Tag Archives: anarchist history

Five Sisters: Women Against the Tsar-The Memoirs of Five Young Anarchist Women of the 1870s

“I left by the back door.” Praskovia Ivanovskaia-a quote chosen for its simplicity and also for its symbolism

I have a soft spot for memoirs. While we may lose the intricacies of professional writing, a memoir more than makes up for it by its eye-witness accounts. This idea echoes throughout Five Sisters: Women Against the Tsar–The Memoirs of Five Young Anarchist Women of the 1870s. The five women are Vera Figner, Vera Zasulich, Olga Liubatovich, Praskovia Ivanovskaia, and Elizaveta Kovalskaia. All five women left their homes and their families and became revolutionaries. These memoirs chart the lives of the women, why they became revolutionaries and how some of them turned to violence. The foreword, by Alix Kates Shulman explains that the women and their memoirs are largely forgotten and were “rescued from the Siberia of dusty library shelves where for years they have languished untranslated in obscure collections.” Translated by Barbara Alpern Engel and Clifford N. Rosenthal, these memoirs are “selections” (with the exception of the Liubatovich memoir), and the materials are “composites…assembled from autobiographical fragments written and published at various times.”  

The introduction sets forth the background to the atmosphere of the times, explaining Russian Populism (the ideology of agrarian revolution), the schools of thought created by Lavrov and Bakunin: both thinkers who had very different approaches to the idea of how exactly how to involve the peasantry in social change, the development of the Pan-Russian Social Revolutionary Movement, and the Land and Liberty Movement. The introduction also explains the importance of The Trial of the Fifty (1877) and the Trial of the Hundred and Ninety Three (1877), trials in which the defendants’ crime was “preaching socialism to the peasants.” In the latter trial:

“They had suffered as much as four years of pretrial imprisonment under the harshest conditions; dozens were lost to illness, death (sometimes by suicide), or madness. At the trial, many of the accused expressed their contempt for the tribunal by refusing to present any defense, and when one man did attempt to describe the conditions in prison and make a political statement, he was repeatedly silenced by the judges and finally dragged from the courtroom.”

Most of the defendants were acquitted or the length of their pre-trial imprisonment was taken into consideration for sentencing and they were released, tougher, bitter and “with the determination not to make the naive errors that made them easy targets for government repression.” Before this point, the revolutionaries could perhaps be more accurately described as reformers who had fairly transparent motives and goals. This transparency is largely due to the negative influence of Sergei Nechaev in the 1860s, and by the time the 1870s rolled around:

“In radical circles, the aversion to his [Nechaev’s] dictatorial, dishonest methods was so strong that for years to come, any attempt to create a centralized, hierarchical organization met with great suspicion.”

Nechaev is a curious and poisonous figure in Russian revolutionary history, and for those who’d like to read more, seek out a copy of Bakunin and Nechaev by Paul Avrich. (Nechaev’s story and behaviour poses questions of revolutionary morality–he murdered a fellow revolutionary and this crime formed the basis of Dostoevsky’s The Demons).

But these are preliminary issues that set the stage for the explosive 1870s, and it is during this period that revolutionaries shifted from the idea of social reform through peasant involvement to the assassination of the Tsar.

 The book’s introduction details the spilt within Land and Liberty–an extremely important event “in the history of the revolutionary populist movement” with two factions emerging: The People’s Will (advocates of regicide) and Black Repartition (committed to agrarian revolution and economic terror). The women whose memoirs make up the substance of Five Sisters found themselves on different sides of the fence when it came to the issue of violence and the assassination of the Tsar.

The stories of these women are remarkable, and if you’ve got any interest in either the subject matter or the times, then grab a copy of this book. As each of the 5 memoirs unfolds, the women make their choices and take definite irrevocable steps in their revolutionary lives, and while there are some underlying commonalities to each of the stories, they are all, at the same time, quite different.

Vera Figner describes how she was a student in Zürich, very much interested in the ideas of social revolution. At the time, women were not allowed to attend university in Russia and single women could not travel without permission, so Vera Figner married and travelled to Zürich in order to achieve her goal of becoming a doctor. In 1873, the Russian government “forbade women students to remain in Zürich any longer. If they proved obstinate, the government threatened to bar them from licensing examinations in Russia.” So in essence, if women tried to circumvent the Russian government’s refusal to allow them a Zürich education, then their attempts would be annihilated when and if they returned to Russian soil. While this only applied to Zürich, there was another problem. In order to apply pressure through the women students’ families, the government claimed that the Russian female students were engaging in “free love” and using “their medical knowledge to destroy the fruits of this love.”  This reminded me of Ronald Reagan’s speech in the 60s regarding the behaviour of Berkeley students, and in this speech, Reagan read a letter about the scandalous goings-on taking place at a party. Different century, different continent, same tactic.

