2020 was a lousy year for libertarians. Following the loss of Michel Ragon, Maurice Rajfus, David Graeber and Lucio Urtubia Jiménez – to cite just a few of the more familiar names – Alexandre Skirda has now joined the list of those we have lost.
Alexandre Skirda, a man who was discreet and even secretive when it came to his friendships and militant activity has just passed away at the end of a year that has taken its toll of libertarian thinkers and figures. He was born in Paris in 1942 of Russian and Ukrainian parents. At the beginning of the 1960s he began to be active in libertarian ranks as part of a small libertarian communist group, the Groupe d’études et d’action anarchiste/ Anarchist Study and Action Group. After that we have to follow him through the ins and outs of a micro-world. He joined the UGAC (Union of Anarcho-Communist Groups) and had a hand in launching the MCL (Libertarian Communist Movement), which he quit due to organizational issues to join the ORA (Revolutionary Anarchist Organization) in which he used the name Brevan. A supporter of a structured anarchist organization, his sympathies lay with the “platformists” within Russian anarchism, regarding their option not as some philosophical or cultural preference but as a branch of the workers’ movement. But above all he was a history enthusiast who took part in a number of groups looking into the memory of the libertarian movement. That enthusiasm blossomed into a range of far-reaching investigations into Russian anarchism, such as Kronstadt 1921: The Proletariat versus Bolshevism and The Anarchists in the Russian Revolution (both in French). Over the years he made regular additions to his output, reprinted by one of his most loyal publishers, Éditions de Paris-Max Chaleil. In the 1970s soviet archives were accessible only to a handful of figures vetted by the soviet party-state. Skirda was persona non grata in such circles. And so it was from Paris that he painstakingly assembled documentation from exiled activists and translated available materials from the Russian. He starkly exposed Trotsky’s hand in the repression of Kronstadt and was forever stressing the important part played by anarchism in soviet Russia in terms of the promotion of ideas and the organization of society.
First and foremost among his books was his biography of Nestor Makhno Anarchy’s Cossack, which is also, in a broader sense, a biography of the Ukrainian anarchist movement the Makhnovshchina. The earliest edition of the book dates back to 1982 and Éditions Spartacus has just released the latest and fifth edition. In it, he retraces the four-year struggle against the Reds and the Whites, offering a line of inheritance and analysing the Makhno legend. He extended this work on Makhno by translating the entirety of the latter’s Memoirs and his collected works in 2009, a magisterial undertaking available from Éditions Ivrea. As a translator he also brought the figure of the Polish libertarian essayist Jan Waclaw Makhaïski (1866-1926) to the attention of francophone readers with his translation of the latter’s enthralling book Socialism of the Intellectuals, a Critique of the Capitalists of Learning.
An outstanding weekend historian, he was careful to preserve the memory of activists by collecting their first-hand testimonies, on tape or on film (in partnership with Bernard Bastiat). The upshot of this was Marcel Body’s magnificent book Un Piano en bouleau de Carélie, which has also been reprinted. Skirda did the same with the Swiss activist André Bösiger, co-writing the latter’s A Rebel’s Memories [Souvenirs d’un rebelle] on anarcho-syndicalism in Switzerland. He also recorded the testimony of several veteran activists, contemporaries of Makhno, people such as Nicola Tchorbadieff. By the end of his life he had widened his research focus to include slavery in Russia and the history of Russia. He had also produced a book from his latest investigation into Marx the plagiarist, demonstrating, following the example of two libertarian militants who had exposed the fraud in the 19th century, that the Communist Manifesto is heavily indebted to Victor Considérant’s Manifesto of Democracy.
Alexandre had also, ever since the beginning of the 1980s, become an unrivalled second-hand book-dealer. A passing visit to him on the quais of Paris was a guarantee that one might leave somewhat the poorer financially speaking but definitely enriched in terms of humanity and ideas. For those who had the good fortune to approach him, he was an enthusiast and not just for anarchist history. Behind that gruff exterior, he could be very generous. When I was working on Voline, the poet and theoretician of the “anarchist Synthesis” for an edition of the magazine Itinéraire, he introduced me to Nicola Tchorbadieff, despite the ‘Synthesis’ school not really being his own cup of tea.
In a cruel and annoying irony, Alexandre Skirda died on 23 December 2020, just a few weeks short of the hundredth anniversary of the crushing of the Kronstadt Commune and of the Makhnovshchina. With tears in our eyes, we shall do our best to mark that anniversary for you. Salut, Alex
31 December 2020
Translated by: Paul Sharkey.