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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.

 

The Secret River and ‘The Lucky Country’

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The Secret River

Columbus’s journey to the Americas marked the beginning of a long and uninterrupted war against the peoples of the non-European world.   After invasion, came suppression and annihilation – not necessarily in that order.  Militarily, the European regimes – the Spanish, Portuguese, English, French for example – were superior entities.  They were ruthless and their hunger for new land and wealth was insatiable.  About all of this, much is now known.  For example Chomsky’s Year 501: The Conquest Continues give a good overview and perspective on what befell so many of the indigenous of the world.

Australia was an important theatre in this war. Its huge landmass was the subject of penetrative explorations from the 1600s on, and was finally declared ‘discovered’ by Cook in 1770.  Cook’s claim on behalf of Great Britain marks the beginning of a harrowing period in the history of those peoples that lived on the continent – a catastrophe for the Aborigines as the Holocaust is the Jews or the Nakba is for the Palestinians.

The war against the aboriginal peoples of Australia goes on to this day.  It is a war that has waxed and waned in termed of its intensity – veering from outright genocidal attacks on different tribes to more systematic efforts to undermine and destroy the social and cultural structure of the aborigines.  For those interested in exploring this history, I would particularly recommend Noel Olive’s Enough Is Enough which focuses on the experience of the aborigines of Western Australia and their efforts to weather the unceasing war that was conducted against them.

Into this harrowing and ongoing narrative comes an accomplished work of fiction – from one of Australia’s better known writers, Kate Greenville.  Entitled The Secret River, it was inspired in its inception by the stories told to Greenville by her grandmother about her own family’s coming to Australia.  The Secret River puts faces, names and feelings to a few of those who were the foot-soldiers of Conquest 501.  It is a powerfully told story, disciplined, revealing and ultimately damning.  It is a fine example of what top rate political fiction should be.

Grenville’s story centers on the life of William Thornhill.  After a long sea journey, he is put ashore into the small colony that is Sydney where he must fend for his family and his future. The story backtracks and we learn of the conditions that led to Thornhill’s deportation to Australia.  A working man, through illness and bad luck, he falls on hard times.  Involved in a botched effort to rob from a boat on the Thames in London, he is arrested, tried and sentenced to .  All but bereft of hope he is saved from the gallows by the efforts of his wife, Sal, the constant good fortune of his difficult life.  It is deportation instead of and so Thornhill ends up in Australia.

Like most people, Thornhill is a good person.  His only crime to date is that he has been born poor in a mean, ruthless London.  He takes with him to Australia an awareness of his place and he is not content with it.  He also knows what it is like to be poor and to be on the lowest rung in society.  In Australia he sees the same mean and privileged system that all but ed him back in England.  But there is a difference: there are more opportunities in this new land.   He works hard to become ‘a freeman’ once more and eventually does.  But he knows too that he still must thieve if he is ever to save anything from the daily grind that is his lot.  He learns how to be a better thief – to take small amounts and not get caught.   He sets up a bar with Sal and gradually his family does well.  Soon he makes his first journey outside the colony and via this he sees the vast and beautiful land that lies outside the decrepit colony that is Sydney.  Others around him are already laying claim to these very lands and he too finds himself caught up in the quest.  He sees a small finger of land that catches his eye which he names Thornhill’s Point.  He decides to make it his.

But the land he chooses is not ‘free’ land.  Is is used by the aborigines.  They visit the land and move through it; they also grow food of their own in various chosen areas. One of Thornhill’s first acts is to pull up their plants.  There is standoff but the aborigines do not attempt to remove him.  He and his family fall into an uneasy arrangement; the aborigines come and go while Thornhill establishes his ownership in terms of his own sense of what that entails: he builds a dwelling, establishes boundaries and plants crops.

The situation around him is changing quickly.  Other settlers are also claiming land.  Some make a point of living harmoniously with the aborigines but others are intent on and enslavement.  Thornhill wants no part in the latter and both he and Sal are thrown into a moral dilemma as they become aware of some of the crimes that are being carried out by the settlers.   Thornhill feels uneasy but he feels threatened too.  He is aware that what he is doing is not right but he is determined never to go back to what he barely escaped from with life – his old life as a poor man with no standing.  He prospers while Sal prods him about returning home to London one day; her big hope.

Thornhill was saved from the gallows.  The brutal system that almost killed him, spared him at the very last moment; it had some humanity in it.  Now Thornhill moves into a position where he will have the power to decide whether another human being lives or dies; in a sense the wheel has come the full circle for Thornhill.

