Words of a Rebel
Chapter 8: Revolutionary Minorities
"A LL that you say is very true," our critics often say to us.] "Your ideal of anarchist communism is excellent, and its realization would in fact lead to well-being and peace on earth; but so few want it, and so few understand it, and so few have the devotion that is needed to work for its achievement! You are only a tiny minority, your feeble groups scattered here and there, lost in the middle of an indifferent mass, and you face a terrible enemy, well-organized and in control of armies, of capital, of education. The struggle you have undertaken is beyond your powers." This is the objection we hear constantly from many of our critics and often even from our friends. Let us see what truth there is in it.
That our anarchist groups are only a small minority in comparison with the tens of millions who populate France, Spain, Italy and Germany -nothing could be more true. Groups who represent a new idea have always begun by being no more than a minority. But is that really against us? Just now, it is the opportunists who are the majority: must we then, by chance, become opportunists? Up to 1790 it was the royalists, the constitutionalists, who formed the majority in France; should the republicans, then, have renounced their republican ideas and joined the royalists, when France was making great strides towards the abolition of royalty?
It is not important that numerically we are a minority; that is not the real question. What is important is to know whether the ideas of anarchist communism are in harmony with the evolution which is taking place in human consciousness, especially among peoples of the Latin race. But on this subject it is clear that revolution is not taking the direction of authoritarianism; it is taking the direction of the most complete freedom of the individual, of the producing and consuming group, of the commune, of the collective, of free federation. Evolution is being produced, not in the direction of proprietary individualism, but in the direction of production and consumption arranged in common. In the large cities communism scares no one, of course, so long as it is a question of anarchist communism. In the villages the same inclination prevails, and apart from a few areas of France where special circumstances exist, the peasant is now progressing in many ways towards the common use of the implements of work. That is why, each time we expose our ideas to the great masses, each time we speak to them of the revolution as we understand it in simple and comprehensible terms, giving practical examples, we are always greeted by their applause, in the industrial centres as well as in the villages.
And could it be otherwise? If anarchy and communism had been the product of philosophic speculations, created by savants in the dim lights of their studies, these two principles would have found no echo. They are the statements of those who understand what the workers and peasants are saying when they are released for a day or so from the daily routine and set themselves thinking about a better future. They are statements of the slow evolution that has occurred in people's minds during the course of this century. They project the popular conception of the transformation that must soon begin to carry justice, solidarity and brotherhood into our towns and our countryside. Born of the people, these ideas are acclaimed by the people every time they are exposed to them in a comprehensible manner.
There in fact lies the true power of the ideas of anarchism and communism, and not in the number of active adherents, organized in groups, who are courageous enough to incur the danger of the struggle, the consequences to which one exposes oneself in fighting for the popular revolution. Their number grows from day to day and it continues to grow, but it will only be on the very eve of the uprising that it will become a majority in place of the minority it now is.
History is there to tell us that those who have been a minority on the eve of the revolution, become the predominant force on the day of the revolution, if they truly express popular aspirations and if-the other essential condition-the revolution lasts long enough to allow the revolutionary idea to spread, to germinate and to bear its fruit. For we must not forget that it is not by a revolution lasting a couple of days that we shall come to transform society in the direction posed by anarchist communism. An uprising of short duration can overthrow a government to put another in its place; it can replace a Napoleon by a Jules Favre(18) but it changes nothing in the basic institutions of society.
It is a whole insurrectionary period of three, four, perhaps five years that we must traverse to accomplish our revolution in the property system and in social organization. It took five years of continual insurrection, from 1788 to 1793, to batter down the feudal landholding system and the omnipotence of the crown in France; it would take three or four to batter down bourgeois feudalism and the omnipotence of me plutocracy.
It is above all in that period of excitement, when people's minds work with accelerated vitality, when everyone, in the sumptuous city home as in the darkest cabin, takes an interest in communal things, discusses, talks and seeks to convert others, that the anarchist idea, now being spread slowly by the existing groups, will germinate, bear its fruit and plant itself in the broad mass of human minds. It is then that the indifferent ones of today will become partisans of the new idea. Such has always been the progress of ideas, and the great French Revolution can serve as an example.
Of course, that revolution never went so deeply as the one of which we dream. It did no more than overthrow the aristocracy, to replace it by the bourgeoisie. It did not touch the system of individual property; on the contrary, it strengthened it by introducing bourgeois exploitation. But it achieved an immense result of its own through the final abolition of serfdom, and it abolished that serfdom by force, which is far more effective than the abolition of anything by means of laws. It opened the era of revolutions, which since then have followed at short intervals, drawing nearer and nearer to the true social revolution. It gave the French the revolutionary impulse without which peoples can stagnate for centuries under the most abject oppression. It bequeathed to the world a stream of fertile ideas for the future; it awakened the spirit of revolt; and it gave a revolutionary education to the French people. If in 1871 France created the Commune, if today it willingly accepts the idea of anarchist communism while other nations are still in the authoritarian or cnstitutionalist phase (which France traversed before 1848, or even before 1789), it is because, at the end of the eighteenth century, she passed through four years of great revolution.
