From Popular Front to the Spanish Civil War and World War Two
Spanish Republic, International Brigade, Munich, Hitler-Stalin Pact, Phoney War – in progress
Spanish Republic, International Brigade, Munich, Hitler-Stalin Pact, Phoney War – in progress
Numbers: 23, 89, 140
One of Paris’ oldest streets traced onto an earlier Roman road it dates back to the 3rd century AD when the old Roman town on the left bank was being abandoned in favour of the safer, fortified smaller location on the île de la Cité.
The road falls away on the south side of the Sainte-Genevieve hill. Its name could come from a corruption of the place name, Mont Cétard, to Mont Fétard and eventually becoming Mouffetard. Alternatively, the old French word ‘moufette‘ used to mean an awful smell, and it could be that this is its origin.
No. 23 was an important address for the interwar left in Paris. In 1933 Daniel Guérin organised meetings there for antifascist German refugees.
In 1935 it housed the offices of Marceau Pivert‘s Revolutionary Left newspaper, and in 1936 the anarchist journal ‘Spartacus’ Notebooks’ where Victor Serge published ‘16 shot: Where is the Russian Revolution going?‘.
In June 1848 a barricade went up across the road at No. 89. On June 23 1848 a company of the Mobile Guard was disarmed here.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given it was a very cheap area in which to live, and the numbers of political refugees coming to Paris, for nearly two decades from 1885, No. 140 was strongly associated with anarchist publications.
On 1 February 1885 Jean Grave launched a French-based edition of Kropotkin‘s anarchist journal Le Révolté at this address. After its presses were seized it changed its name to La Révolte. Among those who wrote for it were the exiled Élisée Reclus and Émile Pouget. Among its readers was Pierre Monatte.
From 4 May 1895 it changed its name to become Les Temps Nouveaux (New Times), which continued to publish up to August 1914, when almost all its writers supported the First World War’s ‘Holy Unity’ against Germany.
On 24 February 1889 Pouget launched the weekly anarchist newspaper Le Père Peinard from the same address. This was frequently raided by the police and the last number of its first series appeared on 21 February 1894, when Pouget escaped to London.
In 1871 Élie Reclus, who had been director of the National Library in Paris under the Paris Commune was hidden in the rue Mouffetard by a family friend for several weeks before escaping to London.
From the left’s perspective the Palais de Justice could perhaps be better named the Palace of Injustice.
Located at Nos. 4-10 boulevard du Palais, the Boulevard was only given that name in 1864, after Haussmann bulldozed broad streets through potentially barricadable medieval streets.
The earlier names of the road in front of the Palace were the rue de la Barillerie (street of wine cask makers) and the rue Saint-Barthélemy (named after the nearby Church Saint-Barthélemy that in 1791, like the nine others on the ile de la Cité, lost its parish status to Notre-Dame cathedral, was nationalised and then sold and demolished. The site was initially a theatre and from 1865 the current Tribunal de Commerce de Paris).
In 1830 Blanqui was involved in fighting outside the Palais de Justice as the insurgents moved to topple Charles X. He was back there, inside, in 1832 as one of the defenders in the ‘trial of the 15’. This was of the leading members of the mainly student republican ‘Society of Friends of the People’ including Raspail. On January 10 1832 all were acquitted except for Blanqui who was found guilty of an offence against the public peace.
During the May 12 1839 Four Seasons insurrection against Louis-Philippe, Barbès led a column of 600 men to the Palais de Justice where he urged the troops on duty to join him. A refusal led to fighting and the guard-post and Palais were taken, but they failed to capture the Prefecture opposite.
The Palais de Justice was one of the many historic buildings set fire to or bombarded in May 1871 during the ‘Bloody week’ at the end of the Paris Commune, when orders were given to burn the Tuileries Palace and other symbols of government authority in retaliation for the summary executions of Communards taking place all over Paris. In total 238 buildings were burnt down or damaged during the fighting.
