After February: Makhno Returns to Ukraine for the Revolution

Nestor Makhno

After his release from prison at the beginning of the February 1917 Revolution in Russia, Nestor Makhno made his way back to his home town in Ukraine, Gulyai-Pole. There he met up with surviving anarchists to take stock of the situation and determine a course of action. Initially, Makhno had considered making the overthrow of the local organ of the Provisional Government, the Public Committee, their first priority. However, he decided it would be better to first focus on creating a Peasants’ Union, which would spearhead the expropriation of the land without having to wait for the Provisional Government to take action. He proposed placing an anarchist at the head of the Peasants’ Union to prevent it from being co-opted by any of the political parties. His comrade, Kalinichenko, opposed this approach, arguing that the anarchists should not take any leadership positions but should instead spread anarchist propaganda to encourage the peasants themselves to take an anarchist path. The following excerpts from Makhno’s memoirs are taken from Chapter 2 of his book, The Russian Revolution in Ukraine.

Returning to Ukraine to Make the Revolution

Upon arrival in Gulyai-Pole, I immediately got together with my comrades from the anarchist group…

I saw before me my own peasant friends – unknown revolutionary anarchist fighters who in their own lives didn’t know what it means to cheat one another. They were pure peasant types, tough to convince, but once convinced, once they had grasped an idea and tested it against their own reasoning, why then they pushed that idea at every conceivable opportunity. Truly, seeing these people before me I trembled with joy and was overcome with emotion.

I immediately decided to start the very next day to carry out active propaganda among the peasants and workers of Gulyai-Pole. I wanted to dissolve the Public Committee (the local organ of the Provisional Government) and the militia, and prevent the formation of any more committees. I decided to take up anarchist action as the first order of business…

The members of our group hastily set up a meeting to discuss practical affairs. By this time my enthusiasm for rushing into action had cooled off considerably. In my report I down played for the time being the carrying on of propaganda work among the peasants and workers and the overthrow of the Public Committee.

Indeed I surprised my comrades by insisting that we as a group reach a clear understanding of the state of the anarchist movement generally in Russia. The fragmentation of anarchist groups, a phenomenon well-known to me before the Revolution, was a source of dissatisfaction for me personally. I could never be happy with such a situation.

“It is necessary,” I said, “to organize the forces of the workers on a scale which can adequately express the revolutionary enthusiasm of the labouring masses when the Revolution is going through its destructive phase. And if the anarchists continue to act in an uncoordinated way, one of two things will happen: either they will lose touch with events and restrict themselves to sectarian propaganda; or they will trail along in the tail-end of these events, carrying out tasks for the benefit of their political enemies.

Here in Gulyai-Pole and the surrounding region we should act decisively to dissolve government institutions and absolutely put an end to private property in land, factories, plants, and other types of enterprises. To accomplish this we must keep in close contact with the peasant masses, assuring ourselves of the steadfastness of their revolutionary enthusiasm.

We must convince the peasants we are fighting for them and are unswervingly devoted to those concepts which we will present to them at the village assemblies and other meetings. And while this is going on we must keep an eye of what is happening with our movement in the cities.

This, comrades, is one of those tactical questions which we shall decide tomorrow. It seems to me it deserves to be thoroughly discussed because the type of action to be engaged in by our group depends on the correct resolution of this question.

For us, natives of Gulyai-Pole, this plan of action is all the more important as we are the only group of anarcho-communists which has kept in touch with the peasants continuously over the last 11 years. We know of no other groups in the vicinity.

In the closest cities, Aleksandrovsk and Ekaterinoslav, the former anarchist groups were virtually wiped out. The few survivors are far away. Some of the Ekaterinoslav anarchists stayed in Moscow. We don’t know when they will return. And we still haven’t heard anything about those who emigrated to Sweden, France, or America.

At the present time we can depend only on ourselves. No matter how weak we are in our knowledge of the theory of anarchism, we are compelled to work out an immediate plan of action to be undertaken among the peasants of this region. Without any hesitation we must begin work on organizing the Peasants’ Union. And we must see to it that one of the peasants from our group is at the head of this Union.

This is important for two reasons: first, we can prevent any political group hostile to our ideals from infiltrating the Union; and secondly, by being able to address meetings of the Union at any time on current issues, we shall be creating a close bond between our group and the Peasants’ Union. This will give the peasants a chance to deal with the land question themselves. They can go ahead and declare the land public property without waiting for the ‘revolutionary’ government to decide this question which is so crucial for the peasants.”

The comrades were pleased with my report but were far from agreeing with my approach to the whole matter. Comrade Kalinichenko sharply criticized this approach, advocating that our role as anarchists in the current revolution should be restricted to publicizing our ideas. He noted that since we could now act openly, we should make use of this situation to explain our ideas to the workers, without involving ourselves in unions or other organizations.

“This will show the peasants,” he said, “that we are not interested in dominating them but only in giving them advice. Then they will look seriously at our ideas and, embracing our methods, they will independently begin to build a new life.”

At this juncture we concluded our meeting… For the time being we decided simply to review my report and submit it to further analysis and discussion.

Nestor Makhno

Gregory Maksimov: The Politics of Anarcho-Syndicalism

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Gregory Maksimov, after being forced to leave the Soviet Union, continued to support the anarcho-syndicalist cause. One of his better known pamphlets, The Program of Anarcho-Syndicalism (1927), sets forth what he saw as the anarcho-syndicalist alternative to capitalism, parliamentarianism, and dictatorship. In this section, “General Politics,” he describes the political structure of an anarcho-syndicalist federation in general terms. Noteworthy is his argument that anarchy is a “true democracy,” showing that the anarchist current that conceives of anarchy as a form of direct democracy based on voluntary federation (what I have described elsewhere as “associational democracy”) goes back quite some time, well before Murray Bookchin and more recent writers.

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The General Politics of Anarcho-Syndicalism

The bourgeois-democratic republic, with its formal equality for all people and its formal liberties, in actual fact protects private property and thus inevitably becomes a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and an organization for the pitiless exploitation of the working masses. The same is true of the new Statism in the form of the Soviet republic, even if it is sanctified by the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The fact that the State is owner not only of all means of production but also of the life of each individual, places everybody in the position of slaves, of talking robots and, with implacable logic, results in the creation of a new ruling class exploiting the working classes — the dictatorship of the bureaucracy; the State becomes a monstrous machine for the exploitation and total enslavement of the great mass of the people by a small clique.

In contrast, the communal confederation will transform the mass organizations of the working people into the only foundation for the construction of a new, Anarchist society, thus achieving full freedom of movement and full liberty for the individual.

