Anarchaeology – The Black Trowel Collective

I recently came across this manifesto from a group of anarchist archaeologists, the Black Trowel Collective. It appears at one point they had a website but the link is currently not working. With neo-liberal apologists for state power like Steven Pinker continuing to garner unwarranted media attention with they inaccurate and biased views of life in non-hierarchical anarchistic societies, it is good to see that there is a growing community of archaeologists and anthropologists who are debunking the potted histories of the contemporary successors to Thomas Hobbes, who argued that without coercive political power and authority to maintain order, life would be nasty, solitary, brutish and short, a view that anarchists have been critiquing since the times of Elisée Reclus and Kropotkin, particularly in the latter’s Mutual Aid. I included excerpts from Kropotkin and Reclus’ works on this topic in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. In Volume Two, I included excerpts from Pierre Clastres’ now classic work, Society Against the State, and in Volume Three I included material from David Graeber and Harold Barclay on the origins of the state and non-coercive alternatives. This article was originally published as part of the Decolonizing Anthropology series.

Foundations of an Anarchist Archaeology: A Community Manifesto

By The Black Trowel Collective

An anarchist archaeology embraces considerations of social inequity as a critique of authoritarian forms of power and as a rubric for enabling egalitarian and equitable relationships.

The term anarchism derives from an– (without) + arkhos (ruler), but a better and more active translation of it is perhaps ‘against domination.’ An anarchist archaeology insists on an archaeology that is committed to dismantling single hierarchical models of the past, and in that sense, its core incorporates tenets of a decolonized, indigenous, and feminist archaeology, contesting hegemonic narratives of the past. It is a theory explicitly about human relationships operating without recourse to coercive forms like authoritarianism, hierarchy, or exploitation of other humans. Some anarchists extend this argument further to non-human relationships with objects, other species, and the environment.

In keeping with these principles, there is no orthodox, overarching, uniform version of anarchism. There are multiple approaches to anarchist theory and practice tied together by common threads, and it is these commonalities that inform our anarchist archaeology. Here we outline principles for an anarchist archaeology that can be applied towards studies of the past, toward archaeologically informed examinations of contemporary societies, and to archaeological practices, including professional ethics. We offer this as both a manifesto and as a living document open to constant contextual review and revision.

Critiquing Power. We recognize that there are many ways to evaluate and interpret topics like value, domination, coercion, authority, and power. Anarchists, and thus anarchist archaeologists, have long recognized that organizational complexity is not produced simply from elite control, but also forms through heterarchies and networked collaborations. Many anarchist archaeologists strive to uncover lost periods of resistance to domination and exploitation of people by a few elites, which can be termed vertical power, or power of some over others. Thus, an anarchist archaeology seeks to examine forms of horizontal power, the power of people working to coordinate consensus, often in opposition or parallel to emerging or extant forms of vertical power.

Recognizing the Arts of Resistance. Anarchist archaeologists recognize that periods of change, as well as periods where change does not seem to be present, do not require connotative evaluations of either good or bad. An anarchist archaeology does not give preferential treatment to any particular arrangement of ‘civilization.’ In practice and in popular culture, periods of heightened inequity are often seen as periods of cultural fluorescence or ‘climax.’ Terms such as ‘collapse,’ ‘decline,’ or ‘dissolution’ are often applied by archaeologists and others to describe periods in time in which hierarchies end. Language about cultural ‘climax’ and ‘decline’ retains Victorian notions of progress, identified with the state, as opposed to a more active notion of societies against the state. Alternative perspectives reveal the complex and sometimes conflicted struggles of humanity against entrenched exertions of power in hierarchical societies. Many of the so-called ‘collapses’ of the past were periods of greater assertions of local autonomy in the face of hegemonic centralizations of power. Such times are often the product of unrecognized acts of revolt, resistance, and resurgences of alternative ways of life. Thus, these periods can be successes for the majority of people in terms of increasing self-determination and independence. Anarchist archaeologists are committed to theorizing and identifying the material manifestation of such cultural transformations.

Embracing Everyday Anarchy. To understand histories of human resistance, resilience, and maintenance of equity or heterarchy, an anarchist archaeology must also be an archaeology of everyday life, not just elites and monuments. We acknowledge that people operate outside structures of power, even when entangled in strong power structures. Contextualizing a quotidian anarchy allows an interrogation of when different sources of power are in operation and when they are silent/silenced or unused. This is where an anarchist archaeology can build upon an existing strength of the discipline, as archaeologies of non-elites and of resistance movements are already prominent fields of knowledge. The interests of an anarchist archaeology lie in the building of coalitions and consensus, so contexts where we can find alignments with people in the field of archaeology and outside are critical to the development of the movement. The archaeology of everyday anarchy is also a good reminder of the ways we can integrate anarchist practices into our own present, with an eye towards the future. One does not have to self-identify as an anarchist to embrace and contribute to everyday anarchy. Simple, self-confessional acts in the classroom, test pit, and elsewhere provide myriad opportunities to deconstruct hierarchies of power that perpetuate harmful stereotypes in the past, present, and future.

