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Interview: David Berry on Anarchist Scholarship

Posted on August 27th, 2008 in AK Authors!, Happenings

French Anarchist MovementAK Press Collective member, Zach Blue, recently conducted an email interview with David Berry, the author of AK’s forthcoming paperback edition of A History of the French Anarchist Movement, 1917–1945. The book will not be available until December, but David is busy with plenty of other projects in the meantime. He is the reviews editor of Anarchist Studies journal and is currently co-organizing the first Anarchist Studies Network conference at Loughborough University (UK), where he teaches French and politics. David has been active on the Left in one form or another for over thirty years, most recently in the local branch of his union. He’s also on the editorial board of the Journal of Contemporary European Studies.

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Thanks for taking some time to answer these questions today, David. For starters, could you tell us about the Anarchist Studies Network: what work does it do and what do you hope for it to achieve?

The ASN was basically established, I suppose, to do two things: create and foster links between the growing number of people doing research on anarchism (whether they were students/academics or not); and, building on that, to promote further research in the area and help disseminate the results. A group of us (lecturers and postgraduate research students) in the Politics Department at Loughborough University who were working on various aspects of anarchist history, politics, and theory were keen to raise the profile of research on anarchism—because, without wanting to be paranoid, it’s still difficult to get scholarly (i.e. properly researched) work on anarchism taken seriously within the education system in Britain. Some of us belonged to the Political Studies Association, which allows its members to create “Specialist Groups” on all kinds of subjects, so we set up a Specialist Group for the Study of Anarchism, which means that we get a certain amount of funding from the PSA. The name was later changed to ASN. With the help of our more techie members, we’ve since set up a wiki web site and an e-mail discussion list. There have also been a couple of annual meetings where all the members got together to discuss plans. The PSA funding (which has no strings attached so long as it’s used to do what we want to do in any case, i.e. promote the study of anarchism) has allowed us to fund various seminars, workshops, and conferences, and to give financial support to members who needed help to be able to attend these events—not to mention the forthcoming ASN conference in Loughborough this September.

In its succinct definition of anarchist studies, the ASN states “For a number of us, what we are calling ‘anarchist studies’ no longer necessarily takes anarchism as its object of study but as a standpoint from which to study the world. Anarchist contributions to thought are making a reappearance in a number of fields, challenging established orthodoxies. Perhaps, against all odds, we are witnessing the emergence of a new anarchist paradigm in academia.” Can you describe some current examples of how anarchist ideas are informing new approaches to the imposing challenges leveled by capitalism in recent years? And what is the relationship of anarchist studies to the ongoing revolutionary project to achieve anarchy?

Plenty has been said and written over the last few years about the resurgence of interest in anarchist ideas, and the influence of anarchist modes of organizing within social movements, trade unions, worker co-ops, and popular protests of all kinds, as well as in the broader alter-globalization “movement of movements.” There are still debates to be had there about the nature of the relationship between some contemporary anarchisms and earlier anarchist movements, and this relationship clearly varies from country to country (the situation in the States, say, is different from that in France). But the remarks you quote in your question could probably be read in two ways. One reading could be that “anarchist studies” is not just about the study of anarchism, but that it is about bringing an anarchist perspective to bear in doing research on any subject. Sharif Gemie, for example, once described himself to me as an anarchist historian rather a historian of anarchism. In international relations, someone informed by an anarchist methodology might reject the state-centric approach of most analyses in that field (see Alex Prichard’s recent PhD on Proudhon and international politics). And I’ve just seen a call for papers for a panel at the Association of American Geographers’ 2009 annual conference that proposes to explore the possible contribution of anarchist theory and practice to a radical geographic theory (Kropotkin and Elisée Reclus were, of course, geographers). Barry Pateman (in his introduction to the forthcoming AK Press edition of my book) also talks about “that critical grey area between independent anarchist scholarship and the academy.” His concerns have to do with “what we are doing when we research the history of anarchism and anarchists. Some recent scholarship appears to suggest that the lives of anarchists—their hopes, fears, contradictions and, yes, moments of inspiration—are no more than objects for intellectual experimentation.” On the other hand—although I understand the healthy skepticism towards many academics whose research (and teaching, for that matter) is entirely divorced from any political commitment—I do get a bit weary of those “activists” who draw a clear distinction between themselves on the one hand and “academics” on the other, refusing to see any value or use whatsoever in scholarly research. As if the fact that some of us happen to earn our living working as teachers in universities and colleges means that we can’t also be politically active in other ways.