Bourgeois democracy hides its class character under the masquerade of national equality symbolized by universal suffrage. Soviet democracy, on the other hand, sharply accentuates its class character by maintaining that the dictatorship of the proletariat is supposedly essential to the destruction of classes and the State. However, the experience of the Russian revolution has shown that the dictatorship of the proletariat is a fiction, a non-realizable utopia, since, logically and unavoidably, it results in a form of Party dictatorship and, next, a rule of the bureaucracy, i.e. simple absolutism. The Soviet state is forced to pretend that the dictatorship of the bureaucracy is the dictatorship of the proletariat, just as the bourgeoisie pretends that its dictatorship is the “people’s will”.

In contrast, the communal confederation, constituted by thousands of freely acting labor organizations, removes all opportunities for the limitation of liberty and free activity. It definitely prevents the possibility of dictatorship by any class, and, consequently, the possibility of establishing a regime of terror. The basic character of the communal confederation is such that it need have no fear of the widest freedom of rights for all men, independent of their social origin, so long as they work. As a result, true democracy, developed to its logical extreme, can become a reality only under the conditions of a communal confederation. This democracy is Anarchy.

Both bourgeois and soviet democracies limit themselves to formal declarations of political freedom and rights: the freedom of speech, assembly, association, press, strikes, inviolability of the individual, housing, etc. The former establishes these freedoms formally for all, the latter only for the working people. But the administrative practice of these democracies and, more important, the utter economic dependency of the working people, make it completely impossible for them — both in the bourgeois and the proletarian states — to make use of these rights and freedoms.

The full, unlimited rights of man and citizen are possible, in real life rather than in proclamations, in actuality rather than in form, only in conditions of full self-government in the shape of a communal confederation where capitalism and the state do not exist and where printing, paper, etc. will be generally available under the management of the productive federation concerned.

Bourgeois democracy proclaims the rights of men and citizens, but, owing to its governmental and capitalist foundations, it cannot transmute these rights into actual fact. Furthermore, inequality and oppression gradually increase and at the present time, in the epoch of Imperialism, bourgeois democracy has reached the highest degree of intensified racial and national oppression.

Soviet democracy has in this respect made the pretence of a step forward, but the official declaration of the principle of national self-determination has not led, and cannot lead, to the actual self-determination of peoples within the Soviet Union. In addition, even in liberating one nation from the domination of another, the Soviet State does not liberate the people of that nation from internal domination. National freedom does not consist, in separation, or in administrative self-rule, but in the freedom of the individuals composing the nation.

The freedom of a nation can have full expression only in a communal confederation in which freedom will become a reality through the liberty of individuals uniting at will in all manner of free associations, including national ones.

Not content with a formal declaration of the equality of the sexes, the Soviet State attempts to achieve it in reality by making very weak and diffident efforts in the direction of the liberation of women from the burdens of housekeeping, from the kitchen and child rearing. But since the State is by nature an enemy of full liberty, so in this issue too it has come up against insurmountable obstacles — obstacles inherent in its own nature — through appropriating to itself those functions of the church and the bourgeois state, the sanctioning and regulation of marriage. The full equality of the sexes and freedom for women are possible only in conditions of liberty for all, and such conditions will come into existence only in the communal confederation.

The experience of a political structure based on a system of free Soviets, which made its appearance at the beginning of the Russian October Revolution, demonstrates that the true organization of society on the basis of a federation of Soviets would not only remove all the negative aspects of bourgeois democracy and parliamentarism, would not only assure to the working masses simplicity in the election and recall of delegates, would not only bring the people closer to their social institutions, but would also destroy the State in all its forms, including dictatorship of the proletariat. Communalism, i.e. the federation of free communes with the Soviets in the field of the political organization of the country, would take the place of the State.

The bourgeois State has transformed the army into a weapon for the suppression of the working masses, and the protection of the State, i.e. the ruling class. In the Soviet State too the army fulfils the same functions. Only the workingmen’s militia, arming all the people, and organized by the Trade Unions and the village communes, can be a true weapon for the protection of general liberty and well-being. A workingmen’s militia will be tantamount to the removal of the State and the class system.

Admitting for the proletariat the guiding role in the Revolution, the Anarchists believe it would endanger the cause of liberation if any kind of privileges were instituted for them in relation to other categories of the working people. Equality of rights and obligations for all from the first days of the Revolution — that is the fundamental demand of social justice.

Gregory Maksimov, 1927

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‘We Are Being Cornered’ – Turkish Anarchist Communiqué

Turkish anarchists: "We are being cornered"

Turkish anarchists: “We are being cornered”

Below I reproduce a statement from Turkish anarchists in the latest edition of the Meydan anarchist newspaper (follow Meydan at: meydangazetesi.org; @MeydanGazetesi and facebook.com/meydangazetesi). The editor of Meydan, Hüseyin Civan, was sentenced to 15 months in prison in December for allegedly supporting terrorism, as the Erdogan government continues it crackdown on political dissent, and its war against the Kurds. This translation was first published in the online edition of
Freedom, the long-running English anarchist journal.

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We are being cornered

With the fear and shock that constantly oppresses our lives, with the agendas that change by the day, by the hour, with the constant repetition we see in news articles, debates, newspapers and radios, with the shares and retweets, the media that takes us for idiots and is fed by manipulation, with the gentrification and demolition policies that erase our past, our identity and our memory, with the “illusion of democracy” that weakens and imprisons our freedom, and with the reality that becomes more and more incomprehensible everyday, we are being cornered.

We are being cornered because the rulers require it in order to declare their authority and assert their dominance over our stolen willpower. We are being cornered because the rulers require it to keep their power and to create new objects to use in their own wars. We are being cornered because this is the only way the government is able to create space for itself and to exist.

We are being cornered by misery

The days that have to keep going through the exhaustion, the bodies that fall powerless, the minds that become unhappy as they weaken…

The rulers submerge the streets that we use to walk to school in the mornings, to go to work and to catch a bus in darkness. They corner us with unhappiness by squeezing us into minibuses and metrobuses that are full to the brim and by sending us to work at the crack of dawn. As the government corners us with unhappiness, they drag us towards hopelessness and despair.

We must resist the government that decides when we may sleep and when we must wake, that snatches our morning sun and pushes us towards darkness and despair, in order to win back our bodies and minds. We must find the courage to defy those who would turn us into blind and deaf, unknowing and unfeeling individuals and break out of this complacency and cornered-ness.

