Through a glass darkly – 38

Sometimes I think that if I weren’t a Church of England vicar [retired], I’d be an anarchist. Not of the balaclava-wearing, window-smashing kind. And certainly not of the gun-toting, Trump-supporting, libertarian kind. But I can certainly believe in a society where power is devolved to the local level; where, in the absence of multinational companies, a man’s products are directly exchanged for what he needs; and where relationships are organised, not in terms of social media, but  in small units such as the workshop and the family. Plus blustering Boris and his cronies would be out of a job.

POUM militia

George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia was the first I’d ever heard of the Spanish Civil War, and I’ve always had a soft spot for photos of the POUM militia setting off for the front. So, after reading his book on The Second International, I’ve been reading James Joll’s book on The Anarchists. It was published by Eyre and Spottiswoode in 1964, and the dust cover of my copy has half-tone photos of William Godwin, Pierre Joseph Proudhon, Kropotkin, Michael Bakunin, Federica Montseny, and Emma Goldman. Anarchist legends. None of whom are smiling.

Joll: The Anarchists

You are miserable isolated individuals. You are bankrupt … Go where you belong , to the dustbin of history”. Thus Trotsky’s denunciation of his Menshevik opponents in October 1917. This is how Marxists look at history; the revolutions which failed are blind alleys. The anarchist movement was a product of the 19th century. The anarchists tried to destroy the increasingly powerful, centralised, industrial state. The anarchists combined a belief in the sudden, violent transformation of society with a belief in the reasonableness of men and the possibility of human perfection.

Joll notes that there have always been movements against established authority; and that these movements generally arose in times of rapid social and economic change. For example, he points to Thomas Müntzer, an ex-priest, who became a revolutionary leader in 1525, the year of the Peasants’ Revolt; and to the Anabaptists, who proclaimed a revolutionary republic in Munster in 1533-35.

Anarchism was also influenced by the Enlightenment; a belief in man’s reasonable nature, and a belief in the possibility of intellectual and moral progress. Anarchism contains an internal clash; between the religious and the rational temperaments, the apocalyptic and the humanist. 

Eighteenth century thinkers who were precursors of the anarchists include Rousseau with his belief in the Noble Savage. Man is inherently good, but is corrupted by institutions. Thus William Godwin [b.1756], who believed that justice and happiness are indissolubly linked. Property is a fundamental cause of discontent and of crime. Therefore property should be abolished. “I am bold and adventurous in opinions, but not in life”, said Godwin.  He was accused of treason by Pitt’s government. But his views had little impact. “Godwin remains an admirable example of the philosophical anarchist, a reminder of what anarchism owes to the Enlightenment”.


Pierre- Joseph Proudhon [b.1809] is the first and most important anarchist philosopher. He was from a lower middle-class family in Besancon; apprenticed to a printer and entirely self-educated. All his life he was an unremitting propagandist and a tireless critic of the existing society. Proudhon envisaged a society in which a man’s products would be directly exchanged for the goods that he needed. Government would be needed only to usher in the new society. Society would be based on small units, the workshop and the family. “To be governed is to be watched over, inspected, spied on, directed, legislated at, regulated … … by men who have neither the right nor the knowledge nor the virtue.”

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Proudhon was not blind to the weaknesses of the workers. He believed in the need for moral reform within each individual. Which brought him nearer to a belief in God than most anarchists. He thought that society might be transformed by peaceful means, and feared that revolution would create a new tyranny. The experience of 1848 left him disillusioned and in deep gloom. He became a fierce critic of the dictatorship of Louis-Napoleon.

Differences between Proudhon and Marx, then a struggling German journalist, anticipated the divergence of thought between the French and German working-class movements. Marx was a better economist and a better philosopher. Proudhon a better phrase-maker; e.g. ‘Property is theft’.

When the First International was founded in London in 1864, the French delegates at the meeting were disciples of Proudhon. But they found themselves at odds with the centralised discipline that Marx was seeking to impose. This tension was reflected later in differences between the French and German working-class movements at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Bakunin and the Great Schism

If Proudhon provided most of the ideas that inspired the anarchist movement, .Bakunin provided an example of anarchist fervour in action. Born in 1814 into the Russian provincial nobility, Bakunin came to Paris in 1840. His thinking was neither subtle nor original; but he expressed himself through acts of conspiracy and revolt. His belief in the revolutionary potential of those who have nothing to lose is strikingly different from Proudhon’s ideal of the self-educated, self-improving peasant. All his life he saw himself as a great conspirator; at the centre of a web of clandestine organisations. From 1851 to 1857 he was in prison in Russia. In 1857 he was banished to Siberia, from where he escaped in 1861. 

Michael Bakunin

Bakunin learnt terrorism from the younger revolutionary Sergei Nechaev, a fellow Russian who had escaped from prison to Geneva. From Nechaev Bakunin learnt the doctrine of le propagande par le fait, which was central to anarchism for the next 30 years. Bakunin was involved in working-class politics in Switzerland, while maintaining contact with revolutionaries in Russia, Italy, and Spain. He shared a friendship with Garibaldi. Like Marx [and unlike Proudhon] he was a convinced  materialist. His founding of a group called the International Social-Democratic Alliance was viewed with great suspicion by Marx and Engels. Who sought to destroy his influence in the International.

