Sébastian Faure: Anarchism as a Force For Revolution (1921)

Portrait of Sébastian Faure by André Claudot, June 1923

In his forthcoming anthology of libertarian socialist writings, A Libertarian Reader, Iain McKay has included a speech from January 1921 by the French anarchist, Sébastian Faure, in which he discusses various movements as forces for revolution – the socialist movement, free thought, trade unionism and the co-operative movement. Here, I reproduce his conclusion, in which Faure argues that anarchism represents a synthesis of the other forces. Within the anarchist movement itself, Faure advocated an “anarchist synthesis” combining the best aspects of anarchist individualism, syndicalism and communism. Faure had to admit that by 1921, anarchists had become a small minority on the revolutionary left, but argues that it is better to be clear and consistent in one’s ideas and actions than to achieve mass popularity by compromising one’s own principles. Faure’s speech was published as a pamphlet, including an English translation by Red Lion Press in 2005.

Anarchism as a Force for Revolution

Anarchism is, in fact, like the union of all the forces of which I have spoken tonight, it is, as I have said, the synthesis: anarchism is with free-thought in the struggle it wages against religion and against all forms of intellectual and moral oppression; – anarchism is with the Socialist Party in the struggle it pursues against the capitalist regime; – anarchism is with trade unionism in its struggle for the worker’s redemption against the exploitative employers of labour; – anarchism is with co-operation in its struggle against commercial parasitism and against the middlemen who are the profiteers of this parasitism. Was I not right to say that anarchism is like the synthesis of all the other forces of revolution; that it condenses them, crowns them and unites them all?

Yes, it is the summarisation and consummation! Anarchism respects no form of domination of man over man, no form of exploitation of man by man, since it attacks all forms of authority:

Political authority: the State.

Economic authority: Property.

Moral authority: Fatherland, Religion, Family.

Legal authority: Judiciary and Police.

All social powers interchangeably receive the well dealt, vigorous and incisive blows that anarchists bring them. After all, anarchism rises up against all oppression, against all constraints, it has no boundaries to its actions, for it considers the whole person in his body, in his mind and in his heart. It looks at human nature, it sees tears fall and blood flow; it looks at the person who suffers and asks him where his sufferings come from!

Where does his suffering come from? The anarchist knows that they are due almost entirely to a defective social state. I set aside the sorrows inherent in nature itself, but all the other sufferings, all the other sorrows are caused by a bad social organisation.

The anarchist, while considering human sorrows, is emotional, for he has a sensitive heart, he is revolted, for he has good conscience, and he is resolute, because he has a firm will.

After having, thanks to his lucid brain, considered the truth, the anarchist extends his helping hand towards those who suffer and says: “Fight with us against all those who make you suffer: against the property which makes you homeless and without bread; – against the State which oppresses you by unjust laws and crushes you with taxes; – against your boss who exploits your labour by giving you a meagre wage for eight, ten or twelve hours of work a day; – against all the Profiteers who devour you; – against all the Wolves who swindle you; – against all the evil Forces, against all the Powers of the day!…”

That is what the anarchist says to the oppressed, to the suffering.

It was hoped that such a high philosophy, such a pure doctrine, would be spared from the harmful influence of the [First World] War! Alas! this did not happen. I say this to our shame and disgrace! Amongst the most notorious anarchists, including those we were accustomed to consider as spiritual guides – not as leaders, there are none amongst us, but you know as well as I do that there are voices which are listened to more than others and minds which seem to reflect the minds of other anarchists – we had the anguish to see that some of those whom we regarded as our elder brothers, as our spiritual guides, suffered accursed failure! They believed that this war was not like the others, that France had been attacked and needed to vigorously defend herself; they became collaborators in the “Sacred Union” and made a pact with the defenders of the nation, they were warriors, diehards…

And the misfortune is that, since then, they have not recognised their mistake either; they dug in their heels. Go and ask someone who thinks he has the makings of a leader to recant! Do ask someone who until then had proclaimed truths before which others seemed to bow without question, go ask that man to recognise that he made a mistake! This man, believing himself an anarchist, will look down on you and never admit he could be wrong.

Like all the chiefs and leaders of people, like all drivers of the masses, the anarchist-warriors have been victims of their hubris, and they have placed their personal vanity above all else. And yet, I imagine that when a mistake has been committed, it is proper and dignified to recognise it honestly and the only way to correct it is to proclaim it publicly.

We did not need, we anarchists, to expel these diehards, to drive them out: they understood that they had nothing in common with us, that they had to remove themselves, and they stayed at home.

I mention no names, but you all know them, those who, anarchists before the war, after having declared for twenty years that there was no holy war, that all war was accursed, and that, if it broke-out, the duty of every anarchist was to refuse to serve, they urged their fellows to the massacre. After betraying, after denying their past, these men are now alone. Without having taken any sanction against them, without having made any condemnation against them[1], they condemned themselves voluntarily to solitary confinement, and this is their punishment; they are surrounded today only by their loneliness and abandonment…

Of all the forces of revolution I have mentioned, anarchism is perhaps the least numerous. We do not deceive ourselves about our numerical strength, we know that we do not have, like the Socialist Party, trade unionism and co-operation, compact battalions: the anarchists have always been a minority, and – remember what I say – they will always remain a minority. It is inevitable.

Ah! we, too, would like to recruit, that is understood and we do it; but recruitment is not easy amongst us. First, our ideal is so high and so broad! Moreover, it is an almost limitless ideal that becomes daily, with events, higher and broader, so that, to embrace this ideal, to follow it and propagate it, advanced men are needed, so to speak.

I do not look very modest saying that, and yet I must say it because it is the truth and it is my feeling; and then, there is no vanity to speak favourably of yourself and your comrades, when you do it frankly and honestly.