Tell us about the ASN Conference happening September 4–6, 2008. [For a schedule, go here]:

This isn’t the first conference that ASN members have been involved in organizing or that the ASN has subsidized, but it’s the first ASN conference as such. The point of it was really to bring together as many people as possible who are doing some kind of research on any aspect of anarchist history, politics, or theory: partly just to find out what’s going on out there, because so many people working in these areas are more or less isolated. And we’ve been quite pleased with the response: there are going to be around 100 talks and I think over 140 people are now registered. Whereas we were originally thinking mostly in terms of developing networks within the British Isles, there are going to be participants from Canada and the US, and from right across Europe as well as/including Turkey. We’ve also managed to attract a good mix of well-established researchers (such as Martin Miller, who published his study of Kropotkin in 1979 and David Goodway, who’s been writing radical history for many years and whose recent Anarchist Seeds beneath the Snow is the culmination of fifteen years of work), post-grads, and people outside the education system (although it can’t be denied that money has been a problem in some cases, despite a system of bursaries).

You are also the reviews editor for the Anarchist Studies journal. Tell us a little about the journal (for those unfamiliar) and what you look for as reviews editor? What books have recently caught your eye that you endeavored to feature?

The ASN is kind of semi-officially linked to AS—not just because that would seem logical anyway, but because AS actually grew out of the Anarchist Research Group (ARG), a precursor of the ASN. There were a couple of successive History Workshop Conferences in the early 1980s (HW, dominated by New Left Marxists, was interested in “history from below”) at which the anarchist strand was the second-best attended strand after feminism/women’s history That success encouraged us to set up the ARG, with more or less regular seminars in London, and subsequently a journal: Anarchist Studies. The journal is multidisciplinary and, as Ruth Kinna confirmed in a recent editorial, we don’t have an editorial line: we judge everything we’re sent on its merits (properly researched, well written, convincingly argued, etc) and publish or not accordingly. As for the role of reviews editor, I probably ought to be pleased, but I’m currently extremely frustrated because there are so many books appearing that I would like us to review, but we can’t fit them all in!

I’d like to ask you a few questions about your book, A History of the French Anarchist Movement, 1917–1945. What started you on your path to researching anarchism in France during this period?

Having been totally alienated from Leninism by my experiences as a school student in the Trotskyist Workers’ Revolutionary Party, I first became interested in anarchism when I was an undergraduate studying French and German. When I decided to continue into post-grad study, I also decided to move away from literature and towards politics or history. It was at Sussex that I first became involved with a group of anarchists (which included, coincidentally, the philosopher Alan Carter), and I approached Professor Rod Kedward (who published The Anarchists in 1969) as a possible PhD supervisor. I originally wanted to do something on anarchism and May ‘68, but he persuaded me that the subject had been done to death. (The basic criteria for a successful PhD are that the thesis has to produce new material or to present an original interpretation of material already known, so you have to make certain pragmatic decisions about what you can research.) An enormous amount has been published on the French anarchist movement up to 1914, because it was extremely influential, whereas the inter-war period was dominated by studies of the nascent communist movement (partly for understandable reasons—the importance of the French Communist Party in the history of the country— but also because labor history tended to be dominated by Marxists of one kind or another). So, studying the anarchist movement after what is generally seen as its heyday seemed the logical thing to do, and it turned out to be an extremely interesting, key period in the movement’s development in the twentieth century.

You mention in the Introduction that “although this is a study primarily at the level of ideology and organization, I have endeavored to avoid producing a history dealing solely with leaders or faceless organizations. I have tried—as far as the sources permit—to emphasize the feelings, the beliefs and the commitments of ordinary ‘grassroots militants’ to show them struggling with new and difficult situations, to rescue the memory of these otherwise unknown militants…” Did you set out with this goal in mind or was it the result of your extensive research?

