Anarchist Counter Culture in Spain

People are often drawn to the study of labour history because they want to understand how to change the world. It is thought that the history of class struggle contains within itself not only a series of events and dates laid out in chronological order but also lessons. Through studying the history of class struggle we can establish with evidence what strategies and tactics work or do not work, why movements grow and why they collapse, what challenges social movements will have to overcome and so on. The necessity of studying history emerges from the fact that socialists cannot run scientific experiments in a laboratory and thereby establish the definitive formula for revolution. We can instead only look at contemporary and previous attempts to achieve socialism in order to try and learn from a vast assortment of victories and defeats. The study of history cannot create a recipe for revolution since no such recipe exists. It can at best establish generalisations which inform our action in the present.

When learning about the past it is easy to focus on major exciting events in which large groups of workers took direct action and in so doing simultaneously transformed the world and themselves. During my research I find myself drawn to narratives about strikes, riots, insurrections, massive civil disobedience campaigns, armed uprisings, and revolutions. Learning about these events is an important part of labour history but to focus exclusively on them leads to a distorted view of the past and how social change happens. Members of historical socialist movements did not spend the majority of their time participating in huge actions which rapidly transformed society and the future course of history. The bulk of their lives as revolutionaries were spent doing much more mundane activities. They produced, distributed and read radical literature, organised and attended picnics, performed in a theatre club, watched a public debate, discussed politics with friends, family and colleagues, attended an endless series of meetings for their affinity group or trade union, wrote and received a vast amount of letters and so on. These small mundane activities can appear to be of little importance when viewed in isolation. Yet when these small activities were repeated day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year by groups of people they took on greater significance.

These small activities produced and reproduced the social relations, capacities, psychological drives and consciousness which were the foundation of social movements. Without these seemingly insignificant acts repeated over and over again, the large exciting moments of rebellion and revolution never would have occurred in most instances or would have occurred on a much smaller scale. Even events which can appear to have come out of nowhere were significantly shaped by the struggles which preceded them. For example, the Paris Commune of 1871 arose unexpectedly in response to a chance event: army soldiers were sent to seize cannons from the national guard in the district of Montmartre and a crowd of protesters went to stop them. Although the founding of the Commune took only a few days, it was the culmination of years, and arguably decades, of class struggle from below. Within Paris this class struggle took various forms, such as massive public meetings, talks and debates attended by thousands of workers, the production and distribution of books, pamphlets and papers, the founding of co-operatives, the organisation of sections of the International Workingmen’s Association, and a wave of strikes, demonstrations and riots (Merriman 2014, 39-45. For a brief summary of preceding struggles see ibid 11-2, 16-7, 25-36).

Anarchists in the 19th and early 20th century understood the significance of small acts being repeated over and over again. They viewed social change as a single process which could be divided into periods of evolution and periods of revolution. During periods of evolution change is slow, gradual and partial. Over time this evolutionary change builds up and culminates in a revolutionary period during which change is rapid, large scale, and fundamentally alters society. Evolutionary change and revolutionary change were not viewed as separate distinct entities. They were instead seen as two aspects of a single process which fed off and flowed into one another (Reclus 2013, 138-40). This idea was usually expressed through water-based metaphors. To give one example, in 1875 Michael Bakunin wrote in a letter to Élisée Reclus that, “[w]e are falling back into a time of evolution – that is to say revolutions that are invisible, subterranean and often imperceptible . . . drops of water, though they may be invisible may go on to form an ocean” (Bakunin 2016, 251-2). Anarchists thought that evolutionary change included a wide spectrum of behaviour. It referred not only to direct action which modifies the dominant structures of class society, such as a strike which wins higher wages in a workplace. It also included transformations driven forward by culture, such as a worker’s understanding of the world being altered through their exposure to a book, poem or song.

The latest research on the history of anarchism has drawn attention to the construction of counter-culture by anarchist movements around the world. This includes, but is not limited to, anarchist movements in Cuba (Shaffer 2019), Argentina (Suriano 2010), Japan (Konishi 2013), England (Di Paola 2017) and the United States (Goyens 2007; Zimmer 2015). For the purposes of this essay I shall focus on the manner in which anarchists in Spain engaged in evolutionary change through the formation of a radical working class counter-culture. It should be kept in mind that identical or similar practices were implemented by anarchists in other countries. Discussions of anarchism in Spain often focus on the National Confederation of Labour (CNT). The CNT is a trade union that was founded in 1910 and adopted an anarcho-syndicalist programme in 1919 at the La Comedia national congress in Madrid, which was attended by 450 delegates representing over 700,000 workers. Despite suffering multiple waves of state repression and being illegal for several years of its existence, the CNT was able to survive and maintain itself over time. By May 1936 the CNT was composed of 982 union sections with a total membership of 550,595 workers. The CNT proceeded to play a key role in the Spanish revolution and civil war of 1936-1939, during which workers created numerous experiments in economic self-management that demonstrated the feasibility of anarchist socialism working at scale (Peirats 2011, 7-10, 93. For details on self-management during the revolution see Leval 2012). The CNT is the largest anarcho-syndicalist trade union in history. To understand how anarchists in Spain were able to construct a mass movement it is necessary to go beyond the examination of strike waves, armed uprisings, the highs and lows of formal organisations, important national congresses, the various debates about strategy and tactics within the movement as a whole and so on. These factors were of course extremely important but they are not the full picture. Another key factor is the manner in which the creation and transmission of culture sustained, reproduced and expanded the anarchist movement in Spain.

The central importance of culture for the development of anarchism in Spain is especially apparent when examining print media. Between 1890 and 1915, 298 periodicals and journals were launched in Spain. Of these 107 were based in Catalonia and 191 were in other regions of Spain, such as Andalusia and Valencia. These papers collectively released 7328 issues, of which 4930 have survived. These papers largely appeared on a weekly, fortnightly or monthly basis. Most periodicals were one sheet of paper which was folded to create four pages. These papers typically featured articles on anarchist theory, commentaries on current events, critiques of the bourgeois and state socialist press, letters and correspondence from members of the movement, and news of the class struggle both within Spain and the wider world. These short periodicals co-existed with a smaller number of journals, which were eight, sixteen or thirty-two pages long. During this period over 700 anarchist books and pamphlets were also published. These covered topics as diverse as geography, history, biology, sociology, political theory, birth control, law, art and literature. Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid sold 20,000 copies in three years and The Conquest of Bread went through eleven editions and had sold 28,000 copies by 1909. Most groups could not afford to publish books due to the printing costs involved and instead focused on the publication of periodicals and pamphlets. Errico Malatesta’s pamphlet Between Peasants was particularly popular and was published in fifteen different editions between 1889 and 1915. The distribution of pamphlets was itself assisted by periodicals. Extracts of a pamphlet would be printed on the third and fourth page of a paper. Over several weeks or months a reader would accumulate the entire pamphlet and then tear out each page, assemble them together, and bind them with string. Anarchists did not limit themselves to non-fiction and also published poems, plays, songs and short stories as sections of periodicals or self-contained pamphlets (Yeoman 2020, 9-11, 41-3).

The majority of anarchist print media was written and edited by workers for free in their spare time after a full day of work. There were a few papers which were run by full time paid staff, such as Solidaridad Obrera from 1916 onwards, but these were in the minority. The manner in which anarchist periodicals were typically produced after work can be seen in the fact that the masthead of El Corsario declared that its office hours were from 7pm to 9pm in the evening. Most famous theorists, such as Anselmo Lorenzo and Ricardo Mella, were not professional writers and worked full time at other occupations. During the early 1930s the anarchist militant José Peirats split his time between working as a manual labourer during the day and writing articles for several important anarchist periodicals in the evening. Peirats was not unique in this respect. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century one of the main sources of content for anarchist papers was the vast number of letters which workers sent to editors and publishing groups. These letters usually contained anarchist theory, stories, poetry, calls for solidarity, news of organising and meetings, and reports of oppressive or scandalous behaviour by capitalists and the police (Yeoman 2020, 43-4, 56, note 33, 248; Esenwein 1989, 127; Ealham 2015, 72-4).

The workers who sent in letters were known as correspondents and played a key role in the day-to-day functioning of anarchist print media. Through writing letters they transmitted information and reflections about a local area to the editors of the paper. The editors of the paper would, if they deemed it worthy, print the letter in the paper and then send copies of the paper to every correspondent they had across the country. These correspondents would then distribute the paper to local workers and collect money for both the publishing costs of the paper and solidarity funds that the paper had set up. These solidarity funds, which were collected at workplaces, meetings, plays, marriages and funerals, provided financial assistance to striking workers, anarchist prisoners, and widows of dead comrades. The anarchist press was therefore constituted by a social network in which, to quote the historian James Yeoman, local correspondents were “the ‘nodes’ through which the anarchist press was channelled into localities, and the thoughts, experiences and money from localities were channelled out to publishers” (Yeoman 2020, 47). The various publishing groups were, in turn, interconnected with one another and would support each other in various ways, such as larger and well established papers announcing the appearance of a new anarchist periodical. These kinds of positive relationships did not of course always occur and on other occasions anarchist periodicals engaged in polemical arguments with one another. During periods when there were no genuinely national formal anarchist organisations, the informal social networks that connected readers, correspondents, editors and publishers functioned as the national organisational structure of the anarchist movement. These social networks also operated at an international level. Larger anarchist papers in Spain would receive correspondence and articles from anarchists around the world and would, in turn, send out copies of their paper to workers in other countries. This was especially the case with countries that had a significant Spanish immigrant population, such as Argentina and Cuba (Yeoman 2020, 43-50, 17-8).

The health of anarchist print culture was a proxy for the health of the movement. During periods of organisational growth the number of periodicals generally expanded, whilst during periods of state repression in which anarchist formal organisations and affinity groups were forced underground the number of periodicals dramatically shrunk. This is not to say that the highs of anarchist print culture always coincided with the expansion of anarchist formal organisations. Between 1898-1906 the number of anarchist periodicals significantly increased but during this same period the anarchist led trade union, the Federation of Resistance Societies of the Spanish Region (FSORE), was seriously weakened by an unsuccessful general strike in 1902. The FSORE continued to decline over the following years until it was dissolved in 1907 (Yeoman 2020, 9-15, 162-3). Nor is the number of periodicals in circulation always an indicator of the health of anarchist print culture. In 1916 the official organ of the CNT, Solidaridad Obrera, became the anarchist movements first successful daily paper. In response to this other anarchist papers decided to close down and encouraged their readers to support Solidaridad Obrera instead. Despite the number of periodicals in circulation decreasing, anarchist print culture was the strongest it had ever been. Solidaridad Obrera published as much content in a month as most anarchist periodicals published in a year. Between 1916 and 1919 Solidaridad Obrera issued around 800 daily editions. A typical anarchist paper between 1890-1915 had, in comparison, a print run of only 20 to 30 issues before it ceased publication due to financial difficulties and/or state repression. The strength of Solidaridad Obrera coincided with the strength of the CNT, which funded the publication of the paper and had almost 800,000 members in 1919. That year the CNT organised a massive general strike in Barcelona which successfully forced the Spanish ruling class to pass legislation granting the eight hour day. The direct action of workers at the point of production was assisted by the pens of Solidaridad Obrera’s writers, who published articles throughout the strike informing readers of the latest news. In response to this strike wave the Spanish state repressed the CNT and banned Solidaridad Obrera (Yeoman 2020, 15, 51, 53, 248-9. For information on the strike see Smith 2007, 292-9).

The amount of time and energy anarchists in Spain devoted to the creation and distribution of print media is understandable given the importance that anarchist theory placed on education. The black American anarchist Lucy Parsons claimed that “Anarchists know that a long period of education” which develops “self-thinking individuals” is a necessary condition for “any great fundamental change in society” (Parsons 2003, 31). Similar remarks can be found in the Spanish anarchist press. In 1902 Mella wrote in La Protesta that “[w]e the anarchists” should “work for the coming revolution with words, with writings and with deeds . . . the press, the book, the private and public meeting are today, as ever, abundant terrain for all initiatives” (Quoted in Yeoman 2020, 40). Anarchist attempts to educate workers through print media faced a significant barrier: during this time period the majority of adults, especially poor people, could not read or write. In 1877 72 percent of the population in Spain were illiterate. This gradually decreased to between 63 and 67 percent in 1900 and 59 percent in 1910 (Bray and Haworth 2019, 7). Anarchists overcame this obstacle through the spoken word. Anarchist periodicals, journals, pamphlets and books were read aloud to groups of workers by the few people who were literate. This would usually be followed by a group discussion about the contents of the paper, pamphlet or book. This practice of collective education occurred at public meetings, smaller private gatherings and even at work. The development of revolutionary consciousness on company time was achieved by groups of workers dividing up tasks such that one worker would recite anarchist literature whilst the others laboured and listened (Esenwein 1989, 129, 132; Yeoman 2020, 46).

This feature of the anarchist movement was commented on by people at the time. The reformist Ramiro de Maeztu claimed in 1901 that,

These books, pamphlets and periodicals are not read in the manner of others . . . the reader of anarchist works—generally a worker—does not have a library, nor buys books for himself. [I have] witnessed the reading of [Kropotkin’s] The Conquest of Bread in a workers’ centre. In a room dimly lit by a candle, up to fourteen workers met every night of the winter. One of them reads laboriously, the others listen . . . (Quoted in Yeoman 2020, 46)

Juan Díaz del Moral made a similar observation during the period of excitement which followed the 1917 Russian revolution. He wrote,

In their work breaks during the day (los cigarros) and at night after the evening meal, the most educated would read aloud pamphlets and newspapers, to which the others would listen attentively. What had been read was followed by corroborating perorations and endless praise. Not everything was understood: there were unknown words; some interpretations were childish, others were malicious, according to the character of the person who expressed them; but ultimately everyone agreed. It could not be any other way! It was the truth that they had felt all their lives, although they had never been able to express it. They read continually; their curiosity and their desire to learn were insatiable. Even on the road, mounted on horseback, with the reins or halters loose, campesinos could be seen reading; there were always some pamphlet in the saddlebag with their food. The number of copies of newspapers that were distributed is incalculable; each person wanted to have his own. It is true that 70-80 percent of them could not read; but this was not an insurmountable obstacle. The dedicated illiterate bought his own newspaper, gave it to a compañero to read to him, and then marked the articles that pleased him most. Later he would ask another comrade to read the article marked, and after a few readings he had committed it to memory and would recite it to those who did not know it (Quoted in Mintz 1994, 120, note 3).

The fact that anarchist articles were routinely spread through the spoken word had a profound effect on how they were written. An article ending with the declaration ‘VIVA ANARCHY! VIVA THE SOCIAL REVOLUTION!’ can appear over the top to a solitary reader. Such sentences make a lot more sense when one imagines a reader shouting these words at a group of workers and those workers shouting the same words back (Yeoman 2020, 46).

To a modern reader the manner in which workers historically absorbed anarchist ideas can appear similar to how contemporary workers educate themselves through listening to podcasts or youtube videos. There are, however, a number of important differences. A modern person generally listens to content alone over the internet. Workers in the 19th and early 20th centuries listened to anarchist print media as a group in a face-to-face gathering. This medium of transmission by itself created a social network of anarchist workers in a specific location. This group of workers could then decide to not only absorb and discuss anarchist theory, but also put theory into practice and take direct action, such as by unionising their workplace or organising a strike. The collective nature of anarchist print media is apparent not only in how it was consumed but also in how it was produced. Periodicals published the thoughts and experiences of correspondents within Spain and the wider world. Through the medium of the printed word the thoughts and experiences from multiple individuals and groups were saved in the pages of the paper. They thereby gained a permanence which existed long after the memories of people were altered, decayed and forgotten due to the passage of time or lost forever with death. Workers who retained complete sets of papers, even after they had ceased publication, had access to the memory of the movement and the class struggles for emancipation which had previously occurred. The hunger for such information can be seen in the fact that editors of papers regularly received letters asking for previous issues so that an anarchist library could offer visitors a complete collection (Yeoman 2020, 53-4).

Anarchists also spread their ideas through lectures, public debates and speaking tours. Some speaking tours were big events in which the most famous anarchist orators and writers gave talks across all of Spain. This included talks given by well known anarchists from abroad, such as Malatesta and Pedro Esteve’s November 1891 to January 1892 speaking tour which was promoted by the anarchist paper El Productor. Other speaking tours were much smaller affairs. In 1892 the Catalan metalworker Ignacio Martín visited the city of Gijón and single handedly spread anarchist ideas across factories, taverns and workers’ centres. Through these speaking tours anarchist orators attempted to simultaneously influence the consciousness of other workers and encourage them to form or join anarchist groups, organise, and take direct action. This can be seen in Malatesta and Esteve’s speaking tour. They travelled across the country giving talks which explained basic anarchist ideas and emphasised the need for organisation and armed insurrection to achieve emancipation. Following their visit new anarchist groups or workers’ associations were formed. In addition to encouraging the formation of new anarchist groups, Malatesta and Esteve also visited prominent anarchist militants wherever they travelled in order to establish or strengthen social networks between anarchist groups throughout Spain. In so doing they aimed to create the organisational basis for future acts of revolt. The dual goal of consciousness raising and organising was typically facilitated through the distribution of posters, pamphlets, and periodicals at talks. This had the effect that speaking tours established a local archive of anarchist literature wherever they travelled. The new collection of print media could then be used by workers to educate themselves further and become more committed to anarchism once the speaking tour had left the area. Since periodicals included an address to send letters to, the distribution of print media also ensured that new local anarchists had a means to communicate with other anarchists and become part of the social networks that constituted the movement. This is not to say that speaking tours were always enormous successes. Their effectiveness was routinely hindered by state repression. For example, one speaking tour, which aimed to persuade proletarians and peasants in Andalusia to join the CNT, was abruptly ended when all the speakers were arrested at the first event (Yeoman 2020, 147-8, 219, 234-5, 246; Turcato 2012, 91-9).

