Sex, Violence and the Avant-Garde: Anarchism in Interwar France

Article excerpt

Richard D. Sonn, Sex, Violence and the Avant-garde: Anarchism in Internar France University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010, 270pp.; ISBN: 9780271036649

Discourse about the French anarchist movement has too often tended to focus on the last decade of the nineteenth century. It is therefore welcome to see R. D. Sonn in his book go back to the neglected interwar years. This period has generally been understood as akin to a black hole in the history of the movement in France, marked mosdy by numerical decline and unsuccessful attempts at getting back into the spodight now occupied by the two newcomers in the world of mass politics: communism and fascism.

Sonn's goal is to explore 'the social and cultural contexts of French ... anarchism in the Interwar era' (p.5). The main thrust of his argument is that what appeared as a debacle actually corresponded to a shift in focus. The decreasing influence of the more organized elements of the movement, who had focused their energies on syndicalism and now saw themselves sidelined within it, is subtly compensated by increased debate on ethical issues spearheaded by the individualists. Concerns such as human rights, conscientious objection, pacifism and non-violence, sexuality and gender roles, vegetarianism and a healthy body, become central to anarchist reflection and therefore indicate more of an influence of individualist anarchism on the development of the movement than has been heretofore conceded.

To make this point, Sonn divides his book in two parts. The first, 'Anarchist Bodies', deals mostly with the question of Neo-Malthusianism and eugenics. Chapter 4 ('Utopian Bodies: Anarchist Sexual Polities'), and even more chapter 5 ('"Your Body is Yours": Anarchism, Birth Control and Eugenics') are particularly interesting as they explore the sometimes baffling curiosity of the anarchists for the active improvement of the species through means that will eventually come to be associated with the state violence of the Nazi regime. With regard to the fight for birth control and abortion, Sonn evokes the extremely important figures of Jeanne and Eugene Humbert and provides a well- written and thoughtful account of their activism and its long-term influence on French society. Some space is given to one of the most significant figures of the individualist wing, E. Armand, the editor oil'En Dehors, whose focus on the body and sexuality was a major element of those social and cultural experiments of the 1920s that can be said to have sown 'the seeds for [anarchism's] regeneration in the 1960s and after' (p. …