NO DESPONDENCY: The International Anarchist Manifesto On The War February 1915

March 23, 2017

Anarchist resistance to World War One in 1914 and 1915, within the combatant counties and elsewhere, took many forms. Sometimes it was just the act of holding a meeting, sometimes managing the publication of a clandestine newspaper or pamphlet. Strikes were instigated or supported and safe zones created for deserters and, if possible, their families. Sometimes it was a small act of internationalism such as when Jewish anarchists in London’s East End, working with German and French anarchists, created soup kitchens to feed German workers who found themselves unemployed after war was declared. At other times anarchist resistance took place in umbrella anti-War organizations, while elsewhere it was simply an individual holding on to the idea of anarchist internationalism against the constant pressure to be patriotic. Whatever action was taken or, for that matter, whatever thought processes were refined or retained, it was often solitary and dangerous work. This has meant that many small acts of contestation and defiance may never become known to us- but that doesn’t mean because they weren’t written about they didn’t exist. We do know that the collapse of unity in regard to anarchist resistance to the War was alarming and confusing. But within the chaos that ensued in our movement, some anarchists held their ground and fought back against the smothering tide of patriotism and nationalism. Here I want to discuss one initiative that fought back and place it in some kind of context.

View the scan of the International Anarchist Manifesto on the War

The International Anarchist Manifesto on the War was published in London, in early February 1915 and signed by 37 anarchists. It was published prominently in the anarchist press and appeared in the March 1915 Freedom, the March 1915 Spanish language paper Cultura Obrera (New York), the March 1915 Italian paper Volonta and the May 1915 issue of Mother Earth (New York) as well as numerous other papers. A four-page English language version also appeared as a leaflet in London during February, quite possibly printed by Freedom Press. It is worth remembering that by February 1915 it was obvious that the War wasn’t going to be over as quickly as had been fervently believed in its early days. Seven months had passed and casualty lists were growing at a frightening rate. The War was a stain growing wider and wider, and the space for critical thought and opposition, especially in the combatant countries, was becoming narrower and narrower, if there was any space left at all.

Although supposedly aimed at the wider populace to inform them of the anarchist position with regard to the War, in fact the Manifesto was primarily targeted at anarchists and dealt with the massive challenge to anarchists and anarchism the War created. Splits and disagreements about what anarchists should do about the War caused substantial damage both to the ability of anarchists to function and to some comrades understanding of anarchism. The most prominent example of this split, for historians anyway, is Peter Kropotkin who had privately been in favour of anarchists intervening in the War on the side of France and her Allies for some time. On 29 July 1914 he had written to the Russian anarchist Marie Goldsmith, then living in Paris, stating it was essential to “defend Paris and the post-revolutionary civilization of France from the German Huns.” Tom Keell’s (who was then editor of Freedom) account of the tense meeting between himself, Alfred Marsh and Kropotkin in London during August 1914 offers a further example of Kropotkin’s firm and unyielding interventionist beliefs. So, for some anarchists, the public evidence of his position, which appeared in the October 1914 Freedom with his article “An Open Letter To Professor Steffen” came as no surprise. For many others it came as a bolt from the blue as he argued that “it was the duty of everyone who cherishes the ideals of human progress, and especially those that were inscribed by the European proletarians on the banner of the International Working Man’s Association…to crush down the invasion of the Germans into Western Europe”. In the November 1914 Freedom others, including Jean Grave, who had been editor of Les Temps Nouveaux until it ceased publishing in 1914, Varlaam Cherkesov a member of the Freedom Group, and Belgian anarchist Frans Verbelen, wrote in support of Kropotkin with Grave suggesting that once German militarism had been crushed “the autonomy of the German people will be respected.” The November Freedom did print critiques of this interventionist position and apparent lines were drawn. These published debates help historians immensely, but I am not sure that they offer us a complete understanding of what happened amongst anarchists and their communities.

As the relevant issues of Freedom were distributed in England, Europe, and elsewhere one can imagine the confusion and consternation they caused in anarchist circles. What might be worth remembering is that it wasn’t just Kropotkin’s intellectual arguments for anarchist intervention in the war that hurt those who disagreed with his position. There was something else, equally profound and troubling for many of them. When anarchists spoke about Kropotkin (and quite a few in Europe and America had either met him, or knew someone who had) he was equally revered as a person as he was an anarchist theorist. He was “Our Peter”. We can see this trait in the December 1912 Mother Earth which celebrated Kropotkin’s 70th birthday. For Hippolyte Havel, Kropotkin was “the most beloved comrade in the anarchist movement”. Charles Malato wrote “With him the same pure flame illuminates the mind, warms the heart and guides the conscience” and F. Domela Nieuwenhuis explained that Kropotkin’s “profound knowledge, unexcelled integrity and high idealism have found appreciation even among his opponents”. The shock of discovering Kropotkin’s views about the War was, for some anarchists who disagreed with him, the shock similar to being betrayed by a close friend–someone who you thought you knew and who you often looked up to.