The creation and transmission of anarchist culture was not confined to print media and speaking tours. Anarchists in Spain devoted a significant amount of time and energy to organising a wide range of different social events. This included, but was not limited to, plays, poetry scenes, concerts, dinners, dances, picnics, discussion groups, and reading groups. These various forms of association generally occurred within public meeting places, such as cafes and bars, and were self-organised by working class groups known as circles, affinity groups or workers’ centres. During the late 19th century one of the best known workers’ centres in Barcelona was La Luz, which organised daily discussions at a cafe that attracted workers and middle class professionals from various political persuasions. Although the majority of people who attended the meetings were republicans, anarchists were able to effectively intervene in the discussions, spread their ideas to other workers, and persuade some of them to become anarchists. Such daily or weekly activities were interspersed with public celebrations of key dates in the revolutionary calendar, such as the anniversary of the Paris Commune and May Day. For example, on the fifteenth anniversary of the Paris Commune anarchist groups from Barcelona and the surrounding area organised a festival which featured choirs, an orchestra, poetry recitals and theatre performances (Esenwein 1989, 128-32; Smith 2012, 156-7, 260). The spread of anarchist culture through social events was facilitated by the creation of anarchist-run physical spaces. In the early 1930s anarchist members of the CNT established a co-operative store and bakery in Sant Adrià. The co-operative was built from scratch by a group of volunteer carpenters, bricklayers and plasterers using building materials which were paid for by crowd-funding within the local community. The co-operative not only sold various products and food at cost price but also featured a library, a bar with a billiard table, and a cafe. This enabled the co-operative to host a wide range of anarchist social events, including evening classes, lectures, plays and musical recitals (Ealham 2010, 52-3).

One of the main physical spaces where workers came into contact with anarchist ideas were cultural and social centres known as ateneos or athenaeums, which were interconnected with the anarchist trade union movement. An ateneo typically featured a cafe, library, reading rooms, meeting rooms for anarchist and neighbourhood groups, and an auditorium for formal debates, public talks and artistic performances. The walls of the building were decorated with signifiers of anarchism, such as portraits of famous revolutionaries and red and black banners. During periods of state repression when trade unions were forced underground, ateneos were generally able to remain open and thereby ensure the on-going existence of an anarchist presence within working class communities. The ateneos were funded and run by workers in their spare time, such as the La Torrassa Rationalist Athenaeum in Barcelona which was set up and paid for by a group of anarchist brick-makers in the early 1930s. The building’s furniture was provided by anarchist carpenters. The workers who participated in ateneos organised a wide range of educational and leisure activities in their spare time. This included day schools for working-class children, evening classes for adult workers, theatre clubs which would perform radical plays, singing and musical groups, family picnics, and hiking clubs which allowed poor urban workers to experience the beauty of nature in the countryside and along the coast. The wide range of activities which ateneos organised led to workers who participated within them to change themselves in multiple directions, such as gaining the confidence to speak before a crowd, learning to read and write, and acquiring an in-depth understanding of why capitalism and the state should be abolished. In so doing they experienced first hand one of the main goals of anarchism: the many-sided development of human beings as an end in and of itself.

Through participating in ateneos workers not only developed themselves but also formed social bonds with one another and became members of the anarchist movement. A significant number of anarchist militants, especially women, first encountered anarchist ideas and entered into anarchist social networks through their participation in the ateneos when they were children and teenagers. This process was facilitated by print media. Anarchist periodicals informed readers of the existence of ateneos. Ateneos, in turn, taught workers to read and write and contained libraries of anarchist books, pamphlets and periodicals. This can be seen in the experiences of Soledad Estorach, who arrived in Barcelona at the age of fifteen and soon learned about anarchism through the journal La Revista Blanca. She read articles by Soledad Gustavo and decided to travel to Gustavo’s address, which was printed in the paper. Gustavo told Estorach to go to an ateneo. Upon arrival she met an old man who showed her the library. She recalled being “entranced by all those books” and feeling “that all the world’s knowledge was now within my reach” (Quoted in Ackelsberg 2005, 86). In the years that followed Estorach became a key participate within the CNT and Mujeres Libres, which was an anarchist organisation that focused on women’s emancipation. Young people not only received an anarchist education in ateneos but also gained experiences of anarchist organising. In 1932 youth groups which had emerged from ateneos in Granada, Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia formed the Iberian Federation of Libertarian Youth (FIJL). The FIJL, which was an independent organisation linked with the CNT, came to be viewed as one of the main pillars of the anarchist movement. On several occasions ateneos were the avenue through which workers mobilised to participate in demonstrations and strikes. Money raised by the ateneo in the La Torrassa neighbourhood funded not only its activities but also the wider social movement, including the CNT’s prisoner support committee which helped imprisoned anarchists and their families. Ateneos were, in other words, social spaces which facilitated working class self-education, recreation, and class struggle (Ackelsberg 2005, 84-8; Ealham 2010, 45-7; Ealham 2015, 50-5; Evans 2020, 23. For a Spanish anarchist advocating human development see Mella 2020, 6-9).

One of the main services which ateneos provided to workers, be they adults or children, were educational classes. This occurred as part of a wider emphasis on pedagogy and schools within the anarchist movement. Anarchists advocated the formation of secular schools which were independent of the church and the state, taught boys and girls together in the same classes, and emphasised the development of both physical and mental capacities. In the early years of the movement anarchist teachers worked at secular schools run by republicans. Over time anarchists began to establish their own schools. This most notably included the Modern School established by Fransisco Ferrer in Barcelona. The school was founded in September 1901 with a class of thirty pupils. The number of students gradually increased over the following years and by 1905 126 pupils attended the school. The school did not last long and was permanently closed by the Spanish state in 1906 following an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate the King of Spain. Three years later in 1909 Ferrer was arrested and executed by the Spanish state after he was falsely charged with having orchestrated a week long working class insurrection against army reservists being called up to fight in Morocco. This had the effect that Ferrer was transformed from a relatively obscure figure into an internationally famous martyr who inspired anarchists around the world to create modern schools of their own. The majority of anarchist schools in Spain were not as well funded as Ferrer’s Modern School. Outside of Catalonia they were typically rooms which lacked equipment and trained teachers. These rooms were often used for multiple purposes, such as the anarchist ran school in Cádiz which was located in the meeting room of the city’s metalworkers society (Avrich 2006, 3-31; Bray and Haworth 2019, 1-43; Smith 2012, 158-60; Yeoman 2020, 151-6). Despite these limitations anarchist schools could still have a significant impact on workers who attended them. One worker claimed, “I’m Andalusian and I moved to l’Hospitalet when I was nearly 10 years old. I learnt everything I know from the anarchists. I was 14 or 15 and I didn’t know how to read or write. I learnt at the night school organised by the libertarians” (Quoted in Ealham 2010, 47).

The manner in which different aspects of anarchist counter-culture intermixed with and supported one another can be seen in the Centre for Social Studies, which was founded in 1898 in the large town of La Línea. Anarchist workers from a variety of occupations were affiliated with the centre. According to a 1901 report, this included 347 carpenters, 450 construction workers, 200 painters, 210 iron and metal workers, 80 quarrymen and stonemasons, 80 cork-makers, 120 boot-makers, 120 tobacco-workers and 423 from varied industries. This last category of worker mostly consisted of casual and farm labourers. Later reports from 1902 establish that between 4,000 and 8,000 workers were affiliated with the centre. In 1901 the centre launched a new school which was located on the premises. This occasion was heralded with a large public event that featured poetry recitals, the unveiling of portraits of the anarchist Fermín Salvochea and the novelist Émile Zola, and lectures on such topics as god, the state, capitalism and the history of anarchism in Spain. The school’s main teacher was Ernesto Álvarez, who edited the anarchist paper La Protesta. Álvarez was able to become a teacher at the school due to the fact that his salary was paid for the various workers’ societies who were affiliated with the centre. By the end of 1901 the new school was teaching 180 children reading and writing and had begun to expand into adult education. This included French night classes where the teaching methods and classroom rules were decided upon by the students themselves. Gabriela Alcalde, who was another teacher at the school, ran night classes for women which taught them embroidery and needlework. These were organised in order to provide women with skills that could enable them to gain economic independence and no longer have to work as domestic servants. The school, which in 1902 claimed to be educating 400 children and 22 adults, was shut down by the Spanish state following a series of protests and riots in the town (Yeoman 2020, 157-9, 183, note 309).

The various aspects of anarchist counter-culture were generally underpinned by the expectation that those most committed to anarchism would transform themselves and become what was called a ‘conscious worker’. To be a conscious worker was, at the very least, to be an active participant within the trade union and collective struggles in the workplace and community. It was also believed to require various lifestyle changes in which a worker led by example and abandoned alcoholism, tobacco, gambling, visiting brothels, and watching bull fights in favour of reading, studying, and discussing anarchist ideas. It was for this reason that anarchist social centres typically prohibited the consumption of alcohol on the premises and served non-alcoholic drinks, such as unfermented grape juice (Mintz 2004, 85-7; Smith 2007, 160-1; Yeoman 2020, 131). Despite the best efforts of the most committed anarchists, the majority of other workers appear to have preferred having a fun night out. For example, the anarchist militant Manuel de los Reyes responded to a sociology lecture in Cádiz being badly attended by writing an angry article in the periodical  El Proletario. During the article he labelled those who had not shown up as “cowards” and “traitors”. He complained, “why do you not frequent the society where they are able and want to educate you, and not the taverns that are nothing more than centres of corruption? . . . why do you not school yourselves?” (Quoted in Yeoman 2020, 161). Some anarchist workers went further and embraced a cluster of alternative lifestyles known as naturalism, which included vegetarianism, nudism and only eating uncooked foods (Mintz 2004, 87-8). These anarchists made a surprise appearance in the CNT’s 1936 Zaragoza congress resolutions on libertarian communism. The CNT’s resolutions, which mostly covered such topics as the armed defence of the revolution and the construction of a large-scale bottom-up planned economy, also featured the caveat that “naturist/nudist communes” would be free to autonomously self-manage themselves. It was stipulated that since no commune can be entirely self-sufficient, even if it is populated by nudists who only eat uncooked fruits and vegetables, naturalist communes would be able to form voluntary agreements with the federations of workplace and community councils that the majority of the anarchist movement would construct (Peirats 2011, 104-5).

One of the main ways in which anarchists attempted to implement their ideals in daily life was free love. Free love referred to voluntary sexual relationship between equals which occurred outside of marriage. These relationships were free in the sense that if one partner wanted they could voluntarily disassociate, end the relationship, and date new people. These relationships were overwhelmingly monogamous and articles advocating free love often clarified that they were not endorsing polyamory or promiscuity. Although there were some anarchists at the time who today would be regarded as queer, such as the lesbian Lucía Sánchez Saornil, anarchist discussions of free love focused on heterosexual relationships between a man and a woman. In practice a significant number of anarchists did not fully implement the ideas of free love and decided to instead form voluntary secular marriages which occurred independently of the Catholic church (Ackelsberg 2005, 47-52, 172; Mintz 2004, 91-9; Yeoman 2020, 138-41). In a country where Catholicism was a dominant social force, those anarchists who decided to have secular marriages known as ‘free unions’ faced hostility and prejudice from other members of their community. For example in Casas Viejas, Antonia wanted to enter into a secular marriage with Pepe. Her father, who was a member of the local anarchist led trade union, was against the idea and violently hit her after she refused to leave Pepe. Antonia recalled,

since I didn’t answer him, he started to beat me. There were some shoes hanging there, and he seized them and started to beat me black and blue. My sister grabbed my father by the legs, but he kept beating me. He hit me such a hard blow on the head that he could have killed me. I ran out and went up to the vegetable patch on the slope. I had to run around a tree, and when I turned around—my father was behind me, running. I reached the house of a neighbor. When my father got to the neighbor’s small patio, he had to stop. He couldn’t enter. (Quoted in Mintz 2004, 97)

Despite these traumatic events Antonia and Pepe married a few days later at a secular wedding attended by local anarchists. Antonia wore the clothes she had run away in since she was unable to safely return home. After the wedding Pepe would see Antonia’s father in the street and greet him but he would never reply. Antonia similarly recalls that one day she greeted her father and he responded by shouting at her to leave and get out of his sight. Although Antonia’s father came to accept the situation and regret his behaviour, these events provide an illustrative example of the obstacles practitioners of free love and secular marriages had to overcome in a deeply religious and patriarchal society (Mintz 2004, 98-9). This is not to say that anarchist men were perfect. The evidence which is available indicates that anarchist men were generally sexist towards women in the movement and expected their partners to do the majority of childcare and housework. In 1935 Lola Iturbe complained that anarchist men “however radical they may be in cafés, unions and even affinity groups, seem to drop their costumes as lovers of female liberation at the doors of their homes. Inside, they behave with their compañeras just like common ‘husbands’” (Quoted in  Ackelsberg 2005, 115).

Anarchist parents rejected the religious baptism ceremonies of the Catholic church in favour of simply registering the name of the child. These registrations often included a communal event where revolutionary songs were sung and local children would read anarchist texts aloud. It was common for anarchist parents to give their children distinctly anarchist names. Some children were named after abstract concepts, such as Anarchy, Germinal, and Fraternity. One couple went so far as to name one of their children Free Proletarian, who sadly died shortly after birth. Other anarchist parents named their children after famous rebellious figures, such as Spartacus and Kropotkin, or famous scientists, such as Archimedes, Galileo, and Darwin (Yeoman 2020, 139-41). The birth and secular  registration of children was reported upon and celebrated in the anarchist press as examples of workers living in accordance with anarchist ideals. In April 1910 Tierra y Libertad reported that,

A beautiful boy with the delightful name of Palmiro has been brought to the civil register of Medina Sidonia as the son of the compañeros Maria de los Santos Bollullo and José Olmo, the first offspring of their free union. Our sincere congratulations to these compañeros for the strength of their convictions in removing themselves from the bureaucratic procedures used by the black-clothed priests (Quoted in Mintz 2004, 95).

Given the above historical overview, an understanding of how social movements are able to grow and significantly alter society requires an examination of both huge moments of protest and rebellion and the smaller day-to-day activities which sustained and  expanded social movements over time. Between the late 19th and early 20th century anarchists in Spain successfully organised the largest mass anarchist movement in history. This mass movement was centred on trade unionism within the CNT and the organisation of strikes. Anarchists in Spain did not limit themselves to a narrow conception of trade unionism and also engaged in a wide variety of other activities. One of the main activities they engaged in was the construction of a vibrant working class counter-culture centred on print media, education and art. The creation and transmission of this culture was facilitated by the establishment of anarchist social spaces, including co-operatives, schools and social centres known as ateneos. Through this counter-culture anarchists were able to spread their ideas, establish contact with the wider working class community, and sustain their commitment to anarchism over time, especially during periods of state repression. Their cultural activities, in short, promoted and supported class struggle from below and were interconnected with a revolutionary social movement. It was therefore distinct from much of what passes for counter-culture today, which often consists of the formation of an identity through the purchasing and consumption of commodities.

It is of course the case that anarchists alive today cannot simply copy what worked in the past onto the present and expect similar results. What was once extremely radical, such as having secular weddings and funerals, are now for large parts of the world a common thing to do. It is very difficult to create hundreds of ateneos in a context where buildings and land are extremely expensive and the rent is too damn high. Nor is it the case that every aspect of historical anarchist counter-culture was a good idea. No child should have to suffer the negative consequences of their anarchist parents naming them Anarchy or Free Proletarian. It is also important to not romanticise historical anarchists and ignore their failings. The brickmaker José Peirats played a key role in the history of the CNT and the construction of anarchist counter-culture. He was also a sexist homophobe (Ealham 2015, 206-8). Despite these limitations the study of historical anarchist counter-culture in Spain can serve as a source of inspiration in the present. It should merely be kept in mind that, even if counter-culture is a necessary condition for the development and reproduction of mass revolutionary movements, it is not a sufficient condition. As historical anarchists in Spain were well aware, social change requires that workers organise and take direct action against the ruling classes. Counter-culture is important but it is no substitute for what Kropotkin once referred to as the formation of “workers’ organisations” which engage in “the direct struggle of Labour against Capital and its protector,—the State” (Kropotkin 2014, 189).



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Anarchism and Democracy

Anarchism is a social movement which advocates the abolition of all forms of domination and exploitation in favour of a society based on freedom, equality and co-operation. It holds that this goal can only be achieved if the hierarchical social structures of capitalism and the state are abolished and replaced by a socialist society organised via horizontal free association. Doing so requires a fundamental transformation in how organisations are structured and decisions are made. Capitalism and the state are hierarchical pyramids in which decision-making flows from the top to the bottom. They are based on a division between a minority who monopolise decision-making power and issue commands, and a majority who lack real decision-making power and must ultimately obey the orders of their superiors. A horizontal social structure, in comparison, is one where people collectively self-manage and co-determine the organisation as equals. In an anarchist society there would be no masters or subjects.

Modern anarchists often describe anarchism as democracy without the state. Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin argued in 1993 that “there is no democracy or freedom under government — whether in the United States, China or Russia. Anarchists believe in direct democracy by the people as the only kind of freedom and self-rule” (Ervin 1993. Also see Milstein 2010, 97-107). Perhaps the most famous advocate of this position was David Graeber. In 2013 Graeber argued that “Anarchism does not mean the negation of democracy”. It instead takes “core democratic principles to their logical conclusion” by proposing that collective decisions should be made via “nonhierarchical forms of direct democracy”. By “democracy” Graeber meant any system of “collective deliberation” based on “full and equal participation” (Graeber 2013, 154, 27, 186).

This endorsement of direct democracy is not a universal position among modern anarchists. A significant number of anarchists have argued that anarchism is fundamentally incompatible with, or at least distinct from, democracy. Their basic argument is that democracy means rule by the people or the majority, whilst anarchism advocates the abolition of all systems of rulership. The word anarchism itself derives from the ancient Greek work anarchos, which means without rulers. Within a democracy decisions are enforced on everyone within a given territory via institutionalised mechanisms of coercion, such as the law, army, police and prisons. Defenders of democracy take this coercive enforcement to be legitimate because the decisions were made democratically, such as every citizen having the right to participate in the decision-making process. Since such coercive enforcement is taken to be incompatible with anarchism’s commitment to free association, it follows that anarchism does not advocate democracy (Gordon 2008, 67-70; Crimethinc 2016).

