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Review of Living Anarchism – José Peirats and the Spanish Anarcho-Syndicalist Movement

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Living AnarchismJosé Peirats and the Spanish Anarcho-Syndicalist Movement by Chris Ealham [AK Press] Available here.

This review first published in Ideas and Action (Oct 2017).

547398_10150758746726023_1766635136_nOn the cover of Living Anarchism, the publishers, AK Press, point out that the anarchist movement in Spain in the lead up to the revolution in 1936-37 was the ‘the largest anti-authoritarian movement’ ever created in the world. It numbered in the hundreds of thousands and resulted from a conscious and deliberate intervention by anarchists in the everyday world of work and community. Anarchists sought to build a new world in the shell of the old and they were surprisingly successful in significant ways. Living Anarchism is testimony to this. Not a history of Spanish anarchism as such, it is nonetheless a window into the life of that movement seen through the life of one its key activist, José Peirats.

So who was José Peirats? The son of labourers from Valencia province, he moved to Barcelona at a young age with his family in search of work and a future. Suffering illness and numerous privations, Peirats eventually found a home in one of the city’s vibrant rationalist schools. However his education was short-lived and at a young age he entered the workforce proper as a brick-maker. Gravitating to the anarcho-syndicalist union, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), he became a key activist in the L’Hospitalet area of Barcelona. Peirats lived through it all: at the young age of 28 he was in Barcelona as the Spanish Revolution got underway. He witnessed the enormous achievements and hope that the revolution generated and he witnessed, in time, its demise and defeat. In exile at the age of 31 he spent a great deal of the remainder of life documenting the rise of Spain’s anarchist movement, going on the produce The CNT in the Spanish Revolution – an extensive, three volume history of the largest workers’ union in Spain at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. In the last period of his life he said,

“I’ve done almost everything in the CNT: I’ve organised strikes, organised workers, spoken in assemblies, meetings, and given conferences, written articles, attended congresses, used pistols, and, some- times, explosives; I’ve been in jail and collected lawsuits, mainly for libelous press articles. I know what it means to be naked and take a beating in a police station. I was the only secretary of the CNT in exile to enter Spain clandestinely when they were still shooting people!”

9781849352383_72Living Anarchism is broken into ten sections (if one includes the excellent summation) which can broadly be divided into two parts – the period leading up to the revolution and period after the revolution’s defeat. If the first section of the book is then a celebration of what anarchism was capable of building when its activists put their minds to it, then the second section is, in contrast, the tragedy of defeat at the hands of fascism and what that came to mean.

Exile

Exiled to South America and later France, Peirats struggled like many of his comrades to make sense of the defeat that had befallen the anarchist movement in Spain. Defeat is never easy and the tragedy was compounded by exile and isolation. A movement of Spanish anarchists abroad came into being but it was riven with division and acrimony. Peirats, more than most, understood the dilemma: the past could not be ignored and yet the movement, if it was to survive and rebuild, needed to move on too. It was a delicate and difficult line to walk along.

Peirats was clearly a product of the university of the class struggle and his early years and reputation as a resolute union activist in the cauldron of Barcelona was something that he never departed from. However, another side to the activist was his strong interest in the practice and spirit of anti-authoritarianism. A significant part of his life – perhaps deriving from his own early exposure to the rationalist/ free school movement in Barcelona – involved a commitment to the ‘athenaeum’: essentially self-organised community centres envisaged as ‘a focal point of social ferment’ for the locality around it. These centres hosted a library, debates, music recitals, evening classes and threatre productions. Before and during the revolution, as well as afterwards in exile, it was this activity surrounding the ‘athenaeum’ that Peirats returned to and was involved with again and again.

Although the person who emerges from his book appears exceptional in many respects, Peirats would have been the first to dispute this, it seems. Describing himself at one point as a ‘worker ant’ he believed himself to be very much a part and a product of the CNT. Clearly he was a talented activist, writer and organiser, but there emerges from this biography a man whose dedication to revolutionary change was absolute. By no means without faults – and this is explored in Living Anarchism – Peirats nevertheless had an abiding grasp of the importance and value of anarchist ideas. Given that he had witnessed the highest point of achievement and an avalanche of low points in its aftermath, he remained largely upbeat, understating near the end, ‘I did what I could despite many obstacles’.

