements today, progressively incorporating more and more of the social functions into our free society,” for the creation of a “free society cannot be the substitution of a ‘new order’ for the old order; it is the extension of spheres of free action until they make up most of the social life” (Volume Two, Selection 11).

Read, Comfort and Goodman all advocated various forms of non-violent direct action, including war resistance and opposition to conscription through such means as draft evasion. Such attitudes were dangerous and unpopular, particularly during the Second World War. Anarchists who practiced draft resistance were imprisoned in France, England and the United States. It was only in the early 1960s in France, and a few years later in the United States, that mass draft resistance movements emerged in opposition to the French war in Algeria and the U.S. war in Vietnam (Volume Two, Selection 31).

Robert Graham

alex comfort on anarchism

Poetry and Anarchism: Herbert Read

Herbert Read

Herbert Read

Continuing with my installments from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in this section I discuss the contributions of Herbert Read to the development of anarchist ideas in response to the Spanish Revolution and Civil War. I included several selections from Read in Volumes One and Two of the Anarchism anthology. Read influenced people like Alex Comfort, Howard Zinn and Murray Bookchin, laying the groundwork for the new directions in anarchist theory that were to emerge from out of the aftermath of the Second World War.


Poetry and Anarchism

One of the anarchists involved in rethinking anarchism around the time of the Spanish Revolution and Civil War was the English poet, art critic and essayist, Herbert Read (1893-1968). In Poetry and Anarchism (1938), Read acknowledged that “to declare for a doctrine so remote as anarchism at this stage of history will be regarded by some critics as a sign of intellectual bankruptcy; by others as a sort of treason, a desertion of the democratic front at the most acute moment of its crisis; by still others as mere poetic nonsense.” Read sought to “balance anarchism with surrealism, reason with romanticism, the understanding with the imagination, function with freedom” (Volume One, Selection 130). He developed an ecological conception of anarchism emphasizing spontaneity and differentiation. He saw society as “an organic being” in which communities “can live naturally and freely” and individuals can “develop in consciousness of strength, vitality and joy,” with progress being “measured by the degree of differentiation within a society” (Volume Two, Selection 1). It was partly through Read’s writings that Murray Bookchin was later inspired to draw the connections between ecology and anarchism (Volume Two, Selection 48).

Read noted that even “if you abolish all other classes and distinctions and retain a bureaucracy you are still far from the classless society, for the bureaucracy is itself the nucleus of a class whose interests are totally opposed to the people it supposedly serves.” Taking advantage of the bureaucratic structure of the modern state, the professional politician rises to power, “his motive throughout [being] personal ambition and megalomania” (Volume One, Selection 130), a notion further developed by Alex Comfort in his post-war book, Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State, in which he argued that the bureaucratic state, through its power structures, provides a ready outlet for those with psychopathic tendencies (Volume Two, Selection 26).

ReadHerbert-1938Read sought to reverse the rise to power of professional politicians and bureaucrats by advocating a “return to a functional basis of representation,” by which he meant the development of decentralized but federated organs of self-management, as had long been advocated by anarchists from Proudhon and Bakunin to the anarcho-syndicalists. The professional politician would be replaced by the “ad hoc delegate,” who would continue to work within his or her area, such that there would be “no whole-time officials, no bureaucrats, no politicians, no dictators” (Volume One, Selection 130).

Arguing that “real politics are local politics,” Read proposed that local councils or “governments” composed of delegates from the community and the functional groups that comprise it “control all the immediate interests of the citizen,” with “remoter interests—questions of cooperation, intercommunication, and foreign affairs—[being] settled by councils of delegates elected by the local councils and the [workers’] syndicates.” Read admitted that this was a system of government, but distinguished this conception of local and functional organization from the “autonomous State,” which “is divorced from its immediate functions and becomes an entity claiming to control the lives and destinies of its subjects,” such that “liberty ceases to exist” (Volume One, Selection 130).

Robert Graham


Making Sense of Malatesta

Making Sense

Davide Turcato’s excellent book, Making Sense of Anarchism: Errico Malatesta’s Experiments with Revolution, 1889-1900, is now out in paperback from AK Press. Davide charts Malatesta’s changing views of anarchism and revolution from the time of the First International to the 20th century, focusing on the period from 1889-1900, when Malatesta developed what Davide describes as a concept of “anarchist gradualism,” which nevertheless remained revolutionary, but acknowledged that anarchists were likely to remain a minority voice on the revolutionary left. Here I reproduce excerpts from Chapter 9, where Davide describes Malatesta’s “anarchist gradualism” in more detail. I included several excerpts from Malatesta’s writings in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

Errico Malatesta

Errico Malatesta

Malatesta’s Anarchist Gradualism

Malatesta summed up the trajectory of Italian anarchism in an article of 1931, a year before his death. He recalled that sixty years earlier, at the outset of their movement, anarchists believed that anarchy and communism could come about as direct, immediate consequence of a victorious insurrection and that their establishment would be the very initial act of the social revolution.

