Venezuelan anarchist Floreal Castilla examines the heritage of Fernando Tarrida del Mármol (1861-1915), the relevance of his views to today's anarchists and the relationship between platformism and 19th-century anarchism.
"I would like to explain more clearly the idea that I have of the revolutionary tactics of French anarchists; therefore, being unable to write a series of articles as should be necessary, I send this letter to you, hoping you will extract what you believe to be worthy of publication in it.In this memorable letter, Tarrida del Mármol successfully sets out the problem of how anarchists can become an influence on the mass movements and stop being small groups of individuals who have inherited the Bakuninist principles of the 1877 International without regressing, of course, into the "propaganda by the deed".
Revolutionary decisiveness has never been lacking in the French character, and anarchists have demonstrated, on an infinite number of circumstances, that they do not lack propagandists and revolutionaries. The number of militants is quite large but - with its great thinkers, determined propagandists and adept enthusiasts - France, in truth, is the country where the fewest important actions for the good of Anarchy take place. This makes me think. This is why I have said that I do not believe your revolutionary tactics to be sound. Nothing fundamental divides the French anarchists from the Spanish anarchists but nevertheless we are, in effect, at a great distance from each other.
We all accept Anarchy as the integration of all liberties and its only guarantee as the impulse and sum of human well-being. No more laws nor repression; spontaneous, natural development in all actions. Neither superior nor inferior, neither governors nor governed. The cancellation of all distinction of rank; only conscious beings that look for each other, attract each other, discuss with each other, resolve together, produce together, love each other, without any other aim than the well-being of all. This is how we all conceive Anarchy, how we all conceive the society of the future; and it is for the accomplishment of this idea that we all work. Where, then, are the differences?
In my opinion, enraptured by contemplation of the ideal, you have drawn up a line of ideal conduct, an unproductive puritanism in which you squander a good deal of your forces, forces that could destroy the strongest organisms and that, thus badly used, produce nothing. You forget that you are not surrounded by free beings, jealous of their freedom and their dignity, but by slaves who hope for release. You forget that our enemies are organized and every day seek to grow stronger in order that their reign may continue. You forget, in short, that even those that work for good live in the present social disorganization and are full of vices and prejudices.
From all this it can be deduced that you accept absolute freedom and expect it all to come from individual initiative, taken to the level that no pact or agreement can be possible.
No agreements, no meetings at which decisions are made: what is important and essential is only that each one does as he pleases.
The result? Someone would like to do something good but lacks the means to join up with others who think as he does, in order to carry out their initiative, to listen to their advice and accept their assistance; he is forced to do it all alone, or not at all.
Creating commissions for administrative tasks, fixing dues so as to be able to face certain needs, is an imposition. And this way, if a comrade or a group wants to get together with all the other anarchists in France or throughout the world for such-and-such an initiative, they will not have the means to do it and must resign themselves to the idea. Everything that is not The Social Revolution is a triviality. But should it not matter to anarchists that wages become even more insufficient, that the working day is being extended, that workers in the factories are insulted or that women are prostituting themselves for the bosses? While the bourgeois regime lasts those things will always happen, and we need only worry ourselves about the final goal. But in the meanwhile, the masses of proletarians who suffer and who do not believe in the coming liberation, do not listen to the anarchists.
If I were to continue along these lines, there would be countless examples, each one with the same result: impotence. Not because they lack anything, but because they are scattered, with no link between them.
In Spain we have followed a completely different tactic. Certainly, for you it will be a heresy worthy of excommunication at the highest level, a deceptive practice that must be separated from the anarchist field of action; but nevertheless we think that only thus can we ensure our ideas penetrate the proletariat and destroy the bourgeois world. Like you, we long for the purity of the anarchist programme. There is nothing so intransigent and categorical as Ideas, and we admit no middle ground or any sort of extenuating circumstance. We have therefore tried to be as explicit as we can in our writings. Our pole star is Anarchy, the goal we seek to reach and towards which we direct our steps. But our path is blocked by all classes of obstacles and if we are to demolish them we must use the means that seem best to us. If we cannot adapt our conduct to our ideas, we let it be known, and seek to come as close as possible to the ideal. We do what a traveller would do when he wishes to go to a country with a temperate climate but who, in order to reach it, has to go through tropical and glacial zones: he would go well-furnished with furs and light clothes that he would get rid of once he arrived at his destination. It would be stupid and also ridiculous to want to fist-fight against such a well-armed enemy.
Our tactics derive from what has been said. We are anarchists and we preach Anarchy without adjectives. Anarchy is an axiom and the economic question something secondary. Some will say to us that it is because of the economic question that Anarchy is a truth; but we believe that to be anarchist means being the enemy of all authority and imposition and, by consequence, whatever system is proposed must be considered the best defence of Anarchy, not wishing to impose it on those who do not accept it.
