Emile Armand, “Without amoralization, no anarchization” (1926)

I came across this article by Emile Armand in L’Insurgé while working on something entirely unrelated, but it was interesting enough that I went ahead and translated it. If there is nothing here that would convince anyone not already sympathetic, it is a clear statement of Armand’s position, with a few nice examples of his literary eccentricities.

Without amoralization, no anarchization

The Larousse dictionary defines the word morality as: the relation of an act, of the sentiments of a person, with the rule of morals. From this comes the expression “certificate of morality,” to designate an official confirmation of a clean criminal record. Each time that I hear morality spoken of in a publication that calls itself anarchist, to whatever degree, there comes to my mind, unbidden, the idea of a “certificate of good behavior,” delivered by the police chief of the district.

As I wrote in the last issue, the word morality would never have appeared in the anarchist or anarchist-friendly journals if the anarchist movement had not been swamped with people coming from bourgeoisie backgrounds, who have brought with them the notion that it is important to conform, in matters of morals, with the established rules.

An experience that is already great, a familiarity that does not date from yesterday, has shown me that a great number of people who declare themselves theoretically as advocates of anarchism have been seduced particularly by the teachings of Rousseau, humanitarianism, and the revolutionary aspiration to egalitarianism revealed by the writings of certain anarchist dogmatists. From that comes an all too obvious tendency to make pronouncements on the acts and movements of comrades, valuations and judgments like those issued by the representatives of bourgeois society and those chiefs of police who deliver certificates of good behavior.

When, in 1900, I entered into contact with the anarchists, I came from a Christian milieu; many times, I have been stupefied by comparing the materialist declarations of certain anarchist theorists with the judgments they passed on the conduct of comrades who had taken seriously formulas like “no gods, no masters” or “with neither faith nor law,” which makes concrete, in a brief and clear form, the whole individual anarchist idea of life. I could not understand how, after having battled the law and the prophets, both religious and secular, they could bring, with regard to certain kinds of individual behavior, condemnations that would not have been disapproved of by the judges in the criminal court. As I did not consider propaganda a profession and did not wish to make a vocation of it, I would have long since dumped these respectable folks, and that would have saved me some unpleasantness, if afterwards I had not been convinced that these judgments simply reflected the bourgeois education (primary and secondary) received by these theorists, of which they have never wished or been able to rid themselves. Later, fortunately, I met real anarchists, liberated and freed from the education of the schools, who avoided, in general, bringing judgment on the actions of their comrades. When they ventured to express an opinion on their manner of conducting themselves, they did so in relation to the anarchist conception of life and not some standard of morality established by the supporters of bourgeois society.

I meet old compagnons who tell me that they have withdrawn from the movement because of the disillusionment they have experienced, meeting too many anarchist theorists with bourgeois inclinations. Where they hoped to meet men who had abandoned social prejudices and moral preconceptions, they found only minds, so spineless as to be ridiculous, whose ethical mentality differed in no way from that of their porter and their housekeeper.

Not that, forced by circumstances, the anarchist individualists do not disguise themselves, but in the manner of the Calabrian brigand, who disguises himself as a carabineer in order to rob a stage-coach. Every concession that the anarchist individualist makes to the social milieu, every concession that seem to make to the State, they make amends by undermining the notion of the necessary power, by demonstrating to all those with whom they come into contact that there is no need for morals and moralists, for imposed, obligatory leaders and magistrates, in order to fulfill the organic individual functions and for humans to get along.

But where is the giant who will get on with the task of amoralizing and immoralizing the anarchist men and women, of making them catalysts of the amoralization and immoralization of the human milieu? For it is only then, O anarchy, that your advent could foreseen.

E. Armand.

L’Insurgé 2 no. 48 (April 3, 1926): 2.

[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]


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Ricardo Mella, “The Bankruptcy of Beliefs” and “The Rising Anarchism” (1902-03)

[It’s been quiet here for quite a while, while I have been concentrating on writing and research in some new areas. A lot of my attention has been focused on the question of “anarchist synthesis” and my exploration of the debate surrounding it has finally forced me to dive deep into the Spanish-language anarchist periodicals of the early 20th century. Sources like La Revista Blanca and the “Suplementos” of the Argentinian paper La Protesta are remarkably rich in material from a variety of tendencies and nations, and the research has uncovered a number of very interesting discussion on the question of synthesis, including some commentaries from a much earlier period than I expected. These articles by Ricardo Mella are a fine example of the sort of material that has emerged.

The two articles below present a very challenging vision of the development of a revolutionary anarchism. They continue Mella’s arguments for an anarchism “without adjectives,” picking up elements already present in his work in the 1880s, but also connect that notion to the idea of an “anarchist synthesis,” long before Voline presented his account of anarchist development and the need for synthesis that emerges from the very nature of anarchism itself. The translation, from Spanish, is perhaps a little rough around the edges, but I think the ideas are clear enough.]


To my brother J. Prat:

Faith has had its moment; it has also had its noisy bankruptcy. There is nothing left standing at this hour but the lonely ruins of its altars.

Ask the learned people—or those who still wear the intellectual loincloth—and if they wish to answer you conscientiously, they will tell you that faith has died forever: political faith and religious faith, and the scientific faith that has defrauded so many hopes.

When all the past was dead, gazes turned longingly toward the rising sun. Then the sciences had their triumphal hymns. And it came to pass that the multitude was given new idols, and now the eminent representatives of the new beliefs preach right and left the sublime virtues of the dogmatic scientist. The dangerous logorrhea of flattering adjectives, and the never-ending chatter of the sham sages put us on the path to what is rightly proclaimed the bankruptcy of science.

Actually, it is not science that is bankrupt in our day. There is no science; there are sciences. There are no finished things; there are things in perpetual formation. And what does not exist cannot break. If it were still claimed that that which is in constant elaboration, that which constitutes or will constitute the flow of knowledge goes bankrupt in our time, it would only demonstrate that those who said it sought something in the sciences what they cannot give us. It is not the human task of investigating and knowing that fails; what fails, as faith failed in the past, is the sciences.

The ease of creating without examination or mature deliberation, coupled with the general poverty of culture, has resulted in theological faith being succeeded by philosophical faith and later scientific faith. Thus, religious and political fanatics are followed by the believers in a multitude of “isms,” which, if fertilized by the greatest wealth of our understanding, only confirm the atavistic tendencies of the human spirit.

But what is the meaning of the clamoring that arises at every step in the bosom of parties, schools and doctrines? What is this unceasing battle between the catechumens of the same church? It means, simply, that beliefs fail.

The enthusiasm of the neophyte, the healthy and crazy enthusiasm, forges new doctrines and the doctrines forge new beliefs. It desires something better, pursues the ideal, seeks noble and lofty employment of its activities, and barely makes a slight examination, if it finds the note that resonates harmoniously in our understanding and in our heart. It believes. Belief then pulls us along completely, directs and governs our entire existence, and absorbs all our faculties. In no other way could chapels, like churches, small or large, rise powerfully everywhere. Belief has its altars, its worship and its faithful, as faith had.

But there is a fateful, inevitable, hour of dreadful questioning. And this luminous hour is one in which mature reflection asks itself the reason for its beliefs and its ideological loves.

Then the ideal word, which was something like the nebula of a God on whose altar we burned the incense of our enthusiasm, totters. Many things crumble within us. We vacillate as a building whose foundations are weakening. We are upset about party and opinion commitments, just as if our own beliefs were to become unbearable. We believed in man, and we no longer believe. We roundly affirmed the magical virtue of certain ideas, and we do not dare to affirm it. We enjoyed the ardor of an immediate positive regeneration, and we no longer enjoy it. We are afraid of ourselves. What prodigious effort of will is required not to fall into the most appalling emptiness of ideas and feelings!

There goes the crowd, drawn by the verbosity of those who carry nothing inside and by the blindness of those who are full of great and incontestable truths. There goes the multitude, lending with its unconscious action, the appearance life to a corpse whose burial only awaits the strong will of a genius intelligence, who will strip off the blindfold of the new faith.

But the man who thinks, the man who meditates on his opinions and actions in the silent solitude that leads him to the insufficiency of beliefs, sketches the beginning of the great catastrophe, feels the bankruptcy of everything that keeps humanity on a war footing and is aware of the rebuilding of his spirit.

The noisy polemic of parties, the daily battles of selfishness, bitterness, hatred and envy, of vanity and ambition, of the small and great miseries that grip the social body from top to bottom, mean nothing but that beliefs go bankrupt everywhere.

Soon, and perhaps even now, if we delved into the consciences of believers, of all believers, we would find nothing but doubts and questions. All men of good will soon confess their uncertainties. Only the closed-minded belief will be affirmed by those who hope to gain some profit, just as the priests of religions and the augurs of politics continue to sing the praises of the faith that feeds them even after its death.

So, then, is humanity is going to rush into the abyss of ultimate negation, the negation of itself?

Let us not think like the old believers, who cry before the idol that collapses. Humanity will do nothing but break one more link of the chain that imprisons it. The noise matters little. Anyone who does not feel the courage to calmly witness the collapse, will do well to retire. There is always charity for the invalids.

We believed that ideas had the sovereign virtue of regenerating us, and now we find ourselves with ideas that do not carry within themselves elements of purity, justification and truthfulness, and cannot borrow them from any ideal. Under the passing influence of a virgin enthusiasm, we seem renewed, but at last the environment regains its empire. Humanity is not made up of heroes and geniuses, and so even the purest sink, at last, into the filth of all the petty passions. The time when beliefs are broken is also the time when all the fraudsters are known.

Are we in an iron ring? Beyond all the hecatombs life springs anew. If things do not change according to our particular theses, if they do not occur as we expect them to occur, this does not give in to the negation of the reality of realities. Outside of our pretensions as believers, the modification persists, the continuous change is accomplished and everything evolves: means, men and things. How? In what direction? Ah! That is precisely what is left at the mercy of the unconsciousness of the multitudes; that is what, in the end, is decided by an element alien to the work of the understanding and the sciences: force.

After all the propaganda, all the lessons, all the progress, humanity does not have, it does not wish to have any creed but violence. Right? Is this wrong?

And it is force that we accept the things as they are and that, accepting them, our spirit does not weaken. At a critical moment, when everything collapses in us and around us; when we grasp that we are neither better nor worse than others; when we are convinced that the future is not contained in any formulas that are still dear to us, that the species will never conform to the mold of a given form of association, whether it may be called; when we finally assure ourselves that we have done nothing more than forge new chains, gilded with beloved names,—in that decisive moment we must break up all the rubbish of belief, that we cut all the fastenings and we revive personal independence more confidently than ever.

If a vigorous individuality is stirred within us, we will not morally die at the hands of the intellectual vacuum. For man, there is always a categorical affirmation, the “becoming,” the beyond that is constantly reflected and after which it is, however, necessary to run. Let’s run faster when the bankruptcy of beliefs is done.

What does it matter that the goal will eternally move away from us? Men who fight, even in this belief, are those who are needed; not those who find elements of personal enrichment in everything; not those who make of the interests of the party pennant connections for the satisfaction of their ambitions; not those who, positioned to monopolize for their own advantage, monopolize even feelings and ideas.

Even among men of healthier aspirations, selfishness, vanity, foolish petulance, and low ambition take center stage. Even in the parties of more generous ideas there is the leaven of slavery and exploitation. Even in the circle of the noblest ideals, charlatanism and vanity teem; fanaticism, soon intransigence toward the friend, sooner cowardice toward the enemy; fatuity that that rises up swaggering, shielded by the general ignorance. Everywhere, weeds sprout and grow. Let’s not live delusions.

Shall we allow ourselves to be crushed by the grief of all the atavisms that revive, with sonorous names, in us and around us?

Standing firm, firmer than ever, looking beyond any formula whatsoever, will reveal the true fighter, the revolutionary yesterday, today and tomorrow. Without a hero’s daring, it is necessary to pass undaunted through the flames that consume the bulk of time, to take a risk among the creaking timbers, the roofs that sink, the walls that collapse. And when there is nothing left but ashes, rubble, shapeless debris that will have crushed the weeds, nothing will not be left for those who come after but one simple work: to sweep the floor of the lifeless obstacles.

If the collapse of faith has allowed the growth of belief in the fertile field of the human being, and if belief, in turn, falters and bows withered to the earth, we sing the bankruptcy of belief, because it is a new step on the path of individual freedom.

If there are ideas, however advanced, that have bound us in the stocks of doctrinarism, let us smash them. A supreme ideality for the mind, a welcome satisfaction for the spirit disdainful of human pettiness, a powerful force for creative activity, putting thought into the future and the heart into the common welfare, will always remain standing, even after the bankruptcy of all beliefs.

At the moment, even if the mind is frightened, even if all the pigeonholes rebel, in many minds something stirs that is incomprehensible to the dying world: beyond ANARCHY there is also a sun that is born, as in the succession of time there is no sunset without sunrise.


Sequels are never good. But dear friends who, judging the first installment good, decided to publish it as a pamphlet, ask me to expand the material a few more pages, and I cannot and do not wish to refuse.

I wrote “The Bankruptcy of Beliefs” in a painful moment, impressed by the collapse of something that lives in illusion, but not in reality, which sometimes plays with ideas and with affections, to torment us with our own impotence and our avowed errors.

The truth does not give way before ideological conventions, and those of us who profess to worship it, must not, even through feelings of solidarity, much less through party spirit, sacrifice even the smallest portion of what we understand to be above all doctrines.

Whoever has followed the gradual development of revolutionary ideas, and of anarchism above all, will have seen that in the course of time certain principles began to crystallize in minds as infallible conditions of absolute truth. They will have seen how small dogmas have been elaborated and how, through the influence of a strange mysticism, narrow creeds were finally asserted, claiming nothing less than the possession of the whole truth, truth for today and tomorrow, truth for always. And they will have seen how, after our metaphysical drifts, we have been left with words and names, but completely bereft of ideas. To the worship of truth was succeeded by the idolization of sonorous nomenclature, the magic of sensationalism, almost a faith in the fortuitous combination of letters.

It is the evolutionary process of all beliefs. Anarchism, which was born as a critique, is transformed into an affirmation that borders on dogma and sect. Believers, fanatics and followers of men arise. And there are also the theorists who make of ANARCHY an individualistic or socialist, collectivist or communist, atheistic or materialistic creed, of this or that philosophical school. Finally, in the heart of Anarchism, particularisms are born regarding life, art, beauty, the superman or irreducible egoistic personal independence. The ideal synthesis is thus parceled out, and little by little there are as many chapels as propagandists, as many doctrines as writers. The result is inevitable: we fall into all the vulgarities of party spirit, into all the passions of personalism, into all the baseness of ambition and vanity.

How do we uncover the sore without touching the people, without turning the subject into a source of scandal, into the material of new accusations and insults?

For many, Anarchism has become a belief or a faith. Who would deny it? Because this has become so, passionate quarrels, unjustified divisions and dogmatic exclusivisms have been provoked. That is why, when the evolution has been completed, the bankruptcy of beliefs, a reality in fact, must be proclaimed frankly by all who love the truth.