Marx advocated state communism based on a centralised, disciplined party. Which was anathema to Bakunin who envisaged a free association of independent communes. “I detest communism”, said Bakunin, “because it is the negation of liberty, and because I can conceive of nothing human without liberty”. And again: “The communists believe that they must organise the working -class forces to seize political power in states. Revolutionary socialists organise in order to … liquidate states”. As Joll comments, communists have owed their effectiveness to their ruthless discipline; while revolutionaries, such as the anarchists in the Spanish Civil War, have failed to survive.

Terrorism and Propaganda by the Deed

The Paris Commune left its mark on European politics for thirty years. For the revolutionaries it was yet another revolution that had failed. In industrial  northern Europe the workers began to look increasingly to well-organised political parties or disciplined trade unions. But in the more backward countries, such as Italy and Spain, the belief in direct action never died.

In Italy the doctrines of Bakunin were always more popular than those of Marx. In Italy they developed the idea of ‘propaganda by the deed’.  In 1878 there was an attempt to assassinate King Victor Emanuel II. Within a few months of similar attempts to assassinate the German emperor and the king of Spain. There were frequent attacks on prominent people between 1880 and 1914. The anarchist movement existed on two distinct levels: leaders such as Kropokin and Malatesta, who produced pamphlets and philosophical works; and small groups determined to carry out acts of violence. When in 1894 President Sadi Carnot was stabbed to death in Lyon, by a young Italian anarchist, the climax of a series of terrorist attacks, the police were finally obliged to take action against everyone who was suspected of anarchist views.

It was during these years when ‘propaganda by the deed’ was making anarchism notorious as a creed of revolutionary action that the thinkers of the movement were trying, not wholly successfully, to turn it into a respectable political philosophy”.  [Joll]


One of the most influential thinkers in the closing decades of the century was Peter Kropotkin, a Russian anarchist who settled in England in 1886. He was a respected and much-loved figure; a friend of William Morris; and of trade union leaders like Ben Tillett andTom Mann. Kropotkin had seen in Russia that revolution involved violence and terror, both of which he intensely disliked. For Kropotkin primitive society meant, not Hobbesian conflict, but an innate sense of co-operation and mutual aid if men were left uncorrupted by government. Again and again in his writings he comes back to Darwin’s example of the blind pelican whom his comrades kept supplied with fish.

For Kropotkin what was needed to put into practice a morality without obligation or sanctions was a new economic order, which would allow man’s good instincts to flourish. To achieve this goal a revolution was necessary to produce what Kropotkin called ‘anarchist communism’. In this new order, there would be no private ownership; everything would be freely available to him who needed it. Curiously he saw the British Life-Boat Association as a model society.

The Revolution that Failed

The Russian Revolution, like 1789 or 1848 or 1871, left the anarchists disappointed and disillusioned. Kropotkin was a fierce critic of Lenin: “At the present moment the Russian revolution … is perpetrating horrors. It is ruining the whole country  `It is annihilating human lives.” In 1917 the anarchists were divided among themselves; and powerless against the bolsheviks. “Liberty”, said Lenin, “is a luxury not to be permitted at the present stage of development.”

The Russian Revoution, 1917

Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman arrived in Russia in 1919, after being deported from the United States. They were shocked at the imprisonment of so many Russian anarchists, and at the refusal of new government to release anarchists to attend Kropotkin’s funeral in 1922. Berkman noted: “Dictatorship is trampling the masses underfoot. The revolution is dead, its spirit cries in the wilderness.” Such criticism estranged them from many associates on the left.

Anarchists in Action: Spain

Anarchism became a mass movement in Spain: because it was a backward country; it had a weak government; there was a huge gap between rich and poor; and there was a rural population living at close to starvation level. In Spain the appeal was primarily to the most depressed people – the landless farm workers and small peasants.

After Franco’s revolt in July 1936 anarchist leaders and the CNT took control of Barcelona. During that summer Catalonia became virtually an independent state. [Andalusia, the traditional home of rural anarchism, had been swiftly conquered by Franco’s troops.] But putting anarchist principles into practice in the middle of a civil war was immensely challenging. The anarchist character of the CNT and FAI columns diminished as the war demanded greater discipline and control. The anarchists agreed to share power with the socialists and the Catalan government, but relations with the socialists and the communists continued to deteriorate. In April 1937 civil war broke out between the anarchist POUM and the communist-led PSUC. When Caballero’s government fell, the new government declared POUM illegal and arrested many anarchist leaders. “The failure of the anarchist revolution, the powerlessness of anarchist ministers, and the threat of repression after the Barcelona fighting, all revealed that the anarchists were as far from realising their dreams as ever.

POUM militiaman


The warnings of anarchists that Marxism would lead to dictatorship and new forms of tyranny have been proved right. But the idea of a ‘morality without obligations or sanctions’ is hugely attractive, as is a society without government or governed; and such ideas will have disciples on every generation. Which I guess is for me the fundamental attraction.

But, as repeated failures culminated in the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War, it became clear that putting anarchist principles, themselves often inconsistent, into action was extremely difficult. Anarchists rejected the conventional political processes, but were unable to envisage an intermediate stage between existing society and the total revolution of their dreams. They [we] know the kind of ideal society to which we aspire. But it is not at all clear how to get there.

February 2021

Published by europhilevicar

I am a retired vicar living on the south side of Edinburgh. I am a historian manqué, I worked in educational publishing for 20 years, and after ordination worked in churches in the Scottish Borders and then in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. I have a lovely and long-suffering wife, two children, and four delightful grand-children

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