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(en) Australia, Rebel Worker Vol.23 No.1 (184) April-May 2004 - Review of A History of the French Anarchist Movement 1917-1945 - by David Berry

From Jura Books <a-infos-@chaos.apana.org.au>
Date Sat, 17 Apr 2004 10:37:08 +0200 (CEST)

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A pervasive manifestation of the panorama of the contemporary global
employer offensive is the phenomena of employers and their state
apparatuses constant taking the initiative in the class struggle via
the ever tightening web of restrictive industrial legislation, the rapid
pace of the restructuring of work processes to create new industrially
in-experienced and atomised workforces and the launching of new speed
up waves to raise productivity and paralyse grass roots militant
Concurrently most of contemporary international anarchism has displayed
an inability amongst its diverse groupings to develop and implement
strategies involving adopting long term programs of work in industries
of strategic importance in their respective countries to check this
offensive. A key step leading down the track to the eventual
establishment of the structures of alternative direct action oriented
labour movements.
Instead, many of these groups are either absorbed in chasing after
anti-globalist spectacles or involvement in campaigns in a kaleidoscope
of often exotic single issues or aimless industrial activism –
responding to perceived opportunities rather than taking action inspired
by strategic insight
The importance of the book under review is the light it throws on the
chief causes of this parlous state of contemporary international
anarchism through examining a critical transitional phase in the history
of international anarchism in one key country. A phase when anarchism
became accommodated with the left subculture of party/sect building in
an unsuccessful attempt to rival its opponents on the Left for control
of the French Labour movement Two momentous and explosive events in
the history of the 20th Century – the Russian Revolution of 1917-21 and
the Spanish Revolution and Civil War of 1936-39 which sparked major
crises in the French Anarchist Movement are particularly focused upon in
this volume.
In discussing the context in which the movement of this period emerged,
the author fails to adequately explain the reasons for the sharp
diverging of the C.G.T. (General Confederation of Labour) leadership
away from the traditional syndicalist stance of anti-militarism and
commitment to the revolutionary project. As graphically highlighted with
its support of the French State and ruling class war effort following
the outbreak of World War One. The author neglects to provide an
account of the campaigns of the revolutionary minority in various key
CGT union affiliates against domination by the “reformist tendency”
which avoided direct action and sought to improve workers situation
within the capitalist set up - lacking a revolutionary perspective.
The author proceeds to examine the impact of the Russian Revolution on
French anarchism. He shows how widespread enthusiasm for the Russian
Revolution and the mushrooming of “soviets” or councils - political
assemblies based on workplaces, neighbourhoods and military units in
Russia, inspired the emergence of a new political current in France and
elsewhere – “Sovietism” and its interpretation by many as “Council
Anarchism”. This new current proved to have unrealistic objectives –
forming a new revolutionary bloc uniting all anti-capitalist forces to
affiliate with the Comintern (international communist party
organisation) and carry out a social revolution in France.
Particularly, the post WWI strike wave failed to generalise into an
insurrectionary General Strike and different Left factions failed to unite.
The author does a particularly thorough job discussing the multiplicity
of “Communist Parties/Federations” and their publications which emerged
largely from the French anarchist movement in the post WWI period. He
shows how these groupings emphasised the ultra democratic nature of the
soviets in their early days. However, lacking the “Communist Party”
franchise from Moscow which was obtained by a split from the French
Socialist Party, and the re-emergence of explicit anarchist groupings
and publications, these formations dissolved.
The author sketches how this turbulence on the political scale was
reflected on the industrial front in the French labour movement, with
the eruption of a disastrous splitting process affecting the largest
union confederation – the General Confederation of Labour (C.G.T.) It
focused upon a clash between different tendencies – the social
democratic current associated with senior officials of the C.G.T, known
as the “reformists” who had swerved from the revolutionary syndicalist
path toward brazen collaboration in the French ruling class war effort
during WWI, and an opposition movement composed of anarcho-syndicalists
and extreme socialists/Leninists. The upshot of this struggle, the
author shows to be considerable disarray amongst anarchist forces in the
labour movement characterised by its marginalisation and the rise in
influence of the Moscow oriented French Communist Party with its seizure
of power in the C.G.T.U. (General Confederation of Labour United), the
major split off from the C.G.T.
Similar processes occurred internationally at this time, associated with
the rise in influence of the new phenomena of Communist Parties, with an
increasing Stalinist orientation and a renewed employer offensive . In
France and elsewhere the author argues that the emergence of this new
force led to a generalised crisis and decline in morale within the
anarchist movement. This demoralisation was characterised by a retreat
into a range of “lifestyle” issues, and a lack of focus on the class
struggle. He sees the period of 1924-34 particularly characterised by
this malady. To overcome this crisis, there was a move in anarchist
circles to devise a more efficient organisation to compete with this new
virile phenomena of French Stalinism in various arenas.
The author shows how the anarchist exile community in France,
particularly the Russian anarchist exile groups played a critical role
in the debate for forging an “anarchist vanguard” which would unite all
anarchist forces. Such an organisational formula was provided by the
“Arshinov Program” devised by the Dielo Trouda Group, which encouraged
concepts of “collective responsibility”, a strong emphasis on building a
