A History of the French Anarchist Movement 1917 to 1945 by David Berry [Review]

Firstly let us congratulate AK Press and the author for getting this volume, originally published by Greenwood Press in 2002, out as a relatively inexpensive paperback edition, making it available to a much wider readership. The author has been researching this topic for many years and this presents to an English speaking audience the distillation of that research. The author has drawn on a wide range of resources including the movement’s own periodical and pamphlet press, activists’ memoirs, police reports, interviews and the wider available literature on the subject. We can, therefore expect this to be an authoritive account, and due to the author’s style and ordering the material it is a very readable one too.

Having set up the context in an essential introduction, the author kicks off the account proper by detailing how the events in Russia in 1917 galvanised a movement that had been split by the war, giving new hope to the revolutionary movement. The anarchist and syndicalist movements had been dealt a severe blow by the First World War, hardly surprising when the main unions had rallied around calls to defend the Nation, and many activists and sympathisers had been called up and either gone of to fight or gone into hiding. The French people were sick of the war, the army mutinous, but the prospect of being defeated by an Imperial German army for the second time in 50 years was unacceptable to most people. However in Russia the workers and peasants had risen, in part against the war, in part for food and liberty, and this showed that the revolutionaries had been right in thinking that the war could trigger some form of social uprising.

However as events unfolded in Russia, the anarchists and syndicalists, even after the war had finally ended found themselves in a difficult position. The unions in France were fragmented, the CGT, in which anarcho-syndicalists had played such a part before the war, was now in the hands of those who had supported the war, and with the success of the Bolsheviks, anarchists and syndicalists were confronted with a new force on the left, one that could claim affinity to a successful revolution. The immediate post-war surge in revolutionary feeling passed though in France, without ever reaching a point when it could amount to anything like the Russian intensity, and subsequently subsided. The anarchists and syndicalists were once again demoralised, they split amongst themselves, both in the unions and politically as anarchists. Some militants left to join political parties, others dropped out altogether, whilst the survivors contented themselves with issuing their newspapers and arguing amongst themselves, not least about which unions (if any) to be active in, and how anarchists should organised with the Platforme being the major focus for disagreement.

However, unlike in Britain, where the movement practically disappeared, in France there were many well-known and principled activists who kept the movement in the public eye, even if it was over more humanitarian causes rather than pure revolutionary ones. The movement kept up its stream of publications, and splitting and reforming into the 1930s. On the fringes of the main organisations there were smaller groups of individualists and on the other hand hardcore class activists, with many being involved in anti-war activity. The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and the social revolution caused an initial boost to the movement in terms of participation, numbers, publications and influence, but the combination of the defeat of the Republican forces and the increasing repressive measures by the French Daladier government, not to mention the seemingly impossibility to stop the slide into a war that nobody in France wanted saw the movement demoralised and incapable of offering anything more than token resistance to the impending doom.

Those anarchists and syndicalists who avoided being rounded, used as force labour, being killed in the fighting or even collaborating, took a part in the resistance, although it was mainly on an individual level, and one gets the impression that for many activists the main concern was simply surviving the war to be able to resume activities once the Nazi occupation had been removed. That said there were undoubtedly many who took some part in the Resistance, whether it took the form of armed struggle or other important roles, although there was a certain reticence to talk about the war years post-1945. One did what one could, it seems, to the best of ones abilities, in the particular situation one found oneself in. Even during the war there were efforts in the south of France to keep activists in touch and issue some propaganda and these formed the basis of the reborn movement in the heady days after the Liberation. This is where the chronology of the ends, but the account ends with an attempt to summarise what little is known about the socio-economic composition of the movement, its numerical strength, the place of women and so forth.

This is an excellent piece of work from a respected researcher, well-written and presented at an affordable price. For English speaking readers this will be the definitive account of the French movement for the foreseeable future. Any criticisms are comparatively minor. The index covers personal names, but not subjects; a few photographs of some the people mentioned might have broken up the text and given an additional way for readers to get a handle on some of the personalities involved in the movement. One issue that may be much more difficult to answer is that I would have liked some account of what it was like to be involved at the grass roots level of the movement, what did those who kept the movement going get out of the experience, what motivated them. (Has anyone done a similar work as Paul Avrich’s oral history for the French movement?)

However, regarding the book as published it is an exemplary piece of research and one I can recommend to anyone interested in the topic.

Berry, David A History of the French Anarchist Movement 1917 to 1945 AK Press. Edinburgh, Scotland; Oakland, CA. Pbk. xi, 362pp. Notes, bibliography, index. ISBN 978-1904859826 RRP $21.95 (US/CAN) / £15.00 (UK)