The French Anarchists in London 1880-1914 (Constance Bantman); The Knights Errant of Anarchy[1] (Pietro Di Paola) [Book Review]

It’s good to see an academic study where the text is readable and the anarchism recognisable. Here are two, which examine the history of the anarchist movement in London as lived by French and Italian exiles respectively. Bantman and Di Paola have done the spadework of historical research which adds to our knowledge of the movement in London and its connections. Bantman for instance quotes from a David Nicoll address to dock labourers [p42] [2] and mentions an informer’s report that ‘two young anarchist deserters, wood engravers by trade, died of starvation in London’ (but without naming them, unfortunately) [p57]. Di Paola frequently recounts attempts to organise workers in the catering trade, and covers well the activities of London’s Italian anarchists, and the mechanics of how they were spied on (and how the surveillance was sometimes blown).

Bantman sometimes veers off into generalisations: ‘the inherent impossibility of setting up anarchist organisations’ [p31] brought me up short. Di Paola deals better with the debate on anarchist organisation. It’s a shame that Bantman attributes the Siege of Sidney Street to Latvian Left Social Revolutionaries [p131] and Di Paola blames Social Democrats [p116]. Di Paola referrs to Phil Ruff’s research in a footnote, but without mentioning that those involved were Latvian anarchists.[3]

The value of these two books is that they allow us to see what the anarchists were up to (as well as what their enemies said they were doing) and how their networks of agitation, socialising and survival functioned. Transnational networks are a hot topic for historians. Bantman divides an anarchist “elite” from the grassroots [p72], but I didn’t see how this elite was defined. Of course someone like Kropotkin has a much different experience of exile than those anonymous (and voiceless?) deserters. But I do worry that it’s easier to look at well-known figures who left a paper trail, and that perhaps some who are now invisible or shadowy were important in different ways.

The books themselves are well-produced, but expensive. That is what happens with short run printing, and most of those will be going to libraries (where, hopefully, they will be read). These books will useful for historians – paid or unpaid – of both radical London and the Anarchist movement. I hope that paperback editions come out soon.


1 ‘Knights errant’ comes from Pietro Gori’s ‘Addio Lugano Bella’.

2, ‘Most of you derive your opinion your opinion of Anarchism and Anarchists from the Capitalist press which is daily informing you that we are nothing but a set of murderers, dynamitards, criminal lunatics… we wish to prove to you that far from being the blood-thirsty monsters we are depicted we are but workers like yourselves, like yourselves the victims of the present system’ IISG, Max Nettlau Papers, ‘Socialist League’ file, folder 319, ‘Anarchist Address to the Dock Labourers’ (1894). See the Nettlau papers online: in particular page 107 of File 3294 and page 34 of file 3330

3 See ‘Peter the Painter (Janis Zhaklis) and the Siege of Sidney Street’ in KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 50-51, July 2007

The French Anarchists in London 1880-1914 : Exile and Transnationalism in the First Globalisation / Constance Bantman ISBN: 9781846318801 £70

The Knights Errant of Anarchy : London and the Italian Anarchist Diaspora (1880-1917) / Pietro Di Paola ISBN: 9781846319693 £70. Both Liverpool University Press.