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The stone and the pathway. An approach to Camillo Berneri's political concepts

category international | history of anarchism | opinion / analysis author Tuesday September 06, 2011 20:43author by Evandro Couto - FAG/FAO Brasil Report this post to the editors

The political thought of Camillo Berneri - a famous but unknown character in our struggling time, in our generation, specially to Portuguese speakers - is discussed here with the aim of doing justice to his contribution. We thus rescue from the dust of oblivion the thoughts and struggles of this unforgettable anarchist comrade, as a contribution to the present political discourse and a challenge to anarchist trends. [Português]

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The stone and the pathway

An approach to Camillo Berneri's political concepts


Together with Malatesta, Fabbri and a few others, Berneri was a character who contributed to the development of international anarchism. Belonging to the most critical and lucid brand of Italian anarchist communism that arose in the first decades of the 20th century, Berneri was a sharp thinker who sought a theoretical updating of the libertarian project. He was a restless fighter in the class struggles and in the resistance to fascism in his country. He was member of the Italian anarchist organization the Unione Anarchica Italiana and was for a time member of its national committee. As a “persona non grata” of the fascist regime he was a restless immigrant in Europe and stood in the ranks of the Spanish Revolution, where he fought with fire and words and was brutally murdered on the orders of the Stalinists after the tragic episode of May '37.

Involved in the social and historical issues of his time, Berneri opposed dogmatism, purism and other weakness of the anarchist camp, engaging in polemics with the Bolshevik current which was struggling then to win over the workers' movement. He was an active militant of the type of anarchism which sought mass insertion and had a strong political aim.

For our generation it is a pleasant surprise that he was already at the time pinpointing the limitations and weaknesses of libertarian thought and exposing concepts that are part of our concerns in the militant search for the tools to renovate our theory.

"...our best, from Malatesta to Fabbri, were not able to solve the problems we pose with political solutions. Politics is the calculation and creation of forces which move the reality towards the ideal system, by means of forms of agitation, polarization and systematization that can agitate, that are attractive and logical at a particular social and political moment. An updated anarchism, conscious of its own capacity to fight and construct, as well as of that of our adversaries, an anarchism that is romantic in the heart and realistic in the brain, full of enthusiasm and able to wait for the best opportunity, generous and knowing when to give its support - in short, able to make good use of its strengths: this is my dream. And I hope I am not alone".
Separated from political action, anarchist thought was thrown to the lifestyle philosophies or to a contemplative ritual of past eras, it became an extravagant exercise of visceral criticism against an impure reality which doesn’t fit the beauty of its ideals. And it saw history pass by, while entertained with a philosophical discourse of humanistic ethics floating above history and not lowering itself either to take the risk of engaging in mundane conflicts. Politics as a mediation between the desired goals and the actual social and historical conditions in which we struggle for changes is a necessary concept to whoever wants to act and bring about changes in society.
“'Pure' anarchism, closed with absolute intransigence towards political life, is out of time and space, a categorical ideology, a religion, a sect. On the outside of parliament, of the municipal and regional institutions, it neither knows nor wants to fight actual struggles and obtain some consensus from time to time; it does not know how to raise questions that concern most citizens. (...) The anarchist movement has excluded itself from an infinity of battles, always blinded by the vision of the "City of the Sun", always lost in the repetition of its dogmas, always confined by its strictly ideological propaganda.”
He provides remarkable, lucid definitions as in the polemics concerning the soviets or in the debate on the party within the Italian Anarchist Union. He complains about immaturity and makes clear distinctions between ideological elements and theoretical and political ones.
“If anarchism wants to play a role in history and become an important historical factor, it must have faith in anarchy, as a social possibility that is reached progressively. Anarchy as a religious system (all ethical systems are by nature religious) is a 'truth' deriving from faith, just by its very nature, evident only to those that can see it. Anarchism is more alive, more comprehensive, more dynamic. It is a compromise between the Idea and fact, between tomorrow and today. Anarchism works in a polymorphous way, because it is a part of life. And even its deviations are quests to a better path".

