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Book Extract: World War, and Freedom’s nadir

Book Extract: World War, and Freedom’s nadir

When the Great War broke out in 1914 most anarchists took their customary anti-militarist position, but the conflict also led to two of its heaviest hitters, Errico Malatesta and Peter Kropotkin, throwing down in the pages of anarchist journal Freedom. In the following extract from A Beautiful Idea: History of the Freedom Press Anarchists, Rob Ray outlines how the founding father of anarcho-communism was rebuked over his pro-war stance, and eventually sidelined from the movement he helped build.

Freedom had, from its earliest days, been strongly anti-nationalist and heavily critical of imperialist conflicts — it courted significant unpopularity by denouncing the Second Boer War in 1899 as an imperial scam. In an 1896 article, ‘War’ the paper was explicit in arguing that State conflicts have repeatedly been used to distract the fighting spirit of the workers from the class struggle and the growing revolutionary ferment. Further, it published many articles along the lines proposed by Elisée Reclus, including a translated piece by the renowned French writer in 1898 suggesting that in order for war to stop, it would be necessary to prioritise the resolution of the social question — abolishing the need to fight over private property. As of October 1911, in ‘An Open Letter to a Soldier’ the paper was urging desertion in the ranks of armies everywhere.

So when war broke out in 1914 the lead article Freedom carried in September was a predictable one, and in theory not at all problematic. ‘Blood and Iron’ cast curses on both houses, Allies and Central Powers, thundering to workers:

The same powers that deprived you of the fruits of your labour, and compelled you by hunger and starvation to create riches for a minority of privileged thieves and idlers — the same powers will now take away the lives of your sons and brothers, and force you with their guns to die for their interests.

It was rendered controversial in short order however by Kropotkin’s sudden announcement that Germany must be defeated at all costs. This must have been something of a surprise to then-editor Tom Keell, as on the back page of that very September issue was an advert for a new pamphlet written by Kropotkin, Wars and Capitalism, which was unequivocal in suggesting the masses must not be distracted from social revolution by the belligerent maneuvering of States, colonialists, financiers and business tycoons. Jotting down his memories of the time, Keell described meeting Kropotkin “in a noisy Lyons cafe in Oxford Street” where the old soldier was drawing up military movement maps, supported by the (very ill) Freedom stalwart Alfred Marsh. Keell refused point blank to run Kropotkin’s pro-war essay, and instead a bodged article on communal kitchens appeared.

He could not keep the Russian’s new leanings quiet for long though, and in a letter to Swedish professor Gustaf Steffen, published by the paper in October, Freedom’s core theorist plumped publicly for the Allies, writing: “The territories of both France and Belgium MUST be freed of the invaders. The German invasion must be repulsed — no matter how difficult this may be. All efforts must be that way.” Rejecting the possibility of using labour stoppages to deter the onset of the conflict, he argued that the anti-militarist’s duty must therefore be to support the invaded nation, or risk through inaction supporting the invader. In particular, he voiced his fears that a victorious Germany would impose a hardline “Bismarkian imperialism” which would cause irreparable damage to workers’ power. He noted:

The last 43 years were a confirmation of what Bakunin wrote in 1871, namely, that if French influence disappeared from Europe, Europe would be thrown back in her development for half a century. And now it is self-evident that if the present invasion of Belgium and France is not beaten back by the common effort of all national of Europe, we shall have another half-century or more of general reaction.

Writing later, historian Max Nettlau would argue it was inevitable that even among the anarchist movement many would take sides on the Allies vs Central Powers question. Kropotkin’s love for French enlightenment and fear of Germanic aggression pushed him into precisely that mode.

As editor Keell was left in a difficult position. Anti-war in his own views, he initially went to some pains to provide impartiality and carried Kropotkin’s articles verbatim, along with criticism from many other writers, but would ultimately place himself squarely against the “secular saints” who were advocating getting behind the Allies.

One of the most significant essays published under Keell’s editorship was to arrive that November from Errico Malatesta. ‘Anarchists Have Forgotten Their Principles’ was a powerful reiteration of the case against support for State militarism and a scorching, prescient riposte to Kropotkin’s position:

I have no greater confidence in the bloody Tsar, nor in the English diplomats who oppress India, who betrayed Persia, who crushed the Boer republics; nor in the French Bourgeoisie, who massacred the natives of Morocco; nor in those of Belgium, who have allowed the Congo atrocities and largely profited by them — and I only recall some of their misdeeds, taken at random, not to mention what all governments and capitalist classes do against the workers and the rebels in their own countries …

Besides, in my opinion, it is most probable there will be no definite victory on either side. After a long war, an enormous loss of life and wealth, both sides being exhausted, some kind of peace will be patched up, leaving all questions open, this preparing for a new war more murderous than the present.

Keell was denounced as “unworthy” of his editorial role by Kropotkin for his troubles and effectively asked to resign. He was backed primarily by the Freedom-linked Voice of Labour publishing collective, including George Barrett, Fred Dunn, Mabel Hope, Elizabeth Archer, Tom Sweetlove, W Fanner, and Lilian Wolfe, but would not be exonerated of accusations that he was disgracing his office until the next national anarchist gathering in April 1915 at Hazel Grove, Stockport. There he would face off against George Cores, speaking on behalf of Tcherkesoff, former Freedom publisher John Turner and others to denounce what they regarded as a unilateral bid for total control over the paper. The delegates however, including influential Irish Liverpudlian Mat Kavanagh, took Keell’s side, approving his actions in keeping the paper on an anti-war path.

Following this Kropotkin and others in the pro-Allies camp, notably Jean Grave, became thoroughly hostile to Keell’s Freedom, and they would go on to write the Manifesto of the Sixteen in 1916. The manifesto, eventually signed by a little over 100 anarchists including a number of leading international figures, but denounced across the rest of the movement, notes:

To speak of peace while the party [Germany] who, for 45 years, have made Europe a vast, entrenched camp, is able to dictate its conditions, would be the most disastrous error that we could commit. To resist and to bring down its plans, is to prepare the way for the German population which remains sane and to give it the means to rid itself of that party. Let our German comrades understand that this is the only outcome advantageous to both sides and we are ready to collaborate with them.

They would again be rebuked by Malatesta, marking a permanent rift between him and Kropotkin, never healed, marking “one of the most painful, tragic moments” of his life.

And with that, Kropotkin largely left the stage of Freedom’s story, though Freedom Press would continue to republish his old works for years to come (and still does). Isolated from the living movement, the father of anarchist-communism nevertheless retained many friends and would go on to live in France before returning to Russia at Lenin’s invitation towards the end of his life.

A Beautiful Idea: History of the Freedom Press Anarchists will be launched with a talk at Freedom Bookshop on October 20th for Not The Anarchist Bookfair and released on October 22nd.

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