Anarchists who advocate democracy without the state are themselves in favour of free association. Graeber, for example, advocates a society “where humans only enter those kinds of relations with one another that would not have to be enforced by the constant threat of violence”. As a result, he opposed any system of decision-making in which someone has “the ability . . . to call on armed men to show up and say ‘I don’t care what you have to say about this; shut up and do what you’re told’” (Graeber 2013, 187-8. Also see Milstein 2010, 60-2). Given this, the pro-democracy and anti-democracy anarchists I have examined are advocating the same position in different language. Both advocate collective methods of decision-making in which everyone involved has an equal say. Both argue that this should be achieved via voluntary association and reject the idea that decisions should be imposed on those who reject them via mechanisms of institutionalised coercion, such as the law or police. They just disagree about whether these systems should be called democracy because they use different definitions of that word.

During these debates it is common for anarchists to appeal to the fact that historical anarchists were against what they called democracy. Unfortunately these appeals to anarchist history are often a bit muddled due to people focusing on the words historical anarchists used, rather than their ideas. In this essay I shall explain not only what historical anarchists wrote about democracy but also how they made decisions. I do not think that the history of anarchism can be straight forwardly used to settle the debate on anarchism and democracy. My hope is only that an in-depth knowledge of anarchist history will help modern anarchists think about the topic in more fruitful ways.

The Historical Anarchist Critique of Democracy

The majority of historical anarchists only used the term ‘democracy’ to refer to a system of government which was, at least on paper, based on the rule of the people or the majority. Errico Malatesta wrote that, “anarchists do not accept majority government (democracy), any more than they accept government by the few (aristocracy, oligarchy, or dictatorship by one class or party) nor that of one individual (autocracy, monarchy or personal dictatorship)” (Malatesta 2014, 488). Malatesta did not invent these definitions. He is merely repeating the standard definitions of different forms of government in so called ‘western’ political theory. The same distinction between the government of the many, of the few, and of one individual can be found in earlier theorists such as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau (Hobbes 1998, 123; Locke 2016, 65-6; Rousseau 1999, 99-100). These standard definitions of different forms of government derived from ancient Greek sources, including Herodotus, Plato and Aristotle (Hansen 1991, 65-9).

The most famous example of a democracy in ancient Greece is Athens during the 5th century BC. In democratic Athens all major decisions were made by majority vote in an assembly attended by adult male citizens. Key government officials were selected at random by lot. The majority of the population – women, slaves, children and foreigners – were excluded and lacked decision-making power in the assembly (Hansen 1991, 304-20).  There is a tendency for modern radicals to argue that the example of 5th century Athens demonstrates that from a historical point of view true democracy is direct democracy. Doing so would be a mistake. As Raekstad has argued, in ancient Greece the word ‘democracy’ did not refer to a specific decision-making system. Ancient Greeks did not have our modern distinction between direct democracy and representative democracy. They instead viewed a city as a democracy if and only if it was ruled by its citizens or at least the majority of its citizens. As a result, cities with fundamentally different systems of decision-making could all be regarded as democracies providing that they were cities based on the collective self-rule of the citizenry (Raekstad 2020).

Aristotle, to give one example, does not only refer to cities where citizens debate and directly vote on decisions in an assembly as a ‘democracy’. He also used the term ‘democracy’ to refer to cities where citizens merely elected government officials who wielded decision-making power, and then held these government officials to account (Hansen 1991, 3; Aristotle 1998, 235-6). Aristotle did so even though he regarded selecting officials via lot as a democratic method and selecting officials via voting as an aristocratic or oligarchical method (ibid, 80-1, 153-5). The reason why is that for Aristotle the key question when determining what to label a city’s constitution is which group of people rule. If a city is ruled by the majority of its citizens, and these citizens are poor in the sense that they do not own a lot of property, then for Aristotle, it is a democracy independently of the decision-making mechanisms through which this rule is achieved (ibid, 100-2, 139-41). A modern person could of course disagree with Aristotle about whether or not citizens who elect representatives truly rule their city. Such a disagreement does not change the fact that in ancient Greece the word ‘democracy’ did not just mean what we call direct democracy.

Between the late 18th and mid 19th centuries the term ‘democracy’ gradually came to refer to governments ruled by parliaments composed of elected representatives who belonged to political parties. These governments claimed to be expressions of the will of the people. It should be kept in mind that these democratic governments were not initially based on universal suffrage. Representatives were at first elected by adult male property owners, who were a minority of the population. Over several decades of struggle from below suffrage was gradually expanded to include most or all adult men and then, largely after WW1, all adult men and women. The gradual expansion of suffrage went alongside various attempts by rulers to prevent genuine universal suffrage, such as wealthy property owners having multiple votes rather than only one, or black people being prevented from registering to vote in the United States (Markoff 2015, 41-76, 83-5, 136-40). This historical context is why when anarchists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries wrote critiques of ‘democracy’ they focused on the representative democracy of bourgeois parliaments, rather than the direct democracy of ancient Athens.

The historical anarchist critique of democracy so understood is as follows. Anarchists began by arguing that the government of the people was impossible. What defenders of democracy referred to as ‘the people’ was an abstraction which did not really exist. The actual population of a country is constituted by distinct individuals with different and contradictory ideas, needs and  aspirations. If people will never agree on everything, then there will never be a unanimous ‘will of the people’. There will only ever be multiple and incompatible wills of different segments of the people. The decisions of governments are imposed on everyone within a country via the law and the violent enforcers of the law, such as the police or judges. A democracy is therefore at best a system of government in which the will of the majority is violently imposed on the minority in the name of an abstraction called ‘the people’ (Malatesta 1995, 77-8).

Such a system of government was rejected by anarchists on the grounds that it is incompatible with freedom. Anarchists were committed to the view that everyone should be free and that, as a result, no one should be dominated.  As Alexander Berkman wrote, in an anarchist society, “[y]ou are to be entirely free, and everybody else is to enjoy equal liberty, which means that no one has a right to compel or force another, for coercion of any kind is interference with your liberty” (Berkman 2003, 156). In advocating this position anarchists were not arguing that violence is always wrong. They viewed violence as legitimate when it was necessary to establish or protect the equal freedom of all, such as in self-defence or to overthrow the ruling classes. (Malatesta 2014, 187-91) The violence of government, however, goes far beyond this since they are institutions which have the power, and claim the exclusive right to, impose their will on everyone within a given territory via force (ibid, 113, 136).

This was a form of domination which anarchists opposed irrespective of whether or not the government was ruled by a minority or a majority.  In Luigi Galleani’s words, even if “the rule of the majority over the minority” were “a mitigated form of tyranny, it would still represent a denial of freedom” (Galleani 2012, 42). Anarchists reject “the domination of a majority over the minority, we aspire to realise the autonomy of the individual within the freedom of association, the independence of his thought, of his life, of his development, of his destiny, freedom from violence, from caprice and from the domination of the majority, as well as of various minorities” (ibid 61. Also see ibid, 50). This opposition to the domination of the majority went alongside the awareness that majorities are often wrong and can have harmful views (Malatesta 2015, 63-4). In a homophobic and transphobic society, for example, the government of the majority would result in laws oppressing queer people.

Anarchists did not, however, think that modern states have ever been based on majority rule. They consistently described them as institutions based on minority rule by a political ruling class in their interests and the interests of the economic ruling class. This included self-described democratic governments. In 1873 Michael Bakunin wrote that,

modern capitalist production and bank speculation . . . get along very nicely, though, with so-called representative democracy. This latest form of the state, based on the pseudo-sovereignty of a sham popular will, supposedly expressed by pseudo-representatives of the people in sham popular assemblies, combines the two main conditions necessary for their success: state centralization, and the actual subordination of the sovereign people to the intellectual minority that governs them, supposedly representing them but invariably exploiting them (Bakunin 1990, 13).

Given this Bakunin thought that,

Between a monarchy and the most democratic republic there is only one essential difference: in the former, the world of officialdom oppresses and robs the people for the greater profit of the privileged and propertied classes, as well as to line its own pockets, in the name of the monarch; in the latter, it oppresses and robs the people in exactly the same way, for the benefit of the same classes and the same pockets, but in the name of the people’s will. In a republic a fictitious people, the ‘legal nation’ supposedly represented by the state, smothers the real, live people. But it will scarcely be any easier on the people if the cudgel with which they are beaten is called the people’s cudgel (Bakunin 1990, 23).

The same position was advocated by Malatesta. He wrote in 1924 that, “even in the most democratic of democracies it is always a small minority that rules and imposes its will and interests by force”. As a result “Democracy is a lie, it is oppression and is in reality, oligarchy; that is, government by the few to the advantage of a privileged class” (Malatesta 1995, 78, 77. Also see Berkman 2003, 71-3). The anarchist critique of democratic governments should not be interpreted as the claim that all forms of government are equally bad. Both Bakunin and Malatesta also claimed that the worst democracy was preferable to the best monarchy or dictatorship (Bakunin 1980, 144; Malatesta 1995, 77).

Given their analysis of the state as an institution which serves the interests of the capitalist class, anarchists concluded that a truly democratic government, where the majority rule, could only possibly be established in a socialist society based on the common ownership of the means of production (Malatesta 1995, 73). They did not, however, think that this could actually happen. Since the modern state is a centralised and hierarchical institution which rules over an extended area of territory, it follows that state power can only in practice be wielded by a minority of elected representatives. These representatives would not be mere delegates mandated to complete a specific tasks. They would be governors who had the power to issue commands and impose their will on others via force or the threat of it. As a result they would constitute a distinct political ruling class. Over time these representatives would be transformed by the activity of exercising state power and become primarily concerned with reproducing and expanding their power over the working classes (Baker 2019).

In rejecting what they called democracy, historical anarchists were not rejecting the idea that collective decisions should be made in general assemblies. Historical anarchists consistently argued that in an anarchist society collective decisions would be made in workplace and community assemblies. Anarchists referred to these assemblies using various terms, such as labour councils,  communes, and associations of production and consumption (Rocker 2004, 47-8; Malatesta 2014, 60; Goldman 1996, 68). The National Confederation of Labour (CNT), which was a Spanish anarcho-syndicalist trade union, proposed in its 1936 Zaragoza congress resolutions that decisions in a libertarian communist society would be made in “general assemblies”, “communal assemblies” and “popular assemblies” (Peirats 2011, 103, 105, 107).

A few historical anarchists did refer to anarchism as democracy without the state but they were in the minority. During the 1930s the Russian anarcho-syndicalist Gregori Maximoff rejected both “Bourgeois democracy” and the “democracy” of “the Soviet republic” on the grounds that, contrary to what they claimed, they were not based on the genuine rule of the people. They were instead states in which a minority ruling class exercised power in order to reproduce the domination and exploitation of the working class. Given this, Maximoff advocated the abolition of the state in favour of the self-management of society via federations of  workplace and community councils. He regarded such a system of self-management as genuine democracy. He wrote, “true democracy, developed to its logical extreme, can become a reality only under the conditions of a communal confederation. This democracy is Anarchy” (Maximoff 2015, 37-8). On another occasion Maximoff declared that “Anarchism is, in the final analysis, nothing but democracy in its purest and most extreme form” (Maximoff n.d., 19). In arguing that anarchism was “true democracy” Maximoff was not advocating different forms of association or decision-making to other anarchists. He was only using different language to describe the same anarchist ideas.

The majority of anarchists did not refer to an anarchist society as ‘true democracy’ because for them ‘democracy’ necessarily referred to a system of government. A key reason why historical anarchists associated ‘democracy’ with government was that anarchism as a social movement emerged in parallel with, and in opposition to, another social movement called Social Democracy. Although the term ‘social democracy’ has come to mean any advocate of a capitalist welfare state, it originally referred to a kind of revolutionary socialist who aimed at the abolition of all forms of class rule. In order to achieve this goal Social Democrats argued that the working class should organise into trade unions and form socialist political parties which engaged in electoral politics. This was viewed as the means through which the working class would both win immediate improvements, such as the eight hour day or legislation against child labour, and overthrow class society through the conquest of state power and the establishment of a workers’ state. Social Democrats argued that in so doing socialist political parties would overthrow bourgeois democracy and establish social or proletarian democracy (Taber 2021). Anarchists responded by making various arguments against Social Democracy, such as critiques of trying to achieve socialism via the conquest of state power. The consequence of this is that one of the main occasions when historical anarchists used the words ‘democracy’ and ‘democrat’ was when they were referring to Social Democracy (Kropotkin 2014, 371-82; Berkman 2003, 89-102).

One of the great ironies of history is that the Russian anarchist Michael Bakunin initially used the language of ‘democracy’. In 1868 he co-founded an organisation called The Alliance of Socialist Democracy and wrote a programme for it which committed the group to the goal of abolishing capitalism and the state (Eckhardt 2016, 3; Bakunin 1973, 173-5). The language of ‘democracy’ was echoed by the anarchist led Spanish section of the 1st International even though it was formally opposed to the strategy of electoral politics. The September 1871 resolutions of the Valencia Conference declared that “the real Federal Democratic Republic is common property, anarchy and economic federation, or in other words the free worldwide federation of free agricultural and industrial worker’s associations” (Eckhardt 2016, 166. For resolutions against electoral politics see ibid, 160). This language did not catch on among anarchists and by 1872 Bakunin had definitely abandoned it. This can be seen in the fact that when he founded a new organisation, which he viewed as the successor to the original Alliance, he decided to name it the Alliance of Social Revolutionaries (Bakunin 1990, 235-6, note 134; Eckhardt 2016, 355).

Historical Anarchist Methods of Decision-Making

Having established what historical anarchists thought about democracy, I shall now turn to their views on collective systems of decision-making. Historical anarchists proposed a variety of different mechanisms through which decisions in general assemblies could be made. It can be difficult to establish how exactly historical anarchists made decisions because it is a topic which does not appear frequently in surviving articles, pamphlets or books. Those sources which are available do nonetheless establish a number of clear positions. Some anarchists advocated majority vote, whilst other anarchists advocated unanimous decisions in which everyone involved had to agree on a proposal. Other anarchists advocated both depending upon the context, such as the size of an organisation or the kind of decision being made. It should be kept in mind that what historical anarchists referred to as systems of ‘unanimous agreement’ was not modern consensus decision-making in different language. I have found no evidence of historical anarchists using the key features of consensus as a process, such as the specific steps a facilitator moves the meeting through or the distinction between standing aside and blocking a proposal.

Malatesta advocated a combination of unanimous agreement and majority voting. He wrote that in an anarchist society “everything is done to reach unanimity, and when this is impossible, one would vote and do what the majority wanted, or else put the decision in the hands of a third party who would act as arbitrator” (Malatesta n.d., 30). This position was articulated in response to other anarchists who thought that all decisions should be made exclusively by unanimous agreement and rejected the use of voting. He recalled that,

in 1893 . . . there were many Anarchists, and even at present there are a few, who, mistaking the form for the essence, and laying more stress on words than on things, made for themselves a sort of ritual of ‘true’ anarchism, which held them in bondage, which paralyzed their power of action, and even led them to make absurd and grotesque assertions. Thus going from the principle: The Majority has no right to impose its will on the minority; they came to the conclusion that nothing should ever be done without the unanimous consent of all concerned. But as they had condemned political elections, which serve only to choose a master, they could not use the ballot as a mere expression of opinion, and considered every form of voting as anti-anarchistic (Malatesta 2016, 17. Also see Turcato 2012, 141).

This opposition to all forms of voting allegedly led to farcical situations. This included endless meetings where nothing was agreed and groups forming to publish a paper and then dissolving without having published anything due to minor disagreements (Malatesta 2016, 17-8). From these experiences Malatesta concluded that “social life” would be impossible if “united action” was only allowed to occur when there was “unanimous agreement”. In situations where it was not possible to implement multiple solutions simultaneously or effective solidarity required a uniform action, “it is reasonable, fair and necessary for the minority to defer to the majority” (Malatesta 2016, 19). To illustrate this point Malatesta gave the example of constructing a railway. He wrote,

If a railroad, for instance, were under consideration, there would be a thousand questions as to the line of the road, the grade, the material, the type of the engines, the location of the stations, etc., etc., and opinions on all these subjects would change from day to day, but if we wish to finish the railroad we certainly cannot go on changing everything from day to day, and if it is impossible to exactly suit everybody, it is certainly better to suit the greatest possible number; always, of course, with the understanding that the minority has all possible opportunity to advocate its ideas, to afford them all possible facilities and materials to experiment, to demonstrate, and to try to become a majority (Malatesta 2016, 18-9).

This is not to say that Malatesta viewed an anarchist society as one where people voted on every decision. He thought that farmers, for example, would not need to vote on what season to plant crops since this is something they already know the answer to. Given this, Malatesta predicted that over time people would need to vote on fewer decisions due to them learning the best solution to various problems from experience (Malatesta n.d., 30).

Malatesta was not alone in disagreeing with anarchists who opposed all systems of voting. During the 1907 International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam, the Belgian anarchist Georges Thonar argued that the participants should not engage in voting and declared himself “opposed to any vote”. The minutes of the congress claim that this caused “a minor incident. Some participants applaud noisily, while lively protest is also to be heard” (Antonioli 2009, 90). The French anarchist and revolutionary syndicalist Pierre Monatte then gave the following speech,

I cannot understand how yesterday’s vote can be considered anti-anarchist, in other words authoritarian. It is absolutely impossible to compare the vote with which an assembly decides a procedural question to universal suffrage or to parliamentary polls. We use votes at all times in our trade unions and, I repeat, I do not see anything that goes against our anarchist principles.

There are comrades who feel the need to raise questions of principle on everything, even the smallest things. Unable as they are to understand the spirit of our anti-parliamentarianism, they place importance on the mere act of placing a slip of paper in an urn or raising one’s hand to show one’s opinion (Antonioli 2009, 90-1).

