George Woodcock, Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements, 1962, Postscript 1975.
I have brought this history of anarchism to an end in the year 1939. The date is chosen deliberately; it marks the real death in Spain of the anarchist movement which Bakunin founded two generations before. Today there are still thousands of anarchists scattered thinly over many countries of the world. There are still anarchist groups and anarchist periodicals, anarchist schools and anarchist communities. But they form only the ghost of the historical anarchist movement, a ghost that inspires neither fear among governments nor hope among peoples nor even interest among newspapermen.
Clearly, as a movement, anarchism has failed. In almost a century of effort it has not even approached the fulfilment of its great aim to destroy the state and build Jerusalem in its ruins. During the past forty years the influence it once established has dwindled, by defeat after defeat and by the slow draining of hope, almost to nothing. Nor is there any reasonable likelihood of a renaissance of anarchism as we have known it since the foundation of the First International in 1864; history suggests that movements which fail to take the chances it offers them are never born again.
Here of course we must distinguish between the historical anarchist movement that sprang from the efforts of Bakunin and his followers and the anarchist idea that inspired it. The idea, in various forms and under various names, was alive more than two centuries before the historical movement began, and, since ideas are more durable than organizations and causes, it is possible that the theoretical core of anarchism may still have the power to give life to a new form under changed historical circumstances.
So, in this final chapter, I shall try to answer two questions. Why did the movement founded by Bakunin fail? And is there any reason why the anarchist idea, which is a much wider thing, should survive it?
The anarchists have always regarded themselves as revolutionaries,
and so they are in theory. In practice, however, organized anarchism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was really a movement of rebellion rather than a movement of revolution. It was a protest, a dedicated resistance to the worldwide trend since the middle of the eighteenth century toward political and economic centralization, with all it implies in terms of the replacement of personal values by collective values, of the subordination of the individual to the state. The real social revolution of the modern age has in fact been this process of centralization, toward which every development of scientific and technological progress has contributed, which has welded nations out of regions and which today is creating a single world where the fundamental differences between regions and peoples and classes are being levelled in uniformity.
The anarchists protested against this revolution in the name of human dignity and individuality, and their protest was necessary; it was perhaps their greatest achievement. But it placed them in a line of opposition to the dominant trend in modern history. They stood outside to criticize, and their criticism was given power and edge by their disappointed ideahsm. They defied the materialism of modern society, its regimentation, its drive toward conformity, and, while they looked toward an idyllic future, they also stood for the better aspects of a dying past.
Their ruthless criticism of the present was always the great strength of the anarchists. It was their urges toward the past and the future that weakened them as a movement. For they drew their support mainly from those social classes which were out of tune with the dominant historical trend and which were steadily declining in influence and in numbers. We have seen already how many of their leaders were conscience-stricken gentlemen and clergymen revolting against their churches in the name of a literal Christianity. We have seen how much of the rank-and-file of the movement was made up of artisans, of poor and primitive peasants, of those shiftless, rebellious sections of the lower classes whom Shaw hailed as 'the undeserving poor' and whom Marx dismissed as the Lumpenproletariat. In one of its aspects, anarchism became the great uprising of
the dispossessed, of all those who were thrust aside by the Juggernaut of nineteenth-century material progress. Each of these classes stood in its own way for independence and individuality, but even in the 1860s, when they first began to rally to the black banners of anarchism, they were already being superseded as a result of profound changes in the structure of society, in the distribution of wealth, and in the methods of production.
In the same way, the countries and regions where anarchism was strongest were those in which industry was least developed and in which the poor were poorest. As progress engulfed the classic fatherlands of anarchism, as the factory workers replaced the handcraftsmen, as the aristocrats became detached from the land and absorbed into the new plutocracy, anarchism began to lose the main sources of its support.