We would be clearly wrong, then, to ignore the substantial effect Kropotkin had with his call for anarchist intervention in the War. We would be equally wrong in seeing anarchists as simply reading his articles and agreeing with his views. There is enough evidence to suggest that quite a few anarchists had intuitively adopted an interventionist stance with regard to the War independent of Kropotkin and his ideas—even if their intervention was on the opposite side to his. In America, Michael Cohn, a close friend of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman and financial supporter of Mother Earth, had declared for Germany in the Freie Arbeiter Stimme in late 1914, arguing that defeat of Russia would mean greater safety for the Jewish population there. I do want to suggest though that these published sources on their own do not account for the considerable number of anarchists who arrived at an interventionist position under their own steam. To engage in the war either against Germany or to protect one’s country appeared to make sense to them without the aid of the writings of Kropotkin, or any other anarchist. For many their decision-making may well have been as much intuitive as anything else. It just felt right. We also have to accept that we don’t really know how many anarchists took neither side, changed their minds more than once or struggled to fit their anarchist beliefs into the world they suddenly found themselves in. I think that there were more of them than we have recognized.

If we do wish to read the Manifesto as a reply to Kropotkin and other anarchist interventionists, and see it as a collective standing of ground with regard to- accepted anarchist positions about war, colonialism, and militarism, we should also read it, then, as an attempt to deal with the confused and contradictory emotions that the War had unleashed in the anarchist world—and not just because Kropotkin wrote a few articles. If the War brought forth highly charged feelings everywhere, then anarchists certainly were not immune to them. Comrades of long standing, who had been through brutal and challenging times together argued bitterly with each other about the War. The London Freedom Group split apart for instance and there was a sense of emotional loss, of friendships broken, apparently forever; the certainty and comfort that comradeship provided was fractured. Within the communities where they lived and worked, anarchists saw young men they had grown up with disappear into the trenches. They saw the telegrams with their tragic news delivered to doors of their neighbours. Sometimes the War struck very close to home—Iacov Kaplan, the England-based Jewish anarchist editor and orator lost his eighteen-year-old son, Fred, in the conflict, and his wife to madness as a result of her son’s death. Other anarchists also lost family members. Communications between groups, individuals and other countries broke down as newspapers were suppressed and disappeared and letters were intercepted or never delivered. Some comrades went underground. It was a disheartening time and the movement was riddled with confusion, rumor, and suspicion. Consequently we have to be careful that we don’t underestimate this sense of confusion and isolation among anarchists that was rife, not only within the combatant countries, but elsewhere as well.

Certainly the signatories of the Manifesto recognized this state of affairs and attempted to address it. They also, of course, attempted to deal with the pressing intellectual problems that those anarchists supporting intervention in the War had posed. Much of this challenge focused on the idea of anti-militarism, a staple of anarchist belief. In an article in the November Freedom Kropotkin had argued that the idea of anti-militarism within anarchist circles had been “floating within generalities”. What would happen if the General Strike—a key tactic in ensuring that anti-militarism was a success—did not happen, or simply failed? The answer he wrote was obvious; the anarchist anti-militarist must give his support to the country that has been invaded. As the English anarchist W.C. Owen, writing in the November/ December Land and Liberty (Hayward, California) suggested, invasion or the threat of invasion for a country changes everything. Internationalist anti-militarism, in those circumstances, became impossible and redundant. Frans Verbelen, the Belgian anarchist (in 1913 a committed anti-militarist) whose country had been invaded wrote “reality blows away the most beautiful theories as a storm the sand in the desert.” Consequently anarchist practice appeared to be left with two choices; it could adapt to “reality” as the interventionists were trying to do, even if it meant losing some of the essence of what some anarchists felt anarchism was or, when faced with certain real circumstances, anarchism had to be put away for a while until these circumstances are dealt with and then, perhaps brought back when the time is right. Both arguments would be dismissed by the signatories of the Manifesto in favour of a unity of end, if not means.

It is somewhat unclear who actually authored the Manifesto. We can see traces of Malatesta, and if we look hard enough we might find a little taste of Berkman, although many of the ideas it articulated could be read in anarchist newspapers. It is quite likely that those around Freedom were central in the collection of its signatories through their network of correspondents and distributors. The bulk of the Manifesto’s signatories were based in London, New York, Holland and Switzerland. Some are well known to us now, others less so. There appear to be one or two transcription errors in the published version: A. Marquez may well have been the Portuguese anarchist Hilario Marques who helped publish the paper A Sementeira and whose work took him to London quite regularly (he had met both Kropotkin and Malatesta there in 1912) and Noel Panavich was the Italian anarchist Natale Parovich who was living in London at the time. Given the difficulties of communications between countries brought by the War, it is rather unlikely that the document was drafted and re-drafted by the signatories until final agreement was reached. This would have been a rather cumbersome and time-consuming process at a moment when speed was essential; it probably would have been impossible to do anyway. We also have to recognize that some who may have wanted to sign the Manifesto couldn’t. Rudolf Rocker, who had criticized the ideas expressed by Kropotkin and others in the October and November Arbeter Fraint, had been arrested in London in December 1914 and interned. Rudolf Grossman, in Austria, had been arrested twice in 1914 and spent the War under house arrest. Instead of seeing the signatories as a complete list of those anarchists who were opposed to involvement in the War, or those who were prominent in anarchist circles, we should probably see the list of signatories as those who could be quickly contacted, usually because they had in some way links with Freedom. One senses there was, though, a deliberately constructed internationalism with regard to the names on the document