Malatesta’s advocacy of majority voting was also shared by other anarchists. The Ukrainian anarchist Peter Arshinov wrote in 1928 that “[a]lways and everywhere, practical problems among us have been resolved by majority vote. Which is perfectly understandable, for there is no other way of resolving these things in an organization that is determined to act” (Arshinov 1928, 241).

The same commitment to majority voting was implemented in the CNT, which had a membership of 850,000 by February 1936. (Ackelsberg 2005, 62) The anarchist José Peirats explained the CNT’s system of decision-making as follows. The CNT was a confederation of trade unions which were “autonomous units” linked together “only by the accords of a general nature adopted at national congresses, whether regular or extraordinary”. As a result of this, individual unions were “free to reach any decision which is not detrimental to the organisation as a whole”. The “guidelines of the Confederation” were decided and directly regulated by the autonomous trade unions themselves. This was achieved through a system in which “the basis for any local, regional, or national decision” was “the general assembly of the union, where every member has the right to attend, raise and discuss issues, and vote on proposals”. The “resolutions” of these assemblies were “adopted by majority vote attenuated by proportional representation”. The agenda of regional or national congresses were “devised by the assemblies” themselves. These general assemblies in turn “debated” each topic on the agenda and after reaching an agreement amongst themselves elected mandated delegates to attend the congress as “the executors of their collective will” (Peirats 2011, 5).

Anarchists who advocated majority voting disagreed about whether or not decisions passed by majority vote should be binding on everyone involved in the decision-making process, or only those who had voted in favour of them. Malatesta argued that the congress resolutions of a federation should only be binding on the sections who had voted for them. He wrote in 1900 that since a federation is a free association which does not have the right “to impose upon the individual federated members” it followed that “any group just like any individual must not accept any collective resolution unless it is worthwhile and agreeable to them”. As a result, decisions made at the federation’s congresses, which were attended by mandated delegates representing each group that composed the federation, were “binding only to those who accept them, and only for as long as they accept them” (Malatesta 2019, 210, 206).

Malatesta repeated this view in 1927. He claimed that congresses of specific anarchist organisations, which are organisations composed exclusively of anarchist militants, “do not lay down the law” or “impose their own resolutions on others”. Their resolutions are only “suggestions, recommendations, proposals to be submitted to all involved, and do not become binding and enforceable except on those who accept them, and for as long as they accept them”. (Malatesta 2014, 489-90) The function of congresses was to,

maintain and increase personal relationships among the most active comrades, to coordinate and encourage programmatic studies on the ways and means of taking action, to acquaint all on the situation in the various regions and the action most urgently needed in each; to formulate the various opinions current among the anarchists and draw up some kind of statistics from them. (ibid, 489. See also ibid, 439-40)

Malatesta’s position on congress resolutions should not be interpreted as the claim that a person could do whatever they wanted within an organisation without consideration for the organisation’s common programme or how their actions effected others. In 1929 he clarified that within an organisation each member should “feel the need to coordinate his actions with those of his fellow members”, “do nothing that harms the work of others and, thus, the common cause” and “respect the agreements that have been made – except when wishing sincerely to leave the association”. He thought that people “who do not feel and do not practice that duty should be thrown out of the association” (Malatesta 1995, 107-8).

A more concrete understanding of what this position on congress resolutions looked like can be established by examining actual anarchist congresses. In 1907 anarchist delegates representing groups in Europe, the United States and Argentina attended the previously mentioned International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam. Proposals or resolutions at the congress were adopted by majority vote and each delegate had a single vote. How this was implemented varied depending upon the kind of decision being made. On the first day of the congress there was a disagreement about the agenda. One faction proposed that the topic of anti-militarism should be removed from the agenda and that this topic should instead be discussed at the separate congress of the International Antimilitarist Association. The other faction argued that the anarchists would have to formulate a position on anti-militarism at their anarchist congress before they attended a distinct congress attended by people who were not anarchists. The first proposal won 33 votes and the second 38 votes. Since only one proposal could be implemented the majority position won and the congress included anti-militarism on its agenda (Antonioli 2009, 36-7. For the later discussion on anti-militarism see ibid, 137-8).

Over several days the congress passed a variety of resolutions via majority vote. These resolutions were not binding on the minority. As the Dutch delegate Christiaan Cornelissen explained, “[v]oting is to be condemned only if it binds the minority. This is not the case here, and we are using the vote as an easy means of determining the size of the various opinions that are being confronted” (ibid, 91). The proposed resolution against alcohol consumption was not even put to a formal vote due to almost every delegate being opposed to it (ibid, 150-52). In situations where there was no need to have a single resolution, multiple resolutions were passed providing that each received a majority vote. This occurred when four slightly different resolutions on syndicalism and the general strike were adopted (ibid, 132-5). The congress minutes respond to this situation by claiming,

The reader may be rather surprised that these four motions could have all been passed, given the evident contradictions between them. It defies the parliamentary norm, but it is a conscious transgression. In order that the opinion of the majority not suffocate, or seem to suffocate, that of the minority, the majority presented the single motions one by one for vote. All four had a majority of votes for. In consequence, all four were approved (ibid, 135).

Other anarchists argued that decisions passed by majority vote should be binding on every member of the organisation. In June 1926 a group of anarchists, who had participated in the Russian revolution and been forced to flee to Paris to escape Bolshevik repression, issued the Organisational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists (Draft). The text made a series of proposals about how specific anarchist organisations should be structured. This included the position that the collectively made decisions of congresses should be binding on every section and member of a specific anarchist organisation such that everyone involved is expected to carry out the majority decision. The platform states that,

such an agreement and the federal union based on it, will only become reality, rather than fiction or illusion, on the conditions sine qua non that all the participants in the agreement and the Union fulfil most completely the duties undertaken, and conform to communal decisions. In a social project, however vast the federalist basis on which it is built, there can be no decisions without their execution. It is even less admissible in an anarchist organisation, which exclusively takes on obligations with regard to the workers and their social revolution. Consequently, the federalist type of anarchist organisation, while recognising each member’s rights to independence, free opinion, individual liberty and initiative, requires each member to undertake fixed organisation duties, and demands execution of communal decisions (The Group of Russian Anarchists Abroad 1926a. Also see Arshinov 1928, 240-1).

Within a specific anarchist organisation differences of opinion about its programme, tactics and strategy would of course emerge. In such situations the authors of The Platform later clarified that there were three main potential outcomes. In the case of “insignificant differences” the minority would defer to the majority position in order to maintain “the unity” of the organisation. If “the minority were to consider sacrificing its view point an impossibility” then further “discussion” would occur. This would either culminate in an agreement being formed such that “two divergent opinions and tactics” co-existed with one another or there would be “a split with the minority breaking away from the majority to found a separate organisation” (Group of Russian Anarchists Abroad 1926b, 218).

The position that decisions passed by majority vote should be binding on every member of the organisation was not a uniquely platformist one. The CNT’s constitution, which was printed on each membership card, declared that “Anarcho-syndicalism and anarchism recognise the validity of majority decisions”. Although the CNT recognised “the sovereignty of the individual” and a militant’s right to have their own point of view and defend it, members of the CNT were “obliged to comply with majority decisions” and “accept and agree to carry out the collective mandate taken by majority decision” even when they are against a militant’s “own feelings”. This position was justified on the grounds that, “[w]ithout this there is no organisation” (Quoted in Peirats 1974, 19-20).

Members of the CNT did nonetheless disagree about whether or not this system of majority voting, in which decisions were binding on all members, should be applied to much smaller specific anarchist organisations. The Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) was a specific anarchist organisation composed of affinity groups. These affinity groups had between 4 and 20 members. The FAI initially made most of their decisions via unanimous agreement and rarely used voting. In 1934 the Z and Nervio affinity groups pushed for the FAI to adopt binding agreements established through majority vote. The Afinidad affinity group agreed with the necessity of such a system within the CNT but opposed it being implemented within small specific anarchist organisations or affinity groups. After a confrontational FAI meeting Afinidad left the organisation in protest (Ealham 2015, 77; Guillamón 2014, 28-9).


Having systematically gone through the evidence, it is clear that modern and historical anarchists advocate the same core positions. What many modern anarchists label as democracy without the state, historical anarchists just called free association or anarchy. At least one historical anarchist, Maximoff, referred to anarchism as democracy without the state several decades before it became a popular expression. Historical anarchists made decisions via majority vote, unanimous agreement or a combination of the two. Modern anarchists use the same basic systems of decision-making. The main difference is that modern anarchists often use consensus decision-making processes, which historical anarchists did not use.

This, in turn, raises the question of whether or not anarchists should use the language of democracy. In a society where people have been socialised to view democracy as a good thing, it can be beneficial to describe anarchism as a kind of direct democracy. Yet doing so also comes with potential downsides, such as people confusing anarchism for the idea that society should be run by an extremely democratic state that makes decisions within general assemblies and then imposes these decisions on everyone via the institutionalised violence of the law, police and prisons. Independently of what language modern anarchists choose to use, our task remains the same as historical anarchists: during the course of the class struggle we must develop, through a process of experimentation in the present, the forms of association, deliberation and decision-making which simultaneously enable effective action and prefigure a society with neither master nor subject.


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Antonioli, Maurizio, ed. The International Anarchist Congress Amsterdam (1907). Edmonton: Black Cat Press, 2009.

Aristotle. 1998. Politics. Translated by Ernest Barker. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Arshinov, Peter. 1928. “The Old and New in Anarchism: Reply to Comrade Malatesta (May 1928).” In Facing the Enemy: A History of Anarchist Organisation from Proudhon to May 1968, edited by Alexandre Skirda, 237–42. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2002.

Baker, Zoe. 2019. Means and Ends: The Anarchist Critique of Seizing State Power.

Bakunin, Michael. 1973. Selected Writings. Edited by Arthur Lehning. London: Jonathan Cape.

Bakunin, Michael. 1980. Bakunin on Anarchism. Edited by Sam Dolgoff. Montréal: Black Rose Books.

Bakunin, Michael. 1990. Statism and Anarchy. Edited by Marshall Shatz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Berkman, Alexander. 2003. What is Anarchism? Oakland, CA: AK Press

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Ealham, Chris. 2015. Living Anarchism: José Peirats and the Spanish Anarcho-Syndicalist Movement. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Eckhardt, Wolfgang. 2016. The Fist Socialist Schism: Bakunin VS. Marx in the International Working Men’s Association. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Ervin. Lorenzo Kom’boa. 1993. Anarchism and the Black Revolution.

Galleani, Luigi. 2012. The End of Anarchism?. London: Elephant Editions.

Goldman, Emma. 1996. Red Emma Speaks: An Emma Goldman Reader. Edited by Alix Kates Shulman. 3rd ed. New Jersey: Humanities Press.

Gordon, Uri. 2008. Anarchy Alive:Anti-authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory. London: Pluto Press.

Graeber, David. 2013. The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement. London: Allen Lane.

Guillamón, Agustín. 2014. Ready for Revolution: The CNT Defence Committees in Barcelona 1933-1938. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Hansen, Mogens Herman. 1991. The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes: Structure, Principles and Ideology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Hobbes, Thomas. 1998. Leviathan. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kropotkin, Peter. 2014. Direct Struggle Against Capital: A Peter Kropotkin Anthology. Edited by Iain McKay. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Locke, John. 2016. Second Treatise of Government and Letter Concerning Toleration. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Maximoff, Gregori. 2015. Program of Anarcho-Syndicalism. Guillotine Press

Maximoff, Gregori. n.d. Constructive Anarchism.

Malatesta, Errico. n.d. Between Peasants: A Dialogue on Anarchy. Johannesburg: Zabalaza Books.

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Malatesta, Errico. 2014. The Method of Freedom: An Errico Malatesta Reader. Edited by Davide Turcato. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Malatesta, Errico. 2015. Life and Ideas: The Anarchist Writings of Errico Malatesta. Edited by Vernon Richards. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Malatesta, Errico. 2016. A Long and Patient Work: The Anarchist Socialism of L’Agitazione 1897-1898. Edited by Davide Turcato. Chico, CA: AK Press.

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Anarchists Are Not Naive About Human Nature

In the popular imagination anarchists are assumed to be naive optimists. It is thought that anyone who thinks humans can live a good life without capitalism and the state must do so because they think humans are angels who are naturally caring and benevolent. Anarchists in the 19th and early 20th centuries in fact had a very nuanced understanding of human nature.

Anarchists thought that all human beings across all societies have some characteristics in common. Michael Bakunin wrote that the key elements of “human existence” will “always remain the same: to be born, to develop and grow; to work in order to eat and drink, in order to have shelter and defend oneself, in order to maintain one’s individual existence in the social equilibrium of his own species, to love, reproduce and then to die”. (Bakunin 1964, 85-6) The exact same point is made by Rudolf Rocker. He claimed that,

We are born, absorb nourishment, discard the waste material, move, procreate and approach dissolution without being able to change any part of the process. Necessities eventuate here which transcend our will . . . We are not compelled to consume our food in the shape nature offers it to us or to lie down to rest in the first convenient place, but we cannot keep from eating or sleeping, lest our physical existence should come to a sudden end. (Rocker 1937, 24)

Since these common characteristics are constant across all human beings they must stem from certain basic facts about human biology. Anarchists did not, however, regard human nature as a static unchanging entity. Humans are, just like all species of animal, subject to evolutionary change via various processes including natural selection. As a result of this, Peter Kropotkin thought that there were “fundamental features of human character” which could “only be mediated by a very slow evolution”. (Kropotkin 1895) Nor did anarchists view human nature as an abstract essence which exists outside of history. Anarchists distinguished between the innate characteristics which constitute all human beings and the manner in which these innate characteristics are developed during a person’s life within a historically specific society. Bakunin thought that although humans possessed innate “faculties and dispositions” which are “natural” it was “the organisation of society” which “develops them, or on the other hand halts, or falsifies their development”. Given this, “all individuals, with no exception, are at every moment of their lives what Nature and society have made them”. (Bakunin 1964, 155) Kropotkin similarly wrote that “man is a result of both his inherited instincts and his education”. (Kropotkin 2006, 228)

Anarchists thought that one of the main processes which modifies and develops the innate characteristics of human nature is human activity itself. Anarchists conceptualised human activity in terms of practice. Humans engage in practice when they deploy their capacities to satisfy a psychological drive and through doing so change the world and themselves simultaneously. For example, when a person makes a sandwich they deploy their relevant capacities, such as being able to spread jam on bread, in order to satisfy their drive for a jam sandwich. In so doing they change the world – a jam sandwich now exists where before there was none – and they change themselves – they acquire the drive to have sandwiches with other kinds of jam or reproduce their capacity to make a sandwich. This idea can be seen in Kropotkin’s advocacy of “teaching which, by the practice of the hand on wood, stone, metal, will speak to the brain and help to develop it” and thereby produce a child whose brain is “developed at once by the work of hand and mind”. (Kropotkin 2014, 645)

If the capacities and drives a person has are continually determined by practice, and the practice people engage in varies across different social and historical contexts, then what capacities and drives people have, in turn, varies both socially and historically. This idea can be clearly seen in anarchist discussions of psychological drives, which were historically called needs. Luigi Galleani thought that when a human being develops themselves they acquire “a series of ever-more, growing and varied needs claiming satisfaction” which “vary, not only according to time and place, but also according to the temperament, disposition and development of each individual”. (Galleani 2012, 43, 45)

The consequence of the theory of practice was that even capacities and drives which are universal among human beings are always mediated through and developed by historically specific forms of practice. All human being, for example, have the drive to consume water but how they do so and what specific kinds of liquid they have a drive to consume varies between and within societies. One person may satisfy their drive for liquid through drinking tea from a mug, whilst another person drinks milk from a glass through a straw. The universal capacities and drives which all human beings possess (except in cases of pathology) are, in turn, what enable people within specific contexts to develop historically specific capacities and drives. The universal capacity to acquire language, for example, enables human beings to invent, learn and alter a vast array of different specific languages such as French, Mandarin and Welsh. The characteristics which all humans have in common are, in other words, the foundation from which the great diversity of human life emerges. The extent to which anarchists thought this was the case can be seen in the fact that several anarchists claim that there is an infinite number of different kinds of person. Errico Malatesta, for example, wrote that in an anarchist society “the full potential of human nature could develop in its infinite variations”. (Malatesta 2014, 402)

This was not to say that humans could transform themselves into anything they wanted. The nature of the innate characteristics which constitute all human beings places definite limits on what they can be shaped into. Humans cannot morph their arms into wings, their feet into claws or their hair into feathers. Although a human can develop themselves in many different directions, the scope of what they can possibly become is limited by the kind of animal that they are. As Rocker wrote, “man is unconditionally subject only to the laws of his physical being. He cannot change his constitution. He cannot suspend the fundamental conditions of his physical being nor alter them according to his wish”. (Rocker 1937, 27)

Anarchists thought that human beings were social animals who had a tendency to engage in two main kinds of behaviour: struggle and co-operation. Malatesta wrote that humans possessed the “harsh instinct of wanting to predominate and to profit at the expense of others” and “the thirst for domination, rivalry, envy and all the unhealthy passions which set man against man”. These negative passions co-existed with “another feeling which draws him closer to his neighbour, the feeling of sympathy, tolerance, of love”. As a result human history contained “violence, wars, carnage (besides the ruthless exploitation of the labour of others) and innumerable tyrannies and slavery” alongside “mutual aid, unceasing and voluntary exchange of services, affection, love, friendship and all that which draws people closer together in brotherhood”. From these facts Malatesta drew the conclusion that human beings were “a social animal whose existence depends on the continued physical and spiritual relations between human beings” which are “based either on affinity, solidarity and love, or on hostility and struggle”. (Malatesta 2015, 65-6, 68)

The same position was advocated by Kropotkin. It is sometimes falsely claimed that Kropotkin only focused on the second tendency of human beings to co-operate with one another and ignored the darker side of human nature. This stems from a lack of familiarity with Kropotkin’s book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. As the book’s subtitle and introduction makes clear, Kropotkin thought that mutual aid was one among several factors of evolution, rather than the sole factor. (Kropotkin 2006, xvii-xviii). Kropotkin expanded upon this point in chapter 1. He argued that a naturalist would be wrong to view “the life of animals” as only “a field of slaughter” or “nothing but harmony and peace”. (Kropotkin 2006, 4) The animal world instead featured both conflict and co-operation. He wrote,

as we study animals . . . we at once perceive that though there is an immense amount of warfare and extermination going on amidst various species, and especially amidst various classes of animals, there is, at the same time, as much, or perhaps even more, of mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defence amidst animals belonging to the same species or, at least, to the same society. Sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle. (Kropotkin 2006, 4-5)

