Gaston Leval: The Achievements of the Spanish Revolution

This year’s anniversary of the Spanish Revolution and civil war sees the republication by PM Press of Gaston Leval’s eyewitness account, Collectives in the Spanish Revolution, with a new introduction by Pedro García-Guirao and a preface by Stuart Christie. I included excerpts from Leval’s book in the chapter on the Spanish Revolution in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Here I reproduce some of Leval’s reflections on the achievements of the Spanish Revolution, taken from the concluding chapter of his book.

Gaston Leval (1976)

The Achievements of the Spanish Revolution

We have said and repeated that the fascist attack created a favourable situation for the libertarian sector to take over an important part of the general situation and of almost the whole economy. Nevertheless the repercussions were only favourable, for negative and positive consequences were about equally balanced. On the one hand many militants, often the best, were, because of the war, mobilised and many died at the front. It was also the best who were missing from the Syndicates, in the Collectives, in the villages where they exercised a salutary influence. And on the other hand, the number of those who became a part of the government bureaucracy were also numerous enough for their absence to be felt.

One of the dominant characteristics which impresses whoever studies the Spanish Revolution is its many sidedness. This revolution was guided by certain very clear and very definite principles, which involved the general expropriation of the holders of social I wealth, the seizure by the workers of the organisational structures of production and distribution, the direct administration of public services, the establishment of the libertarian communist principle. But the uniformity of these principles did not prevent a diversity in the methods for their application, so much so that one can talk of “diversity within unity” and of a surprisingly diversified federalism.

In a very short time, in the agrarian regions and especially in Aragon, a new organism appeared: the Collective. Nobody had spoken about it before. The three instruments of social reconstruction foreseen among those libertarians who had expressed themselves on a -possible future were firstly the Syndicate, then the Cooperative, which did not win many supporters, and final ‘ on a rather large scale, the commune, or communal organisation. Some foreshadowed-and this writer was among them-that a new and complementary organism could and should appear, especially in the countryside, seeing that the Syndicate had not assumed the importance it had in the towns, and the kind of life, of work and production, did not fit into an organic monolithic structure which was contrary to the multiformity of daily life.

We have seen how that Collective was born with characteristics of its own. It is not the Syndicate, for it encompasses all those who wish to join it whether they are producers in the classic economic sense or not. Then it brings them together at the complete human individual level and not just at a craft level. Within it, from the first moment, the rights and duties are the same for everybody; there are no longer professional categories in mutual opposition making the producers into privileged consumers compared with those, such as housewives, who are not producers in the classical definition of the word.

Neither is the Collective the municipal Council or what is called the Commune, the municipality. For it parts company with the political party traditions on which the commune is normally based. It encompasses at the same time the Syndicate and municipal functions. It is all-embracing. Each of its activities is organised within its organism, and the whole population takes part in its management, whether it is a question of a policy for agriculture, for the creation of new industries, for social solidarity, medical service or public education. In this general activity the Collective brings each and everybody to an awareness of life in the round, and everyone to the practical necessity of mutual understanding.

Compared with the Collective the Syndicate has simply a secondary or subordinate role. It is striking to observe how in the agricultural districts, it was more often than not spontaneously relegated, almost forgotten, in spite of the efforts that the libertarian syndicalists and the anarcho-syndicalists, had previously made. The Collective replaced them. The word itself was born spontaneously and spread into all the regions of Spain where the agrarian revolution had been brought about. And the word “collectivist” was adopted just as quickly and spread with the same spontaneity.

One could advance the hypothesis that these two words — collective and collectivism — better expressed the people’s moral, human, fraternal feelings than did the terms Syndicates and syndicalism. A question of euphony perhaps, and of a breadth of views, of humanism: man as something more than the producer. The need for syndicates no longer exists when there are no more employers.