When Anarchism has gained more ground, the crisis must necessarily arise. Iniquity manifests itself everywhere. Books, magazines, newspapers, meetings reflect the effects of the rare contrast produced by the clash of so many opinions that have sneaked into the anarchist camp. In open competition, doctrinal particularisms fall one by one in the battle of beliefs. None are firm, and they cannot be, without denying themselves.

The illusion of a closed, compact, uniform, pure and fixed Anarchism, like the immaculate faith in the absolute, could live within the enthusiasms of the moment, in febrile imaginations, anxious for goodness and justice, but it is exhausted by truth and reason. It dies fatally when the understanding is clarified and analysis breaks down the heart of the ideality. And the supreme moment comes to shatter our beliefs, to break up the ideological clutter acquired from this or that author, in love with one or another social or philosophical thesis. Why hide it? Why continue to fight in the name of pseudo-scientific and semiological puerilities? Truth is not enclosed in an exclusive point of view. It is not guarded in an ark of fragile planks. It is not there at hand or at the reach of the first daring soul who decides to discover it. As the sciences, as everything human is in formation, it will be perpetually in formation. We are and will always be forced to follow after it through successive trials; in that no other way is the flow of knowledge formed and certainty established.

This is how Anarchism will be surpassed. And when I speak of Anarchism and I say that in minds something stirs that is incomprehensible to the dying world, and that we sense beyond the ANARCHY a sun, which is born because in the succession of time there is no sunset without orthography, I speak of Doctrinal Anarchism, which forms schools, raises chapels and builds altars. Yes; beyond this necessary moment of the bankruptcy of beliefs, is the broad anarchist synthesis that gathers from all the particularisms that are maintained, from all philosophical theses, and from all the formidable advances of the common intellectual work, the established and well-checked truths, whose demonstration every struggle is already impossible. This vast synthesis, a complete expression of Anarchism that opens its doors to everything that comes from tomorrow and everything that remains firm and strong from yesterday and is reaffirmed in today’s clash that scrutinizes the unknown,—this synthesis is the complete denial of all belief.

There is no need to shout: Down with the beliefs! They perish by their own hands. Belief, like faith, is an obstacle to knowledge. And in the restless stirring of so many anarchists speaking, beliefs fail. We will not hide it. Let every one of us throw away the old dogmatism of their opinions, the loves of their philosophical predilections, and launching the mind on the broad paths of unrestricted inquiry, reach as far as the conception of a conscious, virile, generous Anarchism, that has no quarrel except with conventionalism and error, and has tolerance for all ideas, but does not accept, even on a provisional basis, anything except what is well proven.

This Anarchism is the one that is quietly forming. It is the one that is elaborated slowly in the beliefs able to feel the pressure of the atavisms that appear everywhere. It is the one that made me write “The Bankruptcy of Beliefs:” a cry of protest against the reality of the anarchist herd; a cry of encouragement for personal independence; a call for the expansion of the ideal that every day lives stronger in me and encourages me to fight for a future that I will not enjoy, but which will be an era of justice, well-being and love for the men of tomorrow. This Anarchism is the rising Anarchism, capable of collecting within its breast all libertarian tendencies, capable of encouraging all noble rebellions and of impressing on generous spirits the impulse of freedom in all directions, without hindrance and without prejudice, with the sole condition that exclusivism does not raise Chinese walls and that the understanding is delivered entirely and unreservedly to the truth that beats vigorously in the most diverse modalities of the new ideal.

It will no longer be said in the name of Anarchism: No further! Absolute justice, revived in the dogma that now dies, will be but the indeterminate goal that changes as human mentality unfolds. And we will not fall into the strange and singular error of setting a limit, however distant, to the progress of ideas and forms of social benefit.

The rising Anarchism proclaims the beyond endless, after having knocked down all the barriers raised by the age-old intellectual absolutism of men.

Don’t you believe that all the particularisms, all the theories, are now failing, that all the factories of rubble, awkwardly raised for the glory of new dogmas, are collapsing? Don’t you believe that the bankruptcy of beliefs is the last link in the human chain that breaks down and offers us the full breadth the anarchist ideal, pure and without blemish?

Faith will have blinded you. And you wound do well to renounce the word freedom; that can be a herd even in the midst of the most radical ideas.

For our part we limit ourselves to record a fact: anarchists of all tendencies resolutely walk towards the affirmation of a great social synthesis that encompasses all the various manifestations of the ideal. The walking is silent; soon will come the noisy break, if there is anyone who insists on remaining bound to the spirit of clique and sect.

Whoever has not emancipated himself will be left behind with the current movement and will seek redemption in vain. He will die a slave.

Ricardo Mella


La bancarrota de las creencias, by Ricardo Mella, «La Revista Blanca», 107, Madrid, December 1, 1902.

El Anarquismo naciente was published as a continuation of La bancarrota de las creencias, in a pamphlet published in Valencia, in 1903, by Ediciones El Corsario.

[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]

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Anarchism: Elements of a Synthesis

In a new series of posts, under the general title Anarchism: Elements of a Synthesis, I’ll be engaging in a sort of back-to-basics exploration of anarchy, anarchism and the practice of being an anarchist. I’ll be going back through a lot of material that has appeared here, in the sometimes unfathomable order dictated by my own research, and reintroducing whatever seems most useful. At the same time, I’ll be fleshing out the outlines of two monographs, Anarchism, Plain and Simple and A Good Word, that I have sketched out. I’ll also be opening one important line of new research, as I’ll be reading, and sometimes translating, sections from the Encyclopédie Anarchiste (Anarchist Encyclopedia) organized by Sébastien Faure and others in the early 20th century. That Encyclopedia, of which only a four-volume dictionary was actually completed, was itself an attempt to gather together insights from the full range of anarchist currents existing at the time, inspired by the notion of an anarchist synthesis, as promoted by Voline and Faure.

It turns out that synthesis was one of the concepts already present in my own work (through Pierre Leroux, Proudhon, Bakunin, Nettlau, etc., in various ways), which I have arguably not made anything like the most of, perhaps because when I had first encountered the works of Voline and Faure, it was in the context of the debate over platformism, a context not calculated to show the idea off in anything like its best light. To the extent that the question is about the organization of federations in Ukraine a century ago, I still am not very excited, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the writings on the anarchist synthesis were really much broader in their concerns. What I found there was a general theory of anarchist development, in the context of which both the separate development of individual schools of thaught and the attempt to combine the lessons of these individual experiments had a role to play.

Consider these remarks from Voline’s Anarchist Encyclopedia entry on “Synthesis:”

In the beginning, when the anarchist idea was still undeveloped and confused, it was natural and useful to analyze it from all sides, to break it down and examine each of its elements in depth, to compare them, to contrast them with one another, etc. That is what has been done. Anarchism was broken down into several elements (or currents.) Thus the whole, too general and vague, was dissected, which helped to deal in depth, to study thoroughly that whole as well as those elements. In that period, then, the dismemberment of the anarchist idea was a positive thing. Various people concerning themselves with the various currents of anarchism, both the details and the whole gained in depth and precision. But afterwards, once that first work was accomplished, after the elements of anarchist thought (communism, individualism, syndicalism) were turned over and over in every way, it was necessary to think of recreate, with these well worked elements, the organic whole from which they came. After a fundamental analysis, it was necessary to return (deliberately) to the beneficial synthesis.

A bizarre fact: we no longer think of that necessity. The people interested in a given element of anarchism end up substituting it for the whole. Naturally, they soon find themselves in disagreement and soon in conflict with those who treat other bits of the entire truth in the same manner. So, instead of reaching the idea of merging the scattered elements (which, taken separately, were no longer good for much of anything) into an organic whole, the anarchists undertook for long years the fruitless task of hatefully opposing their “currents” to one another. Each considered their “current,” their fragment as the only truth and fought bitterly with the partisans of the other currents. Thus commenced, in the libertarian ranks, that milling in place, characterized by blindness and mutual animosity, which continues into the present and which must be considered harmful to the normal development of the anarchist idea.

Now, in this particular essay, the analysis of synthesis is still fairly closely tied to the state of the anarchist movement in the 1920s, where a few fairly well defined factions accounted for most of the anarchists and where, consequently, a specific division of labor could be proposed between them. But in 1924, Voline published another long essay on synthesis in the Revue Anarchiste, and that essay begins with a long discussion of synthesis as the basis of truth and life, before finally turning to the question of anarchism, which he understood as naturally expansive in its concerns.

[I]t is precisely the anarchists who more than anyone must constantly recall the synthesis and the dynamism of life. For it is precisely anarchism as a conception of the world and life that, by its very essence, is profoundly synthetic and deeply imbued with the living, creative and motive principle of life. It is precisely anarchism that is called to begin—and perhaps even to perfect—the social scientific synthesis that the sociologists are always in the process of seeking, without a shadow of success, the lack of which leads, on the one hand, to the pseudo-scientific conceptions of “marxism,” of an “individualism” pushed to the extreme and to various other “isms,” all more narrow, stuffier, and more distant from truth that the last, and, on the other hand, to a number of recipes for conceptions and practical attempts of the most inept and most absurd sort.

The anarchist conception must be synthetic: it must seek to become the great living synthesis of the different elements of life, established by scientific analysis and rendered fruitful by the synthesis of our ideas, our aspirations and the bits of truth that we have succeeded in discovering; it must do it if it wishes to be that precursor of truth, that true and undistorted factor, not bankrupting of human liberation and progress, which the dozens of sullen, narrow and fossilized “isms” obviously cannot become.

This vision of an anarchism “as big as life,” and also as dynamic, is appealing for a variety of reasons. And the synthetic theory helps us to litf the question of “unity” out of the realms of dogmatic squabbling and realpolitik, and explore the possibility that the pros and cons of our organization (or refusal of organization) need to be addressed in the context of larger sorks of development.

I am at least convinced enough by the arguments of the anarchist synthesists to give the approach a serious trial, and to work out the connections between it and the particular sort of “sin adjetivos” approach I have been taking, but I want to frame all of this clearly as a sort of experiment in rethinking the tradition, rather than some attempt to give a definitive account.

Eventually, the collected texts will be featured on the new hub of the Libertarian Labyrinth, where they will also serve as a more accessible entry point. But much of the work will initially be done here, and I’ll probably collect and revise groups of texts before adding them to the self-contained site. That means that things will proceed here very much as “usual,” whatever that is these days, but my hope is also to draw a line between a long period of exploration and dissemination of ideas and a new period of analysis and synthesis of the results.

Anarchism: Elements of a Synthesis will begin in earnest, almost immediately, with a post on “the social problem,” and we’ll see if that old-fashioned notion can provide us with a new starting place for a discussion of anarchism.

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Anarchy and its Uses

Fundamental to everything I’ve been saying about anarchy and anarchism over the last couple of years is a sense that anarchy works as a useful guiding principle only when we take it very, very seriously. I’m not interested in an argument about language or ideas, so much as one about the conditions under which we attempt to produce alternatives to existing authoritarian systems. All the references to assembling a toolkit aren’t accidental or rhetorical, and all of the sometimes fussy play with very specific aspects of our analytical and rhetorical tools is at least aimed at very practical ends.

You can’t properly choose a saw until you know the kind of cutting you need to do. You can’t properly sharpen it until you understand how the teeth are arranged. A woodworker who refused to concern themselves with this sort of thing might be expected to run into problems. I think it is safe to expect the same sort of difficulties for would-be anarchists who won’t wrestle with the details where anarchy, authority, and the like are concerned. I’ll go so far as to suggest that much of the ineffectiveness of the anarchist movement has arisen from a failure to make certain that we’re using the right tools for the job–or, slightly more perversely, from the failure, having presumably chosen our tools, to make certain that we’re doing the right job for the tools.

This has led me to pursue what I think of as a “hard line” with regard to the centrality of anarchy to any meaningful anarchism, but in the sense that the stands we take and the lines we draw in defense of anarchy have to be properly anarchic stands and lines. The anarchist tradition began not just as a revolt against existing governments, but as a revolt against every governmental alternative that might be proposed. If we are to maintain that aspect of the tradition, it is vital that anarchism not solidify into any sort of fixed system–but it is at least as important that our thinking about anarchy does not coalesce into any sort of hard and fast rule.

There are tasks for which we almost certainly do not believe that anarchy–or any of the anarchisms or anarchist practices derived from it–is the right tool. We don’t try to build bridges or bind books with anarchy, nor do we pretend that it is this or that anarchic practice that lets us write clean code or tie tight knots. In the real-world practice of any number of skills, there are moments when our core concerns as anarchists may be raised, but those moments almost always involve social organization–or they involve the pervasive influence of the dominant ideas about social organization, as they have been applied, correctly or incorrectly, in other domains. In the latter case, part of being very, very careful with our tools is knowing when we have allowed our thoughts to slide from one domain to another.

Of course, we can’t always avoid certain kinds of conceptual slides. Indeed, anarchist critique has often made powerful use of unacknowledged distinctions and opportunistic conflations in the dominant discourses. Proudhon’s claim that “property is theft” depends on this sort of play with already existing uncertainties. And Bakunin’s “God and the State” is full of examples, some more successful than others, of attempts to use the language of authority to illustrate anti-authoritarian ideas. For example, he connects human freedom to the notion of a “slavery” to natural laws, which ultimately isn’t slavery at all, as an alternative to authoritarian notions that freedom arises from obedience to the law.

It’s probably safe to say that not all of Bakunin’s rhetorical maneuvers are as elegant as “property is theft,” but they are certainly not indecipherable. We just have to find some relatively fixed reference points that we can use to guide ourselves through the maze. So, for example, when we’re going to try to make sense of the section of “God and the State” dealing with authority, we need to recall that it starts as a continuation of a discussion of the absolute opposition between the idea of God and human liberty. The idealists can talk about the two in the same breath because of the way they think about human liberty:

Perhaps, too, while speaking of liberty as something very respectable and very dear, they understood the term quite differently than we do, as materialists and revolutionary socialists. Indeed, they never speak of it without immediately adding another word, authority—a word and a thing which we detest with all our heart.

Bakunin sort of buries the lead here, but the point seems to be that authority is the missing link that allows the idealists to link human liberty and the idea of God, which Bakunin has been treating as necessarily implying human slavery. Then he simply moves, with no transition, to a discussion of the one instance in which authority and human liberty might be fundamentally in harmony with one another, and with a certain kind of “obedience to the law”—even a certain kind of “slavery”—eventually concluding that if liberty and authority were brought into this kind of hierarchy, they would prove the assertions of the anarchists:

The most stubborn authoritarians must admit that then there will be no more need of political organization, direction or legislation, three things which, whether they emanate from the will of the sovereign or from the vote of a parliament elected by universal suffrage, and even should they conform to the system of natural laws—which has never been the case and could never be the case—are always equally deadly and hostile to the liberty of the masses, because they impose upon them a system of external and therefore despotic laws.