Visioning Futures. An anarchist archaeology perceives that vanguardism (i.e., a traditional Marxist revolutionary strategy that attempts to design cultural change with the hope of a pre-determined outcome) often represents an extension of present power structures, either intentionally or otherwise, and rarely succeeds in the long term. Instead, anarchist archaeologists examine material culture across time using prefigurative practices as decolonized visioning. This means that they examine the material record and their discipline with the recognition that people who act within the present in ways that create change towards a desired future, are more likely to implement broadly beneficial change (anarchists call this “making a new society in the shell of the old one”). This practice of visioning the future in the present moment aligns an anarchist archaeology with the commitments of a contemporary archaeology, even if the material under investigation is one of the deep past. An anarchist archaeology recognizes that the past can only be investigated within a deep present rife with conflicts, conversations, and politics. This does not repudiate perspectives of archaeology as a science. Instead, it recognizes how culture interacts with and informs scientific analysis. The shedding of hierarchy from scientific practice opens its predictive potential beyond the traditional realm of archaeology (i.e., the past) towards future places.

Seeking Non-Authoritarian Forms of Organization. An anarchist archaeology attempts to reimagine, redistribute, and decolonize processes and positions of authority within communities, the academy and discipline, and its many publics, while doing research, facilitating student learning, and engaging in heritage management. These reconfigurations, though, can only happen in an inclusive environment, and one imbued with recognition of the perils of layering present perspectives uncritically upon the past. This means that an anarchist archaeology is also an archaeology that is committed to community, encompassing multiple voices, and a deep critical engagement with research. Anarchist archaeologists seek alternatives to the traditional hierarchical modes of knowledge production and management of past places and time, in favor of egalitarian ways of bringing people together to learn, to protect places, and to understand the relevance of the past for the present.

Recognizing the Heterogeneity of Identities. Anarchist archaeologists understand that people live in many different social spaces. More importantly, they encourage people, including archaeologists, to live in and explore many different positions, worlds, and identities. An anarchist archaeology is necessarily intersectional. It understands that people are not products of one simple form of identity (i.e., not essentialist), nor even one very complex form of identity, but they are created, and continually recreated, by the constant intersection, erasure, and addition of these many different aspects of themselves. In fact, it is this very act of recognizing each other’s multivalent identities/positions/standpoints that offers a powerful method for building equity between individuals, groups, cultures, and other cultural constructs.

Exposing Multiple Scales from the Bottom Up. An anarchist archaeology works at many different scales. This means that it works at global, regional, community, and personal levels. Most importantly, an anarchist archaeology recognizes both the roles of assemblages as encompassing individual people, places, materials, and animals, as well as larger collections of those social influences. It is cognizant of the agency of social participants to author how and where they are situated within the scales of the social environment. This contextual, feminist, decolonized, and non-human/humanism integrates with anarchist archaeologies, anchoring it to place. This means that research, interpretation, and advocacy often focus on individuals or localities, and then expand to encompass a more global scale. The grassroots scale of people and lived places provide the critical building blocks for a re-imagining of higher systemic-level changes. This is the space where the scales of archaeological analysis—from the sherd, to the place where it was found, to the regional context—help us to build connections between many scales of order that allow us give voice to the past and present.

Recognizing Agency in Change and Stability. An anarchist archaeology is agentive. Anarchist archaeologists understand that if placed in equitable systems, all humans/nonhumans have the ability and capacity to enact change. Most archaeologists recognize that the power of our discipline derives from its understanding of human capacity for shaping the environment, the material world, and spiritual realms through action. Combined, these agents allow archaeologists to add people, instead of only objects, back into the past (and the present). Recognizing that all people are important means that an anarchist archaeology is an archaeology of social relations that uses how people interact to understand the archaeological record. An anarchist archaeology focuses especially on those people who are least likely to have contributed to dominant narratives from the past.

Valuing the Heritage of State and Non-State Societies. An anarchist archaeology contests conservation and preservation of heritage by questioning why and how some sites and regions are chosen to be protected while others are not. Anarchist archaeologists understand that preserving sites and communities that only represent states, or what are usually perceived as the precursors for states (i.e. vertical hierarchies with elites) means that we create a past that sees state and state-like societies as models of success. Societies that are not states, often intentionally preventing the emergence of hierarchy as they evolve, become implicit examples of failure. An anarchist archaeology is asking that we start to change our understanding of what success looks like, and that this theoretical shift is accompanied by action in how we understand whose heritage is deemed significant. This is where an anarchist archaeology can powerfully parallel and support an indigenous archaeology. These biased decisions on what heritage is valued also decrease our historical imagination. Removing or limiting the archaeological, historical, and cultural presence of horizontally organized societies through preservation decisions can have dramatic impacts on the ability of future societies to envisage and enact alternatives to present hierarchies.

