3. Anarchism in Revolutionary Practice 1880-1914

Submitted by libcom on October 29, 2005

3 Anarchism in Revolutionary Practice



It is now time to examine anarchism in action. Which brings us to the eve of the twentieth century. Libertarian ideas certainly played some part in the revolutions of the nineteenth century but not an independent one. Proudhon had taken a negative attitude to the 1848 Revolution even before its outbreak. He attacked it as a political revolution, a bourgeois booby trap, and, indeed, much of this was true. Moreover, according to Proudhon, it was inopportune and its use of barricades and street battles was outdated, for he himself dreamed of a quite different road to victory for his panacea: mutuelliste collectivism. As for the Paris Commune, while it is true that it spontaneously broke away from "traditional statist centralization," it was the product of a "compromise," as Henri Lefebvre has noted, a sort of "united front" between the Proudhonists and Bakuninites on the one hand and the Jacobins and Blanquists on the other. It "boldly repudiated" the State, but Bakunin had to admit that the internationalist anarchists were a "tiny minority" in its ranks.

As a result of Bakunin's impetus, anarchism had, however, succeeded in grafting itself onto the First International - a proletarian, internationalist, apolitical, mass movement. But sometime around 1880 the anarchists began to deride "the timid International of the first period," and sought to set up in its place what Malatesta in 1884 described as the "redoubtable International," which was to be anarchist, communist, anti-religious, anti-parliamentary, and revolutionary, all at the same time. This scarecrow was very flimsy: anarchism cut itself off from the working-class movement, with the result that it deteriorated and lost its way in sectarianism and minority activism.

What caused this decline? One reason was the swiftness of industrial development and the rapid conquest of political rights by workers who then became more receptive to parliamentary reformism. It followed that the international working-class movement was taken over by politically minded, electoralist, reformist social democrats whose purpose was not the social revolution but the legal conquest of the bourgeois State and the satisfaction of short-term demands.

When they found themselves a small minority, the anarchists abandoned the idea of militancy within large popular movements. Free rein was given to utopian doctrines, combining premature anticipations and nostalgic evocations of a golden age; Kropotkin, Malatesta, and their friends turned their backs on the road opened up by Bakunin on the pretext of keeping their doctrine pure. They accused Bakunin, and anarchist literature in general, of having been "too much colored by Marxism." The anarchists turned in on themselves, organized themselves for direct action in small clandestine groups which were easily infiltrated by police informers.

Bakunin's retirement was soon followed by his death and, from 1876 on, anarchism caught the bug of adventurism and wild fantasy. The Berne Congress launched the slogan of "propaganda by the deed." Cafiero and Malatesta handed out the first lesson of action. On April 5, 1877, they directed a band of some thirty armed militants who suddenly appeared in the mountains of the Italian province of Benevento, burned the parish records of a small village, distributed the funds in the tax collector's safe to the poor, and tried to install libertarian communism on a miniature, rural, infantile scale. In the end they were tracked down, numb with cold, and yielded without resistance.

Three years later, on December 25, 1880, Kropotkin was declaiming in his journal Le Revolte: "Permanent revolt in speech, writing, by the dagger and the gun, or by dynamite . . . anything suits us that is alien to legality." Between "propaganda by the deed" and attacks on individuals, only a step remained. It was soon taken.

The defection of the mass of the working class had been one of the reasons for the recourse to terrorism, and "propaganda by the deed" did indeed make some contribution to awakening the workers from their apathy. Writing in La Revolution Proletarienne, November 1937, Robert Lonzon [20] maintained that "it was like the stroke of a gong bringing the French proletariat to its feet after the prostration into which it had been plunged by the massacres of the Commune [by the right] . . ., [and was] the prelude to the foundation of the CGT [Confederation General du Travail] and the mass trade-union movement of the years 1900-1910." This rather optimistic view is corrected or supplemented [21] by the views of Fernand Pelloutier, a young anarchist who later went over to revolutionary syndicalism: he believed the use of dynamite had deterred the workers from professing libertarian socialism, however disillusioned they might have been with parliamentary socialism; none of them dared call himself an anarchist lest he seem to opt for isolated revolt as against collective action.

The social democrats were not slow to use the weapons against the anarchists furnished by the combination of bombs and Kropotkinist utopias.


For many years the socialist working-class movement was divided into irreconcilable segments: while anarchism slid into terrorism combined with passive waiting for the millennium, the political movement, more or less dishonestly claiming to be Marxist, became bogged down in "parliamentary cretinism." Pierre Monatte, an anarchist who turned syndicalist, later recalled: "The revolutionary spirit in France was dying out . . . year by year. The revolutionary ideas of Guesde were now only verbal or, worse, electoral and parliamentary; those of Jaures simply, and very frankly, ministerial and governmental." In France, the divorce between anarchists and socialists was completed at the Le Havre Congress of 1880, when the newborn workers' party threw itself into electoral politics.

