Anarchy 94/Daniel Guerin's anarchism

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Daniel Guerin’s


NI DIEU NI MAITRE. Anthologie historique du mouvement anarchiste. (Paris: Editions de Delphes. 44 francs.)

Daniel Guérin. L’ANARCHISME. De la doctrine à l’action. Collection “Idées”, No. 89. (Paris: NRF-Gallimard. 3 francs.)

After the two disappointing anthologies of anarchist writings from the United States which were reviewed two years ago (anarchy 70), it is pleasant to come to Ni dieu ni maître, a “historical anthology of the anarchist movement” which was published in France in 1965. We are told that it was produced “by the staff of Editions de Delphes with the help of Daniel Guérin”; the staff of the Nataf brothers who are connected with the excellent anarchist monthly, Noir et Rouge, and Guérin is a veteran socialist who became an anarchist.[1] Quite simply, they show how the job should be done: the book is very large (nearly 700 pages), very well produced,[2] very expensive (about 3½ guineas), and very valuable.

  Ni dieu ni maître was published to commemorate the centenary of Proudhon’s death in 1865, and it covers the century from the appearance of What is Property? (in which Proudhon became the first person to call himself an anarchist) in 1840 to the defeat of militant anarchism in Spain in 1939. After a short preface and a note on the Proudhon centenary by Guérin, there are more than 150 passages divided into ten sections: Proudhon and the 1848 Revolution; Bakunin and the First International; Max Stirner; the Jura Federation and the anarchist congresses; Kropotkin; Malatesta; the French movement from the 1871 Commune to the rise of syndicalism; Makhno and the Ukrainian movement during the Russian Revolution and Civil War; the Kronstadt rising; and the Spanish movement from the end of the First World War to the end of the Civil War. The passages included, says Guérin, are “either unpublished, or unobtainable, or kept in the dark by a conspiracy of silence”. They are also unmistakably anarchist—there is no confusion with liberalism on the one side or with nihilism on the other. The result is a faithful picture from the inside of what the anarchist movement has meant to most anarchists for most of its existence and, for anyone who can read French, by far the best single book on anarchism ever published.

  It is, however, possible to quarrel with the selection of passages and with the general approach to the movement. Proudhon may have been the first writer who accepted the name of anarchist, but he
was hardly the first who was one. If Godwin is to be excluded because he was only a philosophical anarchist and was not involved in any kind of movement, there should still surely be room for some of those contemporaries and predecessors of Proudhon who were concerned with the practical as well as theoretical applications of anarchism—Bellegarrigue and Coeurderoy (there is one short passage from Déjacque) or Varlet and Roux in France, for example, and Hodgskin and Winstanley or even John Ball in England. It is good to be reminded of Proudhon’s importance, but it would be a pity to get the impression that he invented anarchism; he and Bakunin—also important but surely not all that important—together take up nearly half the book, which really does seem too much.

  Similarly, the only individualist anarchist quoted is Max Stirner, but he was hardy the only one, and he too was very much a philosophical anarchist—if indeed he was strictly speaking an anarchist at all. He is described as a “solitary rebel”, but there have been plenty of other individualists who wrote things still worth reading—Godwin, Shelley and Wilde in Britain, Ballou, Warren, Andrews, Spooner and Tucker in the United States, Libertad and Armand in France, Chorny in Russia, Martucci in Italy—and it would have been interesting to have something from some of them. Even “Saint Max” gets only 15 pages, which at less than 3 per cent seems a rather meagre ration for a small but still vigorous variety of anarchist thought.[3]

  There is plenty of Kropotkin, as one would expect, but it is rather oddly chosen. There are two essays and three extracts from his first collection, Paroles d’un Révolté, and two letters and two descriptions of him during his last years; but there are only three short extracts from the lecture, Anarchy: Its Philosophy and Ideal (which incidentally did not appear in Paroles d’un Révolté as is stated, but was given in 1896, eleven years after the collection was published), to represent the whole period between his imprisonment in France in 1883 and his return to Russia in 1917. It was after all during this time (while he was living in this country) that he produced the bulk of his most characteristic and original work: the later collections—The Conquest of Bread; Fields, Factories and Workshops; Mutual aidmany im­portant pamphlets—The Philosophy of Anarchism; Anarchism in Socialist Evolution; The State: Its Historic Role; Organised Vengeance Called Justiceand a constant stream of articles in English, French and Russian. It is true that these are often better known and more easily available than some of the items included, but the result is that his message is distorted; while the passages included are certainly worth reading, they give little indication why Kropotkin should be by far the most widely read of all anarchist writers. It really is time that there was a proper edition of Kropotkin’s political works so that we didn’t have to rely on old pamphlets, expensive second-hand books, and occasional anthologies to find out what he said.

