Eugène Varlin and the Rise of Revolutionary Socialism in France


After many posts on the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, I will now be turning my attention toward the emergence of self-identified anarchist movements from the debates and struggles within the International Workingmen’s Association (the “First International”), founded primarily by French and English workers in 1864, and in the aftermath of the Paris Commune of 1871.

In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included several selections from Proudhon, Bakunin, Louise Michel, Kropotkin and the anti-authoritarian sections of the International in the Chapters on the International and the origins of the anarchist movement, the conflicts within the International, and the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune. Space limitations prevented me from including anything by Eugène Varlin (1839-1871), an outstanding member of the Paris section, and later federation, of the International, who was a pioneer in the development of a revolutionary socialist current within the International which advocated the abolition of the capitalist state and the creation of an international federation of workers’ collectives, a position he described as “collectivism” or “non-authoritarian communism,” to distinguish it from the state socialism advocated by the Blanquists and Marxists within the International.

Founding of the International

Varlin was a bookbinder by trade, involved in the revived workers movement in France in the mid-1860s. In February 1864, a group of workers, including Varlin, published their “Manifesto of the Sixty,” in which they argued that the workers were “in need of direct representation” from among their own number “in the precincts of the legislative body… the only place where workers could worthily and freely articulate their wishes and stake their own claim to the rights enjoyed by other citizens.” The “Sixty” signatories made a point of distancing themselves from the earlier Proudhon, assuring the Manifesto’s readers that they were not about to adopt Proudhon’s battle cry from the 1848 French Revolution: “What is the worker? Nothing! What should he be? Everything!” For “it is not for us [the workers] to destroy the rights deservedly enjoyed by the middle classes, but rather to secure for ourselves the same freedom to act.” Varlin subsequently adopted a more revolutionary position, seeking to achieve socialism through workers’ self-management.

Varlin and Nathalie Lemel, who later helped convert Louise Michel to anarchism, participated in the bookbinders’ strikes of 1864 and 1865 and were involved in the creation of workers’ credit unions, cooperatives and other mutual aid societies. Both were also involved in creating the Paris section of the International in 1865.

Nathalie Lemel

Varlin was among the French delegates to the 1866 Geneva Congress of the First International. Varlin and Antoîne-Marie Bourdon, an engraver from Paris, advocated equal rights for women in opposition to the more conservative Proudhonists, who argued that a woman’s place was in the home. Varlin and Bourdon also disputed the position of Proudhon and the majority of the French delegation that the patriarchal family should be primarily responsible for the education of children, arguing that education was a social responsibility. For them, access to education should not be limited by existing inequalities in the means of individual families, and the improvidence and caprice of the children’s fathers. They proposed public funding of education, which was to be administered by “truly democratic” communes, because no father had the right to refuse his children an education, while a free and equal society required nothing less.

The growing activity of the International in working class struggles in France resulted in the persecution of the French Internationalists, with 10 members of the Parisian section, including Varlin, being fined 100 francs and sentenced to three months in jail in May 1868. Prior to his imprisonment, Varlin had helped collect funds to assist construction workers in Geneva during their successful strike in March-April 1868 for a 10 hour day and higher wages. He and Lemel had also begun organizing workers’ cooperatives, such as the restaurant, La Marmite (the “Cooking Pot”). The statutes for La Marmite provided for the administration of the cooperative’s daily affairs by a council of delegates elected by the general assembly of the cooperative’s members. These delegates were to be elected for six month terms and subject to recall. The council was to have only administrative powers, with the general assembly making all policy decisions.


Varlin’s position on participation in bourgeois politics changed over time. In May 1869, he was still in favour of participation in bourgeois elections, persuading the Paris section of the International to put forward a slate of working class candidates.

At that time, he referred to the advocates of abstention as “proudhoniens enragés” (prior to his death in 1865, Proudhon had advised the workers not to participate in French elections because “under the regime that has ruled over us since 1852, our ideas, if not our persons, have been, so to speak, placed outside of politics, outside of government, outside of the law”). Varlin, however, argued that putting forward a slate of working class candidates would emphasize the division between “the people and the bourgeoisie.” Varlin believed that “it would be impossible to organize the social revolution while we live under a government as arbitrary” as that of Napoleon III. None of the working class candidates were elected, and the Varlin group had to throw its support behind radical candidates instead.

By the time of Napoleon III’s May 1870 plebiscite to legitimize his political “reforms,” Varlin joined other workers in advocating abstention, for the time had come, in Varlin’s words, for the workers “to disabuse themselves of the representative system” of Napoleon III, the position that Proudhon had advised Varlin and other French workers to take back in 1864.  The Paris federation of the International, which Varlin had helped form in April 1870, issued a Manifesto calling for mass abstentions because this was the method of protest that Napoleon III feared the most. The Manifesto denounced the massacres of striking workers, conscription and the onerous tax burden being imposed on the workers to bankroll Napoleon III’s imperialist escapades abroad.

Varlin agreed with Bakunin that it was through the workers’ own trade union organizations and strike activity that they would create “the organization of the revolutionary forces” of labour necessary to abolish capitalism. This position was endorsed by most of the delegates to the 1869 Basle Congress of the International.

Bakunin speaking at the Basle Congress

At the Basle Congress, Varlin had supported Bakunin’s resolution in favour of the abolition of the right of inheritance, agreeing with Bakunin that, in current conditions, to maintain the right of inheritance was to sanction inequality. Some children would be well provided for from their fathers’ estates, while other children would remain deprived, through no fault of their own. Still less could one justify, from a collectivist perspective, the “right” of someone to transfer “his” property to someone outside of his family, bestowing on them an unearned benefit.

Bakunin and Varlin were consistent in their rejection of patriarchal rights, whether to dispose of one’s “property” or to determine what sort of education should be provided to one’s children. Varlin had argued at the Geneva Congress that education was a social responsibility, a position shared by Bakunin and his associates. At the Basle Congress, Bakunin expressly tied the abolition of the right of inheritance to the need for an “integral” education freely available to all, arguing that “as soon as the right of inheritance is abolished, society will have to take responsibility for all costs of the physical, moral, and intellectual development of all children of both sexes.”

James Guillaume

Toward the end of the Basle Congress, one of Bakunin’s associates, James Guillaume, met with Varlin and described to him the revolutionary socialist program being developed by Guillaume, Bakunin and their colleagues. Varlin told Guillaume that he shared their ideas, and the two agreed to maintain closer contacts. Varlin soon thereafter described the position adopted “almost unanimously” by the delegates at the Basle Congress as “collectivism, or non-authoritarian communism,” which was to be achieved by a “European social revolution.” Varlin supported the vision of the future free society proposed by his fellow Internationalist, Jean-Louis Pindy, at the Basle Congress, with dual federations, one comprising the workers’ trade and labour organizations, the other local and regional areas. As Pindy put it at the Basle Congress, association “on the basis of town or country… leads to the commune of the future, just as the other mode of [trade union] organization leads to the labour representation of the future.”

In December 1869, Bakunin, Guillaume and several other Internationalists met in Lyon, and again in March 1870, resulting in the establishment of a regional federation of Rhône workers affiliated with the International, with Varlin acting as honourary chairman at the founding congress.

In his report on the Basle Congress, Varlin expressed the views of many of the French Internationalists when he wrote that the workers’ own organizations, the trade unions and societies of resistance and solidarity, “form the natural elements of the social structure of the future.” Varlin saw strikes as a “school of struggle” that would unite the workers into a revolutionary force.

In March 1870, Varlin published an article expressing the views of the majority of the Paris Internationalists, in which he called for the authoritarian capitalist state to be replaced by workers’ self-management:

“At present our statesmen are trying to substitute a liberal-parliamentary government (Orleans style) for the regime of personal rule, and hope thereby to divert the advancing revolution that threatens their privileges. We socialists know from experience that all the old political forms are incapable of satisfying the demands of the people. Taking advantage of the mistakes and blunders of our adversaries, we must hasten the arrival of the hour of deliverance by actively preparing the bases for the future organization of society. This will make easier and more certain the task of social transformation which the revolution must carry out.

Up till now, governments have simply been an extension of authoritarian rule and subjugation of the masses — whether republican governments like Switzerland or the United States, constitutional oligarchies like Belgium or England, autocracies like Russia or personal regimes as in France since the Empire… all represent a political authority whose purpose is to keep the working classes in fear of laws that were created for the benefit of the few. This authority may be more or less strict, more or less arbitrary, but this does not in any way change the economic relations that are its foundation: the workers always remain at the mercy of those who hold capital.

Society can no longer permit the arbitrary distribution of public wealth on the basis of birth or success. Since [public wealth] is the collective sum of all productive labour, it should be employed only for the benefit of the collective. In other words, all members of human society have an equal right to the advantages stemming from that wealth.

However, this social wealth cannot provide for the well-being of humanity unless it is put to use by labour.

Consequently, if the industrial capitalist or businessman is no longer to dispose arbitrarily of collectively produced capital, who, then, can place this capital at the disposal of all? Who is to organize the production and distribution of goods?

Short of placing everything in the hands of a highly centralized, authoritarian state which would set up a hierarchical structure from top to bottom of the labour process… we must admit that the only alternative is for the workers themselves to have the free disposition and possession of the tools of production… through co-operative associations in various forms.

Newly formed labour groupings must join with the older ones, for it is only through the solidarity of workers in all occupations and in all countries that we will definitively achieve the abolition of all privileges, and equality for all.”

Varlin was among several prominent Internationalists sentenced to one year in prison in July 1870 for their activities. He escaped to Belgium, where he remained until the fall of Napoleon III’s regime in September 1870, after France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. In subsequent posts, I will review the events leading up to the Paris Commune of 1871, in which Varlin played a prominent role. He was tortured and murdered during the massacre of up to 30,000 Communards in May 1871.

"The Execution of Varlin" by M. Luce

Noir et Rouge: Majority and Minority (1958)

In Volume 2 of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included several selections from the French anarchist journal, Noir et Rouge (1956-1970), including material on national liberation and anti-colonialism, draft resistance against the French war against Algerian independence (Selection 31), and new directions in anarchist theory (Selection 47). Noir et Rouge (Black and Red, the traditional colours of class struggle anarchism) was published by the Groupes Anarchistes d’Action Revolutionaire (Revolutionary Action Anarchist Groups), one of the many French anarchist groups that emerged following the split in the French anarchist movement between Georges Fontenis and the Libertarian Communist Federation, which tried to unite anarchists and other ultra-leftists into a more conventional revolutionary party, and those anarchists who felt the Fontenis approach was dogmatic and authoritarian (see the previous post from Giovanna Berneri). In the following excerpts from Noir et Rouge, translated by Paul Sharkey, the GAAR sets forth its position on the debate regarding majority rule, defending the right of the minority to follow its own path. Noir et Rouge, with its more fluid conception of anarchist organization, influenced the student revolutionaries of May 1968 in France.

Majority and Minority

Can a majority claim to speak for on organization? Are its decisions binding upon the organization? How is the minority treated in terms of its expression, its conduct, its very existence within the ranks of that organization?

At first glance, all these questions appear to be of secondary interest, but in fact they are of considerable significance when one wishes to live inside an organization and wants that organization to live. And there can be no “laissez-faire, time will tell, every case is a case apart, with a little good will…” approach, for often experience is very convincing but by the time it is noticed it is too late to change anything and everything has to be embraced or allowed to fall by the wayside. Right from the very first steps taken together, we must devise a theoretical and practical line of policy acceptable to all and, in this context, the minority-majority issue can tilt the balance in one direction or the other.

As we see it, the operation of a federalist organization is incompatible with retention of the principle of majority rule. There is a real majority in the form of a freely conceived, freely accepted unanimity. Any other majority, be it a two thirds majority, an absolute or simple majority, with all manner of implications, constitutes a majority only as far as those who accept it are concerned; as far as others are concerned, it is worthless and cannot be considered binding.

Every time an attempt is made to foist a policy upon others, on one ground or another, one arrives at a contrived, fragile, unstable unity. Of course, in every case one finds and is going to find “special circumstances, historical necessities” — but then, what moment in humanity’s march towards its happiness is not historical? And it is not hard for those in need of that majority to prate on about special circumstances.

But… “without a majority, no decision can be arrived at and in the absence of decisions, an organization is worthless, a shambles.” This is the chief charge levelled at libertarians by authority lovers and, it has to be said, by certain libertarians. But experience flies in the face of such reasoning. Not only are there organizations in existence that are built on this foundation, but there have been instances where, without any votes being counted, there was a real majority… 19 July 1936, the May events in Barcelona in 1937… but there was no majority when the anarchists were “obliged” to collaborate with the government, at which point our adversaries started to roil about the existence of an opposition and a minority and to carp about the anarchists’ weakness and lack of discipline. Yet it was the existence of that very minority that salvaged the movement’s honour, including the honour of those who had consented to compromise.

The majority principle derives from the practice of the political struggle, from universal suffrage, from parliamentarianism. There, it is necessary, nay, the only indispensable factor in the smooth running of the system. The struggle to win a majority has never been and never will be open and honest. In order to win votes, no one shows his true face, the mechanisms of his game or the real aims he has in mind. The most revolutionary appeals are merely vague propositions likely to attract a brood swathe of individuals: the most po-faced sermons are only the ravings of rabble-rousers trying to stir the basest sentiments of the mob, be it selfish or sham-humanitarian. This grand parade of fine talkers is well orchestrated from behind the scenes through the use of intimidation, economic and other threats, as well as promises and special advantages. In authoritarian regimes, this backstage activity is even more transparent and the real agents of the majority (the official and political police, direct or indirect oppression) tread the boards, flourishing their “arguments”; they do not even trouble to mount a few minor displays against the recalcitrant so as to make an example for the rest, and to arrive at the ideal majority… 99.99%. But that danger lurks even within non-authoritarian, democratic, indeed, libertarian organizations, when the principle of majority rule is embraced along with the competition to win a majority. We have seen supposedly libertarian congresses hatched behind the scenes, with the parts and the speeches allocated in advance and even propaganda tailor-mode for each delegate, and we have also witnessed the outcome.

This “Fontenis-style” phenomenon ought not to be repeated.

But there will always be some who are not convinced, some who hold back, even if only for strictly personal reasons: we know about the unconfessed role that has been played by personal relations, even in strictly political, economic or ideological organizations. We cannot make it a requirement that everyone hits it off with everybody else. So we will run into nonsensical, unsolicited obstruction which can paralyze and stymie the organization just when it ought to be acting with the greatest speed — and what, then, are we to do? It happens.

But this argument is founded upon two mistakes: the notion of a homogeneous specific organization and the notion of anarchist morality.