In 1878 the young lawyer, Jules Guesde, appeared at the Palais de Justice to defend members of the illegal International Workingmen’s Association.
François Ravachol (1859-1892), an anarchist who had placed bombs at the homes of the three judges who had jailed the three Clichy May 1 1891 demonstrators, was sentenced to death here after two trials. He was publicly guillotined on 11 July 1892.
The Palais was also the venue for the ‘Trial of the 30’ anarchists accused of conspiracy and supporting the ‘propaganda by the deed‘ bombings. Among those on trial and acquitted in August 1894 were the revolutionary syndicalist, Émile Pouget, the art critic, Félix Fénéon, the artist, Maximilien Luce, and Kropotkin‘s collaborator, Jean Grave.
One of the anarchists charged but who went to live in Britain under an assumed name (Georges Guyot) was Paul Reclus, the nephew of Élisée Reclus. In his absence Paul was sentenced to 20 years hard labour. Paul moved to Brussels in 1903 to help
Élisée with the publication of his anarcho-geographer testament, L’Homme et la Terre.
In 1913 the Palais was where Victor Serge and the Franco-Belgian anarchist Bonnot gang were tried, with Serge being sentenced to five years for robbery, three were guillotined and three others had their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment.
In 1927 eight PCF leaders including Jacques Duclos and André Marty were tried here following the demonstrations in support of Sacco and Vanzetti., Italian-born migrant anarchists who were executed on trumped up charges in the US on 23 August 1927.
On September 2 1941 only one of the Palais de Justice judges and magistrates, Paul Didier (1889-1961) refused to swear an oath of personal allegiance to Pétain as then required by the Vichy Government. He also refused to work in the Special Sections set up in the Palais de Justice to try Jewish people and those accused of ‘political crimes’. Didier was arrested the following day and then interned before being fired from the judiciary. Reinstated in 1944 Didier then chaired appeal court hearings, including that of PCF leader Jacques Duclos in 1952, being held in La Santé prison.
After the Second World War the Palace was again used to try and jail strikers (in 1950), Communists (1952) and supporters of Algerian independence (the Jeanson network was put on trial – here or at the Cherche-Midi prison – on September 5 1960, with 14 sentenced to 10 years imprisonment each, of which just four were suspended sentences).
Ten years later, in November 1970, the leading Maoist was jailed at the Palais for two years for re-establishing the banned Proletarian Left (Gauche Prolétarienne) group.
The Justice Palace we see today dates back to the earliest years of the Roman occupation after the defeat of the Celtic Gauls under Vercingetorix by Julius Caesar in 52 BC. The already inhabited islands in the River Seine, now merged into the l’île de la Cité, were then just about the only pieces of defensible dry land around that also allowed soldiers and traders to cross the river.
The Romans set up a seat of government on the site of the Palais de Justice from where they ruled France for over 500 years. The mixture of Latin and local Celtic dialects created what became the French language.
From the 10th to the 14th centuries, the quarter of the island covered by the Palace of the Cité was the seat of every French monarch. During that time all the king’s constitutional and judicial courts were based there, including the Paris Parliament until Charles V moved to the right bank of the Seine in 1358 after Etienne Marcel and other important Paris merchants invaded the palace and murdered the Dauphin’s ministers on 22 February.
After Charles V (Charles the Wise) and the court left the Palace, however, all its principal administrative and judicial functions remained. In 1371, during the 100 Years War, the first public clock in Paris was installed at No.2, boulevard du Palais, on the corner tower that carried the Palace’s alarm bell. Over the centuries several major fires destroyed large parts of the royal palace. In 1630 the Sainte Chapelle spire burnt down followed, in 1776, by all the buildings between it and the Conciergerie (the offices and residence of the appointed caretaker in charge during the king’s absences that became a prison from 1391).
The neo-classical colonnade entrance to the Palais de Justice was built between 1783 and 1786, and the Revolutionary Tribunal (Tribunal criminel extraordinaire) with just five judges was located here from 6 April 1793 to 31 May 1795. While it was in existence the Revolutionary Tribunal decided to guillotine 2,585 people and to acquit 1,306 (including Jean-Paul Marat on 24 April 1793).