We are being cornered by panic

The broadcasting prohibitions that follow exploding bombs, the unfounded accusations after suspicious packages are found and bomb threats are made, the people who choose or are forced to choose to stay away from crowded places, the dollars that are exchanged in order to “prevent a crisis,” the people who dream of running away from the land that is oppressed by war, death and economic crises…

In the land we live in, the government dominates the individual with fear and panic, it incapacitates, corners and in time, annihilates. As the government enforces this state of fear and panic in all public areas, the individual loses control, becomes vulnerable and is cornered into the annihilation imposed by the rulers.

Our lives are cornered into the grip of crises or death, and our days are spent looking for a way out of fear and panic, out of this cornered-ness.

The only way out of this fear and paranoia that wear down our bodies and minds, and that allow the socio-economic circumstances to slowly consume us, is through creating spaces for ourselves outside of this panic-culture. The way to create a world where we won’t be cornered and imprisoned by fear and panic is to expand the spaces where the rulers [cannot] impose fear on us and eliminate the culture that makes paranoiacs of us all.

We are being cornered by agendas

The attempted coup and the OHAL (regional state of emergency) that was declared in the aftermath, the operations that are conducted against the Kurdish movement and revolutionaries almost every day with the excuse of FETÖ (Fethullah Terrorist Organisation, which Erdogan claims is linked to Fetullah Gulen and behind the abortive July coup last year), the surveillance and arrests, the people dismissed from their jobs because of new KHK’s (rulings by decree) that are announced every day, the judges that are put under surveillance during trials, the bills that are put forward, amended and passed as we all sleep, the bombs that explode in two different locations in the same week, the assassinations occurring before the effects of the bombs have passed, the images of soldiers burned alive by ISIS…

In the geography we live in, we’ve greeted each new day of the past six months with “last-minute news.” When one day is clouded by news of bombs, the next is greeted by Turkish military tanks entering Syria. Just as the friendship between Russia and the Republic of Turkey starts to settle, the assassination of a Russian ambassador sends us into a panic of “we’re going to war with Russia.”

We can no longer keep up with news that drops like bombs and headlines that can change multiple times a day. Far from keeping up with the ever, and increasingly swiftly, changing agendas of our ruler, we are flung from one agenda to the next, we are cornered by them.

In order to escape this current in which we have been swept up and cornered, we must break free of this “agenda traffic” and find a way to create our own agendas to countermand those of the government. Against the government that locks us in our homes for fear of bombs one day, and calls us to “democracy meetings” the next day, against the government that denies the existence of an economic crisis one day and urges us to exchange our dollars as a “preventative” measure the next day, we must come up with our own agendas, discuss and debate them, circulate them.

We are being cornered by repetition

The news that is presents all day long as “breaking news” with the same subtitles, the news programs that broadcast the same reporter, repeating the same deaths with the same expression every hour, the headlines that are debated for hours with no resolution, the repetition that knows no end on TV and other communication channels…

The government uses media, and the unending reiteration of news and debates, to pull us into relentless repetition. The same news of death, in the same sorrowful tone, the same news of rising costs, with the same commentary, the same news of war, with the same dismissal, are transmitted on our TVs every hour of every day. Through this excessive repetition, we become accustomed to poverty, to starvation, to death and soon find ourselves desensitized and cornered by the onslaught.

We must have our guard up against this repetition and desensitization, and especially, we must keep the senses that they are trying to usurp alert and vigilant. We must not become accustomed to that which they want us to accept, and we must not let our will be usurped in order not to be cornered by these repetitions.

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We are being cornered by media

Especially after (the coup of) July 15th, the sole purpose of the media became manipulation. From news to debate programs, from sports to TV shows, everything we see, be it on the government’s official channel or not, is used as a means of propaganda. Far from relaying information or showing reality, the media becomes a platform where reality is warped and propaganda is delivered through provocation. Social media, for its part, carries the same function in the even more easily controlled medium of the internet.

Media corners us through the ever present manipulation imposed on us in every bit of news, every TV show, every TV program. This manipulation aside, all we can do to protect ourselves against incomplete or regulated information is to create our own platforms on which to communicate and share information.

We are being cornered by gentrification and demolitions. While the rulers use every instrument in their hands as a means of oppressing the individual, they resort to attacks from every angle to sustain their tyranny. Gentrification and demolition are examples of this type of attack.

The government, in an effort to control the individual, firstly controls the spaces in which the individual lives. In areas where the government’s own dominant culture does not exist and cannot take root, the use of gentrification and demolition is a way of dislodging and uprooting the individuals living there, but even more so, it is a way of displacing the yesterdays, the todays, the identity and the cultures of those people.

The rulers that redevelop areas for the purpose of their own existence, of course, wish their identity and presence to take hold in the new spaces they create. Especially in the aftermath of July 15th, the renaming of so many streets, squares, parks and intersections to “democracy” is telling of a government dismantling existing truths and imposing its own culture.

They intend not only to demolish our living spaces through gentrification, but also to recondition our history, our culture, our identity and our memory.

In defence against this assault on our space and “selves” and this attempt by the rulers to corner us in their areas of command, we must create new, collectively operated places and communal, unrestricted living-spaces. Against the transformation of these public areas by the government we must create new spaces without government, without capitalism, where the individual cannot be oppressed politically or economically.

We are being cornered by democracy

The term “democracy’”that we keep hearing, especially since July 15th, is imposed on us by the current rulers as a means of [ensuring] their longevity. In this era where everything is done in the name of “democracy,” where all practices are theorised as benefiting democratization, we experience day to day what is really meant.

Every day they place media organisations under surveillance and arrest, they push people to unlawfulness in the name of their own “democratic” purposes and interests, and it is in this unlawfulness that the people are cornered. The “democracy” they speak of means that all individuals will have their willpower usurped and all will be cornered into places where the rulers are accountable to no one.

Of course it is possible to fight against the “democracy” being forced on us. We must construct politics outside of the politics of the government, we must build a self-organizing, center- less, unrepresented political process, we must create a culture where our lives aren’t cornered, where our will is not usurped by the rulers.

We are being cornered by truth being rendered meaningless. In order to destroy the current reality and create one of their own, the rulers corner us in a construct of their own politics. The most essential tool they have as a means of realising this construct is to “create an illusion that can render the truth meaningless.” Since the dawn of time, rulers have used a series of constructs to disconnect people from their realities. But the rulers of our time, who have become highly adept at using such tools, with their social media, mainstream media and their crazy politicians, are launching the biggest ever war on reality, specifically, on the reality of the downtrodden.

The easiest way to enslave a person, to seize their sense of self, to corner them into a constructed illusion, is to remove that person’s existing reality. Those who lose touch with reality, in time also lose their ability to think correctly and be productive. They lose their sense of self and are cornered into the illusions produced by the rulers.

