Anarchism, 1914-1918: Internationalism, anti-militarism and war [Book Review]

This collection of essays examining anarchism between the years 1914 to 1918 originated from two panels held at the European Social History Conference held in Vienna in 2014, and as the title suggests, they address various aspects of the anarchist response to World War One. The editors are keen to move beyond the traditional narrative of Kropotkin (support for the ‘Allies’ and France’s revolutionary tradition that was threatened by German authoritarianism as well as suggesting that smaller countries would have better chance of gaining autonomy and independence with an Allied victory) versus Malatesta (no side is better than the other, many are just as imperialist as each other, and as anarchists and anti-militarists we can take no side in this war but oppose it in every way we can). Some of the essays offer tantalizing glimpses of doing just that but the two men, and their ideas, do still tend to dominate proceedings. That said there is a rather poignant and highly informative piece on Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis by Bert Altena that should considerably increase knowledge of this important militant for English readers.

The title of the volume does flatter to deceive. There are no chapters dedicated to, for instance, the responses of the anarchist movement in Australia, Austro-Hungary, Belgium, Brazil, Britain, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Portugal and, most surprisingly, Russia. One presumes that these countries (and others such as Spain) were not covered in the conference but readers should beware if they are looking for information in the book about them.

Still, there are however some interesting and challenging ideas within some of the essays in this volume. A number of them concentrate on the relationship between national liberation movements and anarchism. Kenyon Zimmer’s essay illustrates the richness of anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist thought found in American anarchist newspapers at this time – especially those from the immigrant milieu. These anarchists may not be known as ‘thinkers’ but their ideas reflect a complexity and nuance that is exciting to read. Similarly, practical links between Italian anarchists and those seeking Indian independence are compellingly outlined in Ole Birk Laursen’s account of the ‘Zurich Bomb Plot’ which, for this reviewer, provided much new information.

Some essays remind us that we cannot take our understanding of words for granted. Kathy Ferguson’s piece on the American anti-conscription movement unwraps the concept of anti-militarism held by some anarchists there. To them anti-militarism was determinedly anti-capitalism and, Ferguson believes, pro-birth control. As she writes ‘Suppressing contraception, protecting private property and promoting war are all, in Goldman’s words, “Streams from the same source”’  (p215). David Berry and Constance Bantman in their examination of the French anarchist movement make the striking suggestion that perhaps between 1890-1914 ‘the anarchists’ anti-establishment – anti-patriotic, revolutionary, anti-parliamentarian – stance not only concealed parallel processes of collective and individual integration, but actually made these possible’ (163). Hopefully they will expand more on this fascinating idea in future work.

A volume like this can only do so much. What I sense is missing are the lived experiences of individual anarchists during the War years. Are we to believe that anarchists avidly read Kropotkin’s or Malatesta’s ideas and followed them to the letter? What of those who saw the good in both arguments? Were positions so cut and dried in the grass roots as they were among prominent anarchists? Presumably some anarchists had to make their own mind up and act intuitively as sources of anarchist propaganda dried up under stringent censorship. I don’t think we can underestimate the sense of confusion that permeated the movement at a grass roots level or, at times, the sense of despair at the course of events both outside and inside their anarchist circles.

There are so many questions that still need to be tackled. We recognize that many anarchists, whatever their views on the War, felt it could, eventually, lead to some type of social upheaval. How was that idea developed as circumstances in the War changed? What of those comrades who joined up? Grigorii Maksimov, for instance, deliberately joined the Russian army so he could propagandize among the troops. Did others do the same? Are there examples of anarchists active in the barracks and the trenches or were they overtaken by patriotism and abandoned the person they had been? What of those anarchists who disappeared, those who suddenly became quiet and took no part in the movement in any way during the War. We know Gustav Landauer, for example, retired to his historical writing for most of this period. We should be careful, though, in seeing his and others’ similar actions as a type of cowardice. Confusion, uncertainty and feelings of helplessness have their own kind of dignity and need to be discovered and discussed. Finally, we need to discover and calibrate the small victories – the safe space for deserters, the quiet solidarity, the roughly produced leaflet and all the other examples of comrades doing what they can to keep their ideas alive.

We can see this anthology, then, as a beginning rather than the final word. The anthology brings together many themes that we still struggle with today and opens many doors so that others can go through. Hopefully more work will be produced as a result of these essays. It is disappointing that the book is so prohibitively expensive which can easily lead to the ideas within it only being available to certain people. That would be unfortunate so do get your library to order it!!! On a final note perhaps the editors might consider adding sections, or even creating another volume and then working with a publisher to produce a paperback edition. That would be a most useful enterprise with regard to expanding our knowledge of anarchist history during this time.

Anarchism, 1914-1918: Internationalism, anti-militarism and war, Edited by Mathew S. Adams and Ruth Kinna. Manchester University Press, 2017. £75