Meanwhile, it failed to win over the classes which were most closely involved in the trend toward centralization and uniformity. Bureaucrats, businessmen, and shopkeepers have provided few recruits to the anarchist cause, in spite of Marx's dismissal of it as a petit-bourgeois phenomenon. Even among the industrial workers, the anarchists won only temporary and limited victories. It is true that the factory workers of Barcelona remained under anarchist leadership until 1939, but they were largely Andalusian peasants driven from the land by their extreme poverty. It is true also that anarcho-syndicalism for a long period dominated the French trade-union movement and played an important part in the Dutch and Italian labour movements. But these were equivocal triumphs, since syndicalism in fact represented a compromise with the trend toward centralization. It sought, as Malatesta suggested, to imitate too closely the political and industrial forms of the time, to oppose the massive organizations of the state and industry by massive organizations of the workers, which eventually moved away from anarchism to become part of the centralist order they had originally opposed. The French C.G.T. passed from anarchist control into the hands of reformists like Jouhaux and at last into those of the Communists. Even the C.N.T., always tempted by reformism, eventually sent its leaders into the Spanish government, and there seems little doubt that if the Republic
had survived it would have moved in the same direction as the
French C.G.T.; its alliance with the socialist U.G.T. in 1938
was a sign of the direction in which it was moving. Thus, in
the long run, the anarchist movement suffered an almost
complete defeat in its attempts to win over the industrial
It suffered also from the weakness of its own revolutionary tactics. Anarchist action, which had the virtue of spontaneity, had also the weakness of an almost complete lack of coordination. In the minds of the more conspiratorial anarchists there doubtless existed programmes for the great strategy that would finally encompass the millennial social revolution. But the history of anarchist rebellion shows only a bewildering confusion of small insurrections, individual acts of violence, and strikes which sometimes served to keep society in a state of tension, but which had no lasting results. The typical anarchist rebellions were local risings like those of Benevento, Saragossa, and Lyons, easily defeated because of their isolation, and leading by their failure to the discrediting of the anarchist cause in the eyes of the populace in general. It is true that in Spain something like a revolutionary situation did exist after the anarchists and their allies of the C.N.T. had defeated the uprising of the generals in Catalonia and Levante at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. But the event was thrust upon the anarchists, not created by them, and their lack of organizational coherence prevented them from retaining the advantages they had gained; within a few months the revolution had slipped from their hands. Everywhere, in fact, the anarchists showed themselves to be highly individualistic amateur rebels, and in this role they were sometimes successful, but on no occasion did they demonstrate any capacity for the sustained effort that wins and consolidates a revolution.
Linked to the failure of the anarchists as revolutionary actionists was the weakness of their practical proposals for the society that would follow their hypothetical revolution. There was much honesty in their refusal to make elaborate blueprints of the new world they hoped to create, but their disinclination to attempt specific proposals led to their producing a vague and
vapid vision of an idyllic society where the instinct of mutual aid would enable men to create a variety of cooperative relationships unimaginable in the enslaved present. Primitive and evangelically minded people like the Andalusian peasants could accept this vision and give it life by their own millennarian longings for the earthly Kingdom of God where all men would live in simple brotherhood. Intellectuals and artists could also accept it as a kind of working myth around which their own fantasies and speculations might crystallize. But ordinary working- and middle-class people, influenced by nineteenth-century factualism, rejected the anarchist vision because, unlike the prophetic imaginings of H. G. Wells, it lacked the reassuring concreteness and precision they desired.
Another disturbing feature of the anarchist future was that its achievement was indefinitely postponed until the millennial day of reckoning; it was a kind of revolutionary pie-in-the-sky, and one was expected to fast until mealtime. For the anarchists who followed Bakunin and Kropotkin were political and social absolutists, and they displayed an infinite and consistent contempt for piecemeal reform or for the kind of improvements in working conditions and wages which trade unions sought and benevolent employers offered. They believed that all such gains must be temporary and illusory, and that only in the anarchist millennium would the poor really better themselves. Many of the poor thought otherwise, and followed the reformists. How right they were -- and how wrong the anarchists -- in purely material terms has been shown by the radical change in character of modern capitalism, which has led to a remarkable broadening in the standard of living and the scope of leisure in the Western world, and also to the appearance of the welfare state with its insidious dulling of the edge of resentment.
Thus the anarchist movement failed to present an alternative to the state or the capitalist economy that lastingly convinced any large section of the world's population. It also failed in the long run to compete effectively with the other radical movements that were its historical contemporaries; the varieties of Marxism on the Left, and the varieties of Fascism on the Right.
Initially, during the 1870s and the early 1880s, the anarchists won considerable gains over the Marxists in the Latin countries, but after that time, except in Spain, they were in steady retreat before the stronger political parties and unions created first by the Social Democrats and then by the communists. The organization of the Marxists was more unified, efficient, and reliable, their promises were more concrete and immediate; they were willing to fight for reformist goals, and they offered in their dogma of the dictatorship of the proletariat that illusion of wielding power without accepting responsibility which had earlier seduced the workers into seeking in universal suffrage a universal panacea. To all these Marxist advantages was finally added the success of the Bolshevik revolution, which put the anarchists, who had succeeded in no revolution, at an ultimate disadvantage; the glamour of Russia lasted long enough to draw away from anarchism those very radical elements among the youth of countries like France and Italy from which its most devoted militants had once been drawn.