Kropotkin thought that human beings were not different from other animals in this respect. He wrote in his book Ethics: Origin and Development that there are “two sets of diametrically opposed feelings which exist in man”. These “are the feelings which induce man to subdue other men in order to utilise them for his individual ends” and the feelings which “induce human beings to unite for attaining common ends by common effort”. The first corresponds “to that fundamental need of human nature – struggle” and the second to the “equally fundamental tendency – the desire of unity and mutual sympathy”. (Kropotkin 1924, 22) Charlotte Wilson similarly wrote that “the history of men living in a social state is one long record of a never-ending contest between certain opposing natural impulses developed by the life in common.” This “struggle” which humans observe “within our own nature and in the world of men around us” occurred between “the anti-social desire to monopolise and dominate, and the social desires which find their highest expression in fraternity”. (Wilson 2000, 38-9)

Anarchists did not think that there was a strict dichotomy between domination and co-operation such that a social structure only ever contained one or the other. Anarchists understood that people can co-operate with one another to engage in domination, such as the police working together in order to effectively beat up protesters. It is furthermore the case that institutions which are based on domination are generally reproduced through co-operative social relations. Under capitalism, for example, workers are subject to domination and exploitation by the capitalist who employs them. Yet these same capitalist businesses would quickly go bankrupt if workers did not co-operate with one another in order to collectively produce various goods or services. (Malatesta 2014, 121-6)

Anarchists repeatedly emphasized both the good and the bad aspects of human beings in their overviews of history. Within Mutual Aid Kropotkin noted multiple examples of the San people in South Africa co-operating and being sympathetic towards one another, such as hunting in common, engaging in affectionate behaviour, and rescuing someone if they were drowning in water. (Kropotkin 2006, 72-3) This went alongside Kropotkin noting examples of domination. He wrote,

when Europeans settled in their territory and destroyed deer, the Bushmen began stealing the settlers’ cattle, whereupon a war of extermination, too horrible to be related here, was waged against them. Five hundred Bushmen were slaughtered in 1775, three thousand in 1808 and 1809 . . . They were poisoned like rats, killed by hunters lying in ambush before the carcass of some animal, killed whenever met with. So that our knowledge of the Bushmen, being chiefly borrowed from those same people who exterminated them, is necessarily limited. (Kropotkin 2006, 72)

Far from being naive about human nature, anarchists were extremely aware of the fact that humans are capable of committing atrocities against one another. Anarchists, in addition to this, thought that the extent to which human beings engaged in domination or co-operation varied significantly between different contexts. Kropotkin wrote,

the relative amounts of individualist and mutual aid spirit are among the most changeable features of man. Both being equally products of an anterior development, their relative amounts are seen to change in individuals and even societies with a rapidity which would strike the sociologist if he only paid attention to the subject, and analysed the corresponding facts. (Kropotkin 1895)

Given their conception of human nature, anarchists thought that the main reason for this variation in human behaviour was differences in people’s environment and the forms of practice they engaged in and were subject to. This led anarchists to argue that the oppression and exploitation which occurred within existing society was not the product of human nature considered in isolation. They instead stemmed from the manner in which the raw materials of human nature were developed through participation within social structures. To quote Malatesta, “social wrongs do not depend on the wickedness of one master or the other, one governor or the other, but rather on masters and governments as institutions; therefore, the remedy does not lie in changing the individual rulers, instead it is necessary to demolish the principle itself by which men dominate over men”. (Malatesta 2014, 415)

Anarchists viewed capitalism and the state as hierarchical social structures based on a division between a minority who command and a majority who obey. They are pyramids in which decision making flows from the top to the bottom. The majority of the population are workers who lack real decision making power over the nature of their life, workplace, community or society as a whole. They are instead subject to the rule of an economic ruling class – capitalists, bankers, heads of state owned companies etc – and a political ruling class – politicians, heads of the police, generals etc. The decisions of the ruling classes are, in turn, implemented by a vast array of individuals raised up above the rest of the population and granted special powers of command, such as corporate managers, police officers and prison guards.

Those at the top of hierarchies not only wield power over others but are also transformed and corrupted through doing so due to the forms of practice they are engaging in. Bakunin argued that,

Nothing is as dangerous for man’s personal morality as the habit of commanding. The best of men, the most intelligent, unselfish, generous, and pure, will always and inevitably be corrupted in this pursuit. Two feelings inherent in the exercise of power never fail to produce this demoralization: contempt for the masses, and, for the man in power, an exaggerated sense of his own worth. (Bakunin 1972, 145)

The same point was made by Elisée Reclus. He wrote,

Anarchists contend that the state and all that it implies are not any kind of pure essence, much less a philosophical abstraction, but rather a collection of individuals placed in a specific milieu and subjected to its influence. Those individuals are raised up above their fellow citizens in dignity, power, and preferential treatment, and are consequently compelled to think themselves superior to the common people. Yet in reality the multitude of temptations besetting them almost inevitably leads them to fall below the general level. (Reclus 2013, 122)

It is common for defenders of hierarchy to claim that capitalism and the state are necessary due to the negative characteristics of human nature. If workers are incapable of governing themselves then they must be led by enlightened CEOs. If people murder, steal and rape then society must be protected by the police, prisons and the law. Yet it is these hierarchical systems which bring out the worst in people and make the greatest atrocities possible. As Kropotkin wrote,

when we hear men saying that the Anarchists imagine men much better than they really are, we merely wonder how intelligent people can repeat that nonsense. . . We maintain that both rulers and ruled are spoiled by authority; both exploiters and exploited are spoiled by exploitation; while our opponents seem to admit that there is a kind of salt of the earth — the rulers, the employers, the leaders — who, happily enough, prevent those bad men — the ruled, the exploited, the led — from becoming still worse than they are. There is the difference, and a very important one. We admit the imperfections of human nature, but we make no exception for the rulers. (Kropotkin 2014, 609)

Anarchists argued that if human beings are imperfect animals capable of committing the most appalling acts against one another, then this imperfection is the strongest reason for why no person should be raised up above the rest of society and granted the institutionalised power to command and impose their decisions on others through force or the threat of it. (Malatesta 2015, 40) An individual serial killer can do a great deal of harm armed only with a knife. Their capacity for violence is, however, nothing compared to what rulers wielding the knife of state power are capable of. This can be seen in the fact that millions of people have been killed by states during the history of imperialism and colonialism. An individual thief may break into my home and steal my television but their theft is nothing compared to the vast plunder of resources, destruction of the natural environment and oppression of workers carried out by the corporations which manufactured my television and extracted the raw materials it is made out of. The greatest crimes are carried out not by isolated sadistic individuals but by vast social structures which enable a ruling minority to violently impose their will on the working classes.

As a result of this anarchists concluded that hierarchical and centralised institutions should be abolished in favour of horizontal free association between equals. Within an anarchist society people with the desire or predisposition to oppress and exploit other people would still exist. They would not, however, find themselves in a situation where there are positions of power they can take over and use to engage in oppression and exploitation on a large scale. In Bakunin’s words,

Do you want to prevent men from ever oppressing other men? Arrange matters such that they never have the opportunity. Do you want them to respect the liberty, rights and human character of their fellow men? Arrange matters such that they are compelled to respect them — compelled not by the will or oppression of other men, nor by the repression of the State and legislation, which are necessarily represented and implemented by men and would make them slaves in their turn, but by the actual organization of the social environment, so constituted that while leaving each man to enjoy the utmost possible liberty it gives no one the power to set himself above others or to dominate them. . . (Bakunin 1973, 152-3)

Given the above, anarchists would argue that it is not they who are naive about human nature but the defenders of hierarchy. Authoritarians imagine that emancipation can be achieved if good people with the correct ideas take control of the reigns of power. Anarchists realise that this has never happened and will never happen. Irrespective of people’s good intentions or the stories they tell themselves, they will be corrupted by their position at a top of a hierarchy and become primarily concerned with exercising and expanding their power over others in order to serve their own interests. If human beings are not inherently good, then no person is good enough to be a ruler


Bakunin, Michael. 1964. The Political Philosophy of Bakunin: Scientific Anarchism. Edited by G.P. Maximoff. New York: The Free Press of Glencoe.

Bakunin, Michael. 1973. Selected Writings. Edited by Arthur Lehning. London: Jonathan Cape.

Galleani, Luigi. 2012. The End of Anarchism? London: Elephant Editions.

Kropotkin, Peter. 1895. Proposed Communist Settlement: A New Colony for Tyneside or Wearside. The Newcastle Daily Chronicle.

Kropotkin, Peter. 1924. Ethics: Origins and Development. London: George G. Harrap & Co.

Kropotkin, Peter. 2006. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

Kropotkin, Peter. 2014. Direct Struggle Against Capital: A Peter Kropotkin Anthology. Edited by Iain McKay. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Malatesta, Errico. 2014. The Method of Freedom: An Errico Malatesta Reader. Edited by Davide Turcato. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Malatesta, Errico. 2015. Life and Ideas: The Anarchist Writings of Errico Malatesta. Edited by Vernon Richards. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Rocker, Rudolf. 1937. Nationalism and Culture. Los Angeles: Rocker Publications Committee.

Wilson, Charlotte. 2000. Anarchist Essays. Edited by Nicolas Walter. London: Freedom Press.

Wild Anarchist Hot Takes

In the modern world anarchist hot takes can be easily found on twitter or facebook. Such hot takes are of course not a new phenomenon and can also be found in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In this video I shall draw attention to a few of my personal favourites.

The French geographer Élisée Reclus was strongly opposed to children being taught geography with two-dimensional maps because they failed to accurately represent the real 3D earth. In a letter to the Spanish anarchist educator Francisco Ferrer he argued that “maps with unequal scales and projections would do as much damage to my students as they did to me and undoubtedly to the reader as well, because no one manages to completely erase the contradictory impressions that one receives from these diverse maps.” This was because they gave “geographic forms a floating and indefinite appearance”, misrepresented “the proportions between the different regions” and featured “multiple deformations, inflated or narrowed, stretched, elongated, or truncated in various ways”. (Quoted in Ferrer 2019, 102) It was therefore “truly impossible to use traditional maps without betraying the very same cause of education with which they were entrusted”. Reclus’ alternative to 2D maps was the use of 3D globes. He thought that, “the early geographical education of the child must proceed from a direct examination of the globe, an exact and proportional reproduction of the earth itself.” (Ibid, 103) This hostility to 2D maps is not a one off event. In 1903 Reclus argued that 2D maps ”ought to be entirely tabooed. They must be tabooed, because maps are made on different scales, and that being so, it is quite impossible to compare them; and if you cannot compare them, it is only a waste of time and trouble. In all well-conducted schools, globes should be used, and children ought to be entirely forbidden the use of maps’.” (Quoted in Ferretti 2019, 32) Reclus was, in short, a true globe head.

Historical anarchists had strong opinions not only about globes but also about drugs. In 1922 the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta argued against the criminalisation of cocaine. Although his arguments against drug prohibition are still relevant today, he did seriously underestimate how much people enjoy taking cocaine. He wrote,

There are in France stringent laws against the traffic in drugs and against those who take them. And as always happens, the scourge grows and spreads in spite, and perhaps because of, the laws. The same is happening in the rest of Europe and in America. Doctor Courtois-Suffit, of the French Academy of Medicine, who, already last year [1921], had sounded the alarm against the dangers of cocaine, noting the failure of penal legislation, now demands … new and more stringent laws.

It is the old mistake of legislators, in spite of experience invariably showing that laws, however barbarous they may be, have never served to suppress vice or to discourage delinquency. The more severe the penalties imposed on the consumers and traffickers of cocaine, the greater will be the attraction of forbidden fruits and the fascination of the risks incurred by the consumer, and the greater will be the profits made by the speculators, avid for money.

It is useless, therefore to hope for anything from the law. We must suggest another solution. Make the use and sale of cocaine free [from restrictions], and open kiosks where it would be sold at cost price or even under cost. And then launch a great propaganda campaign to explain to the public, and let them see for themselves, the evils of cocaine; no one would engage in counter-propaganda because nobody could exploit the misfortunes of cocaine addicts.

Certainly the harmful use of cocaine would not disappear completely, because the social causes which create and drive those poor devils to the use of drugs would still exist. But in any case the evil would decrease, because nobody could make profits out of its sale, and nobody could speculate on the hunt for speculators. (Malatesta 2015, 105-6)

Malatesta’s hot take about cocaine is one example of how historical anarchists articulated anarchist theory in response to a specific historical context. Another example is the Spanish anarchist Ricardo Mella’s amusing intervention into discussions about exercise. In 1913 he argued that gym culture emerged due to the wealthy not having to engage in manual labour. Whilst the poor worked their bodies to exhaustion in order to earn a wage, the rich went to gyms where they would “ridiculously move their arms and legs and trunks aimlessly and uselessly.” (Mella 2020, 42) Mella thought that gym culture was not only a product of the capitalist division of labour. It was also inferior to what he viewed as more natural and superior forms of exercise. He wrote,

Some days ago, a French illustrated magazine published a beautiful picture of a group of German ladies in the most ridiculous gymnastic positions. All of them were simultaneously performing the strangest movements. Blunders, pirouettes, jumps, everything was done rhythmically and to the voice of a leader.

We immediately think that those ladies would become healthier and more vigorous and would also be happier running free across the prairie into the forest’s heavy leafiness, bounding over rocks and crags or bathing in the sun on the beach’s warm sand. We immediately think that tidy tough guys who waste their time in fencing halls, in ball games, in horse racing, or in water sports would be much better off running around beaches, forests, and meadows after cute girls, inviting kisses, in pink colors. They would be better off climbing trees in order to reach bountiful nature’s rich fruits for their loved ones. They would be much better off in complete freedom of action and passion. The automated doll is in no way better to natural man. (Mella 2020, 41)

Prior to the invention of crossfit, Mella suggested what could have become a bold new exercise programme: men in pink outfits chasing hot women across the wilderness. Other anarchists do not appear to have endorsed Mella’s attempt to combine cross country running with heterosexual gender relations. When writing about dating they largely focused on the idea of free love. Although this sometimes included the idea of polyamory, it usually referred to a monogamous consensual relationship which occurred outside of marriage. Such love was supposed to be free in the sense that it was voluntary and did not contain any oppressive social relations. One proponent of free love in this sense of the term was the German anarchist Rudolf Rocker. Although Rocker appears to have treated his partner Milly Witkop with respect, other anarchist men were less caring and used women as sex objects. To give one example, Rocker knew a married man who lived with and impregnated a young woman who was not his wife. This man subsequently threw her out of his house when his wife arrived from Russia. In response to this kind of behaviour Rocker endorsed drastic action. He proposed that men who had sex with and then abandoned women should be expelled from an organisation he was involved in. Such men were viewed by Rocker as people who had wrongly mistaken anarchist ideas on free love as license to satisfy their own sexual desires without consideration for the welfare of others. (Frost 2009, 88) Rocker in other words engaged in anti-fuckboi aktion.

Given the above, historical anarchist theory is not only interesting or thought provoking. It is also sometimes very amusing and bizarre. These hot takes highlight the fact that anarchists did not only write about such topics as the oppression of capitalism and the state or what strategies anarchists should use to achieve their objectives. They reflected upon and wrote about a large number of different topics. In 1886 the English anarchist Charlotte Wilson claimed that, “Anarchists believe that the solution of the social problem can only be wrought out from the equal consideration of the whole of the experience at our command, individual as well as social, internal as well as external”. (Wilson 2000, 50) For some anarchists the topics worthy of consideration included drugs, sex, exercise and, most importantly of all, globes.


Ferrer, Francisco. 2019. Anarchist Education and the Modern School: A Francisco Ferrer Reader. Edited by Mark Bray and Robert H. Haworth. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Ferretti, Federico. 2019. Anarchy and Geography: Reclus and Kropotkin in the UK. London: Routledge.

Frost, Ginger. 2009. “Love is Always Free: Anarchism, Free Unions and Utopianism in Edwardian England”. Anarchist Studies 17, no. 1, 73-94.

Malatesta, Errico. 2015. Life and Ideas: The Anarchist Writings of Errico Malatesta. Edited by Vernon Richards. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Mella, Ricardo. 2020. Anarchist Socialism in Early Twentieth-Century Spain: A Ricardo Mella Anthology. Edited by Stephen Luis Vilaseca. Palgrave Macmillan.

Wilson, Charlotte. 2000. Anarchist Essays. Edited by Nicolas Walter. London: Freedom Press.

Louise Michel Was Chaotic Good

The French anarchist Louise Michel was born in 1830 and died in 1905. She led a very eventful life, which included fighting in the Paris Commune of 1871. In this video I’m going to be drawing attention to an aspect of her life which doesn’t get the attention it deserves. She was extremely chaotic good.

As a child she gave away her possessions to poor people. This even included her shoes on one occasion. Not content with giving away items she personally owned, Michel also stole money, fruits and vegetables from her grandparents and then distributed them to local peasants in her relatives’ name. This led to unexpected consequences when the peasants arrived at the house to thank her grandparents for their generosity. Michel claims to have “laughed” in response to the “great scenes” which occurred during these moments. (Thomas 1983, 21; Michel 1981, 6)

During her childhood Michel attended church regularly (Thomas 1983, 20). This did not stop her from also attempting “alchemy, astrology, the summoning of spirits” at the top of a tower which she decorated with the skeletons of dogs, cats and horses. At one point she took her practice of witchcraft to the next level and tried to summon the devil. She wrote in her autobiography, “among haunted ruins I drew magical circles, and I declared my love to Satan. Satan didn’t come, which led me to think he didn’t exist.” (Michel 1981, 20, 19)

This chaotic good energy continued into adulthood. During the 1860s she earned a living as a teacher in Paris (Thomas 1983, 42-3). In her autobiography she claimed that one night when walking home she deliberately scared a member of the bourgeoisie. She wrote,

Another time I was returning home on foot fairly late, and I had on a long cloak which enveloped me completely. I was wearing a sort of wide hat made out of shaggy cloth which cast a lot of shadows on my face, and brand-new ankle boots from the pawnshop, For some reason the heels made a lot of noise. The newspapers recently had been writing a lot about nocturnal attacks. Some good bourgeois heard my boots ringing, and being unable to make out my exact form because of my cloak and hat, he began to run with such fear that it gave me the idea of following him for a bit to scare him properly.