This does not mean that we ignore the economic question. On the contrary, we are pleased to discuss it, but only as a contribution to the definitive solution or solutions. Many excellent things have been said by Cabet, Saint Simon, Fourier, Robert Owen and others; but all their systems have disappeared because they wanted to lock Society up in the conceptions of their brains, despite having done much to elucidate the great question.
Remember that from the moment in which you set about drawing up the general lines of the Future Society, on the one hand there arise objections and questions from one's adversaries; and on the other hand, the natural desire to produce a complete and perfect work will lead one to invent and draw up a system that, we are sure, will disappear like the others.
There is a huge distance between the anarchist individualism of Spencer and other bourgeois thinkers and the individualist-socialist anarchists (I can find no other expression), as there is between Spanish collectivists from one region to another, among the English and North American mutualists, or among the libertarian communists. Kropotkin, for example, speaks to us of the "industrial town", reducing its system, or if one prefers its concept, to the coming together of small communities that produce what they want, thus making a reality, so to speak, of the biblical heaven-on-earth out of the present state of civilization. Whereas Malatesta, who is also a libertarian communist, points to the constitution of large organizations who exchange their products between them and who will increase this creative power even more, this amazing activity that is unfolded by the 19th century, purged of all injurious action.
Each powerful intelligence gives its indications and creates new roads to the Future Society, winning supporters through some hypnotic power (if we can say so), suggesting these ideas to others', with everyone in general formulating their own particular plan.
Let us agree then, as almost all of us in Spain have done, to call ourselves simply anarchists. In our conversations, in our conferences and our press, we do discuss economic questions, but these questions should never become the cause of division between anarchists.
For our propaganda to be successful, for the conservation of the idea, we need to know each other and see each other, and for this reason we have to set up groups. In Spain these groups exist in every locality where there are anarchists and they are the driving force of the whole revolutionary movement. Anarchists do not have money, nor easy means to find it. To get around this, most of us voluntarily make a small weekly or monthly contribution, so that we can maintain the relations necessary between every member. We could maintain relations with the whole World, if other countries had an organization like ours.
There is no authority in the group: one comrade is appointed to act as treasurer, another as secretary to deal with correspondence, etc. Ordinary meetings are held every week or fortnight; extraordinary meetings whenever they are necessary. In order to save on expenses and work, and also as a measure of prudence in case of persecution, a commission of relations is created on a national level. But it does not take any initiative: its members must go to their groups if they wish to make proposals. Its mission is to communicate the resolutions and proposals that are communicated to it from one group to all groups, to keep lists of contacts and provide these to any group that should ask for them, and to make direct contact with other groups.
Such are the general lines of the organization that were accepted at the congress of Valencia and about which you spoke in "La Révolte". The benefits that are produced are immense - and that is what stokes the fire of anarchist ideas. But rest assured that if we reduced action to anarchist organization, we would obtain very little. We would end up transforming it into an organization of thinkers who discuss ideas and which would certainly degenerate into a society of metaphysicists debating words. And this is not unlike the situation you find yourselves in. Using your activity only to discuss the ideal, you end up debating words. The ones are called "egoists" and the others "altruists", though both want the same thing; some are called "libertarian communists" and others "individualists", but at the root they express the same ideas.
We should not forget that the great mass of proletarians is forced to work an excessive number of hours, that they live in poverty and that consequently they cannot buy the books of Buchner, Darwin, Spencer, Lombroso, Max Nordau, etc., whose names they will hardly even have heard. And even if the proletarian could obtain these books, he lacks the preparatory studies in physics, chemistry, natural history and mathematics that would be necessary to understand what he is reading well. He has no time to study with method, nor is his brain exercised enough to be able to assimilate these studies. There are exceptions like the case of Esteban in "Germinal", those whose thirst for knowledge drives them to devour whatever falls into their hands, though often little or nothing is retained.
Our field of action, then, lies not within these groups, but among the proletarian masses.