When the members of an organization are bound together not only by reasonably friendly personal relations, but also and primarily by a given number of ideological and tactical principles — enough common ground to justify the claim that that organization is homogeneous — the dangers of significant differences of opinion are minimal. This is one of the reasons why we stick to the views and practice of a “specific anarchist group” which we refuse to dilute or see diluted for us. Just let a new practice be adopted — “come all ye who are for freedom” or “against the State,” or even “anarchism generally” — and the next day, friction on some issue will be inevitable. Heterogeneity carries another consequence: the existence of groups of “initiates” (with a foot in several groups at once, maybe) which are, most of the time, secret or semi-secret: and every one them aims to make the running) their consciences clear that they are “leading others along the righteous path”… which will very quickly degenerate into internecine squabbling, into an OPB*, into leaders and masses. Thus there are not just a majority and a minority but a number of concentric circles, most often revolving around some “master-mind” (which releases the others from any requirement to think), each suspicious of the other, each of them pursuing his own little schemes behind the scenes or in the open, trying to win others over to his faction, and all of this overlaid with a blithe semblance of unity. This is an unwholesome climate that neither educates nor builds upright, honest individuals. It is a “den of parliamentarianism” in miniature.

Even so, though, and in spite of the variety of the views, differences of opinion and debates that may emerge, we should be overly•starry-eyed. Ideas themselves are not set in stone and are liable to evolve. So if the differences of opinion are of a significantly theoretical order, it would be better for the organization if it were to fall apart and for there to be two or several new more or less homogeneous organizations, than for one heterogeneous organization to be retained. This is inevitable, and if any attempt is made to stem this trend, it is at that point that there is a risk of everything coming to a halt and grinding to a standstill, through the quest for anodyne compromises that forestall disintegration but also prevent movement in any direction at all.

The other factor mentioned earlier — anarchist morality — if properly understood and implemented in life will help greatly to smooth over minor frictions, and also the disintegration of the organization should it come — through acceptance of an opinion that differs from one’s own, without writing it off as the opinion of an enemy or taking up arms against it. Provided, of course, that we are not dealing with a view completely outside the parameters of anarchism. The history of anarchism has had only a few specific instances of this sort to show and this latter likelihood can virtually be discounted.

There is a considerable part to be played in anarchist organizations by an internal bulletin wherein there can be an open forum for all matters of concern to the organization, including dissenting viewpoints.

There is a further factor tied to the organization: comrades joining this organization must freely embrace its necessity and its role. That much is self-evident. Anybody who cannot see beyond the narrow confines of the individual, who cannot imagine social structures beyond scattered, isolated individuals, will be better advised to stay isolated, helping others as and when he sees fit, but not hampering the organization through uncompromising, maverick practices. Some other designation will have to be devised for comrades of this sort, who are often very good comrades in fact, and they will have to be accepted for what they are.

A genuinely democratic organization can be identified on the basis of its behaviour vis-a-vis its own opposition. This is all the more true of a libertarian organization which aims to lay the groundwork for the society of the future. Every time that a majority discusses and enforces the majority-prescribed parameters within which the opposition has to operate, there can be two reasons far this: either the membership was very widely based, or, inside that organization, there are persons itching to play the parts of leaders. These two possibilities are not mutually exclusive: such and such a member keen to take charge of the organization will draft in new members in order to boost his chances of winning majority support.

Outside our own organizations, can we require and practice rejection of majority rule? This is a thornier issue, for circumstances differ, and the aim is primarily to promote our ideas without betraying them. But here too, we must ensure that even the victorious majority does not crush the spirit of the minority, not just because of the danger of finding ourselves in the same position someday (revolutionary movements being most often minority movements) but also because of our anti-totalitarian outlook and tolerance. Every time that a leader or panel of leaders starts to claim absolute mastery, they end up turning on one another and will arrive at a dictatorship, camouflaged or brazen. The first sign of a future “head of State” or “people’s leader’ is the hatred he bears his own comrades who cannot stand him in that role. After which there is no stopping his appetite for authority, the parameters of which become increasingly broadened and boundless.

Every organization, no matter what it may be, is a compromise between one person and the rest vis-a-vis the imperatives of social life. Meaning that every individual must inevitably renounce certain tendencies or habits which are unacceptable or harmful to society. And as a result, inside every organization, there is a risk of the sacrifices required of individuals for society’s sake going beyond the needs of society per se and turning an abstraction like the State, the bureaucracy, the leader, historical necessity, etc… One barrier against this threat is for the individual to have the option to dissent from certain things or certain tendencies which he deems inappropriate and of no social utility, the chance of switching across to the opposition, which is to say, the minority. There are other barriers as well: federalist organization per se, direct and limited election of officers, genuine participation by ordinary members of the organization, the struggle being economic rather than political, etc…

* Organisation Pensée Bataille

Noir et Rouge, No. 10, June 1958

Kropotkin: Prisons and Their Moral Influence on Prisoners (1886)

In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, subtitled From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE-1939), I included excerpts from Kropotkin’s well known essay, Law and Authority (Selection 52), in which he presents an anarchist critique of the law and the criminal justice system. While he touches on the anarchist view of prisons as “schools of crime” which create more harm than good, it is in his other essay, Prisons and Their Moral Influence on Prisoners (1886), that he presents the anarchist case against the prison system, and in his book, In Russian and French Prisons (1887), much of which was written while Kropotkin himself was in the French prison in Clairvaux for his revolutionary activities (see my previous post, Manifesto of the Anarchists: Lyon 1883).

Prisons and Their Moral Influence on Prisoners

Once a man has been in prison, he will return. It is inevitable, and statistics prove it. The annual reports of the administration of criminal justice in France show that one-half of all those tried by juries and two-fifths of all those who yearly get into the police courts for minor offences received their education in prisons. Nearly half of all those tried for murder and three-fourths of those tried for burglary are repeaters. As for the central prisons, more than one-third of the prisoners released from these supposedly correctional institutions are reimprisoned in the course of twelve months after their liberation.

Another significant angle is that the offence for which a man returns to prison is always more serious than his first. If, before, it was petty thieving, he returns now for some daring burglary; if he was imprisoned for the first time for some act of violence, often he will return as a murderer. All writers on criminology are in accord with this observation. Former offenders have become a great problem in Europe…

In spite of all the reforms made up to the present — in spite of all the experiments of different prison systems, the results are always the same. On the one hand, the number of offences against existing laws neither increases nor diminishes, no matter what the system of punishments is — the knout has been abolished in Russia and the death penalty in Italy, and the number of murders there has remained the same. The cruelty of the judges grows or lessens, the cruelty of the Jesuitical penal system changes, but the number of acts designated as crimes remains constant. It is affected only by other causes which I shall shortly mention. On the other hand, no matter what changes are introduced in the prison régime, the problem of second offenders does not decrease. That is inevitable — it must be so — the prison kills all the qualities in a man which make him best adapted to community life. It makes him the kind of a person who will inevitably return to prison to end his days in one of those stone tombs over which is engraved — “House of Detention and Correction.” There is only one answer to the question, “What can be done to better this penal system?” Nothing. A prison cannot be improved. With the exception of a few unimportant little improvements, there is absolutely nothing to do but demolish it…

So long as you deprive a man of his liberty, you will not make him better. You will cultivate habitual criminals: that is what I shall now prove.

To begin with, there is the fact that none of the prisoners recognize the justice of the punishment inflicted on them. This is in itself a condemnation of our whole judicial system. Speak to an imprisoned man or to some great swindler. He will say. “The little swindlers are here but the big ones are free and enjoy public respect.” What can you answer, knowing the existence of great financial companies expressly designed to take the last pennies of the savings of the poor, with the founders retiring in time to make good legal hauls out of these small fortunes? We all know these great stock issuing companies with their Iying circulars and their huge swindles. What can we answer the prisoner except that he is right?

Or this man, imprisoned for robbing a till, will tell you, “I simply wasn’t clever enough, that’s all.” And what can you answer, knowing what goes on in important places, and how, following terrible scandals, the verdict “not guilty” is handed out to these great robbers? How many times have you heard prisoners say, “It’s the big thieves who are holding us here; we are the little ones.” Who can dispute this when he knows the incredible swindles perpetrated in the realm of high finance and commerce; when he knows that the thirst for riches, acquired by every possible means, is the very essence of bourgeois society. When he has examined this immense quantity of suspicious transactions divided between the honest man (according to bourgeois standards) and the criminal, when he has seen all this, he must be convinced that jails are made for the unskillful, not for criminals…

Everyone knows the evil influence of laziness. Work relieves a man. But there is work and work. There is the work of the free individual which makes him feel a part of the immense whole. And there is that of the slave which degrades. Convict labour is unwillingly done, done only through fear of worse punishment. The work, which has no attraction in itself because it does not exercise any of the mental faculties of the worker, is so badly paid that it is looked upon as a punishment…

And what inspiration can a prisoner get to work for the common good, deprived as he is of all connections with life outside? By a refinement of cruelty, those who planned our prisons did everything they could to break all relationships of the prisoner with society. In England the prisoner’s wife and children can see him only once every three months, and the letters he is allowed to write are really preposterous. The philanthropists have even at times carried defiance of human nature so far as to restrict a prisoner from writing anything but his signature on a printed circular. The best influence to which a prisoner could be subjected, the only one which could bring him a ray of light, a softer element in his life — the relationship with his kin — is systematically prevented.

In the sombre life of the prisoner which flows by without passion or emotion, all the finer sentiments rapidly become atrophied. The skilled workers who loved their trade lose their taste for work. Bodily energy slowly disappears. The mind no longer has the energy for sustained attention; thought is less rapid, and in any case less persistent. It loses depth. It seems to me that the lowering of nervous energy in prisons is due, above all, to the lack of varied impressions. In ordinary life a thousand sounds and colours strike our senses daily, a thousand little facts come to our consciousness and stimulate the activity of our brains. No such things strike the prisoners’ senses. Their impressions are few and always the same…

In prisons as in monasteries, everything is done to kill a man’s will. He generally has no choice between one of two acts. The rare occasions on which he can exercise his will are very brief. His whole life is regulated and ordered in advance. He has only to swim with the current, to obey under pain of severe punishment.

Under these conditions all the will power that he may have had on entering disappears. And where will he find the strength with which to resist the temptations which will arise before him, as if by magic, when he is free-of the prison walls? Where will he find the strength to resist the first impulse to a passionate outbreak, if during several years everything was done to kill this inner strength, to make him a docile tool in the hands of those who control him? This fact is, according to my mind, the most terrible condemnation of the whole penal system based on the deprivation of individual liberty.

The origin of this suppression of individual will, which is the essence of all prisons, is easy to see. It springs from the desire of guarding the greatest number of prisoners with the fewest possible guards. The ideal of prison officials would be thousands of automatons, arising, working, eating and going to sleep by means of electric currents switched on by one of the guards. Economies might then be made in the budget, but no astonishment should be expressed that men, reduced to machines, are not, on their release, the type which society wants. As soon as a prisoner is released, his old companions await him. He is fraternally received and once again engulfed by the current which once swept him to prison. Protective organizations can do nothing. All that they can do to combat the evil influence of the prison is to counterbalance some of those results in the liberated men.

And what a contrast between the reception by his old companions and that of the people in philanthropic work for released prisoners! Who of them will invite him to his home and say to him simply, “Here is a room, here is work, sit down at this table, and become part of the family”? The released man is only looking for the outstretched hand of warm friendship. But society, after having done everything it could to make an enemy of him, having inoculated him with the vices of the prison, rejects him. He is condemned to become a “repeater”…

During all his prison life the prisoner is subjected to treatment which shows the greatest contempt of his feelings. A prisoner is not accorded the single respect due a human being. He is a thing, a number, and he is treated like a numbered thing. If he yields to the most human of all desires, that of communicating with a comrade, he is guilty of a breach of discipline. Before entering prison he may not have lied or deceived, but in prison he will learn to lie and deceive so that it will become second nature to him.

And it goes hard with those who do not submit. If being searched is humiliating, if a man finds the food distasteful, if he shows disgust in the keeper’s trafficking in tobacco, if he divides his bread with his neighbour, if he still has enough dignity to be irritated by an insult, if he is honest enough to be revolted by the petty intrigues, prison will be a hell for him. He will be overburdened with work unless he is sent to rot in solitary confinement. The slightest infraction of discipline will bring down the severest punishment. And each punishment will lead to another. He will be driven to madness through persecution. He can consider himself lucky to leave prison otherwise than in a coffin.

It is easy to write in the newspapers that the guards must be carefully watched, that the wardens must be chosen from good men. Nothing is easier than to build administrative utopias. But man will remain man — guard as well as prisoner. And when these guards are condemned to spend the rest of their lives in these false positions, they suffer the consequences. They become fussy. Nowhere, save in monasteries or convents, does such a spirit of petty intrigue reign. Nowhere are scandal and tale-bearing so well developed as among prison guards.

You cannot give an individual any authority without corrupting him. He will abuse it. He will be less scrupulous and feel his authority even more when his sphere of action is limited. Forced to live in any enemy’s camp, the guards cannot become models of kindness. To the league of prisoners there is opposed the league of jailers. It is the institution which makes them what they are — petty, mean persecutors. Put a Pestalozzi [renowned Swiss pedagogue] in their place and he will soon become a prison guard.

Quickly rancour against society gets into the prisoner’s heart. He becomes accustomed to detesting those who oppress him. He divides the world into two parts — one in which he and his comrades belong, the other, the external world, represented by the guards and their superiors. A league is formed by the prisoners against all those who do not wear prison garb. These are their enemies and everything that can be done to deceive them is right.

As soon as he is freed, the prisoner puts this code into practice. Before going to prison he could commit his offences unthinkingly. Now he has a philosophy, which can be summed up in the words of Zola, “What rascals these honest men are.”

If we take into consideration all the different influences of the prison on the prisoner, we will be convinced that they make a man less and less fitted for life in society. On the other hand, none of these influences raises the intellectual and moral faculties of the prisoner, or leads him to a higher conception of life. Prison does not improve the prisoner. And furthermore, we have seen that it does not prevent him from committing other crimes. It does not then achieve any of the ends which it has set itself…

Until now, penal institutions, so dear to the lawyers, were a compromise between the Biblical idea of vengeance, the belief of the middle ages in the devil, the modern lawyers’ idea of terrorization, and the idea of the prevention of crime by punishment.

It is not insane asylums that must be built instead of prisons. Such an execrable idea is far from my mind. The insane asylum is always a prison. Far from my mind also is the idea, launched from time to time by the philanthropists, that the prison be kept but entrusted to physicians and teachers. What prisoners have not found today in society is a helping hand, simple and friendly, which would aid them from childhood to develop the higher faculties of their minds and souls — faculties whose natural development has been impeded either by an organic defect or by the evil social conditions which society itself creates for millions of people. But these superior faculties of the mind and heart cannot be exercised by a person deprived of his liberty, if he never has choice of action. The physicians’ prison, the insane asylum, would be much worse than our present jails. Human fraternity and liberty are the only correctives to apply to those diseases of the human organism which lead to so-called crime.

Of course in every society, no matter how well organized, people will be found with easily aroused passions, who may, from time to time, commit anti-social deeds. But what is necessary to prevent this is to give their passions a healthy direction, another outlet.

Today we live too isolated. Private property has led us to an egoistic individualism in all our mutual relations. We know one another only slightly; our points of contact are too rare. But we have seen in history examples of a communal life which is more intimately bound together — the “composite family” in China, the agrarian communes, for example. These people really know one another. By force of circumstances they must aid one another materially and morally.

