The Phases of Anarchist History

by Larry Gambone


In order to understand the degeneration of the Socialist (Second) International, Karl Korsch in 1920 applied an historical materialist analysis to Marxism. He related Marxist praxis to the level and nature of class struggle. He posited three periods of Marxist activity. The first period ended about 1850, involved the revolutions of 1848 and the Chartist Movement. This revolutionary period gave rise to the “original” and revolutionary Marxism of Marx and Engels. The second period lasted until the 1917 Russian Revolution, and was characterized by the defeat of the Paris Commune and a partial absorption of the working class into simple trade unionism. Marxism, in its turn, became reformist during this period. The Third Period began with the Russian Revolution and revolutionary Marxism was restored with revolutionary thinkers like Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg.

This is not the place to debate the merits of Korsch’s three stages, but only to consider applying historical materialist analysis to the anarchist movement in an attempt to understand its ideological Odyssey. Can the anarchist movement be placed in periods related to the level of class struggle in those countries where it had some prominence?

Like Marxism, anarchism developed just prior to and during the Revolution of 1848. This early anarchism was based mainly on the writings of Pierre Proudhon. But unlike Marxism, “Proudhonism” was not a fully developed revolutionary anarchism. In many aspects it was gradualist and reduced class struggle to the formation of worker mutualist societies. (Proudhon was opposed to strikes) Most workers at this time were artisans and mutualism was natural to them. Anarchism’s First Period would be roughly 1840 until the late 1860’s. During this time, Proudhon influenced the nascent workers movement in France, Southern Europe and part of Latin America.

By the late 1860’s, however, a growing class struggle in those countries where Proudhon’s thought had influence, began to move anarchism in a more militant direction. (1) Bakunin is the chief anarchist theoretician of this period which lasts until the defeat of the Paris Commune and the crushing of the Spanish and Italian revolts. Thus anarchism’s Second Period lasts from about 1868 to 1874.

Post-1874 sees a period of reaction, as well as the “Long Depression” which effects many of the advanced economies up until the mid-1890’s. Class struggle wanes, or is severally repressed in the countries where anarchism has any presence. But rather than heading in a reformist direction, an important section of the movement goes the opposite way, into ultra leftism. Two crucial aspects of revolutionary anarchism are ignored, seemingly pushed aside as irrelevant, these are the need to be directly involved in the people’s struggles and the need for organization, rejected for “propaganda of the deed” and small autonomous action groups. This Third Period lasts until the late 1890’s.

Propaganda of the deed proves an abject failure. Anarchists are marginalized and the social democratic parties get the upper hand, except for Southern Europe and Latin America. At the same time, the 1880’s and 90’s see a process of industrialization occurring, almost world-wide. Former peasants and artisans are converted into wage workers and the class struggle heats up. Anarchists return to the working class and involve themselves in the formation of revolutionary labour unions, (syndicalism). We can date anarchism’s Fourth Period from the late 1890’s. Syndicalism develops into a mass movement comprising millions of workers. Anarcho-syndicalists are involved in the Mexican and Russian revolutions, as well as risings in other countries such as Argentina and Brazil.

But Fourth Period anarchism had a flaw. While involved in the people’s struggles and the creation of mass organizations, most syndicalists fell into a kind of economic determinism and also underestimated the need for a distinct revolutionary organization. For most Third Period syndicalists, revolution meant the workers occupying and running the work places and the need to deal politically with the state was ignored. The defeat of the Spanish Revolution in 1938 brings the Third Period to a close. At the same time, with few exceptions, workers become integrated into communist, social democratic or even worse, business unions and the parties supported by these tendencies. Autonomous class struggle, which found its theoretical and practical expression in syndicalism, for all intents and purposes, ends at this time, With the defeat of syndicalism, anarchism once more becomes separated from the working class. Essentially, the end of autonomous struggle is the end of anarchism as a proletarian movement.