Then he turns to showing how this sort of natural authority and political government are fundamentally incompatible, since making science (the always ongoing process of understanding that natural authority) the basis for political authority would be deadly to both human liberty and science itself.

This section of “God and the State” is both fascinating and maddening, precisely because, while Bakunin makes a bunch of fascinating observations and draws a series of useful conclusions about “authority,” he seems to have stitched them together without much indication of which conclusions should be drawn from which observations. But, in the interests of making some simple observations of our own, we can pretty safely say that there are at least two different notions of authority in play:

  • a purely internal authority, representing the inescapable power of the laws of nature; and
  • a range of external authorities, of which God and the State can be considered prime examples.

We would be tempted, given this division, to make the simple distinction that Bakunin himself makes in the essay and say that only internal authority could be considered “legitimate”—except that we already know that this particular variety of authority is indeed inescapable, and it seems silly to involve ourselves in a debate about the legitimacy of the inevitable.

How we proceed depends on what we want to take for a fixed point. If “authority” refers only to the inevitable consequences of natural laws, then “legitimate authority” seems to be a useless notion. On the other hand, if “authority” refers to externally sanctioned, a priori legitimacy, then “legitimate authority” is essentially redundant. The difficulty is that there seems to be something that still has to be addressed in “the authority of the bootmaker” and all the other specialists we encounter. It does not at first appear to be the sort of internal authority that is “vested” (to the extent that this remains a useful term) within us, but does not grant us a right to command others. Nor does it appear to be the sort of external authority that is vested in others and gives them a right to command us. And yet, Bakunin says, he is compelled to “bow.” And, whatever this authority is, it is not uncommon, as this newly retranslated passage makes clear:

I bow before the authority of exceptional men because it is imposed upon me by my own reason. I am conscious of my ability to grasp, in all its details and positive developments, only a very small portion of human science. The greatest intelligence would not be sufficient to grasp the entirety. From this results, for science as well as for industry, the necessity of the division and association of labor. I receive and I give—such is human life. Each is a directing authority and each is directed in his turn. So there is no fixed and constant authority, but a continual exchange of mutual, temporary, and, above all, voluntary authority and subordination.

We are dealing with a really ubiquitous sort of authority, which, in the best case, is both voluntary and beneficial. It is imposed on us, inescapably, by the laws of our nature, but it manifests itself in others in the form of some power (however limited) to command. Is this then “legitimate authority”? It that was the case, I think it would put us an an awkward position with regard to principles. The reason that we might willingly bow to the expert is thoroughly social, in the sense that it requires the encounter between the capacities of the expert and our relative incapacity in the same areas to create the appearance of an external authority validated by internal necessity. But it isn’t clear how this hybrid authority would work: the very limited “legitimacy” created by inevitability, when used as a rationale for a real power to command could only resemble a principle like “might makes right,” which hardly seems like the sort of principle to which anarchists should voluntarily bow, with the expectation of mutually beneficial outcomes.

Honestly, I just don’t see how an authority imposed by our own reason doesn’t simply remove “legitimacy” as an interesting question. And, when it comes right down to it, most of the evidence that we are dealing with authority, or obedience, or any of the concepts that we associate with archic society, seems to arise from the slightly perverse metaphors that anarchists have used to compare authoritarian and anti-authoritarian relations. When Bakunin describes what “obeying natural laws” actually means, it is hardly passive. Even when he talks about the practice of “bowing” to experts, it involves a lot of verification and testing. The simplest answer to the problem of “legitimate authority” seems be to to say that if there is an “authority” that fits within anarchist theory, there is nothing to say about its “legitimacy.” It’s simply not a question that makes any sense.

But there is still something—something real, if not legitimate—that is at least reflected in the expert. We know that this question of authority-as-reflection was something that Bakunin and his contemporaries were familiar with. The critique of God as merely a reflection of human excellence, along with the subsidiary critiques of Man, Humanity, etc. as mere displacements of this sort of projection,  were commonplace. We find Bakunin rejecting God as the illusion of a universal authority, but also any real instance of universal expertise:

This same reason prohibits me, then, from recognizing a fixed, constant, and universal authority-figure, because there is no universal man, no man capable of grasping in that wealth of detail, without which the application of science to life is impossible, all the sciences, all the branches of social life. And if such a universality was ever realized in a single man, and if he wished to take advantage of it in order to impose his authority upon us, it would be necessary to drive that man out of society, because his authority would inevitably reduce all the others to slavery and imbecility.

If there is room, in between the universal man and the divine symbol of that universality, for something real and potentially positive, I’m not sure we’re going to get a clear look at it through the lens of authority. But that’s not the only lens available to us. To think of the cobbler as “the person who can make the shoes that I can’t make” is not necessarily to raise them up in any sort of hierarchy. After all, the cobbler may be looking back at “the person with language and research skills I don’t have,” rather than, say, “the person who needs my shoes.” But perhaps they’re just looking at a person with a particular set of skills, drawn from the vast number of skills distributed among human beings.

It just seems to be the continued dominance of the principle of authority, and our old habit of recognizing it, that keeps us focused on the expert as a “special man,” when the specialness of the embodied expertise is almost always going to be dependent on circumstances external to the natures of all the human actors involved. Face it: the times when we’re actually going to want to bow to the cobbler are likely to be limited to when we really, really need shoes, but at those times we may be happy to bow most reverently, if the alternative is to go unshod. The cobbler and our relation to them in the realm of expertise remain unchanged, while other factors introduce a new urgency to the proceedings.

Still, I’m no believer in post-scarcity, so it seems likely to me that all sorts of urgency will continue to press at least the appearance of authority upon us, for at least the foreseeable future. So if we’re going to have to continue to deal with the messy details of when we bow to cobblers and when we find other people bowing to us, and if we can sometimes at least partially transform the situation by consciously rejecting authoritarian interpretations, there are almost certainly also going to be plenty of instances where the stakes are too high to pretend that we can simply think ourselves out of our predicament.

So what do we do when faced with instances of authority that seem inescapable?

It seems to me that there are two basic responses, both of which should be available to anarchists. The first is fairly obvious: we can remind ourselves that “legitimate authority” is a weird, hybrid notion at bestand probably too muddled to take very seriously. The second takes us way back to our discussion of tools and their uses, and perhaps isn’t so obvious, but try it on for size:

Faced with real-but-not-“legitimate” authority, the kind that arises from the intersection of differing individual capacities and material exigencies of various sorts, and having reminded ourselves that the principle of authority seems to be built on no firm basis, and further having done our best to reconsider our position in accordance with some more consistently anarchistic lens and surveyed the possible consequences of our future actions is terms of their impact on the degree and quality of the freedom we can expect to enjoy in the various available cases, perhaps the work of anarchy is done for the momentand we have to pick up other tools.

A lot of the problems that emerge in our debates seem like non-problems. There are people in the world who know not to touch the stove when it’s hot and not to run into traffic, while others do not, just as some people know how to make boots or do open-heart surgery, while others do not. We hardly think about how “authority” plays in all of this until other circumstances raise the stakes to the point where someone can exercise a right to command, even if it’s just the “right” to command an exorbitant wage in the capitalistic market. If we manage to eliminate more and more of the ways in which exploitation plays a key role in our societies, the necessity of addressing these attempts at command will certainly decrease. Given the artificial, systemic sources of many of the exigencies we face, we’ll be eliminating opportunities for command in large blocks, should we ever make any headway toward anarchy.

But until we’ve destroyed the foundations of those systems of authority and exploitation, we’re going to keep running into reminders of how little anarchy we really have, in contexts where there isn’t a heck of lot we can do about it. In those instances, there isn’t going to be any way to choose “correctly” among options all tainted to some degree with the kinds of relationships we oppose and abhor. We’re going to have to recognize when and where anarchist theory isn’t the tool we need—or at least isn’t a tool we can use—and concentrate of getting boots made, or building bridges, or whatever practical task is facing us. Anarchy is a goal and anarchist theory is at least a decent alternative to the hegemony of the principle of authority, but sometimes we just need to get stuff done, because we simply don’t live by liberty alone.

I think that this is the approach we should take to the question of the relationship between anarchy and democracy. If we affirm anarchy as a goal and oppose the principle of authority, it’s hard to see how we can have much good to say about democracy as a principle, beyond perhaps considering it a better sort of governmentalism than others, but, at the same time, sometimes we have to make decisions when real consensus is impossible. Under those circumstances, sometimes the least worst imposition on the interests and desires of dissenting minorities will be some kind of voteand we’ll just have to hold our noses, recognizing that this is not one of those instances when anarchy is a tool we can use, and deal with the circumstances imposed on us.

But let’s be clear about what is imposed on usand what most definitely is not. We may have to make use of this or that imperfect tool for decision-making, but that that doesn’t make those tools a part of our specifically anarchist toolkit. That toolkit has real limitations. Sometimes we will approach the goal of anarchy indirectly, by balancing clearly un-anarchistic practices, as Proudhon suggested in much of his mature work. Understanding the existence of real limitations on our options, recognizing that while authority can probably never be “legitimate,” it may still exert some real influence on our practices, we need to remain clear about the nature of our goals, the qualities of the available means and the specific limitations presented by our material and social contexts.

My sense is that this demanding mix of requirements imposes that “hard line” on us, according to which notions like anarchy have to be maintained with whatever clarity and purity we can manage intact, so that they provide useful guidance when we’re neck-deep in the complexities of a world still very much dominated by the principle of authority.

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Anarchy: A Good Word

Every time I begin to think I’ve gone a bit overboard in my research on the language of anarchy, someone on the internet reminds me just how strange things can get in a milieu where anarchism and anarchy may or may not actually have any connection, depending on which self-proclaimed anarchists you ask. Most recently, I have been rather forcefully assured, by more than one interlocutor, that those two notions are completely unrelated and that, if fact, anarchism is opposed to anarchy. That’s just a very strong statement of a sentiment I see around quite a lot, but I was interested to see that it was not a sentiment that raised much in the way of vocal opposition. I doubt that it is anything like a majority position, even among those whose idea of anarchism has been largely shaped by figures like Chomsky, Graeber or Bookchin, but I am beginning to suspect that it no longer appears as an outrageous position. That, by itself, strikes me as sufficient reason to push back a little.

The bright side of all of this, I suppose, is that if it is no longer outrageous to disconnect anarchy and anarchism, then presumably it is not a fool’s errand to take the time to show just how important the notion of anarchy really is (as I plan to do in Anarchism, Plain and Simple) or even to give some detailed account of the emergence of the various terms in the anarchist toolkit, as I’ve been doing in the posts on “Anarchy, in All its Senses.” And if the latter project is perhaps no longer just of interest to serious anarcho-nerds and specialists in intellectual history, it is much more interesting to consider a project that has been in the back of my mind for some time now: expanding the scope of “Anarchy, in All its Senses” and reshaping what I have been thinking of as a scholarly monograph into a more popular sort of account.

An expanded story would allow me to incorporate material like the recent translations from Déjacque on “anarchism,” a response to René Berthier’s “L’usage du mot « anarchie » chez Bakounine” that is taking shape in my notebooks, some analysis too deep to quite fit into Anarchist Beginnings, and a bit of material that has so far been relegated to the very back-burner historiography project, “The Rise and Progress of the Great Atercratic Revolution.”

It might look something like this:

A Good Word
[some subtitle about the emergence of anarchism and its keywords]


Ch. I. “It Means ‘Without a Head'”

For an expanded account, there is no need to start with Proudhon, particularly as one of the questions to be answered is why the keyword anarchy does not occupy a more central place in his work or possess a simpler, more “systematic” meaning. We know that what ties the various parts of our story together was, in fact, not any particular understanding of what anarchy entails in practice, but the fact that it was, in a variety of ways, “a good word” to designate a range of radical oppositions to the status quo, full of untamed potential.

In the interest of first approaching the term anarchy with all its wildness intact and, of course, in the interest of telling good stories, perhaps it would make sense to begin with a lesser-known figure, Eliphalet Kimball, whose home-brewed social theory arguably confronted the dangers and difficulties of anarchy as directly as any of the early adopters of the term. “Anarchy is a good word,” he said in 1862. “It means, ‘without a head.'” And his acephalous anarchy seems like a fine occasion to talk about the direct appeal of an ungovernable anarchy, both as model and metaphor, from the French Revolution-era Acéphocratie to considerably more modern variations on the theme. Kimball’s odd position as a relative unknown, but also as one of the first theorists in the United States to actively embrace anarchy as a keyword, let’s us sidestep, if only for a moment, some familiar distractions and debates grounded in anarchist tradition, while we explore the sense in which anarchy is both an untamed (and perhaps untameable notion) and “a good word.”

A close reading of Kimball’s work also lets us tentatively identify some elements of the anarchism-before-the-name of this early period, which we can compare to the work of better-known anarchist theorists.

Ch. 2. “Anarchy, In All its Senses”

When we turn to the explicit use of anarchy and anarchist as positive terms, obviously Proudhon’s 1840 declaration is a key moment, but in order to grasp all that may be in play in 1840, we probably have to begin by focusing on the instances in The General Idea of the Revolution in the 19th Century when Proudhon embraced “anarchy, in all of its senses.” That means not just carefully documenting his use of the language of anarchy—along with that of a handful of other key early thinkers (Bellegarrigue, Déjacque, Coeurderoy, Bakunin, Reclus, etc.)—but also documenting the connections to uses of the terms outside the emerging tradition. That means exploring the connections to the French Revolution (and specifically to the Terror), to the work of Charles Fourier, to the literature and critique of emerging capitalism, etc.

I expect to be able to show a fair amount of agreement between the figures examined here and Eliphalet Kimbal, around a rather “wild” conception of anarchy. With that conception sketched out, we can begin to address some of the work that has treated the apparent inconsistencies in the treatment of anarchy as an excuse to downplay the importance of the concept, particularly in figures like Proudhon and Bakunin.

Ch. 3. “A Confusion of Tongues”

Armed with a rather different notion of what anarchy meant to the early anarchists, we can examine the other potential vocabularies for describing similar conceptions of society and progress, with the goal of determining whether our “good word” was indeed good, and how that goodness stacked up against the rhetorical competition. So it may be useful to spend some time with notions like Calvin Blanchard’s Art-Liberty! and look closely at Claude Pelletier’s journey from adjuvantism to atercracy. Both of those approaches very closely resemble the “wild” proto-anarchism of the self-proclaimed anarchists, but were dressed up in different language.

This is also probably the place to examine a range of other vocabularies used by self-proclaimed anarchists, or by the followers of those anarchists, with the goal of establishing the range of possibilities available when “modern anarchism” began to emerge in the 1870s.

The Emergence of Anarchism

There was probably as much discontinuity as continuity between the periods I have been calling the Era of Anarchy and the Era of Anarchism, and the adoption of the language associated with Proudhon by the modern movement naturally involved some plot-twists. This is the most complicated part of the story, since it combines the various attempts to define anarchism, the negotiations with the notion of anarchy, the proposal of alternate terms (acracia, etc.), some very significant resistance to the language of anarchy, all the complexities involved in integrating the work of earlier figures into a tradition that was now specifically and self-consciously anarchist, and all of this negotiated across a wide range of languages, cultures and ideological tendencies.

