The Spread of Anarchism and the 1905 Russian Revolution

another world

In the latest installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss the spread of anarchist ideas and movements at the beginning of the 20th century, and the significance of the 1905 Russian Revolution. I refer to Kropotkin’s perceptive analysis of the significance of the 1905 Russian Revolution, the full text of which can be found here. Before the 1917 Russian Revolution, as the Marxist historian E.J. Hobsbawm himself admitted, “the bulk of the revolutionary left was anarcho-syndicalist, or at least much closer to the ideas and the mood of anarcho-syndicalism than to that of classical marxism.”


The Spread of Anarchism

Prior to the First World War, anarchism had become an international revolutionary movement, with the largest anarchist movements in countries with anarcho-syndicalist trade union organizations, such as Spain, Italy, Portugal, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Uruguay, or like minded revolutionary syndicalist movements, as in France. In the early 1900s, anarchist ideas were introduced to Japan (Volume One, Selection 102) and China (Volume One, Selections 96-99). Anarchists and syndicalists, despite the efforts of the Marxists and social democrats to exclude the anarchists from the international socialist movement, formed the extreme left wing of the socialist and trade union movements. Anarchist ideas regarding direct action, autonomous social organization, anti-parliamentarianism, expropriation, social revolution and the general strike were gaining more currency, particularly after the 1905 Russian Revolution, and the Mexican Revolution of 1910.

1905 Russian Revolution

1905 Russian Revolution

 The 1905 Russian Revolution

In January 1905, Czarist troops massacred scores of protesters at a demonstration in St. Petersburg, precipitating a general strike and the formation of the first “soviets,” or workers’ councils in Russia (Voline, 1947: 96-101). Following Russia’s defeat in its war against Japan in February 1905, unrest spread throughout Russia, culminating in a countrywide general strike in October 1905. The Czar was forced to promise constitutional reforms, which he soon reneged upon. Nevertheless, the great general strike of October 1905 made a deep impression on workers and revolutionaries around the world, giving renewed credence to anarchist ideas, for it was the anarchists who had been advocating the general strike as a revolutionary weapon since the time of the First International (Volume One, Selection 27). The Marxist social democrats had been dismissing the general strike as “general nonsense” for years (Joll: 193).

Kropotkin observed that “what exasperated the rulers most” about the general strike “was that the workers offered no opportunity for shooting at them and reestablishing ‘order’ by massacres. A new weapon, more terrible than street warfare, had thus been tested and proved to work admirably” (1905: 280). Despite this practical vindication of anarchist ideas, Malatesta was careful to point out the limitations of the general strike. Instead of “limiting ourselves to looking forward to the general strike as a panacea for all ills,” Malatesta warned, anarchists needed to prepare for the insurrection or civil war which would inevitably follow the workers’ seizure of the means of production. For it is not enough for the workers to halt production; to avoid being forced by their own hunger back to work, the workers need to provide for themselves (Volume One, Selection 60).

As the anarchist pacifist Bart de Ligt (1883-1938) put it in the 1930s, “the workers must not strike by going home or into the streets, thus separating themselves from the means of production and giving themselves over to dire poverty but… on the contrary, they must stay on the spot and control these means of production” for their own benefit (Volume One, Selection 120). Maurice Joyeux (1910-1991), following the May-June 1968 events in France, described such action as the “self-managerial” general strike, by which the workers directly take control of the means of production (Volume Two, Selection 61).

No revolutionary group could claim credit for the 1905 Russian Revolution. As Kropotkin noted, the October 1905 general strike “was not the work of any revolutionary organization. It was entirely a workingmen’s affair” (1905: 278). What the anarchists could do was point to the 1905 Russian Revolution as a practical vindication of their ideas, enabling them to reach a much broader audience inspired by these events.

Robert Graham

Russian anarchist sailors

Russian anarchist sailors

Anarchism: Against Nationalism, Colonialism & War

NO ware

This is the next installment from “The Anarchist Current,” the afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. I have now created an “Anarchist Current” page on this blog, where I am including all of the installments as they are posted, so that eventually the entire essay will be available on one webpage.


Nationalism and Colonialism

From the time that explicitly anarchist ideas emerged from Europe in the 1840s, anarchists have denounced the artificial division of peoples into competing nations and states as an unceasing source of militarism, war and conflict, and as a means by which the ruling classes secure the obedience of the masses. “It is the governments,” Proudhon wrote in 1851, “who, pretending to establish order among men, arrange them forthwith in hostile camps, and as their only occupation is to produce servitude at home, their art lies in maintaining war abroad, war in fact or war in prospect. The oppression of peoples and their mutual hatred are two correlative, inseparable facts, which reproduce each other, and which cannot come to an end except simultaneously, by the destruction of their common cause, government” (Volume One, Selection 12).

In Moribund Society and Anarchy (1893), Jean Grave asked, “what can be more arbitrary than frontiers? For what reason do men located on this side of a fictitious line belong to a nation more than those on the other side? The arbitrariness of these distinctions is so evident that nowadays the racial spirit is claimed as the justification for parceling peoples into distinct nations. But here again the distinction is of no value and rests upon no serious foundation, for every nation is itself but an amalgamation of races quite different from each other, not to speak of the interminglings and crossings which the relations operating among nations, more and more developed, more and more intimate, bring about everyday… To the genuine individual all men are brothers and have equal rights to live and to evolve according to their own wills, upon this earth which is large enough and fruitful enough to nourish all… Instead of going on cutting each other’s throats [the workers] ought to stretch out their hands across the frontiers and unite all their efforts in making war upon their real, their only enemies: authority and capital” (Volume One, Selection 76).


Having drawn the connection between racism, patriotism and war, Grave went on to deal with colonialism, “this hybrid product of patriotism and mercantilism combined—brigandage and highway robbery for the benefit of the ruling classes!” Bakunin had earlier remarked that “to offend, to despoil, to plunder, to assassinate or enslave one’s fellowman is ordinarily regarded as a crime. In public life, on the other hand, from the standpoint of patriotism, when these things are done for the greater glory of the State, for the preservation or the extension of its power, it is all transformed into duty and virtue” (Volume One, Selection 20).

In his discussion of colonialism, Grave observed in a similar vein that when someone breaks “into his neighbour’s house,” stealing whatever he can, “he is a criminal; society condemns him. But if a government finds itself driven to a standstill by an internal situation which necessitates some external ‘diversion’; if it be encumbered at home by unemployed hands of which it knows not how to rid itself; of products which it cannot get distributed; let this government declare war against remote peoples which it knows to be too feeble to resist it, let it take possession of their country, subject them to an entire system of exploitation, force its products upon them, massacre them if they attempt to escape this exploitation with which it weighs them down… It is no longer called robbery or assassination… this is called ‘civilizing’ undeveloped peoples” (Volume One, Selection 76).

mother earth anti-patriotism

Anarchists opposed colonial domination and exploitation, as well as militarism, war and the State. At the 1907 International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam, the delegates declared themselves “enemies of all armed force vested in the hands of the State—be it army, gendarmerie, police or magistracy” and expressed their “hope that all the peoples concerned will respond to any declaration of war by insurrection” (Volume One, Selection 80). Unfortunately, when war broke out in Europe in 1914, the peoples concerned did not respond with insurrection against their warring masters but for the most part rushed off to slaughter. This caused a very small minority of anarchists, including some very prominent ones, such as Grave and Kropotkin, to support the war against Germany in order to defend English and French “liberties” against German imperialism.

