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Ravachole to Twitter Coal: the Fall of Anarchism

By: Richard Harrington

Twitter: @TheLatestByte

Post Date: 2024-02-23

Picture the person: Anarchist. You’ll probably have a strong image in mind: a teenager or young adult in punk attire, leather jacket covered with patches and pins and studs, hair at a preposterous angle and colour. Another is of a bomb-throwing man in a Victorian era suit, or of some bearded philosopher in a sepia photograph. 

All are indeed Anarchists, to one degree or other, and their ideological praxis has varied fiercely. Punks play loud music; until they sell out. The Bomb-Throwers, well, threw bombs; until they were all shot. The philosophers penned their books; until their books were burned. One looks around the political stage, be it in America or Europe, and one hardly sees Anarchism, and not simply because they reject the entire political system as a sham. It is no longer a serious political ideology, rather it is a chic, a fashion, an underground sensation lurking in pubs and clubs and message boards. It is a phase and a fad, picked up and dropped again by teenagers without purpose. 


Yet it was not always so. How did it get there? I will conceptualize the rise and decay of Anarchism as if it were a man: through their youth, maturity, and decline. 


The Youth of Anarchism


It begins somewhere in Antiquity, as a natural reaction to authority. Man is a hierarchical being, and finds himself unable to thrive without organization, so wherever we lived, we formed states. This irritates many, and why wouldn’t it? Power accumulates more power, and the arbitrary abuse of power is a theme present even in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Prophet Samuel cautioned against the people’s demand for a king, yet they demanded a ruler to lead them into battle, someone like the kings of other nations. They got what they wanted, and they got King Saul, who would tyrannize over them.


Religious cults always have something to gain from denigrating authority. Mazdak, a pseudo-socialist reformer of Zoroastrianism, did so. Cathars, Bogomils, Anabaptists- all showed signs of Anarchism within their rejectionist tenets. Radical movements in England during and after the Civil War, such as the Levellers, argued for an extremely radical democratization of society which, while not explicitly Anarchist, showed that inclination. 


This political-religious phenomenon can be found nearly everywhere throughout history, but never under a name or unified philosophy. Perhaps it is reflective of the dual needs within man’s psyche: the desire for freedom and the dependence on hierarchy and safety. Man is a limited, insecure creature, subject to fundamental tyrannies in both nature and society, a soul-itch, and Anarchism offers a promising reconciliation of both: personal freedom and extremely limited authority. The Anarchy of this time is barely even of the name: disorganized, instinctive, often religious.


The Maturity of Anarchism


By the 1800s, the industrial revolution (and, indeed, its consequences) had only intensified social struggles, in part by constructing a new Middle Class, evolving from the city-dwelling burghers and merchants of the medieval era. Industrialization and innovation took jobs away and invented new ones, and pulled vast rivers of people into the cities in search of work. Grim conditions, extreme hours and pitiful pay created a churning discontent, furthered by the obvious wealth and naked greed of the new bourgeoisie. Into this liminal time,Anarchy emerged as one of the first truly methodological leftist doctrines.


Complete freedom! Bodily autonomy! True democracy! The flowering of human potential in horizontally-governed bodies!

Tempting, no? Many believed so, and now the educated and eloquent had access to political discourse, unlike those peasant rebels of prior centuries. A slew of thinkers contributed to the budding canon of Anarchism: Proudhon, Stirner, Godwin, Bakunin, Kropotkin. Of these, Kropotkin is probably the most visually recognizable, the title of his ‘Conquest of Bread’ serving as the inspiration for ‘BreadTube,’ his face that of an ‘Anarchist Santa Claus’. His ideas dug themselves into Russia and Spain, chiefly among the peasant farmers and hired labourers.  


Russia’s vast bulk gave the peculiar freedom of distance to many of its peasants, who became increasingly self-organized as the 18th century progressed. In Spain, the Latifundia harvestmen found great appeal in Kropotkin’s agricultural anarchism, and dreamed of seizing the farms they worked upon but could not buy. Nihilism arose out of Russia as an inherently Anarchist ideal, impressing upon its devotees that all things were a lie unless found to be otherwise through rigorous investigation: that many things were, as Max Stirner claimed, “spooks”. Anything, from God, marriage, social institutions, to the capitalist economy were all spooks, ghosts in one’s mind, an accretion of ages built up around the legs of primal man, who at his heart was a free creature. Simply banish the spooks, and you will break the chains. 