In Paris in 1889 the social democrats from various countries decided to revive the long-neglected practice of holding international socialist congresses. This opened the way for the creation of the Second International and some anarchists thought it necessary to attend the meeting. Their presence gave rise to violent incidents, since the social democrats used their superior numbers to suppress all argument from their opponents. At the Brussels Congress of 1891 the libertarians were booed and expelled. However, many working-class delegates from England, Italy, and Holland, though they were indeed reformists, withdrew in protest. The next congress was held in Zurich in 1893, and the social democrats claimed that in the future they could exclude all non-trade union organizations which did not recognize the necessity for "political action," that is to say, the conquest of bourgeois power by the ballot.

At the London Congress of 1896, a few French and Italian anarchists circumvented this exclusionary condition by getting trade unions to appoint them as delegates. This was not simply a subterfuge, for, as we shall see below, the anarchists had once more found the path of reality - they had entered the trade-union movement. But when one of them, Paul Delesalle, tried to mount the rostrum, he was thrown violently to the bottom of the steps and injured. Jaures accused the anarchists of having transformed the trade unions into revolutionary anarchist groups and of disrupting them, just as they had come to the congress only to disrupt it, "to the great benefit of bourgeois reaction."

The German social-democratic leaders at the congress, the inveterate electoralists Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel, showed themselves as savage to the anarchists as they had been in the First International. Supported by Marx's daughter, Eleanor Aveling, who regarded the anarchists as "madmen," they had their own way with the meeting and got it to pass a resolution excluding from future congresses all "anti-parliamentarians" in whatever guise they might appear.

Later, in State and Revolution, Lenin presented the anarchists with a bouquet which concealed some thorns. He stood up for them in relation to the social democrats, accusing the latter of having "left to the anarchists a monopoly of criticism of parliamentarianism" and of having "labeled" such criticism as "anarchist." It was hardly surprising that the proletariat of the parliamentary countries became disgusted with such socialists and more and more sympathetic to the anarchists. The social democrats had termed any effort to destroy the bourgeois State as anarchist. The anarchists "correctly described the opportunist character of the ideas of most socialist parties on the State."

According to Lenin, Marx and Proudhon were as one in desiring "the demolition of the existing machine of the State." "The opportunists are unwilling to admit the similarity between Marxism and the anarchism of Proudhon and Bakunin." The social democrats entered into debate with the anarchists in an "unMarxist" manner. Their critique of anarchism boiled down to pure bourgeois banality: "We recognize the State, the anarchists don't." The anarchists are in a strong position to retort that this kind of social democracy is failing in its duty of providing for the revolutionary education of the workers. Lenin castigated an anti-anarchist pamphlet by the Russian social democrat Plekhanov as "very unjust to the anarchists," "sophistical," "full of vulgar argument, insinuating that there is no difference between an anarchist and a bandit."


In the 1890's the anarchists had reached a dead end and they were cut off from the world of the workers which had become the monopoly of the social democrats. They snuggled into little sects, barricaded themselves into ivory towers where they polished up increasingly unrealistic dogmas; or else they performed and applauded acts of individual terrorism, and let themselves be caught in a net of repression and reprisal.

Kropotkin deserves credit for being one of the first to confess his errors and to recognize the sterility of "propaganda by the deed." In a series of articles which appeared in 1890 he affirmed "that one must be with the people, who no longer want isolated acts, but want men of action inside their ranks." He warned his readers against "the illusion that one can defeat the coalition of exploiters with a few pounds of explosives." He proposed a return to mass trade unionism like that of which the First International had been the embryo and propagator: "Monster unions embracing millions of proletarians."

It was the imperative duty of the anarchists to penetrate into the trade unions in order to detach the working masses from the false socialists who were deceiving them. In 1895 an anarchist weekly, Les Temps Nouveaux, published an article by Fernand Pelloutier entitled "Anarchism and the Trade Unions" which expounded the new tactic. Anarchism could do very well without dynamite and must approach the masses, both to propagate anarchist ideas as widely as possible and to save the trade-union movement from the narrow corporatism in which it had become bogged down. The trade union must be a "practical school of anarchism." As a laboratory of economic struggle, detached from electoral competition and administered on anarchist lines, was not the trade union the only libertarian and revolutionary organization which could counterbalance and destroy the evil influence of the social-democratic politicians? Pelloutier linked the trade unions to the libertarian communist society which remained the ultimate objective of the anarchist: on the day when the revolution breaks out, he asked, "would they not be an almost libertarian organization, ready to succeed the existing order, thus effectively abolishing all political authority; each of its parts controlling the means of production, managing its own affairs, sovereign over itself by the free consent of its members?"

Later, at the International Anarchist Congress of 1907, Pierre Monatte declared: "Trade unionism . . . opens up new perspectives for anarchism, too long fumed in on itself." On the one hand, "trade unionism . . . has renewed anarchism's awareness of its working-class roots; on the other, the anarchists have made no small contribution to setting the working-class movement on the road to revolution and to popularizing the idea of direct action." After a lively debate, this congress adopted a compromise resolution which opened with the following statement of principle: "This International Anarchist Congress sees the trade unions both as combat units in the class struggle for better working conditions, and as associations of producers which can serve to transform capitalist society into an anarcho-communist society."