The title of the Manifesto was deliberate. It’s an “International” document scorning the whole idea of nationalism and patriotism that the War had magnified and some anarchists had succumbed to. The Manifesto suggests that war is the inevitable cancer of capitalism and to choose sides between imperialistic and colonial states, as Kropotkin and others had argued anarchists should do, is irrational and nonsensical. They are all as bad as each other. The viciousness and militarism of Germany is matched by the “knout, gibbet, and Siberia” of Russia while the colonial cruelties of France are matched only by the brutalities of the British Empire. “None of the belligerents is entitled to invoke the name of civilization, or to declare itself in a state of legitimate defence” as interventionist anarchists might want us to believe. The different states at war, however we might describe their political character, are all organized for “the advantage of a privileged minority.” No nation’s culture is superior to another nation’s. (This idea that War could be fought because of a belief in some kind of cultural superiority—a sort of cultural legitimization of the slaughter—would be described as an “ insult to the human race” in the 21 April 1915 edition of the Spanish anarchist paper Tierra y Libertad)

The Manifesto argues that the role of anarchists “whatever may be the place or the situation in which they find themselves, is to continue to proclaim that there is but one war of liberation—the liberation of the slave from their masters!!!” Anarchists “need to weaken the state and cultivate the spirit of revolt among “peoples and armies”- an acknowledgement that some anarchists may have joined up and already be in the military. It goes on to address workers and soldiers, and in a Bakuninite flourish calls on “the outcasts” not to give up their arms until they “have settled accounts with their oppressors”. The war can lead to something wonderful. Out of this ugly carnage may come the creation of the anarchism we have so longed for if we continue to fight for our ideas.

The Manifesto, recognizing the emotional turmoil that anarchists may be going through, goes on to demand “No despondency”. Now is the time we must show people the “generosity, greatness and beauty of the anarchist ideal” This is not a defeat but the beginning of a possibility. A new world, the writers imply, is waiting. What the War presents is an opportunity and perhaps those anarchists who oppose it and those who are fighting in it still have much in common. Given the circumstances it is a brave call for unity. We may have distinct tactical differences but our aim is the same and the Manifesto offers no condemnation of those anarchists who joined the armed services and adopts no sense of moral superiority towards them. Instead it urges all anarchists to focus on the defeat of their oppressor at home, and abroad!! The Manifesto ends with a ringing definition of what the signatories understand anarchism to be: “social justice realized through the free organization of producers; war and militarism done away with for ever; and complete freedom won, by the abolition of the State and its organs of destruction”

We have, then, a delicately balanced document appealing to the reader’s intellect as well as their emotions as it calls for a coming together of anarchists to fight for liberation. It offers a generalist blueprint for the social revolution, and in doing so attempts to ease the intellectual and emotional confusion that the authors and signatories recognize in the anarchist movement around them. It is an impressive response to difficult circumstances within anarchism, taking cognizance of them while still urging anarchists to keep their eyes on their final aim.


In summary, we can see that the anarchists responsible for the Manifesto attempted to critique the interventionists position and rally what they felt was a confused and despondent movement—a movement ‘devitalized and confused by the war crisis” as Leonard Abbott wrote in December 1914. They also wanted to re-affirm the ability of pre-War anarchism to deal with the situation many anarchists found themselves as the War relentlessly progressed. Throughout the Manifesto, leading up to its passionate final paragraph, is the assertion of the relevance of the anarchism, that it’s final paragraph defines. Anarchism is not unable to deal with the challenges of the war. Nothing has changed. As anarchists they know where they want the world to go. Never has anarchism been more relevant as we fight for our alternative to the horror around us and, remarkably, never has anarchism’s realization been more possible.

The Manifesto is also an attempt to re-assure and remind European comrades, that the anti-war anarchists were alive and active and remained consistent in their opposition towards the War and all it represented. At least three of the signatories were on the run from combatant countries. Eugene Edouard Boudot had escaped from France to England as he was on the list of agitators to be arrested (the so called “Carnet B”). In his absence he was sentenced to five years imprisonment for failing to answer the draft. He would return to France in 1922. Henry Combes was managing editor of Le Mouvement Anarchiste. Charged with organizing anti-militarist campaigns he too had fled to England. Paul Schreyer was the editor of the weekly paper Kampf (Struggle) and fled from Germany to Switzerland in 1914. This was their chance to let comrades know they were both safe and resolute and that they had international anarchist support for their ideas. At a time when nothing seemed possible and confusion was everywhere, for a moment in time, the Manifesto offered some stability in terms of anarchist principles and anarchist resistance to the War.

Of course it wasn’t that simple or straightforward. That stability was fleeting and a little illusory. We should bear in mind that Harry Kelly had signed the Manifesto even though he was in sympathy with the interventionist position and F. Domela Nieuwenhuis would probably not have been sympathetic to the call for armed revolution the Manifesto makes. One wonders if, for some signatories, the need to come together against intervention in the War was the most important task of all at that moment in time. That said, even a signatory could change their mind; by 1918 Saul Yanovsky was speaking in favour of intervention, feeling that the new Russia had more chance of surviving with an Allied victory rather than a German one.