He went along, looking around to see if anyone would come to help him. With the black night and the deserted streets, the bourgeois was scared witless, and I was having a really good time. He lengthened his stride as much as he could. I kept to the shadows and made my heels strike even louder, because that noise was what kept up his fright. I don’t know what district we had come to when I let the bourgeois go, yelling at him: ‘Must you be so stupid?’ (Michel 1981, 48-9)

During her eventful life Michel was arrested and imprisoned a number of times. In January 1882 she was arrested and sentenced to two weeks in prison for insulting a police officer. During the trial Michel denied that she had called the police “hoods and deadbeats” and offered an alternative chain of events. A newspaper account of the trial reads as follows.

‘You are charged with insulting policemen,’ said M. Puget, the judge.

‘On the contrary, it is we who should bring charges concerning brutality and insults,’ Louise Michel said, ‘because we were very peaceful. What happened, and doubtless the reason I am here, is this: I went to the headquarters of the police commissioner and when I got there, I looked out a window and saw several policemen beating a man. I did not want to say anything to those policemen because they were very overexcited, so I went up to the next floor and found two other policemen who were calmer. I said to them, ‘Go down quickly. Someone is being murdered.’ (Michel 1981, 134)

Michel’s true crime was, in other words, trolling a police officer. She had amusing interactions not only with the police but also with men in general. When she was twelve or thirteen two adult suitors attempted to marry her. She remembered that “they both had the idea of choosing a very young fiancée and having her moulded like soft wax for a few years before offering her up to themselves as a sacrifice.” After the first adult suitor did not notice her literary reference to Moliere she “looked straight in his face, and with the ingenuousness of Agnes, I said to him boldly, knowing he had one glass eye, ‘Monsieur, is your other eye glass, too?’ That seemed to embarrass my relatives a little, and as for my suitor, he gave me a venomous look from the eye that wasn’t glass, and made it clear he no longer wanted to make me his fiancée.” (Michel 1981, 21) Michel scared away the second adult suitor with similar tactics. She remembered saying,

‘You see plainly what’s hanging on the wall over there.’ It was a pair of stag antlers. ‘Well, I don’t love you. I will never love you, and if I marry you I won’t restrain myself any more than Mme Dandin did. If I marry you, you will wear horns on your head a hundred thousand feet higher than those antlers.’ I suppose I convinced him I was telling him the truth, for he never came back. My relatives advised me, however, to be a little more reserved in quoting old authors in the future.There have been unfortunate children who were forced to marry old crocodiles like those. If it had been done to me, either he or I would have had to jump out the window. (Michel 1981, 21)

As an adult Michel acted in a similar manner towards unwanted men. She wrote that one day,

a simple-minded man, absolutely dressed to the teeth, a stupid man as stiff as a wooden doll, appeared at the door of 45, boulevard Ornano, where my mother and I were living. ‘MIle Michel?’ he asked, forgetting to take off his stove-pipe hat and beating his right hand with a small stick. ‘I am she,’ I said. ‘No, you aren’t her.’ ‘I’m not me?’ ‘Well! I know Louise Michel. I saw her portrait in the Salon.’ ‘So?’ ‘So! Try not to make fun of me. A woman who has horses and carriages doesn’t open her own door. Go and get her for me. I repeat: It isn’t her who is opening this door.’ ‘It’s she who is closing it,’ I said. Whereupon, as this stupid man wasn’t all the way inside, I pushed him completely outside and slammed the door in his face. He blustered a little from the other side of the door, and then I heard him going down the steps, still shouting insults. (Michel 1981, 153)

Michel regularly went on speaking tours to spread anarchist ideas and raise money for social movements. On one occasion she combined this with a cunning plan to manipulate her haters. She wrote,

In October 1882 I went to Lille to speak in connection with the strike of the women spinners there. . . All the strikers had to do was hold out for one week more and the exploiters would have given in, but to last a week longer the strikers needed two thousand francs. That was why I went to Lille to make a speech. Thanks to the reactionaries who paid for their seats so that they could come to insult me, we made the two thousand francs in one lecture alone. I asked the organizers of the speech to put that money away safely, and then I was able to announce to the gentlemen who had bought tickets that we had what we needed. Thus, they were free either to listen to me or to spend their time howling, either of which was perfectly all right with me because we already had the two thousand francs that we needed. (Michel 1981, 153-4)

From these stories it is apparent that Louise Michel had powerful chaotic good energy. Yet these stories are not only amusing. They also serve as a reminder that famous revolutionaries in the past were not fundamentally different to people alive today. They were human beings who, despite living in a different time and place, engaged in what one might call relatable content.


Michel, Louise. 1981. The Red Virgin: Memoirs of Louise Michel. Edited and Translated by Bullit Lowry and Elizabeth Ellington Gunter. The University of Alabama Press.

Thomas, Edith. 1983. Louise Michel. Black Rose Books.

Anarchism as a Way of Life

In 1925 the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta wrote that,

Anarchy is a form of living together in society; a society in which people live as brothers and sisters without being able to oppress or exploit others and in which everyone has at their disposal whatever means the civilisation of the time can supply in order for them to attain the greatest possible moral and material development. And Anarchism is the method of reaching anarchy, through freedom, without government – that is, without those authoritarian institutions that impose their will on others by force . . . (Malatesta 1995, 52)

In this passage Malatesta distinguishes between anarchy as a goal and anarchism as a method of achieving this goal. One of the interesting features of Malatesta’s theory is that he views anarchy itself as both a goal and an on-going process. He refers to anarchy as a “form of living together in society” which has to be continuously produced and reproduced over time, rather than a static unchanging utopia. This idea can be clearly seen in Malatesta’s earlier writings. In 1891 he wrote that,

By the free association of all, a social organisation would arise through the spontaneous grouping of men according to their needs and sympathies, from the low to the high, from the simple to the complex, starting from the more immediate to arrive at the more distant and general interests. This organisation would have for its aim the greatest good and fullest liberty to all; it would embrace all humanity in one common brotherhood, and would be modified and improved as circumstances were modified and changed, according to the teachings of experience. This society of free men, this society of friends would be Anarchy. (Malatesta 2014, 128)

Since anarchy is a society which will be continuously modified and improved over time it follows that “Anarchy” is “above all, a method”. This method is, according to Malatesta, “the free initiative of all”, “free agreement” and “free association”. (Malatesta 2014, 141, 142) These two claims come together in the view that,

Anarchy, in common with socialism, has as its basis, its point of departure, its essential environment, equality of conditions; its beacon is solidarity and freedom is its method. It is not perfection, it is not the absolute ideal which like the horizon recedes as fast as we approach it; but it is the way open to all progress and improvements for the benefit of everybody. (Quoted in Turcato 2012, 56. For a different translation see Malatesta 2014, 143)

What Malatesta means by this is as follows. Anarchy’s point of departure is a stateless classless society in which the means of production are owned in common and no person has the institutionalised power to impose their will on others via force. This not only creates a situation in which people are no longer subject to domination and exploitation by the ruling classes. It, in addition to this, establishes the real possibility for all people to do and be a wide variety of different things since their ability to act is no longer limited by poverty, borders, government bureaucracy, having to work for a capitalist to survive etc. This equality of conditions is the social basis from which people can engage in an open-ended process of striving towards the goal of universal human co-operation at a societal level and the formation of bonds of mutual support and love at the level of our day to day lives with friends, family, partners and so on.

People living under anarchy will move towards the goal of solidarity through the method of forming voluntary horizontal associations. These voluntary horizontal associations will then enter into free agreements with one another and establish a decentralised network capable of co-ordinating action over a large scale. Although violence may sometimes be necessary to defend spaces of co-operation from external attack or to overthrow the ruling classes, force cannot be used to establish co-operation among equals. If one tries to impose decisions on others through force then the result will not be solidarity but conflict, strife and relations of command and obedience. The achievement of genuine solidarity requires that people come to agreements which best suit everyone involved and must therefore be established voluntarily.

This process of striving for solidarity through the method of freedom will result in a wide variety of experiments in different forms of life. Through a process of trial-and-error people will over time establish new social structures and relations which do a superior job of maximising the equality, solidarity and freedom of humanity. These new social structures and relations will, in turn, lay the foundations from which future improvements can occur and so on and on. As Malatesta wrote in 1899, “Anarchist ideals are . . . the experimental system brought from the field of research to that of social realisation”. (Malatesta 2014, 302)

Malatesta does not think that the establishment of anarchy will occur automatically or that humans naturally create anarchy. Anarchy only exists if it is consciously produced and reproduced by human action. As he wrote in 1897,

The belief in some natural law, whereby harmony is automatically established between men without any need for them to take conscious, deliberate action, is hollow and utterly refuted by the facts.

Even if the State and private property were to be done away with, harmony does not come to pass automatically, as if Nature busies herself with men’s blessings and misfortunes, but rather requires that men themselves create it. (Malatesta 2016, 81)

This exact point was repeated by Malatesta in 1925. He wrote, “Anarchy . . . is a human aspiration which is not founded on any true or supposed natural law, and which may or may not come about depending on human will.” (Malatesta 1995, 46) If anarchy is a product of human will, then it follows that anarchy could be ended if humans choose to oppress others and establish relations of domination and subordination. This is a danger that Malatesta was aware of. He wrote in 1899 that, “if anyone in some future society sought to oppress someone else, the latter would have the right to resist them and to fight force with force”. Anarchy was therefore a society based on “freedom for all and in everything, with no limit other than the equal freedom of others: which does not mean . . . that we embrace and wish to respect the ‘freedom’ to exploit, oppress, command, which is oppression and not freedom”. (Malatesta 2019, 148, 149).

A crucial aspect of reproducing anarchy as a social system is therefore ensuring that relations of domination and exploitation do not arise in the first place and that, if they do somehow arise, they are quickly defeated. Malatesta does not provide many details on how to do this because he thought this was a question which would be settled through large groups of people engaging in a process of experimentation with different forms of association. Modern anarchists can, however, look at anthropological evidence on how really existing stateless societies reproduce themselves. They do not provide exact blueprints which we can follow like an instruction manual for creating a free society, but they can be useful sources of inspiration. It should, in addition to this, be kept in mind that some stateless societies are hierarchical in other ways, such as men oppressing women or adults oppressing children.

There is a tendency for people raised in societies with states to assume that the true or correct end point of human cultural evolution is the creation of a society with a state. Those who live in stateless societies are therefore viewed as inferior people who have failed to realise the best way of organising society. In response to this way of thinking, the anthropologist Pierre Clastres has suggested that stateless societies should not be viewed as societies without a state, but instead as societies against the state. That is to say, people do not live in stateless societies by chance. They have instead developed political philosophies about the kind of society they want to live in and consciously created social structures to ensure that a society without rulers is reproduced. Members of stateless societies have not failed to realise the possibility of a society in which a ruling minority imposes their will on everyone else through violence. They have instead deliberately chosen to create a different kind of society. (Clastres 1989, 189-218) Clastres writes, in what I consider to be outdated and problematic language, that,

primitive societies do not have a State because they refuse it, because they refuse the division of the social body into the dominating and the dominated. The politics of the Savages is, in fact, to constantly hinder the appearance of a separate organ of power, to prevent the fatal meeting between the institution of chieftainship and the exercise of power. In primitive society, there is no separate organ of power, because power is not separated from society: society, as a single totality, holds power in order to maintain its undivided being, to ward off the appearance in its breast of the inequality between masters and subjects, between chief and tribe. . . The refusal of inequality and the refusal of separate power are the same, constant concern of primitive societies. (Clastres 1994, 91)

This point has recently been made in much greater depth by the anthropologist Christopher Boehm. He argues that egalitarian stateless societies are “the product of human intentionality” and that “the immediate cause of egalitarianism is conscious, and that deliberate social control is directed at preventing the expression of hierarchical tendencies”. (Boehm 2001, 12, 60) One of the main ways egalitarian stateless societies achieve this is through the use of horizontal decision-making processes in which the group make collective decisions through consensus between all involved. (Boehm 2001, 31, 113) Any leaders which do exist lack the power to impose decisions on others through coercion and must instead persuade others to act in a certain way through oratory skill alone. This usually goes alongside a variety of behavioural expectations which the leader has to conform to in order to remain in their position, such as the leader being modest, in control of their emotions, good at resolving disputes and generous. The emphasis on generosity can be so strong that leaders are expected to share large amounts of their possessions with others, especially those in need. This often results in leaders possessing the smallest number of things in the entire group due to them having to give so many items away. (Boehm 2001, 69-72)

Egalitarian stateless societies have, in addition to this, developed various mechanisms to respond to what Boehm labels ‘upstartism’. Upstartism includes any behaviour which threatens the autonomy and equality of the group, such as bullying, being selfishly greedy, issuing orders, taking on airs of superiority, engaging in acts of physical violence and so on. In order to implement the ethical values of the community, members of egalitarian stateless societies will respond to upstartism with a wide range of different social sanctions. This includes, but is not limited to, criticism, gossiping, public ridicule, ignoring what they say, ostracism, expulsion from the group and even, in some extreme cases, execution. Social sanctions are applied to all members of the group but leaders in particular. This is due to the fact that leaders are subject to a greater deal of public scrutiny and viewed as one of the main places where relations of domination and subordination could emerge. This, in turn, creates a situation where leaders will, in order to maintain their position and avoid being subject to sanctions, engage in the socially prescribed behaviour that is expected from them, such as sharing huge amounts of their belongings even if they would rather not do so. The system of sanctions therefore not only effectively counters acts of domination but also reproduces the horizontal structure of the group itself. (Boehm 2001, 3, 9-12, 43, 72-84)

The manner in which members of egalitarian stateless societies respond to upstartism can be subtle. Boehm gives the example of the !Kung, who have developed various ways of dealing with the problem of successful male hunters coming to think of themselves as superior to everyone else and, as a result, becoming more likely to engage in domination, especially murder. Firstly, large-game meat is shared equally among the group by the person who is credited with killing the animal. The credit for the kill does not go to the person who loosed the actual killing arrow, but instead to the owner of the first arrow to hit the animal. This will often not even be someone who went on the hunt due to the male hunters regularly trading arrows with one another. This social system ensures that credit for the hunt is randomized, unskilled or unlucky hunters are less likely to be envious of other hunters, every member of the group has access to protein, and the most skilled or lucky hunters are not able to easily use this fact to develop power and influence over others. (Boehm 2001, 46)

Secondly, the !Kung actively use humour and social etiquette to ensure that successful hunters do not put themselves on a pedestal. An unnamed member of the !Kung explains this as follows,

Say that a man has been hunting. He must not come home and announce like a braggart, ‘I have killed a big one in the bush!’ He must first sit down in silence until I or someone else comes up to his fire and asks, ‘What did you see today?’ He replies quietly, ‘Ah, I’m no good for hunting. I saw nothing at all . . . maybe just a tiny one.’ Then I smile to myself because I now know he has killed something big.

Even after the hunter has deliberately acted as if they haven’t been very successful, other members of the group will make jokes about them and express their disappointment. The unnamed member of the !Kung claims that when people go to collect the dead animal they will say things like,

You mean to say you have dragged us all the way out here to make us cart home your pile of bones? Oh, if I had known it was this thin I wouldn’t have come. People, to think I gave up a nice day in the shade for this. At home we may be hungry but at least we have nice cool water to drink.

The conscious motivation behind this behaviour is explained by a healer as follows,

When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. In this way we cool his heart and make him gentle. (Quoted in Boehm 2001, 45)

The !Kung have, in other words, intentionally developed a complex social system based on their political philosophy which ensures the reproduction of an egalitarian stateless society and actively prevents the rise of domination within their midst. It is important to note that Boehm’s account of the !Kung draws upon research conducted in the 1960s and early 1970s. Their society has significantly changed since then. In 1975 the anthropologist Patricia Draper claimed that,

the great majority of !Kung-speaking people have abandoned their traditional hunting and gathering way of life and are now living in sedentary and semi-squatter status in or near the villages of Bantu pastoralists and European ranchers. A minority of !Kung, amounting to a few thousand, are still living by traditional hunting and gathering technique. (Draper 1975, 79)

Although people living in industrial societies do not have to develop social norms around successful hunters, we do have our equivalents. For example, successful influencers sometimes let the fame get to their head, come to think of themselves as superior to other people, and then treat others as inferior to them and engage in acts of domination. Think Jake Paul. It is of course the case that those of us currently living under the domination of capitalism, the state, patriarchy, racism, queerphobia, ableism etc are most likely a long way away from achieving anarchy at a societal level. We are not confronted with the problem of reproducing anarchy as a stateless classless society. We instead face the challenge of living under oppressive systems, whilst attempting to implement the methods of anarchism within both our intimate relationships with friends, family, partners etc and social movements aimed at the abolition of all systems of domination and exploitation.

