Gian Piero de Bellis
(2003 - 2014)
Anarchism / Antianarchism
It is often claimed that the concept of human being and what it means to be human is strictly linked to two basic realities: development and freedom. Without development, the human being can never emerge out of the bundle of fragile nerves, bones and muscles that make up the little child; without freedom, no proper integral development can ever take place.
This is why development and freedom, i.e. a free human development, given that the two are non-separable aspects, represent a powerful aspiration of every human being, never extinguished or extinguishable even in situations of prolonged suppression and suffocation of both elements.
It is no wonder that the celebration of freedom (and implicitly of human development) is one of the most recurring themes of philosophers, novelists, essayists.
We found it in the writings of Greek philosophers like Epictetus ("Freedom is the right to live as we wish") and in those of Roman authors like Cicero ("Freedom is a possession of inestimable value"). In the views of the Christian theologians, freedom is the pre-requisite for ethical action because, without free-will, there is no responsibility and so no possibility to question an act on the basis of its morality.
Referring to the works of western philosophers, it suffices to mention Immanuel Kant to grasp the importance that freedom plays in theoretical and practical life. For him freedom is a postulate or a necessary supposition of pure practical reason (Critique of Practical Reason, 1788) and, because of this, "freedom is a property of all rational beings" (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, 1785). In the Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (1798) Kant expressed what will be, for some, a recurrent theme, strictly connected with the topic being examined here: "anarchy is norm and freedom without force."
It is on the trails of all these theoretical formulations and practical positions on liberty that, in the course of the 19th century, a movement came to light under the name of anarchism.
The term "anarchy" is a quite old one, with positive or negative meanings attached to it according to the subjective inclinations of the user.
The first who employed it as a mark to define a personal conception, leading to a new way of organizing social relations characterized by the absence of a domineering external power, was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.
In his controversial text, What is Property? (1840), after posing to himself the question about his preferred form of government, and so about his position towards social organization, he replied: “Je suis anarchiste”. (“I am anarchist”).
From that moment, those who want society organized without the existence of a supreme invasive power called THE STATE have adopted the name of “anarchists” and have given the name of “anarchism” to the set of ideas that shapes their thinking and guides their actions.
Let us then see what are the basic notions and practices that are shared by those who advocate anarchism and call themselves anarchists, and the main criticisms made to them by those who oppose and fight it.
The core of the vision (^)
Anarchism can be seen as a radical extension of classical liberal principles. Some liberal thinkers like Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer, developed and expounded many ideas that will be accepted or would be acceptable to many anarchists. We could condense the bedrocks of anarchist thought with reference to the following basic convictions:
- The primacy of the individual and the refusal of any imposition concerning the way personal and social life is organized. In the words of Proudhon: “Whoever lays his hand on me to govern me is a usurper and tyrant, and I declare him my enemy.” [Quiconque met la main sur moi pour me gouverner est un usurpateur et un tyran. Je le déclare mon ennemi.] (Les Confessions d'un Révolutionnaire, 1849). And even those anarchists (like Bakunin and Kropotkin) who lean towards a collectivistic or communistic approach to social organization, stressing the importance of cooperation and social relations, never seek to superimpose any social institution on the free individual and his/her voluntary social arrangements.
- The end of privileges given by the power to some individuals or groups, be they feudal landlords, clerical hierarchies, aristocratic barons or the new class of bourgeois that were establishing cosy relationships with national state rulers with a view to gaining commercial protection and economic subsidies.
- The abolition of any political power, of which the modern central state is the supreme embodiment. Anarchists are convinced, like the liberal Lord Acton, that power corrupts, and are aware that the concentration of power in one ruling entity is the sure recipe for personal and social disaster. Moreover, unlike the socialists, they think that to use political tools and to participate in the electoral game is the road to the degeneration of the concept and the decay of the movement.
Some of the basic principles held by the anarchists come directly from the agenda of the French revolutionaries and their demands and aspirations for Liberty, Fraternity, Equality. At the same time, it is also true that the anarchist movement emerges as a reaction to the social arrangements produced, in the final instance, by the French Revolution. As pointed out by a writer on anarchism:
"Born out of the division between the state and society that results from the French Revolution, [anarchism] refuses the state and tries to reconstruct society on the basis of the autonomous will of the individuals." (Henri Arvon, L'Anarchisme, 1951)
In fact, the French Revolution marks the beginning of the installation of a central bureaucratic state and the passage from feudal (local) strictures into state (national) constrictions. This is done in the name of a perverted idea of Liberty (intended as obedience to state made laws), Equality (intended as state imposed uniformity) and Fraternity (intended as docility under the watchful eye of the paternalistic state).
No one has expressed all this better than Proudhon, in a long famous passage:
"To be GOVERNED is to be kept in sight, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right, nor the wisdom, nor the virtue to do so.... To be GOVERNED is to be at every operation, at every transaction, noted, registered, enrolled, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under the pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, trained, ransomed, exploited, monopolized, extorted, squeezed, mystified, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, despised, harassed, tracked, abused, clubbed, disarmed, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and, to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, outraged, dishonoured. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality. And to think that there are democrats among us who pretend that there is any good in government; Socialists who support this ignominy, in the name of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity; proletarians who proclaim their candidacy for the Presidency of the Republic! Hypocrisy! ..." (General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteen Century, Epilogue, 1851)
That is why the authoritarian outcome of the French Revolution, masked by appealing expressions and lofty words, prompted the formation of the anarchist movement and the commencement of the theoretical and material clashes between anarchism and statism.
The manipulation of the term (^)
The full installation into power of the national central state required the continuous implementation, by the state rulers and their apparatus (police, army, bureaucracy, the propaganda machine), of a strategy of neutralising adversaries, if they were not amenable to be corrupted and cajoled into the statist ideology.
To this effect, the first and more effective long-term move was to discredit the opponents by associating the name of their movement and of their members (anarchy, anarchists) with the most atrocious characteristics.
Anarchy then became synonymous with disorder and the anarchists were presented as the perpetrators of all sorts of violent acts fomenting disorder. Any situation in which there was a lack of central state power was called anarchy and was depicted as the source of utmost depravity and with the potential to produce further calamity. The aim was to terrify the common person and to reduce him into voluntary servitude.
