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Beyond the Fringe

The Anarchists

by James Joll
Little, Brown, 303 pp., $6.00

Dreamers, Dynamiters and Demagogues

by Max Nomad
Walden Press, 251 pp., $5.00

Anarchism, like Anabaptism, has become respectable. In its heyday the movement had a uniformly bad press, aside from being treated as dangerous by governments and police authorities. Now that it no longer exists—for in its pure form it died with the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s—its legendary founders benefit from the indulgence commonly extended to the defeated. This is an old story. If there were any Albigensians around today, one may be sure the Pope would be polite to them—he might even invite them to attend the next session of the Vatican Council. It is too bad they were all exterminated in that thirteenth-century Crusade (the only one that achieved its aim—all the others were military failures). Anabaptism too no longer terrifies. The spiritual descendants of Thomas Muenzer and John of Leyden are today’s liberal Protestants. Who can imagine anyone calling for their blood? Luther thought Muenzer a child of Satan, and Muenzer repaid the compliment. Nowadays, Lutherans and Unitarians are more likely to invite each other to tea than to fling excommunications around.

Anarchism too is rapidly approaching the stage where it will be socially smart to profess at least a sympathetic interest in it. In Britain it has long been acceptable, at any rate in its nonviolent form. No one worries about Bertrand Russell, who may be described as a distinguished fellow-traveler. Sir Herbert Read, a paid-up member, has accepted a knighthood from the Queen. What would Proudhon have thought of that? It would probably have confirmed him in his morose dislike of the English. Marx perhaps would not have been surprised: he had always taken a poor view of the Anarchist fraternity.

His ghost must have chuckled when in 1922 the Bolsheviks published Bakunin’s abject Confession to the Tsar, penned in jail seventy years earlier: a document that might have come straight out of Dostoyevsky. In those days confessions were still genuine, and Bakunin was doubtless sincere when in 1852 he painted himself as “a prodigal, estranged and perverted son before an indulgent father,” as well as a Pan-Slav patriot and hater of all things German. The episode—it was no more than that—has been an embarrassment to his biographers, and Mr. Joll hurries away from it as soon as he can. People who are congenitally out of tune with the Dostoyevskyan temperament (the present reviewer for example) will be inclined to treat it as evidence of a more basic instability in Bakunin’s character. In later years, when he was safely abroad hatching conspiracies (most of them never got beyond the talking stage), there was also the little matter of his association with the murderous Nechayev, who crops up as one of the heroes of The Possessed. But this topic was exhaustively discussed by Mr. E. H. Carr in The Romantic Exiles many years ago, and Mr. Joll does well to dismiss it briefly.

The Anarchists, as was to be expected from the distinguished author of Intellectuals in Politics, is both scholarly and readable: a tribute to the traditions of the Oxford historical school. I have a few niggling criticisms with which I am not going to trouble readers, save to say that Mr. Joll might have made more of the 1871 Paris Commune. After all this was the real test of Proudhonism, and what is more, the Proudhonists came out of it with their personal prestige enhanced, though only at the cost of jettisoning some of their master’s more eccentric teachings. Perhaps this is why Mr. Joll does not say much about the matter. He has a weakness for Proudhon and is reluctant to be harsh about his intellectual failings, which were considerable. The fact is that Proudhon, with his admiration for Louis Bonaparte, his Anglophobia and anti-Semitism, his defense of Negro slavery (he publicly sided with the South during the American Civil War), his contempt for national liberation movements, and his patriarchal notions about women and family life, does not make a suitable model for present-day libertarians. Marx paid him a compliment when he called him a petit bourgeois. He was in fact a peasant. To be precise, he was half peasant, half workman, at a time when the French working class had not yet emancipated itself from its rural origins. This accounts for the popularity his doctrines enjoyed in his lifetime; it also explains why his influence faded when France became an industrial country.

