We have often heard invoked the phrase “There is no anarchist movement, only an anarchist milieu”. Whilst not strictly true, it nevertheless underlines all the fluidity and inconsistency within anarchism. The lack of solid organisations, the absence of any written programme or rules, the elasticity of the teaching, its vagueness, the generalities and contradictions within it, all these are a special kind of obstacles which can make overall opinion and clear-cut views hard to arrive at.
True, through splits, fragmentation and regroupings, anarchists have come together into a range of trade union, communist or individualist organisations, or been scattered throughout lots of movements with specialist messages to deliver. But in no way does that mean that those organisations are any more homogeneous than they were before; the divisions endure, the strands coexist and the ties linking provincial groups and groups within the capital are loose and ill defined. Mind-sets and watchwords vary from region to region.
Doctrine, entirely theoretical and drawn from an inexhaustible store of outmoded pamphlets, draw a motley crew of socialists together to the extent that the only thing allowing anarchist groups to come together is the study group, the customary format of anarchist groups.
Anarchists’ drift away from the social struggle over a long period has helped embed this situation.
Since the Communist Party’s about-turn in 1933, interest in the anarchists has grown apace. The absence of a wholesome, democratic, combative revolutionary party had many revolutionary workers falling back on anarchism. Thanks to that, the anarchist movement today looks like a sector of the workers’ movement, a position it had lost some fifteen years earlier.
But the housing has remained what it was yesterday and the newcomers are more often than not aghast at the furnishings and the works within.
For not only are anarchist organisations based on rococo and muddled doctrinal elements, but they also bring together very different personnel, and indeed the militants themselves are not exempt from contradictions and support a theory made up of bits and pieces and endowed by more or less wide experience with flexibility.
For all that, we can pick out a few types of militants who symbolise, not an ideological or tactical tendency, but a mind-set and an overall notion of social struggle.
The one we mean to define, situate and criticise here is the government anarchist.
In libertarian ranks, a certain number of active personnel are sensible of how remote anarchist goals are from the capitalist point of departure and how much slick formulas are going to be weak points which are going to be trampled by weighty reality. Responses to such weaknesses vary widely. Whereas some search through post-war experiences for practical and pertinent solutions, others make off and join organisations whose message comes close to libertarian ideas whilst employing modern propaganda approaches; the government anarchist has come up with a blend that allows him to keep his sacred principles intact and under glass whilst blithely operating within our good old French democracy.
All in all, his teaching, or rather his verbiage, is made up of borrowings from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and memories of 1848. This is the foundation of his mind-set. In the debate that pits him against those who demand a more solid sustenance, implacable and even absolutist logic allows him to justify the museum of theoretical antiquities by invoking two major principles that he holds dear – Authority and Liberty. His logic is irrefutable because it is unreal. Mind at rest on that score, the government anarchist then turns to the possibility of action. This shift on to terra firma is justified on the basis of two or three phrases such as “People are not educated enough”. “Not everything is doable” and “Anarchism is an ideal that calls for long periods of struggle before it can be achieved”.
The discipline of the parties implying a suppleness and a submissiveness that are hard to square with his spirit of independence, his need or taste for action is then buffed up in such apparently free-standing communities as: the freemasons, the free-thinkers, pacifist or anti-fascist leagues, wherein good intentions and humanitarian sentiments spill over and flow into splendid campaigns in which he can hob-nob with high-minded sorts drawn from other milieux. So seemingly very different ideological strands and social strata can arrive at working arrangements with one another.
His very vocabulary is affected by this as some capitalised terms loom, worthy and full of poetry, above a sordid reality. Not that this does the establishment any harm; sometimes it welcomes it and harnesses it for use.
It would be a mistake to speak of government anarchism where there are only a few government anarchists. But in a movement where organisations are miraculously supple, where the question of knowing who is a member is an issue conjured up by people of bad faith, where, under the pretext of freedom, a de facto hierarchy is set up, topped by a few men whose talents ensure that they are looked upon, to some extent, as advertising hoardings or curiosities fit for some travelling Barnum & Bailey show, the role of the moving spirits, the militants, the guides (so much for efforts to appoint leaders invested with full powers, but unaccountable) looms rather larger than elsewhere.
Democracy presupposes organisation and is subordinated to it. Without it, profligacy and incoherence set in and of course the dictatorship of some clique, store or priesthood sets up shop. Anarchism ends up oblivious of public life other than as seen through a handful of men who do the talking, the writing and the acting on behalf/instead of a movement that could be distinguished by cooperation and contribution from each and every one of its members, grouped around a doctrine and straining to intervene in the social struggle as a reliable and vigorous force capable of dragging the proletariat as a whole in the direction of its emancipation.
The substitution is made manifest and re-enacted every time that current events pique anarchists’ interest. Committees are set up, embracing all the old “independent” beards, the teary-eyed ham actors. Little by little the agitation loses its revolutionary character and is not absorbed into an ongoing class struggle and it is but rarely marked by an appetite for a fight with the establishment. It is primarily about stirring up the people of France which, from time to time, feels the need to prove just how sensitive its heart is.
There is an avalanche of agenda and the walls are plastered with posters. Meantime, the other work carries on.
We must give a very polite shake to those, who having switched from one side of the barricades to the other and who once were anarchists, revolutionary syndicalists, pacifists and are now – youth is fleeting and one has to earn one’s crust – deputies and ministers, holding down some official or informal position within the bosom of this kindly daughter of French Republic. A switch made all the easier by old acquaintanceships, services rendered and milieux they attended together or, sometimes, membership of the same lodge.
