By utilizing primary sources of two influential socialist uprisings (The Paris Commune of 1871 and Revolutionary Catalonia in 1936) in conjunction with the ideas of philosophers Peter Kropotkin and George Orwell, this article explores the revolutionary values and objectives of left-wing anarchism.
To those who are not well versed in political theory, the word ‘anarchism’ is likely synonymous with the terms ‘oblivion’ or ‘chaos.’ Most would likely envision an anarchist world to be void of order, control, or stable institutions. However, if you ask revolutionary philosophers such as Peter Kropotkin about the meaning of anarchism, they would likely cite it as the abolition of hierarchy – not social order.
The reality is that anarchism is challenging to define and carries various connotations with many groups throughout the political spectrum. At its core, anarchism is skepticism of government, desire for democracy, and fear of oppression. However, rather than abolishing the entire idea of governance, most anarchists simply believing in shifting the power to a different kind of institution – whether it be labor syndicates, committees, markets or otherwise. Among anarchist scholars, there is almost as much consensus on what to replace the government with as there is on how to do it.
In this article, I focus on a broad range of left-wing anarchist ideologies spanning from Kropotkin (anarcho-communist) to Orwell (social libertarian); both in theory and historical practice. By studying these ideas, even if we are not convinced to start a revolution of our own, we can learn from the traditions and objectives of anarchism, as well as its criticisms of the contemporary state-capitalist structure. These are the lessons which this article seeks to extract from the last 170 years of anarchist history – beginning with what many consider among the first attempts of a workers revolution.
Voices of Paris Commune
In the late 1860s, industrial capitalism and autocratic regimes held France, like much of the world, in social upheaval. Fundamental political and economic reforms were demanded from the workers, who had been overworked, oppressed and impoverished. The proletarianized industrial class knew their role in the growing economy, as well as their exclusion from the prosperity which it gave the elite class. Revolutionary acts of protest by the working class began as early as 1871, when an unarmed demonstration by radicals was fired upon by Breton Mobile Guard on January 22, killing countless workers. Strikes and protests only increased in size, frequency, and intensity leading to the siege of France by the Prussians. After the French failed to protect the city, the local revolutionaries recaptured Paris and remade it in their collectivist image. By March 1871, the Central Committee of the National Guard, a group aligned with the First International and directly elected by the working-class battalions of the Guard, officially held control of the city. They soon declared municipal independence and announced immediate elections in Paris – marking the beginning of a two-month social experiment which would be studied and interpreted for over 170 years to come. The Central Committee’s manifesto of March 18 reads;
“The proletarians of Paris, amidst the failures and treasons of the ruling classes, have understood that the hour has struck for them to save the situation by taking into their own hands the direction of public affairs… They have understood that it is their imperious duty, and their absolute right, to render themselves, masters of their own destinies, by seizing upon the governmental power.”
Immediately after taking power, the Communards sought to create a new social order; one radically opposed to the class system building around them. Their techniques for countering oppression included a direct democratic governing style where the leaders (almost always working-class laymen) alternate their roles frequently, and an economy also built around democratic action. The Committee had liberated all goods in pawn shops, rolled back prices of rent, established a 6,000-franc cap on salary, allowed workers to take control of their businesses and restricted night shifts at bakeries and other shops. As the Commune continued, it steadily radicalized further; soon postponing all debts and abolishing debt interests. The Commune also fiercely opposed a national army, with a heavy emphasis on personal protection. The Committee had eliminated the Standing Army and replaced it with the National Guard, which was composed of every citizen capable of being armed.
The vision of the Commune was very much reactionary to the industrial landscape developing around them. The workers, more than envisioning additions to their society, wanted a world void of hierarchy, class, and oppression. The way to achieve this, they believed, was to remake the institutions which physically enforce class dynamics. Much of the ideologies which we associate the Commune with today (anarchism, socialism, etc.) haven’t yet been formally organized by 1871. Therefore, the Commune had few predecessors to model. It is also worth noting that there were few if any, political scientists in the Committee; this social dynamic was purely shaped, not by the minds of scholars or politicians, but the will of the working class. These factors make studying the Commune an exercise in, not only political theory but human nature and social psychology. Mitchell Abidor’s Voices of the Paris Commune explores the story of the Commune by collecting first-hand interviews with those involved. Former-Commune member Paschal Grousset spoke of the revolutionary motives to La Blanche in the journal’s “Inquiry on the Commune” column (1897);
“It’s hardly necessary to affirm that two million men don’t rise up without a reason, don’t fight for nine weeks and don’t leave thirty-five thousand corpses on the streets without having good reasons. For many, these reasons were the result of the long suffering which is the life of seven eighths of a so-called civilized nation… For most people, the dominant idea, the main idea, primordial need to defend the republic, directly attacked by a clerical and royalist Assembly.”
The Commune lasted for only two months before Versailles troops cooperated with the Prussians to invade Paris. An estimated 30,000 Communards were executed, and 38,000 were imprisoned. Decades later, Peter Kropotkin released his seminal work, The Conquest of Bread (1892), which then became gospel to many anarchists and inspired revolutions to follow. In the preface of the book, Kropotkin refers to the Paris Commune of 1871;
“In March 1871, Paris had proclaimed that henceforward it would not wait for the retardatory portions of France and intended to start within its Commune its own social development. The movement was too short-lived to give any positive results. It remained communalist only. But the working-classes of the old International saw at once it’s historical significance. They understood that the free Commune would be henceforth the medium in which the ideas of modern socialism may come to realization. The free agro-industrial communes…must be vast agglomerations, like Paris, or still better, small territories.”
