Neither East Nor West

Neither east nor west

In the next installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss how in the aftermath of the Second World War, confronted by the “cold war” between the United States and the Soviet Union, anarchists attempted to maintain an independent position that refused any compromise with either power block. Marie Louise Berneri’s slogan, “Neither East Nor West,” was clearly meant to echo the 19th century anarchist battle cry, “Neither God Nor Master.” One of the more interesting attempts to mark out an independent path for anarchist movements was made by the Bulgarian Anarchist Communist Federation, which developed a conception of an interlocking network of organizations that anticipated the notion of “horizontal federations” articulated by Colin Ward and other anarchists in the 1960s. Unfortunately, the Bulgarian anarchist movement was crushed by the Stalinists when they turned Bulgaria into a Soviet client state.

anarchist communism

Neither East Nor West

After the Second World War, despite the “Cold War” between the Soviet Union and the United States, anarchists sought to keep alive their libertarian vision of a free and equal society in which every individual is able to flourish. Marie Louise Berneri coined the phrase, “Neither East nor West,” signifying anarchist opposition to all power blocs (Volume Two, Selection 10). Anarchists continued to oppose colonialism and the imperialist expansion of the Soviet and American empires (Volume Two, Selections 8, 9, 28, 29 & 31).

Due to their opposition to both dominant power blocs, during the Cold War organized anarchist movements faced almost insurmountable obstacles, similar to the situation faced by the Spanish anarchists during the Revolution and Civil War. In Bulgaria, there was a significant pre-war anarchist communist movement which reemerged briefly after the defeat of Nazi Germany, but which was quickly suppressed by their Soviet “liberators.” The Bulgarian anarchists repudiated fascism as an “attempt to restore absolutism [and] autocracy… with the aim of defending the economic and spiritual dominance of the privileged classes.” They rejected “political democracy” (representative government) because “its social foundations [are] based on the centralized State and capitalism,” resulting in “chaos, contradictions and crime.” As for State socialism, “it leads to State capitalism—the most monstrous form of economic exploitation and oppression, and of total domination of social and individual freedom” (Volume Two, Selection 7).

The program of the Bulgarian Anarchist Communist Federation is noteworthy today for its emphasis on anarchist federalism as “a dense and complex network” of village communities, regional communes, productive enterprises, trade unions, distribution networks and consumer organizations that would be “grouped in a general confederation of exchange and consumption for satisfying the needs of all inhabitants” (Volume Two, Selection 7). Such network forms of organization mark an advance over the “inverse pyramid” structure that had long been advocated by anarcho-syndicalists, which was much more prone to being transformed into a more conventional, hierarchical form of organization during times of crisis, as in Spain. By the early 1950s, many anarcho-syndicalists were advocating similar horizontal networks based on factory councils and community assemblies, resembling a “honeycomb,” as Philip Sansom put it, in which “all the cells are of equal importance and fit into each other,” instead of control being “maintained from the centre” (Volume Two, Selection 58).

Within their own organizations, the Bulgarian anarchist communists advocated a form of consensus decision-making. However, while “the decision of the majority is not binding on the minority,” in practice “the minority generally rallies to the decision of the majority,” after the majority has had an opportunity to demonstrate the wisdom of its position. Thus, while the minority was not bound to follow the decisions of the majority, the majority was not prevented from acting in accordance with its own views, such that the minority could not assume de facto authority over the majority by refusing to agree with the majority decision, as sometimes happens under other forms of consensus decision-making. The Bulgarian anarchist communists recognized that in broader based mass organizations that were not specifically anarchist in orientation, majority rule would generally prevail, but even then “the minority may be freed from the obligation to apply a general decision, on condition that it does not prevent the execution of such a decision” (Volume Two, Selection 7). In this regard, their position is remarkably similar to that of contemporary advocates of participatory democracy, such as Carole Pateman (1985: 159-162; see also Graham, 1996), and anarchist advocates of various forms of direct democracy (Volume Three, Chapter 2).