But I digress….

Vera Figner did later abandon her medical studies to take up the revolutionary cause, and as part of Land and Liberty’s  plan to infiltrate and educate the peasantry, Figner became a paramedic, but quickly discovered that it was impossible to work freely amongst the peasants. At this point, Figner joined The People’s Will:

“My past experience had convinced me that the only way to change the existing order was by force. If any group had shown me a path other than violence, perhaps I would have followed it; at the very least, I would have tried it out. But, as you know, we don’t have a free press in our country, and so ideas cannot be spread by the written word. I saw no signs of protest–neither in the zemstovs, nor in the courts, nor in any of the other organized groups of our society; nor was literature producing changes in our social life. And so I concluded that violence was the only solution. I could not follow the peaceful path.”

Vera Figner went on to help make the bombs that killed Tsar Alexander II in March 1881. Part of her memoir describes carrying dynamite, revolutionaries setting up at various safe houses, and frustration at failed assassination attempts.

The second memoir is from Vera Zasulich, an intriguing and significant figure. The day after the conclusion of the Trial of the One Hundred and Ninety Three, “the populist movement entered its terrorist stage” when on January 24, 1878, Vera Zasulich shot General Trepov in retaliation for his severe beating of a political prisoner who had refused to remove his hat. Rather miraculously, and this is a sign of the sympathies of the time, Vera Zasulich was later acquitted. But her action announced a wave of violence: assassinations, assassination attempts, and bombings. Interestingly enough, Vera Zusulich did not embrace propaganda of the deed wholeheartedly, and as the book describes, she spent the rest of her days feeling somehow responsible for the violent turn of events. One of the most interesting sections in her memoir recalls her meeting with the enigmatic Nechaev, and Vera Zusulich, very cannily smelled a rat about Nechaev’s approach.

The third memoir in the book is that of Praskovia Ivanovskaia, a revolutionary who along with Vera Figner, chose to follow the path of The People’s Will. Praskovia Ivanovskaia first worked in a rope factory and later on a farm as a sheepshearer in the Ukraine. The details of these experiences show the underlying problems members of the intelligensia/gentry encountered when they attempted to mingle with the peasantry, and also why this contact essentially failed as a revolutionary strategy.  After failing with the peasantry,  Praskovia Ivanovskaia returned to St. Petersburg. As a member of The People’s Will, she was later accused, tried and convicted for involvement in the assassination of the Tsar. Condemned to death, her sentence was commuted to “life at hard labour,” and some of her memoir describes the hellish conditions endured in prison.

The fourth memoir is from Olga Liubatovich (nicknamed ‘the shark’ for her appetite). Olga Liubatovich too had her early attempts to blend in with the workers–this time in a factory in Moscow where she was denounced and arrested. It took almost two years for the case to come to trial and then Liubatovich received a nine-year sentence. The sentence of hard labour was commuted to exile in Siberia, and she was shipped off. Amazingly, she faked her own suicide and managed to get back to St. Petersburg. This is Liubatovich on the failure to roust the peasantry:

“Yes, we had hoped to find a people conscious of the ‘rights of man’–that was to be the higher moral sanction of our politics. Instead, we found an amorphous mass, a slave-people who occasionally produced some powerful individuals, but on the whole were immersed in a deep, lethargic sleep. And so, to avenge that distortion of human nature, we revolutionaries had drawn our swords against the state. First idealism, then pained outrage–that is the entire psychology of the classical or heroic period of our revolutionary history.”

Olga Liubatovich goes on to discuss the split in Land and Liberty into Black Repartition and The People’s Will which she describes as “less the result of differences in principle than of differences in temperament.”

