James Joll, The Anarchists, Second Edition, 1979.

Chapter X

'Give flowers to the rebels failed.' So runs the first line of an Italian anarchist poem which Vanzetti sat translating in his prison cell. And, as one looks at the repeated failures of anarchism in action, culminating in the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War, one is tempted to strike the same elegiac note. The contradictions and inconsistencies of anarchist theory, the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of putting it into practice all seem illustrated by the experiences of the past hundred and fifty years. Nevertheless, anarchism is a doctrine that has attracted a number of people in each generation, and its ideas still have an appeal. Most of the people who have become anarchists were not self-torturing neurotics -- though some of the terrorists undoubtedly were -- but people who regarded anarchism as a practical revolutionary ideal and a realizable hope. The philosophical anarchists -- a Godwin and even a Proudhon or a Kropotkin -- may have come to think that their criticism of existing society was more theoretical than practical and that the system of social values they sought to inculcate was not immediately realizable; but they certainly believed that it might be realized one day. The mass of poor people who, from the 1880s on, accepted anarchism as a basis for action, did so, however, because the total revolution which the anarchists promised seemed to offer an immediate hope of success, and indeed seemed to be the only possibility of improving their desperate condition.

Anarchism is necessarily a creed of all or nothing, and consequently it has had less success in countries where there is still a hope of winning something out of the existing system. When a trade union can successfully negotiate higher wages or better conditions of work, and when political parties are able to introduce measures of reform and to remedy grievances, then the [258] extreme solution of a total revolution seems less desirable. To this extent, Bakunin's belief that the true revolutionaries are those with nothing to lose has been justified. However, anarchism in action has always come up against the fact that, for better or for worse, all the nations of the west -- even Russia and Spain, where anarchism seemed to have the best prospects of success -- have decided on political action and a centralized government as the means of obtaining the society they want. 'The government of man' is no nearer being replaced by 'the administration of things' than it was when the Utopian socialists put forward the idea in the first half of the last century. The political party, so abhorred by all good anarchists, has become the characteristic organ of twentieth-century government, so that even the dictatorships of the twentieth century have used the single party as a means of exercising their tyranny instead of practising the undisguised autocracy of earlier periods. Thus, in practice, the anarchists have deliberately dissociated themselves from what the majority of people in the twentieth century have regarded as essential for political and social progress. While their criticism of traditional ideas of state sovereignty, representative government and political reform may have often been valid, and the warnings they have repeatedly issued about the dangers of sacrificing liberty in the supposed interests of the revolution have often been justified, the anarchists have failed to suggest just how their alternative system can be made to work. They have never, that is to say, envisaged any intermediate stage between existing society and the total revolution of their dreams.

In another respect, too, the anarchists have shown themselves opposed to the dominating trends of contemporary economic organization. Mass production and consumption and large-scale industry under a centralized direction, whether capitalist or socialist, have, whatever one may think about them, become the characteristic forms of western society and of the newly emergent industrial countries elsewhere. It is hard to see how these could be adapted to anarchist ideas about production and exchange; and therefore the anarchists who have envisaged the total destruction of existing society as a preliminary to the erection of a new order are doubtless right. However, the ambivalent attitude of the anarchists towards technological progress has left a [259] corresponding ambivalence in their views of the future society. Although, as we have seen, Godwin and Kropotkin welcomed new inventions which would relieve men of unpleasant and squalid tasks -- garbage disposal has always been one of the great problems confronting Utopian thinkers -- nevertheless, the basic assumptions of anarchism are all contrary to the development of large-scale industry and of mass production and consumption. When it comes to the point, the anarchists are all agreed that in the new society man will live in extreme simplicity and frugality and will be quite happy to do without the technical achievements of the industrial age. For this reason, much anarchist thinking seemed to be based on a romantic, backward-looking vision of an idealized past society of artisans and peasants, and on a total rejection of the realities of twentieth-century social and economic organization. While some syndicalist ideals and a degree of workers' control of industry may mitigate some of the inhumanity of large factories, a total destruction of the contemporary structure of industry is scarcely imaginable without a violent cataclysm. However, in certain emergency situations such as existed in Russia in 1917 and in Catalonia in 1936, when the governmental and economic machinery has been disrupted or destroyed by war, there might still exist a chance of putting anarchist ideas into practice and of starting to rebuild from nothing a new society on anarchist principles. Perhaps the anarchist revolution could only take place after the total disruption of the means of government, communications, production and exchange by, say, a nuclear war; and perhaps, after all, the terrorists were right, and only a bomb on a larger scale than any they ever envisaged could prepare the way for the true social revolution.