The valuable side of Proudhon’s teaching—his emphasis on self-help and his distrust of all centralized authority—was taken up a generation later by the men who founded the Syndicalist movement in France. Syndicalism—unlike pure Anarchism, which established itself in the Quartier Latin and eventually became a mere literary fad—made a permanent contribution to French public life, and it did so with the help of the Proudhonist heritage: at any rate in the form in which it entered the labor movement. Proudhon’s numerous crotchets included a conviction that abstention from politics was mandatory if the movement was not to be corrupted. Fortunately his disciples ignored his advice, and eventually they absorbed just enough of Marx’s teaching to enable them to understand the reality of modern industrial society. The upshot was Syndicalism, which may be described as a fusion of Proudhonism and Marxism. Mr. Joll pays a generous and overdue tribute to its real animator, Fernand Pelloutier, who died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty-four, having spent himself in the service of the movement. It is typical that for the general public (but not for the French working class) he should have been overshadowed by that irresponsible chatterbox Georges Sorel, who took up the Proudhonist tradition and gave it a twist which led some of his pupils to Fascism, via Maurras and the Action Française; not to mention Nietzsche, who was also much admired by the bomb-throwing kind of Anarchist. Mr. Joll is extremely patient with all these aberrations: a little too patient at times. But he is right to stress the filiation which runs from Proudhon and the Commune to modern Syndicalism. In France, and later in Spain, the Anarchists did make contact with the workers’ movement, and what came out of this fusion was valuable. The pity is that it took them so long, and that so much energy was devoted to the pursuit of absurdities, such as Bakunin’s characteristic vision of armed risings by the Lumpenproletariat of Southern Italy: an interesting anticipation of later movements in another hemisphere.

Anarchism indeed was both a throw-back to the radical revolts of the pre-industrial age, and an anticipation of trouble to come in regions of the globe not yet subject to Westernization. In the 1870s, when Bakunin and Malatesta spun dreams of armed risings all over Italy, the stage had already been passed when power could be seized by these means in any European country. Armed bands might—as one of Malatesta’s associates put it in 1881—“move about in the countryside as long as possible, preaching war, inciting to social brigandage, occupying the small communes, and then leaving them after having performed there those revolutionary acts that were possible, and advancing to those localities where our presence would be manifested most usefully.” These tactics failed to work in Sicily and Spain, but they made some sense in Latin America, where many Anarchists emigrated, and they are currently being tried on a larger scale in South-East Asia. Insofar as it was an agrarian movement, Anarchism still had a future: but not in Europe. Not even in Russia, where the Anarchist utopia petered out with Makhno’s rising in the Ukraine during the Civil War: a rising directed impartially against the Whites and the Bolsheviks. Perhaps the movement’s formal death occurred in February 1921, when for the last time the black flag of Anarchy was carried through the streets of Moscow behind the coffin of Peter Kropotkin. A fortnight later the sailors at Kronstadt rose against the Bolshevik government with the cry “Freedom of speech and press for workers and peasants,” and it took a prolonged artillery bombardment (and thousands of executions after the fighting) to put them down. “At last the Soviet government with an iron broom has rid Russia of Anarchism,” Trotsky remarked on that occasion: clearly not foreseeing that a few years later his only support would come from a handful of Syndicalists, in France and elsewhere, who had decided to overlook his share in the Kronstadt massacre.

What remained in Western Europe during the 1890s after the agrarian utopia had faded, and after the more practical spirits had hived off to found trade unions, was the practice of throwing bombs alternating with the explosion of literary manifestoes. On occasions both went off simultaneously, as when the Parisian Anarchist writer Laurent Tailhade, who had glorified the exploits of his friends (“Qu’importe les vagues humanités pourvu que le geste soit beau“), lost an eye when a bomb exploded while he was having dinner in his favorite restaurant. More commonly the bomb came first, to be followed by lengthy speeches in court and wordy appeals on the part of literary sympathizers. These included distinguished scholars like Kropotkin and Elisée Reclus, as well as artists like Camille Pissaro and Signac. When in 1894, following the assassination of President Carnot, the police seized the subscription list of the Anarchist journal La Révolte, which had once been edited by Kropotkin, they were embarrassed to find Alphonse Daudet, Anatole France, Stephane Mallarmé and Leconte de Lisle among the paper’s subscribers. None of them had ever condoned violence, and the case was thrown out of court. But assassinations continued, and the movement’s intellectual sponsors frequently found themselves in an embarrassing position. Kropotkin and Reclus took the sensible line of condemning terrorism, while refusing to sit in judgment on the individuals concerned. Some of their associates were more reckless. In the end, the whole terrorist phase petered out in isolated acts of desperation, which merely helped to give the movement a bad name and confirmed the Socialists of the period in their refusal to heed Anarchist criticism (some of which they might with advantage have taken to heart).

