The legacy of St Imier

The legacy of St Imier

Text of talk given at public meeting of the London Group of the Anarchist Federation

The Legacy of Saint-Imier

Extract of : Organise! Issue N°79,

The following article contributed by Brian Morris is the text of a talk to the Anarchist Federation's London Group on May 19th 2012.

In the opening pages of my book on Bakunin (1993) I offered a quote from the Ghanian poet Ayi Kwei Armah. It reads "The present is where we get lost, if we forget our past and have no vision of the future." This phrase comes to mind when we come to celebrate the iconic founding of the anarchist movement at Saint Imier in Switzerland in September 1872.

Engaging with the past does not involve some kind of ancestor worship, any more than envisaging a better future for humankind entails us becoming lost in utopian dreams. Anarchists should certainly not feel embarrassed in celebrating the achievements of an earlier generation of libertarian socialists - not as historical curiosities but as a source of inspiration and ideas. Here I wish simply to offer some reflections on the kind of anarchism, or revolutionary socialism that emerged from the political struggles of members of the First International, around 1870.

As a political philosophy, anarchism has had perhaps the worst press. It has been ignored, maligned, ridiculed, abused, misunderstood and misinterpreted by writers from all sides of the political spectrum: Marxists, democrats, conservatives and liberals. Theodore Roosevelt, the American president, famously described anarchism as a "crime against the whole human race" and in common parlance anarchy is invariably linked with disorder, violence and nihilism. A clear understanding of anarchism is further inhibited by the fact that the term "anarchist" has been applied to a wide variety of philosophies and individuals. Thus Gandhi, Spencer, Tolstoy, Berdyaev, Stirner, Ayn Rand, Nietzsche, along with more familiar? Figures such as Proudhon, Bakunin and Goldman, have all been described as anarchists. This has led Marxist critics, such as John Molyneux, to dismiss "anarchism" as a completely incoherent political philosophy, both in its theories and in the strategy for social change.

But it isn't? For what has to be recognized is that anarchism is fundamentally a historical movement and political tradition that emerged around 1870, mainly among working class members of the International Working Mens Association, widely known as the First International. It involved a split or "great schism" (as James Toll called it) within the Association. It is usually described as if it focused around a personal dispute between Karl Marx and Michael Bakunin. But, as Cole and others have suggested, this schism was not simply a clash of personalities; it involved two factions within the socialist movement, and two quite different conceptions of socialism, of the processes of revolutionary change and the conditions of human liberation. The anarchist faction did not originally describe them- selves as anarchists but rather as "federalists" or as "anti-authoritarian socialists", but they came to adopt the label of their Marxist opponents, and describe themselves as "anarchist communists".

As a political movement and tradition anarchism thus emerged among workers of Spain, France, Italy and Switzerland in the aftermath of the Paris Commune.

Among its more well-known proponents were Elisee Reclus, Francois Dumertheray, James Guillaume, Errico Malatesta, Carlo Cafiaro, Jean Grave and Peter Kropotkin. (Louise Michel was also closely associated with the movement, but she was deported to New Caledonia after the defeat of the Paris Commune, along with many thousand communards. She spent six years in exile).

Between 1870 and 1930 anarchism or revolutionary/ libertarian socialism, spread throughout the world, and was thus by no means restricted to Europe. By the end of the nineteenth century there was, of course, other strand of anarchism, but anarchist-communism was certainly the dominant tendency. It is important to note that class struggle anarchism was not the creation of academic scholars, but emerged within working class activism, and expressed a revolt against the social and working conditions of industrial capital- ism. Kropotkin's earliest writings were entitled "Words of a Rebel" (1885) adopted from the Swiss anarchist periodical "Le Revolt".

Kropotkin, who joined the General Section of the First Industrial in February 1872, described anarchism as a kind of synthesis between radical liberalism, with its emphasis on the liberty of the individual, and socialism or communism, which implied a repudiation of capitalism and an emphasis on communal life and voluntary associations. This synthesis is well illustrated in Bakunin's famous adage: 'That liberty, without socialism is privilege and injustice, and that socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality'.

The tendency of Marxists academic philosophers and Stirnerite individualists (or egoists) to make a radical dichotomy between anarchism and socialism is therefore, in both conceptual and historical grounds, quite misleading and distorts our understanding of socialism.

Anarchism, or at least the kind of class struggle anarchism that was advocated by the social revolu- tionaries of the First International, can be defined in terms of four essential tenets or principles.