Yes, you must be part of an elite, you must be an advanced man to rise to such heights, to rise to such altitudes, to rise to the heights where the anarchist idea soars. What makes anarchist recruitment especially difficult is that there is nothing to gain with us; nothing to gain and everything to lose… We have, after all, no tenures, no positions, no remits, no anything… not even notoriety to offer to our adherents.

I am mistaken: there is, on the contrary, much to gain amongst us; but these gains of which I want to speak without doubt only attract this minority, this elite of which I spoke a moment ago.

There is nothing to gain like a position or money, but there is much to be gained if you are willing to be content, by way of compensation, with the pure and noble joys of a satisfied heart, of a tranquil mind, of a raised consciousness. And, indeed, the anarchist finds incomparable joys and which are worth infinitely more in his eyes than material advantages and baubles of vanity.

We are therefore a minority, but such is the common destiny of all new ideas; these never gather around them but a small minority. When an idea begins to group around it an imposing minority, it is that reality which is in motion (and it is always without every stopping) had brought forth a new idea, more exact or more youthful, and it is this idea, which is younger, bolder, more just, which groups around it the elite. Under the Empire, the minority (that is to say the elect) was formed by the reds, by the republicans; during the first years of the Republic, and as recently as ten or fifteen years before socialism became petty-bourgeois and reformist, socialism was only a tiny minority, it was the elite of that time. Today, it is anarchism that unites this elite.

A minority, yes: but it is not necessary to be many to do a lot of work; it is even better, sometimes, to be less numerous and be the best: here the quality outweighs the quantity. I prefer a hundred individuals who are everywhere, who go where there is work to be done, where there is intelligence and activity to be deployed; I prefer a hundred individuals who speak, who write, who act, in a word who are engaged passionately in propaganda, than a thousand who remain quietly at home and imagine that they have done their duty when some have made donations and others have voted.

Anarchists are and will therefore always be a few, but they are everywhere. They are what I will call the yeast that raises the dough. Already, you see them permeating everywhere. Beside the few thousand declared anarchists who are organised, we see thousands and thousands who are in other groups: some in Free-Thought, others in the Socialist Party, others in the C.G.T. [French trade union federation]. I even know a large number, in such-and-such small towns and in the countryside who, feeling the need to do something, driven by the desire to become involved with local struggles and the propaganda being made amongst them and around them, join the socialist movement; they do not abandon their anarchist ideas; there are also some in trade unionism, in co-operation, there are everywhere… There are even some who are unaware! For as soon as they are told what anarchism is, they say: “But if that is true, I am an anarchist! I am with you!” Yes, anarchism is everywhere…

Such are the forces of revolution that it was essential to review this evening. I conclude, for it is almost two hours since we started. It would have taken a whole lecture to examine each of these forces and we would not even have covered everything. Tonight I delivered a simple monograph on each current, on each organisation, a quick and brief monograph, of the forces that deserve a more detailed description: I have merely produced a sketch and I neglected a certain number of other currents, other forces, other groupings which are not without value and which, on the day of the Revolution, would influence the general movement;  these are, for example, feminist groups and neo-Malthusian, temperance and anti-militarist currents, and amongst others, the Republican Veterans Association, which has the purpose of grouping in particular those who are the victims of the last war. Lastly, we have above all the socialist, trade unionist and anarchist youth, nurseries of the active militants of tomorrow. It is this youth who are our hope and who, today the seed, will be the abundant harvest of tomorrow!

There is then, as you see, a whole legion of groups full of good will and eager to move forward.

I spoke this evening only of the great currents because I obviously could not dwell on each of these smaller but real forces.

The great currents of which I have spoken tonight are autonomous; the forces we have just examined are independent; each of them largely deploys its flag on the terrain that is particular to it. The enemy senses the danger, it is organised and united: never has the repression been so severe, never have the bosses been so firmly organised, never has the police been so arrogant, never has the judiciary handed out sentences with such a tireless hand, never, in a word, was the enemy more stoutly defended. It is therefore a question of engaging in battle with all our forces united. For that, we ask no one to sacrifice his principles, his doctrines, his methods, his action: we wish, on the contrary, that each group keeps and preserves its methods, its doctrine, its principles, so that all these can be used when the time comes, because we have a goal to reach, a great work to accomplish, and all these associated forces will be indispensable. The social structure threatens doom. It is not ready to collapse, make no mistake: there are cracks; however, the social structure is still solid and it will take a hard shove to destroy and overthrow it. What is needed at the present time is that a powerful wind of revolt rises and passes over all men of good will, for the arrogance of our masters is made from our servility, their strength is made from our weakness, their courage is made from our failure and their wealth is made from our poverty! The spirit of submission has lowered personalities, revolt will raise them; the habit of obedience has bowed backs, revolt will straighten them; centuries of resignation weighing heavily on humanity have been its ruin, the revolution will save it.

As for us anarchists, we do not want to live as slaves anymore. We declared a ruthless war on Society, yes, a war to the knife. We know that we have to conquer or die, but we are resolved. We are therefore determined to do battle, constant battle with all shackles and all constraints: Religion, Capital, Government, Militarism, etc.

And we are determined to fight this battle until victory is complete. We want not only to be free ourselves, but also that all men be [free] like us. As long as there are chains, even if they are gilded, even if they are light, even if they are loose and weak, even if they bound only one of our fellows, we will not lay down our arms: we want all chains to fall, everyone and forever!

Sébastien Faure, January 25, 1921

[1] It must be noted that many anarchists did write articles refuting the pro-war anarchists in the anarchist press, reiterating the anarchist position on war that they had so recently advocated. For example, Kropotkin was answered by the likes of Malatesta, Berkman and Rocker (amongst others). [Note by Iain McKay]