Robert Graham

anarchist communism 2

Poetry and Anarchism: Herbert Read

Herbert Read

Herbert Read

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


Poetry and Anarchism

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

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

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

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

Robert Graham


Japanese Anarchism Before the War

Museifushugi brief history of anarchism in prewar Japan

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


Class Struggle and ‘Pure’ Anarchism in Japan

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

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


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

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

anarcho syndicalism

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

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

Robert Graham

War flag of the Imperial Japanese Army

War flag of the Imperial Japanese Army

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 Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution (1936-1939)

CNT Anarchist militia

CNT Anarchist militia

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

CNT at the barricades

The CNT in the Spanish Civil War

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

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

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


The Spanish Revolution

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

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

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

CNT final blow

Counter-Revolution in Spain

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Graham

Peirats CNT Spanish Revolution

Spanish Anarchism

The CNT fights fascism in Spain

The CNT fights fascism in Spain

July 19, 1936 marks the 79th anniversary of the beginning of the Spanish Revolution, when anarchists across Spain took up arms against the reactionary Spanish military forces that were attempting to take over Spain. What ensued was a bloody civil war and the ultimate defeat of the Spanish anarchists three years later, as a result of an arms embargo, Communist treachery and a fascist military machine fuelled by weapons and military expertise from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The Spanish anarchist movement began in the late 1860s, when the majority of the Spanish Federation of the International Workingmen’s Association (the so-called “First International”) adopted an anarchist stance, something which I discuss in much more detail in my new book, ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement. I included several selections regarding the Spanish anarchist movement in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

CNT Poster 'Hail the Heroes'

CNT Poster ‘Hail the Heroes’

By the beginning of the Spanish Revolution and Civil War, over 500,000 people belonged to anarchist affiliated organizations, primarily the anarcho-syndicalist trade union federation, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (the CNT, or ‘National Confederation of Workers’). Toward the end of the Civil War, over two million people belonged to these organizations, but by then they had been almost completely coopted by the Communist dominated Republican government, and had developed a bureaucratic structure that mirrored those of other left wing organizations (with the exception of the Stalinist Spanish Communist Party, whose authoritarian structure and methods were incomparable to other left organizations). In the following excerpt from my essay, “The Anarchist Current,” which forms the Afterword to Volume Three of the Anarchism anthology, I discuss the Spanish anarchist movement on the eve of the Revolution. I have created a page on the anarchists in the Spanish Revolution, which includes additional material that I was unable to fit into Volume One.

'The Revolution and the War are Inseparable'

‘The Revolution and the War are Inseparable’

Spanish Anarchism: Prelude to Revolution

The Spanish anarchist movement which Bakunin had helped inspire experienced its greatest triumphs and most tragic defeats during the Spanish Revolution and Civil War (1936-1939). The two most prominent anarchist groups in Spain were the Iberian Anarchist Federation (the FAI) and the anarcho-syndicalist trade union confederation, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (the CNT). The FAI was a federation of anarchist revolutionaries which sought to foment social revolution and to keep the CNT on an anarchist path. This “dual organization” model had been followed in Spain since the days of the First International, when Bakunin recruited Spanish radicals into his Alliance of Social Revolutionaries. Members of the Alliance were to ensure that the Spanish sections of the International adopted Bakunin’s collectivist anarchist program.

By the 1930s, the Spanish anarchist movement had moved toward an anarchist communist position, although the doctrine of “anarchism without adjectives,” which originated in the debates between the anarchist collectivists and anarchist communists in the 1890s, continued to be influential. Diego Abad de Santillán (1897-1983), who played a prominent role in the Argentine and Spanish anarchist movements, saw anarchism as representing a broad “humanistic craving” which “seeks to defend man’s dignity and freedom, regardless of circumstances and under every political system, past, present and future.” Anarchism must therefore be without adjectives because it is not tied to any particular economic or political system, nor is anarchy only possible at a certain stage of history or development. Abad de Santillán argued that anarchism “can survive and assert its right to exist alongside plough and team of oxen as readily as alongside the modern combine-harvester; its mission in the days of steam was the same as it is in the age of the electric motor or jet engine or the modern age of the computer and atomic power” (Volume Two, Selection 53).

Despite his endorsement of “anarchism without adjectives,” Abad de Santillán did not shy away from controversy. Although he participated in the anarcho-syndicalist movements in Argentina and Spain, he urged anarchists “not to forget that the Syndicate is, as an economic by-product of capitalist organization, a social phenomenon spawned by the needs of its day. Clinging to its structures after the revolution would be tantamount to clinging to the cause that spawned it: capitalism” (Volume One, Selection 94).

On the eve of the Spanish Revolution, when the CNT reaffirmed its commitment to libertarian communism (Volume One, Selection 124), Abad de Santillán argued not only that people should be free to choose between “communism, collectivism or mutualism,” but that “the prerequisite” of such freedom is a certain level of material abundance that can only be achieved through an integrated economic network of productive units (Volume One, Selection 125).