No Paradigms––A Multitude of Views and Voices. Anarchist archaeology acknowledges that a multiplicity of viewpoints exist, and rejects the false dichotomy that all who promote these ideas must self-identify as an anarchist or archaeologist. Labels limit people’s ability to find utility in anarchist theory. For instance, people do not need to call themselves anarchists to promote anarchist ideas and ideals in the same way that people do not need to call themselves archaeologists to promote the use of material culture as a social science and a historical method. This standpoint allows us to be theoretically promiscuous and claim that it is scientifically fruitful to consider alternate theories and methods from the normal paradigm, thus engaging in epistemological anarchism.

A Heterarchy of Authorities. As anarchist archaeologists, we do not recognize ourselves as one community. Instead, we recognize ourselves belonging to, and claiming, many connected communities. We support the idea that decentralizing our knowledge and authority does not deny any expertise we may have. We recognize that while we have the skills of our craft and expertise concerning material culture and knowledge about the past, it is an expertise that derives from a certain perspective that is without sole authority. Our knowledge should be open and our expertise should be available so that we do not create a situation in which archaeologists (or historians) alone obtain authority over the past, especially as concerns the heritage of descendant peoples. Further, we recognize that many kinds of expertise exist outside of our discipline, and indeed outside of the realm of ‘academic’ knowledge. An anarchist archaeology is about respecting the many kinds of experts that can speak to the past and the present.

Decentering the Human––Recognizing Relationships with Non-Human Entities. An anarchist archaeology understands and encourages us to examine how non-human agents may create social change. Thus, place, space, the environment, material objects, and the supernatural can all be agents of change. Moreover, the patterns of human behavior may be structured by their relationships with non-human entities, as geontologies, whether it is perceived agents within the landscape, climate, plants, animals, or spirits. We acknowledge that since people in past cultures often saw themselves as equal to or lesser than non-human entities, decentering the human may help us understand how past peoples arranged themselves. Such a stance also helps us to reimagine our own subject positions in relation to the environment, to places, to plants, animals, and spirits.

An Archaeology of Action. Anarchist archaeologists recognize that even though our research can often tackle incredibly difficult and sensitive topics, that archaeological research should be pleasant and joyful. Simultaneously, archaeology should be conducted and reported with respect. While our subject matter can be fraught with violence, we look at finding ways to study these topics that are not themselves violent. Following the many successful acts of resistance that use humor to contest violence, such as marchers protesting injustice armed with puppets, we also think that presentations of difficult topics can be broken up with artistic, poetic, or revolutionary interventions. But most of all, we see an anarchist archaeology as a call to action, and we invite those who are interested to join us. Do research. Write an essay. Compose an epic poem. Contribute song lyrics. Offer a painting or photograph. Do something big, or do something small. Do something different. Write a classic. Do what feels right. Do it for archaeology’s potential to help us build a better world. Make it grand. Make it humble. Make it brilliant.

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Simply, we offer an anarchist archaeology as an alternate way to think about the past and to consider our methods and practices in the present. An anarchist approach reminds us to consider relations of power and to question whether those relationships are authoritarian or coercive, whether in past societies we study, among archaeologists as teams in practice, among archaeologists and descendant communities concerning heritage, or in the relationships between archaeology and contemporary nation-states. The vast bulk of societies in the past were anarchic societies, organizing their lives without centralized authorities. This is one primary reason that an anarchist archaeology can be of use for understanding the principles and dynamics of societies without government. Moreover, sustained critique of power can help us better recognize the forms of resistance within centralized societies. Finally, anarchist principles can help us better attain more egalitarian and democratic practices among archaeologists and others with interests in the past. This approach can also engage archaeology to invigorate the historical imagination and present alternatives to contemporary top-down oriented political and economic structures of authority. In short, an anarchist archaeology can help us to expand the realm of the possible, both in relation to our interpretations of the traces of past lives, and in terms of our understandings of what is possible in the future.

The Black Trowel Collective: We come to anarchism and archaeology from many backgrounds, and for varied reasons. Most of this document comes from a conversation started at the Amerind Foundation in April 2016 (made possible by a grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation), where we began to put the ‘sherds’ of an anarchist archaeology into a coherent framework. Since then, many of us have continued to work together on this and other projects relating to anarchist archaeology, and our circle has widened as the project evolves.

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Elisée Reclus on Anarchy

Elisée Reclus

Elisée Reclus (1830-1905) was one of the leading 19th century exponents of anarchy and anarchism. Like Kropotkin, he was a geographer. He advocated anarchy from an early age, but only in the 1870s did he begin to play a prominent role in the emerging anarchist movement, as the anarchists in the First International reconstituted the International along anti-authoritarian lines immediately after the expulsion of Bakunin and James Guillaume from the International by Marx and his allies at the 1872 Hague Congress. The anti-authoritarians represented the majority of the International’s sections. Reclus took an active role in the “anti-authoritarian” International, and was instrumental in convincing many involved in the International to adopt anarchist communism as their goal. The following excerpts are taken from Reclus’ well known essay, “An Anarchist on Anarchy,” which was first published in the Contemporary Review, and then republished by Benjamin Tucker as a pamphlet in 1884.