Finally we should mention that a large number of the signatories were from or living in two countries not yet in the war, but quite possibly not far away from entering the conflict, Italian anarchists living in London and elsewhere were prominent as signatories while anarchists from various countries but now living in the USA were also well represented among those who had put their names to the Manifesto. It seems very likely that both groups of comrades saw the Manifesto as part of the constant anti-militarist struggle they were engaged in. It suggested that they were not alone and organization against the War was taking place everywhere. If the Manifesto did urge a type of unity between anarchists, for those signatories engaged in the immediate anti-War struggle in these two countries there could be no question of accepting the involvement of their country into the conflict. That fight was still to be fought. For both sets of comrades the struggle would be exhausting and ultimately unsuccessful. Italy would enter the War three months after the publication of the Manifesto; America in April 1917. But that, as they say, is another story.













Sacco and Vanzetti

August 23, 2014

Here’s Vanzetti’s pamphlet “Background to the Plymouth Trial” published by “The Road to Freedom” Group around 1926. In it he attempts to explain the nature of the trial and it’s inconsistencies. Hopefully it will continue to form part of a process of us seeing these comrades not as as “victims” but rather as strong, conscious anarchists.

Background to the Plymouth Trial Vanzetti


Noah Ablett ” An Easy Outline of Economics”

August 21, 2014

Here’s an interesting book published by the Plebs League in 1919, Easy Outline of Economics.In it Noah Ablett explains what he calls “Marxian” economics.It’s written in his usual self-deprecating way and  was composed at the end of long days spent at work and  after countless negotiations with management on behalf of his union.The book is a small example of worker reading and writing- making sense of ideas by applying them to his world,before the “experts” took over!!! It’s not an easy book to find. Ablett  appears to have attempted to walk an individual path in the working class movement.That decision seems to have left him emotionally bruised as well as isolated at times.

Ablett had been a member of the Welsh” Unofficial Reform Committee” composed of miners who had taken part in the Cambrian combine dispute of 1911.They produced the  important pamphlet ” The Miners Next Step” in 1912. Written collaboratively (with Ablett playing an important role) it remains a classic of British syndicalism, criticising the collaborationist nature of union officials and calling for worker ownership of the collieries.You can find it on line easily enough, for instance here is a digititised copy from the University of Wales’ Library.

The KSL has three copies of  “The Miners Next Step” by different publishers:

1) Pluto Press; London, 1973

2) Daneford/Shirebrook Banner Appeal,; London,1985

3) Germinal and Phoenix Press: London 1991.In the introduction to this edition David Douglass writes ” the best plan forward will always be determined by the men and women at the point of production”



Antonio Martín Bellido, Madrid 1938-Paris August 17, 2014

August 18, 2014

This came to us today via Stuart Christie:

I am sorry to announce the death this morning of my old friend and comrade Antonio Martin Bellido who died at 5.00 am, the same time 51 years ago as his two comrades, Joaquin Delgado and Francisco Granado, whose lives — and deaths were so closely entwined with his own. His funeral will take place in a few days.

Antonio Martín Bellido at l’Escorial de Madrid (July 1963)

bellidoAntonio Martín Bellido, Madrid 1938-Paris August 17, 2014: son of a Madrid UGT (General Workers’ Union) militant exiled in France where he lived, in Strasbourg, from the age of two. Having served his apprenticeship as an electrical engineer, he moved to Paris at the age of 19 where he joined the Iberian Federation of Libertarian Youth (FIJL). In 1962 he visited London with other young Spanish and French anarchists to take part in the annual anti-nuclear Aldermaston march, during which many enduring friendships were forged. That same year he joined the recently re-constituted MLE’s (Libertarian Movement in Exile) clandestine planning section known as ‘Defensa Interior’ (D.I.), whose remit was (a) to organise and coordinate actions intended to destabilise and discredit the Franco regime internally and internationally, and (b) to assassinate General Franco. Among the anti-Francoist actions in which he participated that year were the explosions targeting the dictator’s slave-built mausoleum at the Basillica de la Santa Cruz in the Valley of the Fallen (12 August 1962) and in St Peter’s Square in Vatican City (23 September 1962) at the opening of the Vatican Council.