As for Fascism and Nazism, those crude and primitive manifestations of the centralist urge that marks our age, the anarchist movement showed itself powerless to combat them effectively in the countries which they dominated and invaded, though individual anarchists often asserted themselves with self-sacrificing heroism. Only in Spain did organized anarchism put up a determined resistance, and even there, despite its enormous following, it collapsed with dramatic suddenness on the day General Yague and his column marched into Barcelona without a single factory going on strike and without a single barricade being raised in the streets. This was the last, greatest defeat of the historical anarchist movement. On that day it virtually ceased to exist as a living cause. There remained only anarchists and the anarchist idea.
But is the record so completely negative? In fact, the anarchist movement did achieve limited and local successes when it was content to leave the future to itself and to attempt the application of libertarian ideas to immediate and concrete problems. The taking over of factories and public services in Barcelona, the effective creation of peasant collectives in rural Spain and the Makhnovist Ukraine, the movements for adult
and juvenile education in Spain before the Civil War, the mutual-aid institutions created by Jewish anarchists in Britain and the United States; these may have been modest achievements in comparison with the great revolutionary aims of the anarchist movement in its most optimistic periods, but they showed a concrete aspect of libertarianism that at least sketched out an alternative to the totalitarian way.
But such scattered examples of constructive anarchist efforts offer suggestions; they do no more. They do not prove that a complete anarchist society such as Kropotkin, for example, envisaged can come into existence or that it would work if it did. They merely show that in certain limited and favourable circumstances voluntary methods of organizing economic and industrial relations turned out to be at least as practical as authoritarian methods.
So much for the historical anarchist movement. Lost causes may be the best causes -- they usually are -- but once lost they are never won again. And that is probably all to the good. For causes are like men, and they should be allowed to die peacefully so that room can be made for the new movements that will take their place and perhaps learn from both their virtues and their weaknesses.
But ideas do not age, since they remain free of that cumulative weight of collective human folly which in the end destroys the best of movements. And when we turn to the anarchist idea, we realize that it is not merely older than the historical anarchist movement; it has also spread far beyond its boundaries. Godwin, Tolstoy, Stirner, Thoreau, made their contributions to the anarchist idea from outside and even in opposition to the movement. And the traces of that idea are to be found not only in organized anarchism but also in movements like Russian and American populism, Spanish federalism, and Mexican agrarianism. It provided the Indian Nationalists with the technique of passive resistance that won the great conflict against the British overlords. And it helped to inspire some of the movements that in our own day have risen encouragingly in resistance to the totalitarian trend, such as the Israeli kibbutzim, the village community movement in India, and the Credit Unions of North America.
But there is a more general and more profound way in which the anarchist idea may retain a purpose and a function in our modern world. To acknowledge the existence and the overbearing force of the movement toward universal centralization that still grips the world is not to accept it. If human values are to survive, a counter-ideal must be posed to the totalitarian goal of a uniform world, and that counter-ideal exists precisely in the vision of pure liberty that has inspired the anarchist and near-anarchist writers from Winstanley in the seventeenth century. Obviously it is not immediately realizable, and, since it is an ideal, it will probably never be realized. But the very presence of such a concept of pure liberty can help us to judge our condition and see our aims; it can help us to safeguard what liberties we still retain against the further encroachments of the centralizing state; it can help us to conserve and even enlarge those areas in which personal values still operate; it can help in the urgent task of mere survival, of living out the critical decades ahead until the movement of world centralization loses its impetus like all historical movements, and the moral forces that, depend on individual choice and judgement can reassert themselves in the midst of its corruption.
The anarchist ideal may best fulfil this purpose, as its first exponents would have agreed, by the impact of its truths on receptive minds rather than by the re-creation of obsolete forms of organization or by the imitation of insurrectional methods that failed even in the past. The heritage that anarchism has left to the modern world is to be found in a few inspiring lives of self-sacrifice and devotion like those of Malatesta and Louise Michel, but most of all in the incitement to return to a moral and natural view of society which we find in the writings of Godwin and Tolstoy, of Proudhon and Kropotkin, and in the stimulation such writers give to that very taste for free choice and free judgement which modern society has so insidiously induced the majority of men to barter for material goods and the illusion of security. The great anarchists call on us to stand on our own moral feet like a generation of princes, to become aware of justice as an inner fire, and to learn that the still, small voices of our own hearts speak more truly than the choruses of propaganda that daily assault our outer ears.
'Look into the depths of your own beings,' said Peter Arshinov, the friend of Makhno. 'Seek out the truth and realize it yourselves. You will find it nowhere else.' In this insistence that freedom and moral self-realization are interdependent, and one cannot live without the other, lies the ultimate lesson of true anarchism.