It should, at the very least, be possible to give a fairly clear sense of the complexities involved and to make some assessment of the strengths of anarchy as a “good word” in the debates. This will also be the place to talk about the emergence of anarchism without adjectives and to introduce some of Max Nettlau’s thought on questions of anarchist organization.

The Synthesis and the Emergence of Anarchist Studies

In Anarchist Beginnings, I’ve consciously focused on a period ending in the early 1920s, which I consider formative, but there is arguably a long aftermath, during which the “modern movement” became increasingly self-conscious and began to address its own complexities and contradictions more seriously. Sébastien Faure would have to be considered a particularly important figure in this era, both because of his role in proposing the anarchist synthesis and because of his role in the production of the Encyclopédie anarchiste (1925-1934). Both projects address both the need to clarify anarchist theory and the existing pluralism within the movement. We might look at Faure as one of the pioneers of what we now call “anarchist studies,” and perhaps as a pioneer with a particularly interesting approach to problems with still grapple with.

There are elements of Faure’s project that I would like to examine alongside the proposals of Max Nettlau, with an eye toward their present application. But I also want to examine the ways in which anarchy and anarchism were transformed in the inter-war period into the subject matter of not just sociology or political theory, but fields of expertise specific to an emerging milieu. That transformation undoubtedly opened possibilities for cooperation, but it just as certainly created a sort of politico-social space with a more or less well-defined “inside,” and in this way created a new set of difficulties (among them the possibility of anarchist practice and the pursuit of anarchy going their separate ways.)

Libertarian Socialism as an Alternative to Anarchism

As an alternative to the possibilities of some modern revival of the anarchist synthesis or anarchism without adjectives, I want, finally, to examine the arguments made by thinkers like Gaston Leval, who came, after years of involvement in the anarchist milieu, to decide that anarchy was not such a good word, after all. In works like “Libertarian Socialist! Why? (1956), “The Permanent Crisis of Anarchism” (1967) and the various publications of the Groupe Socialiste Libertaire, Leval laid out a very interesting critique of the modern anarchist movement. Unlike some of the attempts to purify anarchism by dubious rewritings of its history or commitments, there have certainly been critiques of the focus on anarchy that managed to remain fairly faithful to what seems to be the core of anarchist concerns. I want to look back at some of those, but also forward to the approach of figures like René Berthier, first, in order to explore the ways in which the word anarchy, however good it may be at describing what at least many of us still want, is certainly not the only way that might be good to express our aspirations, and, second, in order to raise the possibility that those who now consider themselves anarchists can perhaps separate, adopting languages more directly related to our key concerns, without necessarily coming into opposition.

Possibilities of Clarification and Synthesis

The result of clarifying our commitment and retailoring our language might be part of a division of the anarchist movement into more useful, coherent tendencies. It might, alternately or perhaps additionally, involve a kind of more-than-anarchist synthesis among more-or-less libertarian tendencies. In the conclusion, I want to revisit some of the conclusions from Anarchism, Plain and Simple, together with some of the practical observations that will have emerged in this history, in order to suggest at least some possibilities for moving forward without tripping each other up at each step, as we seem to do so often now.

Many of the pieces of this project will naturally come together in the course of the next year’s research. Some are already pretty well developed in my notes. I’m thinking of this as primarily a 2018-2019 project, with most of the real writing taking place once Anarchism, Plain and Simple has been pretty well put together. But, for example, I hope to complete my edition of Eliphalet Kimball’s writings later this year, and the first chapter might well at least get drafted at that time. At least having a fairly clear outline means that I can finish odds and ends as other projects dictate or allow.

And if other commitments don’t allow, you still have a provocative outline to consider.

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But what about the children? (A note on tutelage)

It’s a question again of “legitimate authority” and “justified hierarchy,” and specifically of the favorite example used by those who want to leave a space within anarchist theory for those things: the care of very young children. The argument I have encountered repeatedly is that parenting is, at least in the case of those very young children, a necessarily authoritarian relation: children must be ordered about in order to protect them from hazards; parents have a duty and presumably also a right to dictate to their children; and children have an obligation to obey.

It’s one of those debates that all too often comes down to: “WHY WON’T SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!!” And we know all too well all the dodgy uses to which that appeal has been put. But it should also be clear that the underlying questions, regarding our relations with those individuals with substantially different capacities for self-determination, are important on their own and probably have some connection to how we organize our relations with non-human nature. So we have to try to get to the bottom of what’s really at stake, despite the difficulties. Unfortunately, the terms that seem most useful to make the kinds of distinctions we would need are the very terms that seem to have been extended to encompass all sorts of potentially conflicting ideas, so we have to be try to find other vocabularies.

The general distinction that critics of all authority arguably need to make is between the capacity to act and various sorts of social permission or sanction for action that include some right to command others. It’s a distinction that we make regularly: the capacity to kill another individual does not generally carry with it any right to do so, nor does the capacity to understand complex social relations itself grant any right to arrange them for others. The expert has to possess something more than mere expertise in order for there to be authority (in the strong sense) vested in them. That something more is social in character, and indeed structures the sort of society that can exist between individuals.

The question becomes where, in relations presumably guided by anarchist principles, that extra, social something could come from. The case of the parental relation is at least useful as a place to examine the possibilities. In order to be particularly careful, it may be useful to first address it in terms of the question of “legitimate authority” and then again in terms of “justifiable hierarchy.”

There are some possible source of authority, such as ownership of the child by the parents, that we can probably set aside without much comment. Similarly, there seems to be little sympathy for the notion that the parental relation might be one in which might makes right. In general, even those who consider the parental relation necessarily authoritarian seem inclined to also treat it as a relation of care. Indeed, they often characterize parental guardianship as a duty, although it is often unclear to whom the duty is, or could be, owed. We’ll return to the dynamic of duty and obligation. First, we should see if perhaps parental authority could just be a matter of superior capacity and expertise, and perhaps one that could make us think differently about “the authority of the bootmaker.”

Certainly, one of the elements of the parent-child relation is that adults have a significantly greater experience of the world and the business of making our way through it relatively unscathed. They have capacities that are more developed in a variety of ways. If we were to assent to the notion that the difference between knowing how to make boots and not having those skills could be a source of authority, then certainly the difference between the skills and capacities of parent and child could be a similar source. The question becomes how a difference in capacities is transformed into a right to command on the part of the more capable and a duty to obey on the part of the less capable.

Let’s imagine a society of talented generalists, where skills and capacities are widely distributed and each individual is relatively self-sufficient. It is hard to imagine the rationale by which we would say that interference by certain individuals in the lives of others could be considered justified or legitimate. Perhaps the case of plucking someone out of harm’s way would be the sort of exception we might note, but, in the case of individuals of equal capacities, it seems hard to characterize the act as one of authority. Under these circumstances, the intervention has to be considered one that we make on our own responsibility and if we find it was unwelcome, it isn’t clear that we could justify our interference in any way that the recipient/victim should feel obliged to accept. Certainly, in a society of competent bootmakers, no particular bootmaker could be said to have much in the way of authority.

Let’s consider then what happens if, in this society of competent bootmakers, one individual becomes expert. It still isn’t clear that the additional capacity translates into any sort of authority. There are certainly likely to be economic effects as we begin to see specialization in a society, but there’s no obvious way in which any power or right to command emerges from the scenario.

But let’s consider the other end of a certain spectrum, in a society where we have a great deal of specialization—so much, in fact, that individuals are constantly confronted with the need to consult others to complete the most basic of tasks. The dynamics of the society will obviously be more complex, but it isn’t clear that this extreme divvying-up of expertise provides much greater footholds for the establishment of authority, at least in the realm of principle. Here, every individual is, in theory, a potential authority when it comes to their particular specialization and a dependent in most other contexts, but in fact the complex interdependence means that all of that authority remains largely potential, since the social leverage available to each narrow specialization is minuscule in comparison to the combined importance of all the other forms of specialized expertise.

Now, in a more complex society there are more opportunities for equal interdependence to break down. That means that some of our specialists might find themselves gaining relative advantages as circumstances gave their skills particular importance. The various weapon-producers or food-producers might collude, under favorable circumstances, to transform their expertise into the power to command, but we would be hard put, I think, to find an anarchist principle to justify their actions. And I think we would have to say that the source of that possibility was more in the general incapacity of the population with regard to specific skills and the specific environmental circumstances than it was in the expertise of the individuals able to capitalize on the situation.

Obviously, we live in societies where the distribution of expertise lies between these extremes and where the existing conditions already structure which sorts of expertise have access to the power to command, whether it is a matter of commanding wealth in the market or obedience in a wide range of authoritarian institutions. But it isn’t clear how our own societies differ from these extreme examples, where the question of “legitimate authority” arising from expertise is concerned. The power to command seems to emerge from just about every element in society except individual expertise: already existing political authority, economic monopoly, the comparative incapacity of others, accidents and “acts of God,” etc. We can’t seem to make the leap from “I can…” to “I may and others must…,” but that is precisely the leap we have to make in order to establish some principle by which expertise itself really establishes some authority vested in the expert.

Add to these considerations Bakunin’s comments on the corrosive effects of authority on expertise, and perhaps we can acknowledge we have to look elsewhere. The ultimate sanction of expertise is presumably truth, but practical truth in a developing context is not the sort of thing that stands still, so that sanction has to be renewed and tested by new study and experiment. So even if we could establish the present legitimacy of an authority based on the most rigorous sort of scientific truth, in some way that the non-expert could verify (and this is not at all clear), we have no guarantee that the legitimacy would remain as circumstances changed, while the exercise of the authority as such is itself at least potentially a break from the exercise of the practices of the field of expertise on which it is presumably based. Once crowned an expert, it is easy to stop renewing one’s expertise.

When we apply these considerations to the parental relation, it doesn’t seem any easier to explain why the greater capacities of the parent would alone establish a power to command or an obligation to obey in this instance than it is in the relations between adults. At the same time, there seem to be other explanations for why we might act in their defense that don’t depend on either authority or even on the relative differences in capacity between adults and children. We might, after all, act to save another adult, without any attempt to establish authority or permission. We might do so out of specific relations of care or simply on the basis of our experience of what constitutes intentional and accidental behavior in our own societies. The major difference with children is that we can be fairly certain that nobody, except the child, is likely to make much fuss if our exercise of real or imagined authority seems to be “for the good of the child.” And the reasons for that may have more to do with our tendency to think of children and their actions as existing within a “justifiable hierarchy” beneath adults and the ordinary workings of adult society.

The parent-child hierarchy is often cited as one of a class of educational or tutelary hierarchies. Tutelage is guardianship and in tutelary relations the assumption is that the subordinate (child, pupil, apprentice, etc.) is at least temporarily incapable of protecting themselves and their interests, so the right to exercise the power of command is based on the assumption that it is exercised for the subordinate—or at least “for their own good.” Bakunin left open the possibility of exercising authority over very young children, because he understood human development as in part characterized by a progressive increase in humanity, at the very beginning of which children are effectively not yet human and need to be given the tools to take on their own development before they can start that progressive development on their own terms.

Even this may not be entirely defensible as a matter of principle. The familiar example of pulling a child back from traffic already assumes a particular sort of “adult world” in which the spaces for free exploration are dramatically limited by the business as usual of the institutions we have created. It isn’t clear what could justify the busy street, in principled terms, so it is at least a little bit hard to know how that busy street contributes to the principled legitimization of the parental act.

But if we assume that, specifics aside, there will always be some set of coping skills that need to be acquired before children can assume responsibility for their own safety and development, we still have to work out just what form the tutelary hierarchy really takes—and then whether it amounts to evidence in favor of retaining some space for “legitimate authority” and “justified hierarchy” within anarchist thought.

Early in our examination, it was suggested that parental care might be a duty. Now, if this was the case, the parent would presumably be superior to the child because they were inferior to some other power that imposed the duty. We might certainly think of familiar circumstances, under which the care of children is indeed dictated by law and by specific social norms, but I suspect we can also think of reasons why most of those factors which presume to dictate to the individual might not be consistent with anarchist principles or present in an anarchist society. We could also think of the duty as a duty to the child, but that puts us in the strange position of imagining a hierarchy in which the superior interest is that of a being elevated to that status by their incapacity. If there is a hierarchy here, it is an odd one, disconnected from our usual understanding of authority, since the child who cannot manage their own interests is hardly in a position to exercise a right to command.

Instead of a hierarchy, we seem to be left with one of those complicated relationships, like the guest-host relation of hospitality, where the roles are fluid and the usual rules are suspended. In this case, we have some of the forms of command and rule, but without any of the usual authoritarian or hierarchical rationales. Rather than being an exception to anarchist principles, perhaps we should understand the parental relation as a most accessible example of how anarchists principles ought to be applied in our struggle towards a more genuinely free society, characterized by more thoroughly anti-authoritarian and non-hierarchical relations.

After all, the parental relation, with all of its negotiations between the rights and needs of children and those of parents, is not the sort of thing that we intend to maintain forever, assuming that we value our children as developing human beings. Confronted with the limited capacities of the child, our action is directed toward increasing those capacities. We teach and, in those instances where our teaching has not caught up with the needs of the day, we intervene more directly. But the hope, assuming that desire to see children grow up to be independent, is that the tutelage is a very temporary thing. And child-rearing is, like every other kind of expertise, itself a matter of practice and developing expertise. The specific difficulties of negotiating rights and interests mean that it is necessarily a work of trial-and-error. There’s nothing easy or comfortable about the relation, particularly for those who concern themselves with the principled critique of authority, so there’s even some strong incentives to move things along and reduce the quasi-hierarchical elements of the relation.

That doesn’t sound like a set of reasons to make space in anarchist theory for any more extensive acceptance of hierarchy—and perhaps quite the contrary. It would seem to me that each time we are confronted with an imbalance of expertise and the opening to authoritarian relations, the logical anarchist response would be to work, on our own responsibility, to cultivate greater, more widespread knowledge and skill, rather than accommodating ourselves to the imbalance. There will, of course, be times when we have to move forward with the limitations imposed on us by hard necessity. That was, after all, the one law that anarchists like Proudhon and Bakunin would acknowledge. But the point of necessity-as-law was not to grant authority to any particular response to the inevitable, but to emphasize that we must respond. How we respond will seldom be entirely dictated by our circumstances, which is precisely the reason that our principles need to be clear, so that we can advance most effectively, given our real limitations, toward the beautiful ideal of anarchy.

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Elisée Reclus in the Era of Anarchy

ishillpicture260-261I’ve been splitting the formative period of the anarchist tradition into two eras: an Era of Anarchy, running roughly from 1840 to 1880, and then an Era of Anarchism, running on to around 1920, with the emergence of anarchism as a common keyword marking the division between them. The scheme is not without its weaknesses, but one of the striking facts in support of it is the very limited number of figures who identified as anarchists in both periods. There is almost no one who called for anarchy before Proudhon’s death in 1865 who was both alive and still in the anarchist camp by the time Bakunin died in 1876.