‘This was indeed the idea that, after being accepted a little later by Kropotkin, was popularized and almost established by him as the definitive programme of anarchism’ (‘A proposito di “revisionismo”’). That confidence rested on the beliefs that the people had the innate capacity to self-organize and provide for their own interests and that anarchists interpreted the deep instincts of the masses. As time went by, study and experience proved that many such beliefs were wishful thinking.

The historian Richard Hostetter regards that early belief in the ‘instinctive revolutionism of the masses’ as the kernel of an inescapable ‘anarchists’ dilemma’ that by 1882 had already determined the ‘ideological liquidation’ of the Italian International (409–10). However, in spite of the ‘obsequies of the Italian anarchist movement’ that end Hostetter’s book (425), anarchist theory and tactics had more resources and potential than many historians would like to believe.


As Malatesta remarked in his 1931 article, the key realizations that neither the mass had all the virtues attributed to it, nor that propaganda had all the potential that anarchists had believed, were the starting point of a new outlook on the social struggle. Anarchists realized that only a limited number of people could be converted in a given environment; then, finding new members became increasingly difficult, until economic and political occurrences created new opportunities.

‘After reaching a certain point’, Malatesta observed, ‘numbers could not grow except by watering down and adulterating one’s programme, as happened to the democratic socialists, who were able to gather imposing masses, but only at the price of ceasing to be real socialists.’ Anarchists came to understand their mission differently, based on the conviction that the aspiration to integral freedom, or the ‘anarchist spirit’, was the cause of humanity’s progress, while political and economic privileges pushed humanity back into a barbaric condition, unless such privileges found an obstacle in a more or less conscious anarchism.

Anarchists understood that ‘anarchy could only come gradually, to the extent that the mass could understand and desire it, but it would never come except under the impulse of a more or less consciously anarchist minority, acting so as to prepare the necessary environment’. Remaining anarchists and acting as anarchists in all circumstances, before, during, and after a revolution, was the duty they set to themselves (‘A proposito di “revisionismo”’).

Malatesta had summarized what anarchists were to do before, during, and after a revolution in his 1925 article ‘Gradualismo’. For Malatesta, anarchy could still be seen as absolute perfection, and it was right that this concept should remain in the anarchists’ minds, like a beacon to guide their steps, but obviously such an ideal could not be attained in one sudden leap. Nor, conversely, were anarchists to wait till everyone become anarchist to achieve anarchy.


On the contrary, they were revolutionary precisely because they believed that under present conditions only a small minority could conceive what anarchy was, while it would be chimerical to hope for a general conversion before the environment changed. Since anarchists could neither convert everybody at once, nor remain in isolation from the rest of society, it was necessary to find ways to apply anarchy, or that degree of anarchy that became gradually feasible, among people who were not anarchist, or were such to different degrees, as soon as a sufficient amount of freedom was won, and anarchist nuclei existed with enough numerical strength and capabilities to be self-sufficient and spread their influence locally.

Before a revolution, Malatesta argued, anarchists were to propagate their ideas and educate as widely as possible, rejecting any compromise with the enemy and keeping ready, at least mentally, to grab any opportunity that could present itself.

What were they to do during a revolution? They could not make a revolution alone, nor that would be advisable, for without mobilizing all spiritual forces, interests, and aspirations of an entire people a revolution would be abortive. And even in the unlikely case that anarchists were able to succeed alone, they would find themselves in the paradoxical position of either pushing forward the revolution in an authoritarian manner or pulling back and letting someone else take control of the situation for their own aims. Thus, anarchists should act in agreement with all progressive forces and attract the largest possible mass, letting the revolution, of which anarchists would only be one component, yield whatever it could.