Family life, based on the original community, has disappeared. A new family, based on community of aspirations, will take its place. In this family people will be obliged to know one another, to aid one another and to lean on one another for moral support on every occasion. And this mutual prop will prevent the great number of anti-social acts which we see today.

It will be said, however, there will always remain some people, the sick, if you wish to call them that, who constitute a danger to society. Will it not be necessary somehow to rid ourselves of them, or at least prevent their harming others?

No society, no matter how little intelligent, will need such an absurd solution, and this is why. Formerly the insane were looked upon as possessed by demons and were treated accordingly. They were kept in chains in places like stables, riveted to the walls like wild beasts. But along came Pinel, a man of the Great Revolution, who dared to remove their chains and tried treating them as brothers. “You will be devoured by them,” cried the keepers. But Pinel dared. Those who were believed to be wild beasts gathered around Pinel and proved by their attitude that he was right in believing in the better side of human nature even when the intelligence is clouded by disease. Then the cause was won. They stopped chaining the insane.

Then the peasants of the little Belgian village, Gheel, found something better. They said: “Send us your insane. We will give them absolute freedom.” They adopted them into their families, they gave them places at their tables, chance alongside them to cultivate their fields and a place among their young people at their country balls. “Eat, drink, and dance with us. Work, run about the fields, and be free.” That was the system, that was all the science the Belgian peasant had. (I am speaking of the early days. Today the treatment of the insane at Gheel has become a profession and where it is a profession for profit, what significance can there be in it? ) And liberty worked a miracle. The insane became cured. Even those who had incurable, organic lesions became sweet, tractable members of the family like the rest. The diseased mind would always work in an abnormal fashion but the heart was in the right place. They cried that it was a miracle. The cures were attributed to a saint and a virgin. But this virgin was liberty and the saint was work in the fields and fraternal treatment.

At one of the extremes of the immense “space between mental disease and crime” of which Maudsley speaks, liberty and fraternal treatment have worked their miracle. They will do the same at the other extreme.

The prison does not prevent anti-social acts from taking place. It increases their numbers. It does not improve those who enter its walls. However it is reformed it will always remain a place of restraint, an artificial environment, like a monastery, which will make the prisoner less and less fit for life in the community. It does not achieve its end. It degrades society. It must disappear. It is a survival of barbarism mixed with Jesuitical philanthropy.

The first duty of the revolution will be to abolish prisons — those monuments of human hypocrisy and cowardice. Anti-social acts need not be feared in a society of equals, in the midst of a free people, all of whom have acquired a healthy education and the habit of mutually aiding one another. The greater number of these acts will no longer have any raison d’être. The others will be nipped in the bud.

As for those individuals with evil tendencies whom existing society will pass on to us after the revolution, it will be our task to prevent their exercising these tendencies. This is already accomplished quite efficiently by the solidarity of all the members of the community against such aggressors. If we do not succeed in all cases, the only practical corrective still will be fraternal treatment and moral support.

This is not Utopia. It is already done by isolated individuals and it will become the general practice. And such means will be far more powerful to protect society from anti-social acts than the existing system of punishment which is an ever fertile source of new crimes.

Le Révolté, August 1886

Jean Grave: Against the Law (1893)

Jean Grave (1854-1939) was a prominent anarchist communist active in France. He became editor of the anarchist paper, Le Révolté, in 1883 after Kropotkin was imprisoned following the Lyon trial of the anarchists (see the Manifesto of the Anarchists: Lyon, 1883, previously posted). Grave changed the name of the paper to La Révolte in 1887. That paper was suppressed and Grave imprisoned by the French authorities in 1894, shortly after Grave published Moribund Society and Anarchy in 1893, from which the following excerpts are taken. The translation is by the American anarchist, Voltairine de Cleyre (1866-1912). The anarchist rejection of the ideology of the so-called “rule of law” was something that distinguished them from other revolutionary currents. Grave’s critique is reminiscent of the earlier critique developed by William Godwin (Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One, Selection 51), although it is doubtful that Grave was familiar with Godwin’s work. Kropotkin developed a more sophisticated analysis of law in a variety of publications, including his essay, Law and Authority (excerpted as Selection 52 in Anarchism, Volume One), where he argues that for the ideology of the “rule of law” to be widely accepted, the law must incorporate certain accepted social mores, such as prohibitions against murder, in order for specific laws benefitting the ruling classes to be accorded any legitimacy.

The Magistracy

Authority, as we have seen, springs from that right which arrogates force to itself.  But man having widened the field of his thought it became necessary for this authority to justify its existence. Combining with religious sentiment and the support of the priests, it claimed to be of divine origin, assumed the form of an exclusive caste, and eventually succeeded in resisting the brutal power of the king and the nobles: thus the magistracy was founded. And when the bourgeoisie seized power, in 1789, they took care not to destroy this pillar of social order. (Moreover, did not the nobility of gowns belong much more properly to the bourgeoisie than to the nobility of the sword?) They were thus relieved of the task of searching for a mode of recruit more in accord with the new aspirations.

Divine right having gotten a powerful shock in the decapitation of Louis XVI, the magistracy could not continue to lean upon the said right without the risk of likewise passing under this equalizing leveller.  Hence they invented, or rather deified, the “law.” The magistracy was constituted its guardian and incorruptible administrator, so-called. The trick was done; the most redoubtable and necessary institution for the defence of privilege succeeded in preserving itself, and becoming the priestess of this new entity, the law, created by the new masters. The submission of France to the regime of the “law” is, in fact, one of the conquests of ’89 whose benefits the bourgeois historians are exceedingly fond of setting forth. The codification of authority, according to these, its censer-bearers, had the immediate effect of legitimizing the most shameless arbitrariness. From then on Frenchmen were all to be equal; the people no longer had anything to demand. Thereafter there was to be but one master, before whom, it is true, all had to bow, which had the effect of equalizing their situations. This master was the “law.”

But we who are not satisfied with words, when we try to find out what the workers have gained by this transformation, see that they have got  just one more duping. In fact, in the time of the absolute monarchy, when the king and the nobles constrained the peasant to serve them, there was no way of deceiving oneself about it; the formula “for such is our good pleasure” showed whence they derived their rights: they claimed them by the right of the sword only, counting much more upon that than the divine will; consequently it was upon force that their claim was based.  Their orders were obeyed, their claims were submitted to, but because the people were in no condition to resist them. There were at least no imbeciles to come and say to us – repeating the phrases of the interested – that we must obey because it is “the law,” and it is the duty of everyone to conform thereto until it be changed.

If it be admitted that the law may change it is thereby presumed that the law may become retrogressive; and to acknowledge that is to admit that from its very nature it may injure someone, for there are always individuals in advance of their generation. The law, then, is not just; it has not that respectable character with which men have sought to invest it.  If this law injures my interests or violates my liberty why should I be compelled to obey it, and what is the unalterable compact which can justify these abuses? In scientific matters when the savants after great research and labour at length formulate what is called a natural law, it is not because a majority or “chamber,” composed of persons believing themselves superior to the rest of us mortals, has decided, by virtue of its members’ will, that natural forces were ordered to conform to such or such a mode of evolution. We should laugh in the face of the imbecile who would make such a pretence. When a natural law is proclaimed, it is because it has been discovered that if a certain phenomenon be produced, if a certain chemical combination had been effected, it is by virtue of such and such a force, or the existence of such and such affinities; the environment in which the phenomenon took place being given, it was impossible for it to be otherwise. Given forces set in motion under given conditions produce given results; this is mathematical. Therefore the newly-discovered law does not come upon the scene to govern the phenomenon, but to explain its causes, these laws may be discovered, doubted, and even denied; the divers substances which compose our earth will none the less continue to combine according to their properties or affinities, the earth will turn, without any force being needed to protect the evolution thereof, or punish those who might want to “violate the laws.”

In our society it is otherwise. These laws seem to be made to be violated; because those who made them consulted only their personal preferences, the interests of those whom they represented, and the average degree of moral evolution in their epoch, without taking into account the character, tendencies, and affinities of those who were to submit to them — which, moreover, would be impossible, the diversity of individual character and tendencies being given. Each estate has its laws; nor can there be any single and universal law in sociology, as there is in physics, under penalty of its becoming arbitrary and inapplicable.  In fact there is not, in our society, a single law which does not injure some of its members, either in their material interests or their ideas; not a single law which each triumphant party has not been able to turn against its adversaries.  Power once obtained, every illegal party becomes legal, for it is that party which, through its creatures, administers the “law.”   We may then conclude that the law being nothing but the will of the strongest, one is obliged to obey it only when too weak to resist it; that nothing really legitimizes it, and that this famous “legality” is only a question of more or less force. So when these rogues oppose the workers with their supreme argument, “legality,” the latter may laugh in their faces and ask if anyone ever came to consult the toilers about the making of those laws. And even if the people should have adhered to these laws for a time, the latter could have no effectiveness except so long as those who accepted them continued to believe them useful, and were willing to conform to them. It would be funny if under the pretext that at a given moment of our life we had agreed to a certain line of conduct, we were forced to adopt it for the rest of our existence, without being able to modify it, because to do so would be to displease a certain number of persons who, for one cause or another finding profit for themselves in the existing order, would like to crystallize their present condition. But what is more ridiculous still, is the desire to subject us to the laws of past generations, the pretence that we should believe we owe respect and obedience to the fancies which it pleased certain nincompoops to codify and set up as laws fifty years ago! The presumption of wanting to enslave the present to the conceptions of the past!

At this point we hear the recriminations of all the makers of laws and those that get their living out of them; they naively fall into line and cry out with the others that society could not exist if there were no longer any laws; that people would be cutting each other’s throats if they had no tutelary authority to keep them in fear and respect of acquired rank and condition. Later we shall see that, in spite of law and coercion, crimes continue to be committed; that the laws are powerless to repress or prevent them, since they are the result of the vicious organization which governs us; and that, consequently, we must not seek to maintain or to modify the laws, but to change the social system.

But what makes us still more indignant is that certain persons are audacious enough to set themselves up as judges of others. So long as authority leaned upon its divine source, so long as justice passed for an emanation from God, we can understand that those invested with authority should have believed themselves peculiar beings, endowed by the divine will with a portion of its omnipotence and infallibility, and should have imagined themselves fit to distribute rewards and punishments to the herd of vulgar mortals.  But in our century of science and free criticism, when it is recognized that all men are kneaded out of the same dough, subject to the same passions, the same caprices, the same mistakes, today when an agonizing divinity no longer comes to animate with its breath the ever fallible reason of mortals, we ask ourselves how it comes that there are men ignorant enough, or presumptuous enough, to dare to assume in cold blood and with deliberate intent the terrible responsibility of taking away another man’s life or any portion of his liberty. When in the most ordinary affairs of daily life we are most of the time unable to succeed in analyzing not only the causes which prompt our immediate neighbours to act but very often the true motives of our own acts, how can anybody have the self-sufficiency to believe himself capable of disentangling the truth in an affair of which he knows neither the beginning, nor the actors, nor the motives which prompted their actions, and which comes before the tribunal only after being magnified, commented upon, distorted by the misrepresentations of those who participated in it in any way whatsoever or, more frequently, have heard of it only through the repetitions of others?

You, who pose as severe and infallible judges of this man who has killed or robbed, do you know the motives which prompted him? Do you know the circumstances of environment, heredity, or even chance, which influenced his mind and led him to commit the act with which you reproach him? You, the implacable men that hurl your anathema against the accused whom public force has brought before your bar, have you ever asked yourselves whether, if placed in the same circumstances and surroundings under which this man acted, you would not have done worse? If, even, you were the impeccable, austere, and stainless men you are supposed to be, you, who with a word pitilessly cut off human life and liberty, you would not dare to utter your decisions if you had thoroughly reflected on human frailty; were you conscious of what you are doing, you would recoil appalled before your task!  How could you help being troubled with nightmares! How could your dreams help being peopled with spectres of the victims which your pretended justice creates every day!  Were it not for that official unconsciousness which stupidity and habit give, you would end by succumbing to the weight of remorse and the haunting of phantoms evoked by your judgments.

Our epoch of criticism and positive science no longer admits the principle of distributive justice, nor recognizes the legitimacy of a superior authority rewarding the good and chastising the wicked. Against this ancient doctrine, which the conceptions of the age during one period of humanity’s evolution rendered logical, we promulgate the opposite idea.  We no longer see actions as good or bad, except as they are agreeable or disagreeable to us, and in consequence act accordingly. We approve or become enthusiastic, defend or attack, according to the benefit or injury received by our interests, our passions, and our conceptions of the ideal. The common need of solidarity which leads people subjected to the same attacks to unite for their defence is to us the guarantee of a future social order less troubled than our own. We do not judge, but work and struggle; and we believe that universal harmony will result from the free action of all men, when once the suppression of private property no longer permits a handful of persons to enslave their fellows.

Hence we cannot admit that, six weeks or six years after an act has been committed, a group of persons supported by armed force should assemble to judge, in the name of some entity or other, and reward or punish the author of the act. That is hypocrisy and cowardice. You reproach a man with having killed, and to teach him that he was wrong you have him killed by the executioner, society’s hired assassin!  The executioner and you have not even the excuse of having risked your own necks, since you proceed under cover of an armed force which protects you. We are at war with the ruling caste: recognize, gentlemen of the magistracy, that you are its retainers, and let us alone with your big words and fine phrases.   Maintain the privileges whose care is confided to you, use the force which ignorance concedes to you, but leave justice in peace; she has nothing to do with you!

That you might be able to judge appreciatively of the ignominy of your role in beating down others, we would like, O judges, that it might happen to you that, being innocent, you should fall into the clutches of your fellows, to be judged in your turn. In such a situation you might learn what anguish and terror they have had to pass through who have filed before your bar, and whom you have tortured, you, magistrates, as the cat tortures the mouse.  With the floods of eloquence from the prosecuting attorney pleading against you rolling about your ears, you might see passing before your eyes the spectres of those unfortunates that, during your career, you have immolated upon the altar of social vengeance; you might ask yourselves then, with terror, if they also were not innocent. Oh yes, we would heartily wish that there might be one among you falsely accused, who should go through the terrors of those that come before your bar. For if, his innocence being one day admitted, he were reinstated in his functions, it is strongly to be presumed that he would re-enter his place in the tribunal only to tear his robe and apologize for his criminal life as magistrate, judging haphazard and trafficking in human lives.

Jean Grave, Paris 1893

Amédée Dunois: Anarchism & Organization

dunois2In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included excerpts from the historic debate between Errico Malatesta and Pierre Monatte on revolutionary syndicalism at the 1907 International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam. Also debated at the Congress was the relationship between anarchism and organization. Two of the most eloquent speakers were the anarcho-syndicalist, Amédée Dunois (1878-1945), and Malatesta.

