Why Social Studies Never Made Sense in School: The History of Anarchism

No Gods No Masters: The History of Anarchism – Part 1

Icarus Films (2017)

Film Review

This three-part documentary series provides an eye opening look into the history of anarchism and its pivotal role in the development in the development of Marxism, communism and the trade union movement. The powers that be would have you believe that Karl Marx simply dreamed communism up sitting on his lonesome in the British Library.

Part 1 covers the period 1840, when Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (the father of anarchism) published What is Property, to 1906. Like socialism, anarchism grew directly out of the abject misery (eg starvation, malnutrition, epidemics, workplace injuries, alcoholism, etc) of early industrial capitalism. When French scholar and activist Jean-Pierre Proudhon first declared himself an “anarchist” in 1840, the life expectancy of an industrial worker was 30 years.

I was previously unaware that the global anarchist movement organized the First International (aka The First International Workingmen’s Association) in 1964. In fact, anarchists comprised the vast majority of the First International before Karl Marx and his Russian follower Mikhail Bakunin conspired to expel  them. The anarchists, who disagreed with the call by Marx and Bakunin for a centrally run revolutionary political party, subsequently formed the Anarchist International Workingmen’s Association.

Prior to watching this film, I was also unaware that the anarchist movement initially came up with the strategy of the general strike, nor that it was first tried in the US. On May 1 1886, 340,00 workers came out on strike to demand an 8 hour day. The violent police reaction (and extreme government corruption it exposed) led to extreme disillusionment with the notion of worker organizing as a route to reform. The result was a brief period  “propaganda of the deed”* activism in which a handful of anarchists tried to trigger mass insurrections though a series of bombings and assassinations of world political leaders (including US President William McKinley and Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand**).

With the turn of the century, international anarchist groups abandoned violence (which Proudhon had expressly opposed) to return to trade union organizing. This would give birth to “anarchosyndicalism”***, which promotes the general strike as the principal means of accomplishing revolutionary change nonviolently.

Their efforts would bear fruit in 1905-06, with political revolutions in Russia and Persia, and mass insurrections in France, Germany, Britain, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Chile, India, Japan, Mongolia.

1905 would see the formation of the International Workers of the World (IWW), the first anarchosyndicalist movement in the US.


*”Propaganda of the deed,” refers to violent direct action meant to serve as an example for other oppressed peoples and a catalyst for revolution.

**This assassination of the heir to the Austrian Hungarian throne would be used as a pretext for the launch of World War I, when Serbia rejected an ultimatum by the Austro-Hungarian government to extradite one of the Serbian assassins.

***Anarcho-syndicalism is a theory of anarchism that views revolutionary industrial unionism or syndicalism as a method for workers in capitalist society to gain control of the economy and, with that control, influence broader society.

 

A History of British Anarchism

slow burning fuse

The Slow Burning Fuse: the Lost History of British Anarchists

by John Quail

Granada Publishing (1978)

A number of chapters are available free on-line at Libcom.org

Book Review

The Slow Burning Fuse is the first (and only?) textbook of British anarchism, a social movement that’s virtually invisible in mainstream British history books.

According to Quail, anarchism evolved out of the 1830-48 European revolutions.* He describes it as a reaction to the ease with which electoral reform and democratic socialism snuffed out popular desire for genuine revolution. Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin were the primary architects of anarchist thought.

Although British anarchism never became the mass movement it did in France and Spain, it had a major influence on the British trade union movement and British socialism.

In the UK, anarchism grew out of the Chartist** and Radical*** clubs and their demands for an end to the aristocracy and the privilege of unearned income (enjoyed by the royal family and Church of England clergy), abolition of the House of Lords, home rule for Ireland and nationalization of major industries. The most vocal proponents were German, French and Russian refugees who fled to Britain (as Karl Marx did) following the passage of antisocialism legislation in their native countries. For many years, all German revolutionary and anarchist literature was produced in London.

British anarchism reached high points during significant periods of working class unrest (1889-94 and 1910-19). Its influence declined after 1920 for four main reasons:

1) Police infiltration and false flag events (the British police appear to be responsible for most of the major bombings attributed to British anarchists).
2) The incorporation of anarchist supporters into the fledgling Labour Party (aka Socialist Labour Party) which first assumed power in 1924
3) The absorption of anarchist supporters into the British communist party following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. News of Lenin’s brutal treatment of Russian anarchists was very slow to reach the UK. Initially most British anarchists jubilantly supported the Bolshevik Revolution.

In their heyday, British anarchists boasted an active membership (ie participating in street protests) of 4,000, although 7,000-8,000 subscribers bought their newspapers and magazines.

In the early twentieth century, members of the anarchist movement collaborated with socialists, suffragettes and trade union syndicalists in staging major strikes and mass

Anarchism experienced a brief resurgence during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and campaigned for British volunteers to join the International Brigades fighting Franco’s fascist coup.


*1830 revolutions

  • France
  • Belgium
  • Netherlands
  • Poland
  • Switzerland

1849 revolutions

  • Italy
  • France
  • Germany
  • Hungary
  • Galicia (Ukraine)
  • Switzerland
  • Poland
  • Ireland
  • Danubian principalities (Romania)
  • Schleswig (Denmark)

**Chartism was a working class movement between 1836 and 1848 with a principal aim of gaining political rights and influence for the working class.
***The Radicals were a parliamentary political grouping in the UK who helped to transform the Whigs into the Liberal Party