Actualité de l’Anarcho-syndicalisme

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The History of Anarchism

by Brian Crabtree (1992)

Wednesday 8 January 2003

The rejection of authority dates back to the Stoics and Cynics, and has been around for millenia. However, the terms anarchist, anarchism, and anarchy, from the Greek "an archos" (without a rule), were used entirely in a negative manner before the nineteenth century.

 Proudhon and the Mutualists 

In 1840, in his controversial "What Is Property", French political writer and socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon became the first person to call himself an Anarchist. In this book, Proudhon stated that the real laws of society have nothing to do with authority, but stem instead from the nature of society itself. He also predicted the eventual dissolve of authority and the appearence of a natural social order. "As man seeks justice in equality, so society seeks justice in anarchy. Anarchy - the absence of a sovereign - such is the form of government to which we are every day approximating." He was a ’peaceful anarchist’; he believed that within existing society, the organizations could be created that would eventually replace it. Proudhon was born in 1809, originally a peasant, the son of a brewer. His "What Is Property" and "System of Economic Contradictions" established him in the socialist community. Later he went on to write "The Federal Principle" and "The Political Capability of the Working Class".

Although he declared in "What Is Property" that "property is theft", he did not support communism, and regarded the right of workers to control the means of production as an important part of freedom. He never considered himself the originator of a movement, but he did propose a federal system of autonomous communes. He had many followers, but they preferred the title ’Mutualists’ to ’Anarchists’; Anarchism still bore a negative connotation. Proudhon and the Mutualists, along with British tradeunionists and socialists, formed the First International Workingmen’s Association.

 Bakunin and Collectivism 

"The passion for destruction is also a creative passion" - These words would accurately summarize the position of Mikail Bakunin and the Collectivists. Bakunin believed that Anarchy was only possible through a violent revolution, obliterating all existing institutions. He was originally a nobleman, but became a revolutionary and joined the International in the 1860’s, after founding the Social Democratic Alliance and modifying Proudhon’s teachings into a new doctrine known as Collectivism. Bakunin taught that property rights were impractical and that the means of production should be owned collectively. He was strongly opposed to Karl Marx, also a member of the International, and his ideas of a proletarian dictatorship. This conlict eventually tore the International apart in 1872. He died in 1876, but the next International that he and the Collectivists started in 1873 lasted for another year. Later, his followers finally accepted the title of ’Anarchist’.

 Prince Peter Kropotkin 

In 1876, when he became a revolutionary, Peter Kropotkin renounced his title of Prince and became successor to Mikail Bakunin. He developed the theory of Anarchist Communism: not only should the means of production be owned collectively, but the products should be completely communized as well. This revised Thomas More’s Utopian idea of storehouses, "From each according to his means, to each according to his needs." Kropotkin wrote "The Conquest of Bread" in 1892, in which he sketched his vision of a federation of free Communist groups. In 1899 he wrote "Memoirs of a Revolutionist", an autobiographical work, and "Fields, Factories, and Workshops", which put forward ideas on the decentralization of industry necessary for an Anarchist society. He later proved by biological and sociological evidence that cooperation is more natural than coercion ("Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution" - 1902). Kropotkin’s writings completed the vision of the Anarchist future, and little new has been added since.

 The Anarchist Movement 

Even before Proudhon entered the scene, Anarchist activism was going on. The first plans for an Anarchist commonwealth were made by an Englishman named Gerrard Winstanley, who founded the tiny Digger movement. In his 1649 pamphlet, "Truth Lifting Up Its Head Above Scandals", he wrote that power corrupts, that property is incompatible with freedom, and that men can only be free and happy in a society without governmental interference, where work and its products are shared (what was to become the foundation for Anarchist theory in the years to come). He led a group of followers to a hillside where they established an Anarchist village, but this experiment was quickly destroyed by local opposition. Later another Englishman, William Godwin, would write ’Political Justice’, which said that authority was against nature, and that social evils exist because men are not free to act according to reason.