  No one could object to the representation of Malatesta, but it is a pity to have no other Italian passages, unless one counts Cafiero’s Swiss
lecture, Anarchy and Communism (which is incidentally dated 1889 instead of 1880). In the same way, no one could object to the emphasis on the Russian and Spanish revolutions and civil wars, and the passages chosen give excellent pictures in both cases, but it would have been valuable to have something on the similar episodes in Germany and Italy just after the First World War, or on some of the more significant events in, say, the United States, Latin America, China, Japan, or even Britain.

  It could be objected that there is an overwhelming preponderance of passages originally written in French, but it must be accepted that this is reasonable for a book published in France, and it must be added that most important anarchist writings have probably been in French and that anarchism was largely a French movement at least up to the first World War. Even so, it seems rather extreme to include no passages from any native-born British or American anarchists at all.

  A more general objection is that the selection of passages shows a consistent bias towards activism, and the more intellectual, theoretical and philosophical approach to anarchism is almost completely ignored. This is the result partly of excluding English-speaking anarchists, who have been especially prone to argue at some distance from real life, but mainly of deciding at an early stage in the planning of the anthology to concentrate on anarchist writings which deal with practical problems; and the bias does seem reasonable when one remembers that most histories and anthologies of anarchism have one in the opposite direction, and sometimes lose sight of the actual anarchist movement altogether. There is a similar bias towards revolution, and the more moderate, pragmatic and reformist approach to anarchism is almost completely omitted as well. This is the result of similar factors, but in this case the bias seems less reasonable when it is so often forgotten that there is a wide middle ground between the extremes of philosophical inactivism and revolutionary activism.

  But all these objections are overridden by the general authority of this book—“the voluminous record of a rehabilitation hearing”, as Guérin puts it, “bound in black cloth like a bible”. It is a unique collection in which “individual texts from the hands of the pioneers of anarchy alternate with collective documents”, and in which one finds at last a genuinely serious and knowledgeable record of what the anarchist movement is about.

  Every reader who is an anarchist must be impressed by the work which Guérin and the Nataf brothers have done for the cause of anarchism, and must also be fascinated by the material they have rescued from oblivion—masses of documents relating to Proudhon’s part in the 1848 Revolution and to Bakunin’s part in the First Inter­national and the 1870 Lyon rising, extracts from Max Stirner’s writings on education (1842), the Manifesto of the Sixty Workers of the Seine and Proudhon’s letter about it (1864), some of the remarkable studies produced in the anarchist international during the 1870s and 1880s by Guillaume, de Paepe, Schwitzguébel, and Kropotkin (under
the pseudonym of Levashov), the letter from the terrorist Henry to the governor of the Conciergerie prison (1894), Pelloutier’s call to the anarchists to join the trade unions (1895), some of Pouget’s inimitable articles, extracts from the proceedings of the 1907 Inter­national Anarchist Congress, the International Anarchist Manifesto against the First World War (1915),[4] Kropotkin’s letter from Russia to the workers of Western Europe (1920), Emma Goldman’s description of Kropotkin’s last days and his funeral (1921), and then more masses of documents relating to the anarchists’ parts in the Russian and Spanish revolutions.   And every reader who is not an anarchist must surely be astonished at the richness of anarchist thought at its best over a century, and must surely be convinced by Guérin’s conclusion “that the constructive ideas of anarchy are still alive, that, provided they are re-examined and passed through a screen, they can help con­temporary socialist thought to take a new step forwards”. By any standards, Ni dieu ni maître is an extraordinary achievement, and it is particularly encouraging to see it coming from within the anarchist movement; it would be interesting to know what kind of circulation it got in France, despite its high price, and what kind of effect it has had on its readers.