The Fifth Period begins in 1939 and goes until 1968. This time, unlike the propaganda of the deed period, anarchists do two things – they immerse themselves in theory and attempt to develop a reformist anarchism, a “practical” anarchism that can be applied in a time when mass working class revolt, let alone revolution seems a hopeless fantasy. A major concern is why the working class failed to bring about the libertarian socialist revolution. Sexuality, child rearing practices, pedagogy, and culture are all examined and it is shown how these have an effect upon the workers consciousness and practice. A Gramcian struggle for hegemony ensues as anarchists strive to bring liberatory practice into daily life and overcome those factors which create a subservient population. (The one area where anarchism does have some input into the working class is the promotion of workers control and these ideas begin to resurface in the mid-1960s.) The Post 1939 “movement” allows anarchism to survive. Its ideas have an influence far beyond the small numbers of adherents. Liberatory practices begin to permeate society and the most obvious example of this is the formation of early New Left and the counter-cultures of the 1960s.

1968 signals that anarchism has entered a new phase, the Sixth Period. Autonomous class struggle is back again. Non-syndicalist unions start talking about workers control. Syndicalist unions begin recruiting again, though they remain very much a minority tendency within anarchism. Anarchism at this time is overwhelmingly counter-cultural, except for countries where it has deep roots like France, Italy and Spain. Permanent anarchist organization begins in countries that had not seen such in 40 years. The far-left is largely Marxist Leninist during this period, but anarchism is now a contender, something it wasn’t in the Fourth Period.

The Seventh Period begins in 1980 and sees the complete defeat/capitulation of the orthodox left everywhere. The working class, at first combative, is beaten down and defeated. Anarchism suffers as well. While not eliminated, numbers are down and some organizations fragment. But the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, and the re-establishment of “democracy” in Latin America leads to a proliferation of anarchist groups. Anarchists are now found almost everywhere, but the movement is “a mile wide and an inch deep” and is still largely counter-cultural. (Counter-culture seems to be the way that anarchism enters new areas and attracts youth.)

The Eighth (and present) Period is signaled by the Battle of Seattle in 1999 and the Argentine Revolt of 2000. Seattle makes vast numbers of people aware of anarchism. The rebirth of class struggle in France, Spain and Mexico 1994-5 gave rise to the invigorated syndicalism of the French CNT, the Spanish CGT and the libertarian communalism of the Zapatistas, and laid the base for this period. The far left is now basically “the anarchists,” . More than a decade into the Sixth Period, the growing, if not dominant tendency in anarchism is working class oriented, and organizational. Furthermore, the influence of anarchist ideas goes far beyond the actual number of anarchists. Today, it is a rare socialist who is not in favor of worker-management, worker coops and popular power exercised through neighborhood councils. Even if, as some cynical anarchists claim, these socialists are not sincere, it still shows the influence of these ideas that they have to raise them in the first place.

Looking at anarchism in relation to the actual level of class struggle and how this struggle is reflected in anarchist praxis enables us to have a deeper understanding and appreciation of our movement. Western society has an underlying notion of free will and thus we have a culture of finger-pointing and blame. (You freely chose to do this, you vile creature!) Unconsciously, the left shares this culture. People who deviate from what is considered correct in terms of theory and practice are deemed to have done so for negative motives. While “selling-out”, ignorance and stupidity are factors, they don’t explain everything. By examining anarchist praxis in the manner above, we realize that most of what happens, including those aspects we disagree with, are the natural responses to a given set of conditions rather than malfeasance and stupidity. The worst we can say about our past errors is that they were short-sighted.

Realizing the almost cyclic nature of the movement and the different periods that it can be divided into, can help us overcome any future errors made as a short-sighted reaction to changed conditions. For example, no period of reaction is so all-encompassing that we have to resort to propaganda of the deed to keep anarchism alive. While anarchism lost its proletarian base in the 1950’s, this did not mean this was permanent and that militant, class struggle anarchism was gone forever.

At the same time, aside from the disastrous propaganda of the deed, much has been gained from anarchism’s various phases, in spite of the errors committed. An incredible amount was learned from the Fourth or syndicalist phase. Indeed, this period really put anarchism on the map as a serious tendency in the workers movement. The Fifth Period developed anarchist understanding of society to a remarkable degree, making much of the earlier anarchism seem crude by comparison. Without the counter-culturalism of the Sixth and Seventh Periods, it is unlikely that so many youth would have become attracted to anarchism.

1. Many of these Proudhonist associations began to take on a more militant stance.

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