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The Historian’s Eye
Article published on 13 December 2003
last modification on 20 November 2005

by r-c.
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"The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."

Milan Kundera

The anarchist movement has been for a very long time a neglected area of study. During the 19th century and most of the 20th, only a handful of historians in each country did some research in their country’s associations and often mechanically applied some ideas of the leaders to the rank and file. Anarchist paradigms were so different from the general consensus, that in fact it remained a "terra incognita", an unknown land, - and to a large degree it still is the case. Fortunately, the anarchist movement has had its own writers, like Rudolf Rocker or Arthur Lehning, who attempted to preserve the collective memory.

There were many reasons for this neglect. Authoritarian conservatives could not imagine that eminent activists like Josiah Warren or Benjamin R. Tucker called themselves "conservatives" and it is only lately that so called libertarian historians have "discovered" some of their ancestors in the movement. Leftist and Marxian historians have been influential in social history and have generally been unsympathetic and often condescending to anarchism. As a whole, historians have considered anarchism to be a marginal current, an epiphenomenon, without any significant influence, except in Spain. Anarchists were considered as the losers of history. It was hardly noticed that many of the ideas they advocated at an early date later became widely accepted in Western nations, as in the case of birth control, sexual freedom , civil liberties and direct action, to name but a few.

The study of anarchism really started with Max Nettlau. His untiring efforts preserved a large number of documents of the nineteenth century, many of which are available at the International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam (Holland).

Max Nettlau.
The first historian of anarchism,
the grandfather of them all
Photo: Labadie Collection,
University of Michigan

It was only after World War II that historians started studying the movement in particular countries: James J. Martin and Paul Avrich, in the United States, Diego Abad de Santillan, in Spain and Argentina,

Diego Abad de Santillan
ABAD DE SANTILLAN, Diego. Spanish historian and theorist of anarcho-syndicalism. An important actor in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) he has written on this event and on Argentinian anarchism. His works are in Spanish

Jean Maitron and René Bianco in France, and others. Some writers specialized in biographies: Richard Drinnon’s life of Emma Goldman was particularly influential, as was George Woodcock’s The Anarchist Prince on Peter Kropotkin.

René Bianco
René Bianco has written on French anarchism and particularly on French anarchist periodicals all over the world.

Important events also attracted some historians’ attention: The Haymarket drama, in Chicago, the anarchist bandits in France, and the Sacco Vanzetti affair, which was second only to the Spanish civil war and revolution.

Labor history hardly paid any attention to the movement until recent times. Often, important activists were not mentioned as being anarchists, the word generally being linked with petty-bourgeoisie. However, anarcho-syndicalism (not to be confused with revolutionary syndicalism) and general strikes have received some attention, and there are a few scattered studies on cooperatives, mutualism and peasant movements.

The history of ideas has opened up to issues such as anarchist economic alternatives, experimental utopias, the international situationism; the anti-globalization movement will no doubt be considered under this angle in future studies. New light will be shed, one hopes, on some overall analyses of the relation of anarchism with romanticism, modernity, and postmodern cultural trends.

Women’s history has not been very concerned with anarchism, with some notable exceptions, particularly in the United States, as is the case of Margaret Marsch and, especially, Martha Ackelsberg.

It is also mostly in the United States that art historians have noticed the anarchist tendencies among French painters and some of the better known American artists.

Anarchist cultural history is also developing: works on the Chicago anarchist crowds, French cabaret singers, German naturists or New York anarchist pubs are offering vivid insights into forgotten generations of social history.

Study of anarchist intervention in political history is not confined to a dozen assassinations of Czars, Princes or Presidents. It is now seen to have been a leading force in three revolutions, the Russian, Spanish and Mexican. There also was an important Chinese movement in the early nineteenth century, and a strong anarchist current in the free communes that appeared in Bavaria or in the Workers Councils in Turin, after World War I. All these phenomena still are to be studied, as well as the movement’s general action in the European Resistance to Nazi occupation or in anticolonialism.

There have also been a few studies of antimilitary movements, from pacifism to draft resistance, but fewer on civic disobedience or antinuclear struggles. New forms of action, such as "Reclaiming the Streets" or ecological mobilization are probably too recent for an in-depth history.

It is perhaps in the history of ideas and in cross-cultural exchanges within the movement that there is still most to learn if, leaving aside the study of "great thinkers" historians examine the intellectual life of the rank and file.

One can only hope that, like the Italian historical society that publishes the Rivista storica del anarchismo, other scholarly centers will discover a forgotten heritage.


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