Robert Graham



Do Not Fear Anarchy – Available Soon

We Do Not Fear the Cover

In anticipation of the forthcoming publication on June 16, 2015 by AK Press of my latest book, ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement, AK press is selling it in advance at the introductory price of only $15.75 USD. That’s for my 275 page history of the origins of the international anarchist movement from the debates and struggles within the International Workingmen’s Association (IWMA), the so-called First International, which was founded at a congress of predominantly English and French workers in September 1864. Previously, I posted excerpts from the Introduction. Here, I provide some excerpts from the concluding chapter, “The End (of the International) and the Beginning (of the anarchist movement).” Order your copy now, before it goes back up to its regular list price of $21.00.

The International

The International

From the International to an international anarchist movement and beyond

By the turn of the century, anarchist ideas and movements were spreading across the globe, with significant anarchist movements in Spain, Italy, France, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Cuba, Mexico and Peru, smaller but noteworthy movements in England, the United States, Russia, Germany, Sweden, Holland and Belgium, and emerging anarchist movements in Japan and China. Even the Marxist historian E. J. Hobsbawm had to concede that before the 1917 Russian Revolution, “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 anarchists within the International played an important role in establishing anarchism as a worldwide movement. It was the anarchists in the International who debated and developed the leading ideas of modern anarchism. The issues they raised continue to reverberate to this very day.

One of the key points made by the anarchists in the International was the need for revolutionary organizations to mirror the society which they hoped to achieve. In order for any revolution to succeed in liberating people and to avoid one ruling class simply replacing another, the organizational structures used to transform society must be voluntary, non-hierarchical, non-coercive and self-empowering. Hence the anarchist insistence that means be consistent with ends, and that everyone should have an equal voice. Instead of party or governmental type organizations with bureaucratic hierarchies and “representatives” who at best represent the interests of a few, the anarchists insisted on individual autonomy, voluntary association and the use, only when necessary, of recallable delegates subject to imperative mandates with no independent policy making powers of their own.

Tensions and disagreements arose among the anarchist themselves within the International regarding exactly which types of organization, if any, were conducive to achieving an anarchist society (or “anarchy,” in a positive sense). Bakunin, and since his time, the Platformists, have argued in favour of “dual organization,” with dedicated groups of anarchists sharing a common platform or program forming their own organizations which then work within broader based organizations or movements, such as the International itself, to steer those movements and organizations in an anarchist direction. Others, particularly the anti-organizationalists, objected that such organizations created an elite group of revolutionaries, or vanguard, that would act as the de facto leadership of these broader based movements and organizations, assuming control of them instead of fostering the self-empowerment of the people.

A middle course was sketched out by Malatesta, who was critical of the Platformists but rejected the extreme position of the anti-organizationalists. Malatesta also developed a perceptive critique of the International itself, and the anarchists’ role within it. The rapid ideological evolution among the various delegates to the International’s congresses, Malatesta later wrote, “quickly turning mutualist, collectivist, communist, revolutionary, and anarchist,” was not “reflective of any actual and simultaneous evolution in the vast majority of members” of the International, which was originally formed as an international association of workers for the purpose of providing “a broader base for the economic struggle against capitalism,” not as a revolutionary organization.

IWMA membership card

IWMA membership card

All of the various factions within the International, whether Proudhonist, Marxist, Blanquist or anarchist, “tried to force events rather than relying upon the force of events.” The International could not be “simultaneously a society for economic resistance, a workshop of ideas, and a revolutionary association.” While Malatesta clearly saw a role for specific anarchist organizations, he felt that the workers’ own organizations should be independent of any particular political group, including anarchist ones. It was up to the workers to find their own path, with anarchists fighting alongside them instead of dragging them along behind them. The adoption of an anarchist approach should “happen freely and gradually, as consciences expand and understanding spreads,” rather than the anarchists striding ahead alone under “the illusion that the masses understood and [were] following them,” or, worse, trying to foist their views on others.

Malatesta also pointed out the limitations of workers’ congresses and majority rule. In practical terms, “congresses are attended by whoever wishes and can, whoever has enough money and who has not been prevented by police measures.” Consequently, they are not even truly representative bodies. The only congresses compatible with anarchist values are those which do not attempt “to lay down the law;” any decisions emanating from them must not be “obligatory rules but suggestions, recommendations, proposals to be submitted to all involved,” and which “do not become binding and enforceable except on those who accept them, and [only] for as long as they accept them.”

When decisions are made by a majority vote of delegates to a congress, at best the decisions are made “by the majority of a majority, and these could easily, especially when the opposing opinions are more than two, represent only a minority.” Although “it is often necessary for the minority to come to accept the opinion of the majority” because “there is an obvious need or usefulness in doing something and to do it requires the agreement of all,” such “adaptation on the one hand by one group must on the other be reciprocal, voluntary and must stem from an awareness of need and of goodwill to prevent the running of social affairs from being paralyzed by obstinacy” rather than being “imposed as a principle and statutory norm.”

