Red Letter
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The So-called Anarchist Tactics and Their Morality
by George Plekhanov
Estimated Reading Time: 12 min

This reading is, present tense, giving me a lot to think about. One has to look no further than Marx's passionate defense of the Paris Commune to see a value that is still embodied today by the best of a Left scarred by silly intercine fights over things like who wronged who in the Spanish Civil war. The best anarchists always have a healthy respect for communism and the best communists have a tender appreciation of anarchism. Anytime I've met one from one camp who couldn't stand the other, it was usually a, if you'll forgive the expression, red flag that they were going to have other weak spots in their analysis.

This is a strong critique of the Anarchism of his day by Plekhanov, one of the fathers of Russian Communism. It is situated in a specific time and place and it should be read that way. But it is also giving me a lot to think about. In some ways, this is a personal project. You can read a little bit about it by clicking on one of the footer links, but let's expand on it here for a minute. My partner is brilliant and curious. Sometimes she's talking to me and I think "this would make an excellent essay or book or article," and she laughs me off. She's sharing her drafts, her thoughts as she figures things out. There are only gestures at conclusions. I am both enchanted by her questions, but also think there are smart questions that should be put out there. Make your figuring it out the project itself, share the path, you don't have to know the ending yet if you have a solid beginning. I'm trying to figure some things out: how do we overthrow capitalism? How do change things, quickly, for the better. Essays like the one you are about to read are not my answer from on high, but steps on this path. There's a lot to think about.

Enjoy your thoughts.

The Anarchists are Utopians. Their point of view has nothing in common with that of modern scientific Socialism. But there are Utopias and Utopias. The great Utopians of the first half of our century were men of genius; they helped forward social science, which in their time was still entirely Utopian. The Utopians of today, the Anarchists, are the abstractors of quintessence, who can only fully draw forth some poor conclusions from certain mummified principles. They have nothing to do with social science, which, in its onward march, has distanced them by at least half a century. Their “profound thinkers”, their “lofty theorists”, do not even succeed in making the two ends of their reasoning meet. They are the “decadent” Utopians, stricken with incurable intellectual anaemia. The great Utopians did much for the development of the working class movement. The Utopians of our days do nothing but retard its progress. And it is especially their so-called tactics that are harmful to the proletariat.

We already know that Bakunin interpreted the Rules of the International in the sense that the working class must give up all political action, and concentrate its efforts upon the domain of the “immediately economic” struggle for higher wages, a reduction of the hours of labor, and so forth. Bakunin himself felt that such tactics were not very revolutionary. He tried to complete them through the action of his “Alliance”; he preached riots. But the more the class consciousness of the proletariat develops, the more it inclines towards political action, and gives up the “riots”, so common during its infancy. It is more difficult to induce the working men of Western Europe, who have attained to a certain degree of political development, to riot, than, for example, the credulous and ignorant Russian peasants. As the proletariat has shown no taste for the tactics of “riot”, the companions have been forced to replace it by “individual action”. It was especially after the attempted insurrection at Benevento in Italy in 1877 that the Bakuninists began to glorify the “propaganda of deed”. But if we glance back at the period that separates us from the attempt of Benevento, we shall see that this propaganda too assumed a special form: very few “riots”, and these quite insignificant, a great many personal attempts against public edifices, against individuals, and even against property – “individually hereditary”, of course. It could not be otherwise.

“We have already seen numerous revolts by people who wished to obtain urgent reforms,” says Louise Michel, in an interview with a correspondent of the Matin, on the occasion of the Vaillant attempt. “What was the result? The people were shot down. Well, we think the people have been sufficiently bled; it is better large-hearted people should sacrifice themselves, and, at their own risk, commit acts of violence whose object is to terrorize the Government and the bourgeois.”

This is exactly what we have said – only in slightly different words. Louise Michel has forgotten to say that revolts, causing the bloodshed of the people, figured at the head of the Anarchists’ programme, until the Anarchists became convinced, not that these partial risings in no way serve the cause of the workers, but that the workers, for the most part, will not have anything to do with these risings.