Homage to Catalonia
Half a century after the Paris Commune, class conflict continues to plaque the capitalist world as a divided Spain spirals into civil war in 1936. Several factors were building to war, most deriving from a violent clash of political ideologies growing within the discontent of the Second Republic. The Spanish ideologues, radically various in philosophies yet similar in their passion, dreamt very different (and incompatible) visions for the future of their nation. Combined with the clashing economic and diplomatic interests of both domestic and foreign actors and the desperation of the Spanish lower classes, this ideological crossroad for the future of Spain became a chaotic prelude to the bloody worldwide conflict which soon followed.
Predictably, the ideological hotbed of Spain during the 1930s served as fertile ground for a workers revolution, particularly within the Spanish region of Catalonia which, after already hosting a counterculture, has been recently increasing its regional autonomy. As Spain diverged into the separate nations of Franco’s Fascist regime and the loosely unified Republican loyalists, the Catalan workers (armed only their passion and their numbers) sought a third fate for their region; a new form of society which resolves the problematic dynamics of class and governance by distributing social power and authority amongst every individual worker. Virtually all businesses were collectivized and democratically run by the workers. The concept of private property was abolished, and citizens took and gave as they pleased. The economy was organized, not by markets or government, but by local trade unions and decentralized planning committees who were composed of directly elected officials and workers. Within a year, the movement soon grew to encompass 8 million workers and collectivize 75% of the Catalan economy.
In late December 1936, writer George Orwell traveled to Barcelona intending to write newspaper articles about the Catalan Anarchists. However, almost immediately after being immersed in the revolutionary atmosphere, he became of the countless foreigners who joined the anarchist militia. He later cited the decision as “the only conceivable thing to do” after his exposure to the classless society which the workers created. He writes in the first chapter of his personal account in Catalonia, published as Homage to Catalonia (1938);
“It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties… Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal … All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for. “
As the war continued to intensify and engulf the upper reaches of Spain, the workers’ enthusiasm fell dramatically. Additionally, an increasing amount of Republican war-funding was sent by the Soviet Union, whose communist forces discouraged the anarchist movement. As the Soviets continued to suppress the Catalan revolutionaries (first by influence and then by force), the region began to return to its former state. George Orwell, in the sentimental ninth chapter of his memoir, recalled traveling back to Barcelona from the war front and finding “the revolutionary atmosphere had vanished.” Soon after, the region was taken by the Fascists, who abolished Catalan autonomy, outlawed the Catalan language and destroyed much of the area’s newspapers, books and records. The Franco regime continued to rule Spain (and suppress Catalan culture and autonomy) until 1975.
What wisdom can be acquired by studying these working-class revolts? Although anarchism appears to be a complete mirror image of our society, perhaps it is only extremist in the rhetorical values of American democracy. The philosophies which supposedly founded our nation, that of decentralized power, pluralism, democracy, and liberation (at the time, only of white male landowners) are nonetheless similar to the rhetoric of anarchism, yet the broad objectives haven’t been achieved under Western governing style. This is likely because the decentralization of power necessary for real democracy cannot be achieved in a society which equates wealth to power and holds that control in the hands of a few. In the pursuit of a better world, perhaps we must ask ourselves if modern capitalism and government, having been tools of the rich, are still able to be utilized for real democracy. If not, the future of governance remains uncertain, and the people should remain skeptical of power and government.
It is also worth noting that social organization is dependent on, even more than government, the economy. The state is a neutral tool which can be utilized by the wealthy or the poor, but a primary need for the state in the first place is to stabilize and enforce the underlying system of class and capitalism. Thus, anarchists are not only opposed to the government, but often the complete economic foundations of the class system. We saw this in the form of collectivized businesses in the communes discussed above, especially in the unique Catalan economy, which was temporarily organized solely by labor unions and decentralized planning committees. These economic practices are aligned with the same philosophy of ‘decentralization’ which was also used in workings of the Committees. Again, the objectives of equality, democracy, and the decentralization of power depend upon, not only a democratic reworking of government but of the economy as well.
I cannot say if the anarchist models of social organization were truly sustainable or if they would have continued to prosper if not for war, but we know that they sought to address certain problems in radical and fascinating ways. The experimental devices which they wielded – a decentralized economy, a small and transparent overseeing committee and a social contract of solidary – at least temporarily succeeded in bringing about the society of classlessness which countless philosophers declared impossible. For a short time, they defied the Western understanding of human nature and united as a class without the social devices of government and capitalism. I do not know where the next instance of successful anarchism will take place, but, so long as there are humans, there will always be the drive for personal prosperity and liberation from authority – even if only achieved for a couple of months.
Abidor, Mitchell. Voices of the Paris Commune. PM Press, 2015.
Gould, Roger V. “Multiple Networks and Mobilization in the Paris Commune, 1871.” American Sociological Review, vol. 56, no. 6, 1991, p. 716.
Marx, Karl. “The Civil War in France.” Marx: Later Political Writings, May 1871.
Kropotkin, Peter. Conquest of Bread. 1892.