Most anarchists opposed the war, with a group including Malatesta, Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Luigi Bertoni, George Barrett, Ferdinand Domela Niewenhuis and Alexander Schapiro issuing an International Anarchist Manifesto Against War (1915), in which they argued that France, with “its Biribi [penal battalions in Algeria], its bloody conquests in Tonkin, Madagascar, Morocco, and its compulsory enlistment of black troops,” and England, “which exploits, divides, and oppresses the population of its immense colonial Empire,” were hardly deserving of anarchist support (Volume One, Selection 81). Rather, it is the mission of anarchists who, Malatesta wrote, “wish the end of all oppression and of all exploitation of man by man… to awaken a consciousness of the antagonism of interests between dominators and dominated, between exploiters and workers, and to develop the class struggle inside each country, and the solidarity among all workers across the frontiers, as against any prejudice and passion of either race or nationality” (Volume One, Selection 80).

Robert Graham

anarchist maiden

Ursula Le Guin on Murray Bookchin and the Ecological Imperative

bookchin next revolution

Below, I reproduce some comments by Ursula Le Guin on Murray Bookchin, taken from her preface to a new collection of some of Bookchin’s writings on libertarian municipalism, communalism and direct democracy, The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy, edited by Debbie Bookchin (his daughter) and Blair Taylor. In Volumes Two and Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included several excerpts from Bookchin’s anarchist writings on ecology, popular assemblies, direct democracy and direct action. Murray Bookchin has been in the news recently as one of the ideological inspirations for the experiment in direct democracy now being undertaken in Rojava in northern Syria, under attack by the Islamic State and threatened by Turkish intervention. Ursula Le Guin is a well known science fiction writer who has often dealt with ecological and anarchist themes in her books, particularly in The Dispossessed, which is about an anarchist society in exile on a moon orbiting an Earth like planet, the strains within that society and the need for a social revolution on the planet below.

Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin

Direct Democracy and the Ecological Imperative

What all political and social thinking has finally been forced to face is, of course, the irreversible degradation of the environment by unrestrained industrial capitalism: the enormous fact of which science has been trying for fifty years to convince us, while technology provided us ever greater distractions from it. Every benefit industrialism and capitalism have brought us, every wonderful advance in knowledge and health and communication and comfort, casts the same fatal shadow. All we have, we have taken from the earth; and, taking with ever-increasing speed and greed, we now return little but what is sterile or poisoned.

Yet we can’t stop the process. A capitalist economy, by definition, lives by growth; as Bookchin observes: “For capitalism to desist from its mindless expansion would be for it to commit social suicide.” We have, essentially, chosen cancer as the model of our social system.

Capitalism’s grow-or-die imperative stands radically at odds with ecology’s imperative of interdependence and limit. The two imperatives can no longer coexist with each other; nor can any society founded on the myth that they can be reconciled hope to survive. Either we will establish an ecological society or society will go under for everyone, irrespective of his or her status.

Murray Bookchin spent a lifetime opposing the rapacious ethos of grow-or-die capitalism. The nine essays in “The Next Revolution” represent the culmination of that labor: the theoretical underpinning for an egalitarian and directly democratic ecological society, with a practical approach for how to build it. He critiques the failures of past movements for social change, resurrects the promise of direct democracy and, in the last essay in the book, sketches his hope of how we might turn the environmental crisis into a moment of true choice—a chance to transcend the paralyzing hierarchies of gender, race, class, nation, a chance to find a radical cure for the radical evil of our social system.

Reading it, I was moved and grateful, as I have so often been in reading Murray Bookchin. He was a true son of the Enlightenment in his respect for clear thought and moral responsibility and in his honest, uncompromising search for a realistic hope.

Ursula Le Guin


Maintaining the Struggle in Greece


Below I reproduce excerpts from a CrimethInc. piece on the situation in Greece following Syriza’s electoral success. In Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included a CrimethInc. analysis of the Egyptian revolution. Here, the authors warn against complacency in response to the Syriza electoral victory in Greece, given past experience with political parties affiliated with broader based social movements achieving power.


Syriza and Pacification

It is too early to predict what the precise relationship will be between the new governing party and the movements that put them in place. We can only speculate based on past precedents.

Let’s return to the Brazilian example. After Lula came to power, the most powerful social movement in Brazil, the 1.5-million-strong land reform campaign MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra), found itself in a considerably worse position than it had faced under the preceding conservative government. Although it shared considerable membership and leadership with Lula’s own party, the necessities of governing precluded Lula from assisting it. Though the MST had managed to compel the previous government to legalize many land occupations, it ceased to make any headway whatsoever under Lula. This pattern has played out all across Latin America as politicians have betrayed the social movements that put them in office. This is a good argument for building up strength we can use on our own terms, autonomously, rather than trying to get sympathetic politicians into office—for once they are in office, they must act according to the logic of their post, not the logic of the movement.

Syriza came to power by courting votes and watering down demands. Representative democracy tends to reduce politics to a matter of lowest common denominators, as parties jockey to attract voters and form coalitions. Indeed, Syriza’s first move after the election was to establish a coalition with Independent Greeks, a right-wing party. In order to preserve this coalition, Syriza will have to make concessions to their partners’ agenda. This will mean, first, forcing unwanted right-wing policies past its own membership—and then enforcing those policies on everyone else. There’s no getting around the essentially coercive nature of governing.

Many anarchists hope Syriza will put the brakes on state repression of social movements, enabling them to develop more freely. Didn’t Syriza essentially support the riots of 2008? But back then, they were a small party looking for allies; now they are the ruling elite. In order to retain the reins of the state, they must show that they are prepared to enforce the rule of law. Though they may not prosecute minor protest activity as aggressively as a right-wing government would, they will still have to divide protesters into legitimate and illegitimate—a move out of the counterinsurgency handbook that guides governments and occupying armies the whole world over. This would not be new for Greece; the same thing happened under the social democrats of PASOK in the early 1980s. Even if Syriza’s government does not seek to maintain the previous level of repression, their function will be to divide movements, incorporating the docile and marginalizing the rest. This might prove to be a more effective repressive strategy than brute force.

In these new conditions, the movements themselves will change. Syriza has already become involved in many grassroots social programs; they will probably offer the most cooperative of these projects more resources, but only under the mantle of the state. It will become harder and harder for grassroots organizers to remain truly autonomous, to demonstrate the difference between self-organization and management from above. Something like this has already occurred in the US non-profit sector with disastrous effects. We may also cite government involvement in supposedly grassroots neighborhood organizing in Venezuela under Hugo Chavez.

This kind of assimilation into the logic of the state is essential to parties like Syriza. They need movements that know how to behave themselves, that can serve to legitimize decisions made in the parliament without causing too much of a fuss. Indeed, the mere prospect that Syriza might come into power has kept the streets of Greece largely empty of protest since 2012, intensifying the risks for anarchists and others who continued to demonstrate. Parties on the Syriza model can pacify the public without even entering office.

So what happens to the rest of the movement, to those who continue to assert their autonomy, seeking to build power on their own terms outside the institutions? That is the question before us…


Fighting Harder, Wanting More

If Syriza’s victory succeeds in lulling those who once met in the streets back into spectatorship and isolation, this will close the windows of possibility that opened during the uprisings, rendering Syriza themselves redundant and offering a new model by which to pacify social movements around the world. But they are playing with fire, promising solutions they cannot deliver. If their failure could open the door for fascism, it could also create a new phase of movements outside and against all authoritarian power.

“In my opinion, a possible government of SYRIZA, taking into account that its life will be short, should serve as a challenge for the people of the struggle. With action that will be what we call ‘anarchist provocations’ against the leftist rhetoric of SYRIZA, we should force them to reveal their true face which is none other than the face of capitalism that can neither be humanized nor rectified but only destroyed with constant struggle by all means.”
Nikos Romanos, writing from prison in Greece

For this to be possible, anarchists in Greece and everywhere around the world must differentiate themselves from all political parties, inviting the general public to join them in spaces beyond the influence of even the most generous social democrats. This will mean facing off against the opportunistic politicians who once joined them in the street. It will not be easy, but it is the only way. If nothing else, now that the elections are over and Syriza stands on the other side of the walls of power, the lines are clear.