(DI bombs were not intended to kill, only to draw international attention to the ongoing and growing repression and violent nature of the Franco regime. Small amounts of plastique were used in these devices, all of them timed to explode in the early hours of the morning. In fact, throughout the extensive, international, two-year DI bombing campaign against Francoist institutions, there was only one occasion — in the Dirección General de Seguridad, the HQ of Franco’s secret police in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol —when a few people were slightly injured as a result of a detonator mis-timing. During this period the DI organised two attempts on Franco at San Sebastian (18 June 1962), the Palacio de Ayete (19 August 1962))
Perhaps the most crucial actions for Antonio were those that occurred on 29 July 1963 at the Madrid HQs of the secret police (the Brigada Politico Social) and the Falangist Labour Front. It was the misfired bomb at police HQ that had the most serious consequences and the greatest lifelong impact on Antonio in terms of guilt. Unbeknown to him and his fellow DI comrade, Sergio Hernández, Octavio Alberola, the DI coordinator, had sent, another comrade, Francisco Granado Gata, to Madrid in a specially modified car with weapons, explosives and a radio transmitter in preparation for a further attempt on Franco at the Palacio del Oriente during the annual presentation of new ambassadors to Franco’s court. Unfortunately, there were no new abassadors that July and the operation had to be cancelled, Francisco Granado withdrawn and the materiel passed over to another Madrid-based group led by a man called Jacinto Guerrero Lucas, the protégé of former CNT Defence Secretary (and guerrilla combat groups organiser in Catalonia between 1949 and 1952) Jose Pascual Palacios. Another FIJL/DI activist, Roberto Arño, was sent to Madrid on 20 July to contact Granado, and advise him of the change of plan but missed his rendezvous with the latter. Eight days later an anxious Alberola sent trusted friend and comrade Joaquin Delgado to Madrid to contact Ariño and Granado and instruct them to return to France, after depositing the materiel in a Madrid safehouse for Guerrero’s Madrid-based group to collect later. Ariño returned to France the same day, 28 July, but Delgado was unable to make contact with Francisco Granado until the following day, the day the fateful bombs planted by Antonio Martin and Sergio Hernández exploded prematurely in Security- and Falangist HQs. Sergio returned to France by train immediately after the explosion, but Antonio remained in Madrid for a week or so until the hue and cry had died down sufficiently for him to make his escape. On 31 July, as Delgado and Granado were preparing to leave Madrid, they were arrested by a Guardia Civil officer allegedly on the grounds they were ‘acting suspiciously’, a classic ploy used by police wishing to conceal the fact that they are acting on information received from informers or agents. Both men were arrested, tortured, charged with ‘Banditry and Terrorism’, tried by a summary (drumhead) court martial on 13 August 1963 and sentenced to death by garotte-vil. The two innocent men were executed in Carabanchel prison at dawn on 17 August 1963. The BPS were fully aware they had no involvement in the actions of 29 July, but they did know that the cache of weapons and explosives they discovered were to have been used in an attempt on Franco. The question was, who was — or were — the traitor or traitors responsible for the deaths of Delgado and Granado. It was a question that was to haunt Antonio Martín for the rest of his life, as did his deep sense of guilt over his role in the crime for which they were judicially murdered. When he discovered the fate of the two comrades on his return to Paris, Antonio wanted to make a public statement admitting his responsibility, but was persuaded against doing so; it would have made no difference to the decision to execute Delgado and Granado, especially Delgado, a freemason and an influential figure in both the FIJL and the DI. General Eduardo Blanco, head of the security service DGS), wanted scapegoats and they fitted the bill perfectly. Both men had been under surveillance throughout their stay in Madrid, their mission — to kill Franco — had been betrayed by Pascual’s protégé, Jacinto Guerrero Lucas, a police agent who remained active within the ranks of the exiled libertarian movement until the end of the 1960s.

In 1968 — as secretary of the Paris branch of the FIJL — he was arrested and confined to Saint Brieuc for membership of an ‘association of evildoers’ (malhechores), a reference to the First of May Group, the successor action group to the DI. Throughout the rest of his life he remained a tireless supporter of the anti-Francoist activities of the FIJL and the CNT-in-Exile. Laterally, he played a key part in ensuring that the Spanish Republican and anarchist contribution to the Liberation of Paris by Leclerc’s 2nd Armoured division, “La Nueve” received the public recognition they deserved.

Finally, on 17 October 2009, after years of investigation, Antonio Martin succeeded in organising a videoed debate/confrontation in Madrid in the presence of Jacinto Guerrero Lucas and a number of the surviving comrades from his own Madrid group — his victims — who had been tortured and jailed in connection with various attacks mounted in 1962 and 1963 on sites of symbolic significance to Francoism .

More information to follow

A World History for Workers

August 14, 2014

Here is the pdf file for a small book written by Alf Barton in 1922 when he was either in the Communist Party or had moved to the ILP.

A World History for Workers by Alf Barton

You can read about some of Barton’s anarchist activities in our previous post, Free Commune and Billy MacQueen.

“Have You Got Any Stocks Pa?” Some thoughts on “Jones’s Boy” by Spokeshave

August 12, 2014

Around September 1909 the socialist newspaper The Commonweal, based in Wellington, and newspaper of the New Zealand Socialist party published a fifth addition to it’s series of propaganda pamphlets. Jones’s Boy by Spokeshave had been a staple of British radicalism over the last ten years or so and is one of those important pieces of propaganda that, for whatever reason, appears to have slipped from our view. We can sense it’s importance for those socialists around The Commonweal as they had already printed an extract in April 1904 and again in July 1909.Their advertisement for the pamphlet described it as “ a whimsical, witty weapon to wallop opponents with. Makes them laugh in spite of themselves” Small pamphlets like this often had a far greater impact on thought and action than they have been given credit for and it’s exciting to be able to rescue them from the political amnesia they have fallen into and, hopefully, gain some understanding of the development of ideas and sensibilities within radical and labour circles.