Among Italian Anarchists, an activist attitude was prevalent. Said Errico Malatesta in 1876, "The insurrectionary deed, destined to affirm socialist principles by acts, is the most efficacious means of propaganda." The first acts were rural insurrections, meant to arouse the uneducated citizens of the Italian countryside, but these were unsuccessful. Afterward this activism tended to take the form of individual acts of protest by ’terrorists’, who attempted to assassinate ruling figures in the hope of demonstrating the vulnerability of the structure of authority and inspiring others by their self-sacrifice. From 1890- 1901, a chain of assassinations took place: King Umberto I, Italy; Empress Elizabeth, Austria; President Carnot, France; President McKinley, United Stated; and Spanish Prime Minister Antonio C novas del Castillo. Unfortunately, these acts had the opposite effect of what was intended- they established the idea of the Anarchist as a mindless destroyer.

Also during the 1890’s, many French painters, writers, and other artists discovered Anarchism, and were attracted to it because of its individualist ideas. In England, writer Oscar Wilde became an Anarchist, and in 1891 wrote "The Soul of Man Under Socialism".

Anarchism was also a strong movement in Spain. The first Anarchist journal, "El Porvenir", was published in 1845, but was quickly silenced. Branches of the International were established by Guiseppe Fanelli in Barcelona and Madrid. By 1870, there were over 40,000 Spanish Anarchists members; by 1873, 60,000, mostly organized in workingmen’s associations, but in 1874 the movement was forced underground. In the 1880’s and ’90’s, the Spanish Anarchist movement tended toward terrorism and insurrections.

The Spanish civil war was the perfect opportunity to finally put ideas into action on a large scale. Factories and railways were taken over. In Andalusia, Catalonia, and Levante, peasents seized the land. Autonomous libertarian villages were set up, like those described in Kropotkin’s ’The Conquest of Bread’. Internal use of money was abolished, the land was tilled collectively, the village products were sold or exchanged on behalf of the entire community, and each family recieved an equal share of necessities they could not produce themselves. Many of these such communes were even more efficient than the other villages. Although the Spanish Anarchists failed because they did not have the ability to carry out sustained warfare, they succeeded in inspiring many and showing that Anarchy can work efficiently.

Although two of the greatest Anarchist leaders, Bakunin and Kropotkin, were Russian, totalitarian censorship managed to supress most of the movement, and it was never very strong in Russia. Only one revolutionary, N.I. Makhno, a peasant, managed to raise an insurrectionary army and, by brilliant guerilla tactics, took temporary control of a large part of the Ukraine from both Red and White armies. His exile in 1921 marked the death of the Anarchist movement in Russia.

Throughout American history, there has been a tradition of both violent and pacifist Anarchism. Henry David Thoreau, a nonviolent Anarchist writer, and Emma Goldman an Anarchist activist, are a couple of examples. Activist Anarchism, however, was mainly sustained by immigrants from Europe. In the late 1800’s, Anarchism was a part of life for many. In 1886, four Anarchists were wrongfully executed for alleged involvement in the Haymarket bombing, in which seven policemen were killed. President McKinley was assassinated in 1901 by Leon Czolgosz, a Polish Anarchist.

Especially since 1917, Anarchism has appealed to intellectuals. In 1932, Aldous Huxley wrote "Brave New World", which warned of a mindless, materialistic existence a modernized society could produce, and in the ’Foreword’ of the 1946 edition, he said that he believed that only through radical decentralization and a politics that was "Kropotkinesque and cooperative" could the dangers of modern society be escaped. After World War ][, Anarchist groups reappeared in almost all countries where they had once existed, excepting Spain and the Soviet Union. In the 1970’s, Anarchism drew much attention and interest, and rebellious students often started collectives. Still published is a monthly British publication, called "Anarchy", which applies Anarchist principles to modern life.

Anarchism, although often mistakenly thought of as violent and destructive, is not that at all. Anarchists, though some may advocate a swift and violent revolution, envision a peaceful and harmonious society, based on a natural order of cooperation rather than an artificial system based on coercion.


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