“(…) anarchism must preserve this set of general principles which form the basis of its thought and passionate food for its action, but it must also know how to face up to the complex social mechanism of today’s society without doctrinal lenses (…)”

“What I mean by critical anarchism is an anarchism which, without being sceptical, is not satisfied with given truths, with simplistic formulae; an idealistic anarchism but realistic at the same time; an anarchism, above all, that can graft new truths onto the trunk of its fundamental truths, that can trim away the old branches.”

The ideological is the domain where the production and reproduction of values are formed, where the principles forming the anarchist subjectivity come into being: socialism and freedom, solidarity with the oppressed, the struggle against injustice, privilege, against any relationship of domination, etc. The trunk of certainties that puts down strong roots which give identity. Politics is seen as the rugged field of life, of history, of social conflicts, where anarchism unfolds its ideology within the conditions and according to the possibilities of the current situation, in the strength ratios, supported by updated theoretical studies and tactics which are adequate to the context of the struggles. Berneri handles elements of discourse which when read today draw a distinction between the domain of ideology and that of theory, linking the articulation of these components to the success of political practice. We can therefore conclude that, without the political and theoretical capacity for intervention, ideology becomes sect and religion. On the contrary, politics without ideology will become “possiblism”, the art of yielding to circumstances at the cost of principles. In other words, opportunism.

The programme is at the centre of his concerns regarding militant work. He derives from these fundamental concepts the politics that he defends for anarchism. For it is the programme which dictates the ends, the general lines defining the socialist, libertarian revolution. But also, and this makes all the difference to Berneri's concept of the political entity, he states the need for feasible goals in any given scenario, to work step by step in the context of the strength ratios in order to prevent the final goals from not being reached.

“Means: agitation on a realistic basis, with the presentation of a minimal programme.”

In his work “Camillo Berneri: um anarquista italiano”, Francisco Madrid points out in which context this issue arises.
“(...) by the end of 1921 at the UAI Congress, it was greeted with vivid, sympathetic expressions. Some 120 delegates were present and the debates were of great interest. Among those delegates was Camillo Berneri, who posed a new problem: the ´minimum programme´. The anarchist programme draws the great theoretical lines, but it will not solve the day-to-day practical questions.”
In Berneri's words:
“The gradualism of legalist and statist socialism is parallel to the antipathy - quite evident in Kautsky - for drawing up a plan for economic reconstruction in a socialist direction: that the social machine is so complex that no thinker could ever detect all the wrongs and forecast all the possibilities is quite evident, but (…) this does not mean that it is unnecessary for the socialist to support his action with a practical programme, as a scientist needs the light of his hypothesis".

"But it is necessary to draw a distinction: some programmes seem to summarize the historical tomorrow as a deterministic calculation of what that tomorrow will be and are credited with being realistic programmes, when in reality they are merely deterministic; then there are other programmes that, while crudely calculating the yield of statistical and dynamical forces, do not forget that the probability of a certain outcome is higher, the greater the renovating will to push the limits of progress is."

The debate on a programme presupposes that it will be handled by a political organization. The problems of political action are directly related to organization, in the way we come together for in order to create collective strength and develop the political capacities to achieve a programme. Distinct and articulated organizational spheres are combined in the class struggle. Specifically, the question of organized anarchism is treated without fear by Berneri in his considerations on our movement. His ideas are in clear continuity of those of Malatesta and Fabbri, namely their conception of organization which they defended at international level.
"There remains on the discussion table the question of the constitution of our movement as a party. It is necessary, on this and other issues, to define the meaning of the word, giving it a clear meaning in order to avoid the eternal, useless discussions for or against… What do we mean by party? What is the significance, the limit and the mission?