Abolishing capitalism and the state is still unthinkable for most people. Yet, as Greece has seen, the measures that could stabilize capitalism for another generation are still more unthinkable. In the day-to-day practices of Greek anarchists—the occupied social centers and university buildings, the self-defense patrols against Golden Dawn, the social programs and assemblies—we can see the first steps towards a world without property or government. If these practices reached an impasse in 2012, it was partly because so many people abandoned the streets in hopes of a Syriza victory. These are the examples to emulate from Greece, not the Syriza model. Let’s stop dallying with false solutions.


Greek anarchists

Anarchist Prospects in Greece with Syriza in Power

Micropolis - Free Social Space in Greece

Micropolis – Free Social Space in Greece

The Anti-Authoritarian Current is an anarchist organization with sections in several cities in Greece. Below one of their members explains what Syriza in power is likely to mean for the social movements from which it emerged. Mention is made of ex-PASOK members playing a role in the newly elected Syriza government. PASOK is a conventional (and some would say corrupt) socialist party that has previously formed the government in Greece. The right wing ministers in the Syriza government are members of the “Independent Greeks,” an anti-European Union party. The text is extracted and edited from the interview, “Syriza and social movements: between big risks and some opportunities. Interview with AK Athens.” The original interview, which also looks at the question of the threat from fascism, can be read at…/13796-syriza-and-social-movements-…

Alpha-Kappa Greek Anti-Authoritarian Network

Alpha-Kappa Greek Anti-Authoritarian Network

Syriza in Power and the Anarchist Project

Syriza is a result of both the struggles and their defeat at the movement level. The movement failed to pose a serious counterattack against the conservative attack at all levels, attacks which also had the EU support.

Syriza was elected by the votes of the people of the movement and this is reasonable because it posed a realist choice in various matters in which the movement has failed (for example a defence of the taxation attack, the abolition of Sunday labor, the abolition of the high security prison law).

On the other hand, we all know that there is no “libertarian” government and no one will apply measures that promote or secure freedom and the interests of the lower classes, unless they struggle for those interests. The participation of populist Right ministers in the government and ex PASOK members supports this argument.

So, the movement has to take into consideration the new political landscape and create a new strategy. I would imagine three important elements that should characterize this:

1. the first is to blackmail the government to enforce the common agenda that it shares with the movement (to shut down detention camps for refugees and grant citizenship, abolition of high security prisons, abolition of anti-terrorist laws etc) and ensure that the movement will be the strongest opposition;

2. the second is to occupy, expand and create new social spaces for the movement; and

3. last, but most important of all, to create a common ground, a common center, a common universe against and outside the state and capital control.

Social centres must focus on serving social needs, but they must also build institutions of mutual support and sharing (a social bank that will promote the projects, solidarity economies and distribution networks etc). Anti-fascist initiatives have to work together to promote anti-fascist discourse and anti-fascist street vigilance.

The seizure of space and the transformation of the metropolis into a galaxy of social spaces and initiatives of self management requires a level of coordination and organization that the Greek scene hasn’t even imagined so far.

The biggest threat to the context of all these is the danger of integration within the state, and the biggest challenge is to secure total autonomy and also the viability of the antiauthoritarian project.

There is also a fourth element, that of international coordination and support. The Greek autonomous/ anarchist/ anti-authoritarian movement always declares that the solution can only be international but hasn’t done much to promote this. It is time to create a permanent, effective and ambitious common space of struggle between the European and Mediterranean autonomous and anti-authoritarian initiatives that will enforce our discourse and praxis.

All these four factors require a lot of thinking, debate and recomposition on behalf of the a/a/a movement and, as far as I can tell, there are a lot of people that share this ambition.

The nearer SYRIZA got to the chance of seizing parliamentary superiority the more it distanced itself from the movement. The adoption of a lot of ex PASOK populist politicians into the party made clear that SYRIZA is a product of the defeat of the squares to pose a direct democratic alternative rather than a dialectic bloom of a socialist movement.

The members of SYRIZA behaved as true inheritors of the Stalinism that characterizes all the left parties in Greece, defending every absurdity of their leadership, instead of criticizing and promoting a more movemental agenda.

There is an estimation that 10,000 governmental and ministerial positions are the critical ones, that every government has to put its own people in to to produce sustainable politics. It is very clear that, since SYRIZA has 35,000 members, one out of three will take a place in the state apparatus, it will be a party that will quickly become a party of the State, adopting all the bureaucratic reflexes that this entails.

So, a lot of SYRIZA affiliated forces will face the dilemma of either returning to the movement or making a permanent divorce with it. One thing is for sure: state and movement are two elements whose only dialectical relation is one of conflict. If not, their relation becomes integration and bureaucracy.

Greek Townhall

Greek Townhall


Evolution and Revolution


Continuing my installments from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, today I summarize anarchist views on evolution, revolution, Darwinism and their opposition to the reactionary and racist uses to which 19th century science was put. One of the founders of “criminology,” Cesare Lombroso, claimed that anarchists were defective human beings, a throw back to an earlier stage of evolution. Unsurprisingly, as I pointed out in my previous post on science and technology, anarchists were not uncritical supporters of scientific views. Anarchists in the 20th century faced even more extreme racist doctrines, particularly in Nazi Germany. The Italian anarchist activist, Camillo Berneri, was among the first to denounce the racist ideology and policies of the Nazis.

Elisée Reclus

Elisée Reclus

Evolution and Revolution

The anarchist communist revolutionary Peter Kropotkin noted in Modern Science and Anarchism that among the scientific works that appeared in the mid-19th century, “there was none which exercised so deep an influence as The Origins of Species, by Charles Darwin.” What Darwin demonstrated, Kropotkin argued, was that “man… was the product of a slow physiological evolution; that he drew his origin from a species of animals which gave birth both to man and the now-living apes and monkeys; that the ‘immortal mind’ and the ‘moral sense’ of man had developed in the same way as the intelligence and the social instincts of a chimpanzee or an ant.”

While anarchists welcomed Darwin’s ideas regarding evolution because they undermined the authority of religion by discrediting notions of divine creation and design, they also had to contend with the apologists of a rapacious capitalism, the “Social Darwinists,” who used Darwin’s notion of “the struggle for existence” to attack egalitarianism and to argue against social reform in general. As Kropotkin put it, there was “no infamy in civilized society, or in the relations of the whites towards the so-called lower races, or of the strong towards the weak, which would not have found its excuse in this formula.”

To combat the ideas of the Social Darwinists, Kropotkin wrote a series of essays, later published as Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902), in which he sought to demonstrate “the overwhelming importance which sociable habits play in Nature and in the progressive evolution of both the animal species and human beings.” It is from these practices of mutual aid, Kropotkin argued, that moral feelings are developed, leading him to conclude that “in the ethical progress of man, mutual support—not mutual struggle—has had the leading part” (Volume One, Selection 54). Kropotkin’s notion of mutual aid and his critique of Social Darwinism was very influential in anarchist circles, not only in Europe but also in Latin America and Asia.

Some opponents of revolutionary change argued that the notion of “progressive evolution” was inconsistent with the anarchist commitment to social revolution. As Elisée Reclus observed in 1891, the “word Evolution, synonymous with gradual and continuous development in morals and ideas, is brought forward in certain circles as though it were the antithesis of that fearful word, Revolution, which implies changes more or less sudden in their action… entailing some sort of catastrophe.” It was Reclus, not Kropotkin, who first developed the idea that revolutionary upheavals are part of a natural evolutionary process, an accelerated period of evolutionary change, such that revolution and evolution “are fundamentally one and the same thing, differing only according to the time of their appearance.” Turning Social Darwinism on its head, he argued that as “powerful as may be the Master,” and the “privileged classes” in general, they “will be weak before the starving masses leagued against” them. “To the great evolution now taking place will succeed the long expected, the great revolution” (Volume One, Selection 74). This was a common theme among late 19th and early 20th century anarchists, including anarchists in Japan (Volume One, Selection 102) and China (Volume One, Selections 97, 100 & 102).

