Alexandre Skirda: Facing the Enemy: A History of Anarchist Organisation from Proudhon to May 1968 - review


Facing the Enemy kicks into gear with a look at Bakunin's ideas on the necessity of anarchist organisation and thereafter studies individualist anarchism, syndicalism, the Organisational Platform of Russian exiles, a quick chapter on the Spanish movement and a somewhat bizarrely detailed account of post war French anarchism. Also, included are almost one hundred pages of original documentation mostly relating to the Organisational Platform.

Bakunin favoured two types of organisation; a mass based trade union type which would gather together the masses, and a much smaller group of committed anarchists who would attempt to influence the larger organisation with libertarian ideas.

Roughly speaking these two types have surfaced repeatedly in different guises in the 130 years since.

Rarely, however, have anarchists managed to construct both organisations simultaneously. Pre-World War II Spain is the obvious exception, and, not uncoincidentally, it was here that libertarian dreams came closest to fruition.

Skirda considers the retreat from organisation after the demise of the First International (1870s) to have been a disaster for anarchism: individual acts of assassination may have been understandable given the circumstances of the time, but unfortunately Marxism gained a solid foothold among the working class due to its superior organisation.

The emergence of revolutionary trade unionism (syndicalism) in the late 19th century provided anarchists with the opportunity to engage once again with systematic collective action, which they did to considerable effect in the French CGT in particular. Their involvement in union struggles did prove controversial with the anti-organisational tendencies of anarchism. This is perhaps the most interesting section of the book as the arguments for the necessity of organisation are described well, particularly those aired at the important anarchist congress of 1907.

Thereafter the book alights briefly on the role of anarchists in the Russian Revolution before devoting a considerable amount of space to the lessons gleamed by some of the participants in it. The primary lesson Makhno, Arshinov et al took was that a coherent anarchist organisation was necessary if a social revolution was to be a successful one. Their reflections produced the Organisational Platform which in turn became (and still is) the focus for much debate on anarchist organisation.

There's a lot of worthwhile reading to be had from Facing the Enemy for the extent of Skirda's familiarity with anarchist history is impressive. And yet the book frustrates as well as fascinates.

This is probably simply to do with it cramming so much history into too few pages. However one would question the decision to allot double the space to post-war French organisations to that of the pre-war Spanish ones. It is true that much has been written about the Spanish Anarchists, but, to be blunt, that is because they're worth writing about.

Spain was the scene of anarchism's nearest triumph and its most tragic failure. I would have liked to read more of Skirda's analysis of what happened in Spain in 1936-39 and why. How did the FAI and CNT cope in the midst of a libertarian revolution? Is it true that control seeped upwards towards the higher committees of the CNT? If so, could it have been prevented etc?

There is also a certain lack of fluency in the writing of the book; it's as if Skirda is alternating between a history of the ideas on anarchist organisation and a history of anarchist organisations themselves. Ultimately the book focuses more on the former, and as such a more straightforwardly theoretical approach may have been appropriate. Skirda, however, includes lots of minute detail and anecdotes which, though interesting in themselves, tend to dominate the theme of the book. The problem with this so is that the history itself is told in snatches, and is therefore unsatisfactory.

Worth a read, particularly if your level of knowledge of anarchist history is somewhere between total ignorance and geeky genius.

James O'Brian

Alexandre Skirda: Facing the Enemy: A History of Anarchist Organisation from Proudhon to May 1968. (AK Press) 19 Euro incl. postage from WSM bookservice

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This edition is No76 published in August 2003