The fifth and final memoir, Elizaveta Kovalskaia is unique. She was born a serf (serf mother, landowner father), and as a child persuaded her father to make her and her mother into free citizens. Kovalskaia eventually inherited the estate and no doubt because of her early experiences maintained a sensitivity to the roles of the serfs and the peasantry. Politically conscious as a young girl, she makes this statement in her memoir:

Toward this time, a new judicial institution was introduced to Kharkov: the public trial. After we finished our schoolwork, our group would race to the court sessions, where we sometimes stayed until midnight. We saw social issues unfold before us, in scenes from real life. Among other things, we saw peasants who had been cheated of their land by the emancipation process being tried for rebellion; and we saw  women, who unable to bear their legally sanctioned slavery, had murdered their husbands.”

Elizaveta Kovalskaia worked primarily organising factory workers, and although she briefly joined Black Repartition, her involvement lasted just a few months. Thereafter she “shunned” revolutionary groups, and in one section of her memoirs, she very thoughtfully lays out her reasoning:

“You would have to try to make your actions conform to the organization’s statute–which in many cases had been developed in the libraries of people who were out of touch with real life. Then too, in revolutionary practice there were frequent conflicts between your own inner morality and the theoretical morality of the group, and you sometimes had to steer a course between them.”

This extract does go on to list the advantages of being part of an organization, but clearly Kovalskaia leaned towards following her own beliefs and working independently of a group construct.

Sometimes the stories of these women cross over and connect as they traverse the often lonely disconnected lives devoted to social and political change, sacrificing any notion of family life, home and even the self to the ultimate cause. The memoirs of these remarkable women should be read by anyone interested in trying to understand the atmosphere of the times and to place and make sense of, for example, Vera Zasulich’s acquittal for shooting General Trepov in those otherwise oppressive years. Zasulich’s acquittal–which reflects the sympathies of the times–reminds me, oddly enough, about the history of the animal liberation movement–a movement that enjoyed widespread public support in the 80s but rapidly degenerated into a dirty word after the Unilever Trial.

Since the translators of Five Sisters let the memoirs speak for themselves, I’m going to follow suit with a quote from Vera Figner. The quote is made early in her revolutionary career while she was still in Zürich and alight with the possibilities of change fermenting beneath the surface of Russian society. This is a naive question that she seems to ask rhetorically, but for which the answer appeared, suddenly in the violence and upheaval of 1917:

“But how would it be possible to do away with private property, or to abolish the rights of inheritance, when everyone wanted to keep what he had? Everyone would defend his property, and those who feasted at life’s table would never voluntarily agree to relinquish their privileges.” 

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Nestor Makhno–Anarchy’s Cossack: The Struggle for Free Soviets in the Ukraine 1917-1921

“Let us be dauntless to the point of madness.”

Was Ukrainian anarchist Nestor Makhno an out-of-control bandit as Trotsky claimed, or was he a major significant force against both the White Russians and later the Bolsheviks? The phenomenal book Nestor Makhno-Anarchy’s Cossack: The Struggle for Free Soviets in the Ukraine 1917-1921 by Alexandre Skirda examines Makhno’s extraordinary–seemingly buried and forgotten–life and his role in Russian history.

In this incredibly well researched book, Skirda traces Makhno’s humble beginnings as a Ukrainian peasant of Zaporog Cossack stock and his valiant attempts to create a social revolution in Russia in the early tumultuous years of the 20th Century. In 1906, Makhno joined an anarchist group in his hometown of Gulyai-Polye and became involved in militant activities against state oppression. By the time he was 18, Makhno was imprisoned on a variety of charges, and several members of the anarchist group were executed. Makhno, however, began a prison sentence and served nine years until he was released in March 1917 following the ousting of the Tsar. During these nine years, Makhno’s health was severely compromised, but he used the time to access the prison’s extensive library. He also learned that “intellectual and political bigwigs” were granted preferential treatment in the prison system and maneuvered themselves into positions as “masters and governors.”

makhnoUpon his release, Makhno quickly became involved with the organization of the Gulyai-Polye Peasants’ Union. Makhno’s goal, to establish Free Soviets (soviet=council) included the elimination of prisons, the establishment of a free press, and the creation of communal life through the “collectivization of the land, factories and workshops.” Makhno envisioned a life “without masters or slaves, with neither rich nor poor.” The region moved towards social revolution when land was reclaimed from wealthy landowners, but soon German-Austrian troops occupied the Ukraine, and found sympathizers with the disenfranchised bourgeoisie and feudalists. As a result, Makhno became a high-profile insurgent wanted by the authorities. And so began Makhno’s amazingly bold guerilla life.

