Workshop "Legacies of Anarchism: Interdisciplinary Visions"

Du 25/09 au 26/09/2023

with Patrick McGuinness, Saint-Anne’s College, University of Oxford, Radek Hylmar, Charles University, Prague, Ondřej Slačálek, Charles university, Prague, Deaglan O'Donghaile, Liverpool John Moores University, Philip Bullock, Wadham College, University of Oxford, Sybil Raysz, Université libre de Bruxelles, Libuše Heczková, MSH Invited Professor, Charles University, Prague, Caroline Siebert, University of Leipzig, Damien Scalia, Université libre de Bruxelles, Margaux Coquet, Université du Luxembourg, Tomáš Glanc, MSH Invited Professor, University of Zurich, Kamila Kocialkowska, Université libre de Bruxelles/University of Cambridge.

Our workshop dedicated to the legacies of anarchism is framed by the general questions of differentiated experience of time, progress and modernity globally in various geographical spaces (the period that we investigate, starting in late 1860s, is the period of the first phase of globalization) but also by various social, ethnic and gender groups. We are keen to discuss the complex dynamics between modernist aesthetics and politics of that time, between l’art pour l’art and l’art social (see for example Poetry and Radical Politics in fin de siècle France, Patrick McGuinness 2015). The general discussions of the role of the state in society are one of the crucial political questions of the period as is the role of artists and intellectuals in society. All this pressing questions have been addressed by the first anarchist thinkers globally.

"In his recent Anarchism published in the authoritative Oxford University Press collection “A Very Short Introduction”, the influential specialist of Anarchist political thought Alex Prichard affirms that “anarchism was arguably the most widespread revolutionary ideology, globally, up to the end of the Second World War. (…) From the 1850s to 1940s, anarchism was arguably the dominant ideological current on the left worldwide, even as Marxist Leninism would come to dominate in Europe and Maoism in China.” (Prichard 2022: 28; 31).

Indeed, anarchism was one of the major ideo-global phenomena of the first phase of globalization in the 19th century and its repercussions were felt around the world, “anarchist revolutionaries were fighting against global empires founded on chattel slavery, expropriation of land through enclosures, and the development of industrialization outside Europe on the back of colonialism and imperialism. Prichard 2022: 28)”.
In our planned workshop we are attentive to the transnational character of anarchism and to the phenomenon of exile as a key means of ideological transmission: “Napoleon III would force socialists into exile in England, and surviving Communards took anarchist ideas west to the Americas and east to Asia. French émigrés like Elisée Reclus would help cross-pollinate anarchist ideas from France to the Americas and back again. Emma Goldman would do the same between Russia and the USA (…)” (Prichard 2022: 31).
Anarchism promotes an active approach against putative authority of the state relying on a respectable philosophical legacy notably this of ancient Greece and India. The direct conceptual and rebellious antecedents of anarchism are to be found in Skepticism. In India this was the Ajñana school of philosophy (Nagarjuna and Shriharsha). Whereas in Greece this line of thought includes such venerable names as Xenophanes, Democritus, most notably, Cratylus but especially Pyrrho of Elis, culminating in the doctrines of Pyrrhonism. Which was further developed by Arcesilaus and Carneades (3rd century BC) whose ideas we largely know from Sextus Empiricus. Aside of Sceptics, a system of thought closely agreeable with Anarchism was represented by the Greek Cynics who famously promoted a natural and unrepressed form of living, emancipated from unnecessary possessions.
The mainstream ‘state-philosophy’ starting from St Augustine, always criticized and attacked the anarchist spirit of nihilist skeptics. Some would also evaluate Martin Luther’s (and possibly Jan Hus’) rebellious religious and ideological skepticism geared against the canon of holy orders as a classic example of both skepticism and a concealed anarchism. Michel de Montaigne and later Pierre Bayle may come to mind as potentially sympathetic of anarchist skepticism, with their powerful and often ironic critique against any form of Authority be it metaphysical or political one. Scottish philosopher David Hume, in his turn, reinforced a case for a skeptical view of political authority.
Bakunin’s ideas created a robust response among intellectuals and artists of Slavic ethnic groups of East-Central Europe. An important issue is therefore “Anarchism and the Slavs” where stands out the central figure of Mikhail Bakunin, who in many ways shaped modern anarchism and its ideology as we know them, emerges. Having lived a considerable part of his life outside Russia, Bakunin particularly appreciated Switzerland. In Switzerland, he was attracted to its practical and successful federalism, to the gradual ‘unbundling’ of bureaucratic and class interests by self-government. For a variety of reasons Bakunin opposed Marx, they argued harshly and in the end the International split because of the contradictions of their supporters. After the fall of the Paris Commune (1871), Marx held a congress that expelled Bakunin, while Bakunin’s supporters in their turn held a congress that expelled Marx. Bakunin was brutally disappointed after these events of failure to raise a meaningful rebellion. Under the influence of Bakunin’s ideas, the first real experiment in bringing anarchist ideas to life was the Jura Federation. It was the Swiss section of the International of Workers (First International), strongly influenced by the anarchist and federalist ideas of Mikhail Bakunin. Among the centers of the Jura Federation was Sonvilier commune in Switzerland, in the canton of Bern. Generally, Jura, is a spacious Swiss mountain area with a town of La Chaux-de-Fonds as its center. Members of this anarchist federation shared anti-state, egalitarian views on work and social emancipation.
Bakunin’s theory was further practically developed by Peter Kropotkin with new ideas, which after a while proved very popular in the anarchist milieu. Peter Kropotkin, as a prominent narodnik who escaped from imprisonment in Russia, made an important breakthrough in anarchist thought. In Europe he promoted and partially reshaped Bakunin’s ideas.
What is more noteworthy for our discussion in the framework of MODERNITAS is that Kropotkin positioned himself as a natural scientist. He was indeed a major scientist in geology: he was the first to develop the theory of the glacier. Kropotkin tried to steer the anarchist movement in a scientific direction, advocating the need for human solidarity. But in the end, Kropotkin’s ideas of theoretical anarchism polemized with the ideas of both Bakunin and Proudhon.
Kropotkin returned to Russia in 1917 and advocated a federative republic, i.e., a transitional phase to the society promoted by anarchists. The Russian anarchists took an active part in the Russian Revolution and the Civil War up to 1923. The most famous and legendary figure of the entire revolutionary period was certainly Nestor Makhno, who led the most successful rebellious movement in Ukraine under the black flags of anarchism. Symbolizing the continuity of Slavic and European anarchism, ‘Bat’ka Makhno’ died in Paris some six years before the Second World War. Russian anarchism is directly linked to the Slavic diaspora matters - not only through the figures of Bakunin and Kropotkin, but also Peter Arshinov, Vsevolod Volin (Eichenbaum), Alexander Berkman, and Emma Goldman.

