For the Love of God

a continuation of “Golem in the Catacombs”

When living beings are separated from their own expressions, gestures, tools, and traditions, they are reduced to golem, mere bodies, and every influence that these things, once a part of their being and now expropriated by the category of “apparatus”, exercise over them is now read as a form of corruption or control. This postmodern trope of the fragility of liberty—all influence is coercion; therefore liberty is a utopian concept—derives from the unconscious assumption that every factor external to a golem has in fact been designed to mold it and guide it through the apparatuses where its miserable life plays out.

The defeated communards of 1871 who had taken refuge in the Paris catacombs suffered a particularly gruesome fate. The victorious Versailles troops, who had received tacit support—in a stirring example of elite internationalism—from Bismarck’s Prussians, dynamited the catacomb tunnels where the refugees huddled, killing thousands. We can only wonder how many survived the initial blast, the earth itself falling in on their heads (the World Turned Upside Down falling back into place?), and wandered the catacombs, emptied of their utopia, in search of some subsistence.

Later, the Sacré Cœur was built on the butte of Montmarte, the proletarian neighborhood where the insurrection began and where one of the key battles took place in the suppression of the Commune. The extravagant penance, now a major tourist attraction, prevents us from returning to the site of our loss. Long before the science of urban architecture as social control, the Church knew construction as an act of war designed to finish off a defeated enemy, for le Sacre Couer was one of the last of a long lineage. The famous monastery at Mont-Saint-Michel was built atop the most important gathering place of the Gallic druids; unwitting lines of tourists pay it homage today with cameras in hand. Throughout South America, the oldest churches are to be found atop the waka of the Aymara or the sacred sites of other colonized peoples.

In literature, another kind of Church was built atop an earlier revolutionary defeat. Victor Hugo’s monumental Les Miserables is set against the June Rebellion of 1832 (though it must also be read as a fruit of Hugo’s troubled relationship with the revolution of 1848). And although Hugo, a leftist, is sympathetic with the revolutionaries, his is above all a tale of redemption. Marius and Cosette may marry and find happiness and security (in the tale’s ethical grammar the latter is implicitly proferred as a precondition for the former) with Marius’s upper-class family (and, in the original novel, Jean Valjean’s factory money), their youthful flirtation with insurrection overlooked. A questioned God smiles on them, revealing in the end His undoubtable munificence, with the Happy Ending serving as proof of transformative forgiveness. In an earlier age, kings and tsars had to exercise general pardons—the Jubilee—to appear godlike. This new God need only save one soul—like the lottery winner or the pop star that rises alone out of crowds of miserable millions—to redeem Himself for the spectating masses.

Les Miserables‘ long run tells a sort of story about the rise and fall of modernity. The original novel sets the archetypes into play. Love conquers all and heroes find happy endings. Hugo, after all, needed to tack into a new wind after the massacres of ’48. He was part of a generation of writers who flirted with revolutionary ideas, only to abandon them when they were put into practice and used as weapons against the old order by “the wretched of the earth”. A republican who tended towards pacifism, Hugo spoke out vehemently for the cause of equality and fraternity and even consorted with anarchists, yet he also helped to suppress the 1848 insurrection in Paris. Later, old Victor was not as active as many of his colleagues who would lend their pens to justify the repression of proles and pétroleuses after the Paris Commune. He nonetheless found the utility in a tactful separation between art and life, and class-climbing lovers would provide the perfect protagonists for the modern storyline.

Les Miserables the musical struck the perfect note for a new generation of sell-out artists and failed revolutionaries, remassified and forced to consume their own defeat. The most poignant song in Schönberg and Boublil’s musical, opening in Paris and London before becoming a Broadway hit, is “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” In the lines,

Here they talked of revolution.
Here it was they lit the flame.
Here they sang about tomorrow
And tomorrow never came.