Durruti

In terms of Spanish anarchism we hear a great deal about people like Durruti but activists like Jose Peirats, it seems to me, were a lot closer to the soul of Spanish anarchism. For Peirats anarchism was about democracy, education and the class struggle. In contrast Durruti was far more liable to be off taking a pot shot at some bishop or other – a headline grabbing activity but not necessarily as productive as it sounds or looks.

In 2010, the historian Chris Ealham produced what is undoubtedly one of the best social and political histories of anarchism, namely Anarchism and the City – the story of the rise of anarchism in the Catalonia port city of Barcelona. Now with this account of Peirat’s life he had done us a further service. He admits at the outset that ‘there are many aspects of Peirats life that he finds admirable’ and while this must certainly colour this work, it does not distract from what is a clear and concise account of an anarchist activist’s lived life in revolution and defeat.

Matters have moved on hugely since the revolution in Spain in 1936-37 and Peirats as much as anyone saw this in full measure by the time his life came to an end in 1989. However there is a great deal to learn from this book. The Spanish anarchists combined a practice of militant class struggle with a broad visionary belief in human desire and emancipation. Whatever about claims, dreams and aspirations, in the end it takes people to make politics happen: Peirats was clearly one of those who excelled at this task.

A book to read and treasure.

 

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Interview with Chomsky: Anarchism, Marxism and Hope …

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LiftNoam Chomsky is widely known for his critique of U.S foreign policy, and for his work as a linguist. Less well known is his ongoing support for libertarian socialist objectives. In a special interview done for Red and Black Revolution [May 1995] Chomsky talks to Kevin Doyle about anarchism, marxism and the hope for the future.

Link to full interview here and here. PDF of Red and Black Revolution 2 Also available from AK Press in ‘Chomsky On Anarchism’

Written by Kevin Doyle

March 31, 2016 at 3:11 pm

Interview: After Apartheid – The new South Africa

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anti apartheidJust three years after the famous elections that ended apartheid in April 1994, South Africa’s reforms are in crisis and dissatisfaction is rising. In a wide ranging interview we ask the Workers Solidarity Federation for their views on what has happened since the end of apartheid.

Full version here.  Published in Red and Black Revolution 3 (WSM, 1998)

Note on photograph: Showing a picket organised by the Dunnes Stores Strike Support Group (Cork) outside the Dunnes Stores supermarket on Patrick Street in Cork circa 1985. The placard says “Help Fight Apartheid – Boycott Dunnes Stores”.

Written by Kevin Doyle

March 31, 2016 at 1:26 pm

1976: The Fight for Useful Work at Lucas Aerospace

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LucasIn the 1970s workers at the Lucas Aerospace Company in Britain set out to defeat the bosses plans to axe jobs. They produced their own alternative “Corporate Plan” for the company’s future. In doing so they attacked some of the underlying priorities of capitalism. Their proposals were radical, arguing for an end to the wasteful production of military goods and for people’s needs to be put before the owners’ profits.

First published in Workers Solidarity (WSM, Ireland) – no link.  Republished at Libcom with comments here.

Written by Kevin Doyle

March 31, 2016 at 1:12 pm

Review: Constructive Anarchism The Debate On The Platform

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Cont Anarchism“The debate is important still, and lest we forget why, consider, on this the anniversary of 1937 – the year of defeat for the Spanish Revolution – the conclusion of Jose Periats, the anarchist historian aligned with the CNT. In Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution he says: “Anarchism is largely responsible for its own bad reputation in the world. It did not consider the thorny problem of means and ends. In their writing, many anarchists conceived of a miraculous solution to the problems of revolution. We fell easily into this trap in Spain. We believed that once the dog is dead, the rabies is over. We proclaimed a full-blown revolution without worrying about the many complex problems that revolution brings with it”

Published in: Red And Black Revolution 3 (WSM, Ireland)

A Promise Broken: Obama and Guantánamo Bay

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640px-camp_x-ray_detaineesGuantánamo Bay detention facility was created under George Bush’s Presidency in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001.  Described as ‘a place where normal legal rules’ do not apply, it quickly became infamous for harsh and extreme conditions of detention.  Interrogators practiced a variety of torture techniques on prisoners…

Full version here. Published in the Irish Anarchist Reivew [Issue 3]  May 2011.

Written by Kevin Doyle

March 29, 2016 at 8:30 pm

Anarchist Lens: What’s Wrong With This Photo?

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Mick Barry Says...What’s Wrong With This Photo?

For a lot of people, the photo on the right is just another snapshot of a candidate looking for votes in the forthcoming Irish general election. On one level, that’s a perfectly fine way to view the photograph. However, the picture also captures a fault line in left politics that is worth looking at.