“I cannot see the danger of centralization, of authoritarianism that many see in an organization that is ever more solid and coordinated at group, provincial union or regional federation levels. Has individual or group atomism been useful? Is our movement not by nature and definition refractary to the negative influence of a badly-undestood party discipline? Why should a libertarian movement crystalize as it becomes a party and degenerate into some form of authoritarian centralism, as some fear and prophetize? I believe we need to gather our forces, to join together and coordinate, but I do acknowledge there are many contrasting positions in the movement on this matter (...)".

It is not fair to throw his thoughts into some sort of mass grave because of his very unfocused considerations on the Russian anarchists' project, the 1926 Platform, which enhanced the role of the anarchist political organization in the processes for revolutionary change, the class struggle. He criticized Makhno and Arshinov's proposal harshly, veering between misunderstanding and an elitist backlash that anarchism was going through during this period, affecting the most active militants of that time. His contribution on this issue contrasts with all the clear and open positions he took while dealing with the taboos in libertarian thought.

In spite of his clumsy position in the context of the Platform's proposals, Berneri fought against abuses and nonsense in the libertarian camp. He joined the principled fight for an anarchism which completely repudiated “snobbism, onanistic cerebralism, individualist egoism, extreme and desperate nihilism”.

“Have no doubts - we know what the individualist and chaotic minds mean by ‘anarchist principles’: incoherence and irresponsibility, that only inflict mortal wounds on our movement. We fight against them with all our energy and passion”

“(...) I must confess there does exist a sort of anarchist cretinism (…) These cretins of anarchism have a phobia of the vote even when it means approving or not approving a decision strictly inside our movement, they have a phobia of [appointing] a chairman for an assembly even when one is necessary due to the loud-voiced free individuals that make up the majority, and they have other phobias which would merit long examination, were it not too harsh and humiliating a subject.”

As he demonstrates in his defence of anarcho-syndicalism, when this concept was at its height in Spain in the mid '30s, he was for an anarchism that was an integral part of the masses, working militantly on the social problems of its time and proposing solutions according to its principles and tactics adequate to the historical conditions.
“Where the anarchist movement has roots inside the trade-union movement, wide-ranging and serious participation in the class struggles, it shows itself to be an organized whole, with vitality and maturity, in other words, which compensate for the deviations and a lack of doctrine or tactical shortcomings. Where the anarchist movement exists only outside the trade-union struggles, the same signs of disorientation appear, the same phenomena such as byzantine and dilettante attitudes, the same symptoms of weakness or of a very slow recovery.”
But rather than discuss the merits of anarcho-syndicalist strategy today – which is not the aim of this article – we want to stress in Camillo Berneri's politics the ideas that remain valid in spite of the time that has elapsed, ideas that deserve to be followed. This is, for instance, the case with the simple but powerful idea that anarchism is powered by the struggles amongst the oppressed and from within their movements, that it is from their experiences that the libertarian ideology is created.

In the text “Anarcho-syndicalism: failure or crisis” one intriguing question mirrors the situation today:

“The field of trade-union activity has become the only one that allows any meaningful activity. Who is responsible for anarcho-syndicalism's excesses, for the one-sided views and deformations, but those who never wanted to give to the anarchist movement a wider field of action, a more complex dynamic, a variety of battle fronts?

"An [anarchist] newspaper published in Paris could just have easily been published in New York and almost nothing would change. It is in this phenomenon that one can detect one of the worst symptoms of so-called ‘pure’ anarchism”.

It is perfectly acceptable and can be helpful to carry out some healthy self-criticism to exchange the expression “trade-union movement” with any other social movement today. Unions are a part of the vast social antagonism where the various popular resistance organizations are formed and where the class struggle unfolds in its various spheres - the economic, political and ideological-cultural. Being a part of the struggles of the oppressed classes is absolutely essential for our action if we are ever to ensure that libertarian views progress in specific, real contexts.
“Anarchism is the traveller who walks the paths of history, and fights alongside men as they are, building with the stones which the times provide for him”.
Evandro Couto

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