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  L’Anarchisme is very different in scale, being a small (less than 200 pages) and rather badly produced paperback which was also published in France in 1965. But it is very cheap (only 5s.) and is in fact very valuable. It is a quick look at the anarchist movement “from doctrine to action”, and once more it shows how the job should be done.

  L’Anarchisme is divided into three parts—The Basic Ideas of Anarchism”, “In Search of the Future Society”, and “Anarchism in Revolutionary Practice”—with a brief preface and conclusion. In the preface, Guérin notes the recent revival of interest in anarchism, and mentions the current books and articles about it, but he thinks “it is not certain that this literary effort will really be effective”. He points out that anarchists have always been bad at publicity, and that the characteristic rejection of leaders and dogmas has led not only to wide variation among the ideas of anarchist writers but also to a vague impression of what anarchist ideas are about at all. But he insists that, “despite its contradictions, despite its doctrinal disputes which are all to often about false problems, we are dealing with a collection of sufficiently homogeneous conceptions”. He sees Max Stirner on one side and Proudhon and Bakunin on the other as being not all that far apart, Kropotkin and Malatesta as deviating slightly from the true mainstream of anarchist thought, and the terrorists as differing from most anarchists only in their means and not in their main assumptions.

  He disclaims any intention of writing a full history or bibliography of anarchism, suggesting that most books on the subject have in fact sacri­ficed coherence to completeness. Nor has he paid much attention to the
biographies of anarchist leaders, remarking that most of the best known were anyway anarchists only for certain parts of their careers—Proudhon not at the beginning or end of his life, Bakunin not until the last ten years of his, Kropotkin not at the beginning or end of his either and often not in his scientific work even when he was an anarchist in politics. The plan of the first two parts of the book is therefore not the usual chronological narrative of individuals or organisations, but an analytical survey of the things which Guérin thinks essential to anarchist doctrine. The third part, which takes up about half the space, is a historical survey of the anarchist movement from the end of the First International to the end of the Spanish Civil War. The whole book is perhaps the best short introduction to anarchism in existence.

  Guérin begins with “questions of vocabulary”—an introduction to the Greek word anarchy, its traditional use (or misuse), its defiant appropriation by Proudhon, the various qualifications made by those who followed Proudhon in calling themselves anarchists (federalism, mutualism, collectivism, communism), and its relationship with such words as libertarianism and socialism. He then runs through the characteristic features of anarchism—the emotional rebellion, the horror of the state, the hostility to bourgeois democracy, the criticism of authoritarian socialism, the contrasting sources of political energy (the individual and the masses), the rejection of utopianism, the insistence on organisation, self-management (the French word, autogestion, is really better), free exchange, free competition, planning, complete socialisation of property, workers’ control, the commune, free admini­stration, public services, federalism, internationalism, anti-colonialism—giving in each section a clear and concise account of what the idea has meant to anarchists, with useful quotations from appropriate writers and references to appropriate events. The writers and events mentioned repeat the bias of Ni dieu ni maîtremost of the quotations come from Proudhon and Bakunin, and most of the events concern the European labour movement—but they are always apt and illuminating. It would be easy to think of other anarchist preoccupations, but it would be difficult to get a better choice into a smaller space.

  The third part of the book is in effect a historical appendix not only to L’Anarchisme but also to Ni dieu ni maître. Guérin is interested not so much in the drama of the anarchist movement itself as in the part it has played on the wider stage of the revolutionary labour movement. This gives his narrative a unity and urgency which are absent from most histories of anarchism. Thus he condemns the deviations towards adventurism and terrorism on one side and towards utopianism and scientism on the other not because they violated the pure truth of anarchist theory but because they alienated the masses from the practical importance of libertarian action, and gave the Social Democrats and the Communists a walk-over. And he praises the anarchists who went into the syndicalist movement, despite the dangers they risked for the anarchist movement, because they were trying to put libertarian ideas into practice in the harsh
environment of the day-to-day struggle of ordinary people.