The obvious exception to the rule is Elisée Reclus. I have been aware for some time that Reclus was supposed to have written in favor of anarchy as early as 1850 and my work on the beginnings of the Era of Anarchism have led me to think of him as one of the chief organizers of anarchism in those years. But I had never tracked down the early statement, so I’ve never really had a chance to judge just how significant Reclus’ place in the larger story really is.

As it happened, I stumbled on some scans of the article in the Max Nettlau papers online, just as I was heading off to the Seattle Anarchist Book Fair a couple of weeks ago. I was looking for references to Joseph Déjacque’s  newspaper, Le Libertaire, and came up with the 1925 publication of Reclus’ manuscript in the later paper of the same name. I started a translation while I was on the trip and have been puttering away at it since. Today I’m able to present a complete, if unpolished draft in English.

There’s more that should be said about the work, as various related projects move forward, but, for the moment, just enjoy with me this very interesting bit of very early anarchist history.

The Development of Liberty in the World

An Unpublished Study

Elisée Reclus


In past centuries, peoples only fought for their passions or their immediate interests; it was without remorse, it was even with gladness that, in order to satisfy their ambition or greed, they exterminated entire nations and dragged behind them multitudes of slaves. Without any link of solidarity between them, men stole their selfish well-being from the well-being of their neighbors, and the world, given over to chance, was sometimes the prey of the stronger, sometimes that of the most skillful.

However, from the beginnings of humanity, some noble spirits rose up, discontented with reality and dreaming of a better future; some, like the old patriarch Abraham, left their country and their kin to live in isolation far from the selfishness of everyone; others, coming later, badly published the idea that truth had still not descended to the earth, and that it was necessary to follow more just and humane laws: but those aroused all manner of bad passions against themselves, they encountered only indifference or anger, and they died, not in isolation, but they died on a gibbet, tortured by the joyous cries of the populace. Sometimes, one among them succeeded in leading some millions of wills along behind them, enlivening them with their will, but it was necessary for them to fight hard to overturn the heavy mass of humanity with the powerful lever of their genius.

Now, men desirous of the future can count on some support from the past: from day to day their mass grows, their speed accelerates like that of a rock that is dashed into the ground more and more violently. The struggle has taken colossal proportions, classes after classes, nations after nations, have stepped into its gigantic gears; slaves and barbarians, previously hardly men, have been caught up in its immense arms and fought for what they were previously unaware of, for an idea. In the past, the conquerors raised nations in the name of their might, in the name of individual glory and interests; now, the peoples rise up, not for a man, for men deceive, not for glory, for it is false without liberty, nor for their interest alone, but for the interest of all.

In the past, the idea drove the barbarians before it, without them knowing it. The Goths who destroyed the Roman Empire had only wanted to trade their foggy North for the golden countries of the South. To pillage the temples full of gold and precious stones, replace their coarse food with the delicate dishes assembled from all the countries of the world, enjoy some Roman pleasures, to satisfy their desire for blood and massacres, that was the whole of their ambition. They marched blindly toward the future, and it is hardly as if one among them felt the fatal hand of God push them towards the South and an internal voice cry to them: Go, go!

But when our brothers descended triumphant from their barricades and marched on the Tullieries, already empty of their King, crying: Long live the Republic! they knew their aim, their thoughts were as clear as their shouts and in their hearts, as well as on their flags, were proudly written the words liberty and fraternity.

So today it is necessary that the Master deal with those who yesterday were only a herd of slaves, for the crowd, once the lever for a few isolated thinkers, made itself a thinker in its turn, and the chorus that was swept from the scene has become the great actor in the theater of the world. Against it, all the men of the past stiffen their resistance; they withdraw into a repulsive selfishness, they make their Tower of Babel bristle with cannons, awakening in their tombs all the creaking specters that the dawn had evaporated; in vain, their cannons cannot pierce the idea that lives in us, their nocturnal specters cannot withstand the radiance of our sun, their past cannot defeat our future.

They will be vanquished, I swear it. Already, the defections are numerous among them, for it is difficult to fight when you have the sun and dust in your face. We already count among our ranks many men of heart, who use their time and their wealth to prove that they were wrong to be rich as a result of the misery of the poor, well fed as a result of their hunger, happy as a result of their misfortune.

For a long time already the war cry has soared above the battlefield, for a long time the weapons have been prepared, and already the first victims have fallen. Today the combat, and tomorrow the victory!


So what is this idea that has so often raised up men against men and that, now, separates the world into two great factions? It is the idea of liberty, of complete and absolute liberty. It is for this idea that 70,000 Huguenots are dead in a single night; it is for it that, for ten long years, our fathers have reddened with their blood all the scaffolds and all the fields of battle. It is for it that all the precursors have been hated, from Socrates, who would liberate philosophy, to Louis Blanc, who could not liberate the people.

Let us not believe, nonetheless, that liberty should be the only aim of mean here below: all its hopes would then lead only to a gigantic egoism. But there is another idea, that of love, an idea that develops in parallel to the first. For each man in particular, liberty is an aim, but it is only a means for love, for universal brotherhood, efficacious and all-powerful means, for the free man alone can, without ulterior motive, clasp his free brother to his breast and say to him: “I love you.”

The Declaration of the Rights of Men misleads then, when it accords to the citizen the right to liberty, insofar as that liberty is not limited by love, by duties. Instead of struggling against one another, the right and the duty agree in their highest sense; instead of limiting one another, they multiply one another and continue one another, from man up to God, where right and duty, love and liberty are one single thing.

This progress of which we speak does not develop uniformly, either in hearts or especially in facts. In the history of the world we can apply to it the philosophical formula of action and reaction, but in so far as the reaction is always less than the action. It is in this way that in its olden days, Rome, defeated by the apostles of Jesus, declined towards fetishism; triumphant Catholicism is a pagan reaction mixed with Christian elements, Protestantism is a disguised Catholicism, and the political reaction boasts of the barricades that it has conquered in its turn, forgetting that all the reactions are condemned to death, that all are swallowed in the void, forgetting that the future marches on the remains of its adversaries. Humanity is the wave dashing deliriously on the rocks, thrown back into the ocean, which roars in a deep voice, returns with fury to the determined rock, digs more before its savage bites and subsides only on the ruins of its enemy.

The world of facts may still be in its period of reaction, but already progress installs itself in minds with new promises and hopes unknown to the previous centuries; but it is not without combat that this progress is carried into institutions, for it must overturn all the force of inertia opposed to it by habit, selfishness and the past. Also, every progress is a sorrow and is inevitably accompanied by a Revolution; each truth that is affirmed has its cost in blood and tears. Christianity, the bourgeoisie, religious reform set their feet in the blood and we see that it is the same for the Republic. Humanity, like a young man, has its critical years and its maladies, but it comes out of them stronger, hardier and finer.

Apart from some pessimists and some refined orthodox types who believe the world has arrived at its decrepitude, the majority of men acknowledge, in fact, that humanity advances; but some want this progress to be solely inevitable and the will of man not to enter into it at all; others think, on the contrary, that all the steps of humanity are completely independent of the will of God. These two opinions are false; all the movements of the human race are produced by a double influence, which necessarily contributes to their aim; the will of man and the will of God, otherwise known as fatality, for the will of God is immutable and nothing could change it. Liberty and fatality, instead of mutually destroying one another, march harmoniously toward a single end, it is duality tending towards unity.

So it is ridiculous to concede, as so many weak minds do, that the hand of God directs the universe, so that there is in men themselves no cause of the acts they accomplish. All events flow from the free development of man, all from irrevocable destiny. I firmly believe in the restoration of the human race, in the final rehabilitation, but I would find it impious and contrary to the sanctity of God if man counted for nothing in the perfection that he will attain. Man and God each have a real existence, so let us be neither fatalists nor atheists.

Whatever the case, it is incontestable that humanity advances on a path of progress, and that is so true that our more declared enemies draw from it one of their old arguments, saying that we compromise the future by wishing to hurry it too much. For themselves, they willingly follow the opposite march and would bring us back to that false unity that consists of dissolving all men into one, whose omnipotence nothing could justify. Our aim is indeed to come to unity, but to true unity, that in which all become free, united with all and with God, whose infinity alone can contain them. Starting from the single principle of authority, we tend to a single principle as well, but one opposed; each point that separates the two extreme limits is a struggle between authority, powerful at first, but always diminishing, and the liberty destined to one day cover the whole earth.

It is to that great idea of liberty that all the human ideas that the different civilizations have produced lead, and this is why all the countries should share the portion of truth that they have won. It has been necessary that, across oceans and mountains, Bénarés spoke to Memphis, Babylon to Alexandria; now it is necessary that all peoples unite in one vast concert and sing, one after another, the note that they have discovered in the harmony of the heavens. When all the ways will be united in one single symphony, when the civilizing wave come from the East will be impregnated with all the sap of the countries that it covers, then it will flow back towards its native soil and reinvigorate the countries that are now desolate. It is in this way that all human things will end in the flood that glides over the sand and returns to the heart of the sea; the peoples rotting in neglect, the bloody hordes of the barbarians, the anger of the powerless slave, all that is equal to God.

That is a great and sublime equation for which, if it was necessary, we would spill our blood; for, tomorrow is the great day of the battle, it is the great day of victory, the day when Jesus will return to reign over his enemies and impose on them brotherhood and the worship of his God.


If we seek in the past for the development of the idea of which we speak, it is necessary to recall that the various periods of the life of humanity are far from being as neatly defined as they appear to us, far off spectators. All these eras overlap, have a basis in one another, and the causes of the events that unfold today are to be found in the origins of the world. Nonetheless, in order not to lose ourselves in the labyrinth of history, the mind fixes willingly on the times when the idea was violently transported by the facts: it is with the aid of the pools of blood spread here and there that we recognize the route of humanity.

Everyone knows that liberty lived in a chrysalid state in the oriental world, that it shook in a lively manner in the greco-roman and sought to break from its envelope; all know as well that it manifests itself now and leaves behind it its dried out skin. The peoples of India and Egypt, fatalists in their philosophy, let themselves be quietly cooped up like herds of sheep; divided into castes, that is into categories of more or less stupefied slaves, they adopt all the tyrannies as an irrevocable order of destiny, their religion. The caste of masters and savants itself, not being able to recruit in the move lively mass of the people, debased itself in its turn and deprived of its primitive energy, it became immobilized, proud to resemble the immovable pyramids that it had had built.

The Greeks, on the contrary, agitated a great deal to arrive at a perfect form of government they tried the despotism of a sort of tempered monarchy, oligarchy, republic, but this was always only in view of their own city; instead of spreading outside to propagate their spirit, they locked themselves away within the shelter of their walls and sullied with the name of barbarians all those who lived outside their mountains or shores. Plato himself, the great Plato, made his ideal republic, a Greek city, a city of free men and men enslaved. So it is not necessary to compare the Greek Republics based on inequality to our republics, which are based on the opposite idea, our republics where every voice is equal to an another voice, where each life, in principle at least, has the same rights as another. The communism of the Spartans was based on the hatred of the foreigner and the socialism of our days has universal brotherhood as its point of departure.

Rome also was divided into patricians and plebeians, into free men and slaves, citizens and foreigners. From the times of Augustus, when twenty men passed, nineteen were only things for the twentieth; however, they vaguely recognized the equality of all, and during the feast of the Saturnalia, a feast that should recall the golden age, all were equal and the slave had the right to strike his master.

Alone in antiquity the Jews recognized that there should be no slaves and if they had faithfully executed the precepts of Moses, never would any among them have needed to sell themselves to feed their family. Through their institutions, but especially through their religion, descended from the Sinai, the Jews were the precursors of Christianity, of that Christianity that their prophets had announced to them and that they had long awaited. But this Christianity that preached the renunciation of impious pleasures, which told the rich to live with the poor and like the poor, the Christianity of the communists St. Basil and St. Chrysostome was very strong food for the old Greek and Roman materialism, the empire of the world would have disappeared in the hands of its weak masters and would have been dead of starvation a century later, if the barbarian hordes had not come to ravage it.

It required a long period of time for the sweet spirit of the gospels to make the savage victors bend, these men of iron who died laughing. In the end, however, the lords would become accustomed to regard the serf as a man, for they encountered one another in the same church, and the priest, most often the son of a serf himself, spoke to them as equals before God. Our historians have recounted to us how the bourgeois of the cities, jealous of their wealth, revolted against the Lords; how the kings allied themselves with the villeins against the high and mighty barons; how the French aristocracy was brought down three times, so that it could never rise again. Then, the French royalty weighed with all the weight of the vanquished aristocracy on the bourgeoisie that had become powerful in its turn; revolt glided into hearts, then into minds. It broke out in a bloody manner. It is France that liberty had chosen for its cradle.

Why is Italy, why is England not more advanced in this new era of universal brotherhood? We will try to explain.

Italy was less profoundly devastated than the other parts of the Roman Empire; the fertilizing remains of the barbarians were deposited less there then among the Gauls and if civilization could flower again more rapidly there, it nevertheless lacked the vigor and energy that flowed in the blood of the men of the North. Two centuries had still not passed since the German race had already melted into the ancient Italic race; also, as soon as civilization could again begin its upward march in the shadow of the popes and exarchs, it was exclusively Italian; the old Roman distinctions of citizens and barbarians reappeared, and the country was divided into an infinite number of little trading republics, all enemies of one another, all as aristocratic as Sparta and Athens. Neither Venice the beautiful, nor Genoa the rich, nor Florence the famous would understand the idea of freedom for all and the noble Rienzi himself, in his vast plans of regeneration, only wanted restore the ancient glory of Rome and establish the unity of Italy. Also, when all these little isolated states has spent their first vigor in intestine struggles, foreign tyrants would lay their hands of lead over the eyes of trembling Italy. It is then that the scepter passed from their hands into ours, for the royalty of civilization never dies in the world, and when a people is extinguished it called to its deathbed another people and and tells it in a broken voice the secrets of life.

For its part, England, defeated by the Romans and converted to Christianity, developed rapidly, but in an exclusively English manner. Surrounded on all sides by the boundless sea, the English thought to make of themselves something like a new human species; for them, the homeland cannot exist if it is not covered with the fogs of the Thames or the Humber, if the sun is not hidden by a veil of dirty, black haze. In their hearts, the love of the homeland is at the same time hatred of the foreigner. It is by this fact especially that their Revolution distinguishes itself from our own, although both began with the death of a king and finally led to a tyrant, protector among them, emperor among us. Moreover, their revolution was in large part a vain quarrel of dogmas between some fanatical Presbyterians and stiff Anglicans, a quarrel that would have been much better worked out on the benches of a chapter [a religious meeting] than translated into bloody murders on the field of battle or the scaffold. How different was our beautiful French Revolution, which based itself on the rights, not of the French, but of man, and wished neither truce not rest until it had made the tour of the world. The English Revolution was in full contradiction with itself, since its idea of liberty was exclusive.