It is in the societies of resistance where we study and we prepare our plan of struggle. These societies will exist under the bourgeois regime. Workers are not writers and care little whether there is freedom of the press; workers are not orators, and care little for the freedom to hold public meetings; they consider political liberties to be secondary things, but they all seek to improve their economic condition and they all seek to shake off the yoke of the bourgeoisie. For this reason there will be labour unions and societies of resistance even while there still exists the exploitation of one man by another. This is our place. By abandoning them, as you have done, they will become the meeting places of charlatans who speak to the workers of "scientific socialism" or practicism, possibilism, cooperation, accumulation of capital to maintain peaceful strikes, requests for aid and the support of the authorities, etc., in such a way that will send the workers to sleep and restrain their revolutionary urges. If anarchists were part of these societies, at least they would prevent the "sedators" from carrying out propaganda against us. And furthermore, if, as is the case in Spain, the anarchists are the most active members of these societies, those that carry out whatever work is needed for no reward, unlike the deceivers who exploit them, then these societies will always be on our side. In Spain it is these societies who buy large amounts of anarchist newspapers every week to distribute free of charge to their members. It is these societies who give money towards supporting our publications and aiding prisoners and others who are persecuted. We have shown by our work in these societies that we fight for the sake of our ideas. In addition, we go everywhere there are workers, and even where there are not, if we think that our presence there can be useful to the cause of Anarchy. Thus is the situation in Catalonia (and increasingly so in other regions of Spain), where there is hardly a municipality where we have not created or at least helped to create groups - be they called circles, literary society, workers' centres, etc. - which sympathize with our ideas without describing themselves as anarchist or even being really anarchist. In these places we carry out purely anarchist conferences, mixing our revolutionary work together with the various musical and literary meetings. There, seated at a coffee table, we debate, we meet every evening, or we study in the library.
This is where our newspapers have their editorial offices, and where we send the newspapers we in turn receive to the reading room; and all this is freely organized and almost without expense. For example, in the Barcelona circle it is not even required to become a member; those who so wish can become members and the monthly contribution of 25 centimas is also voluntary. Of the two or three thousand workers who frequent the circle, only three hundred are members. We could say that these places are the focal point of our ideas. Nevertheless, although the government has always sought pretexts to close them down, it has never come up with anything, because they do not describe themselves as anarchist and private meetings are not held there. Nothing is done there that could not be done in any public café; but because all the active elements go there, great things often arise over a cup of coffee or a glass of cognac.
We nearly forgot the cooperative societies for consumption. In almost every town of Catalonia - except Barcelona, where it is impossible due to the great distances involved and the way of life - consumption cooperatives have been created where the workers can find foodstuffs that are cheaper and of better quality than at the retailers, where none of the members considers the cooperative to be an end in itself, but a means to be taken advantage of. There are societies that make large purchases and that have credit of fifty or sixty thousand pesetas, that have been very useful in strikes, giving credit to workers. In the literary societies of the "gentlemen" (or wise men, as they are often known), they discuss socialism; two comrades then register as members (if they do not have the money, the corporation will see to it) and go to stand up for our ideas.
The same happens with our press. It never leaves aside anarchist ideas; but it gives room to manifestos, statements and news which, although they may seem of little importance, serve nonetheless to allow our newspaper - and with it our ideas - to penetrate into towns or areas that know little of our ideas. These are our tactics and I believe that if they were adopted in other countries, anarchists would soon see their field of action widen.
Remember that in Spain most people cannot read; but despite this, six anarchist periodicals, pamphlets, books and a great many leaflets are published. There are continually meetings and, even without any great propagandists, very important results are achieved.
In Spain, the bourgeoisie is ruthless and rancorous, and will not allow one of its class to sympathize with us. When some man of position takes our side, all manner of means are unleashed against him to force him into abandoning us in such a way that he can only support us in private. On the contrary, the bourgeoisie gives him whatever he wishes, if he moves away from us. Therefore, all the work in favour of Anarchy rests on the shoulders of the manual workers, who must sacrifice their hours of rest for it.
While there are a great many fine elements in France, Britain, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium and North America, think of the progress we could make with a change of tactics!
I think I have said enough for my ideas to be understood.
Yours, for the Social Revolution,
Barcelona, 7th August 1890"
(Translated from French to Spanish by Vladimiro Muńoz)
The matter is of the utmost relevance today, at the start of the 21st century. However, it must be stressed that syndicalism today is no longer what it was at the end of the 19th century, with French revolutionary syndicalism and the period leading up to the foundation of the Spanish CNT in 1910.
A series of other observations also needs to be made. The practice of "anarchist terrorism" (1880-1910) did not lead to anything and was in fact counter-productive for the anarchist movement. Then, after the defeat of Russian anarchism in the revolutionary process in the land of the Urals, an attempt was made to present the emergence of platformism (1926) as a "deviation", when it was in fact nothing less than a landmark in the organizational evolution of anarchism. In reality, platformism had already been practiced in Spain, which had produced the Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI) in 1923, though it can also be traced back to the syndicalist defence groups that faced the terrorism of the bosses in the 1920s.
The libertarian concept of discipline or "organic responsibility", was already practiced by anarchist organizations albeit implicitly rather than explicitly: delegates adopted resolutions that the membership accepted, adopted and implemented, even when it did not agree with them. When Buenacasa tells Francisco Ascaso that his opinion differs from that of the organization, the impetuous Ascaso replies: "that's as may be, but although the organization says the opposite to me, I am the one that is right". And so "organic responsibility" came to be adopted in the Spanish CNT in Exile at a time when the development of conspiratorial activity against Francoism required it. For that reason, Gino Cerrito (b. 1922), the Italian historian, attacked the concept of "organic responsibility", stating that anarchism was not the theory of a social class but an individualist philosophy. But Cerrito was wrong. Anarchism is a philosophy that is individualist and associative at one and the same time. It is individuals who associate, and this is true even there where anarchism was an influential mass movement, as was the case with the port workers of Buenos Aires, the Dutch Provo movement, the Catalan textile workers or the Ukrainian farmers: associative individuals, that is the key to anarchism.