If we pass from Aragon to the Levante we see Collectives emerging there too but not as such a spontaneous, one might almost say instant, creation. It was the agricultural and sometimes the non-agricultural, syndicates which were there at the beginning, not to found other Syndicates, and this is most significant, but to found Collectives. And those who joined these Collectives, Often without belonging to the Syndicates, were also collectivists and acted and behaved as well as anybody else. Let us hasten to add that the groups of organisers often consisted of men who had until then been active in the Syndicates or even in libertarian groups.

But there were some cases where the Commune fulfilled the role of the Collective. Among the examples we have given one especially recalls Granollers, Hospitalet, Fraga, Binefar, and many places in Castile. We also find municipalities which had been reconstructed to conform with governmental decisions (January 1937) and had, as a result, played a more or less important, more or less subordinate, role; and in the Levante the Syndicate and the Collective in the end linked their activities. But in that region the role of the Syndicate was often to become more important, both through direct participation and as inspirer and guide, which it was not in Aragon.

Finally we see in Castile, the Collectives being started in large numbers, under ‘the impulse of militant workers and even intellectuals who left Madrid and spread out into the countryside.

This plasticity, this variety of ways of acting allowed for the creation of true socialism, in each place according to the situation, circumstances of time and place, and for the resolution of a great number of problems which an authoritarian concept, too rigid, too bureaucratic would have only made more complicated with, in the end, a dictatorship reducing everything to a uniform pattern. The variety of methods used reflected the variety of the facets of life. Often in the same region, villages with similar forms of production, with a somewhat similar social history, would start by socialising the local industries and end with agriculture, while others would start with the socialisation of agriculture and end with that of local industries. In some cases, in the Levante for instance, we have seen it start with distribution then proceed towards socialisation of production, which was the opposite procedure to most other places.

But it is remarkable that this diversity of organisational structures did not prevent membership of the same regional federations nor, through them, national coordination, practical solidarity, whether it concerned our Collectives, mixed Syndical Collectives or communities at different stages of municipalisation.

The general law was universal solidarity. We have underlined, in passing, that the Charters or Statutes in which the principles were defined and from which stemmed the practical attitude of each and all, made no mention of the rights and liberty of the individual. Not that the Collectives had ignored these rights, but simply because the respect of these rights went without saying, and that they were already recognized by the standard of life guaranteed to everybody, in their access to consumer goods, to well-being and culture, to the attention, consideration and human responsibilities of which each one, as a member of the Collective, was assured. It was known, so why mention it? In return, for this to be possible, everyone had to carry out his duty, do his work like the other comrades, show solidarity according to the ethic of a universal mutual aid.

One was the guarantee of the other. It is for this reason we so often read that same sentence in the Charters though there had been no previous discussion between Collectives hundreds of kilometres apart: “Anyone not having any work in his trade will help comrades in other activities who might need his help.” This was supra-professional solidarity in practice.

Going deeply into these matters it could perhaps be said that they were developing a new concept of liberty. In the village Collectives in their natural state, and in the small towns where everybody knew one another and were interdependent, liberty did not consist in being a parasite, and not interesting oneself in anything. Liberty only existed as a function of practical activity. To be is to do, Bakunin wrote. To be is to realise, voluntarily, Liberty is secured not only when one demands the rights of the “self” against others, but when it is a natural consequence of solidarity. Men who are interdependent feel free among themselves and naturally respect each other’s liberty. Furthermore so far as collective life is concerned, the freedom of each is the right to participate spontaneously with one’s thought, one’s heart, one’s will, one’s initiative to the full extent of one’s capacities. A negative liberty is not liberty: it is nothingness.

This concept of liberty gave rise to a new morality-unless it was this new ethic that gave rise to another concept of liberty. It explains why when the author sought information about changes, and improvements introduced in the lives of everyone, they did not speak of “liberty” though they were libertarians, but, and they did so with deep joy, of the results of their work, experiments, and research on which they were engaged; on the increase in production. No, they were no longer thinking of liberty in the way workers in capitalist factories or day workers on the land of the owner-employer think.

