Yesterday’s post is important to my historical research too, because of how anarchism differs from its 19th century form from today. Modern anarchism is a study in finding forgotten spaces, places in society where state power has no interest in enforcing people’s behaviour and corporate interests don’t bother to reach their tendrils down to monetize. In these spaces, marginal and obscure they may often be, people experiment together with new lifestyles to organize our communities on more just and open lines.
But anarchism wasn’t always this way. There’s a significant reason why the bulk of the essays in the Mikhail Bakunin collection I’m reading were written during the last few years of his life. It’s because he spent the bulk of that life running guerrilla campaigns throughout Europe to organize the working classes and peasants of countries across that continent to overthrow the state and build a new culture from their communities on up. And any of the moneyed or aristocratic classes who got in their way were reactionaries to be removed.
Anarchism used to be a violent movement to destroy the entire institution of the militarized state by insurrection. Many of the first politically violent groups in Europe were anarchists. Bakunin himself continually refers to the necessity for organizing the peasant populations of Europe for violent revolution, overthrowing the monarchs, bureaucrats, and the bourgeoisie.
One of the key philosophical texts of Bakunin’s writings is his “Letter to a Frenchman,” a long essay rhetorically addressed to the French people as they face the catastrophe of German invasion in 1871.* Bakunin refers to the many authors and intelligentsia of France who are lamenting the prospect of a civil war in response to the German invasion. But Bakunin openly encourages such a war, as a civil war started by the peasantry to overthrow the government whose idiocy began the war would permit the end of the French state and the resistance of voluntary associations of peasants would drive out the Germans through guerrilla militia tactics.
|So you refuse to shake hands with me, eh? Then I'll start a|
war that will ultimately ruin my own country!
* The Franco-Prussian War is, incidentally, one of the most ridiculous conflicts I’ve read about in some time. This nine-month conflict between France and the unified German states led by the kingdom of Prussia was, like the First World War, a conflict that the French assumed they would easily win. But unlike the First World War, the German side actually had a tremendous military advantage over the French: not only was their technology superior, but they had a fighting force of men 30% larger than the French once the Bavarian states joined the Prussian drive for unification. Also, the war was started over an insult to the French ambassador. Yes, the same reason Groucho Marx started the Fredonia-Sylvania war was the reason for this real-life conflict.
The techniques of terrorism that would eventually be associated with ethnic nationalist groups around Europe (and eventually the rest of the world) began in radical anarchist cells. Anarchist violence was so prevalent, or at least so visible in the public eye, throughout the 19th century that Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent was written about a secret service officer tracking down an anarchist terror cell. The US President William McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist terrorist.
So, given yesterday’s long lament about the violence of contemporary politics, why would I go to anarchism for the framework to enact a non-violent utopian vision? Precisely because the violent revolution failed, just as I think violent revolutions tend to do. One of the lessons I took from Fanon, which I’ve discussed before, is that a violent uprising against an oppressor is in terrible danger of self-destruction, in becoming a domestic oppressor taking the place of a foreign one.
In addition to Fanon’s analysis, consider this principle: that having fought so hard to establish a new political order, any critique of the revolutionaries’ order is interpreted as a threat to be destroyed. As a result, the fundamental freedom that the revolution was supposed to ensure is annihilated.
This is why I’m glad the violent anarchist revolutions were ultimately defeated: had they won, they would only have defeated themselves. As it is, anarchistic experiments exist in the marginal spaces of society, waiting for the opportunity to proliferate, not through violence, but through persuasion that they offer a better way of life.