As for the use of recallable delegates with imperative mandates, as the experience of the Hague Congress demonstrated, this can lead to abuses. Delegates can act contrary to their mandates, supporting measures that the group they represent rejects. After such measures are passed at the congress, the group must then accept them against their wishes, or repudiate them at the risk of being expelled from the organization for going against the so-called will of the “majority.” Delegates who remain true to their mandates cannot vote on issues for which they have no mandate, giving free rein to delegates of opposing views and those who do not wish to conform to the mandates which they have been given.

With respect to specifically anarchist organizations, Malatesta was of the view that anarchists would be able to exert more influence over the course of events by associating together, whether for the purposes of propaganda, agitation or revolutionary action. He also argued that the rejection of public organization to avoid police prosecution actually made it easier for the authorities to suppress the anarchist movement by isolating anarchists and cutting them off from broader public support. Yet he also recognized that people have differing views, such that the creation of a unified anarchist movement, as envisaged by the Platformists, was a chimera. Instead of trying to achieve ideological uniformity, Malatesta suggested that anarchists of different tendencies simply organize their own groups, which was consistent with the general anarchist view in favour of voluntary association.

The Workers Themselves

The Workers Themselves

But what should the relationship be between anarchist groups and broader based social movements? Recalling the International slogan that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the workers themselves, Malatesta reminded his fellow anarchists that they were “not out to emancipate the people; we want to see the people emancipate themselves.” What anarchists therefore needed to do was to foster “all manner of popular organizations” in order to accustom people to act for themselves, without relying on people in positions of authority to act for them.

Within the anti-authoritarian International there had been differing views regarding whether the anarchists should strive to create mass based organizations that would become powerful enough to sweep away the existing social system and whether these should be exclusively working class organizations. Some anarchists focused on the idea of the revolutionary commune, and others advocated interlocking federations of producer, consumer and communal or geographical groups. Still others came to adopt Malatesta’s view that what anarchists should be doing is working with people in their own organizations, such as trade unions, encouraging them to take direct action and to work towards the social revolution.

The two most prominent anarchist currents that emerged from the anti-authoritarian International were anarcho-syndicalism and anarchist communism, with the anarcho-syndicalists advocating the transformation of society by means of revolutionary trade unions that would provide the basis for a post-revolutionary society, and the anarchist communists advocating interlocking networks of ever changing voluntary associations to meet people’s multifarious needs and wants. For the most part, the disagreements between the anarcho-syndicalists and the anarchist communists were not over libertarian communism, as most of the anarcho-syndicalist organizations eventually adopted programs in favour of communism as opposed to collectivism. The disagreement was over how to achieve anarchist communism and what an anarchist communist society would look like.

As Malatesta pointed out, the problem with mass based trade union organizations is that many of their members were not anarchists, nor even revolutionaries. To maintain or increase their membership, the unions had to represent the interests of all of their members and achieve immediate improvements in working conditions. While a useful means for demonstrating the value of solidarity and sometimes increasing class consciousness, the unions either tended toward conservatism, as in England, or, like the International, had a leadership far more radical than most of its members.

Kropotkin’s views were similar to Malatesta’s. Although he believed that the “syndicate is absolutely necessary,” being “the only form of workers’ association which allows the direct struggle against capital to be carried on without a plunge into parliamentarianism,” he recognized, as did Malatesta, that the syndicate “does not achieve this goal automatically, since in Germany, in France and in England, we have the example of syndicates linked to the parliamentary struggle, while in Germany the Catholic syndicates are very powerful, and so on.” Kropotkin believed, with Bakunin, that it was necessary for anarchists to work within the unions in order to spur the workers on to revolution.

While Malatesta advocated working within unions, he advised anarchists against assuming any positions of authority within them. Anarchists needed to preserve their independence in order to keep the workers on a revolutionary path, avoiding the inevitable compromises that all but the most dictatorial of leaders must make when representing a broad based constituency with conflicting views and interests, and when having to work within the existing economic and political systems.

Malatesta quote 2

Other anarchist communists preferred to work within small affinity groups, but these different forms of organization were not mutually exclusive. In Spain, for example, the most dedicated anarchists maintained close knit affinity groups while at the same time working within the broader based anarchist workers’ federations. Today, many anarchists advocate not only working within broader based social movements, but helping to establish popular movements that from their inception adopt decentralized, affinity group based organizational structures that form horizontal networks and popular assemblies where power remains at the base, not in a hierarchical administration, bureaucracy or executive.