Besides Marie-Antoinette and Robespierre and others condemned with whom it is more difficult to feel sympathy were those like Anaxagoras Chaumette, who had campaigned for the abolition of slavery, the journalist Camille Desmoulins who had criticised Robespierre, and Desmoulins’ wife, Lucile, as well as Olympe de Gouges, the author of the 1791 ‘Declaration of the Rights of Women and Women Citizens’ – a feminist answer to the 1789 Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen. She was arrested at the gates to the Palais de Justice on 20 July 1793.
While anarchism may contain extreme individualism, in France it emerged as a bottom-up collective ideology alongside communist thought as a major mutualist strand within early French socialism.
Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) suggested anarchism emerged out of the ‘naturalist philosophy’ of the enlightenment.
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) considered that in putting individual human rights at the legal heart of the social order, the French Revolution itself was the start of doing everything differently. Justice became possible in political, economic and social life within a peaceful transition to an anarchist world he described as ‘Anarchy is Order Without Power’.
Proudhon, who many see as the ‘father’ of anarchism, regarded property as a means of exercising authority. He rejected it, god and government – whether elected or imposed by revolutionaries. He opposed both reformists and utopians.
For Proudhon, only the workers themselves could achieve freedom. And they could only do so through exercising direct control over their daily work.
Proudhon, Perry Anderson (The New Old World) reminds us, also believed in a European confederation of federations – a bottom-up association of mutually supportive workshops.
In the 1850s and 1860s Proudhon’s writings reached a wide audience among the growing numbers of skilled French workers, who often found themselves in workshops alongside their working employer. The French delegates to the First International, founded in London in 1864, were largely Proudhonist, without their belonging to a specific anarchist organisation.
The suppression of the 1871 Paris Commune killed (literally) the Proudhonist collective bottom-up dynamic.
It took the return of the amnestied Communards in 1879 and 1880 for anarchism to re-emerge. But its form was then quite different.
No more flags dyed red with the blood of our soldiers. I will carry the black flag to mourn our dead and all illusions.
In 1884 in a regular meeting place, the Salle de la Réunion, at 8, Rue de Lévis, the anarchist grouplet, the ‘Batignolles Panther‘ (la Panthère des Batignolles) held one/two meetings that ended in street battles with the police and monarchists. This was a period of rising monarchist agitation. Either on 23 November or 7 December 1884, or on both dates, the meetings included speakers such as Louise Michel, Jules Favre, Henri Rochefort and Léon Gambetta.
Propaganda by the deed
Many anarchists reflected their frustration with the conservatism of the strongly liberal and anti-socialist Third Republic by turning to what became called ‘Propaganda by the Deed’.
Breaking with Proudhon’s moderation as well as with Mikhail Bakunin’s (1814-1876) anti-authoritarianism, the new generation of libertarians increasingly considered that a social revolution could only occur if sparked by insurrectional acts.
At the right moment, the ‘spirit of revolt’ inherent in the working masses would spontaneously lead to a revolution.
This ideology justified violence directed against individual capitalists and their supporters on the grounds that capitalism itself was founded on violence. ‘Individual seizures’ of bourgeois goods and possessions were justified as helping to destabilise the bourgeois order.
The ‘propaganda by the deed’ anarchists denounced attempts to create lasting organisations, as well as strikes (reforming the system) and any joint work with the socialists.
Their public presence grew, as their ideas attracted many intellectuals and artists who detested the authoritarianism and conformity of 1880s French society.
Felix Fénéon (1861-1944) and some of his artistic and literary friends like Maximilien Luce started attending anarchist meetings. Anarchism also attracted younger workers angry at continuing massive poverty and inequality.
Anarchist papers were selling 20,000 copies a week in Paris by the mid-1880s. The papers edited by Jean Grave (1854-1939), successively le Révolté, La révolte and Les Temps nouveaux (New Times) and supported by Kropotkin and Élisée Reclus, were the most influential.
