New Perspectives on Anarchism, Labour and Syndicalism: The Individual, the National and the Transnational

By van der Walt, Lucien | Anarchist Studies, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

New Perspectives on Anarchism, Labour and Syndicalism: The Individual, the National and the Transnational


van der Walt, Lucien, Anarchist Studies


David Berry and Constance Bantman (eds.), New Perspectives on Anarchism, Labour and Syndicalism: the Individual, the National and the Transnational

Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010, 228pp. ISBN 978-1-4438-2393-7

This fine collection draws together studies of anarchism and syndicalism, mainly covering the 1890s to the 1940s in Europe. These underline the important role of anarchism in labour movement history, and, conversely, demonstrate anarchisms and syndicalism's commitment to a libertarian, revolutionary class struggle politics. The individual chapters are remarkably interesting and solidly researched; the editors' introduction is insightful; and the volume is cohesive, as important synergies make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

Berry and Bantman make a case for the importance of global - especially transnational - approaches to labour and left history. They argue for the utility of biography, network analysis, comparative analysis and attention to political languages, in shifting from the 'methodological nationalism' (p.6) that has long shaped these fields. Bert Altenas stimulating survey picks up these analytical issues. He argues against approaches that treat syndicalism as something 'abnormal', a 'Pavlovian reaction' triggered by external structural conditions such as the second industrial revolution, social democratic fadure etc. One problem is that mass syndicalism existed where many of these conditions did not apply (e.g. Spain, 1870s, France, 1890s), and was conversely absent (e.g. Belgium) or only a minority current (e.g. Germany) where they did apply. Second, structuralist arguments fad to examine syndicalism on its own terms, as a revolutionary movement with its own political culture, driven by the ideas and aspirations of workingclass people in particular communities and contexts.

The editors apologise for their 'Eurocentrism', but this is surely unnecessary. The methodological problems of Eurocentrism reside not in a focus on Europe as such, but in a conflation of world history with (West) European history, with other regions ignored or caricatured. This is certainly not the approach of Berry and Bantman, who are keenly aware that European anarchism/syndicalism was but part of a ghbal movement. Levy's fine discussion of anarchist 'global labour organiser' Errico Malatesta's role in anticolonial risings in Bosnia and Egypt, and in activism and networks in Norrh Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean and Latin America, makes this clear. Besides, this important collection also breaks with the literature's traditional focus on the North Adantic seaboard and Spain, wherein the Spanish movement is presented as a mysterious, unique case of mass anarchist influence.1

Most chapters are framed transnationally, and examine how movements operated across state borders and within borderlands, as ideas and debates, activists and struggle repertoires flowed across the European space.

At one level, this transnational constitution of the anarchist/syndicalist movement centred upon what Bantman caUs the 'informal internationalism' of cross-border networks, periodicals and migrants. Bantman's fascinating chapter shows, for example, that many key themes in the archetypal syndicalist CGT of France were 'ideological imports'^»/» Britain, where anarchism was itself deeply influenced by exdes like Pyotr Kropotin and Malatesta. As Davide Turcato and Wayne Thorpe note in their rich contributions, London ('headquarters of continental anarchism') and Paris ('Mecca of syndicalism') were key hubs in these European networks (pp.20, 1 12). Widiin these spaces, Yann Béliard shows in his wonderful study of the worker Gustav Schmidt/Gus Smith - a German immigrant active in British circles - that there were also elements of intermingling, with anarchism and social democracy co-existing, overlapping, even fusing.

At another level, anarchist internationalism also mchiaeà formal cross-border organising. …

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