Yet remember what a sad picture France offered only a few years before that revolution, and what a feeble minority were those who dreamed of the abolition of royalty and feudalism!
The peasants were plunged in a poverty and an ignorance of which today it is hard even to form an idea. Lost in their villages, without regular communications, not knowing what was happening fifty miles away, these beings yoked to the plough and living in pest-ridden hovels seemed doomed to eternal servitude. Any common action was impossible, and at the least sign of insurrection the soldiers were there to cut down the insurgents and hang the leaders above the village fountain on a gibbet eighteen feet high. At most a few inspired propagandists wandered through the villages, fanning the hatred against the oppressors and reawakening hope among a few individuals who dared to listen. At most a peasant risked himself to ask for bread or a little reduction in taxes. We only have to read through the village records to become aware of this.
As for the bourgeoisie, its leading characteristic was cowardice. A few isolated individuals occasionally took the risk of attacking the government and reawakening the spirit of revolt by some audacious act. But the great mass of the bourgeoisie bowed down shamefully before the king and his court, before the noblemen and even before the nobleman's lackey. Only read the municipal records of the period, and you will be aware of the vile servility that impregnated the words of the bourgeoisie in the years before 1789. Their words ooze with the most ignoble servitude, with all due deference to M. Louis Blanc(19) and other adulators of that prerevolutionary bourgeoisie. A deep despair inspired the few real revolutionaries of the period when they cast an eye around them, and Camille Desmoulins was justified in making his famous remark: "We republicans were hardly a dozen in number before 1789."(20)
But what a transformation three or four years later! As soon as the power of royalty was even slightly eroded by the current of events, the people began to rebel. During the whole year of 1788 there were only half-hearted riots among the peasantry. Like the small and hesitant strikes today, they broke out here and there across France, but gradually they spread, became more broad and bitter, more difficult to suppress.
A year earlier people hardly dared to demand a reduction of taxes (as nowadays one hardly dares demand an increase in wages). A year later, in 1789, the peasants were already going far ahead. A great idea rose to the surface: that of shaking off completely the yoke of the nobleman, of the priest, of the landowning bourgeois. As soon as the peasant saw that the government no longer had the strength to resist a rebellion, he rose l up against his enemies. A few brave men set fire to the first chateaux, while the mass of people, still full of fear, waited until the flames from the conflagration of the great houses rose over the hills towards the clouds to illuminate the fate of those tax farmers who had placidly witnessed the torturing of the precursors of the peasant revolt. This time the soldiers did not come to suppress the insurrections, for they were otherwise occupied, and the revolt spread from village to village, and overnight half of France was on fire.
While the future revolutionaries of the middle class were still falling over themselves before the king, while the great personages of the coming revolution sought to take control of the uprising through bribes and concessions, villages and towns rebelled, long before the gathering of the States General and the speeches of Mirabeau. Hundreds of riots (Taine knew of at least three hundred) broke out in the villages, before the Parisians, armed with their pikes and a few unreliable cannon, stormed the Bastille.
From this point, it became impossible to control the revolution. If it had broken out only in Paris, if it had been just a parliamentary revolution, it would have been drowned in blood, and the hordes of the counter-revolution would have carried the white flag from village to village, from town to town, massacring the peasants and the poor. But fortunately from the beginning the revolution had taken on another shape. It had broken out almost simultaneously in a thousand places; in each village, in each town, in each city of the insurgent provinces, the revolutionary minorities, strong in their audacity and in the unspoken support they recognized in the aspirations of the people, marched to the conquest of the castles, of the town halls and finally of the Bastille, terrorizing the aristocracy and the upper middle class, abolishing privileges. The minority started the revolution and carried the people with it.
It will be just the same with the revolution whose approach we foresee. The idea of anarchist communism, today represented by feeble minorities' but increasingly finding popular expression, will make its way among the mass of the people. Spreading everywhere, the anarchist groups , however slight they may be, will take strength from the support they find among the people, and will raise the red flag of the revolution. And this kind of revolution, breaking out simultaneously in a thousand places, will prevent the establishment of any government that might hinder the unfolding of events, and the revolution will burn on until it has accomplished its mission: the abolition of individual propertyowning and of the State.
On that day, what is now the minority will become the People, the great mass, and that mass rising up against property and the State, will march forward towards anarchist communism.