Error has its logic as well as truth. Once you reject the political action of the working-class, you are fatally driven – provided you, do not wish to serve the bourgeois politicians – to accept the tactics of the Vaillants and the Henrys. The so-called “Independent” (Unabhängige) members of the German Socialist Party have proved this in their own persons. They began by attacking “Parliamentarism”, and to the “reformist” tactics of the “old” members they opposed – on paper, of course – the “revolutionary struggle”, the purely “economic” struggle. But this struggle, developing naturally, must inevitably bring about the entry of the proletariat into the arena of political struggles. Not wishing to come back to the very starting-point of their negation, the “Independents”, for a time, preached what they called “political demonstrations”, a new kind of old Bakuninist riots. As riots, by whatever name they are called, always come too late for the fiery “revolutionists there was only left to the Independents to “march forward”, to become converts to Anarchy, and to propagate – in words – the propaganda of deed. The language of the “young” Landauers and Co. is already as “revolutionary” as that of the “oldest” Anarchists.

“Reason and knowledge only thou despise
The highest strength in man that lies!
Let but the lying spirit bind thee,
With magic works and shows that blind thee,
And I shall have thee fast and sure.”

As to the “magic work and shows”, they are innumerable in the arguments of the Anarchists against the political activity of the proletariat. Here hate becomes veritable witchcraft. Thus Kropotkin turns their own arm – the materialist, conception of history – against the Social-Democrats. “To each new economical phase of life corresponds a new political phase,” he assures us. “Absolute monarchy – that is Court-rule – corresponded to the system of serfdom. Representative government corresponds to capital-rule. Both, however, are class-rule. But in a society where the distinction between capitalist and laborer has disappeared, there is no need of such a government; it would be an anachronism, a nuisance.” If Social-Democrats were to tell him they know this at least as well as he does, Kropotkin would reply that possibly they do, but that then they will not draw a logical conclusion from these premises. He, Kropotkin, is your real logician. Since the political constitution of every country is determined by its economic condition, he argues, the political action of Socialists is absolute nonsense. “To seek to attain Socialism or even (!) an agrarian revolution by means of a political revolution, is the merest Utopia, because the whole of history shows us that political changes flow from the great economic revolutions, and not “vice versa”. Could the best geometrician in the world ever produce anything more exact than this demonstration? Basing his argument upon this impregnable foundation, Kropotkin advises the Russian revolutionists to give up their political struggle against Tsarism. They must follow an “immediately economic” end. “The emancipation of the Russian peasants from the yoke of serfdom that has until now weighed upon them, is therefore the first task of the Russian revolutionist. In working along these lines he directly and immediately works for the good of the people ... and he moreover prepares for the weakening of the centralized power of the State and for its limitation.

Thus the emancipation of the peasants will have prepared the way for the weakening of Russian Tsarism. But how to emancipate the peasants before overthrowing Tsarism? Absolute mystery! Such an emancipation would be a veritable “witchcraft”. Old Liscow was right when he said, “It is easier and more natural to write with the fingers than with the head.”

However this may be, the whole political action of the working-class must be summed up in these few words: “No politics! Long live the purely economic struggle!” This is Bakuninism, but perfected Bakuninism. Bakunin himself urged the workers to fight for a reduction of the hours of labor, and higher wages. The Anarchist-Communists of our day seek to “make the workers understand that they have nothing to gain from such child’s play as this, and that society can only be transformed by destroying the institutions which govern it.” The raising of wages is also useless. “North America and South America, are they not there to prove to us that whenever the worker has succeeded in getting higher wages, the prices of articles of consumption have increased proportionately, and that where he has succeeded in getting 20 francs a day for his wages, he needs 25 to be able to live according to the standard of the better class workman, so that he is always below the average?” The reduction of the hours of labor is at any rate superfluous since capital will always make it up by a “systematic intensification of labor by means of improved machinery. Marx himself has demonstrated this as clearly as possible.”

