“L’Entente”, La Révolte: organe communiste-anarchiste, 11 and 18 April 1891
The Italian Congress in Capologo once again discussed the question of organisation. One of us expressed his views on this. But as we are not all absolutely of the same opinion on matters of detail, we return to it again.
It is certain that French anarchists are looking for the best method of free organisation but that they have not found it yet. This is why the question is continually brought up for discussion.
We are not satisfied with what exists: today we feel too isolated. But we have not yet found anything better which is in conformity with our fundamental ideas of anarchy and individual initiative and which nevertheless makes it possible to better unify efforts, to better inspire us for the struggle.
As it is, the anarchist party has done much more than we think – as Révolte has already pointed out. But we are right to ask ourselves if we cannot do more and better.
One thing seems certain to us. It is that amongst French anarchists it is no longer possible to establish those organisations between a small number of friends, veiled from the great number, which wants to give an impulse and a direction to the party. If such were formed today, it would never have the importance that it would have had in the past and it would not last. The ten years during which the French anarchists lived without these centres developed the spirit of initiative up to a certain point, and a return to the past now seems impossible to us.
We can only rejoice at that. Such groupings, which have filled almost the entire history of this century, can undoubtedly give life to a party for a certain time. They can give it a power of action, an importance and a certain glory that it would not have acquired otherwise. But, after a few years, all these understandings became a hindrance, an obstacle to further development. They do not allow the individual to reach the full strength of his development. They accustom groups to rely on the initiative that must come from this centre whose existence one guesses. And if they can develop the power of action of the party in a certain direction, they sterilise it efforts in all other directions; they paralyse the growth of new ideas, they narrow the movement and end up giving it a false, antiquated character.
If examples were needed, there would be no shortage of them in the past. As for a current example, we have it in the Blanquist party which, still imbued with this idea that they will make the revolution, has recently done everything possible to throw France into the Boulangist adventure. The Marxist party is another current example. Both keep the past alive in the present.
Does it follow, however, that the anarchists as they are [currently] organised have done all they could, given their forces? Did they avoid the government they sought to avoid? Did they not sterilise a good part of their efforts by absolutely renouncing, for a certain time, all agreement and by proclaiming – not the free initiative of each group but even isolation?
We don’t believe that.
First – and we were already pointing this out at the 1881 congress – the lack of closer relations between groups threatened to give newspapers a disproportionate importance. The newspaper became the centre to which everyone turned for the smallest thing. Everything from the kousso to kill the tapeworm within a comrade to dynamite was demanded of the newspaper – which suited the devilish business of the police. It was from the newspaper that every initiative was expected – whereas the anarchist newspaper must be the work of a small group, a work that one reads as long as one approves of its course of action and stops reading as soon as one finds that it no longer meets the needs of the moment.
Things have changed a lot since 1881. Groups know each other more or less. They see each other, meet sometimes, and sometimes also exchange their ideas.
But this exchange does not seem frequent enough, nor enduring enough.
When this issue [of Révolte] has appeared, we will have received in London around fifty comrades from the provinces of England to meet with friends from the capital. It was a group of the Socialist League which first invited friends from the provinces to take advantage of the three days of the Easter holidays to come to London; and since then this trip has become a habit. They come, whether there is an invitation or not.
But if they come to London, it is because they have already met in the same way in the provinces. There is always in one county or another local meetings without any formality, replacing the congresses of the past.
In France, the custom is just beginning to take shape. And in England, as in France, amongst comrades we still do not know each other well enough. So there is a gap to fill. To fill it, we should not wait for a French anarchist congress to decide that regional congresses should be held. You are not an anarchist for nothing: you have to know how to take the initiative yourself. It is like abstention, which is not – as we have often repeated – inaction. Inaction is not anarchist at all; for if there is one point on which the anarchist must differ from all other ists, it is precisely in that he himself takes the initiative on what he think is best, without waiting for a congress to order him to do it.
If the custom of these meetings in small regions is established, it is certain that the wave will widen. We will meet in larger regions, and we will end up having national and international conferences.
That has to be done. For it is a dilemma. Either we will know each other only through some centre, and this centre will be the committee, the newspaper, or the orator – or we will know each other directly, by gathering at meetings. In any case, getting to know each other is necessary.
However beautiful, however great the idea that comes to such and such an individual, he will only carry it out when he feels supported. And it is not always sure that he will find support amongst his closest friends. Such and such a Marseilles tailor can find men who approve of his way of seeing things amongst the miners of the North, and so on. And if he never gets a chance to see anyone but his hometown friends – in most cases he will do nothing, or just write a letter to a newspaper.
Besides, who would doubt the strength that any idea, any inspiration receives in contact with numbers? The intensity of inspiration is increased a hundredfold just by the presence of ten men who share it. And if exceptionally energetic natures can march towards their goal against the whole world, it is known that this is not the forte of the average human character.
It is therefore necessary to see each other, to meet each other, to communicate our ideas. It is so banal that, really, it even seems childish to say it, to prove it.
But this does not happen, or at least it does not happen as much as it could.