My first exposure to history and historians was in the History Department at Sussex University, which contained a number of people who were quite prominent in the History Workshop movement. I was naturally attracted to the idea of “history from below” —a concern with ordinary working-class activists and the movements in which they participated, and the rejection of the idea that “history is the story of great men.” But the degree to which I was able to say much about the everyday lives of the relatively unknown activists I learned about was determined to a large extent by the available sources: such people tend, by definition, not to write books or articles, or leave much correspondence behind. Police files were sometimes useful, but very uneven and often of dubious accuracy. Oral history was of limited use because of the period being studied. Using movement newspapers as a major primary source also tended to encourage a focus on organizations and political-ideological debates, rather than on individuals, since the most important of them were the official organs of particular organizations. Having said that, even when analyzing the debate over, say, how anarchists should react to bolshevism in 1920, it was interesting to see how individual activists writing in these papers developed different ideas and different responses, and how the arguments and positions adopted evolved in response to national and international events—something made possible by the openness of debate in these groups and their willingness to publish all shades of opinion. So, yes, I started out with a very bottom-up approach to history, but what is possible is to some extent dictated to you by the available material.

Could you summarize for readers the rise of anarchist communism during this period and the “increased distance both in terms of ideology and practice between anarchist communism and individualist anarchism”? What were the most apparent distinctions between these two orientations towards anarchism?

Anarchism as a tendency developed in France in the 1840s, but it was only really in the 1880s that it became an identifiable, autonomous movement whose program and tactics differed clearly from those of other socialist currents. By that stage, the vision of the future society to which most French anarchists subscribed had already become an anarchist-communist one: i.e. advocating the socialization of all property except for that which was for genuinely personal use, operating on the basis of need. Tactically speaking, French anarchist-communists accepted the need for organized, collective direct action, notably (though not exclusively) through labor unions. However, before the Great War there was still a significant individualist current within the broader movement, which was characterized by a rejection of the communist economic model and of the collectivist ethos, by an interest in anarchism (or “anarchy” as they often preferred to put it) as a philosophy and a way of life for the individual, and also by an impatience with the less “advanced” majority of the population—an impatience which often tended to lead to feelings of superiority and a disdain for the unliberated “mass” or “herd” (as some individualists put it). However, most anarchists were turned against individualism: first by the futility and entirely negative consequences of the brief wave of anarchist terrorism in 1892–94; and later by its association with the indiscriminately violent (and equally futile) actions of the Bonnot Gang. When a national federation of French anarchist groups was finally created in 1913, it declared in favor of anarchist-communism and individualists were barred from the founding conference. What I concluded from my research was that anarchist-communists and anarcho-syndicalists on the one hand, and anarchist individualists on the other hand could no longer be said to belong to the same movement after the First World War. The gap between individualists and what we now call social anarchists was increased by the combined effects of the war and the 1917 Russian revolution. The first of these two events demonstrated that the anarchists’ decades long antimilitarist campaigns had failed to prevent the draft and war; the second brought home the fact that in France—universally seen, up until 1917, as the homeland of the revolutionary tradition—had not seen a social revolution (to complete the work of 1789). This perception of failure triggered in most French anarchists a profound self-questioning. It made some receptive to the siren-song of the nascent international bolshevik movement with its base in the only European country which had succeeded in making a revolution; it made many others argue that what was needed, in the interests of efficacy, was a more ideologically and organizationally cohesive anarchist movement. This latter debate had of course begun many years before, but it was 1914–1917 which really gave it impetus. And, whereas Alexandre Skirda and others tend to emphasize the role of the Makhnovites (in exile in Paris), in fact when they published their Organizational Platform in 1926 they were pushing at an open door as far as many French militants were concerned: the argument for greater organization, the move away from what came to be seen as an absolutist emphasis on the autonomy of the individual was a result of lessons drawn from practical experience. This “revisionist” tendency was linked to a new determination to see the anarchists once more playing a central role in the broader labor movement, and the historical evidence suggests that, in practice, anarchist-communists in the 1920s and 30s had far more to do on a day-to-day campaigning basis with syndicalists, left-wing socialists, unorthodox Marxists, and Trotskyists than with the comparatively much smaller number of individualist anarchists. The latter showed little interest in “the social question,” being more interested in interpersonal relations and what we would today call lifestyle issues. Relations between the two currents seem at times to have been extremely hostile.

Despite bitter disagreements amongst the various camps of organized anarchists, the inter-war years saw a massive growth of the movement, whether it was in labor union activity, anti-fascist action, or—in many ways a culmination of both—support for the Spanish revolution. Could you give readers an idea what you mean by “anarchist” when describing this growth and roughly how expansive it was?

