Great Anarchists


From Dog Section Press by Ruth Kinna

I was involved in a conversation about nihilism the other day. I’d been asked to recommend some readings and I included Kropotkin’s Appeal to the Young – a text I’m fond of – in the list. The other members of the group were less familiar with it and less taken with it, too. Readers found it old-fashioned, sentimental and full of gendered language. Where were the women in this text? Kropotkin’s call to intellectuals – apparently to bridge social divisions – appeared to be grounded in a syrupy view of class relations, and reinforced conventions about domestic relationships, to boot. It expressed the views of a privileged white European male and was really part of a culture that should be unpicked and challenged. We could have nit-picked about historical context, rhetoric, political motivations and interpretation, but however you explain Kropotkin’s ideas, this was all fair comment.

Still, I was struck by the frustration and incomprehension that the Appeal seemed to have caused, at least in some members of the group. ‘Old-fashioned’ not only referred to the language – making the text testing to read – but also redundant, of no interest and devoid of contemporary resonances. What was the point struggling with the style, when there was nothing stimulating or useful that anyone could take from the essay?

In the introduction to the first volume of her documentary history of Emma Goldman, Candice Falk observes that historians habitually ignored late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century anarchism, effectively purging it from official histories of the US. It was largely by dint of the anarchists’ own efforts that a record of the traditions, ideas and cultures of the movement survived. Today, anarchists can thank two or three generations of historians for further bolstering the record and excavating a complex, multifaceted anarchist past. The collective effort has produced an extensive and growing body of material about the commitments and practices of a host of propagandists, the circumstances in which they operated – their debates, passions, movements and experiences. There are lots of ways of engaging with it. We can mine it to shape policy, use it to uncover or recommend essential principles, or to advocate uniquely anarchist approaches or perspectives; we can pour over it to identify convergences with our preferences and positions and pinpoint strengths and shortcomings to build and re-build traditions. But whatever we do, we shouldn’t just consign it to the dustbin or treat it as part of a movement politics that’s dead and buried.

It’s difficult to dispute the observation that times change. However you cut context, it’s obviously true that the circumstances that Colin Ward found himself in during 1946, when the UK squatter movement started to gain momentum, was entirely different to the situation in 1976, when he produced Housing: An Anarchist Approach, or 1996 when George Monbiot helped set up the Pure Genius camp in Wandsworth. But part of Ward’s brilliance was his ability to spot and explain political continuities over time and space. What was fifty years when the Digger and Leveller campaigns of 1646 still resonated?

The move from the basic observation that we live in altered times to the formulation “that was then and this is now”, the idea that activists should detach themselves from aspirations that appear outmoded, perhaps embarrassing, risks legislating on other people’s convictions and behaviours and historicising the past in unhelpful ways. Once you decide that ‘revolution’, for example, is redundant, pointless or self-defeating, and that the proper response is to entirely re-ground critique, you not only narrow the frame of that concept, you universalise your perspective on the shift from past to present.

Rudolf Rocker’s argument – which he took from William Godwin – that man [sic] is the measure of all things, rightly draws attention to the contribution that individuals have made to the construction of anarchist conventions and to the notion of ‘greatness’ that anarchists have typically adopted. The strong literary and oral tradition that nineteenth-century anarchists established usually revolved around the virtues and motivations of special characters, not the world historic shifts that Great Men of History were credited with. Bakunin was an early favourite – even with latter-day ‘individualists’ like Henry Seymour – because of his dispute with Marx. A plethora of sentimental, reverential commentaries habitually compared his honesty, verve and courage to Marx’s Machiavellianism, frostiness and detachment. But there was no shortage of ‘great anarchists’ to celebrate. Kropotkin wrote about the selflessness of nihilist assassins in Russia. Charles Malato published pen portraits of their anarchist counterparts in France. Unable to find a comprehensive documentary history of feminist anarchism in the 1970s, Marian Leighton published studies of Louise Michel and Voltairine de Cleyre. The tone of her analysis differed markedly from the romantic nineteenth century commentaries. Lucy Parsons had described Michel’s life as one “devoted to the interest of the working class; a life of self-abnegation, a life full of love, kindness, gentleness, tragedy, activity, sadness and kind-ness”. Leighton provided a sharper psychological assessment alongside an analysis of the sanctification of women activists. Yet she similarly described Michel as a “prophetic type” whose behaviour exemplified her political beliefs, and she celebrated Michel’s special ordinariness rather than her peculiar, muscular extraordinariness. Michel was a great anarchist because she modelled a general female experience rooted in mutual aid, empathy and care in revolutionary action.