That is why the idea of a hierarchical "party" is rejected by anarchists, because it is nothing less than a hierarchical replica of State apparatuses. In reality, the anarchist party is the confederation or federation. And it has always been so. Federations confederate, affinity groups federate and, to a great extent, the affinity group is a federation of individuals as well as the local union federation is an association of unions. For the anarchist organization, the federal principle replaces the executive principle.
But treatment of the legislative principle is more delicate. One assumes that, in groupings where there are natural inequalities of whatever origin, anarchists accept the principle of the majority, as in the unions for example. But what distinguishes platformism is that while the legislative principle is not adopted within the anarchist organization, it must be adopted in the mass organizations in the interests of public anarchist politics. Such a thing would be totally unacceptable for any hardened anarchist individualist. Nevertheless, this cannot allow us to forget the rights of the minorities, who Malatesta tried to save by proposing that agreements of the federation of associates be adopted only by those who were in favour of them but not by those who were against. This, though, would go against the principle of organic responsibility.
Platformism developed in the years following 1926, becoming greatly enriched with the contributions of many people: Fontenis, Guérin, etc. But at heart, it is a means whereby anarchism can leave its own imaginary universe and make contact with the people in the street, with a large part of the population, with "the masses".
Nowadays, platformism is an alternative to the insurrectionalism that instead seeks to vindicate 19th-century nihilist, gang-ridden, mafia-like "anarchist terrorism". It is also an alternative to the visible and extraordinary disorganization that permeates "other-worldist" anarchism, that continues to announce that we are partisans of chaos, disorder, vandalism and violence. That is, of course, untrue; but similar actions could be carried on if they are accepted by "the masses". And by accepted we also mean directed, coordinated and decided by them. The key, in my opinion, is to stop being a minority and become the majority or the best possible majority. Otherwise, defeats always lead to dark rooms and ivory towers.
Platformism has become a specific element within today's broad anarchist movement. The adoption of "historical materialism" by sectors within anarchism is nothing new: it was common during the development of the movement over seven decades, at least since its foundation. Bakunin was a historical materialist and not, indeed, in the restricted sense.
Only the crisis of 1940, with the world war and the appearance of McCarthyist anti-communism - which also spread within the anarchist movement - gave a foothold to certain influences of the old individualist liberalism which was then able to colonize certain sectors of anarchism, as was the case with anarchism in Italy, in the River Plate area and in several other places.
But those influences are returning, as can be seen even in Spanish anarcho-syndicalism today. What is happening is that the influence of North American anarchism - based mainly on a strange mixture of old-fashioned insurrectionalism and incurable Yankee liberalism - is being used by certain elements who are specialized in the subject, to intensify the general confusion.
The word "libertarian", for example, no longer means what it did when it was coined by Sébastian Faure, for the very simple reason that French culture does not have the influence it once had for over a century; what is influential now is North American culture, in which "libertarian" stands for both the anarchist sense and for those who are in favour of the "free market". Hence "anarcho-capitalism", the very negation of anarchism, which has always been anti-capitalist. This confusion is also to be seen within the anarchist movement. Murray Rothbard (1926-1995), the father of anarcho-capitalism, an enemy of the State but a supporter of the "free market", really is the ideologist of many so-called "anarchists" or "libertarians" around the world.
Clearly Rothbard was also against the multinationals, like all liberal radicals: he was against private monopolies that prevent the free operation of the market. But the anti-capitalism of anarchists does not stop with the fight against the multinationals. By no means. Nor in the social-democratic or unionist method of expropriating the capital gains that the bosses snatch from the workers, be it through laws or dictatorships, or even agreements. No. Anarchist anti-capitalism is based on the belief that nobody can sell their labour to create capital gain, for the State or for private industrialists. That is the point.
For anarchists, the creation of capital gain by means of work is related to the contribution to the collective wealth of the communist association. That is to say, of the communist society. For that reason, anarchists have never accepted the idea of wage-slaving, be it in a "free" or "planned" market. In other words, anarchism does not accept capitalist profit, be it private or public. Neither does it accept "universal suffrage" (in the words of Kropoktin), not because this suffrage was non-viable, but because it is not our masters we should be choosing but our rotating and recallable delegates.
So, Anarchism without adjectives. We do need to re-read - and remember - the classics from time to time, including Tarrida del Mármol.
Venezuela, 31st December 2006
Translation by Nestor McNab