[…]
Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me
What your sacrifice was for
Empty chairs at empty tables
Where my friends will sing no more

one can almost imagine a recent university graduate, newly thrust into the real world, surveying in his mind the halls in the Sorbonne where the students debated, or the meeting room in Chicago where SDS had their 1969 congress that would launch the Maoist faction as an armed vanguard, back before the hammer fell.

It is the song of one who has participated in something transcendental, something real for the first time in his life, only to lose it because the community it was born in has been swept away, the other communards either shot down (as in 1832) or robbed by the Spectacle and the prisons (as were the Weathermen and their less mediatic contemporaries). The singer knows not how to find his way back and, enslaved again by a cruel purgatory, can only blame the foolishness of his braver comrades for having tried to storm heaven.

Finally, the Hollywood remake with Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman proving—at times painfully—that today’s actors can still sing and dance, closes the cycle. Passing through the crass cultural cannibalism of the last years, with which every narrative that ever enjoyed an ounce of success is retailored for the silver screen in a desperate bid to continue producing without creating anything original, Les Miserables‘ love story—at a time when the romantic narrative must arm itself with witty cynicism or worldly nuance to rise above its festering limitations, comes off as antiquatedly trite. It must hide behind a grandiose production and the outsider antics of Sascha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter because it is simply too weak to carry the plot, though in the original musical it is clearly identified as the principal narrative thread, all of Hugo’s other subplots and digressions abandoned without hesitation.

The excitement of the insurrection is far more moving than the romance, and here we find another important theme. Of necessity the Spectacle presents us with increasingly numerous renditions of revolution, from Fight Club to Robin Hood. To serve as operations of recuperation, some of these revolutions defeat themselves through extremism, providing a cautionary moral tale against putting ideals into practice. Others attack one aspect of power, say the banks, while reinforcing another, like patriarchy, and others still succeed by piercing the conspiracy, revealing the truth, and allowing the peaceful masses or the good institutions to make everything right, leaving the actual transformation to play out off camera. How is the rebellion of 1832 recuperated?

This question is difficult to answer, just as today’s spectators might have a hard time placing the story’s defeated revolution in the genealogy of their current liberty. William Wallace fights against an evil king—the bad kind of authority—and the voiceover in the final scenes assures us that the Scots eventually won their freedom, a fact that their recent opportunity to vote on independence can only confirm. In one of Mel Gibson’s many remakes of Braveheart, Patriot—the one set during the American Revolution—the relation between the heroic struggle portrayed and the audience’s consequent lack of need to struggle is even more obvious. But what about an attempted political revolution in 19th century constitutional France? On the one hand, the dissidents’ decision to take up arms is an admirable flaw, when they really all should have just married well and joined high society. On the other hand, their rebellion is presented as an idealistic spirit—most purely embodied by Gavroche, the fearless child—that we are meant to believe eventually triumphed, though it can be carried on just as easily by the final scene’s marching masses as by armed insurgents.

What makes up for the story’s ambiguity with regards to revolution is the parallel plot of redemption. The State is redeemed in Javert’s mercy, the Church is redeemed in Bishop Myriel, and the bourgeoisie are redeemed as the guarantors of Marius and Cosette’s eventual happiness (suggesting a curious window on the American Founding Fathers’ replacement of Locke’s “property” with “the pursuit of happiness”).

Do you hear the people sing
Lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people
Who are climbing to the light.

For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end
And the sun will rise.

They will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord.
They will walk behind the plough-share,
They will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken
And all men will have their reward.

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
When tomorrow comes!

The Christian moral—wait, pray, and all will be well—comes through in the final song. And the presence of that moral in the three generations of the telling, at the adolescence, decadence, and twilight of modernity, suggests a continuity that is both obvious and inadmissable.

I don’t know how the tale was received by its original audience, but by the third telling, the love that holds up the contradictions in the narrative structure of Les Miserables is not the cupidic escapism of its young paramours, but the love of God that provides transcendental weight to the promise of redemption, overwhelming the failed, forgotten revolution’s promises of transcendence.