We know the outcome and we know what happened.  Nonetheless the conclusion of this fine account of early Australia does not disappoint as it attempts to grapple with the crimes of the past.  In Thornhill’s story we see an honest, good man descending to the level of ed and thief.  The consequences of this are that in time his kit and kin will become the heirs to modern Australia and the heirs too to great wealth.  But it is an ascent that is washed through with – driven on by a foreboding memory of brutal exploitation left behind in Europe.

Grenville’s writing is superb.  It does justice to the harrowing story and is fateful throughout to the characters and their predicaments.  In some ways The Secret River  seems like an obvious story to tell.   But in Australia it would be a mistake to think this is so.  The ‘Lucky Country’, as it is called, is a place were vast numbers of people have willfully constructed a different narrative for how they came to take possession of that land and place.  The this ‘official’ narrative that Australia was in fact ‘terra nullius’ and that those who went there civilised the place and its people remains a cruel lie that still bears down on the peoples of that place.  Grenville has produced a fine book and has also done a small but important service to all those who live and struggle with the legacy of oppression and genocide.

Oh No … Not A Crime Novel

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a-poisioned-mind2I was interested in A Poisoned Mind by Natasha Cooper for one main reason.  It was about the chemical industry and since I have recently completed a novel about same I was intrigued to see how someone else might tackle the subject. Few enough books tackle anything related to the chemical industry anyway, so for that reason alone it seemed worth a look.

The blurb about Poisoned Mind seemed like something I was just after – even if was mining my seam.  There’s a chemical explosion and a man dies. At a center of the book is the contest between the widow and the chemical company for damages and liability.  Who will win and will justice be done?  All well and fine, I suppose …

However, I soon realised that Poisoned Mind is just one in a series of books involving ‘the hotshot barrister Trish Maguire’ who it turns out was once from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’.  Although it does quickly emerge in this case that Trish is working not for the victim of the blast – that would be too easy in a way – but rather for the chemical corporation itself.  Ah, lawyers!  For this pleasure she suffers twangs of guilt aplenty. Anyway, I started.  Nothing like a page turner for Xmas … mmmh!

First off it was difficult to get away from the heavy hand of the narrator/ writer who insisted on a face-moving, on the surface view of all matters. Okay, it is crime fiction.  We were into the complications of the impending court case very quickly … a David and Goliath test with Trish working ably for Goliath. The widow/victim, Angie, who is a down-at-heel farmer, also has to contend with an estranged son and a now contaminated farm.  I won’t go into too much detail here suffice to say that some of her farmland was loaned to a waste disposal company; the company located storage tanks on this land and it was one of these that exploded and ruined her farm, after killing her husband.  For the most part Angie seem just about knocked out by the tragedies that have befallen her … except that is for the goodness and kindness of FADE … an environmental group who, it soon emerges, are not all that they seem.

Anyway, as I said, the writing style that is applied to this book/genre does it no favours.  Characters had pretty stylised reactions to events – and we never go anywhere beyond the immediate needs of each character and their role in the plot.  Apart from Trish herself that is.  She must do her job and manage her home life despite being driven, overworked and overburdened.  There is a subplot to do with Trish and all this but enought said.  The other main character, Angie, is sad and a victim.  The members of FADE, while nice, seem immediately naive and are led – easily, it seems – by a manipulative character Greg whom Angie doesn’t like.

So on the main plot – hopefully that will retrieve this book.  Not really unfortunately.  It turns out that the in this case, as mentioned, the chemical industry is the chemical waste industry and the company in question had some bizarre arrangement with a farmer to locate some of its storage tanks on his land – to supplement his income the farmer John checks the tanks regularly for the company.  And so something went wrong and John either didn’t do his job or their was sabotage and one evening Jhn was in the wrong place at the wrong time and the tank blew up …

There is much that could be knocked about this book – and genre – but as I am a writer myself and I understand what other writers are up against in the market, I am prepared to desist – to a point.  However I do strongly object to the portrait of the environmental group.  It seems to me that if a writer is to tackle serious subjects and attempt to portray people in a real light then there is some onus on them to convey the material honestly.  Instead we meet a group – FADE – who are no more than a bunch of well-meaning fools, whom, as I said, are very easily manipulated.   This might all be fun and games for the writer and the genre except for the fact that it panders to the worse of prejudices and, I dare say, plays to a neatly conservative social and political agenda too – which, well, enought said.  I myself have had a limited involvement with environmental groups over the years but I have yet to meet anything like the buffons who populate this book. On the contrary in fact.  As they say in Cork: really like Natasha!

And as to the chemistry and the chemical industry … well there was little of it in this book to sate my appetite.  In fact there was very little.  And just a few morsels would have done me!

