Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

"The Word Makes the Man": A Catalan Anarchist Autodidact in the Australian Bush

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

"The Word Makes the Man": A Catalan Anarchist Autodidact in the Australian Bush

Article excerpt

In the history of the anarchist movement the autodidact has been an important figure in the transmission of ideas. Armed with knowledge acquired through their own efforts these militants carried out the struggle against the church, the capitalists and the state in, what Rod Kedward felicitously calls, "the public arena of everyday life".(1) In Spain from the 1870s "apostles of the idea" travelled from place to place spreading the word of an imminent anarchist dawn. In their wake small circles sprang up where rapt audiences listened to companeros reading aloud the anarchist classics or expounding on popular science from the chapbooks and pamphlets that could be bought for a few pesetas.(2)

Salvador Torrents, a Catalan immigrant to Australia, was squarely within the tradition of the anarchist autodidact.(3) From his first days in 1906 as an enthusiastic student in a workers' adult school in Spain until his death in Queensland in 1951, self-education was his absorbing passion. A dedicated reading of the libertarian classics, buttressed by an enthusiastic immersion in popular science, gave Torrents the self confidence with which to criticise "the tyranny and corruption" of the era in which he lived. In its place he offered the vision of "Acracia", an ideal order in which individuals could exercise their liberty without the interventions of church or state. Torrents propounded his views in a large correspondence with comrades around the world from 1915 to 1951 and in his novellas and commentaries that appeared periodically over those years in anarchist newspapers in Europe and America.

Torrents's career repays close study on several accounts. The integrity of his political commitment is a testimony to the dedication of the anarchist militant in the first half of this century and, probably as well, to the durability of the philosophy which sustained him through his difficult early years in Spain and those later living in the Australian bush. The interplay between Torrents's life and his ideas elaborates the complexity of cultural contact between an old and a new country and the process by which culture is transported and maintained. Similarly, the specifics of individual experiences enrich an understanding of the European Left in the first part of this century and the diversity of the political tradition that were encompassed in the fragments of it which left wing European immigrants brought to Australia.

Except for the brief years of the Spanish civil war, Torrents stood outside the organised Australian labour movement. A lack of English was an insurmountable barrier to participation. As well, his years as an unskilled labourer in Spain had laid down a deep distrust of trade union officials and a contempt for the machinations of political parties. Like many young men of his class and region, anarchism provided the bedrock of his political belief. Formed in Spain, these ideas were reinforced in Australia by his perception of his treatment as a "dago" in the turbulent politics of Queensland in the 1920s and 1930s.

More than twenty years ago, Marie de Lepervanche pointed out that the natural teleology of labour analysis leads historians to seek inter-class relations and to document the conflict of the opposing class interests of workers and employers. As she rightly emphasises, however, these class interests themselves often produce "divisions within each class".(4) Immigration, in particular, in Australia has functioned as a source of a double-edged conflict between workers and employers and between locals and immigrants in all strata.

Within this intra-class conflict the most marginalised groups are found at the bottom of the working class, whether they are unskilled women, indigenous Australians or non-English speaking immigrants. Even though in the last decades there has been a decentring of labour history to encompass an awareness of marginalised groups, it is still rare to find narratives that are written from their own point of view. …

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