We can argue, and with good reason, that during the Enlightenment science replaced Christianity as the religion of the State. We should not, however, forget Christianity’s paradoxical persistence. It is a key force in nationalist movements from Ukraine to Venezuela, and an important tool for turning exploited populations against revolution, winning obedience to state authorities, extending capitalist property relations around the world. In South America and Africa in particular, Christian missionaries serve in many ways as advance scouts for logging and mining companies. And Christianity’s close cousin, Islam, is effectively building states throughout Africa and Asia in places where European colonialism failed to do so.

Anarchists in this century do not talk as much about religion as an animating force for the apparatuses of control, and if we do, we tend to understand it as a force in the lives of people who have not progressed as far in their civilizational development, whether the backwater under the microscope is South Carolina or Kenya.

We might speak of two distinct figures that represent the exploited during the Christian and then the scientific phases of capitalist accumulation; the zombie who is enchanted and set to work and the golem who is constructed by its master, made of broken material, simple dust. Christianity simply robs the soul to create workers, counfounding its slaves or holding them captive to metaphysical blackmail, while scientific power gives the masters an architectural control over the environment and reproduction of their subjects, not merely enslaving them but creating them out of whole cloth.

But this progression of distinct phases owes too much to the fundamental eschatology that Christianity and Western science share. In practice, the two modalities of power operate simultaneously. In a platonic world where body and spirit have been alienated, in a Christian world where the body has been shamed and the spirit captivated, in a capitalist world where the body has been enslaved and the spirit has been banished, and in a scientific world where the body has been mechanized and the spirit disproven, the apparatuses of control lack an animus.

They (by which I suppose I mean the conduits of apparatuses that exist to evaluate other apparatuses) can measure the power that flows between the conduits and captives of a given apparatus, binding and differentiating them. But they are also aware of the limits of a captive’s identification with their apparatus, a certain melancholy among conduits that acts like friction, decreasing their conductivity and even halting production. And they have seen cases of a grim nihilism that arises from time to time, causing captives to act like barbarians and handle their apparatus with brute violence and against its design, or one that spreads more invisibly to conduit and captive alike, causing them to blur and desert their roles.

Even in a well designed apparatus, the flow of power is not enough to motivate the conduits or bind the captives to their role. The threat of punishment is also a necessary element, but too honest to be left in the open for long without delivering diminishing returns and augmenting risks. The people need to be animated through an affective allegiance with an entity that cannot disappoint them by changing the terms of the contract, as any institution of power will eventually do when it capitalizes on whatever trust has been deposited in it. That entity is their own longing, the first glimpse of transcendence, the very substance the State has always worked to control or destroy.

If in its first millennium the Church aimed to keep the spirit out of the commoners’ grasp, effectively creating a less spiritual world by enclosing it in Latin scripture and in the Holy See and stamping out one of the most frequent heresies—that the Holy Ghost spoke to everyone who listened—now it is one of several institutions whose purpose is to divert the miserable and the wretched from a nihilistic confrontation with a dead, scientific society by dangling in front of them a new spirituality, controlled as the old one was but not so tightly, for the new permissible spirit is accessible, on sale, and adaptable to consumer demand.

While traveling recently in South America, I got to see this aggressive marketing firsthand. The evangelists are at the forefront, but is it overly paranoid to assume that one pope was recalled and another was elected to jumpstart a new Catholic evangelism in South America? From one country to the next, billboards announced mega-revivals by visiting evangelists from the US, each eager to expand their fief. And the growth of evangelism goes hand in hand with popular support for snitching, mining, policing, the eradication of indigenous cultures, and development in general. I also came face to face with a revived Christianity’s effectiveness at dealing with potentially destabilizing mental illness and subversive cynicism, when I got to know two truck drivers. The first was batshit crazy, and the second was a jaded ex-revolutionary who had been imprisoned during the dictatorship and evidently was not impressed by what the socialists had accomplished in power (a disenchantment that for some people leads to radicalization, but that has driven entire, forgotten generations into the arms of God).