Thanks to their strong opposition to the war effort in 1914–18, and to the reformist and “class-collaborationist” leadership of the CGT, the anarchists enjoyed a brief resurgence of popularity during the revolutionary situation that arguably existed in several European countries at the end of the Great War. But that didn’t last long for a number of reasons: notably, the creation of the Communist Party in 1920 and the Communists’ growing control over the revolutionary syndicalist movement; but also (according to the anarchist-communists’ self-diagnosis) their own inability to hold on to new supporters because of their disorganization and theoretical paucity. The real growth in support for the anarchist movement was in 1936–37. This was caused by the anarchists’ consistent antimilitarism (which attracted some increasingly disillusioned former Communists); their radical stance with regard to the Popular Front government (their insistence on direct action and their attempt to push the general strike towards “generalized expropriation”); but, above all, by their association with the CNT-FAI and their high profile campaign in support of the Spanish revolution and the Republican forces. The tendency within the broader movement that benefited most from this was the mainstream, anarchist-communist Anarchist Union (AU), which had, in the interests of solidarity (in public at least), muted its criticisms of the CNT’s ministerialism. We have to see the growth in support in perspective, of course: the anarchist movement was still very small in comparison with the Socialist Party or even the Communist Party. Nevertheless, the AU had around 2,500–3,000 paid-up members in 1938, and in the same period was printing around 20,000 copies of its weekly newspaper, Le Libertaire. They printed 100,000 copies of a special issue for May Day 1937. At the same time, the anarcho-syndicalist CGTSR had around 5,000–6,000 members, and the “revolutionary individualist” French Anarchist Federation claimed to be printing 6,500 copies of its fortnightly Terre Libre. What this enables us to conclude about the number of “anarchists” or “supporters” or “sympathizers” there were in France at that time is unclear. Jean Maitron (the first serious historian of French anarchism) suggested that it might be possible to calculate the approximate number of anarchist sympathizers or supporters (depending on how you define those terms) by analogy with the known 1:20 ratio between Socialist Party members and voters: thus adding up UA and CGTSR membership would give us around 8,000 paid-up, active members, and suggest that we might assume about 160,000 sympathizers or supporters. There are several objections that could be raised about this idea, though, and it’s basically impossible to give anything like precise figures.

You place great emphasis on the incredible impact of both the Russian and Spanish Revolutions on the French movement—an impact they had on movements the world over. Can you tell us what particular challenges these brought to anarchists in France and how they attempted to meet them?

The Russian and Spanish revolutions represented moments of doctrinal crisis for the anarchist movement. It was confronted for the first time with actual revolutions in which anarchists played a significant role. On both occasions, the anarchists were provoked into questioning their own theories and their own visions of the Revolution. Significant sections of the movement found anarchism as a revolutionary doctrine and practice severely lacking. Important aspects of anarchist doctrine and practice were questioned and rejected, or so modified that it was difficult to perceive any clear and significant distinction between anarchism and other sectors of the revolutionary socialist movement. The much-vaunted “specificity” of anarchism became somewhat problematic: what exactly was it that distinguished the socialist varieties of anarchism from non-anarchist socialisms? In the 1920s, this aggravated existing debates about anarchist organization and tactics, and led to the debate about Platformism; in the 1930s, French anarchists were in a dilemma about how or whether to criticize Spanish comrades (over “ministerialism”) who were in a very tricky situation—and, of course, that debate about the tactical/strategic choices made in Spain in 1936–37 is still alive amongst Spanish anarchists and syndicalists. On a practical (rather than doctrinal) level, anarchists in France were faced with the growing influence of Leninism, then Stalinism, in the labor movement, and were ultimately completely marginalized, despite their best efforts.

Your book relies almost exclusively upon French-language sources. Can you recommend English-language studies of anarchism from the same time period that complement your work?

There is very little available in English on the French anarchist movement, at least not in this period. There’s Richard Sonn’s book on the anarchists around the fin de siecle. And there are some excellent studies of French syndicalism (e.g., Jeremy Jennings and Wayne Thorpe). But if someone wanted to read something complementary to my History of the French Anarchist Movement, the best thing to do would probably be to read the historical overview provided in one of the general survey books like Peter Marshall’s Demanding the Impossible.