On the same day at another demonstration at Clichy in Paris three anarchists were arrested and badly beaten up after the police decided to seize the red flag at the march’s head. Gunfire was exchanged. One anarchist and some police slightly wounded.
Two of the anarchists were jailed by the judges for five and three years.
As an individual act of reprisal for this injustice, the 32-year-old François (Koenigstein) Ravachol then bombed the homes of two judges involved in the Clichy trial. He was caught and guillotined on 11 July 1892.
On November 8 1892, five days after the end of the 10-week Carmaux miners’ strike in the south of France, Émile Henry, the 20-year-old son of a Spanish communard, planted a time-bomb at the Carmaux company’s Paris office. It was found and taken to a police station where it exploded killing five gendarmes.
On 9 December 1893 August Vaillant threw a bomb into the Chamber of Deputies from the public gallery in protest against political corruption. It wounded 20 deputies and Vaillant was guillotined on 3 February 1894.
Nine days after Vaillant’s execution, the 22-year-old Henry carried out a revenge bombing at the Café Terminus at the Paris Gare St Lazare. It killed one man and wounded another 19. Henry was caught at the scene and guillotined on 21 May 1894.
Under new anti-anarchist laws passed in December 1893, 426 anarchists were rounded-up in April 1894 of whom 30, including Fénéon, the anarchist journalists Jean Grave and Émile Pouget (1860-1931), and a burglar, Philippe Léon Ortix, were also put on trial in August 1894 for ‘criminal conspiracy’.
The prosecution aimed to prove that the anarchist anti-capitalists were working closely with known criminals. After Fénéon’s brilliant appearance in the dock, and Bernard Lazare ‘s committed legal defence, only three were finally jailed.
Later in 1894 a few anarchists, including Bernard Lazare and Fénéon, were among the first to denounce the silence on the left in front of the national anti-Semitic lynch mob atmosphere after Captain Dreyfus was arrested for alleged treason on October 29.
Earlier that year Lazare had published Anti-Semitism, its History and Causes, and Lazare became the key figure in exposing the framing of Dreyfus with a pamphlet published in November 1896.
Criticism of the ‘propaganda by the deed’ ideology, the repression targeting anarchist newspapers and individuals, as well as the clear failure of these terrorist acts to stimulate revolution, led many anarchist sympathisers to turn towards trade union and socialist alternatives.
As early as 1893 Michel, Kropotkin and others in the Avant-Garde group of anarchists began to argue against the individualist-isolationism of ‘propaganda by the deed’ and for a return for anarchism to the workers’ movement as a component of socialism.
Their object, inside the trade unions and socialist sects, was to attack the advocates of state socialism through parliament and to argue for extra-parliamentary action, particularly the general strike as a means of achieving emancipation. Entering unions that were only legalized in 1884 and working with the socialists there would end the isolation fueled by the failures of ‘propaganda by the deed’.
It would also dovetail with the understandings of the very small numbers of trade unionists. They rationalised their minority status in relationship to their fellow workers as proving their responsibility was to lead by example. If a minority took direct action on an important issue, then the majority might join in.
‘Direct action’ was thus democratic – it offered workers the possibility of participating in their own liberation – and it did not involve a dependency upon either the state or the employers. Neither party politics nor collective bargaining could be relied on to improve workers’ conditions; workers could only rely on what was gained through direct action.
In September 1895, albeit paradoxically, the founding conference of the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) trade union centre at Limoges voted to ‘stay outside of all political schools’. The paradox is that this apolitical stance was adopted by the majority of delegates made up of Jean Allemane supporters, anarchists and Blanquists in order to scupper the influence of Jules Guesde‘s French Workers’ Party.
‘Revolutionary syndicalist’ trade unionism tended to place a greater emphasis upon the ‘general strike’ for longer-term goals of social transformation and internationalism, and to stress the importance of generalising actions against the employing class as a whole. It took a deep hold on the unskilled worker activists whose uncertain, irregular and very low paid work meant they were effectively excluded from the widespread state-supervised mutual savings societies (mutualités) with the requirement of regular payments before benefits could be accrued.