At the time of the Congress, Dunois was a member of the French revolutionary syndicalist organization, the CGT, and a contributor to Jean Grave’s anarchist communist paper, Les Temps Nouveaux. A mere five years later, he was to renounce anarchism, joining the French Section of the Workers’ International (SFIO), the French socialist party affiliated with the Second International, which was dominated by the Marxist social democrats Dunois criticizes in his speech (the anarchists had been excluded from the Second International in 1896 because they refused to recognize “participation in legislative and parliamentary activity as a necessary means” for achieving socialism). Unlike the majority of the SFIO and the other political parties affiliated with the Second International, Dunois opposed the First World War. After the war, he helped found the French Communist Party (PCF), which he left in 1927 after it came under the control of Stalinists, rejoining the SFIO in 1930. He remained in France during the Second World War, where he worked in the Resistance. In 1944, he was captured by the Gestapo, eventually being sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where he perished in 1945, a few months before the war ended.

The translation is by Nestor McNab and is taken from Studies for a Libertarian Alternative: The International Anarchist Congress, Amsterdam, 1907, published by the Anarchist Communist Federation in Italy (Federazione dei Comunisti Anarchici – FdCA); paperback edition available from AK Press.

Anarchism and Organization

It is not long since our comrades were almost unanimous in their clear hostility towards any idea of organization. The question we are dealing with today would, then, have raised endless protests from them, and its supporters would have been vehemently accused of a hidden agenda and authoritarianism.

They were times when anarchists, isolated from each other and even more so from the working class, seemed to have lost all social feeling; in which anarchists, with their unceasing appeals for the spiritual liberation of the individual, were seen as the supreme manifestation of the old individualism of the great bourgeois theoreticians of the past.

Individual actions and individual initiative were thought to suffice for everything; and they applauded [Ibsen’s play] “An Enemy of the People” when it declared that a man alone is the most powerful of all. But they did not think of one thing: that Ibsen’s concept was never that of a revolutionary, in the sense that we give this word, but of a moralist primarily concerned with establishing a new moral elite within the very breast of the old society.

In past years, generally speaking, little attention was paid to studying the concrete matters of economic life, of the various phenomena of production and exchange, and some of our people, whose race has not yet disappeared, went so far as to deny the existence of that basic phenomenon — the class struggle — to the point of no longer distinguishing in the present society, in the manner of the pure democrats, anything except differences of opinion, which anarchist propaganda had to prepare individuals for, as a way of training them for theoretical discussion.

In its origins, anarchism was nothing more than a concrete protest against opportunist tendencies and social democracy’s authoritarian way of acting; and in this regard it can be said to have carried out a useful function in the social movement of the past twenty-five years. If socialism as a whole, as a revolutionary idea, has survived the progressive bourgeoisification of social democracy, it is undoubtedly due to the anarchists.

Why have anarchists not been content to support the principle of socialism and federalism against the bare-faced deviations of the [social democratic] cavaliers of the conquest of political power? Why has time brought them to the ambition of re-building a whole new ideology all over again, faced with parliamentary and reformist socialism?

We cannot but recognize it: this ideological attempt was not always an easy one. More often than not we have limited ourselves to consigning to the flames that which social democracy worshipped, and to worshipping that which burned. That is how unwittingly and without even realizing it, so many anarchists were able to lose sight of the essentially practical and working class nature of socialism in general and anarchism in particular, neither of which have ever been anything other than the theoretical expression of the spontaneous resistance of the workers against the oppression by the bourgeois regime. It happened to the anarchists as it happened to German philosophical socialism before 1848 — as we can read in the [Marx & Engels’] Communist Manifesto — which prided itself on being able to remain “in contempt of all class struggles,” defending “not the interests of the proletariat, but the interests of Human Nature, of Man in general, who belongs to no class, has no reality, who exists only in the misty realm of philosophical fantasy”.

Thus, many of our people came back curiously towards idealism on the one hand and individualism on the other. And there was renewed interest in the old 1848 themes of justice, liberty, brotherhood and the emancipatory omnipotence of the Idea of the world. At the same time the Individual was exalted, in the English manner, against the State and any form of organization came, more or less openly, to be viewed as a form of oppression and mental exploitation.

Certainly, this state of mind was never absolutely unanimous. But that does not take away from the fact that it is responsible, for the most part, for the absence of an organized, coherent anarchist movement. The exaggerated fear of alienating our own free wills at the hands of some new collective body stopped us above all from uniting.

It is true that there existed among us “social study groups”, but we know how ephemeral and precarious they were: born out of individual caprice, these groups were destined to disappear with it; those who made them up did not feel united enough, and the first difficulty they encountered caused them to split up. Furthermore, these groups do not seem to have ever had a clear notion of their goal. Now, the goal of an organization is at one and the same time thought and action. In my experience, however, those groups did not act at all: they disputed. And many reproached them for building all those little chapels, those talking shops.

What lies at the root of the fact that anarchist opinion now seems to be changing with regard to the question of organization?

There are two reasons for this:

The first is the example from abroad. There are small permanent organizations in England, Holland, Germany, Bohemia, Romandie and Italy which have been operating for several years now, without the anarchist idea having visibly suffered for this. It is true that in France we do not have a great deal of information on the constitution and life of these organizations; it would be desirable to investigate this.

The second cause is much more important. It consists of the decisive evolution that the minds and practical habits of anarchists have been undergoing more or less everywhere for the last seven years or so, which has led them to join the workers’ movement actively and participate in the people’s lives.

In a word, we have overcome the gap between the pure idea, which can so easily turn into dogma, and real life.

The basic result of this has been that we have become less and less interested in the sociological abstractions of yore and more and more interested in the practical movement, in action. Proof is the great importance that revolutionary syndicalism and anti-militarism, for example, have acquired for us in recent years.

Another result of our participation in the movement, also very important, has been that theoretical anarchism itself has gradually sharpened itself and become alive through contact with real life, that eternal fountain of thought. Anarchism in our eyes is no longer a general conception of the world, an ideal for existence, a rebellion of the spirit against everything that is foul, impure and beastly in life; it is also and above all a revolutionary theory, a concrete programme of destruction and social re-organization. Revolutionary anarchism — and I emphasize the word “revolutionary” — essentially seeks to participate in the spontaneous movement of the masses, working towards what Kropotkin so neatly called the “Conquest of Bread” [Volume One, Selection 33].

Now, it is only from the point of view of revolutionary anarchism that the question of anarchist organization can be dealt with.

The enemies of organization today are of two sorts.

Firstly, there are those who are obstinately and systematically hostile to any sort of organization. They are the individualists. There can be found among them the idea popularized by Rousseau that society is evil, that it is always a limitation on the independence of the individual. The smallest amount of society possible, or no society at all: that is their dream, an absurd dream, a romantic dream that brings us back to the strangest follies of Rousseau’s literature.

Do we need to say and to demonstrate that anarchism is not individualism, then? Historically speaking, anarchism was born, through the development of socialism, in the congresses of the International, in other words, from the workers’ movement itself [Volume One, Chapters 5 & 6]. And in fact, logically, anarchy means society organized without political authority. I said organized. On this point all the anarchists — Proudhon, Bakunin, those of the Jura Federation, Kropotkin — are in agreement. Far from treating organization and government as equal, Proudhon never ceased to emphasize their incompatibility: “The producer is incompatible with government,” he says in the General Idea of the Revolution in the 19th Century, “organization is opposed to government” [Volume One, Selection 12].

Even Marx himself, whose disciples now seek to hide the anarchist side to his doctrine, defined anarchy thus: “All Socialists understand by Anarchy the following: that once the goal of the proletarian movement — the abolition of classes — is reached, the power of the State — which serves to maintain the large producing majority under the yoke of a small exploiting minority — disappears and the functions of government are transformed into simple administrative functions”. In other words, anarchy is not the negation of organization but only of the governing function of the power of the State.

No, anarchism is not individualist, but basically federalist. Federalism is essential to anarchism: it is in fact the very essence of anarchism. I would happily define anarchism as complete federalism, the universal extension of the idea of the free contract.

After all, I cannot see how an anarchist organization could damage the individual development of its members. No one would be forced to join, just as no one would be forced to leave once they had joined. So what is an anarchist federation? Several comrades from a particular region, Romandie for example, having established the impotence of isolated forces, of piecemeal action, agree one fine day to remain in continuing contact with each other, to unite their forces with the aim of working to spread communist, anarchist and revolutionary ideas and of participating in public events through their collective action. Do they thus create a new entity whose designated prey is the individual? By no means. They very simply, and for a precise goal, band together their ideas, their will and their forces, and from the resulting collective potentiality, each gains some advantage.

But we also have, as I said earlier, another sort of adversary. They are those who, despite being supporters of workers’ organizations founded on an identity of interests, prove to be hostile — or at least indifferent — to any organization based on an identity of aspirations, feelings and principles; they are, in a word, the [pure] syndicalists.

Let us examine their objections. The existence in France of a workers’ movement with a revolutionary and almost anarchist outlook is, in that country, currently the greatest obstacle that any attempt at anarchist organization risks foundering on — I do not wish to say being wrecked on. And this important historical fact imposes certain precautions on us, which do not affect, in my opinion, our comrades in other countries.

The workers’ movement today, the syndicalists observe, offers anarchists an almost unlimited field of action. Whereas idea-based groups, little sanctuaries into which only the initiated may enter, cannot hope to grow indefinitely, the workers’ organization, on the other hand, is a widely accessible association; it is not a temple whose doors are closed, but a public arena, a forum open to all workers without distinction of sex, race or ideology, and therefore perfectly adapted to encompassing the whole proletariat within its flexible and mobile ranks.

Now, the syndicalists continue, it is there in the workers’ unions that anarchists must be. The workers’ union is the living bud of the future society; it is the former which will pave the way for the latter. The error is made in staying within one’s own four walls, among the other initiates, chewing the same questions of doctrine over and over again, always moving within the same circle of ideas. We must not, under any pretext, separate ourselves form the people, for no matter how backward and limited the people may be, it is they, and not the ideologue, who are the indispensable driving force of every social revolution. Do we perhaps, like the social democrats, have any interests we wish to promote other than those of the great working mass? Party, sect or factional interests? Is it up to the people to come to us or is it we who must go to them, living their lives, earning their trust and stimulating them with both our words and our example into resistance, rebellion, revolution?

This is how the syndicalists talk. But I do not see how their objections have any value against our project to organize ourselves. On the contrary. I see clearly that if they had any value, it would also be against anarchism itself, as a doctrine that seeks to be distinct from syndicalism and refuses to allow itself to become absorbed into it.

Organized or not, anarchists (by which I mean those of our tendency, who do not arbitrarily separate anarchism from the proletariat) do not by any means expect that they are entitled to act in the role of ‘supreme saviours”, as the song goes. We willingly assign pride of place in the field of action to the workers’ movement, convinced as we have been for so long that the emancipation of the workers will be at the hands of those concerned or it will not be.

In other words, in our opinion the syndicate must not just have a purely corporative, trade function as the Guesdist socialists intend it, and with them some anarchists who cling to now outdated formulae. The time for pure corporativism is ended: this is a fact that could in principle be contrary to previous concepts, but which must be accepted with all its consequences. Yes, the corporative spirit is tending more and more towards becoming an anomaly, an anachronism, and is making room for the spirit of class. And this, mark my words, is not thanks to Griffuelhes, nor to Pouget — it is a result of action. In fact it is the needs of action that have obliged syndicalism to lift up its head and widen its conceptions. Nowadays the workers’ union is on the road to becoming for proletarians what the State is for the bourgeoisie: the political institution par excellence; an essential instrument in the struggle against capital, a weapon of defence or attack according to the situation.

Our task as anarchists, the most advanced, the boldest and the most uninhibited sector of the militant proletariat, is to stay constantly by its side, to fight the same battle among its ranks, to defend it against itself, not necessarily the least dangerous enemy. In other words, we want to provide this enormous moving mass that is the modern proletariat, I will not say with a philosophy and an ideal, something that could seem presumptuous, but with a goal and the means of action.

Far be it from us therefore the inept idea of wanting to isolate ourselves from the proletariat; that would be, we know only too well, to reduce ourselves to the impotence of proud ideologies, of abstractions empty of any ideal. Organized or not organized, then, the anarchists will remain true to their role of educators, stimulators and guides of the working masses. And if we are today of a mind to associate into groups in neighbourhoods, towns, regions or countries, and to federate these groups, it is above all in order to give our union action greater strength and continuity.

What is most often missing in those of us who fight within the world of labour, is the feeling of being supported. Social democratic syndicalists have behind them the constant organized power of the party from which they sometimes receive their watchwords and at all times their inspiration. Anarchist syndicalists on the other hand are abandoned unto themselves and, outside the union, do not have any real links between them or to their other comrades; they do not feel any support behind them and they receive no help. So, we wish to create this link, to provide this constant support; and I am personally convinced that our union activities cannot but benefit both in energy and in intelligence. And the stronger we are — and we will only become strong by organizing ourselves — the stronger will be the flow of ideas that we can send through the workers’ movement, which will thus become slowly impregnated with the anarchist spirit.

But will these groups of anarchist workers, which we would hope to see created in the near future, have no other role than to influence the great proletarian masses indirectly, by means of a militant elite, to drive them systematically into heroic resolutions, in a word to prepare the popular revolt? Will our groups have to limit themselves to perfecting the education of militants, to keep the revolutionary fever alive in them, to allow them to meet each other, to exchange ideas, to help each other at any time?

In other words, will they have their own action to carry out directly?

I believe so.

The social revolution, whether one imagines it in the guise of a general strike or an armed insurrection, can only be the work of the masses who must benefit from it. But every mass movement is accompanied by acts whose very nature — dare I say, whose technical nature — implies that they be carried out by a small number of people, the most perspicacious and daring sector of the mass movement. During the revolutionary period, in each neighbourhood, in each town, in each province, our anarchist groups will form many small fighting organizations, who will take those special, delicate measures which the large mass is almost always unable to do. It is clear that the groups should even now study and establish these insurrectional measures so as not to be, as has often happened, surprised by events.

Now for the principal, regular, continuous aim of our groups. It is (you will by now have guessed) anarchist propaganda. Yes, we will organize ourselves above all to spread our theoretical ideas, our methods of direct action and universal federalism.

Until today our propaganda has been made only or almost only on an individual basis. Individual propaganda has given notable results, above all in the heroic times when anarchists were compensating for the large number they needed with a fever of proselytism that recalled the primitive Christians. But is this continuing to happen? Experience obliges me to confess that it is not.

It seems that anarchism has been going through a sort of crisis in recent years, at least in France. The causes of this are clearly many and complex. It is not my task here to establish what they are, but I do wonder if the total lack of agreement and organization is not one of the causes of this crisis.

There are many anarchists in France. They are much divided on the question of theory, but even more so on practice. Everyone acts in his own way whenever he wants; in this way the individual efforts are dispersed and often exhausted, simply wasted. Anarchists can be found in more or less every sphere of action: in the workers’ unions, in the anti-militarist movement, among anti-clericalist free thinkers, in the popular universities, and so on, and so forth. What we are missing is a specifically anarchist movement, which can gather to it, on the economic and workers’ ground that is ours, all those forces that have been fighting in isolation up till now.