The great obstacle that these anarchist meetings have always encountered is the question of – “will there be delegates or not?” It is impossible for everyone to go: it costs too much. Appointing representatives is not anarchist. We preferred to do nothing at all, while it would have been so simple to contribute so that a comrade could make the trip.
We understand the fear the delegate inspires. It is the fear of congresses that ape parliaments, the fear of decisions imposed by a centre. But once you not recognise a centre and do not accept any decision you do not yourself make – you could consider meetings as a simple opportunity to exchange ideas, without resorting to doing that in a newspaper – always in a newspaper! In this case, the comrade whose trip has been paid by donations is no longer a legislator. He simply went to see the others and bring back a breath of fresh air from their contact.
All this, of course, is when you have something to discuss, a question to clarify, an item to reach agreement on. If it is only a question of theorising and giving everyone the opportunity to utter their little spiel – it is better to stay at home. But there have already been opportunities to do better.
These occasions never fail to affirm in broad daylight the hatred [felt] against all these “patriotic”, “alliancist”, royalist, Germanophobist, Russophilist, and other scoundrels, and to raise the question of the revolution expropriating all social wealth?
It seems to us that amongst anarchists, we have not sufficiently distinguished between what can be done in isolation, by a few individuals, and what can only be accomplished by consulting with others, by associating with them, by agreeing to common action.
There are acts which can be carried out only when one is alone – when one acts without putting responsibility on anyone else and taking it on oneself. Such was the act of Vera Zasulich. Such was the act of Padlewski. Such were certain acts in France. If, in 1877, Vera Zasulich had consulted her friends, who at that time were extremely moderate, and had asked for their approval, she would have been completely discouraged before getting it. And her act would have lost that character of spontaneity and courage which won it the admiration of Europe.
But if the development of the revolutionary spirit gains immensely from the acts of heroic individuals, it is no less true (whatever historians say) that it is not by these heroic acts that revolutions are made. Zasuliches are rare exceptions, even in Russia, although that country is at the moment passing through the heroic period in its history which was passed through by France and Italy between 1830 and 1848. The revolution needs heroes; but for their blood to be of any use, they must be supported: that the thousands and hundreds of thousands of men who are in no way heroes also come to bring their strength, their day-to-day devotion. their energy and their knowledge to its service. Revolution, above all, is a popular movement.
And this is why the young Russian heroes have changed Russia so little, despite all their boundless devotion and their epic courage. They have forgotten that revolutions are made by the people, and that the blood of martyrs is useful only when we have succeeded in awakening the great mass of the people.
That was also the error of the anarchists in 1881. When the Russian revolutionaries had killed the Tsar – which, thanks to authoritarian prejudices, seemed to be the beginning of the revolution – the European anarchists imagined that henceforth a handful of ardent revolutionaries, armed with a few bombs, would suffice to make the social revolution. They made the mistake of forgetting the special conditions in which Russia found itself and imagined themselves all to be heroes like those who went to the scaffold in St. Petersburg. They believed that a few cartridges and a few men of courage would be enough to blow up the social edifice. But with very few exceptions they were by no means heroes; and an edifice founded on centuries of history cannot be destroyed with a few kilos of explosives.
Instead of realising in advance that the great majority have no desire to die as a lost sentinel, and that nevertheless all can contribute, in accordance with their strength, to fuelling the agitation (as we have tried to make clear in The Spirit of Revolt) – they spent several years discussing grandiose actions which were to change the face of the world, but which did not do so. Too often they neglected day-to-day agitation to dwell discussing amongst comrades plans for social reconstruction by means of an Anarchist Detector [Indicateur anarchiste]. Remaining Jacobins, although calling themselves anarchists, they no more cared about the people than a Blanquist in a red sash cares about them.
We had to go through this period, and we needn’t regret it at all, just as we don’t regret in any way that other period when the Russian youth thought that with a few socialist pamphlets they would rouse the mass of the peasants. Rather these errors than the “practical good sense” of the far too practical people who today throng the corridors of the bourgeois parliaments, denying and betraying the working class from which they came. If this period was poor in action which appealed to the great majority, it nevertheless had its fortunate consequences: there were a few celebrated acts; despite everything, there were a few heroes. And this period made it possible for the anarchist ideal to be maintained at a certain level which will later appear in the revolution. The party reflected, developed habits of initiative and independence; it remained revolutionary, while elsewhere they threw themselves at the governmental cake.
So long as we were in this phase of the movement, we could confine ourselves to scattered little groups, scarcely aware of each other, and acting as skirmishers. When there were five or six anarchists in Paris – what indeed could be done, other than some act of individual courage, or else some noisy interruptions in electoral meetings to heckle some political charlatan with questions!
But the times have changed since then. There are no longer the five or six comrades of those days; and the environment we are acting in has completely changed.
Just through the general spread of revolutionary ideas, the great mass of the workers, holding aloof from all the socialist parties, has launched itself into movement. Throughout Europe and in the United States it already is in revolt against the present conditions of exploitation and work.