However, in countries where industrial development has not yet conditioned the whole social structure as it has in Europe and North America, the ideals of the anarchists might still seem to be within reach. In India, Gandhi himself and subsequent social reformers such as Jayaprakash Narayan and Vinoba Bhave have dreamed of basing Indian society on (in Gandhi's words) 'self-sufficient, self-governing village republics'.1 Perhaps even in India the development of a centralized industrial community has gone too far to be stopped, and Jayaprakash Narayan has realized [260] that the changes he proposes also involve the abandonment of India's western-style parliamentary democracy. Indeed, his attack on liberal parliamentary institutions and his demand for 'self-governing, self-sufficient, agro-industrial, urbo-rural local communities'2 is closely reminiscent of Proudhon. And, like Proudhon, Mr Narayan is perhaps too optimistic when he thinks that the rejection of liberal institutions will lead to a better form of government. He writes that 'The evidence from Cairo to Djakarta indicates that Asian peoples are having second thoughts, and are seeking to find better forms than parliamentary democracy to express and embody their democratic aspirations.'3 What is sad is that the evidence hardly suggests that these new forms have anything in common with Mr Narayan's admirable Proudhonian ideals. Indeed, if the Indians, with a long tradition of village communities and with the example and teaching of Gandhi, the only twentieth-century statesman with the moral sophistication to make a revolution that was ethical as well as social and political, have not succeeded in starting a social revolution on the lines advocated by Mr Narayan, it is hard to see who else is likely to do so.

Clemenceau once said: 'I am sorry for anyone who has not been an anarchist at twenty'; and it is obvious that the ardent and irrepressible optimism of anarchist doctrines will always have an appeal to the young in revolt against the social and moral conceptions of their elders. Yet it is not so much the enthusiasm of youth that has been made the anarchist leaders impressive, but rather, in the case of men like Kropotkin or Malatesta, the consistency and devotion with which, in spite of disappointments and in face, it may be thought, of overwhelming contrary evidence, they have maintained into old age their beliefs unchanged and their hopes undimmed. The strength of anarchism has lain in the characters of those who have practised it; and it is as an austere personal moral and social code that it will continue to attract people who want a total alternative to the values of contemporary society and politics and whose temperaments respond to the appeal of ideas carried to their logical conclusions, regardless of the practical difficulties involved.

There is also another sense in which anarchism, quite apart from its success or failure as a social revolutionary movement, [261] will always find some converts. Certain types of anarchists provide examples of a 'jusqu'au boutisme', an extreme degree of individualist self-assertion, which rejects all conventions and all restrictions. These anarchists practise in their everyday lives the Nietzschean Umwertung aller Werte, the overturning of all accepted values. The bohemians of the 1890s were echoed by the beat generation of the 1950s in their protest against the stuffiness and conformity of the bourgeois society in which they have grown up. And, while this sort of revolt often ends in futility and sometimes in personal disaster, it can also produce a revolutionary art which effectively challenges convention and tradition and is truly anarchist in its disruptive effect. The Dada painters and writers, for example, during and immediately after the First World War, produced an art which, by attacking the idea of art itself, enabled them, as they thought, to escape from values of any kind. Their successors, the surrealists, again asserted their right to complete freedom. As one of their historians put it: 'Surrealism has nothing in common with a religious movement. Yet it is the only thing capable of giving man what all religions have provided for him: total liberty of the human being in a liberated world.'4 This desire to assert total individual freedom from all restraints and conventions has its dangers: it can become both trivial and silly. As a leading surrealist, Andre Breton, remarked: 'Il n'y a rien avec quoi il soit si dangereux de prendre des libertes comme avec la liberte.'5 A state of permanent rejection of all rules is the most exacting way of life possible, and individualist anarchism, like social anarchism, demands a devotion and austerity which few who practise it attain. (It is not entirely surprising, for instance, that some of the leading surrealists preferred to turn to the ready-made discipline of the communists rather than to the self-imposed freedom of their original beliefs.) However, just as the revolutionary anarchist thinkers provided a vision of an alternative social order and a challenge to all our accepted political and economic conventions, so the individualist anarchists and the artists whose work has reflected their beliefs have provided a series of salutary shocks to our moral and aesthetic beliefs. The idea of a 'morality without obligations or sanctions' is as attractive as that of a society without government or governed; and, in [262] one form or another, each will have its disciples in every generation.