But what finally killed it was the Russian Revolution, followed two decades later by its epilogue: the Spanish Civil War. Spain was the one country where Anarchism, or more precisely Anarcho-Syndicalism, had assembled a mass movement. When its leaders swallowed their principles and joined the Republican government in its fight against Franco, they made nonsense of their theories; and when they failed to instill discipline in their supporters, they as good as admitted that Anarchism did not work. The final act in Barcelona, in May 1937 (when the GPU helped the Spanish Communists out of their embarrassment by arranging to have the Anarchist and Trotskyist leaders quietly murdered) merely wrote the epitaph of the whole movement.

Mr. Joll’s sympathetic study will help to give the reader a better perspective of the libertarian tradition. He is both scholarly and fairminded, if a little too inclined to rehash Proudhon’s and Bakunin’s tiresome complaints against Marx. The simple fact is that until Marx came along the Socialist movement was very largely run by self-educated cranks, of the kind who go about in every age, endlessly repeating a few stock phrases. Marx took hold of the movement, made something out of it, and incidentally got rid of the cranks. Naturally they resented him. Bakunin complained loudly that he was a German Jew whose only merit was to have written Capital (which Bakunin tried in vain to translate—it was too tough for him, and anyhow he never finished anything). Things had been easier in the good old days, when a slogan like “Property is Theft” did duty as a political platform. After Marx one had to do some thinking, and the true Anarchists were never very strong in that department. There is a case for saying that what really did them in was their incapacity for sustained thought. It was only after they had absorbed Marx that the Syndicalists were able to make some headway, and by then classical Anarchism was on the way out.

Mr. Max Nomad’s reminiscences furnish a suitable counterpoint to Mr. Joll’s learned study. Sixty years in the Anarchist movement have given him the necessary perspective, and after a long life spent wandering about in two continents he is able to sit back and take a tolerant view of his old comrades. The account of his perambulations is a bit disjointed, but there are some lively anecdotes, and he does present his heroes in the round. He has got them all—the crackpot philosophers, the failed politicians, the artists, the vagabonds, and the hold-up men. There is an interesting comment on Machalski—that incongruous libertarian with his scheme for “emancipating the working class through a world conspiracy of professional revolutionists, who naturally would have to be either intellectuals—that is, members of the rising new class—or self-educated ex-workers, which amounted to the same thing.” One seems to catch in this disillusioned, and disillusioning, remark a hint of some latent theoretical discovery about the nature of revolution. Can it be that Lenin and Machajski were really not so very far apart?

What puzzles me, though, is Mr. Nomad’s dedication. The list includes, in addition to Louise Michel and Errico Malatesta, who properly belong in it, such incongruous figures as Spartacus, John Brown (!), and Karl Liebknecht, who was not remotely an Anarchist; plus a group of philosophical skeptics, from Zeno to Anatole France. I have a strong suspicion that France would have declined the honor, preferring dinner with the Duchesse de Guermantes, while Zeno most likely would have doubted Mr. Nomad’s existence. However that may be, he has brought his old friends back to life, if only for a moment. It is an enjoyable book, but for the real thing one has to go to the source of it all, Proudhon’s tirade against authority, as rendered by Mr. Joll:

To be governed is to be watched over, inspected, spied on, directed, legislated, regulated, docketed, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, assessed, weighed, censored, ordered about…. noted, registered, taxed, stamped, measured, valued, assessed, patented, licensed, authorized, endorsed, admonished, hampered, reformed, rebuked, arrested. It is to be, on the pretext of the general interest, taxed, drilled, held to ransom, exploited, monopolized, extorted, hoaxed, squeezed, robbed; then at least resistance, at the first word of complaint, repressed, fined, abused, annoyed, followed, bullied, beaten, disarmed, garrotted, imprisoned, machine-gunned, judged, condemned, deported, flayed, sold, betrayed, and finally mocked, ridiculed, insulted, dishonored. That’s government, that’s its justice, that’s its morality!

Who can resist such rhetoric? I for one cannot. At the next opportunity I shall refuse to pay income tax.


Which Zeno? April 22, 1965

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