Firstly, a rejection of state power and all forms of hierarchy and oppression; a critique of all forms of power and authority that inhibit the liberty of the individual, viewed, of course, as a social being, not as a disembodied ego, or some abstract possessive individual, still less as a fixed benign essence. As a resolution of the St. Imier congress put it: the first duty of the proletariat is the "destruction of all political power".

Secondly, the complete repudiation of the capitalist market economy, along with its wage system, private property, its competitive ethos, and the ideology of possessive individualism. In fact, the early class struggle anarchists were fervently anti-capitalist, referring to the wage system as "wage slavery."

Thirdly, it expressed a vision of a society based solely on mutual aid and voluntary co-operation, a form of social organization that would provide the fullest expression of human liberty and all forms of social life that were independent of both the state and capitalism. Class struggle anarchists thus believed in voluntary organizations, not in chaos, ephemerality or "anything goes", and they viewed both tribal and kin-based societies and every- day social life in more complex societies as exhibiting some of the principles of anarchy. Both Elise Reclus and Kropotkin were deeply interested in the social life of tribal peoples, or "societies without government".

Fourthly, the early anarchists, like the Marxists, embraced the radical aspects of the Enlightenment - a stress on the importance of critical reason and empirical science; a rejection of all knowledge claims based on traditional authority, mystical institution and divine revelation; and an affirmation of such universal human values as liberty, solidarity and equality. Anarchism was thus a form of ethical socialism.

As revolutionary socialism or anarchism developed in the twenty years after the Paris Commune of 1871, it tended to critique, and to define itself in relation to three other forms of radical politics. All are still around and have their contemporary advocates. These are mutualism, radical individualism or egoism, and Marxism.

Élisée Reclus Although Kropotkin and the class struggle anarchists always acknowledged that Proudhon expressed libertarian sentiments, and was a pioneer and an inspiration in the development of anarchism, they were always critical of the radical tradition that became known as Mutualism. Embraced by many American individualist anarchists, such as Warren, Spooner and Tucker, this tradition affirmed the market economy, private property and petty-commodity production - all of which were rejected by the anarchist communists.

They were equally critical of the kind of radical individualism (egoism) expressed by Max Stirner, suggesting it was a metaphysical doctrine remote from real social life and bordered on nihilism. Kropotkin stressed that it was meaningless to emphasize the supremacy of the "unique one" in conditions of oppression and economic exploitation, and felt that Stirner's strident egoism ran counter to the feelings of mutual solidarity and equality that most people acknowledged.

Finally, of course, from its inception, the anarchists were highly critical of the kind of politics expressed by Marx and Engels, which later became known as social democracy, or simply Marxism. In their famous "Communist Manifesto" (1846) Marx and Engels emphasized that the communist party was to organize the working class, in order to achieve "the conquest of political power".

This would entail the establishment of a "workers state" or "the dictatorship of the proletariat" in which all forms of production (including agriculture), as well as transport, communication and banking, would be "owned" and administered through the Nation State. It would involve, as Marx and Engels put it, "the most decisive centralizations of power in the hands of the state authority" Bakunin and the anarchist communists of course, al- ways stressed that the parliamen- tary road to socialism would lead to reformism, and the "seizure of state power" by the communist party on behalf of the working people, would lead to tyranny and state capitalism. And history seems to have proved them right on both counts. In contrast to "political action":

- Involvement with state power
- Which anarchists always felt formed a symbiotic relationship with capitalism
- The early anarchists advocated "direct action". This was expressed through insurrectionism, anarcho-syndicalism or community-based politics.

In recent years class struggle anarchism, as advocated and practiced by an earlier generation of communist anarchists, has been declared "obsolete", or "outmoded", or dismissed as "leftism" by contemporary anarchists, mostly by those ensconced in the academy. At the end of the twentieth century, we are informed, a "new" anarchism has emerged, a "post-left anarchy". It seems to consist of a rather esoteric pastiche of several political tendencies; namely, anarcho-primitivism, the anarcho-capitalism of Rothbard and Ayn Rand, the "poetic terrorism" that derives from Nietzsche and the avant-garde, embraced with fervour by Hakin Bay, the radical individualism (egoism) of the contemporary devotees of Max Stirner, and so-called "post anarchism" which derives from the writings of such academic mandarins as Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault and Deleuze.

There is nothing new or original in these various currents of thought, and the idea that an earlier generation of anarchists supported modernity or modernism is quite perverse. For the "old" anarchists, the libertarian socialists, completely repudiated three of the key components of so-called "modernity" - the democratic state, the capitalist market economy, and the "abstract" individual of Bourgeois philosophy. We need therefore to continue to re-affirm the legacy of anarchist communism, as it was first formulated at the congress of St. Imier long ago, as well as making it relevant to contemporary social and political struggles.