The first driver told about a girl in Brazil who was dead for a week and then got resuscitated. While dead, St. Peter took her to visit heaven and hell so she could tell everyone about it. In hell she came across the Pope, hung upside down for being a Catholic, and Celia Cruz for her lascivious lyrics. She also spied Michael Jackson.

“For molesting children?” I asked.

“For dancing backwards, contrary to the spirit of God,” the driver told me with a straight face. He went on to explain that the King of Pop was surrounded by moonwalking demons, tormenting him to eternity for his linear perverseness.

Like I said, batshit crazy, the kind of person who would undermine any rational discourse of social control, if the Church hadn’t given them a ready made set of fantasies and bugaboos to fixate on.

I thought I would like the second truck driver more, because I learned off the bat that he had been a political prisoner. During the first hours of our shared drive, we spoke about the dictatorship, the current government, and the struggle by indigenous people in the region. Then the sun set, he turned off the radio, looked over at me, and asked if I believed in God. The following hours were Hell, as he aggressively tried to convince me that people were evil, and that quinoa was God’s way of letting the natives know about Jesus, since the Bible didn’t arrive until much later.

When he stopped to help a stranded driver replace a spare tire, I told him, “See, you’re a good person!”

“I am not good!” he shrieked, tears forming in his eyes.

A slow learner, I finally decided it was a mistake to try to have a reasonable conversation with him. I will never know what happened to that truck driver in prison, why he hated himself, and to what extent the corruption of his socialist former comrades affected him, but it seemed clear that Christianity mediated it for him. Love of God as hatred of self and hatred of society, but also an opportunity to do good in a safe, non-projectual way that requires no emotional risk, since the end is already written. Without that, I doubt he would have been able to function as a productive member of society.

Who can doubt that Christianity today is both innovative and on the cutting edge of social control, when they consider the great currency that Christianity has among the mad and insane? While the pills that are meant to regulate the emotional unreliability of the golem remain imperfect, the opiate of religion succeeds in redeeming millions of depressives and psychotics, casualties of capitalism who would otherwise turn to a destabilizing lunacy, as socially useful subjects. After all, good Christians may play out their paranoid persecution fantasies while faithfully serving as snitches, taxpayers, workers, and soldiers. Faith can be the release for their madness, a belief in human evil as the non-heretical expression of a manichean nihilism, and they never need to see the inside of an asylum.

The simultaneity of a Christian modality of power with the modality of scientific social control is also evident in the affective allegiance that can only exist for the subjects of a totalitarian state. Even in this age of scientific rationalism, people can experience a transformative rapture when they surrender themselves to the absolute power of a bureaucratic institution.

In the abstract this hypothesis, or any other that could ascribe such passion to a bureaucracy, seems doubtful. But imagine what it was like for the arrestees of the Greenscare, locked up in the dungeons of the State, their entire future in the hands of the FBI. When they broke and agreed to become snitches, did they feel the warm rush of clemency, like the kiss of the papal ring? Giving themselves over to the advances of the long-shunned State, did they suddenly find themselves in the presence of God, as Winston Smith finally found Big Brother?

With the invention of the golem, spiritual matters should have been put to rest. The living world has been utterly destroyed, ground to dust, and our new bodies—our new selves—are made from that dust, constructed in arrangements that suit the needs of power and set to play in a Garden of Eden that is really just one big factory. How could cyborgs dream? Yet dream we do, and become depressed, and sometimes go off the deep end and paint the canvass of our misery with a red more real than acryllic tones can simulate (guns will be blamed, though fortunately in the last few years the disarmed nations have increasingly belied this allegation with enthusiastic uses of knives and automobiles).

I know very little about the old Buddhist states, but I can imagine that if they had grown to install a world system metaphysically organized atop the opposite pole in a similar mind/matter dichotomy, with a capitalism that measured accumulations of peace and duty rather than trade and production, eventually the body—that misleading shadow of the false physical world—would reassert itself and require more archaic institutions of state authority to coddle and distract its longings, always in a sphere that did not intersect with matters of the spirit.