Revolutionary syndicalists were sometimes politically close to the still sizeable body of anarchists. They often came from smaller firms and trades where the prospects of reactionary paternalist employers ever agreeing to trade union recognition and collective bargaining were highly remote.
They defended direct action, confrontation with the employers, the General Strike and sabotage such as ‘go slows’. In the CGT’s 1906 agitation for the Eight Hour Day, it therefore called neither for legislation on working time nor for negotiations: its aim was to have enough workers take strike action to convince everyone to simply impose the eight hour day on the employers.
The anarchist Émile Pouget (1860-1931), author of Le Sabotage (1898), became Joint-General Secretary of the CGT from 1901 to 1908. In 1906 he helped draft the Amiens Charter that is still a cornerstone of much French trade unionism with the cobbler, Victor Griffuelhes (1874-1922).
It was largely thanks to Griffuelhes’ organizational talents as General Secretary that the CGT grew from around 100,000 members in 1901 to the near 500,000 claimed when he was forced by the 1908 reformist coup to resign.
World War 1
Anarchism, like the whole revolutionary left, took a big hit in 1914. All belief that class interests would trump national interest crashed. Worse still for the anarchists than for the social democrats who wanted to win state power, and had already seen some former socialists move into ministerial positions, Kropotkin and Grave and a handful of other leading anarchists argued that workers should support the Entente alliance against the greater evil of German militarism.
The 1917 Russian Revolution was experienced by the revolutionary syndicalists as an emotional roller-coaster. Revolutionary inspiration turned quickly to the sad confirmation of their greatest fears and predictions about the consequences of a single party state.
Anarchist insistence that workers could and would seize a revolutionary opportunity to overthrow the state was shattered. The defeat of the 1919 German revolution and the arrival of the successful fascist counter-revolution in Italy added to their demoralisation.
The shrinking numbers of anarchists began to see anarchism as first needing to educate the masses and even to organise to ensure this happens.
The ‘anarchist summer’ of 1936 in France and particularly in Spain, with agricultural collectives being formed bottom-up across whole regions, and with revolutionary syndicalists dominant in the trade union refuelled the anarchist belief that they could make history and not just be subjected to it.
Yet by November 1936 the choice between making the revolution and defending the Spanish Republic had to be made: the anarcho-syndicalist CNT trade union confederation decided to enter the Spanish Republican government and was backed by the Iberian Federation of Anarchists (FAI).
After World War Two
In the 1940s and 1950s some French libertarians tried to resuscitate anarchism from its identification with violence by renaming it ‘libertarian socialism’ or ‘libertarian humanism’. Most kept defending the earlier anti-state mantra, and failed to support growing anti-colonial struggles.
The most prominent sympathisers in this period, like the surrealist André Breton (1896-1966) and poet/singer George Brassens (1921-1981), remained individualist rather than collectivist. Brassens was one of the editorial collective behind the revival of Le Libertaire, which resumed production in December 1944 and came out on a weekly basis until 1956, when the fragmenting anarchist movement suspended its production.
A libertarian renaissance started in the early 1960s, inspired partly by the experiments in self-organisation in Tito’s Yugoslavia and in Ben Bella’s (1916-2012) Algeria.
May 1968 saw an explosion of radical libertarianism. Spontaneous and anti-authoritarian it denounced the bureaucratised trade unions and Communist Party.
For a time a black flag was raised over the Odéon Theatre. This was occupied by the students, and became a centre of debate about the future of the movement. My step-mother recalled how the teargas used by police in 1968 to end the occupation wafted up into the flat 50 metres from the theatre that I’m now lucky enough to be able to use to follow the footsteps of the French Parisian left.
May 1968 generated a new mass feminist movement in France. It relaunched the ecology environmental movement. It led to the formation of hundreds of experimental self-governing collectives and a large squatting movement.