We know, thanks to Kropotkin, that the Anarchist Ideal has double origin. And all the Anarchist “demonstrations” also have a double origin. On the one hand they are drawn from the vulgar handbooks of political economy, written by the most vulgar of bourgeois economists, e.g., Grave’s dissertation upon wages, which Bastiat would have applauded enthusiastically. On the other hand, the “companions”, remembering the somewhat “Communist” origin of their ideal, turn to Marx and quote, without understanding, him. Even Bakunin has been “sophisticated” by Marxism. The latterday Anarchists, with Kropotkin at their head, have been even more sophisticated.

The ignorance of Grave, “the profound thinker”, is very remarkable in general, but it exceeds the bounds of all probability in matters of political economy. Here it is, only equalled by that of the learned geologist Kropotkin, who makes the most monstrous statements whenever he touches upon an economic question. We regret that space will not allow us to amuse the reader with some samples of Anarchist economics. They must content themselves with what Kropotkin has taught them about Marx’s “surplus-value”.

All this would be very ridiculous, if it were not too sad, as the Russian poet Lermontoff says. And it is sad indeed. Whenever the proletariat makes an attempt to somewhat ameliorate its economic position, “large-hearted people”, vowing they love the proletariat most tenderly, rush in from all points of the compass, and depending on their halting syllogisms, put spokes into the wheel of the movement, do their utmost to prove that the movement is useless. We have had an example of this with regard to the eight-hour day, which the Anarchists combatted, whenever they could, with a zeal worthy of a better cause. When the proletariat takes no notice of this, and pursues its “immediately economic” aims undisturbed – as it has the fortunate habit of doing – the same “large-hearted people” reappear upon the scene armed with bombs, and provide the government with the desired and sought-for pretext for attacking the proletariat. We have seen this at Paris on May 1, 1890; we have seen it often during strikes. Fine fellows these “large hearted men”! And to think that among the workers themselves there are men simple enough to consider as their friends, these personages who are, in reality, the most dangerous enemies of their cause !

An Anarchist will have nothing to do with “parliamentarism”, since it only lulls the proletariat to sleep. He will none of “reforms”, since reforms are but so many compromises with the possessing classes. He wants the revolution, a “full, complete, immediate, and immediately economic” revolution. To attain this end he arms himself with a saucepan full of explosive materials, and throws it amongst the public theater or cafe. He declares this is the “revolution”. For our own part it seems to us nothing but “immediate” madness.

It goes without saying that the bourgeois governments, whilst inveighing against the authors of these attempts, cannot but congratulate themselves upon these tactics. “Society is in danger!” Let the consuls beware!“Caveant consules!” And the police “consuls” become active, and public opinion applauds all the reactionary measures resorted to by ministers in order to “save society” “The terrorist saviors of society in uniform, to gain the respect of the Philistine masses, must appear with the halo of true sons of ’holy order’, the daughter of Heaven rich in blessings, and to this halo the school-boy attempts of these Terrorists help them. Such a silly fool, lost in his fantastical imaginings, does not even see that he is only a puppet, whose strings are pulled by a cleverer one in the Terrorist wings; he does not see that the fear and terror he causes only serve to so deaden all the senses of the Philistine crowd, that it shouts approval of every massacre that clears the road for reaction.”

Napoleon III already indulged from time to time in an “outrage” in order once again to save society menaced by the enemies of order. The foul admissions of Andrieux, the acts and deeds of the German and Austrian “agents provocateurs”, the recent revelations as to the attempt against the Madrid Parliament, etc., prove abundantly that the present Governments profit enormously by the tactics of the “companions”, and that the work of the Terrorists in uniform would be much more difficult if the Anarchists were not so eager to help in it.