This sort of Anarchism was vigorous and terribly violent; it was an ideology in the flower of its manhood, after all. Gone were the petty and scattered cults of the medieval ages like the Bogomils or Cathars, who strove to pull down Church authority. Long passed were the unfocused peasant rebellions of Florian Geyer and Wat Tyler. Now the ideal of raw freedom had an intellectualism to it, and a strong hand: a hand to thrust a dagger or fling a bomb.

Propaganda of the deed: a fine name for political murder. Russian Prime Ministers and Tsars, US Presidents, French Presidents, Priests, Italian, Greek, Portuguese, and Spanish Kings were either killed or targeted by Anarchist cells. Each attempt brought on new attempts, and the justification was simple: all authority is corruptive, and the structure is inherently evil. In anarchist thought, anyone who upholds bourgeois society or enforces its norms is a pig, be he priest, policeman or Prime Minister. 


Yet, as the popular Anarchist song, La Ravachole declares: ‘Mais pour tous ces coquins, il y de la dynamite’- but for these rascals, there is dynamite. With this, we come to, perhaps, the finest example of the Anarchist ideal in its full bloom: the Dutch-French Anarchist hero, Francois Ravachol. 


Ravachol cuts a different image than many Anarchists, especially Mikhail Bakunin, who seem slovenly and overgrown. Ravachol was handsome, square-jawed, dynamic. He planted a series of bombs targeting the judicial system, in vengeance for French crackdowns on working-class rioters. He was betrayed by an informant, whose place of business was likewise bombed, and eventually led away to the Guillotine. That instrument of revolutionary terror had, at last, become a guardian for the French status quo, the bourgeois republic, and it is perhaps no surprise that Anarchists opposed the death penalty, given its use against them. A revenge bombing of the French Chamber of Deputies proved shambolic, only injuring one, yet proved a dramatic deed. More death followed.


Why Ravachol? Why  mark him as the epitome of the Anarchist ideal at the crescendo of its potency? He was a brave man, desperately poor for most of his life, unrepentant in his capture and defiant to his death. He had admirable qualities, and these are qualities most absent in modern anarchists. Furthermore, the Anarchism of this period focused on the material conditions of the poor and disenfranchised, on the hypocrisy of the bourgeois order, on the poverty and desperation of the many. It did not concern itself overmuch with the minutiae that is so endemic to modern, navel-gazing leftism.


The Decay of Anarchism


What did Anarchists believe in, and how did they act to accomplish those goals? The old, caricatured Anarchists believed in universal freedom and death to the power of God, bosses, money. No gods, no masters, after all. 


Anarchists ultimately believe, must believe in the intrinsic goodness of man. Otherwise, how could he be trusted with self-mastery? Yet this must be balanced with the acknowledgement that most people are riddled with some form of social sin- racism, sexism, ableism, etc. This forms a strange kind of misanthropic utopianism: an insistence that man must be free, yet chooses to become scum. It is a godless Original Sin, a fallen man without a Fall. In the face of such tyrannizing corruption, universal freedom is the cure, to dilute the power of one man to oppress another. Yet the very concept of such freedom necessarily presupposes that mankind can both identify optimal behaviour and course of action, and also has the will to pursue it. 


Take theft as a moral example: one has to understand- or believe on faith- that theft is an abuse of another, and have the inward desire to not abuse the other, and then the will to resist the temptation to abuse the other. This is the essence of morality, which is often derided as bourgeois respectability. Indeed, Anarchists see no sin in robbing a shop, so long as one is hungry, or the owner is a mere pig. Sin is a top-down business for Anarchism.


In the face of such vast moral odds, it is no wonder that Anarchists on places such as Reddit express a fundamental exhaustion. Looking through history is no help, as brief windows were opened up during the 20th Century for these beliefs to be brought into mass application: Anarchist Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War and the Makhnovshchina of Anarchist Ukraine during the Russian Civil War. Both societies failed due to defeat in war, yet even before such military defeat, the problems were obvious, and to see those problems, we only have to look at examples in our modern day.