Lombroso Museum Exhibit

Lombroso Museum Exhibit

Against Racism

Anarchist supporters of science also had to contend with the development of a racist ethnology, purportedly based on scientific theory and research, which was used to justify colonial exploitation and war against the so-called “inferior” races. In his 1904 essay, ironically entitled “Our Indians,” the Peruvian anarchist intellectual, Manuel González Prada (1848-1919), marveled at what “a handy invention” ethnology was in the hands of those who seek to justify white domination: “Once one has accepted that Mankind is divided into superior and inferior races and acknowledged the white man’s superiority and thus his right to sole governance of the Planet, there cannot be anything more natural than suppression of the black man in Africa, the redskin in the United States, the Tagalog in the Philippines and the Indian in Peru” (Volume One, Selection 91).

While González Prada questioned the “science” behind racist doctrines, pointing out that there “is such a mish-mash of blood and colouring, every individual represents so many licit or illicit dalliances, that when faced by many a Peruvian we would be baffled as to the contribution of the black man or the yellow man to their make-up: none deserves the description of pure-bred white man, even if he has blue eyes and blond hair,” he argued that rather than “going around the world spreading the light of [European] art and science, better to go around dispensing the milk of human kindness,” for “where the ‘struggle for existence’ is enunciated as the rule of society, barbarism rules.” González Prada agreed with Kropotkin that the true mark of progress and civilization is the degree to which practices and institutions of mutual aid are spread throughout society, such that “doing good has graduated from being an obligation to being a habit” (Volume One, Selection 91).

Robert Graham

Peter Kropotkin

Peter Kropotkin

Science and Technology: Anarchist Perspectives

Yoked to the Machine

Yoked to the Machine

Continuing with my installments from “The Anarchist Current,” the afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss anarchist perspectives on science and technology. Although some anarchists, such as Carlo Cafiero, took a somewhat uncritical view of technology, other anarchists developed a sophisticated critique of the role of science and technology in modern capitalist societies, a critique that was sharpened by later anarchists and their fellow travellers, such as Paul Goodman and Ivan Illich. As Gustav Landauer argued, this more critical perspective on science and technology helped to distinguish the views of the anarchists from other revolutionary currents, particularly Marxism, which saw technological development as the key to social emancipation.

science and tech

Science and Technology

The anarchist critique of science and technology goes back at least to Proudhon, who denounced machinery which, “after having degraded the worker by giving him a master, completes his degeneracy by reducing him from the rank of artisan to that of common labourer” (Volume One, Selection 9). Carlo Pisacane argued that technological innovation under capitalism simply concentrates economic power and wealth “in a small number of hands,” while leaving the masses in poverty (Volume One, Selection 16).

Other anarchists have argued that once the people take control of technology, it can be redesigned to eliminate onerous toil, much like Oscar Wilde suggested, to make workplaces safer and to increase production for the benefit of all. Carlo Cafiero recognized that in capitalist economies, the worker has reason to oppose the machinery “which comes to drive him from the factory, to starve him, degrade him, torture him, crush him. Yet what a great interest he will have, on the contrary, in increasing their number when he will no longer be at the service of the machines and when… the machines will themselves be at his service, helping him and working for his benefit” (Volume One, Selection 32).

Gustav Landauer took a more critical position, arguing in 1911 that “the capitalist system, modern technology and state centralism go hand in hand… Technology, allied with capitalism, makes [the worker] a cog in the wheels of the machine.” Consequently, the technology developed under capitalism cannot provide the basis for a free society. Rather, workers must “step out of capitalism mentally and physically,” and begin creating alternative communities and technologies designed to meet their needs in conditions which they themselves find agreeable (Volume One, Selection 79). In the early 1960s, Paul Goodman (1911-1972) suggested some criteria “for the humane selection of technology: utility, efficiency, comprehensibility, repairability, ease and flexibility of use, amenity and modesty” (Volume Two, Selection 70), the use of which would result in something which Goodman’s friend, Ivan Illich (1926-2002), described as “convivial tools,” enabling “autonomous and creative intercourse among persons and… with their environment” (Volume Two, Selection 73).

Goodman the-black-flag-of-anarchism

Nineteenth century anarchists often extolled the virtues of modern science, particularly in contrast to religious belief, as part of their critique of the role of organized religion in supporting the status quo. In What is Property, Proudhon looked forward to the day when “the sovereignty of the will yields to the sovereignty of reason, and must at last be lost in scientific socialism” (Volume One, Selection 8). José Llunas Pujols wrote in 1882 that in an anarchist society, “the political State and theology would… be supplanted by Administration and Science” (Volume One, Selection 36), echoing Saint Simon’s comment that in an enlightened society, the government of man will be replaced by the “administration of things”. In the conclusion to his 1920 anarchist program, Malatesta summed up what anarchists want as “bread, freedom, love, and science for everybody” (Volume One, Selection 112).

However, this did not mean that anarchists were uncritical supporters of science. One of the most widely published and translated anarchist pamphlets in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was Bakunin’s essay, God and the State, in which he discussed the limitations of scientific theory and research, and warned against the danger of entrusting our affairs to scientists and intellectuals. Bakunin argued that science “cannot go outside the sphere of abstractions,” being “as incapable of grasping the individuality of a man as that of a rabbit.” Because science cannot grasp or appreciate the existential reality of individual human beings, “it must never be permitted, nor must anyone be permitted in its name, to govern” individuals. Those claiming to govern in the name of science would yield “to the pernicious influence which privilege inevitably exercises upon men,” fleecing “other men in the name of science, just as they have been fleeced hitherto by priests, politicians of all shades, and lawyers, in the name of God, of the State, of judicial Right” (Volume One, Selection 24).

Even Kropotkin, who argued in Modern Science and Anarchism (1912) that anarchism “is a conception of the Universe based on the mechanical [kinetic] interpretation of phenomena” that “recognizes no method of research except the scientific one,” never suggested that scientists should have a privileged role in society, nor that scientific hypotheses should be regarded as akin to human laws that need to be enforced by some authority. He decried the introduction of “artificial modes of expression, borrowed from theology and arbitrary power, into [scientific] knowledge which is purely the result of observation” (Volume One, Selection 52), and argued that all theories and conclusions, including those of the anarchists, are subject to criticism and must be verified by experiment and observation.

Kropotkin no more endorsed “the government of science” than Bakunin did (Volume One, Selection 24). Instead, he looked forward to:

“A society in which all the mutual relations of its members are regulated, not by laws, not by authorities, whether self-imposed or elected, but by   mutual agreement… and by a sum of social customs and habits—not petrified by law, routine, or superstition, but continually developing and continually readjusted, in accordance with the ever-growing requirements of a free life, stimulated by the progress of science, invention, and the steady growth of higher ideals” (Modern Science and Anarchism: 59).