The 1960s and 1970s were marked by a number of episodes and movements which showed that the anarchist tradition was not dead. Although many of the older generation of anarchists who regarded themselves as the guardians of the true anarchist doctrines have been as anxious to disassociate themselves from contemporary revolutionary developments as the revolutionaries have been to deny links with them, and have shown themselves, as Antonio Gramsci remarked sixty years ago, 'persuaded that they are the repositories of revealed revolutionary truth',6 the student movements of the 1960s and the terrorist movements of the 1970s have each provided examples of different aspects of anarchist ideas and methods. And, as at the end of the nineteenth century, governments have continued to react in the same way. They have been alarmed by what they have regarded as symptoms of an international conspiracy to subvert the existing order, and have used very similar language to that of their predecessors a hundred years ago. In June 1871, a few weeks after the suppression of the Paris Commune, one of the French ministers said 'Europe is faced by a work of destruction which is directed against all nations and directed against the principles upon which civilization rests.' The same fears haunted one of his successors in 1968:

A study of the movement launched in the German Federal Republic in November 1967, in Britain from 1968, and the attempts observed in Holland at the same time disclosed the disturbing simultaneousness, a complete identity of methods of action. . . between communist and activist groups. We observe in the convergence of the phenomenon between Europe and the United States in the last few years the action of determined and militant minorities cultivating close contacts with each other and living in a state of permanent conspiracy against society.7
And a few years later, in November 1977, another French minister showed that he was still convinced of the existence of a continuous anarchist tradition when he remarked, after the extradition of a German who had been the defence lawyer of some of the German terrorists: 'We find ourselves facing a menace comparable to that of anarchism at the end of the nineteenth [263] century. The Third Republic knew the answer to that menace. The Fifth knows it as well.'8

Contemporary revolutionaries, like their predecessors, seem to be torn between their belief in cooperation and peaceful communal living on the one hand and their belief in direct violent action on the other. Sometimes, as in the case of Francisco Ferrer earlier in the century, genuine ideals about the free development of the individual exist side by side with a conviction that violence and terrorism are necessary to achieve an immediate and, it is hoped, very sensational political end. Enlightened reason and a belief in violence are often found side by side.

For many revolutionaries of the 1960s and 1970s, the violent element in anarchist theory is more important than the rational Utopian one. The acceptance of violence is characteristic of what has been called the 'counter-culture' of the second half of the twentieth century; and there is no aspect of the revolutionary movement among the young which separates it more clearly from the world of the liberal radicals of an older generation. In philosophical terms, many revolutionaries have become obsessed with what Herbert Marcuse has called 'the liberating function of negation'. It is here that they come very close to Bakunin, whose belief in direct action and in the effectiveness of the example of a revolutionary few to spark off the spontaneous revolt of the masses has much in common with contemporary apostles of direct action. Bakunin summed up his programme as follows:

Total destruction of the world of the legal state and of all the bourgeois so-called civilization, by means of a popular revolution, directed not by an official dictatorship but by a collective, imperceptible and anonymous dictatorship of the partisans of the complete liberation of the people from all oppression, firmly united in a secret society and acting everywhere and always with the same goal and according to the same programme.9
It is a programme to which many groups in the 1970s would be prepared to subscribe.

But there is another point at which the revolutionaries of the 1960s and 1970s come close to Bakunin, namely his insistence that the form of the revolutionary movement itself must [264] foreshadow the form of society after the revolution. The question posed to Marx's supporters in 1871, 'How can you expect an egalitarian and a free society to emerge from an authoritarian organization?', is echoed in the language of the 1960s by one of the French libertarian groups: 'L'organisation revolutionnaire a du apprendre qu'elle ne peut plus combattre l'alienation sous des formes alienees.'10

Much of the Utopian element in the contemporary revolutionary movement is to be found in its concept of what the movement itself is. The feeling of liberation and excitement which participation in the events in Paris in 1968 aroused is documented in every report and in every conversation with participants. Again and again one is reminded of the euphoria of the anarchist revolution in Barcelona in 1936. Utopia was being achieved here and now in the process of the revolution itself. A typical example is the account of a student at Columbia University, New York, when talking of the experiences of the student revolt in 1968:

Always meetings and more meetings lasting long into the night. Participatory democracy. There was a real community spirit: everything belonged to everybody; the building was 'liberated': Girls . .. were not expected to do the kitchen work alone for this was a 'liberated' area, and boys had to help. Couples slept together in public view, nobody cared, we were 'liberated': here was a single commune in which adult hypocrisies did not apply any longer, where people shared and shared alike, where democracy decided everything, where people were free of adult values and codes.11

