'We' Is for Anarchism: Construction and Use of Collective Identity in the Anarchist Press of Fin-De-Siècle Switzerland1

By Kühnis, Nino | Theory in Action, October 2012 | Go to article overview

'We' Is for Anarchism: Construction and Use of Collective Identity in the Anarchist Press of Fin-De-Siècle Switzerland1


Kühnis, Nino, Theory in Action


CONTEXT

Looking at the history of organized anarchism and of anarchist theorists, many a connection with Switzerland is revealed. The anti-authoritarian International Worker's Association (I.W.A.) was inaugurated 1872 in St. Inner and I.W.A. congresses took place in Geneva and Basel. Renowned theorists such as Michail Bakunin, Elisée Reclus, Peter Kropotkin, Errico Malatesta, Paul Brousse or John Most stayed and campaigned for a number of years from within the small republic in central Europe. While anarchism proved to have an affinity for Switzerland due to its relatively high tolerance of anarchist newspapers, congresses, schools and gatherings at the end of the 19th century, the love was not exactly returned, to put it mildly. Swiss press with bourgeois, conservative and/or social-democratic agendas denoted anarchism repeatedly as a plague and its adherents as pests, vermin, traitors or psychopaths.2

The public opinion has been echoed and met by statist practices. From the 1 840s onward, both the official and public discourses remained, by and large, hostile towards anarchism and anarchists alike.3 While anarchist manifestations turned into brawls with the general public4 from time to time, officials supported and nurtured the hostile public opinion with a variety of means, ranging from expulsions5 to the introduction of Anarchist Acts6 through to the sharpening of the so-called "guillotine sèche" (dry guillotine) by passing on sensitive data from the political police to employers.7 Nonetheless, Switzerland "remained (...) one of the most important European locations for anarchists in exile."8

Newspapers at the time were a busy industry in Switzerland. As late as 1939, there are notions of Switzerland being the country with the highest number of published titles among all countries9 Whereas in 2007 merely 20510 titles were on sale, in 1896 there were 33811 titles available. Anarchist newspapers did not make an exception to that rule and added to that wide variety. In the three decades between the beginning of the official persecution of anarchists and anarchism in early 1885 and until the First World War, no less than 23 titles in French and German have been published, as could have been revealed: Freie Gesellschaft, Junge Schweiz, Der Weckruf, Revolutionäre Bibliothek, Der Vorposten, Polis, Die Vorkämpferin, Der Sozialist, Arbeiter-Wille, Jahrbuch der Freien Generation, Le Révolté, L'Egalitaire, La Critique Sociale, L'Avenir, Le Réveil, L'Emancipation, Action Anarchiste, La Voix du Peuple, L'Almanach du Travailleur, L'Union Syndicale, Le Boycotteur, L'Exploitée, Bulletin de l'Ecole Ferrer}2 However, anarchist media was, much like anarchists themselves, not exactly welcomed, but rather tolerated at best. Constant repression and persecution especially for foreign, asylum-seeking anarchists was aimed not so much at singular persons but at the social movement as a whole. These de facto antianarchist practices weren't a Swiss phenomenon alone, but reflected a predominant opinion in Belle Epoque Atlantica. From 1884-1894 national legislations were introduced from France to Italy, from Germany to Austria throughout Europe. In a more international gesture, the antianarchist sentiments culminated in the Conferences Against Anarchism in Rome 1898 and St. Peterburg 1904.13

WHY COLLECTIVE IDENTITY?

Despite these headwinds that affected everyday life as much as travel and work, the anarchist movement persisted. As I argue, collective identity played an integral part in the prolonging. The reason for this assumption lies in the character of anarchism as a social movement. Unlike other social movements, anarchism did not try to ameliorate the status quo through reforms on principle. Political participation and the social, professional and wealth status and benefits that come with it, were diametrically opposed to the anarchist Weltanschauung. On the contrary, anarchism demanded all the more for the abolition of paid administrative offices in order to establish a federative, non-hierarchical society based on mutual aid and solidarity. …

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