By late 1917, as the situation in Russia unraveled, the country was on the brink of a civil war. White Russians occupied the Ukraine. As a witness to the incredible, mind-boggling brutality and excesses of the White Russian army, Makhno recognized the need to rid the Ukraine of the Whites, and organized the Makhnovist Army–a “vast insurgent movement.” Swallowing the idea that the Bolsheviks could be trusted, he “placed the revolution’s interests above ideological differences” and joined forces with the Bolsheviks against the White Russian army. Makhno had not yet grasped the “monstrous amorality … of Bolshevik politics.”

Skirda follows the treachery of the Bolsheviks–who, fearing Makhno’s power and refusal to bend to Bolshevik ideology, practically stopped the civil war several times in order to shift to the elimination of Makhno. This is a portrait of an incredible man–a methodical, strategic thinker, and a fierce warrior. The master of the surprise attack, Makhno grasped how to turn the odds (small numbers of men who were vastly outnumbered) into an advantage. On one occasion, he even dressed as a woman, and once when wounded, he was scooped up by two of his men on horseback. The two men held their rifles to each other–forming a cross, and the wounded Makhno, crouching on the crossed rifles escaped from the enemy.flag

For anyone interested in the Russian Revolution, this book is a fantastic, unforgettable read. The author wisely includes sections on the history of the Ukraine and the Cossacks, maps, analyses of major battles, Makhnovist documents and several black and white photographs. Each chapter is followed with notes on the text. Packed with incredible details of the major battles, Skirda presents nothing less than an exciting history of a man who seized his moment in time. Skirda also clarifies several points–for example, he explains the origins of the term “White Russian”–the volunteer army under General Kornilov sported white ribbons to distinguish themselves from the enemy. Skirda also emphasizes that the anti-monarchist White Russian, General Kornilov, was the man who ordered the arrest of the Tsar and his family, and thus it’s clearly understood that the term “White Russian” does not automatically mean monarchist. Major figures from the Russian Revolution appear throughout the text–General Denikin (Kornilov’s successor), Baron-General Wrangel, Lenin, and Trotsky. Entire Red divisions deserted the Bolsheviks and defected to Makhno’s cause, and Skirda details it all–the slaughter, the treachery, the shameful history, and the ensuing myths as history is cleaned up for the classroom. Masterfully and smoothly translated by Paul Sharkey.

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War and Revolution: The Hungarian Anarchist Movement in WWI and the Budapest Commune by Martyn Everett

“The state apparatus began to fall apart under pressure from below.”

War and Revolution: The Hungarian Anarchist Movement in World War I and the Budapest Commune written by Martyn Everett is a 28-page booklet that provides an overview of the anarchist role in the Hungarian Revolution of 1919. The author argues that “anarchist fortunes declined” at the end of WWI because they “fused with Marxist parties or were crushed by protofascism.”

Author Everett traces 19th century anarchism into two separate strands of thought–the ‘social anarchists’ (influenced by German Social Democrat turned anarchist Johann Most) and a form of Christian anarchism that “coalesced” around Jeno Henrik Schmitt. Schmitt along with Istavan Varonyi led a “campaign of political agitation amongst the peasantry.” The result was the mobilization of the peasants for the Harvesters’ Strike of 1897, but the Hungarian government soon moved to repress the group. Many anarchist publications enjoyed a wide circulation, and this no doubt helped spread the word.

The booklet examines the work of major Hungarian anarchists–including Sandor Csizmadia, Ervin Batthyany, Ervin Szabo, Lajos Kassak, and their various contributions to the workers’ councils and general strike in 1918. The Hungarian anarchist movement was vehemently opposed to WWI, and they led a vigorous antiwar effort. Widespread social problems led to the collapse of the Hungarian War Cabinet–there were “uprisings and mutinies in the army and the navy, desertions reached record levels, and armed deserters linked up with strikers and rebellious peasants, seizing the land and clashing with police.” A coalition government was formed, but that too collapsed. Meanwhile the Hungarian Communist Party formed. The booklet examines the party’s role in the Hungarian revolution of 1919, and the establishment of the Hungarian Soviet Republic.

Bolshevik Bela Kun of the Hungarian Communist Party approached the anarchists as a fellow “dissident element” and their alliance worked–but only for a while. Major disagreements emerged between the Communist and anarchist goals of the revolution. Bela Kun was bitterly against the redistribution of land to the peasants, while the anarchists called for agrarian reform. The role of the Lenin Lads in enforcing Communist ideals is examined–along with the persecution of anarchists in the subsequent collapse of the Soviet and the counter-revolution that followed. This pamphlet serves as an overview only, and it includes a bibliography for those interested in further reading material.