So it is today. The golem still dream and cry—but if they are fabricated beings made of the dust of the old world, perhaps Democritus went awry in looking for the atom in the too-small-to-see, for if even dust contains dreamings the atom must be the universe itself—and they must be given something great and out of reach to love and to fear. The subjects of state power are no longer living beings, and there is a cathedral built atop each of our past defeats. To pay homage we are told we must walk in through the doors. On arrival we’re not sure it’s what we were looking for but we mouth along with the rite to assuage our doubts, just as the last grandiose song in a bad musical tries to divert our dissatisfaction.

But the body cannot walk to the spirit any more than the spirit can wish itself a body.

Work continues, disappointments stack up, hairs go grey and bellies flab, the tables and chairs where we sat in our passionate debates empty out, the street that was a bonfire is an apparatus again and the memory no longer seems worthy of passing on because of the inarticulate confusion it provokes in us. Yet the sense of something greater, immediate and unreachable, something that gives us courage, that could wrap us in the strongest of embraces and protect us through death or defeat, mocks us from all directions.

A Critical Review of Anarchism & the City

Note from author: This review was orphaned from another anarchist magazine. I had sent Dr. Ealham a draft to give him a chance to respond to the criticisms I made and rectify any misrepresentations. Rather than responding in a spirit of criticism, he took grave offense to my notation of his academic connections and the government funding of his research, threatened legal action, and threatened to contact the magazine to prevent the article’s publication. Subsequently, the magazine in question stopped responding to any questions regarding the review.

If you would like to contact the good Dr. to let him know what you think about threatening to talk to cops, suppressing the publication of criticism, or being an academic who poses as a comrade and lives off the struggle, you can contact him through his university home page.

Chris Ealham
Anarchism and the City: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Barcelona, 1898-1937

Chris Ealham’s Anarchism and the City is a fascinating book that builds on the tradition of urban history, most notably realized in Mike Davis’ innovative work on Los Angeles, City of Quartz. But Ealham’s method is distinct; as he maps out the development of his topical city—Barcelona between 1898 and 1937—he builds a tension, chapter by chapter, by lucidly alternating between describing the strategies and countermeasures of the diverse elite centered in an array of political parties, business and paramilitary formations, and those of the proletarian inhabitants centered in the CNT and numerous affinity groups or criminal gangs, as they fought for the city, from above and from below. In this way, Ealham not only brings the struggle alive, he also frames it strategically and tactically rather than deterministically. He draws on a voluminous base of primary and secondary sources in Catalan and Spanish to portray a nuanced and detailed history.

While history has historically been biased in favor of ruling class needs and perspectives, not only do Ealham’s sympathies lie with the baser sort, his telling emphasizes proletarian illegality and counterviolence as an important libertarian force in the battle for the city, that flows directly from the impossibility of living under the hyperexploitation the Catalan bourgeoisie inflicted on the largely immigrant population, crowded into slums, obliged to work in their factories or to wait and rot as part of the pool of surplus and precarious labor. Simultaneously, he presents the alternating bourgeois strategies of law and order, and what should most accurately be called socialism (socialized or at least state subsidized housing, medicine, education, and welfare, on top of a class-antagonism-ameliorating engineering of the social landscape) as attempts to extend social control while underwriting capitalist exploitation, and always backed by a measure of brutality and violence. As a result, the reader takes pride and joy in the accomplishments of the robbers and assassins who stick it to their oppressors, while wincing at every new attempt of the cops, bosses, and politicians to steal the city and crush the new communes that have sprung up, at least as latent ideals, in the very bosom of urban oppression.

