Sunday, April 12, 2015

Reflections on 19th Century Anarchism From Reading *The Proud Tower*.

Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower permits mediation on what is truly admirable about 19th Century anarchism. The range of expression of lifetime commitment, from the fiery leading intelligence of Michael Bakunin to the quiet intellectual preoccupation of Jean Grave is compelling. “In a fifth-floor garret in a working-class street, the Rue Moffetard,” after his imprisonment, Grave “edited, largely wrote, and printed on a hand press ‘La Revolte,’ at the same time working on his great history Le Mouvement Libertaire Sous la Troisieme Republique’” (Tuchman, p. 86). For one inclined to reading and writing, such a depiction is immensely seductive. But it is the life-long active engagement, the passionate dedication to the well-being of others, that is most impressive.

There was a romantic faith in human nature among these idealists. “The Anarchists believed that with Property, the monarch of all evil, eliminated, no man could again live off the labor of another and human nature would be released to seek its natural level of justice among men. The role of the State would be replaced by voluntary cooperation among individuals and the role of the law by the supreme law of the general welfare” (Tuchman, p. 73). A pause in appreciation of Barbara Tuchman’s even-handedness. While she was not an anarchist, Tuchman’s ability to sympathetically portray a group, who is remembered by most of her fellow mainstream historians for inspiring violence, is commendably open-minded. The Proud Tower’s chapter, entitled “The Idea and the Deed,” is a valuable, 61 page, encapsulation of anarchist history between 1890-1914.

But romantic vision and commitment was not enough to ensure success. From the distance of more than a century, we have available hindsight. As modern individuals looking backward, we can see some problems with the views of 19th Century anarchists that are readily visible to us, but were not apparent to them. Violence, in the form of assassination and public bombings, is repudiated by almost all contemporary, thinking anarchists. This is the case for both practical and philosophical reasons. Practically speaking, the numerous attacks of the late 1800s did not make Western Civilization receptive to anarchist principles. Anarchists of that century learned too late that the masses, whom these acts were meant to support, were horrified by the attacks. Workers tended to rally to the victims of bombings rather than to the banner of anarchism. As for the bourgeoisie, they simply stiffened their resolve and rallied more fervently around their State and capitalist systems. Expecting bourgeois citizens of various countries to surrender, is as unreasonable as the similar expectation of 21st Century Radical Islam, that the West will surrender its permissive, democratic culture because its people are terrorized.

Philosophically, attempting to create a utopia by employing violence or, in the words of Audre Lorde, using “the Master’s tools” to “dismantle the Master’s house” (Lorde, p. 110), will only create an authoritarian outcome. With the numerous examples of history available to them (Robespierre comes to mind) the anarchists of that time should have known that terror results in suffocating fear, demagoguery and oppressive regimes.

The times being what they were, there were also misunderstandings of human biology that certainly effected the thinking of anarchists living in that period. Natural Selection was so new, and genetics so poorly understood, that wrong-headed assumptions about human nature persisted. There was a na├»ve, utopian notion that humans would “return” to a mythical state of grace where everyone shares and cooperates. Humans have as many, if not more, selfish impulses built into their genetic composition as they do cooperative ones. We are the current product of simpler animals, who survived to evolve by clawing their way to the top of the food chain. Yes, there was some cooperation exhibited, but primarily within one’s tribe or group. Primate behavior and history both teach us that outsiders are violently attacked and driven-off if they encroached on the resources or food supply of one’s group. As humans evolved, stronger tribes subjugated weaker tribes and used their labor to create what we ironically call civilization.  The golden age, where a multi-ethnic collection of human families sat around a campfire singing folk songs and eating vegan cheese, is nothing more than a wishful fantasy. For a more extended discussion of the opportunistic tendency in human behavior, without which we would not have survived, I refer the reader to Richard Dawkins’ masterful work The Selfish Gene.

Nineteenth Century anarchists, from Proudhon to Kropotkin, elaborate their utopian vision of how, once governments were abolished, people would divide resources.  They discussed ideas like the equitable division of land among farmers and the pooling of food or goods into vast storehouses. Kropotkin “had the plans for the kingdom already drawn” (Tuchman, p. 83). But any such system would undoubtedly create a governmental structure to gather resources and administer fair distribution. After the destruction of all governments, we would certainly build one again for this purpose. Governments, over time, make themselves larger, not smaller. Bureaucrats find new reasons to create more work and accrue more power to make their departments larger, more important, better funded. They end-up controlling more aspects of life. What might begin as a benevolent distribution of resources would end in another State system of control. The paradox of anarchism’s antipathy towards organization, when considered alongside the need for organization before, during and after a revolution, was never a contradiction that activists of that era could resolve.

Finally, there is the problem that Bakunin himself elaborated at the end of his life. Discussing the failure of revolution in his lifetime, Bakunin wrote to his wife “we reckoned without the masses who did not want to be roused to passion for their own freedom…This passion being absent what good did it do us to have been right theoretically? We were powerless.” Tuchman goes on to say “he despaired of saving the world and died, disillusioned, in 1876” (Tuchman, pp. 75-6).

Whatever criticisms we have of thought or action among these idealists, they did make a contribution to the individualism, and perhaps even the freedom, of humanity. Given Tuchman’s historical balance, she should have the last word before we move on to current anarchism:

“However self-limited its acts, however visionary its dream, Anarchism had terribly dramatized the war between the two divisions of society, between the world of privilege and the world of protest. In the one it shook awake a social conscience; in the other, as its energy passed into Syndicalism, it added its quality of violence and extremism to the struggle for power of organized labour. It was an idea which drew men to follow it; but because of its built-in paradox could not draw them together into a group capable of concerted action. It was the last cry of individual man, the last movement among the masses on behalf of individual liberty, the last hope of living unregulated, the last fist shaken against the encroaching State, before the State, the party, the union, the organization closed in” (Tuchman, p. 132).

Despite this praised-filled post-mortem, there are anarchists pursuing a vision today. Modern anarchists generally do not make the mistakes of their 19th Century predecessors. For the most part, they repudiate violence, have a more scientific understanding of genetics/selfishness, shy away from prognosticating on utopias, and have fewer illusions about the commitment of the masses to social change. While these current perspectives result in a more sound political acumen, they do not aid in fostering a revolution. On the contrary, these contemporary understandings hamper efforts towards creating constructive plans and actions. As a result, 21st Century anarchism is far more a philosophy than a movement.


Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider. Freedom: The Crossing Press, 1984.

Tuchman, Barbara W. The Proud Tower. New York: Bantam Books, 1989.