Robert Graham

modern science and anarchism mother earth

The Assembly Movement in Greece

The assembly movement in Greece

The assembly movement in Greece

In Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included a selection from an anarchist in Greece on the Greek anarchist movement and their struggle against capitalism and the state. Here, I reproduce excerpts from an interview with a Greek activist regarding the popular assembly movement there, inspired in part by similar movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, Mexico, Turkey and Argentina. Volume Three also includes selections on the “horizontalidad” movement in Argentina, the revolution in Egypt and the Zapatista movement in Mexico. On my blog, I have posted reports regarding the assembly movements in Turkey and, more recently, in Rojava, as well as material from Brazil. The full English translation of this interview can be found at:


The Assembly Movement in Greece

The idea of neighborhood assemblies spread massively after December 2008. The death of Alexis and the weeks of revolt, confrontations and occupations that followed, as well as the acid attack on the transit worker, Konstantina Kuneva, were the events that really shook society. The broad characteristics of that revolt are, on the one hand, the absence of any demands or petitions for reforms and, on the other hand, the aspect of decentralization in all the neighborhoods of Athens and, immediately thereafter, in the whole country. After December 2008, the dynamic of the actions and confrontations in the city centers reached its limit and then shifted to the neighborhoods. With the assemblies, the idea at first consisted in obtaining places for meetings, without having anything particular in mind, except the will to engage in collective inquiry. It was a way to prolong the relations that had been created during the revolt. Many of the assemblies were formed at that time, but only four of them continued to function continuously. The others reappeared when the social movement broke out again, as is taking place today or as happened in 2011, when there were approximately forty assemblies in Athens.

The assembly of Vyronas, Kaisariani, Pangrati (VKP) was formed in neighborhoods that have a long history of popular revolt: one of them was the old red neighborhood during the Resistance, the neighborhood that the Nazis were never able to conquer. This tradition was interrupted with the passage of the years as a result of the bourgeoisification of the population, but also because the State built a barracks there for armed police. Today these three neighborhoods have a heterogeneous population, but in general they are rather well-off districts. There were assemblies in VKP before 2008, created amidst struggles over public space. The first one was formed to oppose the project to construct a theater in the middle of a park. Besides the paving and cement this implied—Athens is one of the cities in Europe with the fewest green spaces—the inhabitants knew that the theater would be rented to private companies that would raise the price of tickets through the roof. Thanks to this mobilization, the project was cancelled and the assembly continued to exist, and even still exists today, organizing activities for children, basketball tournaments and a free café in the park on the first Sunday of each month. It is also very active in participating in the life of the neighborhood, distributing militant propaganda in the schools, organizing open festivals with the immigrants and also engaging in solidarity actions with people who were arrested in the demonstrations during the general strikes. And there was another struggle that attracted a lot of people: the opposition to the tunnel and highway overpass project that was slated to destroy part of the Hymettus mountain, one of the last green spaces in the city, located to the east of the city center. There were many demonstrations in the vicinity of the mountain, blockades of the highway bypasses, and actions at the toll booths, which caused the project to be abandoned. In VKP the people had these experiences as a starting point. Later, during the revolts of December 2008, they occupied a municipal youth center for a few days and rapidly convoked the assembly. After the weekly assemblies in the three neighborhoods, the people decided to rent a place to meet. At this time about thirty persons participated in the assemblies, a figure that has remained more or less stable to this day.

We are involved in two types of action: on the one hand, we are defending ourselves against the attacks of the system and, on the other hand, we are elaborating projects and ways of life that seem desirable to us. For example, in 2010 there was an initial attempt to coordinate with other assemblies and libertarian collectives that participated in the struggles in their neighborhoods against the fare increases in public transport. We arranged for each assembly to simultaneously organize demonstrations in the subway and bus stations. Pamphlets were distributed, the ticket machines were vandalized, and we proposed self-reductions in order to question the discourse of the authorities, which consisted in saying that public transport was just another commodity that had to be profitable. We made an attempt to link up with the workers in public transport, but this was difficult. The people from Golden Dawn—the Greek neo-Nazi party—have a lot of influence among the bus drivers trade union.

Later, we participated in all the general strikes since 2010, which were severely repressed. During the course of one of these strikes, the pigs attacked the march of the neighborhood assemblies, sending one person to the hospital in a coma, who almost died, and others were seriously injured. These experiences brought us together and strengthened our determination. We blockaded the supermarkets and shopping centers of the neighborhood in order to turn the strike into a real strike, so that no one would be able to consume. We also attempted to encircle the Greek Parliament when the deputies were voting on the second round of austerity measures. The neighborhood assemblies played an important role in this demonstration. We also tried to maintain a permanent presence in the neighborhood, organizing demonstrations and a collective kitchen and cultivating an occupied garden for the purpose of attaining food self-sufficiency. We also hold a barter market once a month in different squares. We also have a meeting hall with a library that is open to the neighborhood, in which we organize various activities, debates and talks.

Greek anarchists in Athens

Greek anarchists march in Athens

All these actions are undertaken for the purpose of breaking with the individualism and the pessimism that have seized Greece with the onset of the crisis, to fight against the social cannibalism that the State is indirectly promoting as a solution to the crisis. By way of these practices, we are attempting to encourage the development of relations based on equality and solidarity. The neighborhood is a very fertile space for this, all the more so insofar as in Athens the city districts are still socially quite mixed, which allows us to establish unexpected relations.

We had to deal with this problem [of getting enough food] ever since we opened the collective kitchens. We made contact with the other assemblies that had similar problems and, during that time, a large area in an adjacent neighborhood was occupied: a villa with cultivable land. We decided to convoke a new assembly entirely dedicated to this question. This same assembly is now responsible for cultivating the land for the purpose of supplying the collective kitchens of the four neighborhoods that are cooperating on this project. We are still a long way from being self-sufficient with regard to food, but it is a first step. Having said this, the garden is being threatened with eviction. Expulsions from the occupied spaces, such as, for example, at Villa Amalias and Skaramagas, have multiplied in Athens since the beginning of 2013.

Certain people have spoken at the assembly to express their view that there are too many immigrants in the neighborhoods and that something must be done about this. This is a risk we have to take when participating in open movements. Sometimes there are even outbursts of sexism during actions. The only way to fight against this is by talking to people. Usually, they understand, and if not, they go away. Once, however, at a neighborhood assembly convened to oppose the construction of cell phone towers, two fascists showed up without saying that they belonged to Golden Dawn. But we knew about them because in a small neighborhood everyone knows everything. The only thing we could do was to tell them that they were not welcome.

Since they obtained seats in Parliament, and thanks to the support they have received as a result, Golden Dawn has opened offices throughout Greece. Whenever they open a new office, protests and demonstrations are held that often result in confrontations with the police. Without police protection, the fascists would not be able to maintain a presence in the neighborhoods. Fortunately, at least for now, they only have two really active neighborhood committees in Athens. In some working class neighborhoods such as those in western Athens, near the Piraeus, they have a certain amount of influence. In those districts, however, the neighborhood assemblies openly confront them. In our neighborhood there is neither a fascist presence nor any immigrant hunting, but this is due, in part, to our presence and constant vigilance. In my opinion, the antifascist struggle consists more in building our own structures and the kind of world we want—which is basically antifascist in essence—than in denouncing them with speeches.

In May 2011, following in the footsteps of the movement of the indignados [in Spain] and the occupation of Syntagma Square, there was a second wave of assemblies in Athens. In our neighborhood, militants from one part of the radical left called for the creation of another assembly in which we also participated. Soon, however, major differences arose among us. If you want to create a space for dialogue with people who act in a paternalistic and condescending way, like leaders, you will necessarily have conflicts. During this period the assemblies were inundated with demands such as a proposal to nationalize the Bank of Greece. People who wanted an open debate soon lost interest and this second wave did not last very long. The assemblies controlled by the leftists could not, or did not want to, propose concrete demands concerning health, education or food security. In short, they did not try to promote another way of life, beyond the capitalist system which is collapsing all around us. Do we need to nationalize the Bank? This is not the correct question, in my view.