This specifically anarchist movement will spontaneously arise from our groups and from the federation of these groups. The might of joint action, of concerted action, will undoubtedly create it. I do not need to add that this organization will by no means expect to encompass all the picturesquely dispersed elements who describe themselves as followers of the anarchist ideal; there are, after all, those who would be totally inadmissible. It would be sufficient for the anarchist organization to group together, around a programme of concrete, practical action, all the comrades who accept our principles and who want to work with us, according to our methods.

Let me make it clear that I do not wish to go into specifics here. I am not dealing with the theoretical side of the organization. The name, form and programme of the organization to be created will be established separately and after reflection by the supporters of this organization.

Manifesto of the Anarchists: Lyon 1883

The following manifesto was issued by a group of anarchists during their trial in Lyon, France in 1883. Over 60 suspected anarchists were charged with belonging to the International Workers’ Association (the First International: Anarchism, Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE-1939), Chapters 5 & 6 ), which had been banned following the suppression of the Paris Commune (1871: Anarchism, Volume One, Chapter 7).The signatories included Peter Kropotkin, Emile Gauthier, Joseph Bernard, Pierre Martin and Toussaint Bordat. The picture above shows Kropotkin cross-examining the Lyon chief of the French secret police. Despite the lack of any real evidence, the accused were convicted as charged. Kropotkin and three co-accused were sentenced to 5 years’ imprisonment, 10 years of police surveillance, deprivation of their civil liberties for 5 years and fines of 1,000 francs each. The others received lesser sentences. Kropotkin’s experience in prison is recounted in his book, In Russian and French Prisons (1887).

Manifesto of the Anarchists

What is anarchy and what are the anarchists?

Anarchists are citizens who, in a century where freedom of opinion is preached everywhere, have believed it to be their right and duty to appeal for unlimited liberty.

Throughout the world there are a few thousand of us, maybe a few million, for we have no merit other than saying out loud what the crowd is thinking. We are a few million workers who claim absolute liberty, nothing but liberty, every liberty.

We want liberty; we claim for every human being the right to do whatever he pleases and the means by which to do it.  A person has the right to satisfy all his needs completely, with no limit other than natural impossibilities and the needs of his neighbours, which must be respected equally with his.

We want freedom, and we believe its existence incompatible with the existence of any power whatsoever, no matter what its origin and form, no matter whether it be elected or imposed, monarchist or republican, inspired by divine right, popular right, holy oil, or universal suffrage.

History teaches us that every government is like every other government and that all are worth the same. The best are the worst. In some there is more cynicism, in others more hypocrisy, but at bottom there are always the same procedures, always the same intolerance. There is no government, including even the ones that appear the most liberal, which does not have in the dust of its legislative arsenals some good little law about the [First] International to use against inconvenient opposition.

Evil, in the eyes of anarchists, does not dwell in one form of government more than any other. Evil lies in the idea of government itself. The principle of authority is evil.

Our ideal for human relations is to substitute free contract, perpetually open to revision or cancellation, in place of administrative and legal guardianship and imposed discipline.

Anarchists propose teaching people to do without government as they are already learning to do without God.

Anarchists will also teach people to get along without private ownership. Indeed, the worst tyrant is not the one who locks you up; it is the one who starves you. The worst tyrant is not the one who takes you by the collar; it is the one who takes you by the belly.

No liberty without equality! There is no liberty in a society where capital is monopolized in the hands of an increasingly smaller minority, in a society where nothing is divided equally, not even public education, which is paid for by everyone’s money.

We believe that capital is the common patrimony of mankind because it is the fruit of the collaboration between past and present generations, and that it ought to be put at the disposal of everyone so that no one is excluded and no one can hoard one part of it to the detriment of others.

In a word, what we want is equality. We want actual equality as the corollary of liberty, indeed as its essential preliminary condition.

From each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs.

That is what we want; that is what our energies are devoted to. It is what shall be, because no limitation can prevail against claims that are both legitimate and necessary. That is why the government wishes to discredit us.

Scoundrels that we are, we claim bread for all, knowledge for all, work for all, independence and justice for all.

Proudhon on Representative Democracy

The following excerpts are taken from Proudhon‘s 1848 pamphlet, The Solution of the Social Problem. Written shortly after the February 1848 French Revolution, before Proudhon’s  election to the National Assembly in June, these excerpts set forth Proudhon’s critique of representative or parliamentary democracy. Proudhon argued that the people cannot be represented, but must act for themselves. He defined the “ideal republic” as “an organization that leaves all opinions and all activities free. In this republic, every citizen, by doing what he wishes and only what he wishes, participates directly in legislation and government, as he participates in the production and the circulation of wealth. Here, every citizen is king; for he has plenitude of power, he reigns and governs. The ideal republic is a positive anarchy. It is neither liberty subordinated to order, as in a constitutional monarchy, nor liberty imprisoned in order. It is liberty free from all its shackles, superstitions, prejudices, sophistries, usury, authority; it is reciprocal liberty and not limited liberty; liberty not the daughter but the mother of order.” What Proudhon meant by this is made clear in subsequent works, such as The General Idea of the Revolution in the 19th Century (1851), where he argued that government functions would be dissolved into industrial organization, a position similar to that later adopted by anarcho-syndicalists.

Heaven, listen; Earth, lend an ear: the Lord has spoken!

Thus cried the prophets when, their eyes gleaming and mouths foaming, they proclaimed punishment to liars and apostates for their sins. Thus spoke the Church in the middle ages, and mankind, prostrate with fear, crossed itself at the voice of the pontiff and the injunctions of his bishops. Thus it was by turns with Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, Mohammed, Luther, all the founders and reformers of religions, each new modification of dogma claiming to emanate from divine authority. And always the masses of humanity were seen prostrating themselves at the name of the Most High, and receiving submissively the discipline of the bearers of revelation.

But finally a philosopher said to himself, if God has spoken, why have I heard nothing?

This word of doubt sufficed to shake the Church, nullify the Scriptures, dissipate the faith, and hasten the reign of the Antichrist!

Like Hume, I do not want at all to prejudge either the reality or the possibility of a revelation: how can one reason a priori about a supernatural event, a manifestation of the Supreme Being? For me the issue is entirely one of the empirical knowledge of it that we can attain, and I reduce the religious controversy to this single point, the authenticity of the divine word. Prove this authenticity, and I am a Christian. Who then would dare dispute with God, if he were sure that it is God who speaks to him?

It is the same with the People as with the Divinity: Vox populi, vox Dei.

Since the beginning of the world, since human tribes began to organize themselves into monarchies and republics, oscillating between the one idea and the other like wandering planets, mixing, combining in order to organize the most diverse elements into societies, overturning tribunes and thrones as a child upsets a house of cards, we have seen, at each political upheaval, the leaders of the movement invoke in more or less explicit terms the sovereignty of the People…

The most prominent spokesman of the Bourbon monarchists would tell us still, if it dared, that law results from the consent of the People and the enunciation of the prince: Lex fit consensu populi et constitutione regis. The sovereignty of the nation is the first principle of monarchists as of democrats. Listen to the echo which reaches us from the North: on the one hand, there is a despotic king who invokes national traditions-that is, the will of the People expressed and confirmed over the centuries. On the other, there are subjects in revolt who maintain that the People no longer think what they did formerly, and who ask that the People be consulted. Who then shows here a better understanding of the People-the monarch who would have it that they are unchangeable in their thinking, or the citizens who suppose them changeable? And when you say the contradiction is resolved by progress, meaning that the People go through different phases before arriving at the same old idea, you only increase the difficulty: who will judge what is progress and what is retrogression?

I ask then, like Rousseau: If the People has spoken, why have I heard nothing?

You point out to me this astonishing revolution in which I too have taken part-whose legitimacy I myself have proven, whose idea I have brought to the fore. And you say to me:

There is the People!

But in the first place, I have seen only a tumultuous crowd without awareness of the ideas that made it act, without any comprehension of the revolution brought about by its hands. Then what I have called the logic of the People could well be nothing but recognition of past events, all the more so since once it is all over and everyone agrees on their significance, opinions are divided anew as to the consequences. The revolution over, the People says nothing! What then! Does the sovereignty of the People exist only for things in the past, which no longer interest us, and not at all for those of the future, which alone can be the objects of the People’s decrees?

Oh all you enemies of despotism and its corruption, as of anarchy and its piracy, who never cease invoking the People- you who speak frankly of its sovereign reason, its irresistible strength, its formidable voice, I bid you tell me: Where and when have you heard the People? With what mouths, in what language do they express themselves? How is this astonishing revelation accomplished? What authentic, conclusive examples do you cite? What guarantee have you of the validity of these laws you say issue from the People? What is the sanction? By what claims, by what signs, shall I distinguish the elect delegated by the People from the apostates who take advantage of its trust and usurp its authority? When you come right down to it, how do you establish the legitimacy of the popular Word?

I believe in the existence of the People as I do in the existence of God.

I bow before its holy will; I submit to all orders coming hence; the People’s word is my law, my strength, and my hope. But, following the precept of Saint Paul, to be worthy my obedience must be rational, and what a misfortune for me, what ignominy, if, while believing myself to be submitting only to the People’s authority, I were to be the plaything of a vile charlatan! How then, I beg of you, among so many rival apostles, contradictory opinions, and obstinate partisans, am I to recognize the voice, the true voice of the People?

The problem of the sovereignty of the People is the fundamental problem of liberty, equality, and fraternity, the first principle of social organization. Governments and peoples have had no other goal, through all the storms of revolutions and diversions of politics, than to constitute this sovereignty. Each time that they have been diverted from this goal they have fallen into slavery and shame. With this in mind the Provisional Government has convened a National Assembly named by all citizens, without distinction as to wealth and capacity: universal suffrage seems to them to be the closest approach to expressing the People’s sovereignty.

Thus it is supposed first that the People can be consulted; second, that it can respond; third, that its will can be authentically ascertained: and finally that government founded upon the manifest will of the People is the only legitimate government.

In particular, such is the pretension of DEMOCRACY, which presents itself as the form of government which best translates the sovereignty of the People.

But, if I prove that democracy, just like monarchy, only symbolizes that sovereignty, that it does not respond to any of the questions raised by this idea, that it cannot, for example, either establish the authenticity of the actions attributed to the People or state what is the final goal of society: if I prove that democracy, far from being the most perfect of governments, is the negation of the sovereignty of the People and the origin of its ruin-it will be demonstrated, in fact and in right, that democracy is nothing more than a constitutional despotism, succeeding a different constitutional despotism, that it does not possess any scientific value, and that it must be seen solely as a preparation for the REPUBLIC, one and indivisible.

It is important to clarify opinion on this point immediately, and to eliminate all illusion.

The People, the collective being-I almost said rational being-does not speak at all in the true sense of the word. The People, no more than God, has no eyes to see, no ears to hear, no mouth to speak. How do I know if it is endowed with some sort of soul, a divinity immanent in the masses, as certain philosophers hypothesize a world soul, and which at certain moments moves and urges it on; or whether the reason of the People is none other than pure idea, the most abstract, the most comprehensive, the freest of all individual form, as other philosophers claim that God is simply the order in the universe, an abstraction? I am not getting involved in the investigations of esoteric psychology: as a practical man I ask in what manner this soul, reason, will, or what have you is set outside itself, so to speak, and makes itself known? Who can serve as its spokesman? Who has the right to say to others, “It is through me that the People speaks”? How shall I believe that he who harangues five hundred applauding individuals from atop a soapbox is the People’s spokesman? How does the election by citizens, nay even their unanimous vote, have the faculty of conferring this sort of privilege, to serve as the People’s interpreter? And when you show me, like a coterie, nine hundred personages thus chosen by their fellow citizens, why ought I believe that these nine hundred delegates, who do not all agree among each other, are prompted by a mysterious inspiration from the People? And, when all is said, how will the law they are going to make obligate me?

Here is a president or a directory, the personification, symbol, or fabrication of national sovereignty: the first power of the State.

Here are a chamber, two chambers-one the spokesman of conservative interests, the other of the instinct for development: the second power of the State.

Here is a press, eloquent, disciplined, untiring, which each morning pours out in torrents millions of ideas which swarm in the millions of brains of the citizenry: the third power of the State.

The executive power is action, the chambers-deliberation, the press-opinion.

Which of these powers represents the people? Or else, if you say that it is the whole thing which represents the people, how is it that they do not all agree? Put royalty in place of the presidency, and it is the same thing: my criticisms apply equally to monarchy and democracy…

And what do we hear from the platform? And what does the Government know? Not so long ago it was escaping its responsibilities by denying its own authority to make decisions. It did not exist, it claimed, in order to organize work and give bread to the People. For a month it has received the demands of the proletariat; for a month it has been at work-and for a month it has had the official gazette publish every day this great news: that it knows nothing, that it discovers nothing! The Government divides the People; it arouses hatred between the classes that compose it. But to organize the People, to create that sovereignty which is simultaneously liberty and accord, this exceeds the Government ability, as formerly it exceeded its jurisdiction. In a Government which calls itself instituted by the People’s will such remarkable ignorance is a contradiction: it is apparent that already the People is sovereign no longer.

Does the People, which is sometimes said to have risen like a single man, also think like one man? Reflect? Reason? Make conclusions? Does it have a memory, imagination, ideas? If in reality the People is sovereign, it thinks; if it thinks, doubtless it has its own way of thinking and formulating its thought. How then does the People think? What are the forms of popular reasoning? Does it proceed by means of categories? Does it employ syllogism, induction, analysis, antinomy, or analogy? Is it Aristotelian or Hegelian? You must explain all that; otherwise, your respect for the sovereignty of the People is only absurd fetishism. One might as well worship a stone.

Does the People call upon experience in its meditations? Does it bear in mind its memories, or else is its course to produce new ideas endlessly? How does it reconcile respect for its traditions with its needs for development? How does it finish with one worn-out hypothesis and go on to try another? What is the law of its transitions and its movement from one idea to the next? What stimulates it, what defines the course of its progress? Why this moving about, this instability? I need to know all this-otherwise the law you impose on me in the name of the People ceases to be authentic: it is no longer law, but violence.

Does the People always think? And if it does not, how do you account for the intermittent character of its thought? If we suppose that the People can be represented, what will its representatives do during these interruptions? Does the People sleep sometimes, like Jupiter in the arms of Juno? When does it dream? When does it stay awake? You must teach me about all these things; otherwise, the power you exercise by delegation from the People being only interim, and the length of the interim being unknown, this power is usurped: you are inclined toward tyranny.

If the People thinks, reflects, reasons, sometimes a priori, according to the rules of pure reason, sometimes a posteriori upon the data of experience, it runs the risk of deceiving itself. Then it no longer suffices, for me to accept the People’s thought as law, that its authenticity be proven to me; it is necessary that the thought itself be legitimate. Who will choose among the ideas and fantasies of the People? To whom shall we appeal its will, which may be erroneous, and consequently despotic?

Here I present this dilemma:

If the People can err, then there are two alternatives. On the one hand, the error may seem as respectable as if it were true, and can claim complete obedience despite the error. In this case the People is a supremely immoral being, since it can simultaneously think, will, and do evil.

On the other hand, ought we find fault with the People in its errors? There would then be, in certain cases, a duty for a government to resist the People! Who will tell it: You deceive yourself! Who will be able to set it to rights, to restrain it?

