Saturday, June 18, 2011


The usual historiography of anarchism traces its beginnings to the international socialist movement and the First International. Like most things in the social sciences this is only approximately true. The pre-International workers' movement in France, the most advanced on the European continent, generally held to a variety of anarchism called Mutualism. Still it is true that anarchism, for better or for worse, acquired most of its modern characteristics in the struggle against Marxism within the First International. This development is often portrayed as a stuggle between the Latin sections that held, more or less, to the ideas of Bakunin with the Marxoid German movement. The English trade unionists generally kept aloof from both factions.

This is, once more, approximately true. It was in the Latin countries (with the addition of Belgium- half Latin, Switzerland and the Netherlands) that the anti-authoritarian strain of the workers' movement gained purchase and laid the foundation for modern anti-statist socialism. Yet there was and is a wide difference between these countries as to the degree that anarchism 'caught on'. Why ?

I've just finished reading 'Bakunin and the Italians' by T.R. Ravindranathan, and it tells basically the same story as another book 'Italian Anarchism: 1864-1892' by Nunzio Pernicone. The Introduction and first chaper of yet another book, 'The French Anarchist Movement' by David Berry twells the story of early anarchism in France. Herein lies the question. Both France and Italy were much more likely to become the 'motherland of anarchy' than Spain was. France had the existence of a large mutualist labour movement as well as its tradition of revolution. Italy was the 'centrepiece' of the antiauthoritarian sections of the First International, and its early history of anarchism would seem to say that it should have become the centre. What if fact occured was that Spain went on to become the classic land of anarchism, ending up exporting it to much of the Spanish speaking world. The Italian movement while 'large' in a comparative sense never grew to the extent that the Spanish one did, and offered far less resistance to fascism in Italy than the Spaniards did in Spain. The French movement managed to escape its ghetto for a brief period in the glory days of the CGT, but was later to become a rump of its original self. Once more why ?

All three countries shared the same basic social structure ie a combative upper class, in the case of France and Italy one that rose to the top via previous revolutions or wars, and in the case of Spain an decaying aristocratic and clerical class. In terms of the difference between regions Italy was almost a carbon copy of Spain. The messogiorno was pretty well the same as southern Spain. Ther French situation was somewhat different insofar as most rural provinces were conservative after having their land hunger satisfied by the revolution of 1789.

So similar and yet so different. My own suggestion is that the difference came about via certain choices that the 'proto-anarchists' of that day made in different countries. In Italy as in France the choice of syndicalism was delayed by decades. The most prominant action of the early Italian anarchists were the comic-opera "insurrections" that they engaged in. To say thery were laughable understates the case. Meanwhile in Spain the anarchists were organizing strikes and actually "going to the people". Any premature insurrections in Spain in the late 1800s and the early 1900s were peasant rebellions that the leadership of the anarchists supported but not too much.

Let's put it another way. While the anarchist movement in France and Italy was mired ion tactics that were doomed to fail the Spanish anarchists did one salient thing. They organized the working class for bopth its immediate demands and for the eventual social evolution. This combination was something that eluded both the French and the Italians.


Larry Gambone said...

Interesting questions. French anarchism, which by 1900 had abandoned the ill-fated propaganda of the deed was fractured by WW1. It was again fractured in the aftermath of that war into 1. a pro-war rump despised by all other anarchists 2. a pro-Bolshevik group comprising many of the most militant 3. a moderate faction despised by the more militant anarchists 4. the mainstream anarchist communist and syndicalists around Le Libertaire. The moderates evolved into a kind of French Gomperite, the pro-Bolshies left the CP and many became Trotskyists. The mainstream managed to resuscitate anarchism in the 1930's, and it became as Berry says, the “Third Party of the Left.” This did not last, as anarchism suffered from the general malaise of the left, post-Pop Front. A bunch of syndicalists went over to Vichy and this did not help post-War syndicalism. In 1947 the CNT-F had about 100,000 members but lost them, (I don't know why) Then the French Anarchist Federation was fractured by a dispute with the Platformists which destroyed the highly successful Le Libertaire in 1954.

Transcona Slim said...

I've been reading 'anarchist voices: an oral history of American anarchism'. On thing that is stressed over and over is that allot of the Italian anarchists where "individualist". Maybe this is just about Italian anarchists in America, but I'm pretty sure that individualist anarchism was a strong strain in Italy.

mollymew said...

Personally I think you are probably right Slim. With an important caviat. "Individualist anarchism" has meant vastly different things in different places and times. In the Italian context it contributed to a failure to grow not just because of the expected standing aside from political action. Even more so it contributed to an historical tradition of insurrectionism which was often arrogantly said to be "purer" than the syndicalist option.

Individualism is not ALWAYS a break on development as American, Scotish and Spanish experience has demonstarted. Choices of tactics don't follow authomatically from ideology.