Anarchism is the workers’ socialist movement in the full bloom of youth. And that is why so many young people embrace it, placing their trust in a movement and a doctrine that make tabula rasa of all prejudices, all conventions, all idols and which appeal to creative energies in order to smash the chains of exploitation, laws and hypocrisies.
But on contact with anarchist groups and anarchist circles, that youthful fire very soon feels dampened for want of air and room. They had expected to find Malatestas and Cafieros and Bakunins and Recluses and Makhnos and Ascasos, and instead they often stumble across oldsters paralysed by rheumatic brains and awash with theoretical obsessions. Following a literary entrée in which their appetites were whetted by accounts of the feats of men of action and sparkling polemicists, the young find naught but museum pieces or embittered types entrenched in their arrogance. They had thought they might be taking part in a surging social tide and find themselves in a stagnant pool where the most bizarre fauna and flora grow.
Now the drama begins, because no matter how little the youngster wants to come up with a vision of the movement and unearth its treasures, he realises that all too often the absolutism of the doctrine is a cover for inaction. Like those soldiers of whom magnificent theoretical advances are expected and who learn their military tactics from maps on a scale of 1:10,000, they amass a solid but useless education. When it comes to inspiring action, there is always some circumstance, some occasion not quite right. After a few months of such purely formal gymnastics, the youngster will be able to say his piece about the timeless antagonism between freedom and authority, but if he tries to dip his toe into the social mix, it will be in a kindred movement and his memory will be besmirched in our right-thinking quarters with the irrevocable condemnation “he’s a political dabbler!”
He will be well aware that his workmates and school pals who have signed on with the political parties are not political dabblers and that their aspirations are the very same as his own. Because he knows that anarchism could make use of their belief and their hunger for freedom, he would like his movement to be active enough, vigorous enough, combative enough that no campaign needs to be mounted behind the political mask of authoritarian movements and the ardent actions of their organisations. The campaign, however, is not fought out only at the level of theory. There is the man-power, the watchwords and action as well. And on that turf, he knows that he is, and feels, weak.
Today, now that the libertarian current is undergoing a rebirth, we find the same antagonism and there is a sensible need to come up with a practical solution to the painful contradiction between the dynamism of the young and the slightly amorphous wisdom of the old. The anarchist seed which is our young folk ought to be brought into contact with reality and planted in the popular humus made up of thousands of substances in-the-making and in the process of decomposition, substances that are fertile and filled with promise. If our seed is sound, it will draw from the mixed and dangerous soil everything that it needs for its growth and it will feed on a hundred products which in themselves are neither seed nor plant. The legacy from the “elders” will evaporate and will very soon crumble away to nothing unless upcoming generations can exploit it as seed capital.
True, over the course of twenty or thirty years of struggles and reflections, the old hands have amassed a solid experience, but that experience will have no value other than if it is applied to life, in the social struggle, in contact with the worker and peasant masses. A strike, an act of sabotage, a trade union meeting, a workers’ committee, a co-operative commission will provide the anarchist with the place and means to pass on his practical lessons to the young searching to make their own way. The real gap between the young and the old is the tension between action and inaction.
Looked upon by the young as an old man and by the oldsters as a youngster, I am trying to strike a balance between my hopes and my delusions and I cannot find any positivity in any but a few of the strike movements in which I have had a hand, the clandestine papers passed on to those who languished under totalitarian regimes or in the camps in the democracies, the clandestine border crossings, the rifle shots fired in Spain, the rallies where the message rang out and was understood by the audience, the money sent off to outlawed comrades and, finally, the joy of having, in certain settings, uncovered from the masses of official propaganda and self-interested lies, the precise measure of a situation and of having been able to react to facts with the requisite action.
Then again, how many pointless meetings, how much meaningless palaver, how many massaged motions, how many sterile polemics designed to come out on top and in self-justification, rather than to see clearly, how many little committees disconnected from real life?
On the one hand, the battle against everything that cried out for youthfulness and action, and on the other, the codification of a rough truth distorted by the personal foibles of whoever was uttering it.
The role of anarchist youth is, right now, to bring its first-hand experience into the anarchist movement – for it does have some experience of its own – so as to bring it back to its mission in the social movement as the conscience of the working class and the driver of its every initiative.
Apart from the obvious power, the power of ministerial portfolios and official signatures, uniforms and the esteem of imbeciles, we can stake a claim, if we have it in us to win it, the real power manifested over events and things. Our role has validity to the extent that it can bring influence to bear on reality in order to amend the social. The great lesson that springs, not from the words, but from anarchist thought, is that the individual does not really exist and leaves no trace behind – not in the school history handbooks – other than in the life of peoples, to the extent that he gave to, loved and was active within it. In the French CGT, forty years of reformism, state control and communist infiltration have not managed to erase the imprint left by a militant whose name is unknown even to those who were, unwittingly, his disciples – Tortelier, the cooper who spread the idea of the general strike. Phenomena as important as social banditry, revolutionary violence, factory occupations, the birth of the first soviet in Russia, have no official authors and it would require patient investigation to uncover their inventors or creators. Therein lies our power, our power that no official seal, and no government certificate can ever confer, a power that nothing can ever cancel because it is part and parcel of the anonymous thinking of the hopeful masses.
Not by denying the young their right to act and therefore to make the mistakes will we be able to temper them and turn them into real anarchists. On the contrary, it is by leaving to them the full responsibility of carrying the name of anarchist into the revolutionary cyclone that they will acquire the patina of old steel, that they will try to carry on the tradition of those whose examples and names first drew them into our camp. Patience! if the capacities and limitations of each of them should founder against the wall of real life and impossibility. We shall meet the splendour of their fire and the echo of their words in the recesses of the souls of the masses. There were only a handful of anarchists in Belgium, in the Borinage area, a land of miners and poverty, yet, when the hope invested in Parliament, in the workers’ parties and in the reformist unions died out and when hunger drove thousands of women and men to demonstrate, it was the black flag that sprang up from within the depths of days long gone, from the fierce battles back in 1883, when the first anarchists declared social war.
It is high time for the libertarian ideas kept in the shade by the euphoria of state socialism to burst back into the daylight of popular hopes. From every quarter, from every setting spring the theses, the thought and the notions that are reminiscent of our own. The time is coming when we shall reap the fruits of nearly a century of hard work and propaganda. If words no longer have any meaning to most people, we still have personnel. Those personnel cannot but be the young. The elders can pass judgment on their performance, as long as they managed to mould them. If they make mistakes and go astray, that will be because their elders will have failed to get them used to fighting and all of their wisdom will have served no purpose other than to glorify their own failures.
DAMASHKI [Louis Mercier Vega]
From: Volontà Year 1, No 6, 1 December 1946, pp. 11-13. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.