However, anarchists were not to renounce their specific aim. On the contrary, they were to remain united as anarchists and distinct from other parties and fight for their own programme: the abolition of political power and the expropriation of capitalists. If, notwithstanding their efforts, new powers succeeded in establishing themselves, hindered popular initiative, and imposed their will, anarchists should disavow those powers, induce the people to withhold human and material resources from them, and weaken them as much as possible, until it became possible to overthrow them altogether. In any case, anarchists were to demand, even by force, full autonomy, and the right and means to organize and live their own way, and experiment with the social arrangements they deemed best.


The aftermath of a revolution, after the overthrow of the existing power and the final triumph of the insurgents, was the terrain in which gradualism was to become really crucial. All practical problems of life were to be studied – concerning production, exchange, means of communication, and so on – and each problem was to be solved in the way that was not only economically most convenient, but also most satisfactory from the point of view of justice and freedom, and left the way open to future improvements.

In case of conflict between different requirements, justice, freedom, and solidarity were to be prioritized over economic convenience. While fighting against authority and privilege, anarchists were to profit [from] all the benefits of civilization. No institution that fulfilled a need, even imperfectly, was to be destroyed until it could be replaced with a better solution to provide for that need. While anarchists were intransigent against any imposition and capitalistic exploitation, they were to be tolerant toward any social plans prevailing in the various groupings, as long as such plans did not infringe the equal freedom of others.

Anarchists were to be content with progressing gradually, in step with the people’s moral development and as material and intellectual means increased, doing at the same time all they could, by study, work, and propaganda, to hasten the development towards ever more advanced ideals. Solutions would be diverse, according to circumstances, but would always conform, as far as anarchists were concerned, to the fundamental principle that coercion and exploitation were to be rejected (‘Gradualismo’).

Ultimately, as Malatesta wrote in an open letter of 1929 to Nestor Makhno, ‘the important thing is not the victory of our plans, our projects, our utopias, which in any case need the confirmation of experience and can be modified by experience, developed and adapted to the real moral and material conditions of the age and place. What matters most is that the people, men and women lose the sheeplike instincts and habits which thousands of years of slavery have instilled in them, and learn to think and act freely. And it is to this great work of moral liberation that the anarchists must specially dedicate themselves’ (‘A proposito della “Plateforme”’).

Davide Turcato

malatesta anarchist spirit

Anarchism in the Korean Liberation Movement

Korean Anarchist Federation 1928

Korean Anarchist Federation 1928

In this section from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss anarchist influences in the Korean national liberation movement prior to the Korean War.

Anarchism in the Korean Liberation Movement

Japan annexed Korea in 1910, around the same time that Japanese authorities had made their first attempt to destroy the nascent Japanese anarchist movement by executing several leading anarchists, including Kôtoku Shûsui (Volume One, Selection 102). The Japanese occupation of Korea gave rise to a national liberation movement to free the Korean people from Japanese exploitation and domination. Some of the more radical elements in the liberation movement gravitated toward anarchism.

In 1923, a prominent member of the movement, Shin Chaeho (1880-1936), published his “Declaration of the Korean Revolution” in which he argued that when driving out their Japanese exploiters, the Korean people must be careful not to “replace one privileged group with another.” The goal of the Korean revolution should be the creation of a world in which “one human being will not be able to oppress other human beings and one society will not be able to exploit other societies.” The revolution must therefore be a “revolution of the masses.” To succeed in constructing a free society, the revolution must destroy foreign rule, the “privileged class” that benefits from it, the “system of economic exploitation,” “social inequality” and “servile cultural thoughts” created by conformist forms of “religion, ethics, literature, fine arts, customs and public morals” (Volume One, Selection 105).

In emphasizing the constructive role of destruction, Shin Chaeho was expressing a viewpoint shared by many anarchists that can be traced back to Proudhon and Bakunin (Volume One, Selection 10). He also recognized that to win the masses over to the cause of the revolution, they must be convinced that the revolution will result in material improvements and greater freedom for themselves, not simply the expulsion of their foreign rulers. As Kropotkin put it, for “the revolution to be anything more than a word… the conquest of the day itself must be worth the trouble of defending; the poor of yesterday must not find themselves even poorer today” (Volume One, Selection 45).

This was one of the reasons why Kropotkin had entitled his most sustained argument in favour of anarchist communism The Conquest of Bread (Volume One, Selection 33). When Korean anarchists began publishing their own paper in 1928, they called it Talhwan, or Conquest, and championed anarchist communism, calling for the abolition of capitalism and government (Volume One, Selection 108). They also rejected the Marxist “state capitalism” that was being created in the Soviet Union through the “despotic and dictatorial” policies of the Soviet Communist Party (the Bolsheviks).