A third wave of assemblies took place when the State implemented a special extra tax on everyone’s electricity bills: “those who do not pay the tax, will have their electricity cut off”. The tax and the attempts to fight against it have accentuated the differences between the assemblies. Some of them were composed of people who were concerned about having their electricity cut off and simply asked the more politically active participants to solve the problem for them. Some accepted this role, although this implied the abandonment of horizontal organization in favor of the logic of delegation.

Our assembly also issued an appeal to organize around the issue of these special taxes. It is very dynamic and is actually quite radical: our neighborhoods do not have to undergo electricity cut-offs, whether because of non-payment of the tax or for any other reason. For us, electricity is a vital good.

The assembly went to the tax offices and forced the company that was contracted to implement the electricity cut-offs to leave the neighborhood. Later, we went to the local headquarters of the electricity company to cut off its electricity. Today, we have established neighborhood patrols to prevent the technicians from the electric company from cutting off our electricity. At the present time, along with the antifascist struggle, this is the main fight that the assemblies are waging.


The assembly movement owes a great deal to what took place in Argentina. Although there is no direct connection, the influence is real. During the first general strikes, we were inspired by the Argentinian experience, and later also by the Tunisian and Egyptian events. Another important influence was the self-reduction movements in Italy during the seventies: groups organized to not pay rents, electric bills or transport fares. In our assembly, particularly, many people were inspired by the Zapatista struggle in Mexico and its quest for autonomy. We participate in solidarity actions with these struggles in our neighborhood.

One factor that all these different sources of inspiration have in common, which is present in the assemblies, is the will to organize horizontally, without political parties: although there are party militants in the assemblies, they only participate in the assemblies as individuals, without labels. The political foundations of the assemblies are autonomy and the will to create structures outside capitalism, based on sharing and solidarity. In our assembly, there are basic positions that have been arrived at after long discussions. We are always seeking a consensus in order to find a way to move forward together.

In Greece, there is much less belief in institutions, in the idea of the social contract and representation, than in France. It is fertile ground both for anti-authoritarian ideas as well as for hyper-authoritarian ideas. Here, it is much easier than it is in France to associate on common bases with people from diverse political backgrounds. On the other hand, however, the danger of becoming a closed group also exists: finding a way to keep the assemblies open to recent arrivals is a never-ending task.

After the revolt of 2008-2009 we were continuously trying to keep abreast of what was happening. What the neighborhood assemblies have once again contributed, as a possibility, was precisely not to restrict our demands to things that were taken away from us and instead to move towards the world we want to create. But the obstacles are numerous and the repression suffered by the political militants, the rise of Golden Dawn, the explosion of unemployment and the constant violence against immigrants prevent us from devoting ourselves to a program as if nothing else was happening.

One of the weak points of the movement is the fact that the moments of resurgence have never obtained any concrete results. The general assembly of the neighborhood assemblies was one of those moments. In November 2011 all the existing assemblies convened in one assembly: forty in Athens, with four hundred representatives and a good dynamic. But it quickly ran out of steam. It obtained no concrete victories and this was a source of discouragement, creating a feeling of defeat that is very acute at the present time. This feeling is also in part caused by the fact that the neighborhood assemblies do not appear to be viable solutions for the organization of everyday life.

The will to create structures based on self-organization and autonomy poses numerous questions: how can they be built while simultaneously going beyond the logic of charity and philanthropy? How can we create our own autonomy in an environment in which everything has been stolen, where we cannot produce anything for ourselves, especially in the urban setting? What do we have to do to get people to really participate? When we organize collective kitchens or barter markets, we have to constantly explain that they are not ordinary distribution services.

I do not think there is a really convincing answer to these problems, we have to be patient. The way I see it, in the very large assemblies people are inclined to delegate tasks to others and to accept the representation of a small group, whereas when there are more personal relations and more contacts, there is correspondingly greater equality in participation. It is a question of relations. There are not many people who think that we can live without anyone’s help, without a basis of consensus and dialogue, and that we can reclaim our lives on an individual basis.

I get the impression, however, that, as the State and the economic system decline and fall, more “grey zones” will arise and other modes of organization and relations will become possible. The role of the assemblies will be crucial in this. Not only do we have to keep the home fires burning, but we also have to make the fire last longer. New structures appear in Greece with each passing month. From this perspective, the movement is on the right path.

Translated in December 2014 from the Spanish translation published in the Spanish journal, Argelaga, No. 5, Fall 2014 (Available online at:

Originally published in French under the title, “L’etat s’effondre, les quartiers s’organisent”. Retour sur le mouvement des assemblées de quartier. La revue Z, No. 7, 2013. Dossier Grèce: Thessalonique dans la dépression européenne. Bricolages quotidiens et résistances insolvables.


Art and Anarchy

M. Luce - "A Street in Paris"

M. Luce – “A Street in Paris”

With today’s massacre of the writers and artists at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, it is worth reflecting on the price people have paid, and continue to pay, for freely expressing themselves. Anarchists are no strangers to persecution, and even death, for expressing their views. The Haymarket Martyrs were executed on November 11, 1887 for advocating armed struggle and revolution. Countless Communards were massacred during the suppression of the Paris Commune for defending their federalist ideals. Gustav Landauer was murdered during the 1919 Bavarian Revolution for his communitarian anarchist socialism. Francisco Ferrer was shot in 1909 for advocating libertarian education. Ricardo Flores Magon died in a U.S. prison in 1922 for advocating anarchy during the Mexican Revolution. Peter Arshinov and other Russian anarchists were shot by the Communists in Russia. Camillo Berneri was murdered by Stalinists during the Spanish Revolution and Civil War. Kotoku Shusui, Osugi Sakae and Ito Noe were murdered by the Japanese authorities. The Korean anarchist, Shin Chaeho, died in a Japanese prison camp. Louise Michel and Voltairine de Cleyre’s deaths were hastened by shots to the head from people who detested their ideas. Many more have died for their ideas, and many more still have been imprisoned for them, including Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta, Grave, Galleani, Reclus, Most, Goldman, Berkman, Maksimov and too many others to mention. Today anarchists are persecuted and imprisoned under “anti-terrorist” laws, laws which are designed more to protect the powers that be than ordinary people. Which brings me to my latest installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. In this excerpt, I discuss anarchist views on art, anarchy and authority.

Jean Grave - no stranger to the inside of a prison

Jean Grave – no stranger to the inside of a prison

Art and Anarchy

The English anarchist, Charlotte Wilson, argued that when “each worker will be entirely free to do as nature prompts… to throw his whole soul into the labour he has chosen, and make it the spontaneous expression of his intensest purpose and desire… labour becomes pleasure, and its produce a work of art” (Volume One, Selection 37). For artists in bourgeois society, Jean Grave observed that they must sell their works to survive, “a situation which leads those who would not die of hunger to compromise, to vulgar and mediocre art.” To “live their dream, realize their aspirations, they, too, must work” for the social revolution. Even when possible, it “is vain for them to entrench themselves behind the privileges of the ruling classes,” for “if there is debasement for him who is reduced to performing the vilest tasks to satisfy his hunger, the morality of those who condemn him to it is not superior to his own; if obedience degrades, command, far from exalting character, degrades it also” (Volume One, Selection 63).

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), who for a time described himself as an anarchist, agreed with Grave, in The Soul of Man Under Socialism, that with the abolition of private property, all will be free “to choose the sphere of activity that is really congenial to them, and gives them pleasure.” However, Wilde did not look forward to the day when manual and intellectual labour would be combined, for some forms of manual labour are so degrading that they cannot be performed with dignity or joy: “Man is made for something better than disturbing dirt. All work of that kind should be done by machine.”