An Anarchist on Anarchy

We are not among those whom the practice of social hypocrisies, the long weariness of a crooked life, and the uncertainty of the future have reduced to necessity of asking ourselves — without daring to answer it — the sad question: “Is life worth living?” Yes, to us life does seem worth living, but on condition that it has an end — not personal happiness, not a paradise, either in this world or the next — but the realization of a cherished wish, an ideal that belongs to us and springs from our innermost conscience. We are striving to draw nearer to that ideal equality which, century after century, has hovered before subject peoples like a heavenly dream. The little that each of us can do offers an ample recompense for the perils of the combat. On these terms life is good, even a life of suffering and sacrifice — even though it may be cut short by premature death.

The first condition of equality, without which any other progress is merest mockery — the object of all socialists without exception — is that every human being shall have bread. To talk of duty, of renunciation, of eternal virtues to the famishing, is nothing less than cowardice. Dives has no right to preach morality to the beggar at his gates. If it were true that civilized lands did not produce food enough for all, it might be said that, by virtue of vital competition, bread should be reserved for the strong, and that the weak must content themselves with the crumbs that fall from the feasters’ tables. In a family where love prevails things are not ordered in this way; on the contrary, the small and the ailing receive the fullest measure; yet it is evident that dearth may strengthen the hands of the violent and make the powerful monopolizers of bread. But are our modern societies really reduced to these straits? On the contrary, whatever may be the value of Malthus’s forecast as to the distant future, it is an actual, incontestable fact that in the civilized countries of Europe and America the sum total of provisions produced, or received in exchange for manufacturers, is more than enough for the sustenance of the people. Even in times of partial dearth the granaries and warehouses have but to open their doors that every one may have a sufficient share. Notwithstanding waste and prodigality, despite the enormous losses arising from moving about and handling in warehouses and shops, there is always enough to feed generously all the world. And yet there are some who die of hunger! And yet there are fathers who kill their children because when the little ones cry for bread they have none to give them.

Others may turn their eyes from these horrors; we socialists look them full in the face, and seek out their cause. That cause is the monopoly of the soil, the appropriation by a few of the land which belongs to all. We Anarchists are not the only ones to say it: the cry for nationalization of the land is rising so high that all may hear it who do not willfully close their ears. The idea spreads fast, for private property, in its present form, has had its day, and historians are everywhere testifying that the old Roman law is not synonymous with ethanol justice. Without doubt it were vain to hope that holders of the soil, saturated, so to speak, with ideas of caste, of privilege, and of inheritance, will voluntarily give back to all the bread-yielding furrows; the glory will not be theirs of joining as equals their fellow-citizens; but when public opinion is ripe — and day by day it grows — individuals will oppose in vain the general concourse of wills, and the axe will be applied to the upas tree’s roots. Arable land will be held once more in common; but instead of being ploughed and sown almost at hazard by ignorant hands, as it has hitherto been, science will aid us in the choice of climate, of soils, of methods of culture, of fertilizers, and of machinery. Husbandry will be guided by the same prescience as mechanical combinations and chemical operations; but the fruits of their toil will not be lost to the labourer. Many so-called savage societies hold their land in common, and humble though in our eyes they may seem, they are our betters in this: want among them is unknown. Are we, then, too ambitious in desiring to attain a social state which shall add to the conquests of civilization the privileges of these primitive tribes? Through the education of our children we may to some extent fashion the future.

After we have bread for all, we shall require something more — equality of rights; but this point will soon be realized, for an individual who needs not incline themselves before their fellows to crave pittance is already their equal. Equality of conditions, which is in no way incompatible with the infinite diversity of human character, we already desire and look upon as indispensable, for it offers us the only means whereby a true public morality can be developed. An individual can be truly moral only when they are their own master. From the moment when they awaken to a comprehension of that which is equitable and good it is for them to direct their own movements, to seek in the their conscience reasons for their actions, and to perform them simply, without either fearing punishment or looking for reward. Nevertheless their will cannot fail to be strengthened when they see others, guided like themselves by their own volition, following the same line of conduct. Mutual example will soon constitute a collective code of ethics to which all may conform without effort; but the moment that orders, enforced by legal penalties, replace the personal impulses of the conscience, there is an end to morality. Hence the saying of the Apostle of the Gentiles, “the law makes sin.” Even more, it is sin itself, because, instead of appealing to humanity’s better part, to it’s bold initiative, it appeals to it’s worst — it rules by fear. It thus behooves every one to resist the laws that they have not made, and to defend their personal rights, which are also the rights of others. People often speak of the antagonism between rights and duties. It is an empty phrase; there is no such antagonism. Whoso vindicates their own rights fulfills at the same time their duty towards their fellows. Privilege, not right, is the converse of duty.