Who counts as a great anarchist can never be firmly established. One of the strengths of anarchist politics is that it has no before or after ‘science’. It’s possible to identify foundational events but the interchange and exchange of anarchist and anarchistic theory and practice has no special pivot or anchor. As well as Louise Michel, Lucy Parsons included Florence Nightingale in the Famous Women of History series she published in The Liberator. Parsons didn’t suggest that Nightingale was anarchist, but she spotted a relationship between her and Michel. Nightingale had given up her class privilege and risked her life to help that “most stupid victim of our present system … the soldier”. This was virtuous behaviour and it also hinted at an approach to solidarity and practical movement-building that Parsons was keen to explore.

The work of past anarchists won’t give anyone answers, but it provides a rich store of ideas that has moulded a plural political tradition. There is no standard conception of democracy, violence, war, class or contractual obligation. While this makes anarchism complicated, it also makes it empowering. It seems odd to me that any movement that identifies even loosely with anarchism would detach itself from this store for fear of ‘canonising’ a literature, especially if that results in a turn to high philosophy or the importation of a set of generic practices detached from anarchist historical experience. Adaptation, modification, amendment is all good. But just being shy about the warts in anarchist history won’t help advance anarchist thinking. The dismissal of an entire body of work and experience on the grounds that it’s historically conditioned hardly helps, either. Everyone should be plucking anarchist tracts from the shelves. Most of them were written accessibly and for a mass audience. And if the style or language now jars, there should be plenty of commentaries and translations. The failure to make the anarchist back-catalogue available and intelligible to everyone interested in social transformation is a serious one.


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There are 43 Comments

There are NO great anarchists, real anarchs loath greatness, greatness is a fake hero worshipping cuĺt term that politicians nurture as propaganda for their State and hierarchy.
Real anarchs are humble and subdued in their everyday life, cos they know real life is mundane and fate is banal, and that great anarchs actually live in the shadows in gutters and undergŕound and go by ordinary common names like Joe or Bob or Mary and wear old motheaten clothes and don't shower very often. But they are content, that is the main thing, they are great because they are not suffering from ressentiment and laugh a lot.

Holy shit i can't imagine thinking of contentment as a positive attribute in this horror world.

Recently I've been finding it helpful, for the sake of my sanity, to invoke a cosmic, geologic perspective. Life emerged, somehow, somewhere, somewhen. One particular species started using tools and creating culture, became increasingly complex, became enamored with signs and symbols, and eventually destroyed its own habitat. Is it a horror world? Yes, of course it is, no one could deny that, but it's also beautiful and sad and hilarious and, it would seem, incredibly improbable. Maybe I'm just lucky for the vanishingly small glimpse I've been granted.

Its a case of embrassing the Nietzschean concept of amor fati, that's all folks, no big deal, horror begins outside of the womb.

lol, don't be taken aback if they ask you for readings on nihilism and you give em Kropotkin XD
what did you expect?!

I'm a United States of America guy, so I'm a nihilist.

There are a little more that 300 million others just like me here.

well, ya know, we need to protect the diet police, it's very logically consistent with the ideology i've decided to hang on to.

Yep, I'd have to agree that throwing all species of meat protein into a meatgrinder is very freakin nihilistic!

Does nihilism also means perpetuating the family, dumb religious values, work, and voting? Tell us more please I'll be waiting 24/7 for your precious insights into nihilism.

There is no standard conception of democracy, violence, war, class or contractual obligation. While this makes anarchism complicated, it also makes it empowering.

"Empowering" -- liberal-speak for gutless fun. No useful critical tools for understanding an ever more non-accomodating larger reality.

real anarchs loath greatness

Too true -- all the ones I've had to deal with are embodiments of weakness and incapacity.

The onlt Great Anarchist who deserves to be called as such! All the other pretend great anarchists shall bow before me.

...and I can't write two goddamn sentences without producing a typo!!!

Nihilists of the US anarchist subculture stripe are an atomized weaker version of the jumbo-sized, real world nihilists who make up a big part of Donald Trump's fan base. They are the more effective real nihilists.