As Bakunin and Kropotkin justly remark in the 1860s, 1870s and 1880s in their largely circulated pamphlets and essays, the access to modernity (especially to the benefits of science and technological progress) are almost exclusively experienced by the dominant Western classes (Western women from the upper classes represent an example of this systemic exclusion). The innovative character of the anarchist thinking of the 19th century has been submitted to re-evaluation since the 1980s and have contributed to the renewal of fields such as social geography, which brought important contributions to the question of global inequality (with works of Neil Smith – “uneven development”, Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel).
“There are two traditions of anarchist thought—libertarian, or extreme individualist, and communitarian—and each appears in three distinctive variations, which may be labeled “philosophical anarchism,” “ideal anarchism,” and “revolutionary anarchism.” Philosophical anarchism is the thesis that there is not, and cannot be, a legitimate state—a state that has the moral right to demand the obedience of its subjects or citizens—because that demand by the state violates the moral autonomy of the individual. Ideal anarchism holds that, besides being illegitimate, the state is suboptimal—it performs less well the tasks of maintaining social order and providing essential services than would an association of free men and women without coercive state power to compel their behavior. Revolutionary anarchism goes a step further and argues that the state is so immediately destructive of human well-being that it must be destroyed by force so that a more humane and constructive social order can take its place. It is revolutionary anarchism that is associated in the popular mind with the term “anarchism.” In the United States, anarchists are popularly imagined speaking with Eastern European accents, to wear beards, and to favor the use of bombs.” (Robert Paul Wolff, Oxford Companion to Comparative Politics, 2012).

Beyond the debate on the topicality of anarchist thinking in today’s society, the workshop will also contribute to the lively and crucial debate among art historians and historians of literature on the method of global modernisms, which need to be understood in this larger context, so that their particular nature and development would be particularly assessed and not understood as a late version of one undivided “Western” modernism.


From Monday 25 September at 9am to Tuesday 26 September at 6pm

MSH reception room.
Building DE1 - Level 3 - R.3.105
Avenue Antoine Depage 1
1000 Bruxelles

Free entrance.

Contact: Sybil Raysz

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