We are treated, thus, to a Barcelona in which impoverished workers and tramps flaunt bourgeois norms in the bars and cabarets, subvert the limitations of their meager housing by converting the streets into their living rooms, and win their bread by robbing the payrolls or sacking the shops, while politicians of right and left connive and bicker, trying to establish the best balance of fidelity to or autonomy from Madrid, that will allow them to stem the tide of revolution while also monopolizing the exploitation of the local workers, swinging back and forth between Spanish military dictatorship and Catalan autonomy.

Only in this context can the CNT be understood in depth, and Ealham does a great job of portraying the Confederación as a heterogeneous labor organization laid atop and integrated into neighborhood and criminal networks that propagated it and sheltered it when the going got tough. At least in certain years, it would be fair to suggest that the CNT was not primarily a labor union, and that at the very least a great part of its strength flowed from largely informal neighborhood networks. This theoretical conjecture makes me wish for a similar study of the IWW, because it seems to me that at its strongest, the wobblies were a network of tramps and direct actionists, and the organization was recuperated commensurate to the instilling of union discipline (think, for example, the central body’s decision to renounce sabotage in response to government pressure).

Another good feature of this book, a concept not invented by Ealham but one he uses effectively, is the analysis of “moral panics” (regarding sanitation, crime, lower class violence, lack of labor discipline, street culture, and other phenomena) communicated by the media as a tool to unite conservative and progressive elites and demand their common recognition of a perceived threat to social control. From this analytical device, one can infer how competing factions of the elite can encode a public discussion of mutual interests and establish a common basis for differing strategies of public order, while also training the non-elite and the aspiring elite to view society in these terms (which would not be possible in a conspiratorial or secret conversation that explicitly discusses exclusive elite interests); furthermore, one sees how the media, well… mediate, building consensus or at least solidarity between competing elite factions.

There were also, naturally, some elements of Ealham’s book that I dislike. Before discussing these, it’s necessary to make a disclaimer. It should be assumed academics will usually play a role of recuperation in social struggles. If it was the priests who were put up against the wall in Barcelona, 1936, a violence Ealham rightly justifies, it will be the academics who would have cause to fear a similar fate should a revolution occur nowadays. Thus, it was a pleasant surprise that I found so little in Ealham’s book that warrants strong criticism.

The first concerns a topic that only constitutes a detail in his work: sexism in the CNT and the proletarian culture. Fairly enough, he criticizes the CNT and the grupistas (those who acted in affinity groups, sometimes under the aegis of the Confederación, sometimes independently) of sexism. However, perhaps forgetting that the proletarian neighborhoods and the CNT were also made up of women, and these women were not passive victims of circumstance, he fails to explore the other side of this sexism. Mujeres Libres barely warrant a mention, and this only incidentally to their participation in the demolition of a Barcelona jail in 1936. Their newspaper, their propaganda efforts, their debates with the male CNT leadership, the literacy classes, childcare, and combat training they provided, are not mentioned.

In mentioning that the affinity groups that carried out expropriations, bombings, revenge killings, attacks on the police, and other actions, consisted almost entirely of men, Ealham evidences an erroneous view of patriarchy as a static, strictly conservative structure that can be overcome through the equalization of participation in the traditionally masculine sphere; in other words, liberal feminism. But just as patriarchy persists in a world that includes women in government and the workplace, women’s struggles are alive in traditional, gender conservative societies. Ealham himself points out how necessary women were in supporting these struggles, though he seriously undervalues that role: “their involvement was almost exclusively of an auxiliary nature.”

The clandestine and offensive activity of the anarchists would have been impossible without the people, generally women, passing messages; hiding, tending, and feeding fighters; gathering and carrying intelligence; storing supplies; mobilizing community opinion; stonewalling the police, and much more; just as it would have been impossible without the people, generally men, pulling the triggers or driving the getaway cars. As such, it is inaccurate to say that these affinity groups consisted exclusively of men. To do so is to take the sexist-inflected stories of those men, who also considered support activity to be an auxiliary rather than primary function, and inscribe it as objective history. But community support is in fact the sine qua non of guerrilla struggle.