The rulers corner the individual with fear and panic, with ever-changing agendas, with unending repetition, with media that only serves to manipulate, with gentrification and demolition, with the illusion of democracy, and with the meaninglessness of truth. Because the more they corner the individual, the more space they have to roam free.

It is when the individual becomes aware that they have been condemned into a corner in every facet of their lives that they begin to struggle against it.

They begin to create a new reality first in a self-organising way, and then through the perspective of organizations and community, and then to experience this collectively created reality, collectively.

The buses, metros and metrobusses of dawn, the hopeless unhappiness, the impotent helplessness, the minimum wage squabbles over tea and simit [a circular bread], morning marriage programs, the evening news programs and the night time debate programs, the workplace deaths filed under ‘accident’, that people are uprooted from the neighbourhoods they built with their own hands and placed into 60 metre squared flats, that those without dollars or gold coins to exchange are falling into an economic crisis, that people are destroyed by male dominance and slaughtered by hate policies, the cement walls and iron bars, that people are burned alive and beaten with chains for the sake of our governments engaging in a war of interest, the unreal reality, the loneliness, the hopelessness and the chaos. Yes, we will escape these things.

Against those that incarcerate us, that break our will as they corner us, and that in time, make prisoners of us, from the cornered-ness that we have been subjected to, we must break free. We are at the threshold of a socio-economic explosion due to this very cornered-ness that we must step over, we must mold unrestricted lives with our collective hands, that is to say, with our organisations.

Meydan No. 35, January 2017

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DAF – Turkish Revolutionary Anarchist Action Group

Malatesta: Looking Forward

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As 2016 draws to a close, some more inspiring words from Errico Malatesta. Originally published in 1897 after the Italian parliamentary elections, Malatesta’s comments are particularly appropriate following the failed Italian constitutional referendum, the 2016 US elections, and the Brexit vote in the UK. As Malatesta argues, it is not enough to preach abstention – anarchists most also present a viable alternative to electoral strategies for change. This translation is taken from the just published Volume Three of the Complete Works of Malatesta, “A Long and Patient Work: The Anarchist Socialism of L’Agitazione, 1897-1898,” expertly edited by Davide Turcato and published by AK Press. Although this is Volume Three of a ten volume collection, it is the first of the ten volumes to appear, given the importance of the 1897-1898 period in the development of Malatesta’s approach to anarchism and revolution. I included several selections by Malatesta in Volume One of  Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

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Point of Honor: To the Comrades

The elections are over.

We—by which we mean all the comrades—have done all we could to alert the people to the deceitfulness and harm implicit in the electoral contest—and we did well. But now another more important duty is incumbent on us: demonstrating—with facts and with results—that our tactics are better than those of the parliamentarists, that we mean to be and are already, not merely a negative force, but an active, functioning, effective force in the fight for the emancipation of the proletariat.

We oppose the parliamentary socialists, and are right to do so, since in their program and in their tactics lurk the seeds of a fresh oppression; and, should they succeed, the government principle that they cling to and bolster would destroy the principle of social equality and usher in a fresh age of class struggles. However, in order to be entitled to oppose them, we must do better than them.

Being right in theory, cherishing loftier ideals, criticizing others, foreseeing the harmful consequences from incomplete and contradictory programs, is not enough. In fact, if everything is confined to theory and criticism and does not offer a jumping-off point for an activity that seeks out and creates the conditions for the implementation of a better program, then our action turns out to be harmful, in practice, because it hobbles the efforts of others, to the benefit of our common foes.

Preventing, through our propaganda, the people from sending socialists and republicans into parliament (since those who are the most accessible to our propaganda are the very people who, but for us, would cast their votes for anti-monarchy candidates) is an excellent outcome as long we manage to turn whomever we lure away from the fetishism of the ballot box into a conscious and active fighter for genuine, complete emancipation.

Otherwise, we would have served and would serve the interests of the monarchy and the conservatives!

Let us all ponder this point. What is at stake is the interest of our cause and our honor as men and as a party.

The isolated, casual propaganda that is often mounted as a concession to one’s conscience, or as merely an outlet for a desire to argue, is of little or no use. Given the unconscious, impoverished conditions in which the masses find themselves, and all the forces lined up against us, this propaganda is forgotten and evaporates before it can build up any impact and make any headway. The terrain is too hard for seeds scattered randomly to germinate and put down roots.

We are after unrelenting, patient, coordinated effort tailored to a range of settings and a variety of circumstances. Each of us must be able to depend on the cooperation of all the rest; and wherever a seed has been thrown out, there must follow solicitous attention from the grower in the tending and protection of it until such time as it blossoms as a plant capable of surviving on its own and bringing forth further fertile seeds.

In Italy, there are millions of proletarians who are still blind instruments in the hands of the priests. There are millions who, while hating the master intensely, are persuaded that one cannot live without masters, and they are incapable of imagining and yearning for any other emancipation than their becoming masters in their turn and exploiting their fellow wretches.

There are vast stretches—actually most of the landmass of Italy—where our message has never been heard or, if perchance it has made it there, it has left no discernible trace behind.

Though only a few, there are workers’ organizations and we are alien to them.

Strikes occur and, caught unprepared, we are neither able to help the workers in their struggle nor profit from the mental unrest to spread our ideas.

Popular upheavals and near-insurrections happen and nobody gives us a thought.

Then comes the persecution, and we are imprisoned, deported in our hundreds or thousands, and we find ourselves powerless to even draw the public’s attention to the infamies visited upon us, let alone to do anything else.

To work, comrades! The task is a big one! To work, everyone!

Errico Malatesta

Translated from “Obbligo d’onore: Ai compagni,” L’Agitazione (Ancona) 1, no. 4 (April 4, 1897).

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Malatesta: All or Nothing?

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In these troubled times, I often think back to the situation faced by Errico Malatesta and the Italian anarchists when Mussolini’s Fascists held power in Italy. In this excerpt from an article that Malatesta wrote in 1930, eight years into the Fascist dictatorship, Malatesta argues against an “all or nothing” approach, advocating that one must always try to achieve as much as is practically possible in any given situation consistent with one’s ideals. I included several excerpts from Malatesta’s other writings in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

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All or Nothing?

I am not an advocate of the ‘all or nothing’ theory. I believe that nobody actually behaves in such a way as implied by that theory: it would be impossible.

This is just a slogan used by many to warn about the illusion of petty reforms and alleged concessions from government and masters, and to always remind [one] of the necessity and urgency of the revolutionary act: it is a phrase that can serve, if loosely interpreted, as an incentive to a fight without quarter against every kind of oppressor and exploiter. However, if taken literally, it is plain nonsense.