  There is a predictable emphasis on the Russian and Spanish revolutions and civil wars, and the pictures in both cases are as excellent as in Ni dieu ni maître. In between there is a brief chapter on the Italian workers’ councils just after the First World War, with an emphasis on Gramsci which might be expected in a Marxist account but is refreshing in an anarchist one.

  In his conclusion, Guérin goes beyond the time limit of the end of the Spanish Civil War, and gives the examples of recent Yugoslav and Algerian experiments in workers’ control of industry to support his argument for the continuing—or rather, increasing—relevance of anarchism. They make sense in terms of the detailed organisation of factory work which is his main concern, but hardly in terms of the wider life of the community; it is surely a Marxist fallacy that the mode of production determines the nature of society as a whole. Although Guérin is well aware of the authoritarian features of the Communist regime in Yugoslavia and the “Socialist” regime in Algeria (and of the regimes in Russia and Cuba, which he also mentions), his concentration on such examples at the expense of all the others he could have chosen tends to blunten his important point that anarchism is directly related to the problems of modern society, and to strengthen the feeling that in many ways his position is still a form of libertarian Marxism rather than of syndicalist anarchism.

  Guérin rightly attacks such recent historians of anarchism as Jean Maitron, George Woodcock and James Joll for saying that the anarchist movement, however excellent it may have been in the past, is now dead and belongs only to the past. He will have none of this, and repeats the message of Ni dieu ni maître. “Constructive anarchism, which found its most accomplished expression in the writings of Bakunin, relies on organisation, self-discipline, integration, a centrali­sation which is not coercive but federal. It depends on large-scale modern industry, on modern technology, on the modern proletariat, on internationalism on a world scale.” On this challenging note, this challenging book ends. It is a remarkable message to find in a cheap paperback produced for a mass market; again, it would be interesting to know what kind of circulation it got in France, with its low price, and what kind of effect it has had on its readers.

  To sum up, these two books are the expression of an original and exciting view of anarchism,[5] and they are also exactly the sort of book we should have in English. It is difficult to imagine the British (or American) anarchist movement producing or a British (or American) commercial publisher translating such a formidable and unprofitable undertaking as Ni dieu ni maître, but there is really no reason why a paperback publisher, either here or in the United States, shouldn’t find it worth bringing out a translation of something as short and simple as L’Anarchisme. There is much interest in the Marxist or neo-Marxist background of the current phase of revo­lutionary activity in the West, and this is reflected in the current lists of enterprising publishers. But the anarchist background should be
brought into focus as well, and it would be good to see books about anarchism on sale in this country which were produced by anarchists. We certainly have some lessons to learn from the French about propaganda as well as about insurrection.

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  1. Guérin was born in 1904, and during the 1930s was a leader of the “Revo­lutionary Left” in the Socialist Party and, when it was expelled, of the “Workers and Peasants Socialist Party”, a Troskyoid group which collapsed after the fall of France. He was an important Marxist writer of a more or less Trotskyist variety—on the French Revolution, Fascism, colonialism and racialism—but for a time he attempted a synthesis between Marxism and anarchism, and he finally turned to a syndicalist form of anarchism. He is also a well-known poet and dramatist, and was one of the “121” who signed the famous manifesto against the Algerian war in 1960.
  2. Special mention should be made of the beautiful design of the book by G. Nataf (based on the ingenious use of sans-serif Helvetica type in a variety of sizes and measures) and of the fine printing by Ganguin and Laubscher of Montreaux, Switzerland. There are incidentally fifteen pages of well chosen illustrations, mostly portraits of anarchist leaders.
  3. A translation of The False Principles of Our Education (1842) has recently been published in the United States—see the review by S. E. Parker in anarchy 92and it is included in the paperback edition of Max Stirner’s works which has just appeared in Germany—Der Einzige und sien Eigentum, und andere Schriften, edited by Hans G. Helms, and published by Carl Hanser, Munich, at 7.80 Dm.
  4. The only survivor of the 35 signatories is Lilian Wolfe, who at the age of 93 is still active at the Freedom Press.
  5. A useful summary of Guérin’s views in English is given in G. N. Charlton’s translation of a 1966 interview, which was published in freedom on September 30, 1967.