Besides the possession of an individual’s own person, sound morality involves yet another condition — mutual goodwill, which is likewise the outcome of equality. The time-honoured words of Mahabarata are as true as ever: “The ignorant are not the friends of the wise; the man who has no cart is not the friend of him who has a cart. Friendship is the daughter of equality; it is never born of inequality.” Without doubt it is given to some people, great by their thoughts, by sympathy, or by strength of will, to win the multitude; but if the attachment of their followers and admirers comes otherwise than an enthusiastic affinity of idea to idea, or of heart to heart, it is speedily transformed either into fanaticism or servility. Those who are hailed lord by the acclamations of the crowd must almost of necessity attribute to themselves exceptional virtues, or a “Grace of God,” that makes them in their own estimation as a predestined being, and they usurp without hesitation or remorse privileges which they transmit as a heritage of their children. But, while in rank exalted, they are morally degraded, and their partisans and sycophants are more degraded still: they wait for the words of command which fall from the master’s lips; when they hear in the depths of their conscience some faint note of dissent, it is stifled; they become practiced liars, they stoop to flattery, and lose the power of looking honest individuals in the face. Between those who command and those who obey, and whose degradation deepens from generation to generation, there is no possibility of friendship. The virtues are transformed; brotherly frankness is destroyed; independence becomes a crime; above is either pitying condescension or haughty contempt, below either envious admiration or hidden hate. Let each of us recall the past and ask ourselves in all sincerity the question: “Who are the individuals in whose society we have experienced the most pleasure?” Are they the personages who have “honoured” us with their conversation, or the humble with whom we have “deigned” to associate? Are they not rather our equals, those whose looks neither implore nor command, and whom we may love with open hearts without afterthought or reserve.

It is to live in conditions of equality and escape from the falsehoods and hypocrisies of a society of superiors and inferiors, that so many men and women have formed themselves into close corporations and little worlds apart. America abounds in communities of this sort. But these societies, few of which prosper while many perish, are all ruled more or less by force; they carry within themselves the seed of their own dissolution, and are reabsorbed by Nature’s law of gravitation into the world which they have left. Yet even were they perfection, if humans enjoyed in them the highest happiness of which their nature is capable, they would be none the less obnoxious to the charge of selfish isolation, of raising a wall between themselves and the rest of their race; their pleasures are egotistical, and devotion to the cause of humanity would draw back the best of them into the great struggle.

As for the Anarchists, never will we separate ourselves from the world to build a little church, hidden in some vast wilderness. Here is the fighting ground, and we remain in the ranks, ready to give our help wherever it may be most needed. We do not cherish premature hopes, but we know that our efforts will not be lost. Many of the ignorant, who either out of love of routine or simplicity of soul now anathematize us, will end by associating themselves with our cause. For every individual whom circumstances permit to join us freely, hundreds are hindered by the hard necessities of life from openly avowing our opinions, but they listen from afar and cherish our words in the treasury of their hearts. We know that we are defending the cause of the poor, the disinherited, the suffering; we are seeking to restore to them the earth, personal rights, confidence in the future; and is it not natural that they should encourage us by look and gesture, even when they dare not come to us? In times of trouble, when the iron hand of might loosens its hold, and paralyzed rulers reel under the weight of their own power; when the “groups,” freed for an instant from the pressure above, reform themselves according to their natural affinities, on which side will be the many? Though making no pretension to prophetic insight, may we not venture without temerity to say that the great multitude would join our ranks? Albeit they never weary of repeating that Anarchism is merely the dream of a few visionaries, do not even our enemies, by the insults they heap upon us and the projects and machinations they impute to us, make an incessant propaganda in our favour? It is said that, when the magicians of the Middle Ages wanted to raise the devil, they began their incantations by painting his image on a wall. For a long time past, modern exorcists have adopted a similar method for conjuring Anarchists.

Pending the great work of the coming time, and to the end that this work may be accomplished, it behooves us to utilize every opportunity for rede and deed. Meanwhile, although our object is to live without government and without law, we are obliged in many things to submit. On the other hand, how often are we enabled to disregard their behest and act on our own free will? Ours be it to let slip none of these occasions, and to accept tranquility whatever personal consequences may result from doing that which we believe to be our duty. In no case will we strengthen authority by appeals or petitions, neither shall we sanction the law by demanding justice from the courts nor, by giving our votes and influence to any candidate whatsoever, become the authors of our own ill-fortune? It is easy for us to accept nothing from power, to call no one “master,” neither to be called “master” ourselves, to remain in the ranks as simple citizens and to maintain resolutely, and in every circumstance, our quality of equal among citizens. Let our friends judge us by our deeds, and reject from among them those of us who falter.