The syndicalist anarchists met with some difficulties in their efforts to draw the whole libertarian movement onto the new road they had chosen. The "pure ones" of anarchism cherished insurmountable suspicions with regard to the trade-union movement. They resented it for having its feet too firmly on the ground. They accused it of a complacent attitude toward capitalist society, of being an integral part of it, of limiting itself to short-term demands. They disputed its claim to be able to resolve the social problem single-handed. At the 1907 congress Malatesta replied sharply to Monatte, maintaining that the industrial movement was for the anarchist a means and not an end: "Trade unionism is not, and never will be, anything but a legalistic and conservative movement, unable to aim beyond - if that far! - the improvement of working conditions." The trade-union movement is made short-sighted by the pursuit of immediate gains and turns the workers away from the final struggle: "One should not ask workers to strike; but rather to continue working, for their own advantage." Malatesta ended by warning his hearers against the conservatism of trade-union bureaucracies: "In the industrial movement the official is a danger comparable only to parliamentarianism. Any anarchist who has agreed to become a permanent and salaried official of a trade union is lost to anarchism."

To this Monatte replied that the trade-union movement was certainly no more perfect than any other human institution: "Far from hiding its faults, I think it is wise to have them always in mind so as to react against them." He recognized that trade union officialdom aroused sharp criticism, often justified. But he protested against the charge of wishing to sacrifice anarchism and the revolution to trade unionism: "As with everyone else here, anarchy is our final aim. However, because times have changed we have changed our conception of the movement and of the revolution .... If, instead of criticizing the past, present, or even future mistakes of trade unionism from above, the anarchists would concern themselves more intimately with its work, the dangers that lurk in trade unionism would be averted forever."

The anger of the sectarian anarchists was not entirely without cause. However, the kind of trade union of which they disapproved belonged to a past period: that which was at first purely and simply corporative, and later, the blind follower of those social democratic politicians who had multiplied in France during the long years following the repression of the Commune. The trade unionism of class struggle, on the other hand, had been regenerated by the anarcho-syndicalists who had entered it, and it gave the "pure" anarchists the opposite cause for complaint: it claimed to produce its own ideology, to "be sufficient unto itself." Its most effective spokesman, Emile Pouget, maintained: "The trade union is superior to any other form of cohesion between individuals because the task of partial amelioration and the more decisive one of social transformation can be carried on side by side within its framework. It is precisely because the trade union answers this twofold need, . . . no longer sacrificing the present to the future or the future to the present, that the trade union stands out as the best kind of group."

The concern of the new trade unionism to emphasize and preserve its "independence" was proclaimed in a famous charter adopted by the CGT congress in Amiens in 1906. The statement was not inspired so much by opposition to anarchism as by the desire to get rid of the tutelage of bourgeois democracy and its extension in the working-class movement, social democracy. It was also felt important to preserve the cohesion of the trade union movement when confronted with a proliferation of rival political sects, such as existed in France before "socialist unity" was established. Proudhon's work De la Capacite Politique des Classes Ouvrieres (1865) was taken by the revolutionary syndicalists as their bible; from it they had selected for particular attention the idea of "separation": being a distinct class, the proletariat must refuse all support from the opposing class.

Some anarchists, however, were shocked by the claim of trade unionism to do without their patronage. Malatesta exclaimed that it was a radically false doctrine which threatened the very existence of anarchism. Jean Grave, his faithful follower, echoed: "Trade unionism can - and must - be self-sufficient in its struggle against exploitation by the employers, but it cannot pretend to be able to solve the social problem by itself." It "is so little sufficient unto itself that the very idea of what it is, of what it should be, and of what it should do, had to come to it from outside."

In spite of these recriminations, the revolutionary ferment brought with them by the anarchist converts to trade unionism made the trade-union movement in France and the other Latin countries a power to be reckoned with in the years before the Great War. This affected not only the bourgeoisie and government, but also the social-democratic politicians who thenceforth lost most of their control over the working-class movement. The philosopher Georges Sorel considered the entry of the anarchists into the trade unions as one of the major events of his time. Anarchist doctrine had been diluted in a mass movement, only to emerge renewed and freshly tempered.

The libertarian movement was to remain impregnated with this fusion between the anarchist idea and the trade-union idea. Until 1914 the French CGT was the ephemeral product of this synthesis, but its most complete and durable product was to be the Spanish CNT (Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo). It was formed in 1910, taking advantage of the disintegration of the radical party of the politician Alexandre Lerroux. One of the spokesmen of Spanish anarcho-syndicalism, Diego Abad de Santillan, did not forget to give credit to Fernand Pelloutier, to Emile Pouget, and to the other anarchists who had understood how necessary it was to begin by implanting their ideas in the economic organizations of the proletariat.