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

Portrait of Sébastian Faure by André Claudot, June 1923

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

Anarchism as a Force for Revolution

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

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

Political authority: the State.

Economic authority: Property.

Moral authority: Fatherland, Religion, Family.

Legal authority: Judiciary and Police.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sébastien Faure, January 25, 1921

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

Élisée Reclus: Why We Are Anarchists (1889)

Elisée Reclus (1830-1905)

Élisée Reclus was one of the most important anarchist intellectuals of the 19th century. He was involved in the debates within the anti-authoritarian International in the mid- to late-1870s that led to the creation of a self-avowed revolutionary anarchist movement. He was one of the first proponents of anarchist communism, and a well-respected geographer. In this piece from 1889, Reclus explains why he and others are anarchists. The translation is by Iain McKay and is taken from Volume 1 of his forthcoming Libertarian Reader, an anthology of libertarian socialist writings from the 1850s to 2016. While there is some overlap between the Libertarian Reader and my Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas (three volumes of anarchist writings from ancient China to 2012), this selection by Reclus is one of many that is only in the Libertarian Reader, which promises to be another invaluable source book of original anarchist and libertarian socialist writings.

Why Are We Anarchists?

The following lines do not constitute a programme. They have no other purpose than to justify the usefulness of elaborating a draft programme which would be subject to the study, to the observations, to the criticisms of all communist revolutionaries.

Perhaps, however, they contain one or two considerations that could fit into the project that I am asking for.

We are revolutionaries because we want justice and everywhere we see injustice reigning around us. The products of labour are distributed in an inverse ration to the work. The idler has all the rights, even that of starving his neighbour, while the worker does not always have the right to die of hunger in silence: he is imprisoned when he is guilty of striking. People who call themselves priests peddle miracles so that they can enslave intellects; people called kings claim to be from a universal master to be master in their turn; people armed by them cut, slash and shoot at their pleasure; people in black robes who say they are justice par excellence condemn the poor, absolve the rich, often sell convictions and acquittals; merchants distribute poison instead of food, they kill in detail instead of killing in bulk and thereby become honoured capitalists.[2] The sack of coins is the master, and he who possesses it holds in his power the destiny of other men. All this seems despicable to us and we want to change it. We call for revolution against injustice.

But “justice is only a word, a mere convention,” we are told. “What exists is the right of force!” Well, if that is so, we are no less revolutionary. It is one or the other: either justice is the human ideal and, in this case, we claim it for all; or else force alone governs societies, and in that case we will use force against our enemies. Either the freedom of equals or an eye for an eye [la loi du talion].

But why the rush, all those who expect everything in time tell us, to exempt themselves from taking action. The slow evolution of events suffices for them, revolution scares them. History has pronounced [judgement] between us and them. Never has any partial or general progress been achieved by mere peaceful evolution; it has always been made through a sudden revolution. If the work of preparation takes place slowly in minds, the realisation of ideas occurs suddenly: evolution occurs in the brain, and it is the arms that make the revolution.

And how to bring about this revolution that we see slowly preparing in Society and whose advent we are aiding with all our efforts? Is it by grouping ourselves in bodies subordinate to each other? Is it by constituting ourselves like the bourgeois world that we fight as a hierarchical whole, with its responsible masters and its irresponsible inferiors, held as tools in the hand of a boss? Will we begin to become free by abdicating? No, because we are anarchists, that is to say men who want to keep full responsibility for their actions, who act in accordance with their rights and their personal duties, who impart to a [human] being his natural development, who has no one as a master and is not the master of others.

We want to free ourselves from the grasp of the State, no longer to have above us superiors who can command us, putting their will in the place of ours.

We want to rip apart all external law, by holding ourselves to the conscious development of the inner laws of our nature. By suppressing the State, we also suppress all official morality, knowing beforehand that there can be no morality in obeying misunderstood laws, in obeying a practice which they do not even try to justify. There is morality only in freedom. It is also by freedom alone that renewal remains possible. We want to keep our minds open, amenable in advance to any progress, to any new idea, to any generous initiative.

But if we are anarchists, enemies of every master, we are also international communists, because we understand that life is impossible without social organisation. Isolated, we can do nothing, while through close union we can transform the world. We associate with each other as free and equal men, working for a common task and regulating our mutual relations by justice and reciprocal goodwill. Religious and national hatreds cannot separate us, since the study of nature is our only religion and we have the world for our homeland.

The main cause for savagery and wickedness will cease to exist amongst us. The land will become collective property, barriers will be removed and henceforth the ground belonging to all can be adapted to the enjoyment and well-being of all. The required products will be precisely those which the land can best provide, and production will respond exactly to needs, without ever wasting anything as in the disorderly work that is done today. In the same way the distribution of all these riches amongst men will be removed from the private exploiter and will be done by the normal functioning of society at large.

We do not have to sketch in advance the picture of the future society: It is the spontaneous action of all free men that is to create it and give it its shape, moreover incessantly changing like all the phenomena of life. But what we do know is that every injustice, every crime violating human dignity [lèse-majesté humaine] we always find us rising to fight them. As long as iniquity exists, we, international communist-anarchists, we will remain in a state of permanent revolution.

Élisée Reclus, La Société nouvelle, Year 5, No. 2, 1889

[2] Reclus writes “tuent en detail,” a play on words as “vente en detail” means retail sale. (Editor)