Political party supporters, especially trump supporters, are like sheep. Easy to be controlled by a shepherd. They are nihilistic in their behavior if directed and there are millions of them and may be dangerous if the herd gets moving to fast in one direction but otherwise easy to direct if you know the commands. Labels can be used to control them.
Label yourself a trumper, don your disguise, and commence shepherding.

Tips:point in the direction you wish them to go while simultaneously saying "liberal scumbag". Give good eye contact and be forceful. The will go where you point.
Rub a light amount of barbeque on your disguise to draw them to you.
Wear a pink maga hat. This confuses them. Confusion is a prep for command.

they are not nihilistic.
not in behavior,
not in thinking.

(for 9:13 and 10:28)

'course at a stretch you may say that equally capitalists are commies (???), but like, NO, nihilists can't be worshiping around spooks like the MAGA crowd does, or value the family, cars, the nation, the race as they do. All these things are fake bullshit that are made-up values.

How does that fit with nihilism?

Like a unicorn can full-frontal fuck a construction truck.

I think one of the many problems with nihilism is the blank slate. Like, I'm no fan of Sarte but he drilled down on how at least some extreme reactionary politics is deliberate demagoguery, like, there's a percentage of them who know they're just appealing to the brainstem because it works, which also applies to Freud, Bernays, marketing, political campaigns, etc.

How is that not a form of nihilism? Or easily understood as such?

"How is that not a form of nihilism?"

Because you are confusing the most vile kind of egoist narcissism with nihilism, that's why?

c'mon people, it's basic that nihilism covers not just a lot of territory, but contradictory territory (to consufe the metaphor).
arguing over what nihilism means without either acknowledging that spread or citing some reference for the definition you're using is just empty blather.
and anon, bringing "vile egoist narcissism" into the mix is just adding another layer of mystification.
please have something real and/or funny to say or go do something better with your time, both of you.

well as you might already know anon, my point is always that nihilism is a culdesac for the anarchist trajectory, or at best, a developmental stage. so in my view, it's not just a strawman if we're talking about what has happened to the discourse in the last few decades, "empty blather" is exactly my point.

because it proves your point about nihilism? i didn't realize you thought of yourself as a nihilist.

I do actually! Identify as a nihilist for the most part! Heavily influenced by anyway, can't help but! Just look around.

What's interesting is I get typecast as "cantankerous ancon" mostly just for not being content with no real answers to any questions about what to do. Does that say more about me? Or those around me? hmmm.

tsk tsk tsk...always focusing on the negative.

saw u chatting up this other anon and had to drop by and remind you i said something like "endearing lovable friend" first.

but i'll mend it, "you can sometimes be a cantankerous contrarian hope agnostic non-denominational nihilist influenced experienced anarchist".

it'd be fun to hear you both (u and Nettle) talk it out in an anarchy bang. it'd be cool if you called in.

Nettle would impart wisdom in incomplete trailing off self-interrupting sentences, and you would counterpoint with your playfully feisty and obstinately no-nonsense contrarian rebuttals. i used to many adjectives and some might not fit. sue me.

you don't have to REALLY tell anyone what to do! This is what happens when you give old people computers and put them in a box, far away from anyone who won't smile and change their diapers.

HEY! Show some respect! These are HANDSOME old people we're talking about here!

I'm told Ruth Kinna does a fascinating talk on women nihilists.

But still, at the end of the day, hamburger loving nihilists still rule the American milieu!

Nihilism is quite literally a proclamation that an individual is too gutless to really stand for anything. This must also be situated in its extremely United States of America cultural and psychological context: a-historical, weaselly, unwilling and unable to engage with anything outside of oneself. What could be more All-American than this?

outside of oneself? Like Jesus?

Massive derail on the topic going on up there ^^^

Somebody once told me that your ancestors in your family pick out a few shiny souls from each generation and gently nudge them to become the scholars of the family history. Like their spirits pull on your strings a bit if you're the thoughtful type with an interest in history and what it means. It's woo but I dig it, if you're in to that sort of thing.

Maybe you can apply this to the history of the anarchist tradition too? Lots of folks have a hostile, dismissive reaction to history lessons and that's fine, they're just too dumb or lack the attention span or whatever haha

Anyway, aren't the "great anarchists" just the players in the richest stories?


i’ve settled it. anarchy is cancelled.

if you bang your gavel a bunch, people might think you're important ;)





Nihilists are meant to be disliked, not to be understood!

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