But what am I saying? If the People is liable to err, what becomes of its sovereignty? Is it not evident that the People’s will should be taken into consideration all the less as it is more formidable in its consequences, and that the true principle of all politics, the guarantee of the security of nations, is to consult the People only in order to distrust it? Cannot all inspiration from it hide immense peril as much as immense success, and its will be only a suicidal thought?

Doubtless, you will say, the People has only a mystical existence. It manifests itself only at rare intervals, in predestined epochs! But for all that the People is no phantom, and when it rises, no one can fail to recognize it…

Now if the People has, in all historical epochs, thought, expressed, willed, and done a multitude of contradictory things; if, even today, among so many opinions which divide it, it is impossible for it to choose one without repudiating another and consequently without being self-contradictory-what do you want me to think of the reason, the morality, the justice, of its acts? What can I expect of its representatives? And what proof of authenticity will you give me in favour of an opinion, such that I cannot immediately make a claim for the contrary one?

What astonishes me in the midst of the confusion of ideas, is that faith in the sovereignty of the People, far from dwindling, seems by this very confusion to reach its own climax. In this obstinant belief of the multitude in the intelligence which exists within it I see a sort of manifestation of the People which affirms itself, like Jehovah, and says, “I AM.” I cannot then deny, on the contrary, I am forced to confess the sovereignty of the People. But beyond this initial affirmation, and when it is a question of going from the subject of the thought to its object, when in other words it is a question of applying the criterion to acts of Government, let someone tell me, where is the People?

In principle then, I admit that the People exists, that it is sovereign, that it is predicated in the consciousness of the masses. But nothing yet has proven to me that it can perform an overt act of sovereignty, that an explicit revelation of the People is possible. For, in view of the dominance of prejudices, of the contradiction of ideas and interests, of the variability of opinion, and of the impulsiveness of the multitude, I shall always ask what establishes the authenticity and legitimacy of such a revelation-and this is what democracy cannot answer.

But, the democrats observe-not without reason-the People has never been suitably called to action. Never has it been able to demonstrate its will except for momentary flashes: the role it has played in history up to now has been completely subordinate. For the People to be able to speak its mind, it must be democratically consulted-that is, all citizens without distinction must participate, directly or indirectly, in the formation of the law. Now, this mode of democratic consultation has never been exercised in a coherent manner: the eternal conspiracy of the privileged has not permitted it. Princes, nobles and priests, military men, magistrates, teachers, scholars, artists, industrialists, merchants, financiers, proprietors, have always succeeded in breaking up the democratic Union, in changing the voice of the People into a voice of monopoly. Now that we possess the only true way of having the People speak, we shall likewise know what constitutes the authenticity and legitimacy of its word, and all your preceding objections vanish. The sincerity of the democratic regime will guarantee the solution to us…

According to the theory of universal suffrage, experience should have proven that the middle class, which alone has exercised political rights of late, does not represent the People-far from it, with the monarchy it has been in constant reaction against the People.

One concludes that it is up to the entire nation to name its representatives.

But won’t it be only an artificial representation, just the product of the arbitrary will of the electoral mob, if the representatives come from one class of men who provide the free, upward flight of society, the spontaneous development of sciences, arts, industry, and commerce, the necessity of institutions, the tacit consent or the well-known incapacity of the lower classes, one class finally whose talent and wealth designates them as the natural elite of the People? Won’t it be thus with representatives chosen by electoral meetings of varying completeness, enlightenment, and freedom, and which act under the influence of local passions, prejudices, and hatred for persons and principles?

We shall have an aristocracy of our own choice-I have no objection-in place of a natural aristocracy; but aristocracy for aristocracy I prefer, with Mr. Guizot, that of fatality to that of arbitrary will: fatality puts me under no obligation.

Or, rather, we will only restore, by another route, the same aristocrats; for whom do you want named to represent them, these working stiffs, these day labourers, these toilers, if not their bourgeoisie? Unless you only want that they kill them!

One way or another, preponderant strength in government belongs to the men who have the preponderance of talent and fortune. From the first it has been evident that social reform will never come out of political reform, that on the contrary political reform must come out of social reform.

The illusion of democracy springs from that of constitutional monarchy’s example-claiming to organize Government by representative means. Neither the Revolution of July [1830] nor that of February [1848] has sufficed to illuminate this. What they always want is inequality of fortunes, delegation of sovereignty, and government by influential people. Instead of saying, as did Mr. Thiers, The king reigns and does not govern, democracy says, The People reigns and does not govern, which is to deny the Revolution…

Since, according to the ideology of the democrats, the People cannot govern itself and is forced to give itself to representatives who govern by delegation, while it retains the right of review, it is supposed that the People is quite capable at least of having itself represented, that it can be represented faithfully. Well! This hypothesis is utterly false; there is not and never can be legitimate representation of the People. All electoral systems are mechanisms for deceit: to know one is sufficient to pronounce the condemnation of all.

Take the example of the Provisional Government [just established].

Its system pretends to be universal, but whatever it does, in the entire electoral system there will always be exclusions, absences, and votes which are invalidated, erroneous, or unfree. The hardiest innovators have not yet dared to demand suffrage for women, children, domestic servants, or men with criminal records. About four-fifths of the People are not represented, and are cut off from the communion of the People. Why?

You fix electoral capacity at twenty-one years’ age; why not twenty? Why not at nineteen, eighteen, seventeen? What! One year, one day makes the elector rational! A Barra or Viala is incapable of voting discerningly while the Fouchés and Héberts vote for them!

You eliminate women. You have thus resolved the grand problem of the inferiority of the sex. What! No exception for Lucretia, Cornelia, Joan of Arc or Charlotte Corday! A Roland, a Staël, a George Sand will find no favor before your manhood! The Jacobins welcomed the revolutionary women who sat knitting at their meetings; no one has ever said that the presence of these citizenesses weakened the courage of the citizens!

You set aside the domestic servant. You are saying that this sign of servitude does not cover a generous soul, that in the heart of a valet beats no idea which will save the Republic! Is the race of Figaro lost? It is the fault of this man, you will say: why, with so many abilities, is he a servant? And why are there servants?

I want to see, I want to hear the People in its variety and multitude, all ages, all sexes, all conditions, all virtues, all miseries: for all that, this is the People.

You claim that there would be grievous trouble for good discipline, for the peace of the State and tranquillity of families, if women, children, and domestic servants obtained the same rights as husbands, fathers, and masters, that in addition the former are adequately represented by the latter through their solidarity of interests and the familial bond.

I acknowledge that the objection is a serious one, and I do not attempt to refute it. But take care: you must, by the same reasoning, exclude the proletarians and all workers. Seven-tenths of this category receive the aid of public charity: they will then go on to vote themselves government jobs, salary increases, labour reductions, and they will not fail in this, I assure you, if their delegates represent them ever so little. In the National Assembly the proletariat will be like the officials in Mr. Guizot’s Chamber, judging its own cause, having power over the budget and putting nothing there, creating dictatorship by their appointments, until, with capital exhausted by taxation and property producing nothing any longer, general bankruptcy breaks apart this parliamentary beggary.

And all these citizens who, because of work, sickness, travel, or lack of money to go to the elections, are forced to abstain from voting, how do you count them? Will it be according to the proverb, “Who says nothing, consents”? But, consents to what? To the opinion of the majority, or indeed to that of the minority?

And those who vote only on impulse, through good-nature or interest, through faith in their republican committee or parish priest: what do you make of them? It is an old maxim that in all deliberations it is necessary not only to count the votes, but to weigh them. In your committees, on the contrary, the vote of an Arago or Lamartine counts no more than that of a beggar.

Will you say that the consideration due men for their merit is secured by the influence they exercise on the electors? Then the voting is not free. It is the voices of ability that we hear, not that of the People. One might as well preserve electoral suffrage based on qualification by ownership of property…

I pass over in silence the material and moral impossibilities which abound in the mode of election adopted by the Provisional Government. It is completely devoted to the opinion that in doubling the national representation and making people vote for inseparable lists of candidates, the Provisional Government wanted the citizens to choose not men but principle, precisely in the manner of the former Government, which also made people vote on the system, not on the men. How is one to discuss the choice of ten, twenty, twenty-five deputies? How, if each citizen votes freely and in knowledge of his cause, are the votes of such elections-by-list to be counted? How are such elections brought to a conclusion, if they are serious? Evidently it is impossible.

I do not discuss, I repeat, the purely material side of the question: I keep to issues of right. What formerly was obtained through venality, today they extort from impotence. They say to the elector: Here are our friends, the friends of the Republic; and there are our adversaries, who also are the adversaries of the Republic-choose. And the elector who cannot appraise the abilities of the candidates votes out of confidence!

Instead of naming deputies for each district, as under the fallen regime, they will have them elected by province. They wanted, by this measure, to destroy the spirit of localism. How wonderful it is that the democrats are so sure of their principles!

If the deputies, they say, are named by districts, it is not France which is represented, but the districts. The national Assembly would no longer be representative of the country; it would be a congress of 459 separate delegations.

Why then, I reply, don’t you have each elector name the deputies for all France?

It would be desirable, you answer, but it is impossible.

I observe first that any system which can be true only in conditions themselves impossible seems to me a poor system. But to me the democrats here appear singularly inconsistent and perplexed by mere trifles. If the representatives ought to represent not the provinces, nor the districts, nor the towns, nor the countryside, nor industry, nor commerce, nor agriculture, nor special interests, but only FRANCE!-then why have they decided that there should be one deputy per 40,000 inhabitants? Why not one per 100,000 or 200,000! Ninety instead of nine hundred-wouldn’t that suffice? Couldn’t you in Paris, cut short your list of candidates, while the conservatives and the various royalists cut short theirs? Was it more difficult to vote on a list of ninety names than on one of fifteen?

But who does not see that deputies thus elected apart from all special interests and groups, all considerations of places and persons, by dint of representing France, represent nothing; that they no longer are mandated representatives, but legislators set apart from the People; and that in place of a representative democracy we have an elective oligarchy, the middle term between democracy and royalty.

There, citizen reader, is where I want to bring you. From whatever aspect you consider democracy, you will always see it placed between two extremes each as contrary as the other to its own principle, condemned to oscillate between the absurd and the impossible, without ever being able to establish itself. Among a million equally arbitrary terms, the Provisional Government has acted like Mr. Guizot: it has preferred that which appeared to it to agree best with its democratic prejudices. Of representative truth, as of government of the People by the People, the Provisional Government has taken no account…

In order that the deputy represent his constituents, it is necessary that he represent all the ideas which have united to elect him.

But, with the electoral system, the deputy, the would-be legislator sent by the citizens to reconcile all ideas and all interests in the name of the People, always represents just one idea, one interest. The rest is excluded without pity. For who makes law in the elections? Who decides the choice of deputies? The majority, half plus one of the votes. From this it follows that half less one of the electors is not represented or is so in spite of itself, that of all the opinions that divide the citizens, one only, insofar as the deputy has an opinion, arrives at the legislature, and finally that the law, which should be the expression of the will of the People, is only the expression of half of the People.

The result is that in the theory of the democrats the problem consists of eliminating, by the mechanism of sham universal suffrage, all ideas save one which stir opinion, and to declare sovereign that which has the majority.

But, perhaps it will be said, the idea that fails in such an electoral body will triumph in another and, by this means, all ideas can be represented in the National Assembly.

When that is the case, you would have only put off the difficulty, for the question is to know how all these ideas, divergent and antagonistic, will concur on the law and be reconciled thereon.

Thus the Revolution, according to some, is only an accident, which should change nothing in the general order of society. According to others, the Revolution is social still more than political. How can such obviously incompatible claims be satisfied? How at the same time can there be given security for the bourgeoisie and guarantees for the proletariat? How will these contrary wishes and opposed inclinations come to be mixed together in a resulting community, in one universal law?

Democracy is so far from being able to resolve this difficulty that all its art, all its science is used to remove the obstacle. It makes appeals to the ballot box; the ballot box is simultaneously the level, the balance, the criterion of democracy. With the electoral ballot democracy eliminates men; with the legislative ballot, it eliminates ideas…

What! It is one vote that makes the representative, one vote that makes the law! With a question on which hangs the honour and health of the Republic, the citizens are divided into two equal factions. On the two sides they bring to bear the most serious reasoning, the weightiest authorities, the most positive facts. The nation is in doubt, the Assembly is in suspension. One representative, without discernible motive, passes from right to left and turns the balance; it is he who makes the law.

And this law, the expression of some bizarre will, is supposed to be the will of the People! It will be necessary for me to submit to it, defend it, even kill for it! By a parliamentary caprice I lose the most precious of my rights, I lose liberty! And the most sacred of my duties, the duty to resist tyranny by force, falls before the sovereign noggin of an imbecile!

Democracy is nothing but the tyranny of majorities, the most execrable tyranny of all, for it is not based on the authority of a religion, nor on a nobility of blood, nor on the prerogatives of fortune: it has number as its base, and for a mask the name of the People…

If universal suffrage, the most complete manifestation of democracy, has won so many partisans, especially among the working classes, it is because it has always been presented on the basis of an appeal to men of talent, as well as to the good sense and morality of the masses. How often have they not brought out the offensive contrast of the speculator who becomes politically influential through plunder and the man of genius whom poverty has kept far away from the stage!…

In the end, we are all electors; we can choose the most worthy.

We can do more; we can follow them step by step in their legislative acts and their votes; we shall make them transmit our arguments and our documents; we shall indicate our will to them, and when we are discontented, we shall recall and dismiss them.

The choice of abilities, imperative mandate, permanent revocability-these are the most immediate and incontestable consequences of the electoral principle. It is the inevitable program of all democracy.

Now democracy, no more than constitutional monarchy, does not sustain such a deduction from its principle.

What democracy demands, like monarchy, is silent deputies who do not discuss, but vote; who, receiving the order from the Government, crush the opposition with their heavy and heavy witted battalions. These are passive creatures, I almost say satellites, whom the danger of a revolution does not intimidate, whose reason is not too rebellious, whose conscience does not recoil before anything arbitrary, before any proscription…

In every kind of government the deputy belongs to the powerful, not to the country… [It is required] that he be master of his vote, that is, to traffic in its sale, that the mandate have a specified term, of at least a year, during which the Government, in agreement with the deputies, does what it pleases and gives strength to the law through action by its own arbitrary will…

If monarchy is the hammer which crushes the People, democracy is the axe which divides it: the one and the other equally conclude in the death of liberty…

[ Because theorists] have taught that all power has its source in national sovereignty, it has valiantly been concluded best to make all citizens vote in one way or another, and that the majority of votes thus expressed adequately constitute the will of the People. They have brought us back to the practices of barbarians who, lacking rationality, proceeded by acclamation and election. They have taken a material symbol for the true formula of sovereignty. And they have said to the proletarians: When you vote, you shall be free, you shall be rich; you shall enact capital, product and wages; you shall, as another Moses did, make thrushes and manna fall from heaven; you shall become like gods, for you shall not work, or shall work so little that if you do work it shall be as nothing.