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The Iron Column: Testament of a Revolutionary by Elias Manzanera

“We know the drawbacks to militarism.”

In the 36 page pamphlet The Iron Column: Testament of a Revolutionary author Elias Manzanera recalls the historic significance of the “famous (or notorious) anarchist militia unit”–the Iron Column. Manzanera fought in the Iron Column, and in this pamphlet, translated by Paul Sharkey, he dispels some of the propaganda that remains about the Spanish Civil War–and the Iron Column in particular.

Manzanera begins his reminiscences with a return journey to Valencia in 1979, and travels back to locations that evoke powerful memories of his youth and of the war. From this point, he recalls the Iron Column–its role in the Spanish Civil War, its fighters (“they were all members of the CNT, the FAI, and the FIJL”) and specifically lists certain members of the column, their deeds, and their tragically violent fates.

Manzanera describes The Battle of Sarrion and the stand taken in Puerto de Escandon. Eventually the Republican government ordered the militarization of all units into Brigades and Army Corps, and announced they would no longer tolerate the column’s anti-militaristic position. Supplies–including ammunition–were cut in an organized attempt by the government to bring the column and its anarchist revolutionary fighters to their knees. Ultimately, the “quintessentially anarchist and revolutionary Iron Column refused militarism, its view being that this was a counter revolutionary ploy designed to reduce an entire people to slavery again.” As a result, the Iron Column was disbanded and replaced by the 82nd Mixed Brigade.

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Emilio Canzi: An Anarchist Partisan in Italy and Spain by Paolo Finzi (and others)

“Ah, Canzi never made a move without his dog.”

Emilio Canzi: an Anarchist Partisan in Italy and Spain by Paolo Finzi (and others) is a 50-page pamphlet from Kate Sharpley Library. The pamphlet is one of an ongoing series of publications from KSL, and as with all of KSL’s publications, it’s very reasonably priced.

The pamphlet includes:
Piacenza and Back by Claudio Silingardi
Death to Death: Emilio Canzi and the Arditi de Popolo in Piacenza
The Epic of One Libertarian Antifacist by Orazio Gobbi
Tragic Barcelona by Ivano Tagliaferri
Way up in the Apennines by Franco Sprega
Isabella’s Story
Poor Devil: Canzi the anarchist and Don Borea
A founding father of the resistance: Orazio Gobbi interviews historian Mirco Dondi
With a Rock for a Pillow-The Comandante Muro ANPI Youth Committee, Piacenza
A Very Humane Person by Renato Cravedi
The Christian Democrat, the Communist and the Anarchists by Italo Londei
Canzi’s Epitaph (from his tombstone)
The Anarchists vs. the fascists by Massimo Ortalli

Canzi was born in 1893 and died in 1945. During his lifetime he fought in WWI, joined the anarchist movement, fought against the fascists in Italy and also fought against fascists in the Spanish Civil War. He was sent to concentration camps in Hinzert, Germany and Arezzo. When he managed to escape from Arezzo in 1943, he went to the mountains in Peli di Coli and established the “province’s first partisan unit.” Canzi became “commander of the XIII Zone” and this became a controversial post. Communists were not comfortable with Canzi’s role and sought to overthrow him. Ironically, in this war against fascism, history repeated itself as Canzi had also faced Stalinist hostility and betrayal in Spain.

The assortment of essays crosses over on some information (the dates, major incidents, etc), but each essay offers a unique view of Canzi. One essay, for example, mentions that Canzi was always accompanied by a dog, and the dog’s keen sense of hearing and smell always knew when those fascists were sneaking close by. Another essay details the murders of several Italian anarchists in Barcelona. There’s the sense here that Canzi became an old hand at fighting the fascists, but he also was well aware that communists were quite ready to stab him in the back–in spite of the fact that they supposedly shared a common (fascist) enemy.

The pamphlet includes a contents page, a rather difficult to read map, a glossary and an extremely helpful list of main characters.