This is an authentic voice of the anarchist tradition in its naive optimism and in its sense that nothing can ever be the same again. Moreover the anarchists' call for decentralization, their insistence on the desirability of small communities living a simple life free of the corruption of urban society or of the complications of a money economy continues to find its followers, who adopt slogans such as 'Small is Beautiful' and take part in protests against nuclear power stations. But, as so often in the past, it is not this aspect of the anarchist tradition which has attracted the attention of most members of the public and -- perhaps more to the point -- of the police forces of much of the world. It is the [265] techniques of terrorism which still are regarded as characteristic of anarchism even though they are today seldom used for anarchist goals. The methods of 'propaganda by the deed' adopted by anarchists at the end of the nineteenth century have suggested ways of attacking the powerful structure of the modern state, and they have continued to attract desperate people who have realized that there is little chance of achieving their goals by more orthodox or more legitimate means. Moreover the romanticism of terror has had a fatal attraction for many intellectuals. Even if not prepared to carry out acts of terrorism themselves, they often have too bad a conscience about contemporary society to condemn such acts when carried out by others. Sometimes of course, as in the case of many nationalist movements the technique of terrorism serves a rational and often attainable goal, though not necessarily an anarchist one. There are several examples of colonial territories which have won independence because terrorist methods have forced the authorities to lose their nerve and to take countermeasures which have proved unacceptable to liberal opinion at home, so that that opinion has eventually forced the government to give way. It is often hard to distinguish what is anarchist and what is not, especially when the aims of a terrorist group are not clear and when the actual attack on existing society seems more important than its consequences. This is certainly true of some of the terrorist groups of the 1970s, such as that founded in West Germany by Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, who have revived the fears aroused by the anarchists of the 1890s and have consequently been regarded by many people as themselves anarchists, a label which they disclaim. What they and other small terrorist groups around the world have demonstrated is that in a technological civilization a few hundred terrorists, by hijacking an aircraft or by a well-placed bomb or a strategic kidnapping, can frighten governments and the public out of all proportion to their numerical strength. One of the results is to offer a challenge to the basic assumptions of a liberal society by provoking a reaction on the part of the government which, by its suspension of liberal guarantees of individual freedom, alienates part of the population from the very system it is in their interest to support.

The waves of pointless terrorism in support of a revolution [266] which can never succeed will no doubt die out and be replaced by other forms of action, as was the case with the anarchist terrorism in France or Spain in the 1890s and 1900s. Although terrorist actions may cause shock and distress, they are nevertheless a less effective way of challenging the values of existing society than the continuous critique of our social goals and values offered by the philosophical anarchists, a criticism which has the effect of making us think again about our political and economic presuppositions. The anarchists have consistently pointed out the danger of making the wrong kind of revolution, and their warnings over the last hundred years that Marxism would lead to dictatorship and to the replacement of the old tyrannies by a new one have been proved all too correct. Whatever they may have thought they were doing, the anarchists have, in fact, produced a revolutionary idea which corresponds exactly to Sorel's myth -- 'not a description of things but an expression of will'. It is by their ruthless and extreme assertion of an uncompromising set of beliefs that the anarchists have given an example and issued a challenge. Like all puritans, they have succeeded in making us just a little uneasy about the kind of life we lead.


1 Jayaprakash Narayan, A Plea for Reconstruction of Indian Polity (Wardha 1959), p. 63.

2 ibid., p. 36.

3 ibid.

4 Maurice Nadeau, Histoire du surrealisme (Paris 1945), p. 268.

5 Quoted Peter Heintz, Anarchismus und Gegenwart (Zurich 1951). I am grateful to Professor Juan Marechal of Harvard University for drawing my attention to this interesting essay.

6 Antonio Gramsci, 'Discorso agli Anarchici', L'Ordine Nuovo 1919-1920 (Turin 1954), p. 396.

7 The Times, 15 November 1968.

8 The Times, 26 November 1977.

9 Bakunin to Nechaev, 2 January 1870, in Michael Confino, j 'Bakunin et Necaev', Cahiers du Monde Russe et Sovietique, Vol. VII, No. 4 (1966), pp. 629-30.

10 Adresse a tous les Travailleurs 30 May 1968, published by. 'Comite Enrages-Internationale Situationniste', and see p. 105 above.

11 Crisis at Columbia: Report of the Fact-Finding Commission (New York 1969), p. 138.