Korean anarchists, including Shin Chaeho, were instrumental in forming the Eastern Anarchist Federation in 1927, which had members from Korea, China, Vietnam, Taiwan and Japan. Most of their work and publications had to be carried out from exile, and even then at great risk to themselves. Shin Chaeho was arrested by Japanese authorities in Taiwan in 1928 and died in prison in 1936. However, after the defeat of Japan in the Second World War, it was only in Korea that a significant anarchist movement reemerged in southeast Asia.

In China, the Marxist Communists under the leadership of Mao Zedong had seized control by 1949. They no more tolerated an independent anarchist movement than had the Communists in the Soviet Union. In Japan, the U.S. occupiers engineered the purging of radicals, whether Marxist or anarchist, from positions of influence within the trade union movement, and the reform of rural landholdings, creating “a new class of landowning small farmers” who “then became a bastion of political conservatism” hostile rather than sympathetic toward anarchism (Crump, 1996).

During the war, some Korean anarchists participated in the Korean Provisional Government in exile. Their desire for Korean independence superseded their commitment to anarchist ideals. Before the war, the Korean Anarchist Federation had rejected the establishment of a “national united front” (Volume One, Selection 108). After the war, Yu Lim, who had served as a cabinet minister in the Provisional Government, urged the anarchists to support an independent Korean government to prevent Korea from falling “into the hands of either the Stalinists to the north or the imperialistic compradore-capitalists to the south” (Volume Two, Selection 9).

Other Korean anarchists, while seeking “to cooperate with all genuinely revolutionary nationalist groups of the left,” continued to call for “total liberation” through the “free federation of autonomous units covering the whole country” (Volume Two, Selection 9). At the conclusion of the war in 1945, grass roots committees for the reconstruction of Korea sprang up across the country, and peasants and workers began forming independent unions. However, this process of social reconstruction “from the bottom upward” came to a halt after the Soviet Union and the United States imposed their own “national” governments in the north and south in 1948, leading to the divisive and inconclusive Korean War (1950-1953).

Robert Graham

Shin Chaeho

Shin Chaeho

Japanese Anarchism Before the War

Museifushugi brief history of anarchism in prewar Japan

Continuing with my installments from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, here I discuss anarchism in Japan prior to the Second World War. I included several selections from pre-War Japanese anarchists in Volume One of the Anarchism anthology, and in Volume Three, I included an update on Japanese anarchism since the 1960s.


Class Struggle and ‘Pure’ Anarchism in Japan

In contrast to the decline of the Chinese anarchist movement in the 1920s, according to John Crump, “the anarchists in Japan were organisationally stronger than ever before, and there was a corresponding flowering of ideas and theories, particularly among the anarchist communists” (Crump, 1996). The anarchist communists identified themselves as “pure anarchists.” They criticized the anarcho-syndicalist concept of workers’ control of the existing means of production. As Hatta Shûzô (1886-1934) put it, “in a society which is based on the division of labour, those engaged in vital production… would have more power over the machinery of coordination than those engaged in other lines of production.”

The Japanese “pure anarchists” therefore proposed a decentralized system of communal production “performed autonomously on a human scale,” where “production springs from consumption,” being designed to meet local and individual wants and needs, in contrast to existing systems of production, where consumption is driven by the demands of production. Under such a system of decentralized human scale production, people “can coordinate the work process themselves,” such that there is no need for a “superior body and there is no place for power” (Volume One, Selection 106).


Japanese anarcho-syndicalist advocates of class struggle agreed that the existing authoritarian system of production should be replaced by “communal property… where there is neither exploiter nor exploited, neither master nor slave,” with society being “revived with spontaneity and mutual free agreement as an integral whole” (Volume One, Selection 107). However, in order to create such a society a profound revolutionary transformation was required. The anarcho-syndicalists argued that it was only by participating in the workers’ daily struggles against the capitalist system that anarchists would be able to inspire a revolutionary movement capable of creating the anarchist community to which the “pure anarchists” aspired.