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To Remember Spain: The Anarchist and Syndicalist Revolution of 1936 by Murray Bookchin

To Remember Spain: The Anarchist and Syndicalist Revolution of 1936 by Murray Bookchin is a slim volume that contains two essays. In the first essay, An Overview of the Spanish Libertarian Movement, the author argues that many misconceptions still reign about the Spanish revolution that lasted from July 1936 to March 1939 and “claimed an estimated million lives.” He stresses the fact that the “so-called Spanish civil war” was not a “political conflict between a liberal democracy and a fascist military corps, but a deeply socio-economic conflict between the workers and peasants” and their “class enemies” and followed over sixty years of “anarchist agitation and activity.” The author examines the split between the Marxists and the Bakuninists at the Hague Congress of the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA-or First International) in September 1872, and notes that while Marxism held its appeal for the some, anarchism appealed especially to the Catalans and the Andulasians. The essay also examines agrarian collectives, and their organizational forms, and debunks the myth that agrarian anarchism was antitechnolgical. This was a rich period for anarchist culture with the production of literally 100s of anarchist periodicals. The organization of both the CNT and FAI is also examined–along with the fundamental differences and flaws in each.

The second essay, After Fifty Years: The Spanish Civil War gives an overview of Spain’s internal political background before the run-up to the Spanish revolution. The formation of the Popular Front is examined as well as Franco’s use of Moroccan troops, and Stalin’s meddling. While Stalin and the Soviet Union ostensibly ‘aided’ revolutionary forces, in reality, treacherous communist-led counterrevolutionary forces executed and betrayed anarchists.

To Remember Spain: The Anarchist and Syndicalist Revolution of 1936  is by no means a comprehensive analysis–rather, it is the author’s intention to provide an overview of the period while debunking myths. Acknowledging that the Spanish revolution was a “profound” social revolution, the author also soberly notes that an American or European equivalent is “no longer conceivable.” But that instead “capitalist institutions must be hollowed out by a molecular historical process of disengagement and disloyalty.”


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A Call to Manhood by Guy Aldred

“There are opposite views of duty.”

If I had to sum up the extraordinary life of tenacious Glasgow anarchist, founder of Strickland Press, Guy Aldred in one sentence, it would be that he could not tolerate injustice. In the collection of 26 essays, A Call to Manhood, and other Studies in Social Struggle, Aldred tackles a wide range of topics that cover many subjects–some obscure, and some infamous, but in all of the essays Aldred’s passionate rhetoric is evident.

The 26 essays are written between the years 1906 and 1943, and many exhibit Aldred’s philosophy towards conscription. Aldred, a fervent anti-militarist, lived through both WWI and WWII, believed war to be a social and moral evil and refused to wear a uniform or carry arms–for these beliefs he was court-martialed four times and served several prison sentences of hard labour for being a Conscientious Objector. Aldred describes standing up for his principles of peace, and steadfastly refusing to succumb to the demands of the military officers while bearing intense pressure. In the title essay, A Call to Manhood written in 1914, Aldred admonishes his readers to “decide then your destiny” and to follow one’s conscience in the matter of war. To Aldred, the “enemy” was but a “fellow victim of a monstrous conspiracy.” He realized from personal experience that becoming a Conscientious Objector labeled him as a “creature of anti-social tendency” but he saw the governments of the world as exploiters of the common people.

In the essay, Once Called a Hero dated August 1939, Aldred details instances of abominable neglect suffered by soldiers who served in WWI. Deemed heroes and awarded the appropriate medals, these soldiers were then thrown back to fend for themselves in civilian life with horrible injuries or suffering from a range of psychological disorders.

In the essay War Time Patriotism, written in October 1939, Aldred examines the manner in which British companies profited by trading with the enemy during WWI while the government turned a blind eye to these practices. In the essay, So Horribly Unthinkable, written in June 1939, Aldred examines the growth of militarism in America by tracking the increased expenditure between the years 1921-1938 and asks “what is this but contemplation of, and preparation for the horribly unthinkable?” Also in this essay, Aldred lists the monetary damages awarded to soldiers for each disabling injury. For example, a WWI soldier who lost a right arm received 36 shillings dole a week–whereas the financial “honours list” of the upper classes exposes the large cash awards to persons of title and rank who were not injured (for example–Viscount Byng was awarded 30,000 pounds sterling).

For those interested in Guy Aldred and his ideas, then this 112-page collection of essays is a treasure trove. For further reading, I can also recommend, Come Dungeons Dark the biography of Guy Aldred by John Taylor Caldwell.

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The Voltairine De Cleyre Reader by A.J. Brigati

“Is it a wonder that most of them came out anarchists?”