So overall, very disappointing.  I wish the writer well but please Natasha could the business of politics be not so cut and dried and so cosy the next time.

Recommendation: give it a miss.

Written by Kevin Doyle

January 16, 2009 at 11:22 am

Hunger

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A new film about Bobby Sands

A new film about Bobby Sands

I went to see the film Hunger last Friday night at the Cork Film Festival.  I left afterwards with very mixed feeling.

Firstly about the film.  It’s about the Hunger Strikes in 1981 in the North and centrally about Bobby Sands and his decision/ ‘the decision’ to go on  that strike.  The film breaks down into three parts.  The first – and by far the best – sets the scene for the film: incarceration in the Maze prison, the issue of political status, the ‘dirty protest’, the cruel conditions in the prison, the overwhelming power of the prison system and administration, the vicious and brutal treatment meted out to the prisoners by that system.  The leads, logically, to a middle section – in effect a long and meandering dialogue between Sands and a priest around Sands’s decision to go on hunger strike.  The final section is the hunger strike itself ending in Sands’s death.

Much is left out in this study which seems to have the ambition of looking at Sands and the stand he made at close quarters.  From a purely visual point of view Hunger has high impact – as the combination of excellent camera work, scene setting and acting, all within a claustrophobic and unsettling prison situation lends itself to an inevitably tense and tragic confrontation that is at the heart of the film.  But if the visual is one of the better aspects of this film, it is not without its flaws either.  Sands’s death doesn’t have any special impact as it should.  We see a thinner actor and a man clearly in a distraught state of mind but the real natter of the physical sacrifice and ordeal that went for what was the first of ten hunger strikers to die is not realised in the culminating section, and especially not visually.  From a narrative point of view also this section disappoints as the problem of filling time is solved by a series of strange and enigmatic shots of crows in leafless wintry trees.  As death approaches Sands’s is shown in a state of delirium being revisited by himself as a young boy.  All fine, in and of itself, but that was a lot more that could have been done or shown at this juncture if you ask me.

Hunger strikes are devastating in every sense of the word and this is just not conveyed in the film.  Nor is the real impact of the strike, in the wider arena.  Clearly it was a choice by McQueen, the director, not to tackle this aspect but this really was a loss to the film – and perhaps a reflection of the director’s and the scriptwriter’s fear of the political.  This is all the more odd given the effort made in the early stage of the film to show the conditions that gave rise to the hunger strike – the brutal treatment forced on the prisoners at Thatcher’s behest.  Yet there is no real return to the world of the prison to show the impact of the Sands’s death on the prisoners themselves or on their struggle to survive.  Nor do we see at all the cumulative atmosphere that surrounded the strikes in ’81 which was created by the successive deaths before it was brought to an end.  Apart that is from a few sentences at the end before the credits.

Politics wise the film is at its best with regard to the brutality of the prison regime.  But in other respects it appears to steer clear of the wider context and the struggle that led up to the hunger strike – and I mean ‘struggle’ in the widest sense of the world.  This was epitomised for me by the statement made by Enda Walsh – the script writer on this occasion – after the Cork Film Festival showing to the effect that what happened tragically back in 1980/ 1981 in the North was down, in the end, to a failure to communicate.  Sorry, did I read that right?  I’m afraid yes, you did.  Ah, if life and politics was only so simple.

In the end I was left also with a curious sense of anger not at what I witnessed but about what I witnessed.  As I said the first section showing the violence of the Maze regime is effective.  And yet I recall that when we spoke of this back in ’81and we tried to raise the issues at the heart of that struggle with the media and with those with some power to do something about it, we were told ‘nonsense’ and ‘don’t be exaggerating things now’.  Yes, and more.  And let’s not be shy about this: many who spoke up and were adamant about what Hunger shows, were treated to visits by the Special Branch and other threats.  It seemed to me that to speak of this matter in another time and in another context had altogether other connotations and consequences.  And yet now, all this time later, the violence can be shown easily and without any need for moderation.  Indeed it is positively flung in the audience’s face.  I am angry at this double standard.   When it no longer matters, it seems, we can ‘appreciate’ and even ‘enjoy’ the depths of violence that the state is capable of.  But when it does matter, when people and individuals must struggle at great odds – well then in those circumstances it is another thing altogether.  And I think what this points up for me now more than anything else is this film is part of process of trying to make us forget not remember.

In the end then: an interesting film but quite flawed.  I am told it was an ‘artist’s film’ rather than a political film – whatever that means?   And interesting subject in itself to turn to at some stage in the future.  Mind boggling stuff, really.  But anyway.

Written by Kevin Doyle

October 23, 2008 at 9:31 am

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