Ealham also displays what in my mind is not a sufficiently anarchist feminism when he indicts the anarchists for not closing down the brothels once they had taken over the city, as though sex workers were passive victims waiting to be rescued by the syndicalists. An investigation of who owned and managed the brothels and how this changed in 1936 would have been much more interesting. What I happen to know from my own historical explorations of this city is that in the neighborhood of Raval, many sex workers were powerful social actors. In the “Tragic Week” insurrection of 1909, it was a respected neighborhood sex worker who led the charge against the Raval police commissary, liberating the comrades arrested the day before.

My biggest complaint against this book is its affinity towards democratic and institutional forms. Ealham consciously enters into a strategic debate regarding the use of insurrectionary and illegalist strategies, making a number of open criticisms. While his text is by no means the undertheorized and dishonest hatchet job so frequently produced by the critics of insurrectionary anarchism (e.g. Black Flame) he does commit a number of errors and contradictions.

For example, he fairly debunks the critique that the FAI, at its outset, constituted a vanguard (in reality they sprang from the grassroots to prevent syndicalist politicians from taking over the CNT and leading it to reformism). Just as fairly he opines that before 1936, the Nosotros affinity group within the FAI had come to exercise disproportionate power. Yet even at this stage, the evidence does not bear out the assertion that they constituted a vanguard. They failed, in fact, to steer the assembly that made perhaps the most crucial decision in the CNT’s history: to form the Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias along with the political parties, or, put another way, to form a government. Garcia Oliver vehemently opposed the decision, and Buenaventura Durruti sat on the fence, but the assembly overwhelming sided with Diego Abad de Santillan, the anarchist economist who was eager to mobilize state power to impose an anarchist economic model. Ealham repeats the contemporary allegation that Oliver wanted to create an anarchist dictatorship but doesn’t mention that it was Abad who succeeded, partially, in creating an anarchist dictatorship. Oliver, oddly enough, was astute in his arguments, though his megalomania soon overcame his principles and he subsequently accepted a post in the government.

Ealham is dead wrong when he states that the CNT “simply ignored” the Catalan government at this historical juncture. The Catalan President Companys’ personal notes confirm the reality on the streets: if the anarchists had only ignored the government, it would have disappeared, for it had become powerless after workers’ militias defeated the fascist coup attempt. It was the CNT that resurrected the government, by accepting dialogue with Companys and then by joining the Central Committee (which would have been powerless without CNT-FAI participation) alongside the UGT and Catalan leftists, who had already proven themselves as lackeys and cops during their previous stints in power, and the POUM, a tiny cult following the teachings of the Butcher of Kronstadt (and an organization that Ealham repeatedly praises, oddly enough).

Following its collaboration with the new antifascist government, the CNT-FAI instituted a pseudo-anarchist dictatorship in Barcelona, which Ealham accurately depicts without a hint of the romanticism most of us usually fall prey to. While documenting many of the anarchist accomplishments in Barcelona starting in July 1936—some of them organized by the Confederación, most of them arising spontaneously—he also points out that the CNT-FAI used its power in the new government to introduce compulsory unionization, and argues (more radically than many non-academic anarchists) that “the acceptance by the CNT-FAI leadership of a productivist ideology aimed at maximising war production seriously undermined these initiatives and resulted in continuing workplace alienation.” Neither does he omit the story of Josep Gardenyes, one of several illegalist anarchists who continued to fight capitalism after the July revolution, and who was detained and executed by CNT-approved patrullas.