The ‘all’ is the ideal that gets farther and wider as progress is made, and therefore it can never be reached. The ‘nothing’ would be some abysmally uncivilized state, or at least a supine submission to the present oppression.

I believe that one must take all that can be taken, whether much or little: do whatever is possible today, while always fighting to make possible what today seems impossible.

For instance, if today we cannot get rid of every kind of government, this is not a good reason for taking no interest in defending the few acquired liberties and fighting to gain more of those. If now we cannot completely abolish the capitalist system and the resulting exploitation of the workers, this is no good reason to quit fighting to obtain higher salaries and better working conditions. If we cannot abolish commerce and replace it with the direct exchange among producers, this is no good reason for not seeking the means to escape the exploitation of traders and profiteers as much as possible. If the oppressors’ power and the state of public opinion prevent [us] now from abolishing the prisons and providing any defence against wrongdoers with more humane means, not for this we would lose interest in an action for abolishing the death penalty, life imprisonment, [solitary] confinement and, in general, the most ferocious means of repression by which what is called social justice, but which actually amounts to a barbarian revenge, is exercised. If we cannot abolish the police, not for this we would allow, without protesting and resisting, that the policemen beat the prisoners and allow themselves all sorts of excesses, overstepping the limit prescribed to them by the laws in force themselves…

I am breaking off here, as there are thousands and thousands of cases, both in individual and social life, in which, being unable to obtain ‘all’, one has to try and get as much as possible.

At this point, the question of fundamental importance arises about the best way of defending what one has got and fighting to obtain more; for there is one way that weakens and kills the spirit of independence and the consciousness of one’s own rights, thus compromising the future and the present itself, while there is another way that uses every tiny victory to make greater demands, thus preparing minds and the environment [for] the longed-for complete emancipation.

What constitutes the characteristic, the raison d’etre of anarchism, is the conviction that the governments — dictatorships, parliaments, etc. — are always instruments of conservation, reaction, oppression; and freedom, justice, well-being for everyone must come from the fight against authority, from free [activity] and free agreement among individuals and groups.

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One problem worries many anarchists nowadays, and rightly so.

As they find it insufficient to work on abstract propaganda and revolutionary technical preparation, which is not always possible and is done without knowing when it will be fruitful, they look for something practical to do here and now, in order to accomplish as much as possible of our ideas, despite the adverse conditions; something that morally and materially helps the anarchists themselves and at the same time serves as an example, a school, an experimental field.

Practical proposals are coming from various sides. They are all good to me, if they appeal to free initiative and to a spirit of solidarity and justice, and tend to take individuals away from the domination of the government and the master. And to avoid wasting time in continuously recurring discussions that never bring new facts or arguments, I would encourage those who have a project to try to immediately accomplish it, as soon as they find support from the minimal necessary number of participants, without waiting, usually in vain, for the support of all or many — experience will show whether those projects were workable, and it will let the vital ones survive and thrive.

Let everyone try the paths they deem best and fittest to their temperament, both today with respect to the little things that can be done in the present environment, and tomorrow in the vast ground that the revolution will offer to our activity. In any case, what is logically mandatory for us all, if we do not want to stop being truly anarchist, is to never surrender our freedom into the hands of an individual or class dictatorship, a despot or a Constituent Assembly; for what depends on us, our freedom must find its foundation in the equal freedom of all.

Errico Malatesta

Adunata, October 4, 1930

malatesta-organization

 

Uri Gordon: Is Anarchy Democracy?

crimethinc democracy

As part of its series on anarchy and democracy, CrimethInc posted a piece by Uri Gordon, “Democracy: The Patriotic Temptation,” in which he highlights the perils of promoting anarchy as the only genuine form of democracy. I have left out the historical introduction, where Gordon summarizes the anarchist critique of democracy that goes back at least to Proudhon. However, I disagree that “the association between anarchism and democracy makes its appearance only around the 1980s, through the writings of Murray Bookchin.” While it is true that Bookchin made great efforts to associate anarchism with direct democracy (starting in the 1960s, in essays like “The Forms of Freedom,” excerpts from which are included in Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas), at times even 19th century anarchists, particularly Proudhon himself, associated anarchy with forms of direct democracy. Drawing on the heritage of direct democracy that came to the fore during the French Revolution and was carried on by workers’ associations well into the 19th century, Proudhon advocated voluntary federations of directly democratic functional groups, with the delegates to the various federations being subject to imperative mandates and recall should they violate their mandates, much the same sort of direct democracy that Bookchin advocated in the 1960s (although even then Bookchin put much more emphasis on community assemblies than Proudhon ever did).

dejacque

Other anarchists, such as Joseph Déjacque, also advocated forms of direct democracy (I included selections from Déjacque’s writings in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas). The anarchists in the First International argued that the International should be organized on “federalist” lines, with the delegates to the International’s congresses, and the members of the General Council themselves, subject to imperative mandates from and recall by the sections of the International that had delegated them. Marx and his cohorts, despite the Marxist propaganda regarding his alleged support for direct democracy (based on the misconception that the government of the Paris Commune was some kind of direct democracy, when it was actually a representative form of government), opposed any attempts to require the members of the General Council to be delegated by the member sections of the International, and expressly attacked the anarchists’ advocacy of direct democracy within the International at the 1872 Hague Congress, where they ridiculed the anarchists’ insistence that delegates follow the mandates given to them by the sections that had delegated them to attend the Congress. I review this history in some detail in ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement.

for-sale-democracy

Selling Anarchism as Democracy

Essentially, the association of anarchism with democracy is a two-pronged rhetorical maneuver intended to increase the appeal of anarchism for mainstream publics. The first component of the maneuver is to latch onto the existing positive connotations that democracy carries in established political language. Instead of the negative (and false) image of anarchism as mindless and chaotic, a positive image is fostered by riding on the coattails of “democracy” as a widely-endorsed term in the mass media, educational system, and everyday speech. The appeal here is not to any specific set of institutions or decision-making procedures, but to the association of democracy with freedom, equality, and solidarity—to the sentiments that go to work when democracy is placed in binary opposition to dictatorship, and celebrated as what distinguishes the “free countries” of the West from other regimes.

Yet the second component of the maneuver is subversive: it seeks to portray current capitalist societies as not, in fact, democratic, since they alienate decision-making power from the people and place it in the hands of elites. This amounts to an argument that the institutions and procedures that mainstream audiences associate with democracy—government by representatives—are not in fact democratic, or at least a very pale and limited fulfilment of the values they are said to embody. True democracy, in this account, can only be local, direct, participatory, and deliberative, and is ultimately achievable only in a stateless and classless society. The rhetorical aim of the maneuver as a whole is to generate in the audience a sense of indignation at having been deceived: while the emotional attachment to “democracy” is confirmed, the belief that it actually exists is denied.