By doing so the state rulers implemented an old and recurrent strategy that, albeit comprehensible when the absolute imperative is to hang on to power, remains nevertheless, totally dishonourable, dishonest and, to people with basic notions of history, even ludicrous.
As pointed out by Solneman (Kurt Zube) in his Manifesto: “It is quite understandable from their point of view that those striving for or practising domination should equate a condition of non-domination with disorder or even chaos, because, in this way, they try to justify their own domination.” (Solneman, The Anarchist Manifesto, 1972)
However, it is a travesty of reality to equate lack of central power with disorder because it is exactly the presence of a power determined to exploit others, that is the most relevant cause of disorder. Again, in the words of Solneman: “Disorder is always the consequence of dispute, and dispute arises unavoidably whenever someone attempts to dominate, i.e. to oppress another person.” (Solneman, The Anarchist Manifesto, 1972)
It is very clear to anyone who bothers to examine the course of history with a non-distorted eye, that this is the case. We have plenty of instances when a state power has generated hell on earth. And, in addition to the well-known state historical figures that have orchestrated genocides and mass killings, we have the daily injustices and outrages perpetrated by political bosses and their cronies. Behind a facade of supposed order we have actual disorder and the real explosive source of even more disorder as a reaction to state oppression, corruption and exploitation.
It is then not only deceitful but tragically laughable when state-oriented journalists and pseudo-intellectuals paid by the state talk of a power vacuum, even when referring to the ending of tyrannical and corrupted governments. Likewise, we could lament a “vacuum” in the body when a malignant excrescence (a tumour) is surgically removed. However, to a mentally sound person this way of expressing things and of complaining at the loss of that excrescence would appear as a sign of pathology in the mind.
In the hands of state rulers the terms “order” and “disorder” have then acquired strange connotations that have noting to do with human rationality. On the basis of this manipulation of the language, we could say that there was "order" in the Soviet Union under Stalin because a strong state power was in place and there was "disorder" during the Renaissance in the Italian peninsula when the power of the various Dukes and Princes was quite shaky. However the "order" of the first produced the Gulag where at least ten million people were exterminated, and the "disorder" of the latter gave to Giotto, Botticelli, Masaccio, Michelangelo and many others an opportunity to freely express themselves and produce their masterpieces.
Moreover, the association between anarchy and disorder becomes totally farcical once we come to know that one of the most vigorous expressions of the anarchist movement emerged in the Jura mountains, amongst watchmakers, where order and precision are a necessary requirement without being an irritating imposition.
Nevertheless, with the monopolistic territorial state controlling education and the means of information, it was practically impossible to avoid the spread of this obvious falsehood, i.e. the automatic association between anarchy and disorder. In addition to that, we have also the blunders caused to the movement and to the conception by the actions of certain self-proclaimed anarchists that did not help in countering this prejudice.
The hammering of the protagonists (^)
The anarchist movement was characterized and animated by some protagonists coming from an aristocratic milieu, as in the case, for instance, of Mikhail Bakunin, Piotr Kropotkin and Louise Michel, and by well-cultivated individuals like, for instance, Errico Malatesta (medical student), Elisée Reclus (geographer), Pietro Gori (lawyer), Francisco Ferrer (educator), Isabel Paterson (writer), and many others.
The liberal upbringing and generous humanistic inclinations of those individuals could not help them from colliding with the state power, and almost all of them had to pay a heavy price for their independent way of thinking and acting.
Both Bakunin and Kropotkin spent years in a Russian prison, in the (in)famous Fortress of Peter and Paul, before escaping to Western Europe. Kropotkin had also to pass some years in a French prison for his anarchist activity. Louise Michel was deported to New Caledonia (1873) for her participation in the Paris Commune. She was granted amnesty in 1880 but, afterwards, suffered imprisonment on many occasions because of her struggle against political and social oppression. Errico Malatesta had to undergo a life of wandering (Egypt, Geneva, Buenos Aires, Rumania, Paris, London, the United States) because of repeated state expulsions and harassment that ended only with his death in Rome, in 1932, while working as an electrician, in a country under the spell and talon of Mussolini.
These are only some of the many instances of a continual methodical persecution of the anarchists by the state. In fact, state rulers were determined to suppress with all means any conception and action of emancipation from political subjection and economic exploitation.
The anarchists and the socialists were then the main targets of state repression by the use of the police and the law (for instance, the anti-socialist laws introduced by the German Reichstag in 1878).
However, in the course of time, the anarchists remained the only ones that were totally outside the state imposed "order" and this because of one very important differentiation between socialists and anarchists that has had many important consequences.
The First Congress of the International Working Association held in Geneva in 1866, declared, in the adopted preamble (based on Provisional Rules drafted in London in 1864), that “l'emancipation des travailleurs doit être l'oeuvre des travailleurs eux-mêmes” (“the emancipation of the workers must be the effort of the workers themselves"). This meant, for many members of the Association, the abandonment of the illusion of liberation via political means and the consequent refusal to take part in electoral chicanery and related party struggles. All political activity was considered good only for producing power-hungry leaders with their fake daily promises that would lead only to real future deceptions.
Nevertheless, this position was not shared by another section of the International Association led by Karl Marx. And so, a clash erupted in the following years between the advocates of direct action and self-emancipation, of which Bakunin was the main figure, and those who favoured taking part in the political struggle in order to seize the machinery of the state and introduce revolutionary measures.
The dispute culminated in The Hague Congress (1872) when Bakunin and the anarchists were expelled from the International Association. In the following years and decades the anarchists had to suffer ostracism and persecutions not only from the actual state power (the bureaucratic-bourgeois state rulers) but also from the advocates of the future state power (the bureaucratic-socialist state supporters).
The scission between socialists and anarchists was a general disaster in so far as it accentuated to the extreme the worst aspects present in both camps.
For the socialists, taking part in political action and electoral contests, by setting up national socialist parties, resulted in the creation of a fully-bureaucratic mentality that would turn upside down the entire message of self-emancipation and of abolition of privileges. The choice in favour of almost exclusive political actions will reconcile definitively the socialists with the state. After the First World War, for whose outbreak some socialist parties were co-responsible in association with the reactionary leaders of the national-corporatist states, socialism as national socialism will be only a variant of statism under the names of Russian communism, Italian fascism, German nazism.