Wilde spoke in favour of anarchist socialism as providing the basis for true individualism and artistic freedom. He believed that the only form of government suitable to the artist “is no government at all. Authority over him and his art is ridiculous,” whether exercised by a government or by public opinion (Volume One, Selection 61). Wilson agreed that public opinion, “the rule of universal mediocrity,” is “a serious danger to individual freedom,” but in a free society “it can only be counteracted by broader moral culture” (Volume One, Selection 37). For Wilde, this meant that “Art should never try to be popular. The public should try to make itself artistic” (Volume One, Selection 61).

In turn of the century France, much of the artistic avant-garde allied themselves with anarchism, including such painters as Camille Pissarro, Paul Signac, Charles Maurin and Maximilien Luce, and writers like Paul Adam, Adolphe Retté, Octave Mirbeau and Bernard Lazare. Jean Grave would include their work in his anarchist papers, La Révolte, and later, Les Temps Nouveaux. When the French authorities again prosecuted anarchists simply for expressing their subversive ideas in the mid-1890s, Lazare wrote in La Révolte: “We had the audacity to believe that not everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds, and we stated and state still that modern society is despicable, founded upon theft, dishonesty, hypocrisy and turpitude” (Volume One, Selection 62).

As can be seen, the anarchist critique of existing society was never limited to denouncing the state, capitalism and the church. It extended to the patriarchal family, the sexual exploitation and subjection of women, censorship, conformism, authoritarian education, and hierarchical and coercive forms of organization in general, no matter where they might be found, whether in the school, at the workplace or within the revolutionary movement itself.

Robert Graham

P. Signac's portrait of the anarchist Félix Fénéon

P. Signac’s portrait of the anarchist Félix Fénéon

The Bakunin Bicentennial

Bakunin birthday

May 2014 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of the great anarchist revolutionary, Michael Bakunin (1814-1876). As 2014 comes to a close, I thought it fitting to reprint an appreciation of Bakunin written by his greatest biographer, Max Nettlau, on the 100th anniversary of his birth. Much as Nettlau admired Bakunin, he did not do so uncritically. He recognized that Bakunin’s penchant for secret societies, while having a certain logic in his own time, was inconsistent with the anarchist project of creating a free society based on self-management. On the other hand, Nettlau commended Bakunin for never holding himself aloof from popular struggles, and for avoiding a narrow preoccupation with workers’ movements, as a popular social revolution requires a broad mass of support, including all the dispossessed and disempowered. I included several selections from Bakunin in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas because, as Kropotkin noted, it was Bakunin more than anyone else who established the principles of modern anarchism.

Michael Bakunin (1814-1876)

Michael Bakunin (1814-1876)

Michael Bakunin: An Appreciation

Most centenarians, even when born much later and still among us, are but dried-up relics of a remote past; whilst some few, though gone long since, remain full of life, and rather make us feel ourselves how little life and energy there is in most of us. These men, in advance of their age, prepared new ways for coming generations, who are often but too slow to follow them up. Prophets and dreamers, thinkers and rebels they are called, and of those who, in the strife for freedom and social happiness for all, united the best qualities of these four descriptions, Michael Bakunin is by far the best known.

In recalling his memory, we will not forget the many less known thinkers and rebels, very many of whom from the “thirties” to the early “seventies” of [the 19th] century had, by personal contact, their share in forming this or that part of his personality. None of them, however, had the great gift of uniting into one current of revolt all the many elements of revolutionary thought, and that burning desire to bring about collective revolutionary action which constitute Bakunin’s most fascinating characteristics.

Courageous and heroic rebels always existed, but their aims were too often very narrow–they had not overcome political, religious, and social prejudices. Again, the most perfect “systems” were worked out theoretically; but these generous thinkers lacked the spirit to resort to action for their realization, and their methods were tame, meek, and mild. Fourier waited for years for a millionaire to turn up who would hand him the money to construct the first Phalanstery. The Saint-Simonians had their eyes on kings or sons of kings who might be persuaded to realise their aims “from above.” Marx was content to “prove” that the decay of Capitalism and the advent of the working classes to power will happen automatically.


Among the best known Socialists, Robert Owen and Proudhon, Blanqui and Bakunin, tried to realise their ideas by corresponding action. Blanqui’s splendid “Neither God Nor Master,” is, however, counteracted by the authoritarian and narrow political and nationalist character of his practical action. Both Owen and Proudhon represent, as to the means of action, the method of free experimentation, which is, in my opinion, the only one which holds good aside from the method of individual and collective revolt advocated by Bakunin and many others.

Circumstances—the weakness of small minorities in face of the brute force of traditional authority, and the indifference of the great mass of the population—have as yet no chance for either method to show its best, and, the ways of progress being manifold, neither of them may ever render the other quite superfluous. These experimental Socialists and Anarchists, then, are neither superior nor inferior, but simply different, dissimilar from Bakunin, the fiercest representative of the idea of real revolutionary action.

His economics are not original; he accepted willingly Marx’s dissection of the capitalist system; nor did he dwell in particular on the future methods of distribution, declaring only the necessity for each to receive the full produce of his labour. But to him exploitation and oppression were not merely economic and political grievances which fairer ways of distribution and apparent participation in political power (democracy) would abolish; he saw clearer than almost all Socialists before him the close connection of all forms of authority, religious, political, social, and their embodiment, the State, with economic exploitation and submission.

Hence, Anarchism—which need not be defined here—was to him the necessary basis, the essential factor of all real Socialism. In this he differs fundamentally from ever so many Socialists who glide over this immense problem by some verbal juggle between “Government” and “administration,” “the State” and “society,” or the like, because a real desire for freedom is not yet awakened in them. This desire and its consequence, the determination to revolt to realise freedom, exists in every being; I should say that it exists in some form and to some degree in the smallest particle that composes matter, but ages of priest- and State-craft have almost smothered it, and ages of alleged democracy, of triumphant Social Democracy even, are not likely to kindle it again.


Here Bakunin’s Socialism sets in with full strength—mental, personal, and social freedom to him are inseparable—Atheism, Anarchism, Socialism an organic unit. His Atheism is not that of the ordinary Freethinker, who may be an authoritarian and an anti-Socialist; nor is his Socialism that of the ordinary Socialist, who may be, and very often is, an authoritarian and a Christian; nor would his Anarchism ever deviate into the eccentricities of Tolstoy and Tucker.

But each of the three ideas penetrates the other two and constitutes with them a living realisation of freedom, just as all our intellectual, political, and social prejudices and evils descend from one common source—authority. Whoever reads “God and the State,” the best known of Bakunin’s many written expositions of these ideas, may discover that when the scales of religion fall from his eyes, at the same moment also the State will appear to him in its horrid hideousness, and anti-Statist Socialism will be the only way out. The thoroughness of Bakunin’s Socialist propaganda is, to my impression, unique.

From these remarks it may be gathered that I dissent from certain recent efforts to revindicate Bakunin almost exclusively as a Syndicalist. He was, at the time of the International, greatly interested in seeing the scattered masses of the workers combining into trade societies or sections of the International. Solidarity in the economic struggle was to be the only basis of working-class organisation. He expressed the opinion that these organisations would spontaneously evolve into federated Socialist bodies, the natural basis of future society. This automatic evolution has been rightly contested by our Swiss comrade Bertoni. But did Bakunin really mean it when he sketched it out in his writings of elementary public propaganda?

We must not forget that Bakunin—and here we touch one of his shortcomings—seeing the backward dispositions of the great masses in his time, did not think it possible to propagate the whole of his ideas directly among the people. By insisting on purely economic organisation, he wished to protect the masses against the greedy politician who, under the cloak of Socialism, farms and exploits their electoral “power” in our age of progress!

He also wished to prevent their falling under the leadership of sectarian Socialism of any kind. He did not wish them, however, to fall into the hands and under the thumbs of Labour leaders, whom he knew, to satiety, in Geneva, and whom he stigmatised in his Egalité articles of 1869. His idea was that among the organised masses interested in economic warfare thoroughgoing revolutionists, Anarchists, should exercise an invisible yet carefully concerted activity, co-ordinating the workers’ forces and making them strike a common blow, nationally and internationally, at the right moment.