What’s more, the English pushed respect for the law to the highest point, extolling it among themselves as a rare quality. It would be necessary, on the contrary, to blame them for it. Like all human creations, the laws should appear before the tribunal of our conscience and we should only submit to them when they are in perfect harmony with the moral law that lives within us. If they are in disagreement with eternal justice, we must disobey them. So it is sad to see a proud and noble people, like the English, lean, when it is a question of their liberty, not on immutable right, but on an old Charter from times gone by; it is sad to see them still bow before all the old customs of the past, monstrous and barbaric customs perpetuated despite the passage of the centuries. Respect for the law is moral cowardice. The English cannot deny it: they develop, but it is from consequence to consequence, rather than from negation to negation. England, said M. Guizot in his youth, is the eagle with bent wings, which build, repairs and embellishes its nest, and neglects to take up again its flight toward the regions of the sun. However, the great day will also come for it, for the vengeances have been long accumulating.

We French, we perhaps owe the privilege of initiative to the fortunate mixture of races that came to melt together in our natal land. In France there collided and united the battling Gauls, the Francs with their intrepid souls, the intelligent Goths, the iron Huns, the bronze Romans, the fiery Arabs. All of these peoples, after clashing in our countrysides, were united, and from all of them that we descend, we the standard-bearers of the future!

Because we are the sons of all these nations, we have inherited that instinct of hospitality that we carry to shine around us. Before our 19th century, it was necessary for a renowned foreigner, become European, that they pass through France, and now it is from France that all speak all these new ideas, even the intuition of which splits open the old world.

As for the Germans, they advance slowly, but they arrive; they do not have the lively, joyous form of the men of the south; they do not return, like us, from facts to their causes, but in descending from their philosophical theories to see their application in the facts, they perceive that the facts and justice are in permanent contradiction. Now we see them descend into the arena of Revolution to attempt at once our Revolution of 1792 and our Social Revolution, a Revolution that we still await. If we have hastened to accomplish our work, the will outdistance us on the road of the future.

Everyone knows the history of the French Revolution, which began in 1789 and has continued until our times through many incidents and bloody dramas. The old order was violently abolished; the will of one alone gave place to the will of all, the links of official religion were broken, the jurandes and masters were replaced by free competition, which were after all only the freedom of monopoly, but which substituted despotism with chance and luck. This was the coming of the bourgeoisie.

We know how that bourgeoisie contributed to the fall of Napoleon, who did not leave it any moment of repose. Despotic reaction against the liberty and personification of the people at once, the Emperor fell under the blows of the bourgeoisie and some Cossacks leagued together for the good of commerce and of the Holy Alliance. Jealous of its acquired privileges, the aristocracy of finance was then for fifteen years a livid opposition to the nobles and to the priests who tried to regain their ancient rights; finally succeeded in bringing the people to its side, and the revolution of July struck one fine day, not for the profit of the poor who had made it, but for that of the rich who had hidden. This Revolution, we know, has preserved the word liberty on its flags, the word equality in its lying charter, but it has found no badge, no altar on which to engrave the word fraternity. Without concern for duties, this era of selfishness appeals only to rights, knowing well that without duty, right cannot even survive.

It is then that was manifested in all its splendor the constitutional monarchy, a sort of political pendulum on which three acrobats make at once some tightrope-walkers’ turns. It is a sort of political eclecticism as absurd as philosophical eclecticism, as transitory, as impossible, for there the elective principle and Royalty find themselves in open war. It is because of the elective principle that the Royalties of 1815 and 1830 have capsized; it is because of that principle that they will all be overturned, even when, as in England, the three powers will be at the same time the representatives of the aristocracy. There is no middle ground possible between the people and Caesar; let the State be gobbled up in the person of a single man, or let all take part in the government of all. If one does not want the sovereignty of the people, let them open wide the doors of the Republic to Nicholas!

Besides, the question has been judged: the constitutional monarchy is dead; might it have pleased God if our shame and our sorrows were dead with it! Might it have pleased God that the bourgeoisie that reigned under the name of Louis-Philippe had ended its reign! For eighteen years we have seen it in the work of the royal cabinets and under the pillars of the Bourse: we have seen for eighteen years how its Coryphaeuses invite the foreign kings to spit on our flag, provided that they are given a moment of rest and they merchandise is allowed to sail freely across the oceans. When our soldiers forget the route to the border, we have seen them, with sadness, learn that of our roads; we have often heard the noise of the fusillade and the dying gasp of those guilty of having been hungry. We have seen, and still see, the rich crush the poor for their wealth; we have seen them, and still see them, nourish themselves each day with the bread of the unfortunate, a bread soaked with tears, a bread soaked with blood.

For eighteen years a hideous breath of interest and selfishness has crept over France: finally has come the Revolution of scorn, the throne has disappeared and the bourgeois had begun once again to celebrate the magnanimous people, the magnanimous people whom they would have mowed down if they had been defeated.


But they were the victors. The bronze cannons and soldiers with long bayonets retreated before a flood of people grown pale with hunger and tattered with poverty. It is in vain that the royal rifles sought chests, behind each attacked pressed a wave of attackers and from each window tumbles a paving stone. Oh! It was a fine day indeed when thousands of combatants, proud of having paid for the victory with their wounds, unfurled to the wind a torn scrap, symbol of the Republic, or piously escorted the corpse of a brother, crying at once tears of sadness and enthusiasm. It was a fine day when we saw a king, who flattered himself with imprisoning the rioters once more, pale at the approach of the people and seek a dank cellar in his splendid castle. It was a fine day for us, men of the provinces who learned at the same time of the struggle and the victory, for the old men of 89 who would hardly find a tear of pleasure in their weary eyes; for the martyrs of the Republic, who we congratulated because they were free, but who se feliciterent de ce que France was. On that day many hopes were born in hearts, vain hopes that would change into dread for those who have les fait mentir. Whatever the case, all the reforms would take place, political, social and religious.

For all the reforms simultaneously correspond with and continue one another in the course of the centuries. In a historical work it would be easy to prove that the paganism of a thousand gods all foreign to one another is necessarily united with the exclusive citizenship of the ancient republics, with the slavery of the vanquished nations; just so, catholicism responds in the political order to feudalism, in the social order to servitude. Moreover, there is no need for recourse to proofs to know that when a principle governs it is manifested everywhere and that one liberty calls out to all the other liberties. We are also firmly assured that the true sovereignty of all, the true socialism, the true Christianity will only reach their ideal together, for all the slaveries se tiennent and man is really free from man only when he is free from error. It is the truth that makes us free.

We will not discuss all the events that have followed one another in France and abroad since the Revolution of 48; it is the work of a historian, that of the critic is to deduce the consequences of the principles laid down. And we will only note the political, social and religious aims of the great reversal that has been accomplished.

Our political goal is not secret to anyone; it is, after the religious ideal, the first one we have fought for. We will only end our incessant struggles when we have attained the complete liberation of all people. So it is not enough to emancipate each nation individually from the tutelage of its kings; it is still necessary to liberate it from the supremacy of other nations, and it is necessary to abolish these limits, these frontiers that make enemies of sympathetic men. It is to us that is reserved the splendid glory of removing all these impious limits and of baptizing the rivers and mountains that separate two homelands with the name of the universal homeland.

Our rallying cry is no longer: Long live the Republic! The Republic is already almost an accomplished fact, since it is already sixty years ago that we proclaimed it; our cry is Long live the Universal Republic, that future Republic where the Greeks will have the same rights as the French, where the Samoyed will speak in the same assembly as the Parisian. Do you not already see that the national hatreds are being erased and that we designate men by their opinions rather than their homelands? There are now in the world only men of the future and men of the past, and each of these two immense parties forms a gigantic confederation that continues in all countries without distinction of race or language. We democrats are united at heart, not you French egoists who sell the flesh of the people and who selfishly clip the coins with which you pay for the widow’s blood; not with you blazoned French, who would like so much to bring back the century when we, villeins, were only game for the nobles; but with you we are united at heart, proud Hungarians who have sowed the corpses of four enemy armies in your mountain passes; with you, fine Italians who strip the robe from the priest for whom they had twisted your body, lacerated by bayonets; with you, exiles of all peoples, oppressed of all nations, wretches of all climates, with you against your German oppressors, against your French oppressors. We will defeat all these tyrants ranged in close lines and when we have struck them dead we will grasp your fraternal hands and we will establish the Republic of men.

So the provisional government had an intuition of the truth when it declared the treaties of 1815 and launched its manifesto to Europe. Since Richelieu, the pen of the Minister bled the nationalities as in the past the sword of the conqueror had done and what we call European equilibrium was simply a system of colossal jealousy, which gathered all the powers against the strongest among them and sought as much as possible to weaken each nation individually. For the first time morality has been regarded as the finest of politics and relations between peoples have been assimilated to relations between men. It is true that we have fallen back into the diplomatic past, but it is only for a time; when we exit from it anew, it will be for always.

Thus, to summarize, our political aim in each individual nation is to abolish the aristocratic privileges and in the entire earth it is the fusion of all the peoples. Our destiny is to arrive at that state of ideal perfection where the nations will no longer need to be under the tutelage of a government or of another nation; it is the absence of government, it is anarchy, the highest expression of order. Those who do not think that the earth can ever pass from tutelage, those who do not believe in progress, are reactionaries.

But political liberty is nothing without the other liberties; it is nothing without the social liberties. Can this word liberty have meaning for those whose sweat is not enough to buy bread for the family, for those workers who obtain new woes in the revolutions they make themselves? Isn’t the sovereignty of the people a subject for laughter when it is exercised by men covered in tatters and dying of hunger? Can the right to go once a year to carry a bit of paper to the city hall of his canton compensate them for the right to live? We will not repeat everything that has already been said about competition, which transforms the world into one vast arena, an arena where the gladiators fight to the death, where the avid spectators descend from their bleachers to also plunge their furious arms into a palpitating chest, to press under their triumphant knee a life that slips away. This world, whose ideal would be the perfect love of all for all, is transformed into a bloody drama where the happiness of one alone is composed of the tears of several, where the food of the rich man is torn from the tears of the widow.

Defenders of competition, do not respond when you are attacked, for your defenses themselves must lead to socialism. You make liberty the support of competition, but all men have an equal right to liberty: that is socialism. Despite yourselves, the conclusions of all your harangues are themselves their own refutation and the inevitable refrain of all your pamphlets is: Associate yourselves! Associate! For, in invoking liberty, you work toward the slavery of the worker. Would the aim of liberty then be servitude? Associate yourselves! Associate!

For a long time already, a mass of socialist systems have come to light in the world of ideas, all based on the theoretical equality of men, all leading more or less to practical equality. All these systems are true, to the extent that they rest on that true principle, but false as soon as they distance themselves from it in their consequences. They will all be false to the extent that they have not been modified by practice; that is inevitable in human affairs.

In order for socialism to arrive at its perfect expression, in order for it to really be the human ideal of society, it must safeguard at once the rights of the individual and the rights of all; each individual in the human association must develop freely according to their means and faculties, without being hindered in it in any way by their brothers; it is necessary, at the same time, that the well-being of all profits from the labor of each. Some communist varieties, in reaction against the present society, have the air of believing that men must be absorbed into the mass and no longer be anything but something like one of the innumerable arms of a polyp that moves on its reef or like the drops of water lost in the sea and raise by the hurricane in a single wave. They are greatly mistaken: man is not an accident, but a free, necessary and active being, who unites, it is true, with his fellows, but is not mixed up with them.

It is against socialism especially that the furors of reaction are directed, but their cannonades are as senseless as if they launched them against the passing air, against the wind that blows, for socialism, before being a system, is above all a tendency; it does not live in the books of Proudhon or L. Blanc, but in the heart of the people; this vibrant heart that beats for the moment of its deliverance, it lives in the hearts of these poor peasants, naive and artless, whom we deceive with treacherous lies and who make a weapon of universal suffrage to postpone their own happiness; socialism floats in the atmosphere, it enters into the house of the resentful bourgeois and sits down at his table. It is in vain that the immobilists conjure away an invisible, untouchable enemy that glides from mind to mind. Even when they will burn the world in order to burn at the same time the new idea that shakes it, the sons of their own wombs will rise and curse them in the name of the idea that they have hated.

We have seen a vague semblance of a league form against socialism, a vain semblance since everyone laughed at it, even the promoters. How is the old system not dead, since even its defenders no longer believe in it, since they no longer have the vivifying faith that passes over all obstacles? How is the old system not dead, since its defenders only know how to launch powerless accusations, in order to obscure the difficulties of the defense? They deny the truth of socialism, but they do not know how to affirm the perfection of their own society, since it is only a heap of ruins and lies. The new idea, on the contrary, denies the old idea and affirms itself; these two things are the conditions of its existence. As for the old idea, it has no positive side: so it does not exist, and it is a vain appearance.

But it is not in the material satisfaction of the needs of man that our ideal lies. We have a very otherwise elevated aim, and this aim, it is God, the highest liberty. Each must march towards it, free and independent of the will of others, for love goes from each man to God and does not need to be offered by another than him, or to be enclosed in a narrow barrier raised by the hand of man and guarded by human anathemas. Isn’t it shameful, when it is a question of the powerful God, of the God who fills everything, to see religious nationalities enemies of one another, to see in these nationalities different castes of masters or oppressed? Isn’t it shameful to see these things in the domain of the Eternal, as if he were a common king? So when will come the day of the Christian Republic, the day when all the brothers of Jesus Christ will be equal and free, when the conscience of each will be the rule of religion, when there will no longer be priests, nor fetters, nor limits, but only and always love? It is then that man could again warm his heart in the rays of the eternal sun, and water it with the celestial harmonies; for the soul of man is a harp more sonorous than all the harps of Aeolus, beautiful now that death walks its fingers across it, splendid with harmonies when life itself will make it resound! For the supreme aim of man is a hymn of love in honor of the all-loving God!


So is it necessary to fear these Revolutions that raise up peoples against peoples and often sweep men away one day as if by a hurricane? No, if the salvation of humanity comes at this price, I invoke them, I demand them with loud cries: choose your victims, reap to right and left some harvests of corpses, provided that our descendants are happy! If the boat where we are can only reach land lightened of some sailors, well! let us be thrown into the sea and later, in a joyous song, let them speak of the men of heart who perished in the waves.

What do your clamors matter to us, little men whom the sun blinds and who insult it in order to be avenged? A day will come when we will say to you: Return to the dust, and you will return to the dust and we will ask ourselves if you have only been a dream.

Yes, you have only been a dream. What use are your convulsive shudders, your dreads, your prayers, your threats? Master of cannons, you shiver at the sound of a mocking laugh; a book, a little book makes your citadels tremble. You no longer have but a few days to live, days full of sadness and anguish.

Men of the past, submerged people, I invite you to the great day that you foresee and that you sing in your naive epics. Lined up with the clouds of the horizon, you could see on the plain the dragon of the past, with its rusty scales, and the angel of the future piercing it with its lance of gold.