Among those radicalised by 1968 were many French anarchists. A journal, Camarades, was launched in 1974. It was influenced both by increasingly the militaristic Italian ‘Autonomous Workers’ organization (of whom many members fled to France in 1979) and by Spanish anti-Franco activists in the Groupes d’action révolutionnaires internationalistes (GARI) who believed it necessary to continue an armed struggle against the state.
In 1976, Jean Bilski, an anarchist acting alone, murdered the chief executive of the giant Credit Lyonnais bank, and then killed himself. In 1977 a group of Maoists belonging to the Armed Units for Mass Self-organisation (Noyaux armés pour l’autonomie populaire) carried out 7 bombings on their own and another series of attacks on nuclear targets with anarchists belonging to GARI.
The first ‘General meeting of Parisian self-organised groups’ (Assemblée générale parisienne des groupes autonomes – AGPGA) is held in October 1977, after the July 31 brutal police attacks on the anti-nuclear demonstration in the ‘Battle of Malville’. Some of those there created a loose ‘internal armed political coordination network’ within the wider group.
A month later on the night of 19 November 1977, 23 coordinated attacks (bombings, Molotov cocktails) on the French electricity company (EDF) and the nuclear industry took place across France.
While most French anarchists considered the time was not ripe for mounting similar attacks and robberies to those associated with the Red Brigades in Italy from 1975 to 1979, a tiny minority clearly did.
Some of them formed Action Directe, borrowing the name from the revolutionary syndicalists. This group’s first action was on May Day 1979. They machine-gunned the headquarter offices of the Patronat (the largest French employers’ organization, then called the Conseil national du patronat français).
The group followed this up with another 80 bombings, bank robberies, acts of sabotage, machine-gunning and assassinations over a nine-year period. In 1987 its four remaining leaders were jailed for life. The last one, Jean-Marc Rouillan, aged 66 was released in May 2018 after spending 28 years in prison, of which ten were in isolation, and then published his account of Ten years of Direct Action.
Most ‘new’ anarchists resumed involvement in the major struggles of the late 20th century – against racism, for equality, against unjust laws, and even for workers’ rights. In the 1970s and 1980s a ‘workers’ control’ movement appeared.
Many are involved in ‘alternative world’ movements, often working closely with radical environmentalists. Eco-anarchists, following Élisee Reclus, generally argue that mankind should stop attempting to dominate nature.
Some are involved in the small revolutionary syndicalist organisations. A small trade union exists called the CNT (Confédération Nationale du Travail) française. Still smaller groups are l’Union des Anarcho-Syndicalistes (UAS), le Syndicat intercorporatif anarchosyndicaliste (SIA) et le Groupement d’Action et de Réflexion AnarchoSyndicaliste (GARAS).
These groups usually stress key libertarian themes such as direct democracy, task rotation, anti-authoritarianism, solidarity and federalism.
The black and red flag of French anarchism is now mainly carried by a few hundred young men at the margins of demonstrations. They are often primarily interested, it would seem, only in confronting the police or in being attacked by them.
Yet the conviction that a radically different way of organizing economic and social relations to contemporary capitalism is both possible and necessary remains alive and kicking. And French anarchism reminds us that this cannot be achieved without also ensuring individual freedom.
Those referenced will include 20th century leftist writers (novelists, poets, song-writers, philosophers such as: Aimé Césaire, Jean-Paul Sartre, Victor Serge, Ernest Hemingway, Andre Breton, Louis Aragon, Guillaume Apollinaire, Georges Brassens, Marc Bloch, Pierre Bourdieu, Louis Althusser, Andre Gorz, Daniel Bensaid, Simone de Beauvoir, Frantz Fanon, Benoite Groult, Andre Malraux as well as many 19th century republicans and socialists such as Victor Hugo, Daniel Stern, George Sand, Flora Tristan, Alphonse de Lamartine, Emile Zola, Guillaume Apollinaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Stephane Mallarme …