“No Gods, No Masters: A History of Anarchism”

The World We Live In

Amos Lassen

I doubt that many of us are aware of how much of a role anarchists have played in social movements and events such as The Russian Revolution, The Spanish Republic, The Paris Commune, The Ukrainian revolution and The Mexican Revolution. From the late 19th century until World War II, anarchists have helped to shape the world we live in. This is what director Tancrède Ramonet shows us in his new film series.

Anarchist’s contributions have been largely forgotten. Probably because anarchists were considered to be so dangerous that forces of the state killed them by the thousands and they were betrayed, arrested, and killed by their own erstwhile revolutionary allies.

The word “anarchy” has come to be a synonym for chaos and destruction and we see anarchists as “black-clad nihilists fomenting violence at peaceful protests.” However, in “No Gods, No Masters” we get a more complex history of a viable social system and the men and women who devoted themselves to making it a reality.

This film is a sympathetic history of a century of anarchist thought and practice and features leading historians and essayists, dramatic archival footage, and commentary. It is divided into sections each based on key events and we get a comprehensive and accessible introduction to the global anarchist movement that was once a mass force that sought not to seize political power, but to destroy it completely.

Part 1: The Passion for Destruction (1840–1906)

Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin, the father of Russian nihilism. (Photo by Nadar/Getty Images)

This episode shows how anarchism emerged from the terrible social conditions that workers faced at a time when industrialization provided better hygiene and social standards for some. It was a tome when the life expectancy of workers was 30 years and these were those in misery. Therefore it is no surprise that new approaches would arise. 

We trace the history of early anarchist thought from Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who declared that property is theft, to Mikhail Bakunin, who advocated violent revolution to destroy the state completely. Both the theoretical and practical origins of the movement are examined here.

Anarchists played an important part in the revolutionary Paris Commune of 1871, which was crushed with an unprecedented brutality that caused the deaths 20,000 people. This was the kind of response anarchists would soon face whenever they succeeded in divesting power from authority.

Anarchists issued a formal declaration of principals following their first international, held in St-Imier, Switzerland, in 1872, in which they advocated free speech, free thought, equality for all, atheism, internationalism, and an end to political parties.

We follow the expansion of the anarchist movement from Europe to America, where it grew and was fueled by disillusioned immigrants. Anarchists spread their influence through general strikes and collective action within the trade union movement, which was concerned with much more far-reaching change than working conditions. The film gives an in-depth look at the Haymarket Affair, which saw four anarchists wrongfully hanged for a bomb that went off during a demonstration against police violence. This influenced anarchist activists such as Emma Goldman.

But even as anarchist-influenced revolts spread, the movement faced a sharp division between those advocating “propaganda of the deed” (bombings and other violent acts that would serve as a catalyst for revolution) and those who were in favor of the more incremental gains of syndicalism.

Part 2: Land and Freedom (1907–1921)

The early 20th century, anarchists in France were powerful enough to draw the French president to an event. In England, they were considered so dangerous that when they occupied a London building, it took the full force of heavy artillery and 800 police officers to get them out.

Here we see the differing strains within the anarchist movement during the height of its popularity (when it seemed that an anarchist revolution might take place). This was an tie of social ferment and experimentation (including “communal living, nudism and gender equality; educational reform designed to usher in the development of “the new man”; the resurgence of propaganda of the deed in the guise of violent robberies and shootouts with police; and the participation of anarchists in revolutions from Mexico to Russia”).

Anarchism began to fade in Europe during the years leading up to World War I, but the 1910 Mexican Revolution reignited the struggle and drew the support of anarchists and anti-authoritarians including the thinkers and activists Peter Kropotkin, Emma Goldman, and Joe Hill of the International Workers of the World. Despite the early gains of the Zapatistas, they were betrayed and slaughtered by their allies. Anarchists who participated in the 1917 Russian Revolution had the same fate. After having their support in toppling the government, the communists suppressed them. While it seemed that the dream of an anarchist revolution was within grasp, World War I would put an end to popular revolt. A movement that had once seemed to be ready to take over the world was now severely weakened.

Part 3: In Memory of the Vanquished (1922–1945)

This episode begins with the United States during the Depression, and the galvanizing role of the conviction and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. This was a period during which anarchists were seen as bomb-throwers, drunkards, and Bolsheviks. America saw trade unionism and any fight for workers’ rights as an existential threat and anarchists could not be tolerated. The government and police sometimes teamed up with organized crime to fight them.

Anarchists, including the strain of thought to which Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti belonged, was responsible for a series of bombings in the US. To protest their arrest, the world’s first car bomb exploded on Wall Street and killed 38 people. Communists saw the pair as martyrs, and fought for their release in a calculated attempt to win over anarchist sympathizers.

We see the appropriation of anarchism by communists, and of anarchist symbolism by fascists in France, Italy, and Spain. The Spanish Revolution of 1936, was heavily anarchist in Catalonia. Remarkable newsreel footage from Barcelona shows life in a city run largely on anarchist principles, with collectively run arts organizations and companies, and without bureaucracies and bosses. But this did not last and anarchists entered the republican government in order to face Franco’s fascists. The anarchist militias were absorbed into the republican troops. The defeat of the Spanish Republic, anarchists were squeezed between Stalinists, fascists, and capitalists, and were soon in disarray and the movement seemed doomed.

The three episodes give us an in-depth historical perspective on the anarchist movement and also makes implicit links to the present. Anarchism arose in a period of inequality and social unrest. Despite the diversity of thought among anarchists, the popular perception has remained remarkably static from opponents on both left and right and they are seen as violent nihilists. This film tries to rectify that view, and raises the question of whether anarchist thought could perhaps appeal to a new generation of activists as well.

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