Far be it from us to want to stay in some lofty and useless ivory tower. Revolutionary action ought sometimes to cash in on the sentimentality of the Republican and Radical constituency. In certain circumstances, we must make up our minds to bandy words with those who have climbed the steps to power by gradually or abruptly turning their coats.
But there is a distinction to be made beforehand. If the entire movement is rooted in such agitation, in this sort of bluff and behind-the-scenes horse-trading, only one thing can and should come of it: dalliance with the established authorities, collusion with bourgeois democracy, the conversion of revolutionary action with an eye to formal acknowledgment by the established authorities and, insofar as this can be reconciled with the very existence of the regime, the anarchist organisation turning into an annexe of the political “left”.
If these negotiations are only a form of threat brought to bear by a determined force, galvanising and rallying important segments of the population, then the movement remains healthy.
In the first scenario, anarchism is a pawn to be played by the regime’s champions. In the other, anarchism is a power rich in the potential for growth and influence and honed through partial skirmishes with the regime.
A choice has to be made between these two outcomes, for the libertarian forces being in the minority, restricted and limited cannot give any thought to a two-pronged agitation.
The French bourgeoise displays extraordinary skill when it comes to its own protection and there are examples aplenty to show that in serious social upheavals it has not hesitated to appeal to and rely upon extra-legal forces in order to cling to its power and its authority.
When the anarchist daily paper Journal du Peuple was launched in the midst of the Dreyfus Affair, with the endorsement of the freemasons and backed by certain Jewish financier clans, perishing as soon as the heat went out of the Affair, that was not anarchism on the attack; it was the bourgeoisie – or a fraction of the bourgeoisie – using the anarchists’ élan for purposes of its own.
When anarchist gangs are battling anti-semitic gangs, not on behalf of some revolutionary programme and not drawing out the broader meaning of their specific struggle, but rather taking a side in a squabble between bourgeois factions, that is not the anarchist movement in action; it is the tail of a radical, anti-clerical democracy.
When, some time after that, intense anti-religious activism was unleashed, egged on by libertarian militants but drained of its social content and disconnected from the class struggle and the constant striving for forceful solutions vis à vis the regime, anarchism was not so much acting practically and definitively on its own behalf as being one facet of the liberal bourgeoisie’s battle for hegemony.
There follows from this interpretation and this sort of junior role in which personalities serve as links in the chain, a “realistic” politics made up of concessions and unspoken agreements, in which the government anarchists become some sort of brand new semi-virgins.
This aspect of the defence of the ministries and, in the final analysis, defence of capitalism can be detected throughout recent developments, in the use made by the “left” of the worker forces mobilised on 12 February against “fascism”, the very same fascism which these days serves as an excellent counter-weight in ensuring the stability of French capitalism; in the activities of the pacifist leagues championing Blum’s imperialist politics at the time of the events in Spain, etc.
But that situation is strictly confined to France, or at least to the democracies, it will be said. Of course, the democratic gangrene is further advanced here but the causes of the anarchist movement’s lack of identity apply elsewhere.
Lack of identity, of independence, of autonomy add up to lack of confidence and lack of belief in the principles and theories championed, with the inevitable upshot of compromises and the jettisoning of the very essence of anarchism, wherever social life allows revolutionary forces to step on to the stage and its watchwords to be acted upon.
Spain has given us a cruel object lesson in this. Anarchism, or, rather, those who have acted in its name, far from trying to crush what it lumps together as the authoritarian forces, has sought, ever since 20 July, to gain admittance to the broad liberal, republican, federalist family, embarrassed by its past formulas and invoking a “realist” outlook in former members who were stunned to witness the explosion of brand new forces smugly throwing their weight behind the titles of minister or councillor.
No ideal, perhaps, has aroused as much enthusiasm and spirit of sacrifice as anarchism has. None has frittered away so much energy and so much commitment through its incoherence, its inner make-up and its ties to bourgeois democracy. Disappointments due to the influence and actions of government anarchists, knowingly or unwittingly caught up in the life of the regime. Individualist backlashes against this captivity could have resulted in heroic feats or stinging pamphlets, but in social terms – the only ones that matter to us here – they have triggered nothing.
However, none of anarchism’s mighty assets has been broken. What was attractive to the young, the workers’ energy, the honest members of the intelligentsia was the maverick aspect of the movement, its violence, its boldness, its egalitarianism and its independence. The anarchist type left standing is the rough and ready navvy whose clothing, language and work make him the irreconcilable opposite of the bourgeoisie; the guy whom education and an appreciation of the part he plays in society endows with the sense that a new society is feasible; and not, in any event, those who, in many an instance and often in the gravest circumstances, have been the movement’s representatives – the publicists, the lecturers and the literati.
Putting clear water between itself and other movements by dint of its refusal to have any truck with bourgeois democratic rottenness, anarchism, in the eyes of thousands of revolutionary workers, represents the barbarian who will level the old society drowning in blood and disorder despite its mercenary bodyguards and its corrupt morality, and replace it with a civilisation of a higher order.
What is etched into the minds of socialist fighters of every hue, like some vast hope and example of their strength, are the Makhnos and the Durrutis and not the memory of their objective reality, but the greater power of their legend.
As for anarchists sensible of their potential and eager for the fray, they must work to ensure that this elemental force, having become cognisant of its responsibility, whips up the toiling mases by moving through them, egging them on and becoming inseparable from them. The problem is to make us of that power without corrupting it.
These are the aspects of anarchism that tempt honest militants ensconced in other worker sectors.
There is a vigour there ready to be harnessed by a revolutionary organisation.
From Révision No 1, February 1938 (original at http://archivesautonomies.org/spip.php?article1405 )
Translated by: Paul Sharkey.