In order to do so we must establish horizontal social relations which are, as far as is possible, the same as those that would constitute anarchy. In so doing we can simultaneously (a) construct the world as we wish it was during our struggle against the world as it is and (b) develop through a process of experimentation in the present the real methods of organisation, decision-making and association that people in the future could use to achieve the states of affairs that characterise anarchy. If, as Malatesta argued, “tomorrow can only grow out of today” (Malatesta 2014, 163) then we must build organisations based “upon the will and in the interest of all their members” not only “tomorrow in order to meet all of the needs of social life” but also “today for the purposes of propaganda and struggle”. (Malatesta 2019, 63) We must, in other words, engage in prefigurative politics or, to use historical anarchist language, build “the embryo of the human society of the future”. (Graham 2005, 98. For more on prefigurative politics see Raekstad and Gradin 2020)

The pockets of freedom we manage to create within class society are of course not anarchy. Anarchy is a social system in which all forms of class rule have been abolished and socialism has been achieved. Anarchy cannot therefore be said to exist just because a horizontal association has been built within the cage of capitalism and the state. (Malatesta 2016, 358-60) Although horizontal associations within class society are not anarchy, they are the means through which anarchy can be achieved. That is to say, horizontal associations should be organs of class struggle which unite workers together in order to both win immediate improvements, such as higher wages or stopping the fossil fuel industry, and ultimately overthrow the ruling classes. Horizontal associations should, at the same time, be social structures which are constituted by forms of activity that develop their participants into the kinds of people who are both capable of, and driven to, establish and reproduce anarchy. For example, a group of workers form a tenant union, use direct action to prevent their landlord from evicting them, and at the same time learn how to make decisions within a general assembly. In changing the world, workers at the same time change themselves.

Given the insights of both historical anarchist theory and modern anthropology, a crucial aspect of laying the foundations from which anarchy could emerge in the future is establishing effective methods for maintaining the horizontality of a group. This includes at least,

(a) Deliberately structuring organisations so as to ensure that they are self-managed by their membership, such as making decisions through general assemblies in which everyone has a vote, co-ordinating action over a large scale via informal networks or formal federations, electing instantly recallable mandated delegates to perform specific tasks etc.

(b) Consciously developing a system of social sanctions which effectively and proportionally respond to situations where a member engages in what Boehm terms upstartism. This is especially necessary for when people attempt to establish themselves in positions of power at the top of an informal hierarchy or engage in an act of domination. One of the most important situations which a group must effectively respond to is when a member emotionally, physically or sexually abuses another person. It is, in addition to this, very important than any sanction system which is implemented is not itself a new form of domination disguised as mere opposition to the domination of others.

In summary, anarchy is a form of living together in society which must be consciously and intentionally produced and reproduced by human action. A crucial part of doing so is developing social structures and relations which maintain the horizontality of groups and prevent new forms of domination and exploitation from arising. Given modern anthropological evidence on how really existing stateless societies reproduce themselves, this will include developing social sanctions to respond to what Boehm terms upstartism. Although we do not currently live under anarchy, we must establish horizontal associations which engage in class struggle against the ruling classes and prefigure the methods of organisation, decision-making and association which would exist in a free society. This includes developing effective sanction systems which proportionally respond to behaviour that threatens the horizontality of the group. Doing so will, just like under anarchy, require a process of experimentation with different forms of life in order to figure out which solutions actually work and are compatible with anarchist goals and values.

In 1899 Malatesta wrote that “Anarchy cannot come but little by little – slowly, but surely, growing in intensity and extension. Therefore, the subject is not whether we accomplish Anarchy today, tomorrow or within ten centuries, but that we walk toward Anarchy today, tomorrow and always.” (Malatesta 2014, 300) Through the process of walking towards anarchy we must learn how to live as equals within a free horizontal association and in so doing become fit to establish a society with neither masters nor subjects. I am sure that we will make mistakes along the way, but these mistakes must be treated as opportunities to learn and develop, rather than reasons to abandon the march towards anarchy. In the words of the Spanish anarchist Isaac Puente,

Living in libertarian communism will be like learning to live. Its weak points and its failings will be shown up when it is introduced. If we were politicians we would paint a paradise brimful of perfections. Being human and being aware what human nature can be like, we trust that people will learn to walk the only way it is possible for them to learn: by walking. (Puente 1932)


Boehm, Christopher. 2001. Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behaviour. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Clastres, Pierre. 1989. Society Against the State: Essays in Political Anthropology. New York: Zone Books.

Clastres, Pierre. 1994. Archeology of Violence. Semiotext(e).

Draper, Patricia. 1975. “!Kung Women: Contrasts in Sexual Egalitarianism in Foraging and Sedentary Contexts” in Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. R. R. Reiter. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Graham, Robert. 2005. Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE to 1939. Montréal: Black Rose Books.

Malatesta, Errico. 1995. The Anarchist Revolution: Polemical Articles 1924-1931. Edited by Vernon Richards. London: Freedom Press.

Malatesta, Errico. 2014. The Method of Freedom: An Errico Malatesta Reader. Edited by Davide Turcato. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Malatesta, Errico. 2016. A Long and Patient Work: The Anarchist Socialism of L’Agitazione 1897-1898. Edited by Davide Turcato. Chico, CA: AK Press.

Malatesta, Errico. 2019. Towards Anarchy: Malatesta in America 1899-1900. Edited by Davide Turcato. Chico, CA: AK Press.

Puente, Isaac. 1932. Libertarian Communism.

Turcato, Davide. 2012. Making Sense of Anarchism: Errico Malatesta’s Experiments With Revolution, 1889-1900. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Raekstad, Paul, and Gradin, Sofa Saio. 2020. Prefigurative Politics: Building Tomorrow Today. Cambridge: Polity Press.

When Malatesta Got Shot

During the 1890s there was an intense debate in the Italian anarchist movement between organisationalists, who advocated formal organisations like federations, and anti-organisationalists, who only advocated affinity groups and thought formal organisation was incompatible with anarchist values and strategy. In the United States the main debate occurred between Errico Malatesta, who edited La Questione Sociale and advocated formal organisation, and Giuseppe Ciancabilla, who edited l’Aurora and rejected formal organisation. (Turcato 2012, 190-7)

Prior to this debate with Ciancabilla occurring, Malatesta attended a meeting of anarchists at the Tivola and Zucca Saloon in West Hoboken, New Jersey on 3rd September 1899. West Hoboken was one of the main areas where anti-organisationalist anarchism was popular. During the meeting Malatesta explained his organisationalist ideas and this greatly angered an anarchist barber called Domenico Pazzaglia, who was an anti-organisationalist. According to Armando Borghi, Pazzaglia was “unknown to most of the comrades and ignored by the few who knew him.” (Quoted in Malatesta 2015, 238) Pazzaglia became so enraged during Malatesta’s speech that he drew his revolver and shot Malatesta in the leg. Pazzaglia was then disarmed by Gaetano Bresci, who would go onto assassinate the king of Italy in 1900. The police arrived on the scene and decided to arrest Malatesta, the victim of the shooting. Malatesta responded in a truly anarchist fashion and refused to tell the police who had shot him. Upon being released from police custody, Malatesta decided to not publish an account of the shooting in the paper he edited, La Questione Sociale. (Malatesta 2019, xxiii. Nettlau claims the shot missed Malatesta but both Fabbri and Borghi claim he was shot in the leg)

The newspaper Il Progresso Italo-Americano published an article on September 6th in which they claim that,

Enrico Malatesta has proven he is a great soul again on this occasion. Not only has he refused to name the assailant, but he has also declared that he has forgiven him from the bottom of his heart.

‘I am sure – Malatesta said – that by now he regrets his actions.’ (Malatesta 2019, 258)

Shortly after the shooting Ciancabilla began the publication of l’Aurora on 16th September and launched a polemical campaign against Malatesta’s organisationalists ideas. Malatesta responded to this by writing a series of articles critiquing his opponents’ arguments. Even though Ciancabilla did not express public regret over the fact that Malatesta had been shot by an anti-organisationalist, Malatesta did not bring up the incident during the debate and focused on the arguments for and against formal organisation. Although it should be noted that Ciancabilla does appear to have been privately opposed to Pazzaglia’s actions. (Malatesta 2019, xxiii; Malatesta 2015, 238)

The one-time Malatesta did mention the shooting occurred when news of it spread from America to Italy. In response to the coverage of the events in the Italian socialist press, Malatesta published a brief note in La Questione Sociale on October 28th. It said,

Comrade Errico Malatesta – considering the protests being published in the Italian newspapers, as well as others that have reached us directly, regarding the slight accident that happened to him and which we believe is not even worth talking about – thanks the friends who have in such a manner expressed their sympathy with him, but begs them… to let that be the end of it. (Malatesta 2019, 120)

I have been unable to find many details about what happened to Pazzaglia after he shot Malatesta. According to Luigi Fabbri, the paper “L’Adunata dei Refrattari of New York (no. 5 of January 28, 1933) clarifies that Malatesta’s shooter had been an outcast who was not given any consideration among comrades; some Pazzaglia, who disappeared immediately after the movement and died a few years later.” (Fabbri 1936)

Malatesta could have used him being shot by an anti-organisationalist to wage a polemical war against his political opponents within the anarchist movement. He could have sought revenge and attempted to shoot Pazzaglia in retaliation. He instead chose to forgive his assailant and move on from these events. In other words, Malatesta killed the cop in his head. Have you?


Fabbri, Luigi. 1936. Life of Malatesta.

Malatesta, Errico. 2015. Life and Ideas: The Anarchist Writings of Errico Malatesta. Edited by Vernon Richards. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Malatesta, Errico. 2019. Towards Anarchy: Malatesta in America 1899-1900. Edited by Davide Turcato. Chico, CA: AK Press.

Turcato, Davide. 2012. Making Sense of Anarchism: Errico Malatesta’s Experiments with Revolution 1889-1900. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fun Kropotkin Facts

Peter Kropotkin was an anarcho-communist revolutionary. He is perhaps now most famous for developing the theory of mutual aid and writing the conquest of bread aka the bread book. In this video I’m going to go through some fun facts about him.

1. Kropotkin was born into the Russian nobility. His family were large landowners who exploited almost 1200 serfs. (Kropotkin 1989, 24) Due to this Kropotkin inherited the title of prince. This didn’t mean he was a member of the royal family. Prince was a rank in the Russian nobility. As a child Kropotkin abandoned the title of prince in response to the influence of his tutors. He recalls in his autobiography that,

The title of prince was used in our house with and without occasion. M. Poulain must have been shocked by it, for he began once to tell us what he knew of the great Revolution. I cannot now recall what he said, but one thing I remember, namely, that ‘Count Mirabeau’ and other nobles one day renounced their titles, and that Count Mirabeau, to show his contempt for aristocratic pretensions, opened a shop decorated with a signboard which bore the inscription, ‘Mirabeau, tailor.’ (I tell the story as I had it from M. Poulain.) For a long time after that I worried myself thinking what trade I should take up so as to write, ‘Kropótkin, such and such a handicraft man.’ Later on, my Russian teacher, Nikolái Pávlovich Smirnóff, and the general republican tone of Russian literature influenced me in the same way; and when I began to write novels — that is, in my twelfth year — I adopted the signature P. Kropótkin, which I never have departed from, notwithstanding the remonstrances of my chiefs when I was in the military service. (Kropotkin 1989, 43-4)

As an adult anarchist Kropotkin did not like being called a prince. Emma Goldman writes in her autobiography Living my Life,

I remembered the anecdote he had told us about his stay in Chicago, when his comrades had arranged for him to go to Waldheim to visit the graves of Parsons, Spies, and the other Haymarket martyrs. The same morning a group of society women, led by Mrs. Potter Palmer, invited him to a luncheon. ‘You will come, Prince, will you not?’ they pleaded. ‘I am sorry, ladies, but I have a previous engagement with my comrades,’ he excused himself. ‘Oh, no, Prince; you must come with us!’ Mrs. Palmer insisted. ‘Madam,’ Peter replied, ‘you may have the Prince, and I will go to my comrades.’ (Goldman 1970a, 361)

2. Kropotkin rode a penny farthing. His nephew Nicholas Alexeivich visited Kropotkin in 1886 as a child and later recalled in a 1931 article that, “I remember that our uncle astonished us with his adroitness in physical exercises, in bicycling, when that was still new in England”. Kropotkin rode a “penny-farthing”, “the wheel in front was enormous and the rear one very small”. (Quoted in Woodcock and Avakumovic 1990, 212)

3. Kropotkin spoke English in a Russian accent and mispronounced words. That Kropotkin spoke English in a strong accent is claimed by several eyewitness accounts, such as Philip Snowden and Roger Baldwin. (Woodcock and Avakumovic 1990, 226, 284) The longest description I’ve been able to find is by H.W. Nevinson. He writes that,

Anarchists do not have a chairman, but when enough of us had assembled a man stood up and began to speak. His pronunciation was queer until one grew accustomed to it (‘own’ rhymed with ‘town’, ‘law’ with ‘low’, and ‘the sluffter fields of Europe’ became a kindly joke among us). He began with the sentence, “Our first step must be the abolition of all ‘low’. I was a little startled. I had no exaggerated devotion to the law, but, as a first step, its abolition seemed rather a bound. Without a pause the speaker continued speaking, with rapidity, but with the difficulties of a foreigner who has to translate rushing thoughts as he goes along . . . (Quoted in Woodcock and Avakumovic 1990, 235-6)

Kropotkin was himself aware of the difficulties he had when speaking English. He writes in his autobiography that upon first moving to Edinburgh in 1876,

I may say that I had learned English in Russia, and, with my brother, had translated Page’s ‘Philosophy of Geology’ and Herbert Spencer’s ‘Principles of Biology.’ But I had learned it from books, and pronounced it very badly, so that I had the greatest difficulty in making myself understood by my Scotch landlady; her daughter and I used to write on scraps of paper what we had to say to each other; and as I had no idea of idiomatic English, I must have made the most amusing mistakes. I remember, at any rate, protesting once to her, in writing, that it was not a “cup of tea” that I expected at tea time, but many cups. I am afraid my landlady took me for a glutton, but I must say, by way of apology, that neither in the geological books I had read in English nor in Spencer’s ‘Biology’ was there any allusion to such an important matter as tea-drinking. (Kropotkin 1989, 355)

4. Kropotkin is sometimes depicted by later authors as a saintly figure or gentle sage. In reality he was a hardcore anarcho-communist revolutionary. This can be seen in several primary sources. For example, in 1881 he wrote that workers must “seize all of the wealth of society, if necessary doing so over the corpse of the bourgeoisie, with the intention of returning all of society’s wealth to those who produced it, the workers”. (Kropotkin 2014, 305) Decades later in 1914 he wrote that, “two things are necessary to be successful in a revolution . . . an idea in the head, and a bullet in the rifle! The force of action – guided by the force of Anarchist thought”.  (Ibid, 207)

Kropotkin’s hardcore militancy can also be seen in his actions. In 1877 a small armed band of twenty-six Italian anarchists, which included Malatesta, roamed the Matese mountains attempting to spread anarchist ideas through deeds. After failing to accomplish much beyond entering two small towns, burning some official government documents, and giving speeches to peasants on the need for a social revolution, the anarchists were arrested without firing a shot. (Pernicone 1993, 121-6) In response Kropotkin wrote a letter to Paul Robin where he said,

You can imagine how angry we are with the Italians. Seeing that they have allowed themselves to be surprised and have not defended themselves, I propose a vote for their exclusion from the International. The republic of [17]93 was quite capable of guillotining its generals when they gave proof of ineptitude. In my view, by allowing themselves to be surprised, to take fright, and by delivering up their weapons and ammunition to 42 men they have acted as cowards. (Quoted in Cahm 1989, 103)

Kropotkin may have changed his mind after James Guillaume wrote a letter explaining that the Italian anarchists had been unable to use their old rifles because heavy rain had made it too damp to fire. (ibid). In 1877 Kropotkin had himself attended a demonstration in St Imier, Switzerland armed with a “loaded revolver”. He was ready, in his own words, to “blow out the brains” of the police if they attacked. (Cahm 1989, 102, 104) Decades later in 1905 Kropotkin, who was in his 60s, responded to news of the Russian revolution by practising shooting with a rifle in case he returned to Russia and needed to participate in street fighting. (Woodcock and Avakumovic 1990, 365-6)

5. When living in England Kropotkin refused to toast the king. He recounts in a letter that,

A month ago I was invited to a banquet of the Royal Geographical Society of London. The chairman proposed, ‘The King’! Everybody rose and I alone remained seated. It was a painful moment. And I was thunderstruck when immediately afterwards the same chairman cried, ‘Long live Prince Kropotkin!’ And everybody, without exception, rose. (Quoted in Woodcock and Avakumovic 1990, 227)

6. Kropotkin called everything a prison before Foucault made it cool. Kropotkin argued in 1887 that insane asylums were prisons. He wrote,

There was a time when lunatics, considered as possessed by the devil, were treated in the most abominable manner. Chained in stalls like animals, they were dreaded even by their keepers. To break their chains, to set them free, would have been considered then as a folly. But a man came – Pinel – who dared to take off their chains, and to offer them brotherly words, brotherly treatment. And those who were looked upon as ready to devour the human being who dared to approach them, gathered round their liberator, and proved that he was right in his belief in the best features of human nature, even in those whose intelligence was darkened by disease. From that time the cause of humanity was won. The lunatic was no longer treated like a wild beast. Men recognized in him a brother.

