The origins of anarchist ideas in the late 19th century

These historical examples share several themes. First, anarchist movements and the people involved in them were deeply connected to work, trades, factories, workplaces, industrial capital and the communities formed by industrial forces. Anarchists and those inspired by anarchist ideas frequently took up a number of roles in industry and trade, including as managers, which was the case here with Martinez, Roig,Vasai and Khankhoje. Anarchism had direct organizational implications that greatly shaped the available goals and methods (which in anarchist and other circles are often referred to as ends and means) of anarchist struggle. They tended to be critical of authority structures reliant on hierarchical power, which was generally perceived as authoritarian. They also were critical of free markets and suspicious of the state. Instead, anarchists generally encouraged a focus on creating genuine agreement among workers on how to achieve their shared goals. These goals in turn involved a focus on collective groups and their needs and interests.

These anarchists had a particular way of looking at organizations, asking not just what these organizations should accomplish but also how they should go about it. This was an attention to the ends or goals of organization as well as the means or methods used within them. It meant that anarchist managers were critically aware of hierarchy and its dangers and sensitive to accusations of authoritarian decision making. At the same time, their organizations sought worker rights and directly challenged capitalist power (such as that of factory owners and allied government officials).The Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta explained that

to become a convinced anarchist, and not in name only, he must begin to feel the solidarity that joins him to his comrades, and to learn to cooperate with others in the defence of common interests and that, by struggling against the bosses and against the government which supports them, should realise that bosses and governments are useless parasites and that the workers could manage the domestic economy by their own efforts.

(Malatesta, 1897/2015, p. 82)

The close connection to work, and the attention to both means and ends, translated into a particular emphasis in thinking about organizing. It mattered how work was divided and brought together. The division of labour was a political act and had to be discussed in political terms. Efficiency was not a matter to be taken for granted, nor seen as outside the responsibility of the worker. Rather, the basic questions confronted by capitalist managers, when organizing the work in order to increase the market value generated by labour power, were questions to be taken up by all of those within the organization. If it mattered how work was divided and brought together, it also mattered what the work sought to achieve. Martinez, Roig, Vasai and Khankhoje were deeply committed to the output of the work they did and supervised, whether cigars, sugar, construction or hybrid corn. But for them such output was not sufficiently understood solely in terms of market value. After all, who ultimately benefits from market value? Not the workers. The output was instead important as an opportunity for self-organizing, for prefigurative politics.


"Préfiguration has been an important concept in the anarchist tradition since the late 19th century. However, the term itself was coined in the 1970s as a way of pointing to the importance of using organizational means or strategies that do not contradict the ends or purposes of an organization. Préfiguration has its roots in radical left and anarchist social movement practices. A distinctive quality of préfiguration is that it aims to achieve radical social and political change through an alternative approach to organization in the present. This distinguishes it from many other left-wing approaches that want to capture state power and promise a top-down social change at some point in the future". Management studies teaches us that organizations should separate actions and their consequences through formal hierarchies that hold some responsible for daily routines, practices and procedures and others responsible for matching such actions to expected and desired goals. The essence of préfiguration or prefigurative organizing is removal of a temporal distinction between what is being done right now and the desired outcome of this activity. There should be no distinction between what we want to achieve (ends) and how we plan to achieve it (means). The means we use should reflect the values we want to see solidified in the ends we are striving for. To put it simply, it is not OK to do something nasty right now in the name of some bright future to come. These principles underlying prefigurative organizing allow us, on the one hand, to understand how to facilitate progressive and liberatory forms of organizing and, on the other, to identify who we want to engage or ally with. In contemporary social movements and radical politics, préfiguration is often linked to ideas such as direct action or DIY - 'do it yourself' (or DIT, 'do it together').

Reflecting on how we should act in the first place has multiple consequences. First of all, it offers an opportunity for practical critique. Social life offers a variety of organizational encounters, from post offices and grocery stores, restaurants and online purchases, to the manner in which we earn a living and work with one another. Who shapes these encounters and towards what ends? Who decides these goals and how to go about meeting them? Second, it helps us recognize that politics and organization are intimately connected.The more we reflect on the way work is divided and responsibilities allotted, the more sensitive we become to the unequal distribution of rights and rewards in such work and its accomplishment. Finally, it helps us rehearse alternative possibilities. A willingness to reflect on goals and ways of meeting these goals also means an openness to test other ways of meeting such goals and generate conversations and forms of inclusion that enable shared learning, reducing the inequalities endemic to workplaces. Ultimately “such organizing is ‘prefigurative’, in the sense that it attempts to bring new forms of social relationships into being” (Parker et al., 2014, pp. 627-628), in a recognition that anarchism is “always immanent in existing social arrangements bubbling under the surface and waiting to re-emerge under the right conditions” (Reedy, 2014, p. 646).