For the anarchists, on the other side, the separation led to stress the purity of the message, with some sympathizers erupting in desperate outbursts of presumed exemplary and cathartic vengeance. A rebellious and violent approach became predominant and direct action, or propaganda by the deed, came to mean, for quite a few of self-professed anarchists, to bomb, to kill, to rob, and all that in the name of Anarchy.
That is why, out of immaturity and impotence, the romantic bombastic and bomb-making aspect of anarchism, so dear to pseudo-anarchists and to state antianarchists alike, was ready to take centre stage, with nefarious consequences for the movement and for the idea.
The trashing of the conception (^)
The relevant, appealing and distinguishing point of the anarchist conception is the idea that voluntary social organization, i.e. one not based on authoritarian and exploitative practices, is possible. Out of this social organization based on free choices, order will emerge. This idea is condensed in Proudhon's conviction of "liberty not the daughter but the mother of order." [la liberté non pas fille de l'ordre, mais mère de l'ordre] (Solution du problème social, 1848).
Clearly this demands, especially from those who want to practice anarchy in a still authoritarian context, a deep-seated attitude of independence and non-conformism, in addition to the capacity for self-organization. That is why, contrary to state propaganda, we do not fall into "anarchy," wrongly intended as disorder, but we ascend towards anarchy, that is towards ever better forms of voluntary self-organization in personal and social spheres.
This has not always been clear even to those who openly declared themselves anarchists. Bakunin, Malatesta and Berneri, amongst others, had to remind often that anarchy is not at all against organization and order but simply against impositions and coercions, deceptively presented by the ruling strata as indispensable tools for ensuring organization and order.
Bakunin, especially, was careful to stress that the anarchist is not even against authority based on recognized and accepted knowledge, but only against authoritarianism founded on sheer power. Moreover, given the variety of fields of knowledge and related competences, "there is no fixed and constant authority, but a continual exchange of mutual, temporary, and, above all, voluntary authority and subordination." (see: What is Authority?, in God and the state, 1882)
However, the fear of appearing authoritarian and ignorance about the true nature of anarchy has resulted in the fact that some sections of the anarchist movement have accepted and condoned many violent actions and disorderly behaviour just because they were committed by individuals that professed to act in the name of anarchy. This has led to two very negative consequences, namely:
- attracting to the movement dubious individuals (i.e. enraged, deranged, violent, passionate, self-centred people) that could justify crazy actions or atrocious criminal undertakings as a rightful reaction against oppression;
- permitting the infiltration of agents provocateurs that were pushing for even more atrocious actions in order to discredit the movement and to facilitate the repressive intervention of the state, ready to present itself as the indispensable guarantor of "order".
And this is what regularly happened all over Europe, and especially in France in the last decade of the 19th century. We have then a series of events on which the press was able to build the case that anarchy was equated with the detonation of bombs.
We start with Ravachol, a burglar and murderer who, in 1892, executed three explosions, against a judge, a state prosecutor and an Army Barracks. He was guillotined in 1893 when he was 33 and subsequently was recruited into the legend of the anarchist saints, even though his criminal history included the killing of an elderly hermit, solely for theft.
There was also Auguste Vaillant who, in December 1893, threw a bomb from the public gallery of the French Chamber of Deputies. Several people were injured but no one was killed because of the weakness of the device. As declared by Vaillant before the Court, the aim was to wound as many deputies as possible in revenge for the execution of Ravachol. He too was guillotined a few months later (3 February 1894).
In order to revenge the death of Auguste Vaillant, on 12 February 1894, Émile Henry detonated a bomb at the Terminus Café of the Gare Saint Lazare in Paris killing one person and injuring twenty others. Octave Mirbeau, a novelist with anarchist sympathies, wrote in that respect: "A mortal enemy of anarchy could have acted no better than this Émile Henry when he threw his inexplicable bomb into the midst of peaceful and anonymous persons come to a café to drink a glass of beer before going to bed..." The stupidity and inanity of the act was subsequently overshadowed by the courage and fearlessness with which he faced the legal process and later execution. And so, for some, Émile Henry became an anarchist hero.
On the 24th of June 1894, in order to revenge Auguste Vaillant and Émile Henry, Sante Geronimo Caserio stabbed to death the president of the French Republic, Sadi Carnot.
This series of acts of violence and retribution did nothing to reduce repression and advance personal freedom. On the contrary, the French Parliament introduced, in 1893-1894, the lois scélérates ("villainous laws") that curtailed the freedom to express ideas and criminalized the entire anarchist movement.
In actual fact, the actions of violent individuals and the irrational passions generated later by their execution by the state, were leading the anarchist movement nowhere or, more precisely, to a total trashing of the anarchist conception and towards even more absurd deeds and more unpalatable heroes.
This was very much apparent in the stabbing to death of an anti-conformist defenceless lady on her way to board a steamship on the Lake of Geneva. Her name was Elisabeth and she happened to be the estranged spouse of the emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria. Her executioner, on the 10th of September 1898, was Luigi Luccheni, a self-professed anarchist. Never has the propaganda by deed (those deadly deeds) appeared so senseless and so useless.
Finally, when the alleged anarchists of the Bande Bonnot engaged in their criminal actions (1911-1912) that became the pretext for the introduction of new repressive state laws, it was like reaching the final act of a farcical tragedy that would reduce anarchy to the act of banal robbery.
Parallel to this, the brief season of syndicalism in which, at the turn of the century, many anarchists found a new way to express their energies and the hope of realizing some of their aspirations, was weakened by the creation of a new myth, that of the revolutionary strike that would, at once, introduce the entire society to a new world. But the myth, as is the case of every myth, failed to materialize and many active anarchists or simply sympathizers started looking elsewhere for inspiration and action.
The First World War and the Russian Revolution, by deflecting the attention to other events and to other conceptions, eventually exposed very clearly the dead end reached by a movement once so rich in ideas and aspirations.
The exhaustion of the message (^)
The first two decades of the 20th century were characterized by a series of negative events for the anarchist movement, whose ideas and actions do not seem to have had much effect in preventing individuals and groups from taking disastrous decisions and directions. We can point out to two main phenomena:
- The expansion and consolidation of imperialist states (i.e. England, France, Germany, Russia, Italy) and their military apparatus;
- The bureaucratization of the workers' movement under the control of power hungry functionaries of the so-called "socialist" parties, divided by national lines.