Contrary to the claims of the “class struggle” anarcho-syndicalists though, the “pure anarchists” did not hold themselves aloof from the workers’ struggles but convinced the anarchist Zenkoku Jiren labour federation to adopt a “pure anarchist” position which emphasized that their goal was not to take over the existing means of production, replacing the capitalists and the government with a trade union administration, but to create a decentralized system of communal production based on human-scale technology, a position similar to that developed by Murray Bookchin in the 1960s (Volume Two, Selections 48, 62 & 74).

anarcho syndicalism

The Zenkoku Jiren reached out to Japanese tenant farmers, seeing them “as the crucial social force which could bring about the commune-based, alternative society to capitalism” advocated by the “pure anarchists” (Crump, 1996). The appeal of this vision to radical Japanese workers and farmers is illustrated by the fact that by 1931, the Zenkoku Jiren had about 16,000 members, whereas the more conventional anarcho-syndicalist federation, the Jikyô, had only 3,000.

In the early 1930s, as the Japanese state began a concerted push for imperialist expansion by invading Manchuria, the state authorities renewed their campaign against the Japanese anarchist movement, which was staunchly anti-imperialist. In the face of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, the Japanese Libertarian Federation had called on all people to “cease military production, refuse military service and disobey the officers” (Volume One, Selection 110). Anarchist organizations were banned and hundreds of anarchists arrested. By 1936, the organized anarchist movement in Japan had been crushed.

Robert Graham

War flag of the Imperial Japanese Army

War flag of the Imperial Japanese Army

The Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution (1936-1939)

CNT Anarchist militia

CNT Anarchist militia

Continuing with my installments from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, here I present my concluding remarks on the anarchists in the Spanish Revolution and Civil War. In Volume One of the Anarchism anthology, I included a chapter on the Spanish Revolution. I have also created a page on this blog on the anarchists in the Spanish Revolution which includes additional material that I was unable to fit into Volume One.

CNT at the barricades

The CNT in the Spanish Civil War

The greatest controversy in which Abad de Santillán was involved arose from the decisions by the CNT during the Spanish Civil War to accept posts in the Catalonian governing council in September 1936 and, in November 1936, the central government in Madrid. In December 1936, Abad de Santillán became the Councillor of Economy in the regional government in Catalonia (the Generalitat). Not only did the “militants” of the FAI fail to prevent this fatal compromise of anarchist principles, some of the CNT ministers were themselves members of the FAI (such as Juan García Oliver, who became the Minister of Justice in the Madrid government, and Abad de Santillán himself). The decision to join the government was engineered by the National Committee of the CNT (which became the de facto ruling council of the CNT during the course of the Civil War) in order to obtain arms and financing, neither of which were forthcoming.

The decision of the CNT leadership to join the Spanish government was sharply criticized by many well known anarchists, including Camillo Berneri, Sébastien Faure, and Alexander Schapiro. Writing for the IWA publication, The International, the Swedish anarcho-syndicalist Albert Jensen (1879-1957) pointed out that it was by way of revolution that the workers in Catalonia had prevented General Franco from seizing power when he began the military revolt against the republican government in July 1936. Anarchists and syndicalists stormed military barracks, seized weapons and began collectivizing industry, while the republican government was in a state of virtual collapse. However, in order to maintain a “united front” against fascism, and to avoid imposing their own de facto dictatorship, the CNT-FAI decided it was better to work within the republican government rather than against it.

The problem was that, as Jensen pointed out, during a civil war the government “must have recourse always to dictatorship,” governing by decree and imposing military discipline, so instead of imposing an “anarchist” dictatorship the CNT-FAI was propping up a “counter-revolutionary” dictatorship, which hardly constituted “loyalty to [anarchist] ideas” and principles. “Wounded unto death, the State received new life thanks to the governmental participation of the CNT-FAI.” If the CNT-FAI had to work with other anti-fascists, whether capitalists or the authoritarian Communists loyal to Moscow, it would have been better for the CNT-FAI to remain outside the government, taking the position that “under no pretext, would they tolerate any attack on the revolutionary accomplishments and that they would defend these with all the necessary means” (Volume One, Selection 127).


The Spanish Revolution

In the factories and in the countryside, in areas that did not immediately fall under fascist control, there was a far-reaching social revolution. Spanish peasants collectivized the land and workers took over their factories. In the factories, the workers in assembly would make policy decisions and elect delegates to coordinate production and distribution. In the countryside, village and town assemblies were held in which all members of the community were able to participate.

In “the agrarian regions and especially in Aragon,” observed Gaston Leval (1895-1978), “a new organism appeared: the Collective.” The collective was not a trade union or syndical organization, “for it encompasses all those who wish to join it whether they are producers in the classic economic sense or not.” Neither was it a commune or municipal council, as it “encompasses at the same time the Syndicate and municipal functions.” The “whole population,” not merely the producers, “takes part in [the] management” of the collective, dealing with all sorts of issues, “whether it is a question of policy for agriculture, for the creation of new industries, for social solidarity, medical service or public education” (Volume One, Selection 126).