Whatever they do and whatever they say, universal suffrage, the testimony of discord, can only produce discord. And it is with this miserable idea, I am ashamed for my native land, that for seventeen years they have agitated the poor People! It is for this that bourgeoisie and workers have sung the “Marseillaise” in chorus at seventy political banquets and, after a revolution as glorious as it was legitimate, have abandoned themselves to a sect of doctrinaires! For six months the opposition deputies, like comedians on tour, travelled through the provinces, and for the fruit of their benefit performance what have they brought back to us, what? A scheme for land redistribution! It is under this schismatic flag that we have claimed to preserve the initiative of progress, to march at the forefront of nations in the conquest of liberty, to inaugurate harmony around the world! Yesterday, we regarded with pity the peoples who did not know as we have how to raise themselves to constitutional sublimity. Today, fallen a hundred times lower, we still are sorry for them, we shall go with a hundred thousand bayonets to make them partake with us of the benefits of democratic absolutism. And we are the great nation! Oh! Be quiet, and if you do not know how to do great things, or express great ideas, at least preserve common sense for us…

In monarchy, the acts of the Government are an unfolding of authority; in democracy they constitute authority. The authority which in monarchy is the principle of governmental action is the goal of government in democracy. The result is that democracy is fatally retrograde, and that it implies contradiction.

Let us place ourselves at the point of departure for democracy, at the moment of universal suffrage.

All citizens are equal, independent. Their egalitarian combination is the point of departure for power: it is power itself, in its highest form, in its plenitude.

By virtue of democratic principle, all citizens must participate in the formation of the law, in the government of the State, in the exercise of public functions, in the discussion of the budget, in the appointment of officials. All must be consulted and give their opinions on peace and war, treaties of commerce and alliance, colonial enterprises, works of public utility, the award of compensation, the infliction of penalties. Finally, all must pay their debt to their native land, as taxpayers, jurors, judges, and soldiers.

If things could happen in this way, the ideal of democracy would be attained. It would have a normal existence, developing directly in the sense of its principle, as do all things which have life and grow. It is thus that the acorn becomes an oak, and the embryo an animal; it is thus that geometry, astronomy, chemistry are the development to infinity of a small number of elements.

It is completely otherwise in democracy, which according to the authors exists fully only at the moment of elections and for the formation of legislative power. This moment once past, democracy retreats; it withdraws into itself again, and begins its anti-democratic work. It becomes AUTHORITY. Authority was the idol of Mr. Guizot; it is also that of the democrats.

In fact it is not true, in any democracy, that all citizens participate in the formation of the law: that prerogative is reserved for the representatives.

It is not true that they deliberate on all public affairs, domestic and foreign: this is the perquisite, not even of the representatives, but of the ministers. Citizens discuss affairs, ministers alone deliberate them.

It is not true that each citizen fulfills a public function: those functions which do not produce marketable goods must be reduced as much as possible. By their nature public functions exclude the vast majority of citizens…

It is not true that citizens participate in the nomination of officials; moreover this participation is as impossible as the preceding one, since it would result in creating anarchy in the bad sense of the word. It is power which names its subordinates, sometimes according to its own arbitrary will, sometimes according to certain conditions for appointment or promotion, the order and discipline of officials and centralization requiring that it be thus…

Finally, it is not true that all citizens participate in justice and in war: as judges and officers, most are eliminated; as jurors and simple soldiers all abstain as much as they can. In a word, hierarchy in government being the primary condition of government, democracy is a chimera.

The reason that authors give for this merits our study. They say the People is outside the state because it does not know how to govern itself, and when it does know, it cannot do it.

EVERYBODY CANNOT COMMAND AND GOVERN AT THE SAME TIME; it is necessary that the authority belong solely to some who exercise it in the name of and through the delegation of all.

Ignorance or impotence, according to democratic theory the People is incapable of governing itself: democracy, like monarchy, after having posed as its principle the sovereignty of the People, ends with a declaration of the incapacity of the People!

This is what is meant by the democrats, who once in the government dream only of consolidating and strengthening the authority in their hands. Thus it was understood by the multitude, who threw themselves upon the doors of the City Hall, demanding government jobs, money, work, credit, bread! And there indeed is our nation, monarchist to its very marrow, idolizing power, deprived of individual energy and republican initiative, accustomed to expect everything from authority, to do nothing except through authority! When monarchy does not come to us from on high, as it did formerly, or on the field of battle, as in 1800, or in the folds of a charter, as in 1814 or 1830, we proclaim it in the public square, between two barricades, in electoral assembly, or at a patriotic banquet. Drink to the health of the People and the multitude will crown you!

Oeuvres completes de P-J. Proudhon (Paris: A. Lacroix, Verboeckhoven et Cie., 1867-70). VI, 1-87. Translation, pp. 35-40, 42-44, 46-58, 60, 62-67.

Proudhon Bicentennial (1809-2009)

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the first self-proclaimed anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865). Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas contains several selections from Proudhon, including excerpts from

What is Property? (1840)The System of Economic Contradictions (1846)The General Idea of the Revolution in the 19th Century (1851)

The Principle of Federation (1863) and

On the Political Capacity of the Working Classes (1865).

For more on Proudhon, see my introduction to the 1989 Pluto Press edition of the General Idea of the Revolution in the 19th Century, now posted as one of my pages on this blog. Reproduced below is Proudhon’s celebrated diatribe against government, taken from the General Idea of the Revolution.

Published in: on February 19, 2009 at 8:55 am  Comments (3)  
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Pierre Besnard – Anarchosyndicalism and Anarchism

The following excerpts, translated by Paul Sharkey and appearing in English for the first time, are taken from Pierre Besnard’s address to the June 1937 Paris Congress of the anarcho-syndicalist International Workers’ Association (IWA), L’Anarcho-Syndicalisme et l’Anarchisme, Rapport de Pierre Besnard, Secretaire de l’A.I.T. au Congrès Anarchiste International de 1937 (dated 30 May 1937; republished as a supplement to le Monde Libertaire, 1963), for which Alexander Schapiro wrote the (previously posted) introduction.

The IWA held a special congress in Paris, June 11-13, 1937, to debate the relationship between the anarcho-syndicalist and anarchist movements, and to deal with the participation of the Spanish CNT in the Republican government in Spain as part of its fight against fascism. In July 1937, the well respected French anarchist, Sebastien Faure [Anarchism, Volume 1, Selection 66] published a stinging rebuke of the Spanish anarchists in the French anarchist paper, Le Libertaire, in a series of articles entitled “The Fatal Slope,” castigating them for joining the government. The CNT was furious, and forced Besnard to resign as general secretary of the IWA.

Besnard (1886-1947) was very active in the French anarcho-syndicalist movement from the end of the First World War until the Second World War. He contributed to Faure’s Encyclopédie anarchiste, and wrote several books on the theory and practice of revolutionary syndicalism, including Les syndicats ouvriers et la révolution sociale (Paris: Le Monde nouveau, 1930); Le Monde nouveau (Paris: CGTSR, 1936); and L’Ethique du syndicalisme (Paris: CGTSR, 1938). He tried to modernize anarcho-syndicalism, and to persuade other anarchists to support anarcho-syndicalist trade unions without derogating from their independence and autonomy. Nevertheless, Besnard sought to achieve ideological unity among anarchists, taking a position somewhat similar to the Platformists associated with the Russian anarchist, Peter Arshinov, and the Ukrainian anarchist partisan, Nestor Makhno (Anarchism, Volume 1, Selection 115). For more on Besnard, see Wayne Thorpe, “Anarchosyndicalism in Inter-War France: The Vision of Pierre Besnard,” European History Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 4, 559-590 (1996).

Anarcho-Syndicalism and Anarchism

I. What is Revolutionary Anarchism?

Revolutionary Anarchism is a movement whose doctrine is designed to institute an individual and collective existence from which the State, Government and Authority will be barred.

Incontrovertibly, the foundation of that society will be man.

So Anarchism is the affirmation of an ongoing social demand in the here-and-now and into the infinite future, into the indefinite future.

It implies an economic, administrative and social project and has to begin right now…

Historically, Revolutionary Anarchism is the third branch of traditional socialism.

By contrast with the other two branches, Socialism and Communism — both of them political, authoritarian and statist — it is a-political, anti-parliamentary and anti-statist.

Its essential feature is freedom in a context of accountability, individual and collective alike.

Its chief tasks at present are: propaganda, popularization and social education of the labouring masses today and, tomorrow, the administration of society.

II. What is Anarcho-Syndicalism?

Anarcho-Syndicalism is an organizational and organized movement. It draws its doctrine form Anarchism and its organizational format from Revolutionary Syndicalism.

It is the contemporary expression of the anarchist doctrine as regards matters economic and social.

In terms of the revolution, it is also, as the Spanish experience itself has demonstrated, the essential agent of realization.

At the world level, it is represented by the IWA and its National Centres.

Its doctrine has been defined by the founding Congress of the 2nd IWA (25-31 December 1922 [Anarchism, Volume 1, Selection 114]), by succeeding congresses, and by the works and writings of its militants.

In Spain, the CNT stands for the Anarcho-Syndicalism of the IWA.

Practically and no less historically, Anarcho-Syndicalism is the organizational format assumed by Anarchy for the purposes of the fight against capitalism. It is fundamentally at odds with political and reformist trade unionism.

Anarcho-Syndicalism’s substitution of the idea of Class for the notion of Party makes it an essential tool for workers obliged to defend their living conditions in their preparation for economic and social liberation.

The Anarcho-Syndicalist movement makes possible a yoking together of action in pursuit of day-to-day demands and the loftiest aspirations of the workers.

It achieves an amalgamation of the two in terms of material, moral, short-term and future interests.

Out of a commonality of interests, it brings forth an identity of aims and, as a logical and natural consequence, a reconciliation of doctrines.

Anarcho-Syndicalism: a movement of trial and error

Like any truly social doctrine, Anarcho-Syndicalism is essentially a matter of trial and error.

Proof of this is the fact that, today, in Spain, its doctrine, having been consecrated and confirmed by the facts, is achievable in the short-term.

Based on trial and error? Just like every social movement and all the sciences.

In sociology as in physics or chemistry or mechanics, the idea springs from the act and returns to it.

The fact always predates the idea and conjures up the doctrine, the philosophy from which the realization is to sprout.

The doctrine, the idea, the yearning for further experiment as a means to the end, follow from the phenomena recorded which give rise to laws acknowledged by all and authenticated by experience.

Historical Comments

Down through the ages, what has social experience in every country and in the modern world in particular taught us?

1. That within their own class, individuals are more and more sure to band together on the firm ground of their interests.

2. That antagonistic classes seek, through elimination of their own contradictions, to realize their common interest; capitalists by means of the establishment of state capitalism, of which fascism is the most distinct expression; the workers, through expropriation of capital, abolition of wage slavery, abolition of the state and establishment of libertarian communism.

3. That, like their adversaries — and unfortunately, after them — workers try to achieve unity and a pooling of all their resources, because they have come to realize, at last, that the crucial battles taking place require methodical organization, coordination and massive, orderly deployment of these forces; because they have learnt the lesson taught by facts and experience, which plainly indicates that action should be well-prepared, direct, widespread and synchronized.

4. That the age of political revolutions is over; that everywhere the social revolution has come into its own; that no specially class-based, proletarian party or group can, by opposing the disparate interests of its heterogeneous membership, serve as a revolutionary spearhead, a class organization; that, whereas an employer might profess to be a socialist, communist or anarchist — they exist — and while he might see eye to eye with his worker ideologically within the group, he in fact has no class interest in common with him, once they both return to the factory, yard, workshop, office, etc. In real life, they are and remain: in the case of one, an employer, and, in the case of the other, a worker, with all of the antagonisms that their circumstances imply.

5. That the only genuinely class group with the potential, by virtue of its name, power and the resources at its disposal — which it alone can set in motion — simultaneously to destroy capitalism and make a reality of libertarian communism, is the Trade Union. Even now it brings manual, technical and scientific operatives together organizationally — and this is something it will take further tomorrow — ensuring that the life of society is sustained throughout. The Trade Union is also the typical grouping, the free and concrete model of association that can furnish libertarian communist society with the sound economic foundations vital to the new order that will spring from the revolution.

Revolutionary Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism Share a Common Objective

The IWA Charter has extracted from all these historical considerations that which is common to all of the world’s anarcho-syndicalists. In concert with the FAI, the CNT is even now striving to put this into effect.

This notion does not at all imply that anarcho-syndicalism — which is, remember, against the State and federalist — means and aims to be everything and that nothing else should exist alongside it.

Instead, anarcho-syndicalism is of the view that men, while they cannot refrain from producing in order to survive, ought not to have production as their sole aim. It very candidly admits and has no hesitation in announcing that man has and rightly should have other aspirations — the highest ones at that — toward the good, the beautiful, the better, and this in every realm to which his faculties afford him access; that administrative and social agencies are called for equal to all the demands of a full, rounded, complete life, operating with the enlightened assistance and under the watchful, constant and unrelenting supervision of all.

It accepts without question that individuals are entitled — or rather, have a duty — to administer themselves. It formally invites them to do just that, right here and now.

Likewise, it fervently wants communes to federate on a regional basis, confederate with one another nationwide and for the confederations to link arms internationally, after the pattern of the unions and the CGT [Confédération Générale du Travail].

It is even convinced that this is crucial and it stands ready to add its efforts and the efforts of its trade unions to the efforts of individuals operating as such and to the efforts of the federated, confederated and combined communes in making a reality of that genuine libertarian communism which cannot but be anarchism’s handiwork…

Of necessity, agreement between anarcho-syndicalists and anarcho-communists on libertarian communism as the objective is complete, permanent and absolute.

So it is clear and self-evident that the place of the workers, the exploited of whatever sort, whose ideal is anarcho-communism, cannot be other than in the anarcho-syndicalist unions and nowhere else.

Their doctrine makes this an imperious, specific and ineluctable duty.

Moreover, it is their best practical means of actually achieving that unity of action so necessary for the modern revolutionary anarchist movement.

It is only in action and through action that anarchists will discover their real unity of thought; that the anarcho-syndicalist movement, out of kilter for the past 30 years, will also rediscover its equilibrium and its vigour; that all anarchists will at last come to look upon the social revolution as an imminent event and a feasible proposition.

The Role of the Anarchist Groups and the Unions

All of the above leads naturally and logically to consideration of the role of the anarchist groups and the trade unions.

Anarcho-syndicalists have no difficulty in agreeing that anarcho-communist groups, being more mobile than the trade union organizations, should go prospecting among the labouring masses; that they should seek out recruits and temper militants; that they should carry out active propaganda and intensive pioneering work with an eye to winning the greatest possible number of workers hitherto deceived and gulled by all the political parties, without exception, over to their side and thus to the anarcho-syndicalist trade unions.

This wholly ideological undertaking, this psychological-type propaganda drive falls, without question, within the purview of the anarcho-communist groups, on the express condition that they identify with the work of the anarcho-syndicalist trade unions which they complement and reinforce, for the greater good of libertarian communism.

But let me state bluntly that the decision-making responsibility, action and supervision of the latter should reside in the here-and-now with the trade unions as the executive agents and operatives carrying out revolutionary tasks.