Thus it is that spies of the vilest kind, like Joseph Peukert, for long years figured as shining lights of Anarchism, translating into German the works of foreign Anarchists; thus it is that the French bourgeois and priests directly subvention Noun a grant of money, especially from a government. the “companions,” and that the law-and-order ministry does everything in its power to throw a veil over these shady machinations. And so, too, in the name of the “immediate revolution”, the Anarchists become the precious pillars of bourgeois society, inasmuch as they furnish the “raison d’etre” for the most immediately reactionary policy.

Thus the reactionary and Conservative press has always shown a hardly disguised sympathy for the Anarchists, and has regretted that the Socialists, conscious of their end and aim, will have nothing to do with them. “They drive them away like poor dogs,” pitifully exclaims the Paris Figaro, apropos of the expulsion of the Anarchists from the Zurich Congress.

An Anarchist is a man who – when he is not a police agent – is fated always and everywhere to attain the opposite of that which he attempts to achieve.

Born François Koeningstein in 1859, Ravachol was perhaps the purest avatar of the ‘bomb-throwing anarchist.’ In a period that didn't lack for other violent anarchists, like Auguste Vaillant and Emile Henry, Ravachol managed to capture the imagination of those opposed to the corrupt order of the French Third Republic. The novelist Paul Adam was able to say of him: “In this time of cynicism and irony, a saint is born to us.”
Ravachol came to stand for the propagandists of the deed; anarchists not interested in organizing mass movements to overthrew the bourgeois order, but who felt that killing the representatives of that order, the worst enemies of the proletariat, would bring about a better world.
Ravachol did not himself have to imagine the horrors of the life of the working-class. Born into a poor family he started working at age eight. A difficult early life, spent wandering France looking for work while being paid a pittance, taught him to hate capitalism. Reading Eugene Sue’s Le Juif Errant at age 18, and attendance at a collectivist circle, made of him a convinced atheist and socialist. Continued reading led him to choose anarchism as his chosen path against the capitalist system.
After years of difficulty, he felt forced to a life of crime as a way of surviving. Few, indeed, are the revolutionary heroes who have grave-robbing as a past occupation, but Ravachol, was neither an ordinary criminal nor anarchist. By this time he had already worked as a counterfeiter and contrebandier. Besides grave robbing, in 1891 he robbed and killed a hermit, and was suspected of other murders as well, for which he was arrested.
Escaping from police custody, in 1892 he embarked on the series of political attacks for which he was to become famous. Avenging the condemnations of a pair of anarchists, he attacked the home of a judge and a government attorney, killing no one while causing considerable property damage.
Captured and put on trial, he was sentenced to hard labor for his political acts, but at a subsequent trial sentenced to death for the murders he had committed. It was at the criminal trial that he attempted to deliver an impassioned and unrepentant speech explaining the causes of his acts and of his revolt, but was cut off before he could do so. When his sentence was announced, his only response was: “Vive l'anarchie!”

He lived on in popular memory. A song was written in his honor, called La Ravachole, and it is said that the word ravacholiser was invented to describe the act of bomb throwing.

“To send working men to a Parliament,” said Bordat, before the Lyons tribunal in 1893, “is to act like a mother who would take her daughter to a brothel.” Thus it is also in the name of morality that the Anarchists repudiate political action. But what is the outcome of their fear of parliamentary corruption? The glorification of theft (“Put money in thy purse,” wrote Most in his Freiheit, already in 1880), the exploits of the Duvals and Ravachols, who in the name of the “cause” commit the most vulgar and disgusting crimes. The Russian writer, Herzen, relates somewhere how on arriving at some small Italian town, he met only priests and bandits, and was greatly perplexed, being unable to decide which were the priests and which the bandits. And this is the position of every impartial person today; for how are you going to divine where the “companion” ends and the bandit begins? The Anarchists themselves are not always sure, as was proved by the controversy caused in their ranks by the Ravachol affair. Thus the better among them, those whose honesty is absolutely unquestionable, constantly fluctuate in their views of the “propaganda of deed.”