These anarchist managers were prefigurative in the sense that they wanted to demonstrate the necessity and the benefits of workers taking up managerial roles on behalf of workers (as opposed to the capitalist). Such opportunities generated solidarity which in turn translated into credible benefits to the communities within which the workers lived, such as of health and schooling. Since the division of labour and the arrangement of the business (that is to say, hierarchy, work culture and leadership) were not neutral tasks because they conferred power and profits to capitalist owners, workers had to assert their own interests and ensure the terms of work were in their favour. Finally, it mattered how those doing the work were treated. Emphasized in these organizational efforts was a question of dignity, how those who did the work felt as they worked, reducing the gap between their aspirations and their treatment in their workplaces. Anarchist leaders were concerned with their workers’ communities and their health, education and capacity to exercise political leadership and pressured capitalist owners for benefits to ensure some protection for these communities. Anarchists, as managers, were intensely practical. Organizations, and the work done in them, were assessed in terms of the goals sought and whom those goals served: whether they filled stomachs and kept communities together.

Second, because activists were intensely concerned with ideas and putting these ideas into practice, much of their activity involved translating and reading anarchist texts, discussing their key concepts and demonstrating their importance for actual organization.There was an acute practicality about all this, for achieving work results as well as political ones. Work goals spilled over into the social world surrounding the factory. Anarchist worker/managers were concerned about not only work conditions but the consequences of such work in terms of its effects on religious and national identity (see box in Chapter 4). Work was also about people, personalities, emotions, customs and conventions. Organizational activities were not locked into an instrumental relation between tasks, techniques, goals and their supervision; nor was work bounded by an organization that was distinct and separate from the social world. The cigar workers organized by Roig in Florida would also welcome José Marti, noted poet, journalist and Cuban patriot, and encourage his triumphal (though fatal) return to Cuba to fight for the island’s independence from the Spanish empire (Daniel, 2015). Work was also about customs and social conventions, including of religion and religious identity. Khankhoje and Vasai frequently negotiated with sectarian views in creating a shared set of work interests. Reading groups in Alexandria translated anarchist texts into Arabic, and they were discussed and debated in periodicals that saw no contradiction between these ideas and prevailing religious norms (Khuri-Makdisi, 2010). Ultimately, of course, work was about people and their emotions. The intense debates common to anarchist circles of the 19th century were personal, shaped by the charismatic individuals involved in them.

Finally, anarchist movements were connected to global networks as well as local associations. Activists were therefore concerned with a variety of overlapping social issues that cohered around work conditions but were also part of global radical currents concerned with anti-colonial resistance, gender equality and sexual critique, with ties that crossed boundaries of race and nation, creating radicalized communities of belief and friendship (see Michel this chapter and Gandhi, 2006). These shared themes meant that questions of management were raised in a particular way. Anarchist activism was intensely organizational, with an acute focus on the interplay between evaluating the means at their disposal and identifying the desirable ends to be achieved through acceptable means.

LOUISE MICHEL, 1830-1905

Louise Michel is perhaps the best known of the anarchists who took part in the Paris Commune from 1870 to 71. The Paris Commune refers to a period where following France's defeat by Prussia (a once dominant state in Europethat eventually unified with other states to form what we now know as Germany) in the Franco-Prussian War, the people of Paris took over control of the city and ran it themselves, defending it from attack by the French army. Michel was involved in arranging public services and in organizing the women who fought to defend Paris. The Paris Commune was ultimately defeated, and the French government took back control of the city, executing tens of thousands of Communards (the people who took part in the Commune). Michel was captured and exiled to New Caledonia. Central to Michel's anarchism was a belief in the ability of education to provide people with knowledge and to develop a virtuous character. While dominant ideas at the time saw Europeans as the most civilized and cultured people in the world, Michel argued that the ideals of European colonialism were more akin to barbarism and that a truly civilized education involved learning from folk history as much as from science. Through her experiences of being ridiculed when she tried to publish work on science, Michel saw a connection between how education could be misused to dominate people and how women were oppressed.

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