I am also of the opinion that it is incumbent upon these unions to prepare all such undertakings of an economic, defensive or offensive order.

Finally, in my view, the economic, administrative and social system ought to be homogeneous, harmonious, etc., and the basis of that system, if it is to be real, sound and lasting, cannot but be economic.

On behalf of the trade unions, I claim the right to handle revolutionary and post-revolutionary economic tasks because the organization of production is the true calling of the workers.

On the other hand, logic dictates that the communes, administrative agencies and their technical and social services, should handle distribution of goods: interpreting the wishes of men in social terms, organizing life in all its manifestations. Starting right now, the anarchist groups have a duty to lay the groundwork for these revolutionary accomplishments.

The task of every one of these bodies is therefore extremely clear-cut and perfectly defined. Broadly speaking, it will be enough to welcome everyone‘s acting and making an effort in every sphere of activity, depending on the individual’s actual abilities.

At no time, and let me offer you the most formal guarantees here, at no point will the anarcho-syndicalist trade unions be able to constitute an obstacle to the onward march of revolutionary communism.

And at no point, either, will they be able to turn reformist, because they are and will remain revolutionary, federalist and anti-statist, because, like the anarcho-communist groups, their purpose is to establish libertarian communism.

To conclude this part of my address, let me affirm:

1. The anarcho-syndicalist movement cannot deviate, because of the close and unrelenting supervision exercised over its organizations and militants.

2. That, in current terms, in the realm of revolution, the anarcho-syndicalist movement represents the means whereby libertarian communism can be achieved. That it is up to the anarcho-communist groups, operating exclusively on ideological terrain, to take propaganda as far as it will go.

3. That the anarcho-communist movement should concern itself primarily with propaganda and education tasks: the study of society and the popularization thereof.

4. That the best ongoing contact achievable will be achieved, as in Spain, through the unrestricted recruitment into the anarcho-syndicalist trade unions charged with preparing for and carrying out action (they being the only ones capable of bringing this to a successful conclusion, having the requisite membership and resources) of all anarcho-communists in every country; that anarcho-syndicalism’s trial-and-error doctrine, which is the doctrine of anarchism itself, is sound and solid enough not to incur the risk of any infringement, attenuation or deviation.

5. That anarcho-communism, the real face of socialism, was spawned by the utter inadequacy of all the political parties; that anarcho-syndicalism, that movement’s modern, active form, deriving from anarchism, currently caters to all of the positive tasks of anarcho-communism and paves the way for libertarian communism, of which it will be the chief midwife; that anarcho-communism’s tasks — like anarcho-syndicalism’s tasks — will be accomplished in the post-revolutionary period when men, due to the evolution and development of their capacity for understanding, will be capable of acceding to free communism, anarchy’s goal.

In short, anarcho-syndicalism is the force required for the struggle under the existing regime and the agent of the economic construction of libertarian communism in the post-revolutionary period.

Anarchism assists the anarcho-syndicalist movement, without supplanting it.

The activities of its militants blend in with those of anarcho-syndicalist militants within the trade unions.

The two movements therefore owe each other ongoing mutual aid.

And later, come the peace, harmony and concord, anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism, amalgamating into a single movement, will pursue the achievement of libertarian communism, anarchy’s ultimate aim.

Anarcho-syndicalism’s most pressing task today is to organize the workers under its aegis with an eye to the decisive battle against capitalism; to make technical preparations for that battle, to bind the forces of production together for the revolutionary construction of the libertarian communist order; and, tomorrow, to organize the economy until such time as free communism is established; and finally, to defend the revolution.

That of revolutionary anarchism consists of deploying all of the resources at its disposal to help bring this about.

Relationship between Anarchism and Anarcho-syndicalism

Self-evidently, there must be a relationship between anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism, nationally as well as at the international level. Moreover, the IWA, at its founding congress, anticipated just such an eventuality.

Relations between them should be founded upon each movement’s independence and autonomy of the other and they must remain on a footing of the completest equality.

Besides the cross-fertilization of the two movements through the actions of their militants, it is to be wished that in every locality, region and country, contacts may be established between anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist organizations.

If these relations are to be fruitful and lasting, they will have to rest on the groundwork of mutual toleration, facilitated by doctrinal common ground in every realm and a precise understanding of the tasks incumbent upon the two movements…

But those relations can only be established on two conditions:

1. Anarchists in each country be of one mind, doctrinally.

2. The unification of the anarchist groupings within each country on the basis of a single doctrine of revolutionary anarchism.

General Conclusions

Whatever the wishes of Congress and of the IWA may be with regard to practical realization of these relations, they can only achieve this, as circumstances require that they do, if those two conditions are met beforehand by the anarchist movements in each country.

It would have been infinitely preferable, as well as consistent with our known principles, namely, federalist principles, had that doctrinal unity and unification of anarchist forces taken place prior to the meeting of the Congress that is due to give birth to the Anarchist International.

On behalf of the anarcho-syndicalists who achieved that double objective through the launching of the present IWA back in 1922, I call upon all our revolutionary anarchist comrades to follow suit.

If they all agree, the International that emerges from this Congress will deserve the title with which they will surely endow it and which cannot be other than: The Revolutionary Anarchist International — and I say again — they will accomplish this without a hitch.

It is sufficient but it is necessary that they all agree to break once and for all with the so-called forces of democracy, be they political or trade unionist; that they affirm that revolutionary anarchism, by dint of its goals, its methodology and its doctrine, has nothing and can have nothing in common with these so-called “democratic” forces which are, in every country, capitalism’s finest servants.

If, taking this to its limits, the revolutionary anarchist movement also breaks with all of the dissenters from the authoritarian political parties who, like their parties of origin, have but one ambition — to seize or to seize back power — the revolutionary anarchist movement and the anarcho-syndicalist movement will be able to stride fearlessly and in step toward their common goal: revolutionary social change through the establishment of libertarian communism, a necessary step along the road to free communism.

Pierre Besnard, IWA General Secretary

May 30, 1937

Ernest Coeurderoy – Citizen of the World

One selection I really regret not including in Volume 1 of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas is the following piece by Ernest Cœurderoy (1825-1862), excerpted from his Jours d’exil (Paris: P.-V. Stock, 1910-11, originally published 1854-55) and translated by Paul Sharkey. Coeurderoy is perhaps best known for his Hurrah!!! Ou La Révolution par les Cosaques (London, 1854; republished be Editions Plasma, Paris, 1977), in which he envisioned a Cossack invasion of France to sweep away all vestiges of authority, with a libertarian socialist society emerging from the ruins. Coeurderoy was a radical republican turned socialist active in the 1848 Revolution in France. Trained as a doctor, he cared for injured workers following the abortive uprising of June 1848. He opposed the rise to power of Napoleon III and was forced into exile, first in Switzerland and later in England. In this excerpt from Jours d’exil (Days of Exile), Coeurderoy identifies himself with the outcast, the disadvantaged and forsaken in society, in a manner reminiscent of the much more recent and better known self-description of Subcomandante Marcos from the modern Zapatista movement in Mexico: “Marcos is gay in San Francisco, black in South Africa, an Asian in Europe, a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, a Mayan Indian in the streets of San Cristobal, a Jew in Germany, a Gypsy in Poland, a Mohawk in Quebec, a pacifist in Bosnia, a single woman on the Metro at 10:00 P.M., a peasant without land, a gang member in the slums, an unemployed worker, an unhappy student and, of course, a Zapatista in the mountains.”

I am a citizen of the world these days and regard that title as greater than anything the proudest of nations can bestow; what is more, it is of my own choosing and not doled out through some accident of birth. I am exiled, which is to say, free; these days one can only be so outside of society, country and family, all of them buckling under shameful servitude. What care I about armies, flags, governments and police! I skip across frontiers like the smuggler. I have no home, no land for which I am required to pay tax. Far from me, kings ascend their thrones and step down from them like shame-faced crooks; and I laugh at this phantasmagoria. I flee from churches the way I would from the gates of Hell. Laws are not made for me; I am outside the law and prefer that to being under its protection. I am a vagabond; and, first and foremost, revel in the fact. Neither king nor subject: the strong are stronger on their own.

In every land there are folk who are kicked out and driven away, killed and burnt out without a single voice of compassion to speak up for them. They are the Jews. – I am a Jew.

Skinny, untamed, restless men, sprightlier than horses and as dusky as the bastards of Shem, roam through the Andalusian countryside. Real wolves. They give every appearance of being horse-traders, but nobody is quite sure what trade they ply and the common gossip accuses them of sorcery. They are not – lucky mortals! – deemed worthy of being subjected to the laws of Spain. They live and marry according to their own ways. They drift through civilization, setting up their tents on the forest’s edge. The doors of every home are barred to them, in hamlet and town alike. A widespread disapproval weighs upon their breed; no one knows whence it comes nor whither it is bound. Such men are known as Gitanos. – I am a Gitano.

In the mountains of Scotland and Norway, out on the heaths of England and Ireland, camp sorcerer clans that have provided inspiration for the divine voices of Shakespeare and Walter Scott. They dance in the mist, setting huge fires of holly and gorse ablaze and, come nightfall, under the pale moonlight they summon up the spirits from the abyss. They go by the name Gypsies. – I am a Gypsy.

In Paris one can see wayward boys, naked, who hide under the bridges along the canal in the mid-winter and dive into the murky waters in search of a sou tossed to them by a passing onlooker. They go unshod upon the asphalt of the quays and boulevards and have nowhere to shelter other than under the lee of the roofs and carriage entrances. Their trade consists in purloining scarves and pretending to ask for a light but swapping cigarettes. These are the Bohemians. – I am a Bohemian.

In Naples the Lazzaroni sprawl on the marble terraces of the ducal palaces, rubbing their bellies in the sunshine while dining on a glass of water and a quattrino of macaroni. – I am a Lazzarone.

In Switzerland and Germany one sees folk with neither creed nor law, rights nor duties and whose origins no one knows and who seem lost among all the rest. They are known as the Heimatlosen. I am a Heimatslos.

Ah, if only I, like all the homeless folk, could spend my days in the shaded woodland and my nights under the beautiful stars, on the flowering banks of the streams! But I was raised in comfort, like the grocer’s children.

Everywhere, there are folk banned from promenades, museums, cafes and theatres because a heartless wretchedness mocks their day wear. If they dare to show themselves in public, every eye turns to stare at them; and the police forbid them to go near fashionable locations. But, mightier than any police, their righteous pride in themselves takes exception to being singled out for widespread stigma. – I am one of that breed.

Oh the bourgeois misery, somber as any Whitechapel proletarian, wretchedness in greasy and down-at-heel boots, a wretchedness that wears a long neck-tie and an excuse for a shirt and which never laughs and dares not weep! Hypocritical, indescribable, unutterable, unclassifiable, hope-destroying misery, the greatest, most atrocious of all miseries! The misery of a study supervisor!

There are young folk everywhere, shunned by everyone else because they are the outcasts of society, because they are not acceptable and will not abide by the world’s conventions. They are stiff-backed and angular types; they have a look of gloom about them; the buzz of conversation irritates them. They love broad ideas and loose clothing; their thoughts are bad and their status worse. They dare to question the infallibility of the Pope, divine right, the legitimacy of property, the happiness of the family and the harmony of the civilized world. – I am one of their number.

There are young folk everywhere from whom earthly angels avert their all-curing gaze. I swear by my life, such folk can endure everything, the very appearance of which throws the gracious young ladies into a tizzy and the later never have a kind word to spare them. – O, ladies, ladies, every evening you call blessings down upon your mothers, from whom you get your limpid eyes; and yet you cannot see past the attire of the very man who would love you best. – Again, I am one of their number.

Very well! I shall bear my loneliness. I will not squeeze my lungs into a corset just to escape it, and I will not deliver myself up as a willing victim into the hands of tailors and the tongues of drawing-room wits. I shall roll around this world like a stone tossed from the mountain top into the yawning chasm. The pine tree thrives only on arid summits; the eagle soars unattended into the sun. The sailor wrestles with the storm unaided; the emigrant forges on alone beneath strange skies. The huntsman in the hills lies in wait, alone, for the she-bear who has lost her cubs. The lion and the tiger prowl alone; the bull stands alone in the Spanish bullring. Everything strong has no need of support. – Quite the opposite .The frightened migratory birds huddle together in order to make headway against the wind; sheep need no encouragement to gather together; the ox stretches out his neck to the yoke; capons are held in cages, swine in the mud and princes in the palaces. Crows gather only over dead bodies and party followers only over a rioting populace.

Isn’t it at the mightiest oaks and tallest spires that the thunderstorm hurls its lightning bolts? Doesn’t the pack bay at the wild boar that stands up to it? Me against the world and the world against me: so be it! I accept the challenge and am proud to enter the fray alone, for I count it an honour not to be numbered among the common herd of my contemporaries. No one acknowledges me any more: those who used to call themselves my friends have shunned me. I haven’t a penny, not a single supporter, not a single mind well-disposed towards me; my attire does not fit me too well, my eyes are stung by the flickering of a 20 sou lamp on four white-washed walls.

What matter? My cause is a good one. I wage open war against the hypocrisy of the parties. Maybe I can force them at last to break with the conspiracy of silence and battery of calumnies they trot out every evening with their whispering campaign. For God’s sake, speak up and explain yourselves; set out whatever you will in the glare of publicity. I scream Thieves! because there are so many on every side, cowardly thieves that destroy a man’s reputation, tearing it to shreds, with the same carelessness with which a pick-pocket would shred a handkerchief.

I may not be famous, but, look, I should like you to tell the truth about me, and nothing but the truth, should you do me the honour of speaking about me. I am as hard to arm as any flint, but strike me with gusto and you’ll get your spark.

Only bites bring forth bleeding. The thunder is father to the lightning. Fire sucks at the wind. Do not attack the savage beast. Don’t pet the wolf. Don’t get in the way of a man striding towards his goal. Had I a spark of intelligence, some glimmer of embittered honesty, your Jesuitical attacks would alert me to it; they would suggest what I might do, what I should try; in the innermost recesses of my soul, they would strike the spark of revenge, the passage of which sets the blood coursing.

Partisan fury, I would give you my blessing! Stoke you wrath, parade your petty susceptibilities and sinister vengeance in battle array, hone your sneers, hurl your insults and, if you can, stretch to irony. If a man must go down fighting against the parties, I am willing to be that man, but I want to leave a fatal dart in their flanks. Until such time as I have no crust to chew on and no earth beneath my feet, I will cry out to men: Throw down the gauntlet to soldiers and Caesars, throw down the gauntlet to committed folk!

You who endowed the tiger with his fearful roar, the viper with its poison and its coils, Satan, God of vengeance, I turn to you. Make my tongue rough and my pen brutal and let my every utterance, like a two-edged sword, impale the slaves kneeling in the dust!

So that, when the day of reckoning comes I am entitled to cry: Freedom!

Let the stones pile up behind me, let the houses tremble and beasts of the forest prove as pitiless as men in the middle of burning villages.

And let Revolution enfold the globe in giant’s arm and squeeze until it bursts and gushes Eternal Fire over civilized folk!