The Voltairine de Cleyre Reader, edited by Professor A.J. Brigati, is a collection of the work of the American female anarchist. The book’s preface by Barry Pateman provides an overview of de Cleyre’s life (1866-1912), her contribution to anarchism, and notes that while de Cleyre “preferred not to label her expressions of anarchism,” her essays “reveal her tendencies as an individualist anarchist.” The preface explains that de Cleyre was born into poverty and then shipped off for a convent education. The incident of the Haymarket Martyrs affected de Cleyre profoundly, and it is through this that she arrived at anarchism.

The book includes lectures, essays and poetry from Voltairine de Cleyre on a broad spectrum of topics–including Direct Action, marriage, Francisco Ferrer and the Modern School Movement, her path to anarchism, and the Haymarket Martyrs. The lectures included in the book reveal de Cleyre’s oratory power; she possessed a lyrical, poetic style, and yet this is also combined with fiery content. This combination creates a potent product. As one reads the lectures, a powerful impression of Voltairine de Cleyre is evoked–she was evidently someone who never minced words.

De Cleyre’s pioneering attitudes towards marriage and the rights of women are some of the most interesting selections here. As first glance, one might interpret that she loathes the institution of marriage, which she perceives to be slavery and a form of prostitution. A deeper analysis, however, yields the idea that her ideas about marriage are extremely complex–she considers marriage the “surest and most applicable method of killing love.” To her, marriage is “detrimental to the growth of individual character.” She questions the wisdom of entering into a union with a person who will probably not develop “along parallel lines.” Considering Voltairine de Cleyre’s extremely vocal position on women’s rights, she deserves a rightful place in the canon of literature on women’s studies. But it seems that she’s overlooked all too often. If you seek an overview of Voltairine de Cleyre’s work, this book is an excellent resource, and it will provide not only a sense of what she believed in, but also a sense of who she was. Included in the book is a chronology of significant dates, and chapter notes.

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The Walsall Anarchists: Trapped by the Police–The Truth About the Walsall Plot by David Nicoll

“One would have thought that the address of a gentleman who has repeatedly incited people to use dynamite, who supplied a young boy with the materials for explosives, and got up a conspiracy for which men have been sentenced to a long term of penal servitude would be of consequence to the police.”

The 26-page pamphlet The Walsall Anarchists: Trapped by the Police –The Truth About the Walsall Plot is written by anarchist David Nicoll and published by the Kate Sharpley Library. This is just one of the pamphlets Nicoll wrote regarding the Walsall Anarchists–an infamous case involving an agent provocateur that took place in late 19th century London.

Nicoll relates how a man named Auguste Coulon arrived in London in 1890 and proceeded to infiltrate anarchist circles. The details of Coulon’s past are a bit vague, and he had no visible means of support. Right from the start, he claimed to be an anarchist and appeared to have an obsession with dynamite. After he became an assistant to Louise Michel, Coulon seemed to possess appropriate anarchist/revolutionary credentials, and members of various anarchist groups trusted him.

Coulon was constantly writing in anarchist journals about “good old dynamite” and when he wasn’t writing about it, he was urging its use in the manufacture of bombs. Nicoll became so disgusted over Coulon’s “celebrating the blowing up of a cow in Belgium as a great and revolutionary act” that a breach erupted between the two men. This was probably a lucky thing for Nicoll. Shortly afterwards, the so-called ‘Walsall conspiracy’ led to the arrests and imprisonments of four anarchists for various activities. Curiously, Coulon was never arrested. In fact, Coulon seemed amazingly affluent after the trial and somehow even managed to maintain two households.

This is a short and simple tale of the classic agent provocateur in action. There were ample warning signs of Coulon’s true intentions: His rabid enthusiasm for dynamite, his constant harping on the need for violence, and the fact that he mysteriously had the means to carry on these activities. Why didn’t people sniff out Coulon’s nefarious intentions? Probably because the four anarchists who were eventually jailed (Deakin, Charles, Cailes and Batolla) labored under the misconception that Coulon was as deeply involved as they were. Little did they realize that as a paid police informant, Coulon led the anarchists down the garden path–all the way to jail–while he was completely free from prosecution and amply rewarded for his services.

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With Fates Conspire by John Taylor Caldwell

“Mr. Aldred called the Labour Party a crowd of crooks and the Tories a bag of tricksters. He said he had spent his life trying to sweep away the rubbish of capitalism.”

