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                             Some Thoughts on Anarchism in the 20th Century                                              

Anarchism and Existentialism

            “Man is condemned to be free” – Jean Paul Sartre (Being and Nothingness)

Sartre was at heart a political anarchist (what the French called a ‘libertarian socialist’) in the sense that he thought all relations should be voluntary and egalitarian. He described authority as ‘the other in us’ and was suspicious of its every form. But he was also a moralist, meaning that his political involvements always carried a strong moral dimension. There are some basic assumptions about anarchism and existentialism that overlap, particularly their notions of freedom, authenticity, responsibility and the human individual’s pursuit of identity and meaning amidst the social and economic pressures of mass society for superficiality and conformism.

On 29 October 1945, Sartre delivered a public lecture entitled ‘Existentialism is a Humanism?’ that was soon to become the manifesto of the existentialist movement. From all accounts, it was truly an intellectual event. It certainly fuelled the flames of the movement that was spreading from the Left-Bank cafes and music halls of Paris to similar haunts across Europe and around the world. Delivered to an overflow crowd, it summarized briefly what came to be known as the defining characteristic of Sartrean existentialism: the claim that ‘existence precedes essence’. Given the postulated atheism of Sartre’s view, it seemed to follow that individuals were left to create their own values because there was no moral order in the universe by which they could guide their actions, indeed, that this freedom was itself the ultimate value to which one could appeal (as he put it, ‘in choosing anything at all, I first of all choose freedom’). This much could have been gleaned by anyone who had read his masterwork, Being and Nothingness, published two years earlier. But that long and difficult book was not exactly a bestseller and, one could add, like Darwin’s The Origin of Species or Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, it was more often cited than read.

It is generally accepted that humanity is one, subjected to similar conditions and that all people are created equal. This is an accepted truism in the US constitution, but all men are very different both physically and intellectually and soon come to the realization that every man is in fact an island.  Anarchists have been especially conscious of this dual conception of human beings and much of their thought has been devoted to seeking a balance between the claims of general human solidarity and those of the free individual. This reconciliation has been difficult and has been perhaps the major obstacle to putting anarchism into practice.

Historically, anarchism arose not only as an explanation of the gulf between the rich and the poor in any community, and of the reason why the poor have been obliged to fight for their share of a common inheritance, but as a radical answer to the question ‘What went wrong?’ that followed the ultimate outcome of the French Revolution. It had ended not only with a reign of terror and the emergence of a newly rich ruling caste, but with a new adored emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, strutting through his conquered territories.

The anarchists and their precursors were unique on the political Left in affirming that workers and peasants, grasping the chance that arose to bring an end to centuries of exploitation and tyranny, were inevitably betrayed by the new class of politicians, whose first priority was to re-establish a centralized state power. After every revolutionary uprising, usually won at a heavy cost for ordinary populations, the new rulers had no hesitation in applying violence and terror, a secret police, and a professional army to maintain their control.

In the 20th century, anarchism had a role in the Mexican Revolution of 1911, the Russian Revolution of 1917, and most notably in the revolution in Spain that followed the military uprising that precipitated the civil war in 1936.

One of the classical anarchist luminaries was the Russian revolutionary Michael Bakunin (1814–76), deservedly famous for his disputes with Marx in the First International in the 1870s, where, for his successors, he predicted with remarkable accuracy the outcome of Marxist dictatorships in the 20th century. ‘Freedom without socialism,’ he said, ‘is privilege and injustice, but socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality.’ His elaborations on this perception are cited in innumerable books published since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and subsequently of the regimes it imposed on its satellites. Typical of Bakunin’s observations was a letter of 1872 in which he remarked:

I believe that Herr Marx is a very serious if not very honest revolutionary, and that he really is in favor of the rebellion of the masses, and I wonder how he manages to overlook the fact that the establishment of a universal dictatorship, collective or individual, a dictatorship which would create the post of a kind of chief engineer of world revolution, ruling and controlling the insurrectionary activity of the masses in all countries, as a machine might be controlled – that the establishment of such a dictatorship would in itself suffice to kill revolution and warp and paralyze all popular movements . . .