Socialist and anarchist writers often drew on their reading of classical philosophy when searching for a form and style that could make their message clear and understandable to their readers, and a favourite method of exposition was the use of a dialogue: a conversation where ideas could be offered up to the reader through discussion and questioning. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888) and it’s extended conversations between Dr Leete and Julian West is an early example of this form as is Errico Malatesta’s A Talk Between Two Workers published in August 1891 by the anarchist Freedom Press group in London with it’s use of straightforward language to explain the contours of anarchist communism.

Jones’s Boy is also written as a dialogue, and made its first appearance in the Toronto based Labour Reformer. The first UK publication I can trace is in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1890 and was published by James Leathem, a member of the Social Democratic Federation and a friend and devotee of William Morris. He would go on to print another edition in 1891 and a third in 1916, this time at his Deveron Press in Turriff, Aberdeenshire. James Tochatti, editor of the London anarchist paper Liberty published an edition of the pamphlet in 1896 with the sub title “Dialogue on Social Questions Between An Enfant Terrible and His Father” (his addition also included the words of Edward Carpenter’s song England Arise). The London publisher of radical and free thought material William Reeves published an edition in 1906 and Twentieth Century Press (the publishing house of the Social Democratic Federation) printed one in 1908.Such a publishing history suggests a pamphlet that was regularly in demand.

Using the trope of the apparently naive youngster questioning his apparently wise elder (in this case his father) and, of course exposing the latter’s fallacies , Jones’s Boy is roughly divided into three sections. The first deals with questions of morality and ethics where the fixing of the price of coal is compared to a man stealing from a store to support his family because they are starving. The latter is imprisoned while the fixers of the coal ring, who prevent people, who are freezing to death, from buying coal at anything but the maximum price, reap monetary rewards and are praised. They steal life and health but go unpunished. The father’s blustering defense of such actions clearly illuminates how his position of support for the coal ring is untenable. The second section of the pamphlet considers the immorality of surplus value and how workers are cheated out of their just reward for their labour in order that others can make money from it. The final section examines the idea of ownership of land (a prominent issue in late nineteenth century British radicalism) as the son asks if the man who sold the dirt that makes his father’s bricks bought the dirt from God! All of this is presented in a humorous and rather gentle way, while suggesting that capitalism is illogical as well as ethically indefensible. Like so many other pamphlets of this time that are aimed at working people it has the ability to present complex ideas in a clear, straightforward way and is an accessible read.

It’s easy to see how it was able to have a shared popularity with groups that in many other ways would be deeply antagonistic to each other.( it was basic reading in Socialist Party of Great Britain circles as well anarchist ones, for example ) The pamphlet is a moral critique of capitalism that illustrates Marx’s idea of surplus value but avoids any discussion of how to achieve a more egalitarian and moral society, thus providing a basic platform of criticism that many anti- capitalists could agree on. Interestingly the pamphlet also implies that the movement to get rid of capitalism is a movement based on plain common sense. That stress on anti capitalism being a movement of simple common sense is one we can certainly identify as a major theme in British left wing political writing of this period. We can see in the works of Robert Blatchford, William Morris and a host of socialist writers as well as anarchist ones, including the underrated anarchist writer Louise Bevington’s Common Sense Country (1896), also published by James Tochatti. Like Peter Kropotkin’s Appeal To The Young which also crossed political boundaries and was enormously popular, Spokeshave’s pamphlet combines a faith in youth, morality and common sense in it’s critique of capitalism and consequently became part of the radical education of many men and women.


Ready for Revolution

August 9, 2014


The photographic images of the Spanish Revolution are implanted in our memories and too often taken for granted. Iconic figures like Durruti blinking at a notebook or standing smiling in a circle of comrades, Ascaso, rifle on his shoulder enjoying a chat and a smoke in the bright Barcelona sun shortly before he is killed. Most of all, though, there are the crowds. Men and women with black and red caps, in buses, on lorries, in hastily put together armored cars with CNT-FAI scrawled on the sides. Everyone generating a sense of excitement and, yes, cockiness that is still palpable nearly eighty years later. We have had films, radio shows, interviews, so many anniversaries and so many books. Now, surely, the anarchist historical narrative of Spain is as familiar and understood as the photographs: initial revolutionary exhilaration and autonomy, then gradual repression by forces on the Left and, worst of all, a perceived betrayal of what the Revolution had achieved by some anarchists who should have known better, because they believed that the priority of struggle was against fascism and not for the Social Revolution. What else do we need to know?