Although the anarchist collectives were ultimately destroyed, first by the Stalinist Communists in republican areas, and then by the fascists as they subjugated all of Spain, they constitute the greatest achievement of the Spanish anarchist movement. Through the crucible of the social revolution itself, the Spanish people developed this new, more inclusive form of libertarian organization which transcended the limits of anarcho-syndicalist trade union and factory committee forms of organization, inspiring generations to come.

CNT final blow

Counter-Revolution in Spain

Those anarchists who attempted to work within the republican government were consistently outmaneuvered by the Republicans, Socialists and Communists. The areas in which anarchists were free to implement their ideas continued to shrink, but it was the May Days in Barcelona in 1937 that effectively marked the end of the anarchist social revolution in Spain. Factories and services under anarchist inspired workers’ self-management were attacked by Republican and Communist forces while they did battle with the anarchist militias, and several prominent anarchists were murdered, including Camillo Berneri and the Libertarian Youth leader, Alfredo Martinez. The CNT leadership negotiated a truce with the Republican government rather than engage in a “civil war” within the civil war. Hundreds of anarchists were killed in the fighting, and many more were imprisoned. The Socialists and Communists, unsuccessful in having the CNT declared illegal, forced them out of the government and continued their campaign of “decollectivization” and disarmament of the anarchist groups.

Given this disastrous turn of events, Abad de Santillán had second thoughts about the CNT’s policy of collaboration. By April 1937, he had already ceased being a member of the Catalonian cabinet. The following year he denounced those “anarchists” who had used their positions within the movement “as a springboard to defect to the other side where the pickings are easier and the thorns less sharp,” obtaining “high positions of political and economic privilege.” The CNT-FAI’s participation “in political power,” which he had also once “thought advisable due to circumstances, in light of the war,” had demonstrated “yet again what Kropotkin once said of the parliamentary socialists: ‘You mean to conquer the State, but the State will end up conquering you’” (Volume One, Selection 128).

Abad de Santillán noted that the self-styled anarchist “avant-garde,” who fancied themselves the “best trained, most prestigious, sharpest witted,” himself included, were not “in the vanguard of economic and social change” but instead “proved a hindrance, a brake, a hurdle to that change.” He had to admit that the “broad masses” of the Spanish people “were better prepared than their supposed mentors and guides when it came to revolutionary reconstruction.” For Abad de Santillán, by “standing with the State and thus against the people,” anarchists who were working within the Republican government were “not only committing an irreparable act of betrayal of the revolution,” they were “also betraying the war effort, because we are denying it the active support of the people,” who were becoming increasingly alienated from the Republican government as it sought to dismantle the anarchist collectives and other organs of self-management that had been created by the people themselves (Volume One, Selection 128).

Under the pressure of civil war, the CNT-FAI came more and more to resemble a conventional political party. The CNT’s National Committee would negotiate with the Republican government, and then present whatever deals they could get to the membership as a fait accompli. In effect, the “inverse” pyramidal federalist structure of the CNT was turned upside down, as the CNT began to function as a top-down political organization. The anarchist militias were dissolved, broken up or absorbed into the Communist dominated Republican army and subjected to strict military discipline (Richards, 1972).

Looking back on the Revolution and Civil War, José Peirats (1908-1989), active in the CNT and later its historian, believed that “those of us who consistently opposed collaboration with the government had as our only alternative a principled, heroic defeat.” Nevertheless, he was sympathetic to those principled anarchists for whom “the only solution was to leave an indelible mark on the present without compromising the future,” through their “constructive revolutionary experiments like the collectives, artistic and cultural achievements, new models of free, communal living.” This entailed “staying out of intrigues, avoiding complicity with the counterrevolution within the government, protecting the organization and its militants from the vainglory of rulers or the pride of the newly rich.” The seemingly insurmountable difficulties in maintaining these revolutionary achievements in the midst of civil war caused Peirats to question not these achievements, but “the idea of revolution” itself, conceived as a mass armed uprising seeking to overthrow the existing regime which inevitably degenerates into civil war (Peirats: 188-189), a critique further developed by Luc Bonet (Volume Three, Selection 12). This process of rethinking revolution was to be continued by many anarchists after the Spanish Revolution and the Second World War.

Robert Graham

Peirats CNT Spanish Revolution


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 514 other followers