But this concept can also be traced back to the International, for it was the federalists, anti-authoritarians and anarchists in the International who insisted that the workers’ own organizations, including the International itself, should be directly democratic, voluntary federations freely federated with one another, for they were to provide the very basis for the future free society. Contemporary anarchists have simply developed more sophisticated ways of implementing these ideas and preventing movements from being co-opted and transformed into top down organizations.

Gone is the “inverted” pyramid of the 19th century anarchists, with smaller scale groups federating into larger and more encompassing federations, ultimately resulting in international federations composed of groups from lower level federations, such as national or regional federations. The problem with these kinds of federations is that the higher level federations can be transformed into governing bodies, particularly in times of crisis, as Marx and Engels attempted to transform the International’s General Council into an executive power after the suppression of the Paris Commune.

Instead of federations organized “from the bottom up,” many contemporary anarchists advocate interlocking horizontal networks like those used in various global movements against neo-liberalism, the “horizontalidad” movement in Argentina and the Occupy movement, networks with no centres, not even administrative or “federalist” ones. These contemporary movements have been able, at least for a time, to break out of the isolation to which autonomous anarchist communist groups in late 19th century Europe were prone prior to the renewed involvement of many anarchists in the workers’ movement in the mid-1890s, which gave rise to various revolutionary and anarchist syndicalist movements in Europe and the Americas.

What is different about contemporary anarchist approaches to organization is that they bridge the gap between the affinity group, popular assemblies and broader networks of similar organizations and movements in a way that 19th century anarchist communist groups were unable to do, without relying on the more permanent forms and institutions utilized by the anarcho-syndicalists in their federalist organizations. Syndicalist organizations were always in danger of being transformed into top down bureaucratic organizations, as eventually happened with the French CGT during the First World War and even more so after the Russian Revolution, when the CGT came under the control of the Marxists. Under the pressure of the Spanish Civil War, even the anarcho-syndicalist CNT in Spain began turning into a bureaucratic organization.

In many ways, these contemporary forms of anarchist organization mirror the anarchist communist vision of a society in which, in Kropotkin’s words, “ever modified associations… carry in themselves the elements of their durability and constantly assume new forms which answer best to the multiple aspirations of all.” By making these kinds of organizations, like affinity groups, the basis of their horizontal networks, contemporary anarchists have created non-hierarchical organizations that not just prefigure, but realize in the here and now, the organizational forms consonant with an anarchist communist future, within the context of broader movements for social change.

Robert Graham, June 2015


Emma Goldman on May Day

Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman

Just found this great quote from Emma Goldman from a May Day rally in Toronto in 1939. I included several selections from Emma in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, and began Volume Two with her thoughts on anarchism in the face of the Second World War. Thanks to Dave Lester for posting this.

Emma Goldman, May Day 1937, Hyde Park

Emma Goldman, May Day 1937, Hyde Park

May Day 1939

“Again we are celebrating the first day of May, marching in parades, singing songs, listening to pretty speeches delivered by politicians and labor leaders. But is this the purpose of the first of May?

“We are being told that here in Canada, prosperity is back again. The barons of industry are harvesting millions of dollars from the sweat and toil of the Canadian workers.

“Yes, our masters will grant us ‘democratic rights’ when it comes to elections. They know as long as we are using our “powerful” slips of paper nothing is threatening their privileges. But when we use direct action, your collective strength, and strike for higher wages, then our bosses tell us that we have overstepped our “democratic rights.

“Our strength lies in the field of economics, in the factories, in the workshops, in the mines, and not in the lobbies of parliament or the steps of city halls. Therefore, fellow workers, let us mark this first of May by the realization that organization in the economic field is our only effective weapon against war and its creator the state, against Capitalism and its offspring Fascism.”

Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman 70th birthday


The Platform and Its Critics

Organizational Platform

Continuing with the installments from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in this section I discuss the impact of the “Organizational Platform of the Libertarian Communists,” published by Peter Arshinov, Nestor Makhno and other anarchists in 1926. Excerpts from the Platform were included in Volume One of the Anarchism anthology. The Platform generated a great deal of criticism from other anarchists, some of which I also included in Volume One. More recently, I posted a debate on Platformism between two Ukrainian anarchists in relation to the current civil war in Ukraine.