cell structure, membership recruitment and “tactical unity” to out
complete the Communist Party. It was criticised by a “syntheticist
tendency” which favoured multi-tendency anarchist federations with
looser membership requirements.
The author goes on to show that the upshot of this debate was a push to
restructure the existing organised anarchist movement in France along
“Arshinov Program” lines which led to the transformation of the UA
(anarchist union) into the Revolutionary Anarchist Communist Union
(U.A.C.R.) which lasted from 1927-30. Subsequently, the U.A.C.R. became
again the U.A. with its official adoption of a syntheticist approach.
However, according to the author, many key personnel who were Arshinov
Program enthusiasts remained in the organisation. They played a critical
role in the next phase of large scale anarchist activity - the building
of a revolutionary grassroots “anti-fascist front” (to compete with the
bureaucratic “Popular Front” of the French Socialist, Radical and
Communist parties), associated with involvement in the strike
wave/factory occupations of 1936 and support for revolutionary forces
during the Spanish Revolution and Civil War, particularly the
anarcho-syndicalist C.N.T.-F.A.I. (National Confederation of Labour –
Iberian Anarchist Federation ).
The author provides ample evidence of the growth in membership of the
largest anarchist grouping - the U.A. and other smaller anarchist
groupings during the mid thirties. He also shows that several important
U.A. and C.G.T.S.R. (General Confederation of Labour Syndicalist
Revolutionary) (an anarchist inspired split from the C.G.T.U. in 1926)
militants got elected to important positions in C.G.T. unions and set
up new C.G.T.S.R. affiliates, during the June 1936 strike wave. Whilst
the author shows dramatic surges during this period in the print runs of
publications such as a special 1937 May Day edition of the U.A.’s “le
Libertaire” of 100,000 copies and regular weekly print run of 38,000,
enormous book and pamphlet publishing activity and a general “higher
public profile” of anarchist grouping activity, he recognises that the
anarchist movement in France during the period under review was
ultimately a failure.
This failure particularly consisted of its inability to assist the
extension of the revolutionary wave from Spain to France and other
parts of Europe. The author shows that the C.N.T.-F.A.I. had some
particularly apposite ideas regarding how this revolutionary wave
might spread and how the revolutionary forces in Spain would be
assisted - via the establishment of workers control of transport and
armaments industries in France and workers directly supplying the
revolutionary forces in Spain with weaponry. Given the apparent absence
of any industrial strategy focusing on such strategic industries
amongst French anarchist groupings and an unsuccessful attempt to have
the UA adopt a policy supporting the formation of factory committees
“to disseminate anarchist ideas, encourage direct action and foster the
formation of revolutionary militias”, which was initiated by some UA
members following the reunification of the CGT and CGTU in Mar.1936, and
the continuing predominant influence of the “reformists” and Stalinists
in much of the French labour movement, the basis did not exist for any
likelihood of realising the workers control/direct action measures
advocated by the CNT-FAI.
Certainly, anarchist groupings were unable to assist the initiation of a
direct action movement in industry similar to the campaign for the 8
hour day inspired by revolutionary syndicalist forces in the C.G.T.
before WWI. According to the author, in place of such activity, the U.A.
via various committees and organisations such as CEL (Comite pour
l’Espagne Libre) and SIA (Solidarite internationale antifasciste) the
largest anarchist grouping was drawn into ineffectual measures such as
regular solidarity/information meetings/rallies on the Spanish
Revolution throughout much of France, the small scale provision of
soldiers, supplies and munitions for the revolutionary forces in Spain.
This activity is similar in its ineffectiveness to the mass
rallies/marches held in Australia and elsewhere to oppose the recent US
and its allies invasion of Iraq in 2003 which proved useless in
achieving their objective. The type of action which would have paralysed
or precluded the invasion such as internationally coordinated direct
action by workers in strategic sectors was not forthcoming.
The author emphasises the absence of “tighter organisation” as a major
contribution amongst others for the failure of the French anarchist
forces to take better advantage of the more favourable circumstances of
the mid 1930’s. However, without a revolutionary strategy, and the
critical “invisible” well coordinated, long range industrial organising
in strategic sectors, the establishment of an alternative revolutionary
labour movement and major direct action/workers’ control campaigns was
highly unlikely. In this way anarchist groupings would act as a catalyst
for workers self organisation, rather than focusing on the
propagandising, single issue campaigning and “membership recruiting” of
With the lead up to and outbreak of WWII and the defeat of the Spanish
Revolution and a rising wave of state repression, the author sketches
the decline in morale and disintegration of the major anarchist
groupings. He goes on to do a good job dispelling various myths
regarding the supposed inactivity of anarchist groupings during WWII and
the Nazi occupation of France and their moves toward reorganisation.
In conclusion, the author certainly has done an excellent job in his
research concerning French anarchism in the period under discussion,
providing many new details. However, the author, like those French
anarchists who sought to compete with the Communist Party is to a degree
hypnotised by the mystique of “organisation”. When the more relevant
issue of “strategy” and the associated development of a scientific
climate of debate/research, is neglected in regard to his discussion
of the chief problems of French anarchism and revolutionary
syndicalism in the period of 1917-1945.
Mark McGuire
From "Rebel Worker" Vol.23 No.1 (184) April -May 2004, Paper of the
Anarcho-Syndicalist Network, Subscriptions: $12 pa in Australia,
and $25 airmail pa overseas. Address PO Box 92 Broadway 2007 NSW
A History of the French Anarchist Movement 1917-1945 by David Berry,
Greenwood Press.

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