When Gavrilo Princip shot the Archduke of Austria at Sarajevo and provided a pretext for the start of the butchery called First World War, we have the confirmation that:
- political violence is useless if not totally counterproductive especially in the presence of a killing machine called the state that will use those acts of violence to her own advantage;
- the individual has been superseded by the masses that have become just cannon fodder or tin soldiers, fully manipulated and totally dispensable, at the service of the power lust of the state rulers.
In 1918 Randolph Bourne declared openly "War is the Health of the State"; he could have very well said that all kind of violence and brutality is the invigorating tonic of the states.
The First World War represented a turning point for the anarchist movement that saw the ideas and actions of the surviving figures and groups, compressed and eventually marginalized by two powerful forces that will be dominant for a large part of the 20th century:
- Nationalism. During the course of the 19th century, while the attention of many was focused on movements like anarchism and socialism, a current of ideas much more powerful was to affirm itself after a long gestation: nationalism. "Nationalism is a doctrine invented in Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century." (Elie Kedourie, Nationalism, 1960). In order to become a pervasive reality, present in all the interstices of society, this doctrine needed a political entity and it found it in the course of the same century with the invention and foundation of nation states. Nationalism (national territorial statism) by unifying people sharing some common traits (especially the language) and a common myth (democracy as the legitimate right of the majority to impose its will on everybody) was bound to be the ideology of all states, irrespective of what "ism" they were supposedly advocating and stating (capitalism, communism, fascism, etc.). And militarism was the necessary complement of nationalism, given the desire of state rulers to impose on everybody their specific brand of nationalism, inside and outside a specific territory. That is why we can call it "barrack nationalism".
- Communism. The Russian Revolution that occurred in 1917, attracted all those hopes that anarchists had been unable to kindle in the previous decades. However, soon all faded, at least amongst sincere anarchists, as it became clear that a new system of oppression and exploitation was in the making. Nevertheless, many others believed and accepted that state dictatorship was only a brief necessary stage towards a future of freedom and material abundance. But the passage of time only confirmed the worst fears of the anarchists, many of them dying in Soviet prisons. Some of those who survived were afterwards capable of depicting the horrors of a state in which the guillotine was at work on a massive scale, to use the words of G. P. Maximoff, one of the best historians of the madness of “barrack communism” (The Guillotine at Work. Twenty Years of Terror in Russia, 1940).
At the end of the Great War and its nationalistic frenzy and after the establishment of the Communist State in Russia, the anarchist message appeared submerged and silenced by two other agendas:
- The Wilson Doctrine, propounded by the President of the USA Woodrow Wilson, that made the nation state the politically necessary way to organize society.
- The Lenin Practice, that made the totalitarian state the revolutionary necessary way to organize society.
These were both powerful signals and realities that demonstrated the failure of the anarchist message to get through and of its growing irrelevance in the age of the masses. So, just when a free voluntary social organization (i.e. anarchy) would have been most needed, in order to avert future disasters (the Second World War, the Jews genocide, the Russian Gulag etc.) the less chance it had to be envisaged and practiced.
Finally, a point was reached when we can say that anarchism as an international active movement was erased from history and only a few individuals remained (e.g. Max Nettlau, Errico Malatesta), as reclusive figures, trying to keep the historical heritage and the message alive for a hopeful revival in the future.
The erasure from history (^)
The 20th century can be characterized as the age of the masses, led by party rulers keen on inventing appealing myths based mainly on outright lies. Given this reality, no place and voice was left for autonomous and reasoning individuals and for a movement relying on them.
For this motive, between the end of the 19th and the first decades of the 20th century, we witness the erasure from history of the anarchist movement. This is caused by three main occurrences:
- The persecution of the individuals. The “propaganda by deed” resulted in the killing of common people as well as state presidents (Sadi Carnot in 1894 in France and William McKinley in 1901 in the USA at the hands of a presumed anarchist), prime ministers (Antonio Canovas in 1897 in Spain) and crown holders (Elisabeth of Bavaria in 1898 in Switzerland, Umberto I in 1900 in Italy). This resulted in a heavy-handed reaction by the state, which could count on an increasing popular revulsion to the use of similar methods for dismantling central power. As a matter of fact, the killing of state figures had generally the opposite effect, of rallying many people behind the government and the king. So, the state utilised this violence committed by some “anarchists” as a highly convincing pretext to attack and persecute the entire movement, even those that were not at all in sympathy with those methods. Then, as already previously pointed out, anarchists were put on trial (e.g. Louise Michel, Jean Grave, etc.), put in prison (e.g. Mikhail Bakunin, Piotr Kropotkin, E. Armand, etc.), expelled from various countries and forced to become fugitives from place to place (e.g. Errico Malatesta, Pietro Gori, etc.). In other words, they were made to suffer all sorts of oppression and harassment just because of their unrelenting aspiration to live as independent individuals.
- The withdrawal of the activists. In France, the disillusionment with the use of violence led many to engage in revolutionary syndicalism and, for some of them, this became the first step towards participating in the political and electoral struggle. In Italy a leading figure like Andrea Costa had already abandoned anarchism in 1879; he chose the socialism route, was elected to Parliament in 1882 and took part in the foundation of the Italian Workers Party (Genova, 1892) that four years later was to assume the name of Italian Socialist Party. In the USA there was the case of Victor Yarros, one of the most famous voices of individualist anarchism during the last decades of the 19th century that became, later on, a supporter of the New Deal and an advocate of state intervention and state regulation. The First World War and the subsequent events can be considered as the turning point when many revolutionary syndicalists embraced fascism and national socialism finding in those movements a vent for their ambitions to action and power. Similarly sympathizers or potential anarchists abandoned anti-militarism and turned to nationalism, or felt attracted by parties (socialist, communist, fascist) where the state was a very important political agent.