Anarchism is inherently revolutionary, but so handicapped by a rejection of mass politics, elections, and hierarchy that it finds itself constantly paralyzed and unable to maintain independence. It can only emerge when the credibility of authority falls, such as during war, and is quickly crushed as authority reforms. In peacetime, things are even harder, but one example follows: the infamous CHAZ/CHOP of Seattle Washington.


Anarchy with American Characteristics 


The CHAZ/CHOP was a joke from the start, back in the quickly-receding days of 2020. The indulgence of the Mayor of Seattle and the paralysis of the police during ongoing nation-wide race riots and a crippling pandemic created an opportunity for an autonomous commune to be established. A riot became an insurrectionary occupation; businesses were smashed, owners intimidated, a wall built and Anarchy established for a few city blocks. Gang violence quickly marred the proceedings, and within a month the whole operation was closed, providing hearty laughs to the Right. 


Stories of the commune’s near-conquest by a teenaged SoundCloud rapper followed amid pictures of their shambolic agricultural project and widespread drug use, which proved in the eyes of many that the Summer of ANTIFA was never going to last, nor should it, and the failure of CHOP became synonymous with the embarrassment of ANTIFA. It was the best opportunity that Anarchists had in nearly a century to showcase their views and their way of life to the masses, and it collapsed into murder, addiction, and insufferable poetry. In short, it was indeed genuine Anarchism, and that’s the very problem.

What is Anarchism anymore, then? It is a political costume, a kind of radical LARP, best expressed in the limping continuance of the Punk movement.


I am an Antichrist
And I am an anarchist.
Don't know what I want
But I know how to get it.
I wanna destroy the passerby.


Such lyrics were perhaps my first introduction to Anarchy as an idea–a very pale, second-hand version at that. Punks railed against the stuffy conservatism of the UK and USA, right up until it made them money- Henry Rollins is fanatic in his #mycalvins, after all. Johnny Rotten is a racist butter salesman now, apparently. 

We live in the age of rational, data-driven social democracy, as we are told again and again. The time for political radicalism is over, say the political radicals who rule us. We endure inflation and meaningless jobs, bad food and worse art, we cannot afford to have children and find that few would want them even if they could. Political radicalism is the natural response- we must do something and do it now. The Anarchist influences on the Extinction Protests are plain to see. 


Many Rightists share their frustration, as our masters are, by and large, terribly unimaginative neo-liberals who see humanity as a mass of interchangeable cogs: simply pluck a cog from one continent and slot it into the machine on another, and keep the wheels turning. Keep the inflated, over-printed money coming. The Boomer made it to the top, and is kicking and screaming against age and the decay of their world, like Kublai Khan retreating into his pleasure dome to cope with the terror of having conquered the world, but not death itself.


We find ourselves unable to change anything. Rightist Radicals cheer on a candidate, and pull their hair out as they act almost exactly like their enemies–Trump and Melloni spring to mind. Socialists bemoan their continual out-manoeuvring by neoliberals and Social Democrats, as we saw with Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The world is burning down, and the revolution seems more impossible than ever, and what would it matter unless it was truly global?

Amid it all, we find the Anarchists tilting at windmills. Their ideology has almost entirely given up the ghost, and wastes its energy on the one place it can focus and have some actual influence: the self. No longer can you waltz into the Chamber of Deputies, no longer can you sidle up beside a head of state- the Islamists ruined that.


Instead, you police your diet and your sexuality; relationship anarchy and veganism- because if one cannot have a revolution, one can at least refuse to tyrannize animals by eating them or your romantic partner by imposing the barest of standards on them. One cannot conquer the state. so one must conquer jealousy and the desire to lead in a relationship, to defeat the bourgeois morality of normative sexuality. One must politicize the bedroom and dinnerplate.  Wage an Interior Revolution.


Punk is dead, and so is Anarchy, and what an embarrassing end it is; to be the mere thugs of liberal reaction. Unable- and perhaps unwilling- to convince a white working class of its virtues, modern Anarchism is a pile of unreadable literature attended to by the useful idiots of the very neoliberal capitalist regime they hate: unable to harm the state, unable to evangelize, outcompeted by the Communists- they hang about like pensioners at a bus stop, waiting for their time to come and unaware that it was over a hundred years past. They anesthetize themselves with drugs, squalid sexual encounters, loud music, and the occasional fist fight. Truly people to emulate.


I have to think of Johnny Rotten’s famous question: ‘ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?’ 

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