The Original Platformists

The Original Platformists

The Platform and Its Critics

The defeat of the Makhnovists in Ukraine and the anarchist movement in Russia led Arshinov and Makhno to argue that anarchists needed to rethink their approach. In 1926, now in exile, they published the Organizational Platform of the Libertarian Communists, calling for the creation of a General Union of anarchists based on theoretical and tactical unity, collective responsibility and federalism (Volume One, Selection 115). Although, for the most part, the Platform merely restated the Makhnovist conception of anarchism, it generated considerable controversy in anarchist circles. The Platform argued in favour of military organization based on “unity in the plan of operations and unity of common command,” “revolutionary self-discipline,” and “total submission of the revolutionary army to the masses of worker and peasant organizations common throughout the country.” Despite its insistence on revolutionary self-discipline and contrary to the practice of the Makhnovists during the Civil War, the Platform rejected any form of conscription, stating that “all coercion will be completely excluded from the work of defending the revolution,” marking a return to rather than a departure from anarchist principles (Volume One, Selection 115).

It was the Platform’s emphasis on the need for theoretical and tactical unity, and the notion of “collective responsibility,” that caused the greatest debate. The Platform argued that “the tactical methods employed by separate members and groups within the Union should… be in rigorous concord both with each other and with the general theory and tactic[s] of the Union.” Collective responsibility “requires each member to undertake fixed organizational duties, and demands execution of communal decisions.” The Platform took the position that revolutionary activity in collective areas of life “cannot be based on the personal responsibility of individual militants,” describing such an approach as “irresponsible individualism” (Volume One, Selection 115).

The General Union of anarchists was to strive “to realize a network of revolutionary peasant [and worker] economic organizations” and unions, “founded on anti-authoritarian principles,” with the General Union serving as “the organized vanguard of their emancipating process” (Volume One, Selection 115). Voline and several other exiled Russian anarchists argued against any anarchist organization assuming a vanguard role. For them, the social revolution “must be the free creation of the masses, not controlled by ideological or political groups,” for the “slightest suggestion of direction, of superiority, of leadership of the masses… inevitably implies that the masses must… submit to it.” A General Union of “anarchists” that “orients the mass organizations (workers and peasants) in their political direction and is supported as needed by a centralized army is nothing more than a new political power” (Volume One, Selection 115).

Anarchist critics of the Platform: Senya Fleshin, Voline & Mollie Steimer

Anarchist critics of the Platform: Senya Fleshin, Voline & Mollie Steimer

Voline and his associates found the Platform’s conception of social and economic organization “mechanical” and simplistic, with its scheme for the coordination of production and consumption by workers’ and peasants’ soviets, committees and unions run by elected delegates subject to recall. They saw in such organizations a danger of “immobility, bureaucracy [and] a tendency to authoritarianism that will not be changed automatically by the principle of voting.” They thought a “better guarantee” of freedom lies “in the creation of a series of other, more mobile, even provisional organs which arise and multiply according to the needs that arise in the course of daily living and activities,” offering “a richer, more faithful reflection of the complexity of social life” (Volume One, Selection 115).

While the Voline group acknowledged that ideological differences among anarchists, and the resulting disunity, were partly responsible for the failure of the Russian anarchist movement, they argued that there were other factors at play, including the “existing prejudices, customs [and] education” of the masses, the fact that they “look for accommodation rather than radical change,” and the repressive forces lined up against them (Volume One, Selection 115). For Voline, what was needed was not a more centralized and disciplined party type organization, but a “synthesis” of all the “just and valid elements” of the various anarchist currents, including syndicalism, communism and individualism (Volume One, Selection 116). Foreshadowing subsequent ecological conceptions of anarchism (Volume Two, Selection 48; Volume Three, Chapter 6), Voline argued that anarchism should reflect the “creative diversity” of life itself, achieving unity through “diversity and movement” (Volume One, Selection 116).

Malatesta responded to the Platform by emphasizing that “in order to achieve their ends, anarchist organizations must, in their constitution and operation, remain in harmony with the principles of anarchism.” He argued that the proposed General Union of anarchists should be seen for what it really was, “the Union of a particular fraction of anarchists.” He regarded as authoritarian the proposal for a “Union Executive Committee” to “oversee the ‘ideological and organizational conduct’” of the Union’s constitutive organizations and members, arguing that such an approach would turn the Union into “a nursery for heresies and schisms” (Volume One, Selection 115).

For Malatesta, what the Platformists were proposing was a form of representative government based on majority vote, which “in practice always leads to domination by a small minority.” While anarchist organizations and congresses “serve to maintain and increase personal relationships among the most active comrades, to coordinate and encourage programmatic studies on the ways and means of taking action, to acquaint all on the situation in the various regions and the action most urgently needed in each; to formulate the various opinions current among the anarchists… their decisions are not obligatory rules but suggestions, recommendations, proposals to be submitted to all involved, and do not become binding and enforceable except on those who accept them, and for as long as they accept them” (Volume One, Selection 115).