Fools may well say that the eight-hour movement is the work of [Jules] Guesde. But, with all the modesty for which they are known, none of the Marxists themselves would dare to affirm such an absurdity. It would be too stupid.
The movement dates back a long time. After the defeat of the International in Europe, it took refuge in America. That is where it is coming from today.
As early as 1877, the general strike was already declared during the strike of railways, in the light of fires, looting, and the shootings of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is still at the head of the movement!
It was again on May 1st that the general strike for the eight-hour day broke out in Chicago, and that the anarchists, after having criticised the movement, joined in, arming themselves with guns and bombs – only one of which exploded on the evening of the 4th in the ranks of the police who charged the anarchist meeting. Politicians who only know about the black horse of their brave general can ignore it; but anarchists should not forget that the 1st of May is when our heroes, Parsons, Spies, Lingg, Fischer and Engel, died. They should be ashamed to confuse the manoeuvres by which politicians seek to takeover a movement which overwhelms them with the movement itself, watered with workers’ blood in Pittsburgh, with anarchist blood in Chicago. One might as well say that the Paris Commune was decreed by Félix Pyat!
Indeed, what efforts on the part of the Marxists to make it a “legal eight hours” – while the masses want it not legally, but illegally, and obtained from the bosses by threat and rebellion!
The masses want the general strike. And even those who don’t come out in favour of it have only one argument: it is that they are not sufficiently federated, that they are not sure that everyone will stop work on May 1st. Give them this assurance, that they have the certainty that every one of you, to the extent that you are revolutionaries, will not let a single factory work after May 1st; that you will take it by storm – as the Slavs and Hungarians did this week in Pittsburgh – if it emits smoke after the declaration of the strike and you will see if the general strike doesn’t break out on May 1st.
And if only half the fires go out that day – this means either the submission of the bourgeois, or else the beginning of the social war, fought on the real terrain – no offense to the Boulangists and especially to the Orléanists.
That is the situation. And we wonder if faced with such a situation it is possible to remain isolated, not to form groups, to reach agreement, to see each other, to discuss? Is it possible to abandon everything to discussions as slow, as incomplete, as those conducted through the press? We believe that the idea of groups for a well-defined purpose is perfectly correct. And isn’t the attitude we should take to the workers movement a defined purpose?
Finally, to conclude, a word on propaganda by ideas and by deeds. The trouble with all revolutions has been – as we have often said – that the mass of the people had no clear idea of what they wanted, whereas the ruling classes knew perfectly. For the revolution not to be conjured away, it is necessary that the anarchist and communist idea should penetrate the masses. All those who have the social revolution at heart agree on that.
But how can these ideas penetrate the masses? That is the whole question. There are papers and meetings. But we know what they are worth. They address themselves always to the same individuals: the readers and the audiences. For four years we have been marking time with this minority. And if the light is shed on the minds of this small number – what can this small number do if it remains what it is – that is to say, a handful?
Blanqui understood this very well. There was in his time a group of militants. But to propagate the republican idea in France, they chose every occasion to proclaim it in the public square, in the court rooms, on the scaffold itself.
For many long years the workers of Europe slept; just a few men here and there came to socialist meetings or happened to buy a socialist paper.
But then at last they awoke again. They gather in meetings, they go to congresses, they take to the streets. The political intriguers, who see in socialism only a future Ministry of Labour in the armchairs of which they soon hope to sink, are there to stupefy the masses, to throw dust in their eyes with their so-called scientific nonsense. – Do anarchists have the right to stand aside? Shouldn’t they make their voice heard, and distribute by the thousand their papers, pamphlets, manifestos everywhere where the working masses are?
The Italian and Spanish anarchists understand this. But in France we still have to waste precious time discussing, always discussing instead of acting!
And if May 1st is really what we believe it will be – that is to say, an imposing demonstration of the unity which is being forged between workers, with partial rebellions here and there against the exploiters – then it will make thousands think who are not thinking today, who read neither our papers nor our pamphlets, and who visit neither our little circles nor our meetings. It will make them reflect and will help to spread the anarchist idea a hundred times more than all our spoken and written propaganda. It will force new elements to become anarchists.
Man, it has been said, is a thinking animal who hates to be forced to reflect. That is true.
There are, however, great deeds which, by stirring his imagination, lead him to think. Let us stir his imagination.
 Translated in part by N.W., “May Day and Anarchist Propaganda”, Freedom: Anarchist Weekly, 1 May 1971. (Translator)
 That is, a soldier assigned to a very dangerous mission or position. (Translator)
 L’Indicateur anarchiste was a bomb-making manual published in 1890. (Translator)
 It should be noted that all accounts of the meeting in the Haymarket indicates that it was peaceful and unarmed (in spite of a leaflet announcing the meeting which called workers to arms in response to the police shooting of pickets on May 3rd). No evidence has ever been produced – not at the trial in 1886 nor subsequently – that an anarchist threw the bomb at the meeting on May 4th (which Kropotkin wrongly suggests was on the 5th) and many have suggested that an agent provocateur was at work. (Translator)