The secret character of this inner circle, Fraternité and Alliance, was to be a safeguard against ambition and leadership. This method may have been derived from the secret societies of past times; Bakunin improved it as best he could in the direction of freedom, but could not, of course, remove the evils resulting from every infringement of freedom, however small and well-intentioned it may be in the beginning. This problem offers wide possibilities, from dictatorship and “democratic” leadership to Bakunin’s invisible, preconcerted initiative, to free and open initiative, and to entire spontaneity and individual freedom. To imitate Bakunin in our days in this respect would not mean progress, but repeating a mistake of the past.


In criticising this secret preconcerted direction of movements, considered worse than useless in our time, we ought not to overlook that the then existing reason for making such arrangements has also nearly gone. To Bakunin, who participated in the movements of 1848-49, in the Polish insurrection in the early “sixties,” in secret Italian movements, and who, like so many, foresaw the fall of the French Empire and a revolution in Paris, which might have happened under better auspices than the Commune of 1871—to him, then, an international Socialist “1848,” a real social revolution, was a tangible thing which might really happen before his eyes, and which he did his best to really bring about by secretly influencing and co-ordinating local mass movements.

We in our sober days have so often been told that all this is impossible, that revolutions are hopeless and obsolete, that, with few exceptions, no effort is ever made, and the necessity of replacing semi-authoritarian proceedings like that of Bakunin by the free play of individual initiative or other improved methods, never seems to arise.

Bakunin’s best plans failed for various reasons, one of which was the smallness of the means which the movements, then in their infancy, offered to him in every respect. Since all these possibilities are a matter of the past, let me dwell for a moment on the thought of what Bakunin would have done had he lived during the First of May movements of the early [1890s] or during the Continental general strike efforts of the ten years next following.

With the tenth part of the materials these movements contained, which exploded some here, some there, like fireworks, in splendid isolation, Bakunin would have attacked international Capitalism and the State everywhere in a way never yet heard of. And movements which really create new methods of successful struggle against a strong Government, like the Suffragette and the Ulster movements, would never have let him stand aside in cool disdain, because their narrow purpose was not his own.

I fancy he would never have rested day and night until he had raised the social revolutionary movement to the level of similar or greater efficiency. To think of this makes one feel alive; to see the dreary reality of our wise age lulls one to sleep again. I am the last one to overlook the many Anarchists who sacrificed themselves by deeds of valour—the last also to urge others to do what I am not doing myself: I merely state the fact that with Bakunin a great part of faith in the revolution died, that the hope and confidence which emanated from his large personality were never restored, and that the infinite possibilities of the last twenty-five years found many excellent comrades who did their best, but none upon whose shoulders the mantle of Bakunin has fallen.

bakunin people's stick

What, then, was and is Bakunin’s influence?

It is wonderful to think how he arose in the International at the right moment to prevent the influence of Marx, always predominant in the Northern countries, from becoming general. Without him, dull, political, electioneering Marxism would have fallen like mildew also on the South of Europe. We need but think how Cafiero, later on the boldest Italian Anarchist, first returned to Naples as the trusted friend and admirer of Marx; how Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law, was the chosen apostle of Marxism for Spain, etc. To oppose the deep-laid schemes of Marx, a man of Bakunin’s experience and initiative was really needed; by him alone the young movements of Italy and Spain, those of the South of France and of French-speaking Switzerland, and a part of the Russian movement, were welded together, learnt to practise international solidarity, and to prepare international action.

This alone created a lasting basis for the coming Anarchist movement, whilst everywhere else the other Socialist movements, described as Utopian and unscientific, had to give way to Marxism, proclaimed as the only scientific doctrine! Persecutions after revolutionary attempts often reduced these free territories of Anarchism to a minimum; but when Italy, Spain, and France were silenced, some corner in Switzerland where Bakunin’s seed had fallen always remained, and in this way, thanks to the solid work of Bakunin and his comrades, mainly from 1868 to 1874, Anarchy, was always able to face her enemies and to revive.

The immediate influence of Bakunin was reduced after he had retired from the movement in 1874, when certain friends left him; bad health—he died in June, 1876—prevented him continuing his work with fresh elements gathered round him. Soon after his death a period of theoretical elaboration began, when the methods of distribution were examined and Communist Anarchism in its present form was shaped. In those years also, after the failure of many collective revolts, the struggle became more bitter, and individual action, propaganda by the deed, was resorted to, a proceeding which made preconcerted secret arrangements in Bakunin’s manner useless. In this way, both his economic ideas, Collectivist Anarchism, and his favourite method of action alluded to, became so to speak obsolete, and were neglected.

Add to this that from about 1879 and 1880 Anarchism could be openly propagated on a large scale in France (mainly in Paris and in the Lyons region). This great extension of the propaganda gave so much new work, a new spirit entered the groups, soon arts and science were permeated with Anarchism—Elisée Reclus’ wonderful influence was at work. In Bakunin’s stormy days there was no time for this, through no fault of his.

In short, Anarchism in France and in many other countries was in its vigorous youth, a period when the tendency to look ahead is greatest, and the past is neglected like a cradle of infancy. For this reason, and because very little information on Bakunin was accessible to the Anarchists of the “eighties,” Bakunin’s influence in those years remained small. I ought to have mentioned that certain opinions of Bakunin’s gained much ground in the Russian revolutionary movement of the “seventies” and later, but cannot dwell further on this.


In 1882, Reclus and Cafiero published the choicest extract from the many manuscripts left by Bakunin: “Dieu et Etat!” (God and the State), a pamphlet which B. R. Tucker fortunately translated into English (1883 or 1884). This or its English reprint circulated in England when no other English Anarchist pamphlet existed, and its radical Anarchist freethought or thoroughly freethinking Anarchism certainly left lasting marks on the early Anarchist propagandists, and will continue to do so. Of course, the same applies to translations in many countries.

About 1896, a considerable part of Bakunin’s correspondence was published, preceded and followed by many extracts from his unpublished manuscripts, a part of which is now before us in the six volumes of the Paris edition of his works. It became possible, with the help of these and many other sources, to examine his life in detail, and in particular to give, proofs in hand, the story of the great struggle in the International, and to scatter the calumnies and lies heaped up by the Marxist writers and the bourgeois authors who followed them.

All this brought about a revival in the interest in Bakunin; but is there not a deeper cause for such a revival? When Bakunin was gone, his friends felt perhaps rather relieved, for the strain he put on their activity was sometimes too great for them. We in our times, or some of us, at least, are perhaps in the opposite situation: there is no strain at all put on us, and we might wish for somebody to rouse us. Thus we look back at any rate with pathetic sympathy on the heroic age of Anarchism, from Bakunin’s times to the early “nineties” in France. Many things have happened since then also—I need but recall Ferrer’s name; but, in my opinion at least, a complacent admiration of Syndicalism has too often replaced every thought of Anarchist action.

I say again: it is preposterous to think that Bakunin would have been a Syndicalist and nothing else—but what he would have tried to make of Syndicalism, how he would have tried to group these and many other materials of revolt and to lead them to action, this my imagination cannot sketch out, but I feel that things would have gone otherwise, and the capitalists would sleep less quietly. I am no admirer of personalities, and have many faults to find with Bakunin also on other grounds, but this I feel, that where he was rebellion grew round him, whilst today, with such splendid material, rebellion is nowhere. South Africa, Colorado, are ever so hopeful events, but think what a Bakunin would have made of them—and then we can measure the value of this man in the struggle for freedom.

Max Nettlau, Freedom, June 1914



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