The note “1851 Montauban” was written after the fact by Elisée Reclus at the head of the manuscript. But in 1851 Elisée Reclus was no longer in Montauban: he had stayed there in 1849, when he took his studies with his brother Elie at the college of theology, from which they had later both been expelled because of the too obvious liberty of thought they demonstrated. (See Volume I of the Correspondence of Elisée Reclus.) In 1851, Elisée Reclus was already at the university of Berlin: a letter from the month of April of that year, published at the beginning of the third volume of the Correspondence shows the point to which he had arrived in the era or evolution of his religious ideas: that letter is not without analogies with the manuscript. In any case, that latter was conceived shortly after the revolutionary period of 1848 and reflects the ideas of Reclus around the age of twenty.

[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]

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Anarchist Beginnings

With the anthology, Anarchist Beginnings: Declarations and Professions of Faith, 1840-1920, well on its way to completion and the connected study, A Good Word: Anarchy in All its Senses, starting to take a more definite shape, it seems like a good time to collect the various related texts and get back to the project of building the larger library of introductory texts around which the ANARCHISMS pamphlet series was originally based.

Anarchist Beginnings is the newest collection in the Libertarian Labyrinth archive, and you should find lots of interesting texts there relating to the most fundamental questions regarding anarchy and anarchism. Enjoy!

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Gaston Leval, “Libertarian Socialist! Why? (1956)

Leval_gastonIn the past, I’ve discussed the “libertarian socialist” current that broke away from language and organizational commitments of the anarchist movement and summarized some of their arguments, but I thought it would be useful to present some of the material in English, starting with a couple of Gaston Leval’s articles. The translation here is a little rough, in part because I don’t yet have a copy of the original publication in hand, and there are some questions about the transcription available online. But I think the general argument is clear enough, and I will update the translation when the original document arrives.

Libertarian Socialist! Why?

Gaston Leval

For the series of publications that he envisions, Louis Louvet has asked me to write about the aims of the Libertarian Socialist Group and the movement that we are striving to establish. I begin this work by noting that I necessarily orient my presentation by taking into account the fact that it is destined for Contre-courant and for readers primarily of free minds. Not, you will understand, to adapt my thought or its development to the taste of my readers, in order to attract them with skillful concessions, but because every social doctrine that is not an collection of limited, evangelistic precepts encompasses a great number of problems, and inevitably those who propagates it must set out the aspects of it that relate to the thought and to the uncertainties of those to whom it is addressed.

Those who want additional information will it them in our Manifeste socialiste libertaire, in our monthly Cahiers or in other writings that will appear as soon as we find the necessary support. LET US EXPLAIN OURSELVES first regarding our method of thought. It has happened to socialism, like anarchism, communism, syndicalism, cooperativism what, in a sense, has happened to all the great philosophical, religious, political, sociological schools that have been subject to contact with men and the life of collectivities. Seemingly, they are enriched by innumerable secondary and complementary additions.

Christianity, which has a body of doctrine that is simple enough, has given birth to different schools that all call themselves by its name: official and orthodox Catholicism, Calvinist and Lutheran Protestantism, sects of Mormons, Anabaptists, Camisards, Albigensians, Waldensians, puritans and how many others! All of these branches derive from Christianity. All of that has enriched it in appearance but impoverished it in reality. The numerous sects and their modes of thought, so often contradictory and hostile, have stifled, swamped primitive Christianity in the sense of human fraternity, of social justice and even of religious practice. There remains only the myth, especially the supreme myth, for the secondary myths are variously interpreted, and it is on that interpretation that the wars of religion are engaged. It is always the case that, even while calling themselves by the name of Christianity, the different so-called Christian families have distorted it in its essence.

It is the same with republicanism. It is enough to see all the schools that have been established, and the very different political regimes that claim the name in order to realize it.

It is just the same for syndicalism. Revolutionary in its beginnings, pursuing the disappearance of capitalism and the State, promoting the establishment of a society of producers made and directed by the producers themselves, it has been “enriched” with new contribution that have soon submerged and, in the final accounting, impoverished it.

Thus the present cooperation, which no longer bears any resemblance to the conceptions of Robert Owen, the program of the Rochdale Pioneers of that of the Ecole de Nîmes. But let us not get lost in the similar comparisons that concern the other schools. Let us come directly to that which concerns anarchism, since it must be especially a question of that tendency.

The author of these same lines has campaigned in the international anarchist movement for forty-five years. He has written enough, spoken enough, struggled enough, paid enough with his person, supported enough, even in the theoretical domain,—often under pseudonyms—more in Spanish than in French, to leave no doubt of the firmness of his convictions. However, he considers that, in a country like France, it is preferable to adopt the denomination of libertarian socialism in order to define the social ideas that he propagates, and those who campaign with him have reached the same conclusions. Let us note that the same thing occurs in Germany, in Switzerland, that we find groups of libertarian socialists in Argentina and that the intellectual personality having the most stature since the death of Kropotkin, Rudolph Rocker, has reached the same conclusions.

I would add that according to Max Nettlau, who often opposed libertarian socialism, which was for him a synonym of social anarchism, to authoritarian socialism, Francisco Ferrer and Tarrida del Marmol—the latter an astronomer and mathematician, and one of the most striking intellectual figures of Spanish anarchism—had come, from 1909, to the conclusion that those who interpreted anarchism in their manner should call themselves libertarian socialists.

Errico Malatesta also wrote in one of his articles—and Luigi Fabbri confirmed in his book Il Pensamiento de Malatesta—that he had generally preferred to call himself “anarchist socialist” (1). Gustav Landauer, who was after Rocker the most figure intellectual figure in German anarchism, and who was Proudhonian, called himself socialist and his essential book bore the title: Incitation au socialisme. If we go back farther, we see that Bakunin had generally called himself a revolutionary socialist, that he had defended and promoted socialist, that he had founded the Alliance of the Socialist Democracy, starting point of international anarchism, then, before the electoral and statist deviation of German social-democracy, the Revolutionary Socialist Alliance. In general, the word “anarchy” had for him the sense of destruction and chaos, and when he called himself an anarchist or invoked anarchy, it was as a demolisher, and only for the destruction of the institutions of oppression and exploitation of man by man. His reconstructive theories were socialist. Whoever will take the trouble to read him carefully will be convinced of it.

Moreover, his friends in the First International also defended socialism. It is also curious to note that it was the men such as Jules Guesde, Paul Brousse, Benoît Malon who in their anti-Marxist verbal extremism, almost unilaterally called themselves anarchists and then would found the authoritarian socialist party. If we go back to the “father of anarchy,” we will not an identical fact. It was in 1840, in his book What is Property? that P.-J. Proudhon launched the word anarchy in order to define a new social doctrine, an anti-authoritarian conception of socialism. That struck as great a blow as his lapidary formula: “Property is theft.” For in France, the word had been used, for three centuries, in the pejorative sense that we recognize.

Proudhon, moreover, recognized himself in these few lines, that is seems useful to us to cite fully, where he affirmed that he was an anarchist. Here is its text: “Property and royalty have been in the process of demolition since the world began: as man seeks justice in equality, society seeks order in anarchy. Anarchy (in italic characters in the texts), absence of master, of sovereign, such is the form of government that we approach every day, and that the ingrained habit of taking the man for the rule and his will for law makes us regard as the height of disorder and the expression of chaos. “ (Qu’est-ce que la propriété? ou Recherches sur le principe du droit et du gouvernement. Editions J.-F. Brocard, Paris, 1840. Chapter V, page 235: Character of community and property.) He was, furthermore, so little convinced of the new sense that it had pleased him to give to the word that, in his second Memoir on property, published the following year, he again used the word “anarchy” in its pejorative sense. And in all his later writings he speaks to us of “commercial anarchy” just like Fourier), of “mercantile anarchy”, of “economic and financial anarchy,” etc. And he also calls himself socialist or revolutionary socialist, and defends socialism or federalist socialism. It was only in exceptional cases, like Bakunin, that he returned to the word anarchy in the sense of society organized and functioning regularly without government.

This historical reminder, which we could amplify, is enough to prove, to whoever does not interpret an idea or a current of ideas only by the etymology of the words of one or two generations and in one or two countries, that we can, in good right, and without betraying what is essential to anarchism—if we mean by this word a doctrine of which Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Mella (2) and their disciples were the most illustrious representatives—call ourselves libertarian socialists; that there is, essentially, no difference between the thought of these great predecessors and our own. Kropotkin, who made the decisive step for the use of the word anarchy—he explained the reasons for it in Autour d’une vie—was not more of an enemy of archies, of the government of the State, than Bakunin. And those who believe they should use on world today that we no longer believe we should employ are not greater [enemies of those things] than we are.


Why, then, we will be asked, and we are asked, do you renounce the word anarchy and its derivations? We respond first in general: because we have a collection of reasons, we have made a number of observations, which lead us to this practice; and because IT IS OUR ENDURING RIGHT to call ourselves as we please if we feel it necessary and useful; as it would be our right to call ourselves by other names (guild socialists, anti-state socialists, anti-authoritarian socialists, etc.).

As for the details, we will clarify that in our opinion, particularly in France (3), anarchism has become a group of ideas, conceptions, formulas and principles so different, so contradictory and so incoherent that public opinion cannot identify with it and there are nearly as many conceptions of anarchism as anarchists. A single point of contact unites that disparate group: the negation of authority.

One does not create a social movement having some chance of exerting a positive influence positive on the evolution of society with a single negation. At base, Bakunin, who, despite whatever has been said and is still said by some many slanderers and irresponsible persons, was the most balanced of our thinkers, defined things very well, when he called himself anarchist for the work of destruction, and socialist for the work of construction that must follow. But he never came to the idea of only recommending destruction. He wrote, on the contrary, that it was only to the degree that we were capable of reconstructing that we would have the right, and the possibility, of destroying.

Union around a negation is not enough. A negation is not a social theory, a social doctrine, a human aim, a program, an idea. To say “anarchy”, non-archy, non-government, non-State is not to say: “the organization of society in such and such a manner” if we see in society, especially in modern society, an immense and complex ensemble of activities of all sorts that must be harmonized, coordinated under pain of being interrupted, that are subordinated to one another, and that demand something other than declarations de principles that embrace everything, but resolve nothing.

Between individualist anarchism and communist anarchism, the disparity is such that the two schools are always, inevitably and necessarily, in conflict. Between the constructivist syndicalist anarchism and the purely critical anarchism, nihilist or tending to nihilism, there is no valid comparison.

These divisions are themselves accompanied by numerous subdivisions.

The individualism of Han Ryner is not that of E. Armand. The communist anarchism of Malatesta is not that of Galleani. The neo-Malthusian specialization of certain anarchists claims to resolve everything by the limitation of births; the vegetarians specialization, a branch of integral naturism, through a non-meat diet, with or without, according to the cases and schools, dairy products or fish equally. The specialization of free sexuality, transformed into free lust, is also sufficient unto itself.

All these sub-schools, to which we could add others, are part of anarchism, for each denies the archies, and it is enough to deny the archies in order to be anarchist. And not only are they different, they are often opposed. So much that those who get close to the anarchist movement find themselves facing so many current, tendencies, if not battling sects that they understand nothing and could understand nothing about it.

There as well, the multitude of additions, of diversifications has not enriched the essential doctrine. It has impoverished it terribly.

Such is, at least, our opinion. And one has ended up grasping at shadows. With Proudhon, Bakunin, the whole admirable constellation of the First International, Kropotkin and his friends of the early days, anarchism—at least what we call anarchism—or rather anti-authoritarian socialism there were some essential principles that defined and delimited the doctrine. These principles have also been swamped and submerged, and we have ended up forgetting its great bases and great aims. We want to return to them and not lose ourselves in the labyrinths and foliage of incessant flowerings.

We return to Proudhon—the anti-authoritarian socialist Proudhon,—to Bakunin, to Kropotkin. We prefer the clarity of the essential ideas, having an eternal value, to the confusion of all the little ideas whose value is often debatable.

Critique of the State, more and more deep, wide, methodical, even powerful. Critique of capitalism, of its disorder, of its crimes. Search for new practical sociological bases, new applicable economic conceptions, a new ethics that must be spread in the consciousness and in the life of men. That is what is essential. The rest, as important as it may be (a microbe is gigantic, seen through an electronic microscope), is incidental. Now, the anarchist thought and movement are too lost in the incidental and the essential has been forgotten to such a point that, for example, the critique of the State, and of capitalism, formulated by our great predecessors, of whom Cornelissen, is unknown by the immense majority of those who consider themselves to be anarchists, who do not go beyond summary interpretations, and too often engage in Marxism without knowing it.


So we want to return to the sources. And we would prefer a simpler name, implying some obviously more limited ideas, but with more clearly defined outlines, which allows us to work in depth on the fundamental problems of our era, to provide some views interesting those who do not chase after shadows, and to give an new development to anti-authoritarian socialism—for that which does not aim to resolve the social problem in liberty does not interest us! We will perhaps be told that we regress. We would respond that that which is eternal is always young, and that the fundamental principles constructed by our great predecessors are eternal. The demand for more liberty and justice goes back thousands of years. It is not, however, a contemptible, old-fashioned thing. Fascism is brand new in history. It is not superior for that. So novelty is not a proof of superiority. In human thought, in the philosophical and sociological schools, in the artistic schools as well, moreover, there are advances retreats, progress and decadences. The sign of these decadences is often the invasion of novelties that disfigure more than they fertilize, that destroy everything and construct nothing.

So we return to the sources, but we are not plagiarists, copyists or simple commentators. Shunning the superiority complex that brings scorn to the thinkers and sociologists who founded the school to which we belong, we take from these men, whose creative genius is for us indisputable and often magnificent, the ideas, the social view and their historical, philosophical and scientific justification. We learn from them all that can and should be learned. Then, armed with what we have taken from them, reed with our culture, which we extend more and more, armed with our experience, which makes up part of our culture, studying man and the evolution of humanity, the structure, the needs and the evolution of human societies, the development of the sciences—which despite their variations, especially in biology, in no way contradicts the idea of a society of free harmony—studying the economic and psychological, ethnic, demographic and other problems, we strive—or we will strive—to bring the essential ideas to light, to strengthen their bases, to enlarge them, to render their style more contemporary and their expression more suited to the problems, to the concerns, to the spirit of our era. And when it is necessary, we will not hesitate to highlight the errors of our great predecessors, and to rectify them. And we have begun to do it, once again, we are not simple copyists.

Peter Kropotkin has written a book that constitutes a fundamental sociological, historical, scientific, philosophical basis for anarchism (we say, ourselves, of anti-authoritarian or non-authoritarian socialism): Mutual Aid. We can reproach him—he recognized it in the preface—for an excessive generalization of mutual support—mutual aid, in the original text—in the life of animal and human species. the fact remains that this factor is the principal agent of progress and happiness for the species practicing it. Above all, and in this one can reproach Kropotkin for not having emphasized it enough, we have there a biological basis for the anarchist, non-anarchist conception, of society and its organization.