There are unquestionably many kind-hearted individuals that, as yet. hold themselves aloof from us, and even view our efforts with a certain apprehension, who would nevertheless gladly lend us their help were they not repelled by fear of the violence which almost invariably accompanies revolution. And yet a close study of the present state of things would show them that the supposed period of tranquility in which we live is really an age of cruelty and violence. Not to speak of war and its crimes, from the guilt of which no civilized State is free, can it be denied that chief among the consequences of the existing social system are murder, maladies, and death. Accustomed order is maintained by rude deeds and brute force, yet things that happen every day and every hour pass unperceived; we see in them a series of ordinary events no more phenomenal than times and seasons. It seems less than impious to rebel against the cycle of violence and repression which comes to us hallowed by the sanction of ages. Far from desiring to replace an era of happiness and peace by an age of disorder and warfare, our sole aim is to put an end to the endless series of calamities which has hitherto been called by common consent “The Progress of Civilization.” On the other hand, vengeances are the inevitable incidents of a period of violent changes. It is the nature of things that they should be. Albeit deeds of violence, prompted by a spirit of hatred, bespeak a feeble moral development, these deeds become fatal and necessary whenever the relations between people are not the relations of perfect equity. The original form of justice as understood by primitive peoples was that of retaliation, and by thousands of rude tribes this system is still observed. Nothing seemed more just than to offset one wrong by a like wrong. Eye for an eye! Tooth for a tooth! If the blood of one person has been shed, another must die! This was the barbarous form of justice. In our civilized societies it is forbidden to individuals to take the law into their own hands. Governments, in their quality of social delegates, are charged on behalf of the community with the enforcement of justice, a sort of retaliation somewhat more enlightened than that of the savage. It is on this condition that the individual renounces the right of personal vengeance; but if they be deceived by the mandatories to whom they entrust the vindication of their rights, if they perceive that their agents betray their cause and league themselves with the oppressors, that official justice aggravates their wrongs; in a word, if whole classes and populations are unfairly used, and have no hope of finding in the society to which they belong a redresser of abuses, is it not certain that they will resume their inherent right of vengeance and execute it without pity? Is not this indeed an ordinance of Nature, a consequence of the physical law of shock and counter-shock? It were unphilosophic to be surprised by its existence. Oppression has always been answered by violence.

Nevertheless, if great human evolutions are always followed by sad outbreaks of personal hatreds, it is not to these bad passions that well-wishers of their kind appeal when they wish to rouse the motive virtues of enthusiasm, devotion, and generosity. If changes had no other result than to punish oppressors, to make them suffer in their turn, to repay evil with evil, the transformation would be only in seeming. What boots it to those who truly love humanity and desire the happiness of all that the slave becomes master, that the master is reduced to servitude, that the whip changes hands, and that money passes from one pocket to another? It is not the rich and the powerful whom we devote to destruction, but the institutions which have favoured the birth and growth of these malevolent beings. It is the medium which it behooves us to alter, and for this great work we must reserve all our strength; to waste it in personal vindications were merest puerility. “Vengeance is the pleasure of the gods,” said the ancients; but it is not the pleasure of self-respecting mortals; for they know that to become their own avengers would be to lower themselves to the level of their former oppressors. If we would rise superior to our adversary, we must, after vanquishing them, make them bless their defeat. The revolutionary device, “For our liberty and for yours,” must not be an empty word.

The people in all times have felt this; and after every temporary triumph the generosity of the victor has obliterated the menaces of the past. It is a constant fact that in all serious popular movements, made for an idea, hope of a better time, and above all, the sense of a new dignity, fills the soul with high and magnanimous sentiments. So soon as the police, both political and civil, cease their functions and the masses become masters of the streets, the moral atmosphere changes, each feels themselves responsible for the prosperity and contentment of all; molestation of individuals is almost unheard of; even professional criminals pause in their sad career, for they too, feel that something great is passing through the air. Ah! if revolutionaries, instead of obeying a vague idea as they have almost always done, had formed a definite aim, a well-considered scheme of social conduct, if they had firmly willed the establishment of a new order of things in which every citizen might be assured bread, work, instruction, and the free development of their being, there would have been no danger in opening all prison gates to their full width, and saying to the unfortunates whom they shut in, “Go, brothers and sisters, and sin no more.”

It is always to the nobler part of humanity that we should address ourselves when we want to do great deeds. A general fighting for a bad cause stimulates their soldiers with promises of booty; a benevolent individual who cherishes a noble object encourages their companions by the example of their own devotion and self-sacrifice. For them, faith in their idea is enough. As says the proverb of the Danish peasants: “His will is his paradise.” What matters is that he is treated like a visionary! Even though his undertakings were only a chimera, he knows nothing more beautiful and sweet than the desire to act rightly and do good; in comparison with this vulgar realities are for him but shadows, the apparitions of an instant.

