My Eighty-One Years of Anarchy : A Memoir by May Picqueray [Book review]

The original title ‘May la réfractaire’ translates as ‘May the rebellious’ or ‘the stubborn’. This is the story of a life in the anarchist movement, which had its hair-raising moments: ‘My apprenticeship as a militant was not all hearts and flowers’. (p55) It would be hard to shoehorn someone who had argued face-to-face with Trotsky and ended up running a newspaper into the role of ‘anonymous militant’. A leader, then? She herself says ‘In the anarchist ranks there are no stars and no leaders.’ (p185) It seems to me that, from syndicalist strikes to defending conscientious objectors, solidarity is the key to her life. Her ‘dedication to the cause’ didn’t stop her having a personal life, either.

In their introduction, the Kate Sharpley Library quote Picqueray’s disclaimer: ‘But it is not my intention to pen a history of anarchism. Besides, I do not see how I could. Every time I read such a history, I discover things I never knew before, and I sometimes discover certain errors of detail.’ I suspect both kinds of jolt are familiar to the librarians. They do a good job of quietly signposting where to head for more information. They also give us twenty-seven pages of thumbnail biographies of the (less well known) comrades (and enemies) she mentions.

May tells her story without self-promotion or nostalgia. She’s capable both of wishing that she’d been born earlier ‘so that I might have experienced the turn of the century, a time of agitation and sacrifice’ (p185) and celebrating the younger generation she worked with in what turned out to be the last decade of her life: ‘without them, I would have been nothing and achieved nothing’ (p169). And all of it told without bitterness. This is a valuable contribution to anarchist history, and it’s also a good and inspiring read.

My Eighty-One Years of Anarchy : A Memoir by May Picqueray, translated by Paul Sharkey; introduction and notes by the Kate Sharpley Library. AK Press and Kate Sharpley Library, 2019. ISBN 9781849353229