Now there are two problems with this maneuver, one conceptual and one more substantive. The conceptual problem is that it introduces a truly idiosyncratic notion of democracy, so ambitious as to disqualify almost all political experiences that fall under the common understanding of the term—including all electoral systems in which representatives do not have a strict mandate and are not immediately recallable. By claiming that current “democratic” regimes are in fact not democratic at all and that the only democracy worthy of the name is actually some version of an anarchist society, anarchists are asking people to reconfigure their understanding of democracy in a rather extreme way. While it is possible to maintain this new usage with logical coherence, it is nevertheless so rarefied and contrary to the common usage that its potential as a pivot for mainstream opinion is highly questionable.

an open question

an open question

The second problem is graver. While the association with democracy may seek to appeal only to its egalitarian and libertarian connotations, it also entangles anarchism with the patriotic nature of the pride in democracy which it seeks to subvert. The appeal is not simply to an abstract design for participatory institutions, but to participatory institutions recovered from the American revolutionary tradition. Bookchin (1985) is quite explicit about this, when he calls on anarchists to “start speaking in the vocabulary of the democratic revolutions” while unearthing and enlarging their libertarian content:

That [American] bourgeois past has libertarian features about it: the town meetings of New England. Municipal and local control, the American mythology that the less government the better, the American belief in independence and individualism. All these things are antithetical to a cybernetic economy, a highly centralized corporative economy and a highly centralized political system… I’m for democratizing the republic and radicalizing the democracy, and doing that on the grass roots level: that will involve establishing libertarian institutions which are totally consistent with the American tradition. We can’t go back to the Russian Revolution or the Spanish revolution any more. Those revolutions are alien to people in North America.

Cindy Milstein’s formulation in her article “Democracy is Direct” (Milstein 2000) works directly to fulfil this program by seeking to build on American origin myths:

Given that the United States is held up as the pinnacle of democracy, it seems particularly appropriate to hark back to those strains of a radicalized democracy that fought so valiantly and lost so crushingly in the American Revolution. We need to take up that unfinished project… Like all the great modern revolutions, the American Revolution spawned a politics based on face-to-face assemblies confederated within and between cities… Those of us living in the United States have inherited this self-schooling in direct democracy, even if only in vague echoes… deep-seated values that many still hold dear: independence, initiative, liberty, equality. They continue to create a very real tension between grassroots self-governance and top-down representation.

The appeal to the consensus view of the American polity as founded in a popular and democratic revolution, genuinely animated by freedom and equality, is precisely intended to target existing patriotic sentiments, even as it emphasises their subversive consequences. Milstein even invokes Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address when she criticises reformist agendas which “work with a circumscribed and neutralized notion of democracy, where democracy is neither of the people, by the people, nor for the people, but rather, only in the supposed name of the people.” Yet this is a dangerous move, since it relies on a self-limiting critique of the patriotic sentiment itself, and allows the foundation myths to which it appeals to remain untouched by critiques of manufactured collective identity and colonial exclusion. While noting the need not to whitewash the racial, gendered, and other injustices that were part of “the historic event that created this country,” Milstein can only offer an unspecific exhortation to “grapple with the relation between this oppression and the liberatory moments of the American Revolution.”

wells athenian democracy

Yet given that the appeal is targeted at non-anarchist participants, there is little if any guarantee that such a grappling would actually take place. The patriotic sentiment appealed to here is more often than not a component of a larger nationalist narrative, one that hardly partakes of a decolonial critique (which by itself would have many questions about the Western enlightenment roots of notions of citizenship and the public sphere). The celebration of democracy in terms that directly invoke the early days of the American polity may end up reinforcing rather than questioning loyalties to the nation-state that claims, however falsely, to be the carrier of the democratic inheritance of the colonial period. This is especially poignant in the context of the recent wave of mobilization, which displays precisely this mix of quintessentially anarchist-influenced means of organization and action, and distinctly patriotic and nationalist discourses—from the Egyptian revolution’s embrace of the military, through the Jeffersonian sentiments pervading the Occupy movement, and on to the outright nationalism of the Ukrainian revolution.

There is, indeed, one reason to question this concern—namely, the democratic and nationalist sentiments that have been expressed by movements with which anarchists have good reasons to sense an affinity. The most prominent of these are the struggles of communities in Chiapas linked to the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in southeast Mexico and the revolutionary movement in Rojava or Syrian Kurdistan. Both have not only employed the language of democracy to signify a decentralised and egalitarian form of society, but also an explicit agenda of national liberation. The Kurdish movement has publicly endorsed Bookchin as a source of inspiration. Does this mean that anarchists are wrong to maintain active solidarity with these movements? My answer is “No”—but due to a crucial difference that also vindicates the general argument above. It is not the same thing for stateless minorities in the global South to use the language of democracy and national liberation as it is for citizens of advanced capitalist countries in which national independence is already an accomplished fact. The former do not appeal to patriotic founding myths engendered by an existing nation state, with their associated privileges and injustices, but to the possibility of a different and untested form of radically decentralised and potentially stateless “national liberation.” To be sure, this carries its own risks, but anarchists in the global North are hardly in a position to preach on these matters.

Thus we return to the main point: for anarchists in the USA and Western Europe, at least, the choice to use the language of democracy is based on the desire to mobilize and subvert a form of patriotism that is ultimately establishment-friendly; it risks cementing the nationalist sentiments it seeks to undermine. Anarchists have always had a public image problem. Trying to undo it through the connection to mainstream democratic and nationalist sentiments is not worth this risk.

Uri Gordon

we-dont-need-patriotism

Fearless Anarchy

Fireworks of various colors bursting against a black background

Just got my sales statement from AK Press, and see that ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’ – The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement has now sold over 1200 copies! (over 1100 paperbacks and over 100 e-books). Many thanks to AK Press for their excellent marketing and promotion. Here is an excerpt from the conclusion, drawing some lessons for today from out of the debates among the anarchists in the International Workingmen’s Association.

We Do Not Fear the Cover

Anarchism and Social Movements

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.[i]

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.[ii] 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.”[iii] 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

[i] Graeber, “The New Anarchists,” in Anarchism Vol. 3, “The New Anarchism,” ed R. Graham, 2012: 1-11.

[ii] Graham, ibid: 572-576.

