James Joll, The Anarchists, Second Edition, 1979.


'You are miserable isolated individuals. You are bankrupt. You have played out your role. Go where you belong, to the dustheap of history.' Trotsky's denunciation of his menshevik opponents in October 1917 is typical of a whole way of looking at history. According to this view, it is the causes which triumph that alone should interest the historian, and those movements and individuals which do not contribute to the forward march of the historical process are, it is held, rightly neglected and scorned, or dismissed as reactionary or blind. It is not the Marxists alone who have regarded history in this way; Christian historians have implied the same view about pagans, and liberal historians about conservatives. But it is unsuccessful revolutionaries who have been the chief victims of those historians who are only interested in success. When a revolution succeeds, historians are concerned to trace its roots and unravel its origins and development, so that, very often, the whole chain of events leading to it over many decades is represented as an inevitable process, and each idea or episode is judged by the extent to which it helped or hindered the final result. On the other hand, the revolutions which failed are treated as blind alleys, and the men and ideas that inspired them are rarely studied for their own inherent interest. As a consequence, much that is interesting and curious is neglected and forgotten, and the field of vision of the historian is deliberately restricted. Yet, if the aim of the historian, like that of the artist, is to enlarge our picture of the world, to give us a new way of looking at things, then the study of failure can often be as instructive and rewarding as the study of success. A recurrent type of failure and its causes may throw light both on the psychology of individuals and on the structure of societies.

The anarchists have suffered as much as any minority from the historians' cult of success. They never made a successful revolution. Their political theories are full of logical flaws and mistaken assumptions. The sympathy which one type of anarchist doctrine might have won has been lost by the ruthless and senseless violence and terrorism which was characteristic of another school of anarchist practice. Nevertheless, the theory and practice of the anarchists over the last hundred years have raised a number of questions about the nature of industrial society. They have provided a continuous and fundamental criticism of the modern concept of the state, and have challenged the assumptions of nearly all schools of contemporary political thought. They have attacked, often in the most brutal and direct manner, the values and institutions of the established social and moral order. Much of this has ended in futility, sometimes farcical, sometimes tragic. Yet the protests which the anarchist movement has made express a recurrent psychological need, and one which has by no means disappeared with the apparent failure of anarchism as a serious political and social force.

The anarchist movement is a product of the nineteenth century. It is, in part at least, the result of the impact of machines and industry on a peasant or artisan society. It throve on the myth of the revolution as it was developed after 1789; yet, at the same time, it was the failure of political revolutions and constitutional reforms to satisfy economic and social needs which led the anarchists to challenge the methods and the goals of the revolutionaries themselves. The values the anarchists attempted to demolish were those of the increasingly powerful centralized, industrialized state which, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has seemed the model to which all societies are approaching. The anarchists were thus obliged to accumulate enemies: to the landlords and priests of the old order were soon added the revolutionary tyrants and bureaucrats who were being produced by the movements that aimed at creating the new society. The anarchists were always engaged on at least two fronts simultaneously.

Although the anarchist movement is a phenomenon of the past century and a half, it represents a type of revolt that can be found far earlier. The anarchists themselves are proud of this ancestry and have laid claims to many a forerunner who would have been surprised to find himself in their company. Zeno and the Stoics, the Gnostic heretics and the Anabaptists have all been hailed as ancestors of the modern anarchist movement. There is, indeed, a sense in which these movements of religious and social revolt or withdrawal do represent one of the important strands in anarchist thought and action. The anarchists combine a belief in the possibility of a violent and sudden transformation of society with a confidence in the reasonableness of men and in the possibility of human improvement and perfection. On the one hand, they are the heirs of all the Utopian, millenarian religious movements which have believed that the end of the world is at hand and have confidently expected that 'the trumpet shall sound and we shall be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye'. On the other hand, they are also the children of the Age of Reason. (Metternich, indeed, once called Proudhon the illegitimate son of the Enlightenment.) They are the people who carry their belief in reason and progress and peaceful persuasion through to its logical limits. Anarchism is both a religious faith and a rational philosophy; and many of its anomalies are the product of the clash between the two, and of the tensions between the different kinds of temperament which they represent.