“Condemn the propaganda of deed?” says Elysee Reclus. “But what is this propaganda except the preaching of well-doing and love of humanity by example? Those who call the “propaganda of deed” acts of violence prove that they have not understood the meaning of this expression. The Anarchist who understands his part, instead of massacring somebody or other, will exclusively strive to bring this person round to his opinions, and to make of him an adept who, in his turn, will make “propaganda of deed” by showing himself good and just to all those whom he may meet.”

We will not ask what is left of the Anarchist who has divorced himself from the tactics of “deeds”.

We only ask the reader to consider the following lines: “The editor of the Sempre Avanti wrote to Elysée Reclus asking him for his true opinion of Ravachol. ’I admire his courage, his goodness of heart, his greatness of soul, the generosity with which he pardons his enemies, or rather his betrayers. I hardly know of any men who have surpassed him in nobleness of conduct. I reserve the question as to how far it is always desirable to push to extremities one’s own right, and whether other considerations moved by a spirit of human solidarity ought not to prevail. Still I am none the less one of those who recognize in Ravachol a hero of a magnanimity but little common.’”

This does not at all fit in with the declaration quoted above, and it proves irrefutably that citizen Reclus fluctuates, that he does not know exactly where his “companion” ends and the bandit begins. The problem is the more difficult to solve that there are a good many individuals who are at the same time “bandits” and Anarchists. Ravochol was no exception. At the house of the Anarchists, Ortiz and Chiericotti, recently arrested at Paris, an enormous mass of stolen goods were found. Nor is it only in France that you have the combination of these two apparently different trades. It will suffice to remind the reader of the Austrians Kammerer and Stellmacher.

Kropotkin would have us believe that Anarchist morality, a morality free from all obligations or sanction, opposed to all utilitarian calculations, is the same as the natural morality of the people, “the morality from the habit of well doing.” The morality of the Anarchists is that of persons who look upon all human action from the abstract point of view of the unlimited rights of the individual, and who, in the name of these rights, pass a verdict of “Not guilty” on the most atrocious deeds, the most revoltingly arbitrary acts. “What matter the victims,” exclaimed the Anarchist poet Laurent Tailhade, on the very evening of Vaillant’s outrage, at the banquet of the “Plume” Society, “provided the gesture is beautiful?”

Tailhade is a decadent, who, because he is “blasé” has the courage of his Anarchist opinions. In fact the Anarchists combat democracy because democracy, according to them, is nothing but the tyranny of “the morality from the habit of well doing.” The morality of the impose its wishes upon the minority. But if this is so, in the name of what moral principle do the Anarchists revolt against the bourgeosie? Because the bourgeosie are not a minority? Or because they do not do what they “will” to do?

“Do as thou would’st,” proclaim the Anarchists. The bourgeosie “want” to exploit the proletariat, and do it remarkably well. They thus follow the Anarchist precept, and the “companions” are very wrong to complain of their conduct. They become altogether ridiculous when they combat the bourgeosie in the name of their victims. “What matters the death of vague human beings” – continues the Anarchist logician Tailhade – “if thereby the individual affirms himself!” Here we have the true morality of the Anarchists; it is also that of the crowned heads. “Thus I wish, thus I command.”Sic volo, sic jubeo!

Thus, in the name of the revolution, the Anarchists serve the cause of reaction; in the name of morality they approve the most immoral acts; in the name of individual liberty they trample under foot all the rights of their fellows.

And this is why the whole Anarchist doctrine founders upon its own logic. If any maniac may, because he “wants” to, kill as many men as he likes, society, composed of an immense number of individuals, may certainly bring him to his senses, not because it is its caprice, but because it is its duty, because such is the “conditio sine qua non” of its existence.

The So-called Anarchist Tactics and Their Morality
Communism Is How We Forcibly Break Apart the Organized Power of the Capitalist Class
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