Defiance: Anarchist Statements Before Judge and Jury (Detritus Books, 2019) [Book review]

“Defiance” is a chronological compilation of statements from anarchist prisoners before, or immediately after, their sentencing. Beginning with Louise Michel in 1871 and ending with Eric King in 2016 this is a fascinating and thoughtful portrayal of anarchists in the dock. Some are there for taking up arms, some are there for sedition. Some, like Mollie Steimer were given appalling sentences – fifteen years in prison for distributing leaflets!! Carefully arranged and judiciously edited it offers telling insights both into individual personalities and how they experienced and understood anarchism.

As the editor of the volume suggests the strand that runs through nearly every speech is one of defiance. Louise Michel, on trial for her participation in the Paris Commune affirms that “I belong entirely to the social revolution”(9) while Clément Duval asserts in 1886 that “I do not recognize your right to pose to me the questions that you have”(26). Duval’s point is echoed throughout the anthology with Ravachol arguing he will not defend himself and that it is society that is guilty, not himself. Émile Henry states that he recognizes only one tribunal – himself “and the verdict of any other is meaningless to me”(67). Bill Dunne in 1984 refusing to recognize the court echoes the statement of Rami Syrianos in 2012 who makes it clear that “I do not recognize any political or moral legitimacy in this court” (217) while Bo Brown in a powerfully worded piece considers “the court to be a disgusting and sick mockery of justice”(163).

Defiance is represented in the owning of their actions by most of the defendants who refuse to plea bargain or negotiate with a court representing a society they see as irredeemably corrupt. As Raymond Callemin says in 1912 “I wanted no part of the world in which I worked for others”(115). Some agree with Sante Caserio who “will not defend myself but rather explain my actions”(77). Most are at war with capitalism. Like Nikos Maziotis they do “not consider myself a criminal. I have nothing to repent. I am proud of what I have done” (195). As Alfredo Cospito of the Olga Nucleus says in 2013, “In a wonderful morning in May I acted, and in the space of a few hours I fully enjoyed my life”. That sense of celebration is never far from many of the speeches. As Eric King says “I stated what I did, I’m happy I did it”(248). King’s other words, like those of many others in this anthology, go on to reflect the disgust he feels towards the court and its corrupt ideas of justice. Kuwasi Balagoon’s description of himself as a “new Afrikan Prisoner of War”(171) carries enormous strength and we can see that this sense of war is echoed in some of the speeches of the early French anarchists – no quarter asked, no quarter given.

If defiance is a constant theme in the book so is anarchism. For Duval “The anarchists have but one party, and that is humanity”(29). Louis Léveillé in 1891 urges his listeners to “Let the spirit of revolt grow in you and with Freedom you will become happy”(41). Bo Brown proudly asserts that “I am an anti-authoritarian lesbian feminist anarcho-communist” (168) and Marius Jacob says “Revolutionary anarchist, I made my revolution”(108). Perhaps the most profound statement with regard to anarchism comes from Raymond Callemin whose speech was, essentially, the story of his life. Born into dreadful poverty he led a life where he often turned to crime to simply survive. By chance he met anarchists, many of whom were as poor and dispossessed as himself. Of them he says “In the anarchist milieu I encountered individuals who were trying as much as possible to get rid of their prejudices” (115). For Callemin and others in the volume anarchism provides a sense of self-dignity and comradeship missing from their earlier life. It enables them to resist the economic and mental brutality of capitalism and fight back against it.

I want to mention the attitude of Félix Fénéon (1894) and Abbie Hoffman (1970) to their particular courts. Both stand out from the others. No dramatic statements here but a sense of mocking and playfulness that shows up the stupidity of prosecution and court alike.

The editor, in a brief introduction, writes that “Every one of these statements is imperfect, none of these people were/are heroes. Fortunately, we don’t find inspiration in perfection or heroics. We find inspiration in defiance”. These are points well-made but we should also take the time to remember those who could not make statements – those who disappeared into the awful silence of capitalist, Bolshevik and Fascist prisons and now of whom only the faintest of memories remain. We should also be a little careful in taking speeches too far out of the context that caused them to be spoken. When we put the context back in then the quiet dignity of Louise Olivereau’s 1918 speech, for example, increases in intensity and power(133). We should also remember those who chose not to speak, seeing little point in it. That action in itself is an act of defiance as much as the words we read in the book. Errico Malatesta in 1920 suggests that the “dock has been the most efficient and, permit me to say it, the most glorious of our platforms”(99). Perhaps. Generalizations, though, do not work for everyone.

This then is an excellent book. It challenges, frustrates, saddens and exhilarates in equal measure and has a profound impact on the reader. Buy it! It will leave you with much to think about and follow up on.
Available from Detritus Books at for $16 inc.p&p in the US. If you are ordering from outside the US have a chat to the people at Detritus.

Defiance: Anarchist Statements Before Judge and Jury (Olympia, Washington: Detritus Books, 2019)