On this subject we would like to make an observation to which we attach great philosophical and practical importance. The theoreticians and partisans of the liberal economy affirm that competition stimulates initiative and, consequently, the creative spirit and invention without which it remains dormant. Numerous observations made by the writer in the Collectives, factories and socialised workshops permit him to take quite the opposite view. For in a Collective, in a grouping where each individual is stimulated by the wish to be of service to his fellow beings, research, the desire for technical perfection and so on are also stimulated. But they also have as a consequence that other individuals join those who were the first to get together. Furthermore when, in present society, an individualist inventor discovers something, it is used only by the capitalist or the individual employing him, whereas in the case of an inventor living in a community not only is his discovery taken up and developed by others, but is immediately applied for the common good. I am convinced that this superiority would very soon manifest itself in a socialised society.

Gaston Leval


Anarchism Without Adjectives (1890)


“Anarchism without adjectives” is a phrase coined by the Cuban-born anarchist, Fernando Tarrida del Mármol (1861-1915), who was active in the Spanish anarchist movement for many years. In Spain, by the 1880s, open conflict had developed between the advocates of “anarchist collectivism” and “anarchist communism.” The collectivists favoured individual remuneration on the basis of one’s contribution to the productive process, and an anarcho-syndicalist approach, with anarchists organizing the workers and peasants into local sections federated with one another on a regional, national, and sometimes international basis. The anarchist communists regarded individual remuneration as a hold-over from capitalism, inadequate to meet the needs of the poorest workers and peasants who were often under- and unemployed. They advocated distribution of wealth on the basis of need, along the lines proposed by the Italian anarchist, Carlo Cafiero: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his will.” They also favoured looser forms of organization, with more intimate anarchist action groups to foment insurrection and revolution.

Tarrida del Mármol

Tarrida del Mármol

In order to surmount the sectarian infighting between the two tendencies, Tarrida del Mármol advocated an “anarchism without adjectives,” neither collectivist, syndicalist nor communist. He argued that it was inconsistent with an anarchist approach to advocate any particular kind of economic arrangement, whether collectivist or communist; people needed to be free to develop their own solutions, through a process of trial and error. As I document in my new book, We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement, a similar approach had been advocated by some of the anarchists active in the anti-authoritarian International, to which the Spanish Federation of Workers had been affiliated. Below, I reproduce excerpts from an letter from Tarrida del Mármol to the French anarchist paper, La Révolte, in which he discusses “anarchism without adjectives,” in the context of some friendly criticisms of the French anarchist movement, which at the time consisted primarily of autonomous anarchist communist groups which eschewed more formal forms  of organization. In Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included a more recent statement of the “anarchism without adjectives” perspective by Diego Abad de Santillan, who was active in the Spanish anarchist movement before and after the Spanish Revolution and Civil War.


Anarchism Without Adjectives

Our pole star is Anarchy, the goal we seek to reach and towards which we direct our steps. But our path is blocked by all classes of obstacles and, if we are to demolish them, we must use the means that seem best to us. If we cannot adapt our conduct to our ideas, we let it be known, and seek to come as close as possible to the ideal. We do what a traveller would do when he wishes to go to a country with a temperate climate but who, in order to reach it, has to go through tropical and glacial zones: he would go well-furnished with furs and light clothes that he would get rid of once he arrived at his destination. It would be stupid and also ridiculous to want to fist-fight against such a well-armed enemy.

Our tactics derive from what has been said. We are anarchists and we preach Anarchy without adjectives. Anarchy is an axiom and the economic question something secondary. Some will say to us that it is because of the economic question that Anarchy is a truth; but we believe that to be anarchist means being the enemy of all authority and imposition and, by consequence, whatever system is proposed must be considered the best defence of Anarchy, not wishing to impose it on those who do not accept it.

This does not mean that we ignore the economic question. On the contrary, we are pleased to discuss it, but only as a contribution to the definitive solution or solutions. Many excellent things have been said by Cabet, Saint Simon, Fourier, Robert Owen and others; but all their systems have disappeared because they wanted to lock Society up in the conceptions of their brains, despite having done much to elucidate the great question.