Anarchism in the Twentieth Century

In the major revolutions of the 20th century there were recognizable anarchist elements, but in each of them the anarchists were victims of the new rulers. In Mexico, Ricardo Flores Magon and his brothers had in 1900 begun publication of an anarcho-syndicalist newspaper Regeneración, building up opposition to the dictator Porfirio Diaz, slipping across the border into California when publication became too difficult. With the fall of Diaz, Magon established contact with the peasant revolutionary Emiliano Zapata in the state of Morales in the South, fighting the efforts of large landowners to annex the land of poor growers. (One of my favorite movies is the award winning 1951 Viva Zapata with brilliant performances by Marlon Brando as Zapata and Anthony Quinn as his sidekick)

Magon is said to have made Zapata literate through reading and discussing Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread. Zapata was ambushed and killed in 1919, while Magon was jailed in the United States and was murdered in Leavenworth Penitentiary in 1923. Ironically, both men are celebrated in the Rotunda of Illustrious Men in Mexico City. The contemporary EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) is Mexico’s modern incarnation of Zapata’s campaign, as is, for example, the MST (Movement of Landless Rural Workers) in Brazil. Both of these are campaigns of dispossessed peasants for communal control of land seized by large-scale cattle-ranching oligarchies.          

In the Russian Revolution of 1917 the Bolshevik seizure of power was pushed through with anarchist slogans like ‘Bread and Freedom’ and ‘All Power to the Soviets’, which were very far from daily experience in the new regime. The anarchist hero of the revolution was the Ukrainian peasant Nestor Makhno, organizing peasant land seizures and defending them from both the Bolsheviks and the Whites. Returning Russian exiles included Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, deported from the United States, and Kropotkin, who had been obliged to live abroad for 40 years. Kropotkin addressed critical letters to Lenin and wrote a Letter to the Workers of Western Europe describing for them the lessons of the Russian Revolution. His funeral in 1921 was the last occasion when the Russian anarchists were at liberty until the slow releases from Stalin’s prison camps after 1956.

Goldman and Berkman tried to tell the truth about Lenin’s Russia when they left the country, but found that the political Left in the West rejected their message, seeing it as ‘counter-revolutionary’. The same kind of exclusion by the political Left faced continual anarchist attempts to reveal the truth about the Soviet Union, while Stalinist infiltration destroyed the integrity of a long series of workers’ organizations in the West.

Italy’s anarchist tradition began when Bakunin settled there in 1863, recommended to fellow revolutionaries by Garibaldi and Mazzini, whose nationalism he actually opposed in the name of communal autonomy and federalism. To this period of Bakunin’s life belong his polemics against Marx which, accurately and uniquely, foresaw the evolution of Marxist dictatorships in the 20th century. His disciple Errico Malatesta, who died under house arrest in Mussolini’s Italy, initiated streams of anarchist propaganda in Italy and Latin America, which still flow to this day in the form of an impressive spread of publications and campaigns.

In the Far East, the habit of sending young men from affluent families to complete their education in Europe led to a string of revolutionary students bringing back to China from Paris the anarchist message of Kropotkin in his propagandist books The Conquest of Bread, Mutual Aid, and especially Fields, Factories and Workshops. Many of the shifts and turns of Communist Party policy in China in the 1950s and 1960s have recognizable links with Kropotkin’s agenda, although, of course, they were imposed with the utmost indifference to human suffering. The celebrated novelist Pa Chin (Li Pai Kan) saw Emma Goldman as his ‘spiritual mother’ and constructed his pseudonym from one syllable each of the names Bakunin and Kropotkin. Needless to say, he was subjected to ‘re-education’ several times, and, in 1989, at the age of 84, was arrested because of his support for the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.

The country where anarchism put down its deepest roots was Spain, which in the 1930s had both a mass anarcho-syndicalist trade union, the CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo), and the FAI (Federación Anarquista Iberica), an anarchist body which emerged periodically from an underground existence. The revolution of 19 July 1936 in Spain illustrates another gulf between the anarchist account of events and the way they are perceived and described by more influential voices.

On 18 July 1936, Spain had three Popular Front governments in the course of a single day, debating how to oppose the military revolt from the generals in Morocco, which was moving into mainland Spain, and usually concluding that resistance was futile. Meanwhile in several cities and regions, not only were the weapons of the military garrisons and the civil guards seized, but CNT members took control of factories, transport, and land. The following day marked the beginning, not only of a war against Franco’s insurrection, but of a popular revolution.

Franco’s rebellion was aided by weapons, troops, and bomber aircraft from Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Germany, but the Non-Intervention Agreement upheld by the British and French governments limited the supply of arms for the anti-Fascist forces to those provided (at the cost of Spain’s gold reserves) by the Soviet Union. A further heavy penalty was paid for Soviet support. Stalin’s foreign policy required the repudiation of the Spanish revolution in the interests of the ‘Popular Front’ concept. In the effort to resist growing Soviet influence, anarchist and syndicalist militants actually became ministers both in the Catalan government in Barcelona and in the central government in Madrid.       