The smoke from Spain still hangs over all aspects of today’s anarchism whether we like it or not – even for those who want to deny that what happened there has any relevance to the world today. For some it has proved to be the end of something; the moving out of anarchism’s home on the Left. For them class struggle is moribund and bankrupt, something that should be subsumed by the struggle of the individual. They haven’t yet announced, as George Woodcock maintained for many years, that anarchism died in 1939, but for those comrades at least a type of anarchism did. Less dramatically others attempted to explain the circumstances that the CNT-FAI found itself in, suggesting that calls for anarchist revolution took no cognizance of what was happening both in Spain and in the world beyond it. They want us to examine carefully the hard decisions the organization had to take. Still others pore obsessively over the events. When did it go wrong? What could we have done differently in that place and on that date? Some comrades have spent time in all these areas. And still it goes on. This agonizing over, or even the outright dismissal of   Spain as being of any importance at all, is not hard to understand. Rightly or wrongly Spain has been seen by many of us as the only sustained period of time that anarchism actually helped bring about revolutionary change in the everyday lives of many, many people and, just as importantly, sustained that change. In parts of Spain anarchists took on the army and won and for many that victory led to the creation of what we may call libertarian communism; a change in economic and personal relations that people could only have dreamed about a few years earlier. Capitalism had apparently been destroyed. Dreams had come true. All those discussions, all those articles, all those plenums, all those years of exile or imprisonment were not worthless. Yet we are left asking what went wrong? Was there some awful flaw in anarchism that has made it, like Bolshevism, a revolutionary dead end, or was it a combination of circumstances and poor decision making by individuals that brought about the nightmare of 1939, the loss of everything and the years of exile, repression and resistance?




The CNT-FAI in 1934 was not a naïve and unsophisticated grouping filled with saintly militants driven by the purity, righteousness and moral correctness of their mission. It was a hard headed organization that had been shaped by its member’s experience of strikes, insurrections, imprisonment, exile, cultural activities and lives led in the working class barrios and villages of Spain and other places. It had a coherent sense of what was happening to capitalism in Spain and worldwide, did not exist in a purely intellectual and moral vacuum and was well aware of the nature of the forces ranged against it. The CNT-FAI had its own legends and stories that carried tremendous weight in its decision making and was a remarkably complex group that we might be better off seeing less as one homogenous grouping but several, whose membership changed according to the situations the organization found itself in and the strategies it was using at the time. Many of the CNT-FAI members of whatever tendency were ferociously loyal to the organization and the comrades they had lost (Garcia Oliver, for instance, spoke about the CNT as being “an enormous tomb which contains all the largely anonymous dreamers who believed they were struggling for social revolution”)[1] while their debates suggested the organization’s continually evolving nature and refusal to become complacent or hidebound.


It is clear to see that by 1934 the policy of “revolutionary gymnastics” that had been followed between 1932 and 1934 was a failure. The idea that repeated calls for insurrection would lead to an awareness of the repressive nature of the state, a growing confidence amongst the working class and a series of rolling insurrection leading to revolution had left the CNT-FAI exhausted, some of its bravest militants in prison and the organization basically weaponless. In itself the tactic was not new to anarchism; Carlo Cafiero had written as early as 1880, “Not only, then, are ideas born from deeds, they also need deeds in order to develop, to the point that they can inspire other deeds”[2] but, here, at this time and in these economic and social circumstances, such a strategy simply had not worked. We should be, perhaps, a little wary of being too dismissive of it, however. One has to think that experience of, and belief in, insurrection did provide some with the confidence and tactical skill to take on the army and win in Barcelona. Yet the CNT-FAI’s move away from its insurrectionary policies was a practical rather than a moral decision and the move to the Defense Committees helped both initiate and sustain the Spanish Revolution in a profound and astonishingly extensive manner. Here was an organization whose competing tendencies, however they defined themselves, all understood that their reason for existence was to configure the best way to defeat capitalism and bring about libertarian communism, acting as conscious agents of their own change rather than waiting passively for it to happen, or events to occur and reacting to them.


The CNT-FAI was always more than a trade union. It could be found in every aspect of working class life; in its social activities, in its literature and culture, in its education and relationships. So when we talk about the Defense Committees being the “armed organizations of the CNT” (15) we are talking about these groups being the Defense Committees of the working class districts they were part of. Being an organic part of the community was a critical factor in all of this. Many Defense Committee members had grown up in the areas they represented. They knew the friends and enemies of the revolutionary movement and they knew the mood and tenor of their neighborhoods. They helped in rent strikes, they helped resist evictions, they financially helped families in times of illness, and prevented price gouging by greedy shopkeepers together with a host of other activities. They understood the losses and small victories that made up working class life and, when July 19th happened, they could move quickly into action against the army with the help of the working class people they knew and whose community they were part of. Above all this was a planned and prepared response even if, at times, the situation appeared chaotic. Within a handful of days the Defense Committees had the streets. Thanks to them, the bravery of the FAI action groups, and the courage of the working class communities, events in the city of Barcelona became something thrilling- a marvelous victory over the armed forces that prepared the way for libertarian communism. The Defense Committees had the skills, the support, and yes, the power, to make that happen.