Malatesta quote 2

Since the publication of the Platform in 1926, anarchists have continued to debate which forms of organization are compatible with an anarchist vision of a free society. Some have championed various forms of direct democracy, whether in factory committees (Volume Two, Selection 59) or community assemblies (Volume Two, Selection 62). Others have followed Kropotkin, Voline and Malatesta in arguing in favour of more fluid, ad hoc organizations forming complex horizontal networks of voluntary associations (Volume Two, Selection 63; Volume Three, Selection 1).

Malatesta suggested that the Russian Platformists were “obsessed with the success of the Bolsheviks,” hence their desire “to gather the anarchists together in a sort of disciplined army which, under the ideological and practical direction of a few leaders, would march solidly to the attack of the existing regimes, and after having won a material victory would direct the constitution of a new society” (Volume One, Selection 115). But for those so inclined, there were other organizations for them to join, namely the various Communist Parties that were soon organized in Europe, Asia and the Americas under Russian tutelage.

Despite the creation of an anarcho-syndicalist International in early 1922 (Volume One, Selection 114), many anarchists and syndicalists, and the trade unions in which they were influential, affiliated instead with the Comintern (Communist International) and its related organizations. In addition, many anarchist and syndicalist groups and organizations were forcibly suppressed, by the Bolsheviks in Russia, the Fascists in Italy, the new “revolutionary” government in Mexico, military dictatorships in Portugal, Spain and Latin America, and the “democratic” government of the United States, which deported scores of radicals in 1919 (including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman), imprisoned Mexican anarchists like Ricardo Flores Magón, and enacted “criminal syndicalism” laws to prohibit revolutionary syndicalist speech and action.

Robert Graham


The 1917 Russian Revolution and the Factory Committees

The 1917 Russian Revolution

The 1917 Russian Revolution

Every February, I get renewed interest in my posts and pages regarding the 1917 February Revolution in Russia. I imagine interest will continue as we approach the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 2017. I included a Chapter on the Russian Revolution in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Here, I reproduce excerpts from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of my Anarchism anthology, dealing with the February Revolution and the rise of factory committees during the revolutionary upheavals in Europe that began in Russia in February 1917.

russian revolution soldiers on street

The Russian Revolution

In 1916, echoing Bakunin’s position during the Franco-Prussian War, Russian anarchists who rejected Kropotkin’s pro-war stance called for the “imperialist war” in Europe to be transformed into an all embracing social revolution (Geneva Group of Anarchist-Communists, 1916: 44-47). In February 1917, the long sought after Russian Revolution began with relatively spontaneous uprisings for which, much like the 1905 Russian Revolution, no particular group could claim credit.

For the anarchists, the “February Revolution” was another vindication of their view of social revolution. “All revolutions necessarily begin in a more or less spontaneous manner,” wrote the Russian anarchist Voline. The task for revolutionary anarchists is to work with the insurgent people to enable them to take control of their own affairs, without any intermediaries, and to prevent the reconstitution of state power. For Voline and the anarchists, effective “emancipation can be achieved only by the direct, widespread, and independent action of those concerned, of the workers themselves, grouped, not under the banner of a political party or of an ideological formation, but in their own class organizations (productive workers’ unions, factory committees, co-operatives, etc.) on the basis of concrete action and self-government, helped, but not governed, by revolutionaries working in the very midst of, and not above the mass” (Volume One, Selection 87).

The anarchists therefore opposed the Provisional Government which replaced the Czarist regime and pressed for the expropriation by the workers and peasants themselves of the means of production and distribution, a process the workers and peasants had already begun, with workers taking over their factories and peasants seizing the land that they had worked for generations. Anarchist communists expropriated the homes of the rich and called for the creation of revolutionary communes (Avrich, 1978: 125-126 & 130).

Many anarchists supported and participated in the peasant and worker “soviets” that sprang up across Russia, following a pattern similar to the 1905 Russian Revolution. The anarcho-syndicalist, Gregory Maksimov, described the soviets as having “been brought into being by the proletariat spontaneously, by revolutionary means, and with that element of improvisation which springs from the needs of each locality and which entails (a) the revolutionizing of the masses, (b) the development of their activity and self-reliance, and (c) the strengthening of their faith in their own creative powers” (Volume One, Selection 83).