With Fates Conspire: Memoirs of a Glasgow Seafarer and Anarchist is the second volume in John Taylor Caldwell’s 2-part memoir, and this volume picks up where the first left off. John Taylor Caldwell is sixteen years old, poverty-stricken and living in Glasgow. In With Fates Conspire, Caldwell describes his life on the cruise ships, and the appalling work conditions he suffered. Employed as a bellboy, Caldwell worked incredibly long days, mostly on an empty stomach, and was subject to the rigorous hierarchal system established by the cruise line employees. Not even given utensils with which to eat meals, Caldwell and his fellow bellboys were the lowest beings in the ship’s pecking order. Working an average of 16 hours or more a day, seven days a week, Caldwell spent years on various cruise ships, ever mindful of the fate of the bellboys on the Titanic. His voyages took him far away from home, to New York, Barbados and Havana. And on some of his trips, he haunted the bookshops, even spending a little of his paltry wages on books.

Caldwell’s time between voyages was problematic. His family’s unstable home life was horrific, and his irresponsible father had a tendency to sell his son’s belongings the minute he left on another sea voyage. Caldwell is, then, rather rootless and solitary when he finally meets anarchist Guy Aldred. In 1934, Caldwell joined the United Socialist Movement and soon he became part of the circle surrounding Aldred.

Apart from the odd sea voyage, between 1936 and Aldred’s death in 1963, Caldwell worked consistently in Glasgow assisting Aldred. After reading With Fates Conspire, it’s clear that Caldwell admired Aldred, and it’s also quite clear that this was not reciprocated. Caldwell doesn’t complain about how he was treated by Guy Aldred, Guy’s companion Jenny Patrick and Guy’s close friend Ethel MacDonald, but after reading the book, my impression is that in the Aldred circle, Caldwell was not treated as an equal. While Ethel MacDonald apparently treated Caldwell quite well (he lived in her home for some time when she went to Spain as a journalist to cover the Civil War), the same cannot be said of Jenny Patrick. There’s one rather distressing episode in the book when Caldwell finally has a public speaking engagement and Jenny Patrick is horribly rude (she makes noises and picks at her teeth while Caldwell speaks). Now since this is one of the few visions of Jenny Patrick we have, it certainly doesn’t give a good impression.

Personal details about Caldwell are startling absent from this volume. At the conclusion of With Fates Conspire, we have no idea if Caldwell had any sort of relationships outside of the Aldred circle, or if he ever loved. After the details of life on the cruise ships, the book concentrates squarely on Caldwell’s life with Aldred. Caldwell describes Aldred’s troubled relations with Emma Goldman, division within the Glasgow anarchist scene, and Aldred’s problematic relationships with Walter Strickland and the Duke of Bedford.

Caldwell also describes Aldred as an “avid anti parliamentarian” who “took part in postwar parliamentary elections six times.” Now no self-respecting anarchist would be seen near a ballot box, let alone run for election. According to Caldwell, Aldred used the ballot box to “expose the farcical and false nature of parliamentarism,” and on the slim chance that Aldred was elected, he promised that he would not take his seat. Although it’s obvious that Caldwell did not approve of Aldred’s political activities, for this section of the book, Caldwell acts as an apologist of sorts for Aldred’s political involvement as he attempts to explain and justify it for the reader. For this reader, at least, Aldred’s political activity remains problematic. The Aldred group, in my opinion, spent too much energy and too much money (and let’s face it, they didn’t have it to waste) on this so-called “propaganda device.”

Caldwell died in January 2007, and with his death, we see the passing of an age. We should not judge Aldred too harshly; so much has changed since Aldred’s time. We should read Caldwell to remind ourselves of a vital episode in anarchist history and also to remember that we are best served by forging bonds between anarchist groups rather than severing connections due to ideological differences.

Finally, my copy of With Fates Conspire has a copyright date of 1999, but its content stops in the early 70s (although the final chapter does describe working on Come Dungeons Dark, the biography of Aldred in the 80s and 90s).  Aldred died in 1963, but With Fates Conspire, in spite of the fact that it’s ostensibly Caldwell’s memoirs, doesn’t explore the post Aldred years. I know, no let me rephrase that, I’d like to think that Caldwell led an interesting, rich and full life post-Aldred. But if he did, there’s no trace of it here. This modest author instead hardly even mentions the final 4 decades of his life.

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