The war in Spain wound down to its desolate conclusion in April 1939, after immense loss of life. In August that year the non-aggression pact between Stalin and Hitler was signed and in September the Second World War began. Franco’s regime in Spain survived until the dictator’s death in 1975. The collapse of opposition brought a relentless campaign of vengeance against those who dared to oppose Franco. There were untold numbers of executions and the prisons were filled. Millions of Spaniards lived out their lives in exile.                  

From the point of view of the anarchists, Spain thus provided terrible ironies. In terms of the collectivization of agriculture and industry, it gave a living and inspiring example of Kropotkin’s theories about the seizure of control by the workers. In those parts of the country that had not been seized by army units supporting Franco there were large-scale seizures of land. Spain was a predominantly agricultural country, in which 67% of the land was owned by 2% of landowners. At the same time many smallholdings were too small to feed a family.

Gerald Brenan, in his classic book The Spanish Labyrinth, explained that ‘the only reasonable solution through wide tracts of Spain is a collective one’. In 1936 it was estimated that in those parts of Spain not overrun by Franco’s troops, about three million men, women, and children were living in collectivized communes. Observers from the time similarly reported on the collectivization of factories in Catalonia and of the reorganization of public services, transport, telephones, gas, and electricity in Barcelona.

The American philosopher of language and celebrated linguist Noam Chomsky remembers reading about these achievements as a boy in New York, in the Yiddish-language anarchist journal Fraye Arbeter Shtime. There stayed in his mind a report on a poverty-stricken Spanish town, Membrilla, in whose miserable huts eight thousand people lived, with ‘no newspaper, no cinema, neither a cafe nor a library’. But the villagers shared food, clothing, and tools, and took in a large number of refugees. ‘It was, however, not a socialisation of wealth but of poverty . . . Membrilla is perhaps the poorest village of Spain, but it is the most just.’ Chomsky comments that

An account such as this, with its concern for human relations and the ideal of a just society, must appear very strange to the consciousness of the sophisticated intellectual, and it is therefore treated with scorn, or taken to be naive or primitive or otherwise irrational. Only when such prejudice is abandoned will it be possible for historians to undertake a serious study of the popular movement that transformed Republican Spain in one of the most remarkable social revolutions that history records.

By now the serious studies have been made, and Chomsky has stressed their significance and their lessons for the future, since, as he says, What attracts me about anarchism personally are the tendencies in it that try to come to grips with the problems of dealing with complex organised industrial societies within a framework of free institutions and structures.

The Spanish experience hardly met the second of his criteria, but the events of 1936 amply justified his comments. These achievements were barely noticed in the news media of Western Europe outside the journals of anarchism and the non-communist far Left, and when George Orwell, back from Spain, attempted to puncture the conspiracy of silence in his Homage to Catalonia in 1937, his book had sold a mere 300 copies before being remaindered to the anarchist bookshop in 1940. Many decades later, Ken Loach’s film Land and Freedom (1995) was rapturously received in Spain for dramatizing a key episode in the civil war, hitherto almost unknown in Spain itself.

Needless to say, in the years of exile, those anarchists who had survived both the war and Franco’s revenge devoted endless debate to the fatal decision of the leaders of the CNT to become part of government in an effort to combat Soviet dominance. Since every variety of anarchism has opposed the structure of politics and the political system, this decision was seen as a compromise that brought no advantage and much discredit. Those anarchists who have explored the issue tend to agree with the comment of the veteran French anarchist Sébastien Faure: ‘I am aware of the fact that it is not always possible to do what one should do; but I know that there are things that on no account can one ever do.’

Meanwhile, decades later, a new series of popular uprisings rediscovered anarchist slogans in heroic defiance of Stalin’s apparently monolithic empire. Suppressed aspirations emerged on the streets of Hungarian and Polish cities in 1956 and on those of Czechoslovakia in 1968. They were harbingers of the subsequent bloodless collapse of the Soviet Union, after decades of appalling suffering for those who, usually inadvertently, failed to please their rulers.

As the regimes of their jailers collapsed around them, there was some comfort for the surviving anarchists, with their black flags of protest against the new capitalism steered into being by their old oppressors. They were still monotonously right and their priorities remained the same.


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