Well! This book opens an immense horizon for those who want to tackle that task, that dozens of kropotkinians—who must not be confused with the kropotkinists—would have to undertake. Bakunin had already shown us, in his Philosophical Considerations, a cosmic view of his anti-authoritarian philosophy, by making non-authority follow from non-divinity, and free association from the materialism where everything is combination, but not subordination.

Kropotkin limited himself to the biological domain, then to the historico-human or sociological. If we take up against at least the scientific studies of Kropotkin? If we even expand them? If we create a libertarian conception of history, showing how the ensemble of the useful activities of humanity, which have permitted its development and evolution, have not been the work of the governors, of the political formations, of the State, but of humanity itself, and of those who, while making up a part of it, are always advanced in the heart of the collectivities and have shown them the road? There is an immense work there to accomplish.

That work will revive, reinvigorate, and expand the thought that is common to us, and could attract many people that the minuscule side issues, built up into major problems and solutions, repel more than they attract.

The idea of this work would not be original. We find in Proudhon some phrases that summarize it, and Elisée Reclus, who was one of the great humanists of the 19th century, developed it without intending to do so in L’Homme et la Terre. But its methodical, systematic realization, in order to make of it a body of scientifically established doctrine would have an enormous importance.

Let us take another necessary development of what our great predecessors have written: the critique of marxism. Tcherkessof had, in Pages d’histoire socialiste, shown that the famous concentration of capital, the proletarianization of the bourgeoisie and the pauperization of the proletariat, keystones of so-called scientific socialism, were not confirmed by the English statistics that Karl Marx had used. Since then, the economic and social evolution of the capitalist nations has proven that the forecasts of Karl Marx did not come to pass, that there is not pauperization, but embourgeoisement of the proletariat or of certain proletarian strata, that if certain strata of the bourgeoisie declined, new bourgeoise strata formed, that a certain form of capitalist concentration was not avoided, being given the multiplication of needs and of the whole of production, of new forms of capitalism; and especially that, under some new forms, including that of the State fonctionnariat, the privileged tended rather to increase while the proletariat was not pauperized.

There is in this an important and necessary critique of marxism, which we should pursue implacably, and more implacably still the interpretation called materialist, but in reality judeo-economist, of history. And as implacably the critique of the Marxist conception of the State, not only in the light of the present Russian situation [fait], but in the light of all of history. Proudhon had made that critique before the letter, in his polemics against the authoritarian communists of his era; Bakunin made it in his critique of the Marxist conception, interpretation and utilization of the State; Kropotkin also in his fine pamphlet L’Etat, son rôle historique. But the over work, the work of doctrine remains to be written.

Same problem for the economic critique. It is sad to note that nearly all, if not all the anarchists, are unaware that before Marx, Proudhon had defined and named surplus-value, that his economic critique, seemingly less learned, goes farther than that of Marx, for he does not condemn capitalism in the name of the dialectical law that forces it, so to speak, to die while engendering the new forms that will replace it and establish socialism, he condemns it in the name of justice and not in the Marxist form. For the historians, sociologists and economists, who do not let themselves be imposed upon by the scholastic self-importance of the author of Capital, capitalism already exists in the Roman era, in the civilizations of Asia Minor, and even in certain periods of ancient Egypt; Proudhon condemns it as a form of the exploitation of man by man.

Beyond capitalism, it is that exploitation that he attacks. When he said “property is theft,” he meant by that all individual appropriation of the means of existence necessary to other men; when he denounces the proprietor, he denounces the exploiter, small or large, businessman or trader. He denounces him, not because the dialectics of facts or history (which one can very simply call evolution) condemn him to disappear (and if he is condemned to disappear, what use is it to denounce him?) but because he places above all a moral principle: that of justice. Which does not prevent him from accumulating facts.

I have said that he first defined surplus-value. He has also, before Marx, shown how English capitalism had, in the Workhouse, tortured the proletariat.

In his famous polemic with Bastiat, he made a sharp analysis of the methods of growth of finance capitalism. We find in his work many other ideas, many other sketches, many other suggestions—always in what concerns economic critique.

We find them in Bakunin, and we find them in Kropotkin, the first chapters of whose La Conquête du pain seem to have inspired more than on page of Jacques Duboin. We find them in Cornelissen, whose Traité de la science économique would deserve more than the general ignorance where it is kept in the movement that he strove to enrich.

Well! All of that is to be taken up again, to review, and also to develop.

But there are two other necessary developments that are for us the indispensible condition of the school that we want to create. The first concerns the constructive work, in the economic sense of the word.

Here again we do not innovate. I have already written, and I repeat, and I can prove, that of all the socialist schools anarchism, at its origins, is, like syndicalism and cooperativism, a school of socialism; it is anarchism that has given the greatest book-based production concerning the future. I can cite, without effort, around fifteen authors, with their books, essays, programs. Bakunin alone writing at least a half-dozen of them—various plans and anticipations.

If these writings have had the incontestable merit of directing the thought of the readers on this sort of problems, or of posing the fundamental principles that it was indispensable to set down, the majority—such as the two books of Pierre Besnard—have the defect either of having lost their currency or of being abstract constructions, imaginative scaffolding without relation to the structure of societies, the reality of human and social economy, the complexity of human relations. To treat the organization of agriculture without knowing anything about agriculture in itself is to construct on the void.

So the analysis of the economy must have two aspects, two aims superimposed on and following one another. On the one hand, the sharp critique of the capitalist economy, which it is necessary to know in order to proceed to its vivisection. In order to show its cracks and errors, it is necessary, on the other hand, not only to know it, but to know the economy in itself, such as it is, such as it should be, such as it can be, in order to be certain of the fairness of our critiques. To eternally denounce the exploitation of man by man, the low wages, the profit of the capitalist societies is insufficient. That is the infancy of the art with which superficial minds can satisfy themselves. But that does not lead very far, will not lead any farther than we have gone before now. We must penetrate into the guts of the economy. When we know it in order to denounce its poor organization, we will also know it in order to propose and promote a better organization.

We would have the moral right to critique and to propose changes.

That implies a constant activity, a systematic work, a team if possible.

We should appear with an economic doctrine proper to the school of libertarian socialism, which takes up the work of its elders, of its distant founders, and develops it intelligently, with the drive of those who want to convince, and vanquish.

The other development, essential condition of our existence and our justification, relates to ethics. The handling, classification, comparison and accumulation of statistics is of no use if our conduct is immoral.

In that case, it will not serve to liberate men.

Brief or long, the experience of the members of our group has led them to one identical, formal conclusion: without honesty, without steadfastness, without loyalty, without respect for ourselves and others, without personal dignity, without individual and collective responsibility there is no non-authoritarian society possible. Everything collapses and is only decay.

For a long time, we have made determinism the excuse for individual irresponsibility. We have not glimpsed that this led directly to apologizing for responsibility. Now, men are responsible or irresponsible. And we have created the justification for all the moral inanities in the name of irresponsibility. We have created collectivities of irresponsible sorts with all the moral latitude necessary to observe all the forms of immoral, or amoral, conduct.

A collectivity where the individuals made irresponsibility a theoretical taboo could not go far. As for us, leaving aside all that dialectical rigor could extract from determinism, we note that in human history there are men and minorities who are considered responsible for what they do or let be done, who have accomplished great things and influenced, either for good or for evil, the destiny of men.

Materialism in no way excludes the psychological, and even psychic, faculties. Conscience, will, intelligence, sensibility, the sense of duty, the feeling of responsibility and dignity cannot always be fully explained, given the present degree of the acquisitions of the physical and psychological sciences, which biology shows us are inseparable is so many cases. They are nonetheless a reality more or less great, according to the case, which depends on our choice.

So there is a conception of ethics to develop. In theory, but still more in practice. Let them poke fun; it matters little to us. Irony is too often the mask of powerlessness or immorality. For us, we want ethics to pervade our individual and collective conduct.

We should be a school from the ethical point of view, as from the sociological and economic point of view. The influence of libertarian socialism should be at once intellectual and moral. I recall the great moral influence of the Tolstoyans in Russia. The clarity, the luminosity of our applied ethics, in immediate consonance with our thought, without subterfuges that would attribute contradictions of fact to the influence of the present society—if not, how to overcome it?—must, if our movement can extend itself, be an example and a beacon.

That leads me to write a few paragraphs on a connected subject. We seek the truth, independent of every idea, established or unverified, and of all factional prejudices. And we do not want to make concessions to anyone. Not even to the believe in the superiority of the people, which was that of Kropotkin and other theorists.

We are for the people first of all, and certain among us are part of them, with that struggle for life and the insecurity of tomorrow that are ours in many cases. But we know that the human condition is generally the same, that the worker who lives better than the petit-bourgeois of the beginning of the century is hardly better, speaking in human terms, and is indifferent to the fate of those who live less well.

We know that there are wage-earners with the mentality of social climbers and nouveaux riches, and that the improvement of the material condition of men rarely implies the improvement of their moral condition.

Once more we return to ethics, to the preeminence of individual and collective ethics. We see these problems on the vast plan of the human future. We know that it will not be enough that all of humanity live at a new economic level, comparable to that of the average citizens of the U.S.A., in order to be more civilized, more noble, better and even often really happy.

But that fact, of which we are conscious, imposes on us some corresponding duties. It is a frequent affirmation of anarchism that progress is the work of minorities. Another is that the people have no need of an elite. It would be necessary to hear one another.

As for us, we declare our position clearly. There are minorities made up of those whom the caprices of biology and heredity have established for that which guides humanity, opens the advance for it toward the highest destinies. It was always this way; it will always be thus, through the inevitability of biological laws or the caprice of nature, which are found in all species, in all the animal colonies. So we are, willingly, combatants for human progress. We are conscious, and that inserts itself in our idea of ethics, to be a link in the chain of generations forged in the millennia, underway toward the millennia. So we want to constitute a minority that will be an elite to the extent that these high reasons act to inspire it, to the degree also that, which being conscious of its responsibilities as an elite, it will simply do its duty, without vanity, without pride, moved by that mystique of history that has inspired other minorities before it, and that will inspire others after it.


It remains to say, in this short work, why we do not believe we should advise armed revolution, nor believe the triumph of that revolution is possible. It would remain to recommend certain other things. The space is lacking to do so. That will be the subject of another writing, which will appear in this collection, or elsewhere.

(1) In order to know the sense of the terms that we are in the habit of using, there is no difference between anarchist socialism and libertarian socialism.

(2) Ricardo Mella, the most brilliant theorist of Spanish anarchism, defended a collectivism at base more Proudhonian than Bakuninian, but especially, in the economic order, the freedom of application of the various systems of anarchist socialism.

(3) While he had posed the problem in his book Precisiones sobre el anarquismo published at the beginning of 1937, by the Editions de Tierra y Libertad, of Barcelona, the author called himself anarchist, or libertarian communist in the activity that he exerted in the heart of the libertarian socialist movement.

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Note on Anarchism and the Rhetoric of Democracy

The battle over the relationship between anarchism and democracy rages on, without necessarily gaining much in clarity. It shouldn’t surprise us, really. The earliest explicit proponents of anarchy had to find a way to place anarchy among a range of otherwise governmentalist possibilities, so we have inherited constructions like “the best form of government is that which does not govern,” leaving us to figure out whether anarchy is the last form of government (“pure democracy”) or the first form of something else–or whether perhaps the choice is largely rhetorical.

To be clear, I think the choice is more than rhetorical, but what if it really was just a question of what language we choose to make our appeal for truly and fully anarchic relations? What evidence do we have that the sort of move contemplated by those who want to present anarchy as (or at least as involving) a particularly pure form of democracy would work?

Here are a few thoughts from a recent Reddit exchange:

We certainly have choices about the way we use the language available to us and the tradition gives us a variety of examples of how those choices might play out. Proudhon’s claim that “property is theft” is an example of making the received language work against received ideas, and one that has been fairly durable and successful. It raises a paradox, which the curious can then explore in the set of arguments Proudhon provided. Taken out of context, it at least doesn’t lead anyone too far astray. Bakunin’s remarks about “the authority of the bootmaker,” on the other hand, has had the effect, as often as not, of making even anarchists forget the rest of what Bakunin said about authority, even just a sentence or two away from the original statement. Elsewhere in “God and the State” we have the powerful, scandalous statement that he preaches “the revolt of life against science” (the “property is theft” of the piece), which ought to send us back into the text to try to understand how this opposition plays out. But that’s not the phrase that has persisted in our memory, at least in the English-speaking world, and the one that has, when taken out of context, gives no clues as to the complexities of the argument from which it is lifted.

Proudhon wrestled with the way to deal with the words he used for new forms of familiar institutions. He initially called his preferred form of property “possession,” on the principle that new relations should have new names, but eventually doubled back, wanting to emphasize the evolutionary nature of the process he was describing, and so, for example, his description of the anarchic institutions of the future society retains the “patronymic name” of “State,” even thought the citizen-state he described is perhaps even farther removed from the governmentalist State than simple possession was from simple property. There are good reasons for the latter strategy, but the fact is that almost everyone who encounters the word “State” in the later works comes away thinking he had stopped being an anarchist.

Given all that, we might wonder why many of those same anarchists think talking in terms of “democracy” will prepare people for a new social form, rather than simply confusing everyone about what we really want.

The question seems simple enough: if anarchist have themselves often had trouble recognizing anarchic ideas presented in more conventional terms, what is the evidence that non-anarchists will be more attentive to the concepts behind the language?

There are, of course, deeper issues to consider. One of the reasons that we are having this conversation is that we have convinced ourselves that there is a pro-democracy current that goes back to the beginnings of the anarchist tradition. But it seems likely that this perception is itself in part an effect of our failure to really address the concepts behind the words and place the discussions of democracy in their proper contexts. Those of us who want to draw clear lines between anarchy and democracy are not arguing, for the most part, that democracy has not been an advance over more despotic forms of government or that anarchists will be able at all times to resolve conflict in ways that reflect “pure anarchy.” But when, for example, we look at Proudhon’s work, it seems obvious that there are critical differences between what he approves of in principle and those practices that he believes will find a place in the balancing of interests within a free society. We absolutely must, in this context, be able to distinguish between various democratic practices and the principle of democracy. When we turn to Déjacque’s later writings, we find him assigning an necessary and inevitable role to a certain kind of democracy, but as the chrysalis from which the anarchist papillon will eventually emerge, as a transitional institution and not as an anarchic one. These distinctions seem simple enough that if we were to take democracy itself as seriously as I would hope anarchists take anarchy, they would still probably be expected to emerge in our pursuit of its “pure” or “true” forms.

So why does this debate seem destined to go nowhere? From my admittedly partisan position, I would at least have to ask whether part of the problem is that we have already burdened ourselves with too much ambivalent rhetoric, which we have then treated with an indifference unbecoming among radicals. The search for that democratic current in the tradition is one more aspect of anarchist theory that ought to bring us face to face with the central concerns of the tradition. Let’s try not to waste the moment.

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