- The appropriation of the ideas. The abandonment of the anarchist camp also meant that other movements appropriated some of their ideas and symbols. For instance the idea of the "general strike" was taken up by fascist leaders for totally different ends (totalitarian state domination). The “march on Rome” by the fascists was, in a certain way, the implementation of a general strike aiming to replace the old power and install a new order of things. Fascism grabbed also the black flag that had been, up to then, the symbol of anarchy. To sum it up, the new emerging powers of communism, fascism and national socialism, took some revolutionary slogans and symbols from the anarchist movement. They transformed it into rhetoric verbiage and by a convenient make-over proceeded to strengthen the state to a level that had never been seen before.
The demise of the anarchist movement was nowhere so much evident than in the land of the “Socialist” Revolution, the Soviet Union. A few months after its eruption, the anarchists were already being persecuted politically and physically. Trotskij called them “bandits.” Under Lenin anarchism as a movement was disbanded and its activists put in prison or executed. Even Nestor Machno, the Ukrainian anarchist who fought the German and the Austrian forces with the approval of the Bolsheviks, was, in the end, liquidated when no longer found useful. Within a few years, the new communist power succeeded in eliminating the anarchist movement from Russian soil.
In the USA, the anarchists were involved and targeted whenever it was necessary to repress strikes, like in the famous Haymarket affair (1886) when somebody threw a bomb at the end of a demonstration, to which the police responded by opening fire and shooting to death various people, including some policemen. The anarchists were accused of it and four of them were executed, even though none of them had thrown the bomb, something conceded even by the prosecution. In the famous trial leading to the execution (1927) of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, in which Vanzetti was almost certainly innocent of the crime he was accused of (murdering two men in an armed robbery), the anarchists were again used as a pretext for strengthening the power of the state.
The last spark of anarchism was ignited during the Spanish civil war (1936-1939) when combatants from Europe and America converged to fight against reaction. The Spanish experience is the condensation of all the best and worst of historical anarchism, of his weaknesses, excesses, nobility and final tragedy. During the war, half a million people are estimated to have died and not always at the hand of the opposite side. The anarchists were responsible for massacres against the Catholic clergy (7000 of them were killed by republican and anarchist activists), landowners and businessmen. In their turn, the anarchists suffered also at the hands of the communists, who were supposed to be their allies in the fight against the Falangists. The anarchist Camillo Berneri, for instance, was killed by a communist squad in Barcelona during the tragic May Days of 1937.
The falling into obscurity and insignificance of the anarchist movement was very well represented by Max Nettlau, the foremost historian of the anarchist movement. He spent the last years of his life in Amsterdam occupied by the Nazis, working undetected and so undisturbed to cataloguing his Anarchist Archive. He was a lone remnant of a great movement aspiring to self-promoted order and free human beings, in a world marked by utter disorder and captive individuals.
The impossible task of anarchism (^)
The falling of anarchism into oblivion and also, in some respects, into disrepute was due to internal and external reasons.
The internal reasons are quite obvious because a movement, open to everybody, especially to those dissatisfied and enraged by the current state of things, can easily become the magnet and the receptacle for all sorts of people ready to commit all sorts of excesses. Once absurd and counter-productive acts were committed, they were then condoned, implicitly or openly, because the violence perpetrated was interpreted as the anarchist reaction to violence suffered. Even a renowned figure like Bakunin could be fouled, for a while, by a sinister character like Nechayev, a fanatical fraud. This was because, in the mind of quite a few anarchists, the vision of the revolution as a conspiratorial violent upheaval was deeply rooted. And even the distancing by other anarchists from that vision and from the destructive acts committed in the name of anarchy was not sufficient, given the existence of a state and of a press eager to find a useful scapegoat to be blamed for all the violence.
As for the external reasons, these refer mainly to the fact that, by dominating the channels of education and information, the state succeeded in presenting the anarchists not only as disorderly and violent but also as naive and foolish. For instance, a criticism that was and is continuously addressed to the anarchists in order to dismiss them outrightly, is that they are utopian dreamers, advocating a social organisation that might be possible only if society was solely composed of saints.
This distortion of the truly anarchist view of human nature is on a par with the abuse of stirring and advocating disorder addressed to people, the anarchists, whose ideas, as already remarked, flourished especially amongst the precision and order of the watch-making workshops and industries of the Swiss Jura.
In reality, the portrait of the human being held by anarchists like Kropotkin, and that is present, manifestly or implicitly, in the anarchist conception, is neither childishly optimistic nor idiotically pessimistic. It relies on:
- the perfectibility of the human being attained by practicing the best human inclinations, like that of sociability, compassion and mutual aid;
- the corruptibility of the human being brought about by the cultivation of the worst human aspects, like envy and greed, and the concentration in a few hands of the most dangerous social factor, namely power.
As a matter of fact, the criticism of being infantile dreamers can in turn be addressed to those who advocate the existence of state rulers in order to implement order and quell violence. The anarchists, as just pointed out, were quite disenchanted with human nature. They were aware that any concentration of power, in any individual, can result in the corruption of that individual and his associates, with dire consequences in terms of order and peaceful social life. History has confirmed the worst fears of anarchists, with millions of people killed or maimed in state-promoted state-engineered wars, or by the use of concentration camps, extermination plans, purges, mass expulsions and so on and so forth. Some ascribe the numbers of deaths at the hands of governments and with reference only to the 20th century, to the astonishing figure of well over 200 millions individuals (see R. J. Rummel, Statistics of Democide, http://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/NOTE5.HTM)
That is why the criticism aimed at anarchists of being naïve, because they refuse to accept the concentration of power in the hands of the state rulers, appears dangerously and ludicrously senseless. And this is perfectly clear to those who have understood that what the anarchist oppose is not the establishment of order but the illusion that order can emerge by giving to one group of individuals inordinate amount of power and leaving the rest totally defenceless.
This has been very well expressed by John Dewey when he wrote: "even the theoretical anarchist, whose philosophy commits him to the idea that state or government control is an unmitigated evil, believes that with the abolition of the political state other forms of social control would operate: indeed, his opposition to governmental regulation springs from his belief that other and to him more normal modes of control would operate with abolition of the state." (Experience and Education, 1938)
In other words, anarchism is not at all a utopian dream but a truly practical proposition that demands from everybody a modicum of:
- human rationality or the dismissal of myths and illusions: do not accept a-critically what you have been told;
- personal responsibility or the dismissal of parasitic behaviour: do not live on the back of others, do not let others pay for your faults;
- social reciprocity or the dismissal of social inconsistency: don't do to others what you don't want to be done to you, do ut des - give and receive.
