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(en) Britain, Anarchist Federation, Organise! #79 - Saint-Imier Snapshots: Thoughts from a Younger Comrade + The Legacy of Saint-Imier

Date Sat, 01 Dec 2012 17:55:25 +0200


Though I’ve been involved with my local AF group for the past four years, I suppose at 22 I'm on the young-ish side of the age spectrum. For me, going to the Saint-Imier gathering was an exciting opportunity to connect with comrades from all over the world and to situate what we’re doing now in a global and historical context. ---- Sometimes it can be difficult to step outside of everyday life, to connect your individual problems and struggles to those of others. ---- Sometimes it's hard to not become consumed by the drudgery of work or the anxiety and frustration of sitting in the Jobcentre. For me, one of the things that keeps me going is the strength and support of friends and comrades. When we organise together on a local, national, or international level, it feels powerful.

The thing that defined Saint-Imier
most for me was possibility. The
possibility of getting organised
in increasingly effective ways, of
simultaneously developing our
theory and our practice, of tak-
ing what we're already doing and
making it better. There were of
course a number of problems
with the event, some serious and
endemic, but I hope those are
things that we can learn from.

We've come a long way in 140
years and the thing that excites
me most is how much further
we're going to go.

--------------------------------

The Legacy of Saint-Imier

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 envisag-
ing a better future for humankind
entails us becoming lost in uto-
pian dreams. Anarchists should
certainly not feel embarrassed in
celebrating the achievements of
an earlier generation of libertar-
ian socialists - not as historical cu-
riosities but as a source of inspira-
tion and ideas. Here I wish simply
to offer some reflections on the
kind of anarchism, or revolution-
ary socialism, that emerged from
the political struggles of members
of the First International, around
1870.

As a political philosophy, anar-
chism has had perhaps the worst
press. It has been ignored, ma-
ligned, ridiculed, abused, misun-
derstood and misinterpreted by
writers from all sides of the politi-
cal spectrum: Marxists, demo-
crats, conservatives and liberals.
Theodore Roosevelt, the Ameri-
can president, famously described
anarchism as a “crime against the
whole human race” and in com-
mon parlance anarchy is invari-
ably linked with disorder, violence
and nihilism. A clear understand-
ing of anarchism is further in-
hibited 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 Proud-
hon, Bakunin and Goldman, have
all been described as anarchists.
This has led Marxist critics, such
as John Molyneux, to dismiss “an-
archism” as a completely incoher-
ent 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 move-
ment 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 Associa-
tion. 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 fac-
tions within the socialist move-
ment, 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-authori-
tarian socialists”, but they came
to adopt the label of their Marxist
opponents, and describe them-
selves as “anarchist communists”.
As a political movement and
tradition anarchism thus emerged
among workers of Spain, France,
Italy and Switzerland in the after-
math 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 revo-
lutionary/ 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 strands of anar-
chism, but anarchist-communism
was certainly the dominant ten-
dency. 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 Gen-
eral Section of the ~First Indusr-
trial 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 slav-
ery and brutality’.

The tendency of Marxists aca-
demic philosophers and Stirnerite
individualists (or egoists) to make
a radical dichotomy between
anarchism and socialism is there-
fore, in both conceptual and his-
torical 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 Internation-
al, 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 in-
hibit the liberty of the individual,
viewed, of course, as a social
being, not as a disembodied ego,
or some abstract possessive indi-
vidual, 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 “de-
struction of all political power”.
Secondly, the complete repudia-
tion of the capitalist market econ-
omy, along with its wage system,
private property, its competitive
ethos, and the ideology of pos-
sessive 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 an-
archists thus believed in volun-
tary 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 “socie-
ties without government”.

Fourthly, the early anarchists,
like the Marxists, embraced the
radical aspects of the Enlight-
enment - a stress on the im-
portance 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 uni-
versal human values as liberty,
solidarity and equality. Anarchism
was thus a form of ethical social-
ism.

As revolutionary socialism or an-
archism 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 individual-
ism or egoism, and Marxism.

Although Kropotkin and the
class struggle anarchists always
acknowledged that Proudhon
expressed libertarian sentiments,
and was a pioneer and an inspira-
tion in the development of anar-
chism, they were always critical of
the radical tradition that became
known as Mutualism. Embraced
by many American individual-
ist anarchists, such as Warren,
Spooner and Tucker, this tradition
affirmed the market economy,
private property and petty-com-
modity production - all of which
were rejected by the anarchist
communists.

They were equally critical of the
kind of radical individualism (ego-
ism) 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 incep-
tion, 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 “Com-
munist Manifesto” (1846) Marx
and Engels emphasized that the
communist party was to organ-
ize the working class, in order to
achieve “the conquest of politi-
cal power”.

This would entail the establish-
ment of a “workers state” or “
the dictatorship of the proletari-
at” in which all forms of produc-
tion (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 an-
archist 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 anar-
chists advocated “direct action”.
This was expressed through insur-
rectionism, anarcho-syndicalism
or community-based politics.
In recent years class struggle an-
archism, as advocated and prac-
tised by an earlier generation of
communist anarchists, has been
declared “obsolete”, or “outmod-
ed”, or dismissed as “leftism” by
contemporary anarchists, mostly
by those ensconced in the acad-
emy. At the end of the twenti-
eth century, we are informed, a
“new” anarchism has emerged,
a “post-left anarchy”. It seems to
consist of a rather esoteric pas-
tiche of several political tenden-
cies; namely, anarcho-primitivism,
the anarcho-capitalism of Roth-
bard and Ayn Rand, the “po-
etic 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 gen-
eration of anarchists supported
modernity or modernism is quite
perverse. For the “old” anarchists,
the libertarian socialists, com-
pletely repudiated three of the
key components of so-called “mo-
dernity” - 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 anar-
chist 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.
_________________________________________
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