Guillamon documents the rest of the story from here and all we would like to do is to make one or two observations that we hope compliment the narrative. Chapter 11 – “The Barcelona FAI Radicalized by the Defense Committees”- is a wonderful opportunity for the reader to see the various groups discussing the situation they are finding themselves in. It’s rare to find this type of material in English that is not written from memory and in reflection long after the events described. The discussion leaps off the page and is full of contradiction, confusion, affirmation, and certainty, all served with a high level of sophisticated perception. There is an immediacy about it, not least because these are not the voices of the more sophisticated speakers and writers who we are used to reading but those of the ordinary militant. Nearly a year had gone by since the possibilities of July 1936 and the experience of those months permeate the discussions. There can be no further assessment whether this is going to be a long or short war. It’s the long haul and the atmosphere of the plenum is charged; something is going to happen, perhaps something already is, and we are privileged to be able to be there to sense it. This is radical history at its finest as the anarchists attempt to deal with the actions of the Stalinists, their other supposed allies, and the behavior of the CNT’s “higher committees.”


By 1937 it is clear that, as Guillamon’s narrative recognizes, the tensions in the CNT had resolved into two clear positions that cut right through any other previous overlapping tendencies that might have existed. Now more than ever the distinction between CNT and FAI was irrelevant. The ideological conflict within the organization was now between revolutionaries and those who wished to collaborate with other parties and groups. It was a tension between those who felt that the primary struggle was to maintain and extend libertarian communism and those who felt the primary struggle was against Fascism and revolutionary change should be postponed until that overarching struggle was won. Many of the latter soon were on what Guillamon calls the “higher committees” of the CNT. When De Santillan talks about being in a collaborative mode we can, perhaps, understand the position of people like himself, Montseny, and others who see the struggle against fascism as central to all actions and strategies. There is a logic there. What is harder to understand is their inability to see the enormous potential of the Defense Committees and to observe their apparent complicity when the Stalinists and their friends refer to the Defense Committees as bandits and gangsters or dismiss those who refused to surrender to the primacy of the war against Fascism, as “uncontrolables.” We should not, though, forget the loyalty of the Defense Committees to the CNT-FAI. The higher committees existed because the Defense Committees let them. Defense Committee members were usually too busy to take part in strategic debate on the war and, as a consequence, gave the higher committees free rein. The members of these higher committees were not lacking in self importance and saw a vacuum only they could fill. And fill it they did.


This book is not an easy read for those of us looking for a comforting re-enforcement of the purity of our anarchist ideal. Reality has an awkward habit of getting in the way and at times it can be an unsettling read. Guillamon makes no attempt to hide the brutality that took place in those first few July days in Barcelona and the part the Defense Committees played in the settling of scores. The notion of anarchist controlled prisons and the behavior of the CNT-FAI Investigation and Intelligence Services do not sit easily even as there is a distinct pragmatism about them. The real worry of the Liaison Committee of the Anarchist Groups in Catalonia that members of the Durruti Column might well turn their guns on each other over the question of militarization may well make us understand the passions that filled up those days in late 1936 but still leaves us unsettled. All this though is what very good history does. It makes us think, makes us interrogate our ideas and leaves us richer for it. It makes us want to find out more when we thought we knew enough.


In telling the story of the Defense Committees Guillamon has made it incontrovertibly clear that the July days in Barcelona did not just happen. They had been planned for and after the success of the working class communities against the armed forces and others, the Defense Committees were there to help administer food and welfare support as well as create libertarian forms of administration and support in a multitude of areas. Theirs is a remarkable story. If we want to find faults in their inability to co-ordinate or in their inability to sense, sometimes, what was happening on a national scale we can. Sitting at our table, flicking through the internet, we can find faults with nearly everything and even if the faults are telling we should be careful not to take away the reality of the magnificence of their particular achievements. For as Guillamon writes “The fighting, the killing, the suffering and the dying was not done for the sake of a Republic- but for the emancipation of labor and a better, freer society that actually seemed within reach.”


Agustin Guillamon has been editor of the magazine Balance since 1993. An ongoing investigation of events and personalities in the Spanish Revolution it has become a gradual recuperation of what we might call the “awkward squad” – those comrades from the revolutionary organizations who have been slandered by the neo Stalinists and, more worryingly, sometimes, by members of their own organization looking to re-shape history and place themselves in the most flattering light. His book The Friends of Durruti Group, 1937-39 was published by AK Press in 1996 and Ready for Revolution is part of a trilogy that examines Spanish working class anarchism up to and after the May Days of 1937. He describes his work as a historian as part of the “unveiling of the real history of the class struggle”. A battle, if you like, against the amnesia that can easily envelop us.


This is a book that develops the work done in equally seminal texts such as Vernon Richards’ Lessons of the Spanish Revolution (Freedom Press, 1972, enlarged edition), Stuart Christie’s We the Anarchists (AK Press, 2008) and Chris Ealham’s Anarchy and the City (AK Press, 2010) Like them Ready For Revolution stops us in our tracks and makes us re-assess and debate what we thought we knew. It is a beautifully researched book that is forcefully presented and is , without doubt ,a major work of radical scholarship.


Kate Sharpley Library

Originally published as the introduction to Ready For Revolution (AK Press, 2014)


[1] Juan Garcia Oliver   Wrong Steps: Errors in the Spanish Revolution. Kate Sharpley Library, 2000 P. 13

[2] Carlo Cafiero             Revolution. Black Cat Press, Edmonton, Alberta, 2012,   P. 64