However, in the presence of a mass society in which the central territorial state had succeeded in dominating and practically monopolising the formation processes and the information channels, as previously pointed out, the task of the anarchists in carrying on these basic aims was, given also the internal flaws of the movement, an impossible one.
That is why, in the place of human rationality, personal responsibility and social reciprocity we had:
- the manufacturing of mental superstitions and myths (for instance democracy as the power of the people and the parliament as the voice of the citizens);
- the distribution of corruptive material hand-outs (for instance welfare payments) that keep individuals always dependent on the state;
- the obfuscation of moral principles (for instance national laws of the state, i.e. legality, replacing moral values, i.e. morality as universal norms of civility).
Clearly, to fall into the gutter of statism, cultivating the worst aspects of human nature as credulity, irresponsibility and immorality, is a much easier task than ascending to the sensible plateau of anarchy. Nevertheless, human nature, although flexible and adaptable to almost everything, is also so rich in potentials and aspirations that it could get weary of living always in the gutter and might want to experience something different. Even from the gutter we can see the stars and that is why the process of personal emancipation is a never-ending one.
The necessary renewal of anarchism (^)
During that long period when anarchism was a very feeble light in the darkness and a voice, kept alive by individuals like E. Armand, Albert Jay Nock, Herbert Read, the principles of liberty were upheld by classical liberals like Ludwig von Mises and Friedrick Hayek, later to be grouped under the name of the Austrian School. In the United States one of them, Murray Rothbard, was to become a leading exponent of what he and others called anarcho-capitalism, a term that links the freedom of economic action intrinsic to original capitalism with the freedom of personal and social action more closely related to genuine anarchism.
Rothbard and others were instrumental in promoting and reinvigorating the debate about libertarianism (a word equivalent to anarchism but used more and more in preference to anarchism), writing seminal books (For a New Liberty, 1972; The Ethics of Liberty, 1982), founding and animating a very stimulating review like the Journal of Libertarian Studies (1977).
Rothbard's intellectual and practical journey was also indicative of the end of old divisions that have characterised the anarchist movement, such as that between left and right, divisions that are continuously re-proposed only by people stuck in the past and willing to impose, with a totally anti-anarchic attitude, their own brand of a supposedly superior form of true "anarchism".
Anarchists or Libertarians resurfaced then in the 1960's and can be found contributing ideas and activists in a series of movements such as:
The movement for civil rights. It emerged during the nineteen-fifties in the USA a movement for black emancipation aimed at upholding the civil rights of black people against any discrimination. Even if what motivated and animated the participants in that movement was the affirmation of human dignity, without any specific ideological connotation, the struggle against the injustice of the power (segregation, harassment, violence) had a libertarian outlook. This aspect will be found, even more accentuated, in other movements that characterize the nineteen-sixties, in many parts of the world.
The student movement. Some of those, like Mario Savio, who participated in the civil rights march in Mississippi, were then to be found at the University of California, Berkley, setting up the Free Speech Movement through which the students claimed a voice in the decisions concerning their education. In Europe, the Mai '68 revolt in Paris with its libertarian atmosphere and provocative catch-phrases (Il est interdit d'interdire! It is forbidden to forbid! - L'imagination prend le pouvoir! Imagination takes power!) showed, at least for a brief season, that anarchism could be a very lively and appealing conception. However, those that were attracted to it were not capable of sustaining it as a long-term strategy. So, when the leaders of the bureaucratic parties convened and gained monetary concessions by the state, the workers withdrew and the protest came, eventually, to an end.
The movement against the war in Vietnam. Another movement that presented classic anarchist themes like the opposition to militarism and imperialism, was that against the war in Vietnam. Unfortunately this became soon a struggle between two camps (pseudo-communism and pseudo-capitalism) and so the libertarian aspect quickly evaporated in favour of declaring sympathies and allegiance to one or the other side. This marked the end of the libertarian aspect of the movement. The anarchists then engaged in other themes in which libertarianism was to become a strong component.
The feminist movement. The Women's liberation movement of the nineteen-sixties continued the struggle for the emancipation and equal rights for women started in the 19th and continued in the 20th century, with the contribution of anarchists like Voltairine de Cleyre and Emma Goldman. The feminist movement, by questioning also authoritarian relationships within presumedly progressive or even libertarian groups, has provided a salutary lesson for many and can then be really seen as anarchist in its attitudes and aims, even if not in its specific declarations.
The ecological and communitarian movement. The movement that best condensed and expressed the anarchist outlook and practice was the one that promoted all sorts of alternative technologies and alternative life styles. The inspiration and manifestations of this movement can be found in the writings of authors like Murray Bookchin, Ivan Illich, Colin Ward and those around two famous Reviews and Projects: the Whole Earth Review with the various Whole Earth Catalogs, 1968-1994 (Steward Brand, Kevin Kelly, Howard Rheingold and many others) and Undercurrents with the Radical Technology Catalogue, 1976 (Godfrey Boyle, Peter Harper and many others). The Centre for Alternative Technology started in Wales in 1973 can also be allied with the same vision.
In most cases, many of the participants in those movement were not aware of the roots, developed by previous anarchist thinkers and practitioners, that underpinned what they were fighting for. However, this is not a sign of weakness but of strength of the anarchist conception because it means that its validity goes well beyond the limited sphere from which it evolved.
The reappearance of anarchism, after its relinquishment and almost obliteration, is then a proof of the everlasting value of its aspirations and of the rich variety of its positions.
The everlasting value of anarchism (^)
The re-emergence of anarchism is due to the presence, within that concept, of some aspects that are valid in all ages and that are particularly capable of being implemented in our time in which the technology of communication and production is well advanced.
In fact the more developed individuals and communities are, the more they are ripe for self-governments, i.e. anarchy. This notion is not new, as we can find it already expressed by Thomas Paine when he wrote, “The more perfect civilization is, the less occasion has it for government, because the more does it regulate its own affairs, and govern itself.” (Rights of Man, 1872)
In the current historic epoch, the collapse of the Soviet Union (centralised state collectivism) and the serious crisis affecting the United States of America (bureaucratic state corporatism) are a stark reminder that societies are not something that can be mastered and guided by an all-powerful all-knowledgeable ruling group. This is because:
- there is no such thing as a fully knowledgeable élite to be followed as enlightened disinterested experts;
- there is no such thing as a uniform block of people called society to be guided as a flock of passive sheep.