But our ideal is not a chimera. This, public opinion well knows; for no question more preoccupies it than that of social transformation. Events are casting their shadows before. Among individuals who think is there one who in some fashion or another is not a socialist — that is to say, who has not their own little scheme for changes in economic relations? Even the orator who noisily denies that there is a social question affirms the contrary by a thousand propositions. And those who will lead us back to the Middle Ages, are they not also socialists? They think they have found in a past, restored after modern ideas, conditions of social justice which will establish for ever the brotherhood of man. All are awaiting the birth of a new order of things; all ask themselves, some with misgiving, others with hope, what the morrow will bring forth. It will not come with empty hands. The century which has witnessed so many grand discoveries in the world of science cannot pass away without giving us still greater conquests. Industrial appliances, that by a single electric impulse make the same thought vibrate through five continents, have distanced by far our social morals, which are yet in many regards the outcome of reciprocally hostile interests. The axis is displaced; the world must crack that its equilibrium may be restored. In spirit revolution is ready; it is already thought — it is already willed; it only remains to realize it, and this is not the most difficult part of the work. The Governments of Europe will soon have reached the limits to the expansion of their power and find themselves face to face with their increasing populations. The super-abundant activity which wastes itself in distant wars must then find employment at home — unless in their folly the shepherds of the people should try to exhaust their energies by setting the Europeans against Europeans, as they have done before. It is true that in this way they may retard the solution of the social problem, but it will rise again after each postponement, more formidable than before.

Let economists and rulers invent political constitutions or salaried organizations, whereby the worker may be the friend of their master, the subject the brother of the potentate, we, “frightful Anarchists” as we are, know only one way of establishing peace and goodwill among women and men — the suppression of privilege and the recognition of right. Our ideal, as we have said, is that of the fraternal equity for which all yearn, but almost always as a dream; with us it takes form and becomes a concrete reality. It pleases us not to live if the enjoyments of life are to be for us alone; we protest against our good fortune if we may not share it with others; it is sweeter for us to wander with the wretched and the outcasts than to sit, crowned with roses, at the banquets of the rich. We are weary of these inequalities which make us the enemies of each other; we would put an end to the furies which are ever bringing people into hostile collision, and all of which arise from the bondage of the weak to the strong under the form of slavery, serfage, and service. After so much hatred we long to love each other, and for this reason are we enemies of private property and despisers of the law.

Elisée Reclus, 1884

Elisée Reclus: Kropotkin’s Words of a Rebel

In October 1885, the anarchist revolutionary, Peter Kropotkin, was in a French prison, having been condemned in 1882 for being a member of the by then defunct International Workingmen’s Association. Of course, the real reason for his imprisonment was that he was directly involved in reviving the French anarchist movement after ten years of state repression following the defeat of the Paris Commune. Kropotkin was the major contributor to the manifesto that he and his co-defendants issued during their trial. While in prison, his friend, the anarchist geographer Élisée Reclus, put together a collection of Kropotkin’s essays under the title, Words of a Rebel. Here I reproduce Nicolas Walter’s translation of Reclus’ introduction. I previously posted some of Walter’s translations of Kropotkin’s preface to the 1904 Italian edition and the post-script to the 1921 Russian edition.

Preface to Words of a Rebel

FOR TWO AND A HALF YEARS Peter Kropotkin has been in prison, cut off from the society of his fellow-men. His punishment is hard, but the silence imposed on him concerning the things he cares about most is much harder: his imprisonment would be less oppressive if he were not gagged. Months and years may perhaps pass before the use of speech is restored to him and he can resume interrupted conversations with his comrades.

The period of forced seclusion which our friend has to undergo will certainly not be wasted, but it seems very long to us! Life quickly goes by, and we sadly watch the weeks and months running out when this voice-so proud and honest among the rest–cannot be heard at all. In its place, how many common places will be repeated to us, how many lying words will afflict us, how many biased half-truths will ring about our ears! We long to hear one of those sincere and forthright tongues which boldly proclaim the truth.

But if the prisoner of Clairvaux no longer has the freedom to speak to his comrades from the depths of his cell, they can at least remember their friend and recall the words he spoke before. This is a task which I am able to perform, and I have devoted myself to it with pleasure. The articles which Kropotkin wrote from 1879 to 1882 in the ‘anarchist’ paper Le Révolté seemed to me ideal for publication in book form, especially because they did not run after chance events but followed a logical order. The vigour of the thought gave them the necessary unity.

Faithful to the scientific method, the author first explains the general situation of society, with its scandals and defects, its elements of discord and war; he studies the evidence of collapse shown by states, and shows us the cracks opening in their ruins. Then he pushes the experience offered by contemporary history in the direction of anarchic evolution, indicates its exact significance, and draws the lessons which it teaches. Finally, in the chapter ‘Expropriation’, he sums up his ideas, which derive from both observation and experience, and appeals to men of good will who want not just to know, but also to act.

I do not wish to sing the author’s praises here. He is my friend, and if I said all the nice things I think about him I might be suspected of blindness or accused of partiality. It would be enough for me to report the opinion of his judges, even his jailers. Among those who have observed his life, from far or near, there is no one who does not respect him, who does not bear witness to his high intelligence and to his heart which overflows with kindness, no one who does not acknowledge him to be truly noble and pure. Anyway, is it not because of these very qualities that he has known exile and imprisonment?

His crime is to love the poor and weak; his offence is to have pleaded their cause. Public opinion is unanimous in respecting this man, and yet it is not at all surprised to see the prison gates closing remorselessly on him, so that it seems natural that superiority has to be paid for and devotion has to be accompanied by suffering. It is impossible to see Kropotkin in the prison yard and to exchange greetings with him without wondering: ‘And what about me, why am I free? Could, it be perhaps because I am not good enough?’