The anti-water tax campaign is the most serious movement to emerge, to date, in Ireland in opposition to austerity. It is a campaign with plenty of strands to it but one thing is clear: community (and collective) action has been decisive to its success. Although resistance has been at times sporadic and uneven, no one doubts that the current upsurge in struggle against water meters is one of the largest mobilisations seen in the country for decades. Large numbers of ordinary citizens have been drawn into political action in which their own self-organised efforts have been decisive to the outcome. As a result it has also been, for many people, an empowering experience that has renewed an awareness of the existence of community, shared interests and the power of taking common action to achieve goals.

“Bigging-Up”

The Barry photo, however, is not about any of this. Although the candidate is a socialist (and a member of the Socialist Party now trading as the Anti-Austerity Alliance) you will notice that there is little – sorry, nothing – on his banner about collective struggle. Instead the focus is on the candidate. The banner, prominently on display during a recent protest march in Cork, is mostly about ‘bigging-up’ the candidate as a potential spokesperson for the anti-water tax campaign. This is in turn the core idea behind the Right2Change platform which aims to get the anti-water tax movement to buy into the idea that ‘trusted’ politicians will sort out the water tax issue on our behalf. Needless to say for aspiring politicians this is a win-win situation: they get to promise that electing them is the solution to all our problems and in turn they use the grassroots campaign as a platform on which to build their careers.

The bitter disappointment that was Syriza (in Greece) has not quite sunk in for many on the electoral left in Ireland. For that reason many still see Syriza’s strategy as the way forward. Recall that it took the Coalition of the Radical Left (translation of Syriza) nearly eleven years to reach their dream of forming a government in Greece. During those eleven years considerable time and energy was put into the electoral project. When they finally made it into power they discovered that they were toothless in the face of the establishment. Capitalism, let’s face it, is an entrenched system of power and privilege. It won’t be unseated by a few parliamentarians throwing temper tantrums. Embedded authoritarianism and a resourceful State structure stand bang smack in the way of even basic progress. In the end, in Greece, Tsipras and a range of politicians were humiliated and they couldn’t do anything about it.

A Hefty Price-tag

The more ambition left politicians in Ireland have a Syriza style movement (and strategy) in mind – minus the tragic end, one hopes! They are hoping to see this emerge from the current anti-water tax fight. On one level this looks attractive: after all what could be simpler than voting austerity out of existence?  But really, I ask you, is it going to be that easy? More importantly an unspoken, hefty price-tag  has to be paid if the electoral route is followed.

Time and again grassroots movements have experienced a decline in momentum and power as soon as they switch to an electoral focus . An example of of this was the fate of the German Green Movement in the 80s and 90s analysed here. A more relevant and recent example it that of Podemus in Spain. We Can (translation of Podemus) was formed in 2014 and has  shamelessly cashed in on the network of organisations created in Spain from 2011 onwards to fight austerity. As the Podemus electoral project grew in scope it sucked energy and activism from those organisations which had led the fight against austerity in the communities – for example the anti-eviction movement PAH. Not only that, as Podemus grew, it in turn began to shed its more radical political positions in favour of a business friendly political image. Where have we seen that before?

There is a real danger now that the same outcome could come to pass here in Ireland in the anti-water tax campaign.

The Fault Line?

No!So back to the fault line in left politics. What is it then? The alternative view of how change can be brought about involves avoiding the parliament (and persona based politics). Instead the aim is to resource the grassroots movement that has emerged around the anti-water tax campaign and then extend it outwards so that it can link up with and encourage similar developments in other areas where social conflict is happening. So important strikes need support. Direct action efforts around homelessness needs support. The aim all time is to build popular activism, to move in a horizontal direction as opposed to a vertical one; to emphasis participation and democracy as much as possible. To take one example, a crucial fight is happening right now in respect to the LUAS strike in Dublin. The Establishment has realised this and the LUAS workers have been pilloried in the media at every turn. Will the LUAS workers have to fight on alone or will a grassroots solidarity emerge to help them win their battle.?How could that type of solidarity be built and what shape would it take? These are matters that a grassroots movement could and should address.

An alternative strategy then would never have a banner like Barry’s near it. The alternative banner would show a large group of people – similar to what is shown just above – under the slogan: Tgether we are strong. Together we have the power. Somehow that slogan just doesn’t seem to fit with getting elected to the parliament. But therein lies the important difference.

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