Moreover, if such things have been made quite possible, until recently, by the invention and use of ideologies having homogenizing effects on many (e.g. nationalism, communism) and of apparatuses which have a subjugating effect on all (the state army, the state police, mass-education for state indoctrination, mass-media for state propaganda, etc.), nowadays this is not longer possible given the existence of a variety of channels of personal communication and action.
The post-industrial society is based on
- automation: the freeing of many producers from alienating and debilitating tasks with wide potential effects for those wanting a less demeaning and a more meaningful life;
- cybernation: the multiplication of feed-back and feed-forward effects from all the participants in the social complex and not just from the ruling strata;
- communication: the instantaneous spreading of information in which each individual is a potential producer and receiver on a global scale.
All this is making possible personal empowerment and stimulating the desire for self-realization by many individuals. Even in communities not so technologically advanced, any attempt to keep people silent and obedient to a central power is an illusion of the past.
In many senses, the post-industrial society has made it possible to implement the demands and aspiration of the anarchist movement, transforming them into normal technological possibilities and daily personal choices, devoid of specific references to any past revolutionary platform. Revolutionary demands become then plain common reality. This can be seen for instance in the spreading of:
- Direct action: the presence of mediators and intermediary stages is replaced by people’s direct intervention in many spheres of production of goods and utilisation of services, in such a way that the individual can take a direct control, as advocated by anarchists, of how and when to take his decisions and implement his choices.
- Appropriate dimensions: the gigantism of past ages has given way to greatly reduced dimensions (miniaturization) on a more human scale (physically and socially). This is more closely related to the development of workshops, cottage industries and small free communities as advocated by some anarchists like Kropotkin.
- Spontaneous order: the complexity of social relationships and of social networks makes not only impossible but even absurd the thinking of an order imposed from the top and re-proposes the idea of spontaneous order arising from a myriad of small, reciprocal, and continuous personal and social adjustments. This represents the very basic idea of anarchism.
The symbol of anarchy is an A inscribed in a circle that represents the letter O for order. This is the recurrent message of all truly anarchists from Anselme Bellegarrigue to our days: Anarchy is Order, and we could add, spontaneous voluntary order based on the principle of non-aggression.
Sometimes this message has not been truly accepted even by some self-professed anarchists, who have taken the rich variety of positions characterizing the movement and the lack of prohibitions as a pretext for supporting some unsavoury aspects and actions presented under the label of anarchism.
Let us now look at the various positions expressed by the anarchist movement, their meaning and worth, and what can be made of them, and if they can all be included under the concept of anarchism.
The various positions of anarchism (^)
The freedom that characterises anarchy as a means and as an end, has allowed the emergence of various practices and views, stressing one aspect or the other, according to the specific value-choices made by each individual, in a free voluntary manner.
This variety of positions can be perhaps subsumed under three main headings:
Anarcho-communism. In the early period of anarchism, the difference between anarchists and socialists was only in the methods and means adopted for achieving freedom and equality (i.e. the end of state restrictions and privileges). So, in practice, they were all socialists in the sense that they were all in favour of social ownership of the means of production. However, some of them like Bakunin, did not use the word communism as it was tainted by the notion of the necessity, even if temporarily, of state centralization (as promoted by Marx, at least up to a certain period), preferring the term collectivism. Bakunin's collectivism is a voluntary form of collaborative production in which everyone receives a return in recognition of his working contribution to the common activity. Others, like Proudhon, used the word mutualism to describe the voluntary coming together of individuals with a view to achieving common production and reciprocal assistance. Kropotkin thought the expression "anarchist communism" appropriate to portray his ideas on social organization. When the term “communism” was used, it was always in the sense of voluntary acceptance of producing and sharing in common, with no central authority in charge of planning production and distribution. The aspiration to achieve a voluntary anti-authoritarian communism was also based on the conviction that technology required a socialised form of production and that scientific progress would increase enormously the amount of goods produced, so that everybody could obtain, from the general pool, what was necessary for a decent living. Even if some expectations have proved over optimistic because certain resources are limited, the basic idea of anarcho-communism can be successful and fully viable, for instance, in the area of information and communication. Science, as remarked by Karl Merton (The Sociology of Science, 1973), is a communistic activity and the free sharing of information through the world network (World Wide Web) has the characteristics and aims envisaged by some anarcho-communists in the past.
Anarcho-individualism. With the growing dominance, especially during the first half of the 20th century, of totalitarianism in its various forms (state communism, fascism, national socialism), the form of anarchism that came to play a significant role was the one that runs through the entire history of anarchy, from Max Stirner to the present day, namely that of anarcho-individualism. Under this appellation we find all those individuals that are against any sort of imposition concerning personal choices and matters, made not only by the state but also by anyone, in the name of society, religion, science, progress and other, more or less appealing, pretexts. One of the most consistent individualist anarchists was E. Armand whose activities and writings span several decades. Within this conception we can include somebody, like David Thoreau, who did not use the term anarchist to qualify himself but acted in a way that expressed all the best aspects and motivations of individual anarchism. Also the anarchism of Tolstoy and of others like Dorothy Day, inspired by a religious sentiment, can be subsumed under anarcho-individualism because of their remarkable stress on the importance and worth of the human being.
Anarcho-capitalism. The terrible misdeeds associated with the term communism and the will to recover the spirit of free trade and free enterprise could be accounted for the loss of favour of anarcho-communism and the ascendancy of a current of ideas and practices that Murray Rothbard is credited to have called anarcho-capitalism. The core conviction of Rothbard and others is that the state is a monopolistic illegitimate institution that should be got rid of even in the area of personal security and protection. Everything can then be carried out through personal contracts and voluntary organizations. This position was first put forward by classical liberals like Gustave de Molinari (De la production de la sécurité, 1849) and extended by Paul Emile de Puydt (Panarchie, 1860) to the idea of government in competitions, like business companies vying for customers, on the pattern of socio-economic laisser-faire laisser-passer. Anarcho-capitalism, stressing voluntarism and the overcoming of monopolies of any type (first of all the territorial monopoly of the state) is clearly part of the anarchist movement as long as we overcome silly preconceptions like that between left and right (anarchism being supposedly a movement of the left and anarcho-capitalism a movement of the right) and fake oppositions like that between public and private property (anarchism being supposedly a movement in favour of a not well-specified public property and anarcho-capitalism a movement in favour of a so-called private property, public and private being both state-invented categories).