When Lenin rejected the orthodox Marxist view that Russia had to proceed through a “bourgeois” revolution and the development of a capitalist economy before socialism could be implemented, calling for a proletarian revolution that would replace the Russian state with worker and peasant soviets modeled after the Paris Commune, he was not only recognizing what was already happening, but adopting a position so close to the anarchists that both orthodox Marxists and many anarchists regarded the Bolsheviks as the anarchists’ allies (Avrich, 1978: 127-130). Many anarchists worked with the Bolsheviks to overthrow the Provisional Government in October 1917, and to dissolve the newly elected Constituent Assembly in January 1918.

Either Death to Capitalism or Death Under Capitalism

Either Death to Capitalism or Death Under Capitalism

Factory Committees

Soon after the October Revolution, some anarchists began to realize that rather than pushing the social revolution forward, the Bolsheviks were seeking to establish their own dictatorship, subordinating the soviets to their party organization. Maksimov therefore proclaimed in December 1917 that the anarchists “will go with the Bolsheviks no longer, for their ‘constructive’ work has begun, directed towards what we have always fought… the strengthening of the state. It is not our cause to strengthen what we have resolved to destroy. We must go to the lower classes to organize the work of the third—and perhaps the last—revolution” (Volume One, Selection 83).

Because the soviets, as “presently constituted,” were being transformed by the Bolsheviks into organs of state power, Maksimov argued that the anarchists “must work for their conversion from centres of authority and decrees into non-authoritarian centres,” linking the “autonomous organizations” of the workers together (Volume One, Selection 83). But as the Bolsheviks continued to consolidate their power, subordinating not only the soviets but also the trade unions to their “revolutionary” government, the anarcho-syndicalists began to emphasize the role of the factory committees in furthering the cause of the anarchist social revolution and in combatting both capitalism and the nascent Bolshevik dictatorship.

At their August 1918 congress, the Russian anarcho-syndicalists described the factory committee as “a fighting organizational form of the entire workers’ movement, more perfect than the soviet of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ deputies in that it is a basic self-governing producers’ organization under the continuous and alert control of the workers… With the aid of the factory committees and their industry-wide federations, the working class will destroy both the existing economic slavery and its new form of state capitalism which is falsely labelled ‘socialism’,” which the Bolsheviks were in the process of establishing (Volume One, Selection 84).

A similar approach was put forward by anarchists in Italy during the factory occupations in 1919-1920, and by anarchists in Germany. Malatesta, returning to Italy in late 1919, argued, as he had before in his debates with the syndicalists (Volume One, Selection 60), that general strikes were not sufficient to bring about a revolution. The anarchists therefore “put forward an idea: the take-over of factories,” which would constitute “an exercise preparing one for the ultimate general act of expropriation” (Malatesta, 1920: 134). The Italian factory occupation movement peaked in September 1920, with armed workers running their own factories using a factory committee form of organization, but ended that same month when reformist trade union and socialist leaders negotiated an agreement with the government that returned control of the factories to their capitalist owners.

In Germany, anarchists fought to establish a system of workers’ councils, most notably in Bavaria, where Gustav Landauer and Erich Muhsam were directly involved in the short lived Council Republic of 1919. However, the Bavarian Revolution was crushed by troops sent in by the more conservative Social Democrats, whom Landauer had been denouncing as the scourge of the socialist movement for years (Volume One, Selections 79 & 111). Landauer was brutally murdered, and Muhsam was imprisoned for several years (Kuhn, 2011: 8-10).

Both the soviet and factory committee models of revolutionary organization were very influential in anarchist circles. At the founding congress of the reconstituted anarcho-syndicalist International Workers’ Association in early 1922, the delegates declared themselves in favour of “a system of free councils without subordination to any authority or political party” (Volume One, Selection 114). Nevertheless, some anarchists voiced concerns regarding the limitations of soviet and factory council modes of organization.

Maksimov pointed to the danger of the soviets being transformed into representative bodies instead of direct organs of libertarian self-management (Volume One, Selection 83). More recently, Murray Bookchin has argued that “council modes of organization are not immune to centralization, manipulation and perversion. These councils are still particularistic, one-sided and mediated forms of social management,” being limited to the workers’ self-management of production, “the preconditions of life, not the conditions of life” (Volume Two, Selection 62). Following the May-June 1968 events in France, Maurice Joyeux pointed out that factory committees need to coordinate their actions during the revolutionary process in order to spread and succeed, and then, after the revolution, to coordinate production and distribution, leading him to suggest that broader trade union federations would be better able to undertake this coordinating role (Volume Two, Selection 61).

Robert Graham

Workers' Control

Workers’ Control


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