Remember that from the moment in which you set about drawing up the general lines of the Future Society, on the one hand there arise objections and questions from one’s adversaries; and on the other hand, the natural desire to produce a complete and perfect work will lead one to invent and draw up a system that, we are sure, will disappear like the others.


There is a huge distance between the anarchist individualism of Spencer and other bourgeois thinkers and the individualist-socialist anarchists (I can find no other expression), as there is between Spanish collectivists from one region to another, among the English and North American mutualists, or among the libertarian communists. Kropotkin, for example, speaks to us of the “industrial town”, reducing its system, or if one prefers its concept, to the coming together of small communities that produce what they want, thus making a reality, so to speak, of the biblical heaven-on-earth out of the present state of civilization. Whereas Malatesta, who is also a libertarian communist, points to the constitution of large organizations who exchange their products between them and who will increase this creative power even more, this amazing activity that is unfolded by the 19th century, purged of all injurious action.

Each powerful intelligence gives its indications and creates new roads to the Future Society, winning supporters through some hypnotic power (if we can say so), suggesting these ideas to others, with everyone in general formulating their own particular plan.

Let us agree then, as almost all of us in Spain have done, to call ourselves simply anarchists. In our conversations, in our conferences and our press, we do discuss economic questions, but these questions should never become the cause of division between anarchists.

For our propaganda to be successful, for the conservation of the idea, we need to know each other and see each other, and for this reason we have to set up groups. In Spain these groups exist in every locality where there are anarchists and they are the driving force of the whole revolutionary movement. Anarchists do not have money, nor easy means to find it. To get around this, most of us voluntarily make a small weekly or monthly contribution, so that we can maintain the relations necessary between every member. We could maintain relations with the whole World, if other countries had an organization like ours.

There is no authority in the group: one comrade is appointed to act as treasurer, another as secretary to deal with correspondence, etc. Ordinary meetings are held every week or fortnight; extraordinary meetings whenever they are necessary. In order to save on expenses and work, and also as a measure of prudence in case of persecution, a commission of relations is created on a national level. But it does not take any initiative: its members must go to their groups if they wish to make proposals. Its mission is to communicate the resolutions and proposals that are communicated to it from one group to all groups, to keep lists of contacts and provide these to any group that should ask for them, and to make direct contact with other groups.

Anarchism with adjectives

Anarchism with adjectives

Such are the general lines of the organization that were accepted at the congress of Valencia and about which you spoke in La Révolte. The benefits that are produced are immense – and that is what stokes the fire of anarchist ideas. But rest assured that if we reduced action to anarchist organization, we would obtain very little. We would end up transforming it into an organization of thinkers who discuss ideas and which would certainly degenerate into a society of metaphysicists debating words. And this is not unlike the situation you find yourselves in [in France]. Using your activity only to discuss the ideal, you end up debating words. The ones are called “egoists” and the others “altruists”, though both want the same thing; some are called “libertarian communists” and others “individualists”, but at the root they express the same ideas.

We should not forget that the great mass of proletarians is forced to work an excessive number of hours, that they live in poverty and that consequently they cannot buy the books of Buchner, Darwin, Spencer, Lombroso, Max Nordau, etc., whose names they will hardly even have heard. And even if the proletarian could obtain these books, he lacks the preparatory studies in physics, chemistry, natural history and mathematics that would be necessary to understand what he is reading well. He has no time to study with method, nor is his brain exercised enough to be able to assimilate these studies. There are exceptions like the case of Esteban in [Zola’s novel] Germinal, those whose thirst for knowledge drives them to devour whatever falls into their hands, though often little or nothing is retained.

Our field of action, then, lies not within these groups, but among the proletarian masses.