However, the readers of this book should pay less attention to the personality of the author than to the value of the ideas he expresses. These ideas I recommend with confidence to honest people who do not make up their minds about a work before opening it, or about an opinion before hearing it. Clear away all your prejudices, try to stand aside temporarily from your interests, and read the pages simply looking for the truth without bothering for the time being about its application. The author asks only one thing of you – to share for a moment his ideal, the happiness of all, not just of a few privileged people.

If this desire, however fleeting it may be, is really sincere, and not a mere whim of your fancy, an image passing before your eyes, it is probable that you will soon agree with the writer. If you share his yearnings you will understand his words. But you know in advance that these ideas will bring you no honour; they will never be rewarded with a well-paid position; they may well bring you instead the distrust of your former friends or some cruel blow from your superiors. If you seek justice, you can expect to suffer injustice.

At the time when this work is being published, France is in the middle of an election crisis. I am not so naive as to recommend the candidates to read this book – they have other ‘duties’ to perform – but I do invite the electors to take a look at Words of a Rebel, and I would particularly draw their attention to the chapter called ‘Representative Government’. There they will see how far their confidence will be justified in these men who are springing up on all sides to solicit the honour of representing their fellow-citizens in Parliament.

At the moment all is well. The candidates are omniscient and infallible – but what about the deputies? When they at last receive their share of the kingdom, will they not be fatally afflicted by the dizziness of power and, like kings, be deprived of all wisdom and all virtue? If they decided to keep all those promises which they made so lavishly, how would they maintain their dignity in the midst of a crowd of petitioners and advisers? Even supposing that they went into Parliament with good intentions, how could they emerge without being corrupted? Under the influence of that atmosphere of intrigue, they can be seen turning from left to right, as if they were impelled by an automatic mechanism-clockwork figures who come out looking proud and strike noisily in front of the clock face, then soon afterwards go round and disappear ‘pathetically into the works.

Choosing new masters is no solution at all. It is we anarchists, enemies of Christianity, who have to remind a whole society which claims to be Christian of these words of the man whom they have made a God: ‘Call no man Master, Master! Let each man remain his own master.’ Do not go to the offices of bureaucrats, or the noisy chambers of parliaments, in the vain hope for the words of freedom. Listen rather to the voices which come from below, even if they come through the bars of the prison cell.

Elisée Reclus

Clarens (Switzerland), October 1, 1885

Evolution and Revolution

evolution-revolution

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

Elisée Reclus

Elisée Reclus

Evolution and Revolution

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

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

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

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

Lombroso Museum Exhibit

Lombroso Museum Exhibit

Against Racism

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

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

Robert Graham

Peter Kropotkin

Peter Kropotkin

Anarchist Ethics

Reclus_Lhomme-et-la-terre_affiche

In this installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss anarchist approaches to morality and ethics. Contrary to popular misconceptions, most self-identified anarchists were not nihilistic egoists or amoralists, like Max Stirner, but instead were critics of the parsimonious and hypocritical morality found in existing society, which is designed to encourage subservience and obedience. Anarchists argued that people can only be “moral,” in a positive sense, in a society of equals without hierarchy and domination.

goldman quote

Anarchist Morality

“Official morality,” wrote Elisée Reclus in 1894, “consists in bowing humbly to one’s superiors and in proudly holding up one’s head before one’s subordinates” (Volume One, Selection 38). True morality can only exist between equals. “It is not only against the abstract trinity of law, religion, and authority” that anarchists declare war, according to Kropotkin, but the inequality that gives rise to “deceit, cunning, exploitation, depravity, vice… It is in the name of equality that we are determined to have no more prostituted, exploited, deceived and governed men and women.”

This sense of justice and solidarity, “which brings the individual to consider the rights of every other individual as equal to his own,” has been successively widened, from the clan, to the tribe, to the nation, to the whole of humankind, until it is transcended by a “higher conception of ‘no revenge for wrongs,’ and of freely giving more than one expects to receive from his neighbours” (Volume One, Selection 54). For Kropotkin, acting morally is not only natural, but a means of self-fulfillment.

What anarchists sought to achieve was a world in which everyone is free to develop his or her talents and abilities to their fullest. This is impossible as long as workers are required to engage in labour merely to eke out an existence, taking whatever jobs they can get, women must work at home and in the factory or office, subject to their husbands and fathers at home, to their bosses at work, and to conventional morality always, and children must be trained to accept their lot in life and to obey their “betters.”

It is for these reasons that anarchism, Kropotkin wrote, “refuses all hierarchical organization” (Volume One, Selection 41). As Charlotte Wilson (1854-1944), who helped found the English language anarchist newspaper, Freedom, with Kropotkin in 1886, explained, “all coercive organization” with its “machine-like regularity is fatal to the realization” of the anarchist ideal of self-fulfillment for all, not just the privileged few (Volume One, Selection 37).

Robert Graham

Kropotkin quote well being for all