[iii] Graham, Anarchism Vol. 1, “From Anarchy to Anarchism,” 2005: 142.

anarchist_commmunist_poster_by_redclasspride

Anarchism: Toward Global Justice

anti-globalization portland

Getting back to the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in which I survey the origins, development and evolution of anarchist ideas, in this installment I discuss the relationship between anarchism and contemporary anti-capitalist movements. As the electoral debacles of representative government in capitalist “democracies” continue to unfold, perhaps we will see yet another resurgence in direct action movements against capitalism and domination.

anti-capitalist-protest

Anarchism and Global Justice Movements

David Graeber, among others, has noted that many groups involved in the global justice movement utilize “a rich and growing panoply of organizational instruments—spokescouncils, affinity groups, facilitation tools, break outs, fishbowls, blocking concerns, vibe-watchers and so on—all aimed at creating forms of democratic process that allow initiatives to rise from below and attain maximum effective solidarity; without stifling dissenting voices, creating leadership positions or compelling anyone to do anything which they have not freely agreed to do,” an essentially anarchist approach. Indeed, the “very notion of direct action, with its rejection of a politics which appeals to governments to modify their behaviour, in favour of physical intervention against state power in a form that itself prefigures an alternative—all of this emerges directly from the libertarian tradition” (Volume Three, Selection 1). Similar approaches have been adopted by the Occupy movements that spread across the globe in 2011 (Volume Three, Selection 9).

In light of these developments, some anarchists have begun to articulate a less sectarian and more inclusive conception of anarchism which focuses on process and action, allowing for a diversity of views regarding ultimate ends, recognizing that what anarchists seek is social liberation, not the triumph of an ideology. Anarchists have participated in such international resistance networks as People’s Global Action, which also include many non-anarchists, but which also reject more conventional organizational structures. As the Zapatista inspired Second Declaration of La Realidad put it, such networks have “no central command or hierarchies. We are the network, all of us who resist” (Volume Three, Selections 1 & 58).

This view has been embraced by a variety of anarchist groups. In the 2001 Madrid Declaration of social revolutionary libertarian groups from Europe, Latin America and the Middle East, they argue that anarchists “should currently strive towards encouraging convergence, the interaction of social movements—including the workers’ movement—in a solid social movement antagonistic to capital and its present true face: economic globalization and all other types of domination. This antagonistic social movement does not have, and nor should it have, a single organizational expression. It is pluralistic, based on current reality, coming and acting together in the same territory, recreating a common territorial identity, composed of many identities,” such as “the workers’ movement, the unemployed, the excluded, indigenous movements, discriminated groups, ecologists and feminists, promoting direct action as a way towards social reappropriation of wealth and as a form of propaganda by the deed, as an exercise in direct democracy, participatory and federalist, without delegations or intermediaries, building on a community level in each territory and as an alternative to authoritarian institutions” (Volume Three, Selection 2).

cnt_march

One of the signatories to the Madrid Declaration, the CIPO-RFM or Consejo Indigena Popular de Oaxaca ‘Ricardo Flores Magón’ (‘Ricardo Flores Magón’ Native People’s Council of Oaxaca), is a liberation movement in the Oaxaca region of Mexico that consciously draws on the heritage of Mexican anarchism and indigenous traditions (Volume One, Selection 73; Volume Three, Selection 59). As the Columbian anarchist group, Colectivo Alas de Xue, argues, there exists much common ground between anarchists and many indigenous (or “Indian”) groups in the Americas, such as opposition to the conformity and homogenization imposed by nation states within their own borders, with their centralized power structures, national “culture” and “official” languages, and the separation of peoples by those same borders, dividing families and inhibiting people’s movements (Volume Three, Selection 60). Many anarchists have become involved in groups like “No Borders” and “No One Is Illegal,” which seek, in Harsha Walia’s words, “to attain justice and victories for immigrants and refugees, and to develop the communities’ own capacity to attain dignity for themselves and their families. Real justice will come as immigrants, refugees, and nonstatus people build greater trust in visions of an alternate world, and organize, educate, act, and fight for their own self-determination” (Volume Three, Selection 64).

This quest for self-determination often brings indigenous peoples and immigrants into conflict with national governments, multinational corporations and the paramilitary organizations upon which they sometimes rely, but it is a quest which lies at the heart of anarchism conceived as a movement that seeks to create a world in which people may, in Bakunin’s words, “take into their own hands the direction of their destinies” (Volume One, Selection 24).

From this perspective, there is no necessary conflict between anarchist anti-statism and communal self-determination—rather, they can be seen as parts of the same age old struggle for freedom, often incorporating similar decision making procedures and forms of organization while employing similar tactics, such as direct action. As Uri Gordon argues in the context of the Palestinian struggle for independence, “anarchists may take action in solidarity with Palestinians (as well as Tibetans, West Papuans and Sahrawis for that matter) without reference to the question of statehood. The everyday acts of resistance that anarchists join and defend in Palestine and Israel are immediate steps to help preserve people’s livelihoods and dignity, which are in no way necessarily connected to a statist project” (Volume Three, Selection 21).

latin american anarchism

The Colectivo Alas de Xue notes that many indigenous societies utilize collective forms of decision making similar to the kinds of direct democracy that “libertarians have yearned for down through the centuries” (Volume Three, Selection 60). As David Graeber argues, many indigenous communities developed forms of consensus-based decision making that provide a model consonant with anarchist conceptions of direct democracy precisely because in such societies there is “no way to compel a minority to agree with a majority decision—either because there is no state with a monopoly of coercive force, or because the state has nothing to do with local decision-making” (Volume Three, Selection 6).

This is not to say that libertarian groups drawing on these communal traditions uncritically endorse every aspect of them. Sharif Gemie points out that “many tribal lifestyles are explicitly patriarchal: they refuse women any formal involvement in decision-making. Many tribes also affirm the sanctity of rule by elders, thus rejecting the political potential of younger people” (Volume Three, Selection 50). In Mexico, the CIPO-RFM has consciously striven to deal with these sorts of issues by, for example, actively promoting “a culture of respect for women and for women’s rights, ensuring in practice that within our organization women take up their equal and fair share of positions of representation and responsibility within our ranks” (Volume Three, Selection 59).

In Africa, anarchists have sought to build upon the pre-colonial history of people living without states in egalitarian communities, particularly in light of the disastrous consequences of colonialism and the division of Africa into nation states whose borders were arbitrarily set by the former colonial powers (Volume Three, Selections 51 & 52). Kurdish anarchists have similarly argued that tribal traditions of decentralization and hostility toward the various nation states which have sought to control them predispose the Kurds toward anarchism, leading to the development of a community assembly movement drawing on the ideas of Murray Bookchin (Volume 3, Selection 61). Bas Umali has suggested that Bookchin’s ideas can also be adapted to conditions in the Philippine archipelago, building on traditional community forms such as the “barangay,” a small community of 50 to 100 families (Volume Three, Selection 62).

