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(en) Britain, Organise* #64 - Writers for anarchism

Date Fri, 08 Jul 2005 07:01:40 +0300

The man of letters: Octave Mirbeau
At the end of the 19th Century, many French
writers were attracted to anarchism. Some
of them were fascinated by the bomb
attacks of Ravachol and Emile Henry and
wanted to write a book that would be a
literary bomb, destroying the foundations of
religion, the family and the nation state. For
example, the Symbolists celebrated "free
verse" as "anarchist verse". Many, after
achieving fame, abandoned any notion of
One who did not was Octave Mirbeau. For
him, anarchism was not a fashionable
phase, or part of a misspent youth. He
discovered the ideas of Proudhon and
Kropotkin quite late in life after having been
a writer for Bonapartist and anti-Semitic
newspapers. From 1883 he began to
change tack, editing Les Grimaces, a biting
satirical journal. From 1885, he began to
adopt more and more openly anarchist
positions. He regularly supported the work
of the anarchist-communist Jean Grave. He
was one of his best defenders in print,
following Grave's trial over his work, The
Dying Society and Anarchy. He gave
financial aid to anarchists in difficulty. He
used his position as an influential writer to
popularise the ideas of anarchism. He wrote
"The Strike of the Voters" in the daily paper
Figaro, where he called for abstention at the
ballot box.
He explained the actions of Ravachol,
pointing to the social reasons for them,
whilst underlining their political limitations.
At the same time, he helped out struggling
writers like the clothing worker Marguerite
Audoux, Neel Doff and Charles Vildrac.
During the Dreyfus Affair he was extremely
active, organising many meetings in Paris
and throughout France, never retreating
before the threats of the anti-Dreyfusards. In
these actions he certainly made up for his
previous life writing for anti-Semitic papers.
For Mirbeau, anarchism did not just mean
revolutionising literature, but giving himself,
his time and his money to it. He was the
main financial supporter of the anarchist
newspaper Les Temps Nouveaux.
His works were the reflection of his
anarchist commitment. Many of his works
describe deprived lives, the absurdities of
bureaucracy and the corruption of power.
L'Abbe Jules and Sebastien Roch were two
extremely anti-clerical novels. The Diary of a
Chambermaid is not just the tale of the
corruption of the upper classes but of the
rise to power of an anti-Semite. Luis Bunuel,
the Spanish filmmaker understood this, and
in his film of Mirbeau's novel, he shows how
the rise of fascism is linked to the ideas and
values of the ruling class.
Mirbeau's most notorious novel The Torture
Garden is often dismissed as nothing more
than a decadent novel of sado-masochism.
In fact this misunderstands its political
message. Its dedication, "To priests,
soldiers, judges, men who educate, lead and
govern men, I dedicate these pages of
Murder and Blood" gives the game away.
Why are certain crimes illegal and not
others? Mirbeau lists industry, colonial
commerce, war, hunting and anti-Semitism
as legal forms of murder.
Mirbeau often deals with power in his books.
Not just how it is exercised over the
individual but how it is internalised and how
those who govern us use it. A passionate
writer, he was one of those rare individuals
who were able to reconcile social
commitment with a total freedom of

The activist writer: Ernestan

Ernestan was the pen name of Ernest Tanrez
(1898-1954) who came from a middle class
family, with a French speaking father and a
Flemish mother. Deeply effected by the
slaughter of the First World War, from 1921
he began writing for the Belgian libertarian
press, for Bulletin Libertaire and
l'Emancipateur and then for the
international anarchist press (le Libertaire,
Combat Syndicaliste, CNT). He also
published several pamphlets like Socialism
Against Authority and the Libertarian
Socialist Manifesto. To support the Spanish
Revolution, he started a paper Rebellion. In
1940, taking refuge in France from the Nazi
invasion, he was denounced to the Vichy
government and spent 3 months in the
concentration camp at Vernet. Freed from
there, he returned to Belgium. There, he
was arrested by the Gestapo as a supporter
of the Communist Party (a joke, but a very
unpleasant one) and interned. His
imprisonment had a terrible effect on his
health and he emerged physically
After the war he continued with his
conferences where he explained his
libertarian ideas and his collaboration with
the anarchist press, writing for Volonta, the
Italian paper and for Pensee et Action
(Thought and Action) a review published in
Brussels. His last pamphlet was the Value
of Liberty, and the one before that was You
Are An Anarchist. In this pamphlet, Ernestan
uses the technique developed by the Italian
anarchist Malatesta in which a conversation
takes place between two people. Here, an
anarchist, Francois meets an acquaintance,
Pierre, who is vaguely socialist and out on
strike. Francois talks about the great
socialist ideas: anarchism is not
disorganisation it IS organisation and free
association, Leninism is the dictatorship of a
minority, there can be no socialism without
liberty. Little by little, Pierre is convinced
and ends up feeling more anarchist and
revolutionar y than Francoise!

*Organise is the magazine of the Anarchist Federation.
It is published twice times a year to promote discussion
and the development of anarchist communist theory.

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