It is in the societies of resistance where we study and we prepare our plan of struggle. These societies will exist under the bourgeois regime. Workers are not writers and care little whether there is freedom of the press; workers are not orators, and care little for the freedom to hold public meetings; they consider political liberties to be secondary things, but they all seek to improve their economic condition and they all seek to shake off the yoke of the bourgeoisie. For this reason there will be labour unions and societies of resistance even while there still exists the exploitation of one man by another. This is our place. By abandoning them, as you have done [in France], they will become the meeting places of charlatans who speak to the workers of “scientific socialism” or practicism, possibilism, cooperation, accumulation of capital to maintain peaceful strikes, requests for aid and the support of the authorities, etc., in such a way that will send the workers to sleep and restrain their revolutionary urges. If anarchists were part of these societies, at least they would prevent the “sedators” from carrying out propaganda against us.

And furthermore, if, as is the case in Spain, the anarchists are the most active members of these societies, those that carry out whatever work is needed for no reward, unlike the deceivers who exploit them, then these societies will always be on our side. In Spain it is these societies who buy large amounts of anarchist newspapers every week to distribute free of charge to their members. It is these societies who give money towards supporting our publications and aiding prisoners and others who are persecuted. We have shown by our work in these societies that we fight for the sake of our ideas. In addition, we go everywhere there are workers, and even where there are not, if we think that our presence there can be useful to the cause of Anarchy. Thus is the situation in Catalonia (and increasingly so in other regions of Spain), where there is hardly a municipality where we have not created or at least helped to create groups – be they called circles, literary society, workers’ centres, etc. – which sympathize with our ideas without describing themselves as anarchist or even being really anarchist. In these places we carry out purely anarchist conferences, mixing our revolutionary work together with the various musical and literary meetings. There, seated at a coffee table, we debate, we meet every evening, or we study in the library.

Spanish anarchists

Spanish anarchists

This is where our newspapers have their editorial offices, and where we send the newspapers we in turn receive to the reading room; and all this is freely organized and almost without expense. For example, in the Barcelona circle it is not even required to become a member; those who so wish can become members and the monthly contribution of 25 centimas is also voluntary. Of the two or three thousand workers who frequent the circle, only three hundred are members. We could say that these places are the focal point of our ideas. Nevertheless, although the government has always sought pretexts to close them down, it has never come up with anything, because they do not describe themselves as anarchist and private meetings are not held there. Nothing is done there that could not be done in any public café; but because all the active elements go there, great things often arise over a cup of coffee or a glass of cognac.

We nearly forgot the cooperative societies for consumption. In almost every town of Catalonia – except Barcelona, where it is impossible due to the great distances involved and the way of life – consumption cooperatives have been created where the workers can find foodstuffs that are cheaper and of better quality than at the retailers, where none of the members considers the cooperative to be an end in itself, but a means to be taken advantage of. There are societies that make large purchases and that have credit of fifty or sixty thousand pesetas, that have been very useful in strikes, giving credit to workers. In the literary societies of the “gentlemen” (or wise men, as they are often known), they discuss socialism; two comrades then register as members (if they do not have the money, the corporation will see to it) and go to stand up for our ideas.

The same happens with our press. It never leaves aside anarchist ideas; but it gives room to manifestos, statements and news which, although they may seem of little importance, serve nonetheless to allow our newspaper – and with it our ideas – to penetrate into towns or areas that know little of our ideas. These are our tactics and I believe that if they were adopted in other countries, anarchists would soon see their field of action widen.

Remember that in Spain most people cannot read; but despite this, six anarchist periodicals, pamphlets, books and a great many leaflets are published. There are continually meetings and, even without any great propagandists, very important results are achieved.

In Spain, the bourgeoisie is ruthless and rancorous, and will not allow one of its class to sympathize with us. When some man of position takes our side, all manner of means are unleashed against him to force him into abandoning us in such a way that he can only support us in private. On the contrary, the bourgeoisie gives him whatever he wishes, if he moves away from us. Therefore, all the work in favour of Anarchy rests on the shoulders of the manual workers, who must sacrifice their hours of rest for it…

Fernando Tarrida del Mármol, Barcelona, August 1890

Published in La Révolte, 3 no. 51 (6-12 septembre 1890): 1-2. ; 4 no. 1 (13-19 septembre 1890) : 2. This translation by Nestor McNab can be found at:


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