The chains disappeared, but asylums – another name for prisons – remained, and within their walls a system as bad as that of the chains grew up by-and-by. (Kropotkin 1991, 369)

A decade later Kropotkin argued in 1899 that authoritarian schools were prisons. He wrote that in Germany “the Kindergarten . . . has often become a small prison for the little ones” where “teachers often make of it a kind of barrack in which each movement of the child is regulated beforehand”. (Kropotkin 1902, 193-4)

7. Kropotkin loved gardening. A wholesome example of this is Goldman’s description of her visit to Kropotkin during the Russian revolution. She writes,

we had visited Peter in July and had found him in good health and buoyant spirits. He seemed then younger and better than when we had seen him the previous March. The sparkle in his eyes and his vivacity had impressed us with his splendid condition. The Kropotkin place had looked lovely in the summer sunshine, with the flowers and Sophie’s vegetable garden in full bloom. With much pride Peter had spoken of his companion and her skill as a gardener. Taking Sasha and me by the hand, he had led us in boyish exuberance to the patch where Sophie had planted a special kind of lettuce. She had succeeded in raising heads as large as cabbages, their leaves crispy and luscious. He himself had also been digging in the soil, but it was Sophie, he had reiterated, who was the real expert. Her potato crop of the previous winter had been so large that there was enough left over to exchange for fodder for their cow and even to share with their Dmitrov neighbours, who had few vegetables. Our dear Peter had been frolicking in his garden and talking about these matters as if they were world events. Infectious had been the youthful spirit of our comrade, carrying us along by its freshness and charm. (Goldman 1970b, 863)

8. Kropotkin was apparently good at playing with kids. His nephew Nicholas Alexeivich claims that during his 1886 visit to Kropotkin, “[h]e taught us all the rules of fortification (a science to which he referred with great respect, regarding it indispensable for a revolutionary) and made fortifications in the snow. We arranged desperate battles with our comrades, little English boys, with my uncle’s benevolent assistance”. (Quoted in Woodcock and Avakumovic 1990, 212)

E.M Heath visited Kropotkin’s home as a child and recalled that “Kropotkin was gay and brimming over with life and interest in everything – very warm and affectionate. His vast knowledge, his vast experience and his great powers of thought, I was quite oblivious to them. It was enough for me to listen to his stories and play the delightful game he taught me, where he was a bull-fighter and I the bull, hurling myself in vain on him”. (Quoted in Woodcock and Avakumovic 1990, 222)

9. Kropotkin never met Michael Bakunin, who was one of the most influential anarchist theorists in the 19th The reason why is as follows. In 1872 Kropotkin visited Switzerland in order to meet socialists of various persuasions and learn about the 1st International. He initially met state socialists in Geneva, including one of Bakunin’s main opponents Nicholas Utin. After Utin attempted to stop workers from going on strike in order to protect the election of a bourgeois candidate, Kropotkin left in disgust and headed for the Jura Mountains. During his stay in the Jura he came into contact with anarchists for the first time and soon came to consider himself one. (Kropotkin 1989, 255-67) He attempted to meet Bakunin but Guillaume advised against this on the grounds that Bakunin was old and overwhelmed by the on-going conflict in the International with Marx and his supporters. (Cahm 1989, 27)

Kropotkin later wrote in his autobiography that “Bakunin was at that time at Locarno. I did not see him, and now regret it very much, because he was dead when I returned four years later to Switzerland.” (Kropotkin 1989, 267) What Kropotkin didn’t realise was that Bakunin had rejected him. Guillaume revealed to Max Nettlau that Bakunin had decided to not meet Kropotkin for what strike me as extremely bizarre reasons. Bakunin associated Peter Kropotkin with his politically moderate brother Alexander Kropotkin who was an associate of Peter Lavrov, one of Bakunin’s rivals. Bakunin was, in addition to this, suspicious of the fact that Kropotkin had stayed with Utin in Geneva for several weeks. (Cahm 1989, 27) At the time Bakunin, who was an antisemite, was convinced that Utin was part of a Jewish state socialist conspiracy against him that had been masterminded by Marx. As a result, Bakunin may have mistakenly believed that Kropotkin had sided with Utin or was being manipulated by him in some way. Unlike Bakunin we now know from Kropotkin’s memoirs that he disliked Utin and that this was a key reason why he had gone to meet the anarchists in the Jura.

10. Kropotkin didn’t only look like Santa Claus he was also aware of the fact. According to Ruth Kinna, Kropotkin contemplated dressing up as Santa Claus in order to expropriate toys from shops and give them away to children for free. Kropotkin wrote on the edge of one page, “[i]nfiltrate the stores, give away the toys!”. On the back of a postcard he wrote,

On the night before Christmas, we’ll all be about
While the people are sleeping, we’ll realise our clout
We’ll expropriate goods from the stores, ‘cos that’s fair
And distribute them widely, to those who need care.

Bonus Fact

Kropotkin was not born with a large beard. Here is a picture of him from 1861. (Woodcock and Avakumovic 1990, 96)

Kropotkin 1861


Goldman, Emma. 1970a. Living My Life Volume 1. New York: Dover Publications.

Goldman, Emma. 1970b. Living My Life Volume 2. New York: Dover Publications.

Cahm, Caroline. 1989. Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism, 1872-1886. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kropotkin, Peter. 1902. Fields, Factories and Workshops: Industry Combined with Agriculture and Brain Work with Manual Work. New York: G.P Putnam’s Sons.

Kropotkin, Peter. 1989. Memoirs of a Revolutionist. Montréal: Black Rose Books.

Kropotkin, Peter. 1991. In Russian and French Prisons. Montréal: Black Rose Books.

Kropotkin, Peter 2014. Direct Struggle Against Capital: A Peter Kropotkin Anthology. Edited by Iain McKay. Oakland, CA: AK Press,

Pernicone, Nunzio. 1993. Italian Anarchism 1864-1892. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Woodcock, George, and Ivan Avakumović. Peter Kropotkin: From Prince to Rebel. Montréal: Black Rose Books, 1990.

What Did Bakunin Think About Religion?

The anarchist Mikhail Bakunin is one of the most famous atheists of the 19th century. Almost a century and a half before rational men on youtube ruined anti-theism for everyone else Bakunin was advocating “the abolition of [religious] cults” and “the substitution of science for faith” (Bakunin 2016, 33). He argued that “if God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him” (Bakunin 1973, 128) Why did Bakunin think this and what were his views on religion?

For Bakunin religion was based on human beings subordinating themselves to a divine power which they themselves had imagined and attributed distinctly human characteristics to. Borrowing heavily from the German philosopher Feuerbach Bakunin wrote,

All religions, with their gods, their demigods and their prophets, their messiahs and their saints, were created by the credulous fancy of men who had not attainted the full development and full possession of their faculties. Consequently, the religious heaven is nothing but a mirage in which man, exalted by ignorance and faith, discovers his own image, but enlarged and reversed – that is, divinized. The history of religions, of the birth, grandeur and decline of the gods who have succeeded one another in human belief, is nothing, therefore, but the development of the collective intelligence and conscience of mankind. As fast as they discovered, in the course of their historically progressive advance, either in themselves or in external nature, a power, a quality, or even any great defect whatever, they attributed them to their gods, after having exaggerated and enlarged them beyond measure, after the manner of children, by an act of their religious fancy. Thanks to this modesty and pious generosity of believing and credulous men, heaven has grown rich with the spoils of the earth, and, by a necessary consequence, the richer heaven became, the more wretched became humanity and the earth. God once installed, he was naturally proclaimed the cause, reason, arbiter, and absolute disposer of all things: the world thenceforth was nothing, God was all; and man, his real creator, after having unknowingly extracted him from the void, bowed down before him, worshipped him, and avowed himself his creature and his slave. (Bakunin 1973, 124)

The genuine belief in this metaphysical subordination was then exploited by God’s self-proclaimed representatives on earth to justify their very real material oppression of others. He wrote,

God being everything, the real world and man are nothing. God being truth, justice, goodness, beauty, power and life, man is falsehood, iniquity, evil, ugliness, impotence and death. God being master, man is the slave. Incapable of finding justice, truth and eternal life by his own effort, he can attain them only through a divine revelation. But whoever says revelation says revealers, messiahs, prophets, priests and legislators inspired by God himself; and these, once recognized as the representatives of divinity on earth, as the holy instructors of humanity, chosen by God himself to direct it in the path of salvation, necessarily exercise absolute power. All men owe them passive and unlimited obedience; for against the divine reason there is no human reason, and against the justice of God no terrestrial justice holds. Slaves of God, men must also be slaves of Church and State, in so far as the State is consecrated by the Church. (Bakunin 1973, 124-5)

The harm of religion so understood was profound. For Bakunin religions destroy people’s

reason, the principle instrument of human emancipation, and reduce them to imbecility, the essential condition of their slavery. They dishonor human labour, and make it a sign and source of servitude. They kill the idea and sentiment of human justice, ever tipping the balance to the side of triumphant knaves, privileged objects of divine indulgence. They kill human pride and dignity, protecting only the cringing and humble. They stifle in the heart of nations every feeling of human fraternity, filling it with divine cruelty instead. All religions are cruel, all founded on blood; for all rest principally on the idea of sacrifice – that is, on the perpetual immolation of humanity to the insatiable vengeance of divinity. In this bloody mystery man is always the victim, and the priest – a man also, but a man privileged by grace – is the divine executioner. (Bakunin 1973, 126)

Bakunin did not, however, blame workers and peasants for believing in God but held it was a product of the society they lived in. According to Bakunin,

Nothing is more natural than that the belief in God, the creator, regulator, judge, master, curser, savior, and benefactor of the world, should still prevail among the people . . . The people, unfortunately, are still very ignorant, and are kept in ignorance by the systematic efforts of all the governments, who consider this ignorance, not without good reason, as one of the essential conditions of their own power. Weighted down by their daily labour, deprived of leisure, of intellectual intercourse, of reading, in short of all the means and a good portion of the stimulants that develop thought in men, the people generally accept religious traditions without criticism and in a lump. These traditions surround them from infancy in all the situations of life, and artificially sustained in their minds by a multitude of official poisoners of all sorts, priests and laymen, are transformed therein into a sort of mental and moral habit, too often more powerful even than their natural good sense. (Bakunin 1973, 117-8)

One of the main reasons why workers and peasants clung to religion was because it enabled them to escape from “the wretched situation to which they find themselves fatally condemned by the economic organization of society in the most civilized countries of Europe.” They were “reduced, intellectually and morally as well as materially, to the minimum of human existence, confined in their life like a prisoner in his prison, without horizon, without outlet, without even a future.” (Bakunin 1973, 118) Religious people should therefore not be blindly attacked but empathized with since their belief in God was grounded in “a deep discontent at heart” and “the instinctive and passionate protest of the human being against the narrownesses, the platitudes, the sorrows, and the shames of a wretched existence.” (Bakunin 1973, 123)

Bakunin was nonetheless an anti-theist who advocated the abolition of religion. In so doing he was not arguing that people should be forced to be atheists. In 1872 he advocated “the most profound and sincere respect for the freedom of conscience of all” and “the sacred right of all to propagate their ideas”. This of course also included his right to “attack the divine idea in its every manifestation – religious, metaphysical, political and juridical”. (Bakunin 2016, 218) Nor did Bakunin think that the socialist movement should exclude believers in God. He explicitly argued that the 1st International should not be officially committed to atheism because it had to attract the millions of workers who believe in God in order to become a genuine mass movement capable of overthrowing capitalism and the state. (Bakunin 2016, 211)

Bakunin instead held that the abolition of religion could only occur through transforming society as a whole because what people thought was a product of their daily experiences and the social structures they were a part of or effected by. He wrote, “thinking flows from life, and to modify thinking, one must transform life. Give a people a broad and humane life and it will astound you by the profound rationalism of its ideas.” (Bakunin 2016, 14) Given this, Bakunin argued that the abolition of religion could only be achieved by a social revolution which abolished capitalism and the state in favour of the free association of free producers. (Bakunin 1973, 123)

This is what Bakunin thought but what should we as modern anarchists make of Bakunin’s views on religion? I myself am an atheist and have been my entire life but I think Bakunin makes too strong a case. Religion does regularly coincide with authoritarianism but it can also result in emancipatory politics, as can be seen in the history of liberation theology in Latin America or, to give an earlier example, the true levelers in England who used the bible to advocate the abolition of class society in the 17th century hundreds of years before the anarchist movement even emerged. Nor am I convinced that religion would be abolished after a social revolution. This is because even under an anarchist society where suffering was greatly reduced people would still be drawn to religion in response to the inescapable suffering of human existence, such as death, heartbreak, and existential terror.


Bakunin, Michael. 2016. Selected Texts: 1868-1875. Edited by A W Zurbrugg. London: Anarres Editions.

Bakunin, Michael. 1973. Selected Writings. Edited by Arthur Lehning. London: Jonathan Cape.

What Do Anarchists Think About Animal Liberation?

Anarchism aims for a society free from oppression and domination. These values have in turn led many anarchists to become vegetarians and vegans, or, at the very least, advocate improved animal welfare. The Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, for example, claimed that “civilized man . . . will extend his principles of solidarity to the whole human race, and even to the animals.” (Kropotkin, 1993, 136) This view was most consistently and fully articulated by the French anarchist and geographer Elisée Reclus, who wrote against the oppression of animals by humans as early as 1896 and 1901.

For Reclus, meat eating rests on a simultaneous process of violence against and degradation of non-human animals. He writes,

Today’s domestication of animals exhibits in many ways moral regression since, far from improving animals, we have deformed and corrupted them. Although through selective breeding we have improved qualities such as strength, dexterity, scent, and speed in racing, as meat-eaters our major preoccupation has been to increase the bulk of meat and fat on four legs to provide walking storehouses of flesh that hobble from the manure pile to the slaughterhouse. Can we really say that the pig is superior to the wild boar or the timid sheep to the courageous mouflon? The great art of breeders is to castrate their animals and create sterile hybrids. They train horses with the bit, whip, and spur, and then complain that the animals show no initiative. Even when they domesticate animals under the best possible conditions, they reduce their resistance to disease and ability to adapt to new environments, turning them into artificial beings incapable of living spontaneously in free nature.

Such degradation of species is itself a great evil, but civilized science goes even further and sets about exterminating them. We have seen how many birds have been wiped out by European hunters in New Zealand, Australia, Madagascar, and the polar archipelagos, and how many walruses and other cetaceans have already disappeared! The whale has fled the waters of the temperate zone, and soon will not even be found among the ice shields of the Arctic Ocean. All the large land animals are similarly threatened. We already know the fate of the aurochs and the bison, and we can foresee that of the rhinoceros, the hippopotamus, and the elephant. (Reclus 2013, 134-5)

This mistreatment of other animals is itself symptomatic of how people destroy the natural environment in order to meet their own ends. Reclus writes,

Isn’t this moreover the way that we act in relation to all of nature? Let loose a pack of engineers in a charming valley, in the midst of meadows and trees, or on the banks of a beautiful river, and you will soon see what they are capable of doing to it. They will do everything in their power to make their own work conspicuous and hide nature under piles of gravel and coal. They will be quite proud to see the sky crisscrossed by streaks of filthy yellowish or black smoke from their locomotives. (ibid, 158)

The violent and non-caring treatment of non-human animals in turn acts as a foundation for violence against fellow humans. Reclus asks how Europeans who committed atrocities when crushing the Boxer Rebellion in China came to be “wild beasts with human faces who take pleasure in tying Chinese people together by their clothing and pigtails and then throwing them into a river? How is [it] possible for them to finish off the wounded and force prisoners to dig their own graves before shooting them?” (ibid, 158-9) Reclus replied,

But isn’t there a direct causal relationship between the food eaten by these executioners, who call themselves “civilizers,” and their brutal deeds? They often praise bloody flesh as a source of health, strength, and intelligence. And without disgust they go into butcher shops with slippery reddish pavement and breathe the sickly sweet odor of blood! How much difference is there between the dead carcass of a cow and that of a man? Their severed limbs and entrails mixed in with one another look quite similar. The slaughter of the former facilitates the murder of the latter, especially when an order resounds from a superior, or when one hears from afar the words of his royal master, ‘Show no mercy!’ (ibid, 159)

For Reclus,

It is in no way a digression to mention the horrors of war in connection with massacres of cattle and carnivorous banquets. People’s diet corresponds closely to their morality. Blood calls for blood. (ibid, 159)

The murder of non-whites by Europeans rested, according to Reclus, on the same kind of thinking that underlies meat eating culture, such as the notion that it is wrong to kill cats but ok to kill pigs. The morality of white supremacy,

holds that there are two laws for mankind, one law for those with yellow skin and another law that is the prerogative of the whites. Apparently in the future it will be permissible to kill or torture the former, while it will still be wrong to do so to the latter. But isn’t morality equally flexible when applied to animals? By goading dogs on to tear a fox to pieces, the gentlemen learns how to send his marksmen after the fleeing Chinese. The two kinds of hunt are part of one and the same ‘sport,’. (ibid, 159)

To overcome forms of sectarianism such as nationalism or racism humans must come to view one another as part of an international human family. As Reclus writes, “[e]ach individual must be able to address any of his peers in complete brotherhood”. (ibid, 231) Likewise humans should come to consider non-human animals as part of an extended family composed of all living things. We should come to understand that what we are taught to consider “meat on feet” in fact “loves as we do” and “feels as we do”. For the vegetarian,

the real concern is to recognize the bonds of affection and kindness that link man to animals. . . The horse and the cow, the wild rabbit and the cat, the deer and the hare – these are more valuable to us as friends than as meat. We are eager to have them either as respected fellow workers, or simply as companions in the joy of living and loving. (Ibid, 160)

Or as Reclus says elsewhere, vegetarians seek to make other animals “neither our servants nor our machines, but rather our true companions. (ibid, 136) Coming to view other animals as friends rather than food is merely an expansion of what humans already do with their favourite animals. Reclus writes,

just as there are many carnivores today who refuse to eat the flesh of man’s noble companion, the horse, or that of those pampered guests in our homes, the dog and the cat – in the same way it is repugnant to us to drink the blood of the steer, an animal whose labour helps supply us with bread. We no longer want to hear the bleating of sheep, the bellowing of cows, or the grunts and piercing cries of pigs as they are led to the slaughterhouse. (ibid, 161)

The process of coming to treat other animals as friends rests on nourishing, rather than destroying, the natural environment that we share with all other life forms. Reclus writes that we must “develop the part of the earth that falls to us so as to make it as pleasant as possible, not only for ourselves, but also for the animals of our household.” (ibid, 160) As Reclus wrote elsewhere,

To develop the continents, the seas, and the atmosphere that surrounds us; to “cultivate our garden” on earth; to rearrange and regulate the environment in order to promote each individual plant, animal, and human life; to become fully conscious of our human solidarity, forming one body with the planet itself; and to take a sweeping view of our origins, our present, our immediate goal, and our distant ideal – this is what progress means. (ibid, 233)


Kropotkin, Peter. 1993. Fugitive Writings. Edited by George Woodcock. Montréal: Black Rose Books.

Reclus, Elisée. 2013. Anarchy, Geography, Modernity: Selected Writings of Elisée Reclus. Edited by John Clark and Camille Martin. Oakland, CA: PM Press.