The variety of the positions that have been adopted can be seen as a quality of anarchism in the sense that it includes and accepts all the many forms of personal and social organisation, each one freely and voluntarily chosen by his advocates and practitioners. However, the pseudo-anarchists that have deeply absorbed the unidimensional mono-cultural worldview of statism, are incapable of dealing with variety and have always been trying to impose their own brand of "anarchism" (usually anarcho-communism in the past and perhaps anarcho-capitalism in the future) completely oblivious and ignorant of the fact that the only "ism" that should be favoured and practised by all is voluntarism.
For this reason, to the ones previously listed, a further position should be added, that goes by the name of
Anarchism without adjectives. This expression was first introduced by Fernando Tarrida del Marmol in 1889 in Barcelona as a way to go beyond the division between communist anarchists and collectivist anarchists and favour a more open and more inclusive approach. This position was reiterated by Voltairine de Cleyre in her essay Anarchism (1901) in which she declares that "Anarchism means freedom to the soul as to the body, - in every aspiration, every growth." And from that it follows that "Each choose that method which expresses your selfhood best, and condemn no other man because he expresses his Self otherwise." This position of acceptance of different forms of social organization can be found also in the writings of Max Nettlau, especially in the essay Quelques idées fausses sur l'Anarchisme [Some Wrong Ideas about Anarchism] (1905). It has been re-affirmed by Karl Hess in a famous article with a title that could not be more explicit: Anarchism without Hyphens (1980)
Nevertheless, even in our time, there is a conviction that there are anarchist positions that are more anarchist than others and it is those that must be upheld (if not imposed) to the detriment of all the others that are either non-anarchist or not anarchist enough.
If this attitude remains dominant, perhaps the best way out is to abandon the formal use of all the "isms" produced in the past, (anarchism included) while salvaging the fundamental perennial values and messages that are present in them (and especially in anarchism).
It is then time to stress, even more, voluntarism and pluralism and go beyond anarchism/antianarchism. Let us see how this can be achieved.
Beyond anarchism and antianarchism (^)
Going beyond anarchism and antianarchism means to leave behind the ineptitudes, ingenuousnesses or sheer idiocies of some anarchists or pretended anarchists (past and present) and refresh the everlasting core of the anarchist conception and practices.
The best way to do so is to integrate the anarchist vision and aspiration with a scientific outlook and approach so that, in the end, we are no longer dealing with objectives (the implementation of anarchy) held by a specific group of people (the anarchists) but with a framework (the freedom to live ones own life) that is acceptable to all in so far as it is the moral pre-requisite for being humans (presence of responsibly assumed choices) and the scientific premise for the existence of a human society (absence of oppression that generates clashes)
However, to do so, we should, first of all, get rid of two pathologies that are deeply imbedded in the minds of many individuals (of "anarchists" and "antianarchists" alike):
- the mission pathology: the idea that the mission of revolutionary individuals is to change the world with a total solution and once for all;
- the missionary pathology: the idea that there are missionaries (the proletariat, the party, the left, the entrepreneurs, the scientists, etc.) that are the engine of this total catharsis.
Missions and missionaries should be replaced by:
- sensible persons: the protagonist of self-liberation is each single reasoning and willing human being;
- practical projects: the path of self-liberation is the setting up of autonomous fruitful initiatives and projects that liberate productive energies and creativity.
A liberation process, whatever the background of ideas that inspire it, should be founded on the basic principle that is common to science and to morality, i.e. consistency. Specifically, the consistency required is that between:
- Ends-Means. If authoritarian power is based on violence, the antiauthoritarians cannot use violence as part of their strategy unless they want to replicate the worst aspects of the power they want to abolish. In other words, authoritarian means cannot be employed for libertarian ends.
- Ideas-Actions. If authoritarian power is based on lofty empty words (democracy, popular sovereignty, public interest, etc.) the antiauthoritarian expresses, through very practical projects and self-liberating actions, his/her libertarian ideas.
- Unity-Variety. If the authoritarian power is based on massification (uniformity) and confrontation (antagonism), the antiauthoritarian is for the harmony (unity) of differences (variety) and so for the polyvalent multi-dimensional individual.
These three manifestations of consistency are indispensable both in the practice of science and in the liberation process. That is why liberation is a scientific activity that goes beyond any specific ideology or label (political, economic or other) attached to it.
Now, as ever, the task is to advance science because, in so doing, we advance the liberation process. But science is not or not just, as many think, the activity performed in laboratories by people in white overall, paid to produce ideas and discoveries that we all will accept and consume. This journalistic idea of science has never been true in its entirety and is not at all true in our time when genial ideas and products have come out from people tinkering in their garage or university dormitory.
Science, like Art, is the domain of every individual keen on experimenting and expressing new ideas. For this reason life is a scientific and artistic endeavour or, in other words, is made of many scientific experiments and artistic expressions. When this simple fact will be accepted in every-day life and when social experiments and artistic expressions will be part and parcel of the existence of individuals and communities, the term anarchism will disappear because, without even thinking of it, we will all be practising it.
On the 1 of May 1919, the anarchist and pacifist Gustav Landauer was arrested by men at the order of Gustav Noske, the Minister of Defence of the German State and a member of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). A day later, in Munich's Stadelhein Prison, he was killed in the most atrocious way, by crushing his head by battering it with musket butts. His major crime was to have provided everybody with one of the best analysis of what the state is and what should be made to be done with it. In Weak Statesmen, Weaker People! (1910) he wrote that the state is not something that one can smash in order to destroy it. “The state is a social relationship, a certain way human beings relate to each other. It can be destroyed by creating new social relationships, by human beings relating to each other differently."
And to generate new satisfying personal and social relationships amongst free individuals and voluntary communities is the never-ending task of all human beings, beyond anarchism and antianarchism.
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 La Circulaire de Sonvillier
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