Whether in Africa, the Americas, the Middle East, or the South Pacific, wherever functioning communities exist, there will also exist social practices and institutions of solidarity and mutual aid. As Elisée Reclus noted long ago, “where anarchist practice really triumphs is in the course of everyday life among common people who would not be able to endure their dreadful struggle for existence if they did not engage in spontaneous mutual aid, putting aside differences and conflicts of interest” (Volume One, Selection 38). Colin Ward therefore argues that “an anarchist society, a society which organizes itself without authority, is always in existence, like a seed beneath the snow, buried under the weight of the state and its bureaucracy, capitalism and its waste, privilege and its injustices, nationalism and its suicidal loyalties, religious differences and their superstitious separatism” (1973: 11). From this perspective, anarchism is not “the founding of something new,” but as Gustav Landauer wrote, “the actualization and reconstitution of something that has always been present, which exists alongside the state, albeit buried and laid waste” (Ward, 1973: 11).

Robert Graham

another world is possible

The Spanish Revolution – 80th Anniversary

"Freedom"

“Freedom”

In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included a chapter on the Spanish Revolution that included writings from before and during the revolution regarding the Spanish anarchist movement and its role in the often misrepresented and sometimes ignored contributions of the anarchists to the social revolution in Spain that began with the Civil War that was precipitated by a fascist military coup on July 19, 1936. I have added extra material on the role of the anarchists in the Spanish Revolution to this blog. To mark the 80th anniversary of the Spanish Revolution, I present a very short introduction (take that Oxford University Press) from the Workers Solidarity Movement.

Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution

Anarchist and syndicalist ideas had deep roots among Spanish peasants and workers. In 1911, a massive revolutionary trade union federation, the CNT (National Confederation of Labour) was formed. It had two aims; first, to fight the bosses with mass action in the daily struggle and, second, to make an anarchist revolution by organising the workers and the poor to seize back the land, factories and mines.

The CNT led many militant and successful struggles against the bosses and the government. By 1936 it was the biggest union in Spain, with nearly two million members. But the CNT was always democratic and, despite its giant size, never had more than one paid official.

The Anarchists did not restrict themselves to the workplace. They also organised an anarchist political group to work within the unions (the FAI) and organised rent boycotts in poor areas. The CNT itself included working peasants, farm workers and the unemployed. It even organised workers’ schools!

In July 1936, fascists led by General Franco, and backed by the rich and the Church, tried to seize power in Spain. The elected government (the Popular Front coalition of left-wing parties) was unable and unwilling to deal with the fascists. It even tried to strike a deal with the fascists by appointing a right-winger as Prime Minister. Why? Because they would rather compromise with the right wing and protect their wealth and power than arm the workers and the poor for self-defence.

Fortunately, the workers and the peasants did not wait around for the government to act. The CNT declared a general strike and organised armed resistance to the attempted take-over. Other unions and left wing groups followed the CNT’s lead.

In this way the people were able to stop the fascists in two-thirds of Spain. It soon became apparent to these workers and peasants that this was not just a war against fascists, but the beginning of a revolution! Anarchist influence was everywhere, workers’ militias were set up independently from the State, workers seized control of their workplaces and peasants seized the land.

There were many triumphs of the revolution, although we are only able to consider a few of the Spanish workers’ and peasants’ victories here. These included the general take over of the land and factories.

Small peasants and farm workers faced extremely harsh conditions in Spain. Starvation and repression were a part of their daily lives and, as a result, anarchism was particularly strong in the countryside. During the revolution, as many as 7 million peasants and farm workers set up voluntary collectives in the anti-fascist regions. After landowners fled, a village assembly was held. If a decision to collectivise was taken, all the land, tools and animals were pooled together for the use of the entire collective. Teams were formed to look after the various areas of work, while a committee was elected to co-ordinate the overall running of the collective. Each collective had regular general meetings in which all members participated. Individuals who did not want to join the collectives were not forced to. They were given enough land to farm on, but were forbidden to hire labourers to work this land. Most “individualists” eventually joined the collectives when they saw how successful they were.

Anarchism inspired massive transformations in industry. Workers seized control over their workplaces, and directly controlled production by themselves and for the benefit of the Spanish workers and peasants. The tram system in Barcelona provided a shining example of just how much better things can be done under direct workers’ control. On July 24th 1936, the tram crews got together and decided to run the whole system themselves. Within five days, 700 trams were in service instead of the usual 600. Wages were equalised and working conditions improved, with free medical care provided for workers.

Everyone benefited from the trams being under workers’ control. Fares were reduced and an extra 50 million passengers were transported. Surplus income was used to improve transport services and produce weapons for defence of the revolution. With the capitalist profit motive gone, safety became much more important and the number of accidents were reduced.

In the early stages of the revolution, the armed forces of the state had effectively collapsed. In their place, the trade unions and left-wing organisations set about organising the armed workers and peasants into militias. Overall, there were 150,000 volunteers willing to fight where they were needed. The vast majority were members of the CNT. All officers were elected by the rank-and-file and had no special privileges.

The revolution showed that workers, peasants and the poor could create a new world without bosses or a government. It showed that anarchist ideas and methods (such as building revolutionary unions) could work. Yet despite all this, the revolution was defeated. By 1939, the fascists had won the civil war and crushed the working-class and peasants with a brutal dictatorship.

Why did this happen? The revolution was defeated partly because of the strength of the fascists. They were backed by the rich, fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

The CNT also made mistakes. It aimed for maximum anti-fascist unity and joined the Popular Front alliance, which included political parties from government and pro-capitalist forces. This required the CNT to make many compromises in its revolutionary programme. It also gave the Popular Front government an opportunity to undermine and destroy the anarchist collectives and the workers militias, with the Communist Party playing a leading role in these attacks at the behest of Stalinist Russia.

Nevertheless, anarchists had proved that ideas, which look good in the pages of theory books, look even better on the canvas of life.

Workers Solidarity Movement

'The Revolution and the War are Inseparable'

‘The Revolution and the War are Inseparable’

Berned! Sanders Supports Clinton

Now that, predictably, Bernie Sanders has thrown his support behind Hillary Clinton, I thought this video from the Stimulator was particularly appropriate. You have to click on the link immediately below (#BERNEDOUT). WordPress now charges extra to display the video graphic. The image below the link is just that – an image, not the link to the video.

#BERNEDOUT

Berned Out!

Berned Out!