While not withholding the dirty details, Ealham does not offer any theoretical explanations for why the institutional forms created by the anarchists lent themselves so easily to alienation and repression, except for a meager complaint that CNT delegates were not immediately recallable and the organization was not “genuinely democratic”. In fact, given the frequency that Ealham accuses the illegalist anarchists of “elitism,” and his claim that Nosotros and the other affinity groups dominated the union, all but the most careful readers might blame nascent CNT authoritarianism on the presence of illegalist elements. But the political trajectory of Nosotros and the FAI, even though both of these groups were moderately or completely illegalist in their origins, cannot be competently used as evidence of the consequences of illegalist or insurrectionary strategies. As Carles Sanz put it in his history, La CNT en Pie, which came out subsequent to Ealham’s work and thus was unavailable as a source:

This simplistic analysis is the one that has characterized the majority of historians, converting the history of the CNT into a history of good ones and bad ones, depending on the stance of the analyst. It’s certain that different currents existed, as they always have, but this labelling doesn’t always work. Thus, we see the sectors considered to be moderate defending very anarchist principles depending on the circumstances, repression, conflicts and clashes with the bosses, and, on the other hand, extremist anarchists assuming organizationalist and syndicalist postures [my translation].

It is Ealham’s evident preference for democracy and institutionalization that prevents him from offering any coherent explanations for the CNT’s self-defeat. Democracy always ends up with leaders and popular withdrawal. That can’t be covered up with faults in personal biographies or structural trifles such as the lack of a mechanism for immediate recall of delegates. Democracy ALWAYS subverts its own mechanisms. This is in the nature of democracy. For example, Federica Montseny (one of the pro-government camp) was arbitrarily put in a position of leadership in a way that subverted democratic mechanisms already in place in the CNT. If the CNT constitution enabled the immediate recall of delegates, would that really have made a difference if, in the circumstances of July, the delegates were independently appointing new delegates, or deciding to collaborate with political parties, in contravention of their constitution, in an assembly not called through the appropriate channels?

It is fair to point out that informal, decentralized rebellions nearly always lack the initiative to go further and act strategically, but what this problematic requires is a solution far more original than Ealham’s desire for a “revolutionary institution” “capable of channeling the revolutionary energies against the state.” The CNT was this institution, and it was the linchpin in the obstruction of the revolution. It was the grassroots that expropriated, that took over factories, that made barricades, that made the revolution, and the CNT, which had once cultivated such activity, that blocked it as soon as it had won access to power, and he’s bemoaning the lack of revolutionary institutions?

A fair critique of the anarchist failure should certainly have an organizational component, but greater organizational democracy is an unrealistic proposal. At multiple points in the book, Ealham expresses a latent critique of democracy. What his book is missing, more than anything, is the maturation of this critique in a theoretical realization that democracy in government and “genuine” democracy in social organizations have the tendency and the ability to interface, creating a link or a mutual understanding that opens the door to recuperation.

Ealham’s strategic critiques, however, are reserved mostly for the insurrectionary or illegalist anarchists. While Nosotros, as a group, deserves a great deal of criticism, and while the Catalan anarchists generally deserve Ealham’s criticism regarding their failure to show solidarity with the Asturias uprising of 1934, his other criticisms, and his constant attempts to belittle their frequent rebellions, are unfair. On multiple occasions he uses the state repression that followed attacks and attempted insurrections as evidence for the weakness of those strategies. But everyone knows that stronger repression is the inevitable companion of stronger struggles, and to signal repression as evidence of failure is poorly disguised defeatism or pacifism (one in the same, after all). The illegalists, the affinity groups, the CNT, and the anarchists generally all survived the multiple waves of repression. In fact, by July 1936, they were so strong Companys acknowledged them as the only power in the city. Evidently, the existence of repression is an incoherent counterargument, especially in this case, since the anarchists from margin to center survived this repression and came out winning.

At one point, Ealham suggests that the aggressive strategies of the anarchists were a throwback to insurrectionary ideas, which he brackets as a 19th century phenomenon, and dismisses as incapable of withstanding the new repressive capacities of the State. Yet it was the union form that proved itself outdated on the level of repression, and the affinity groups that were most resilient (a fact that Ealham elsewhere acknowledges, and that the historical record bears out). For example, the police were unable to infiltrate the grupistas, given their tight security practice and massive neighborhood support. Whereas the affinity groups operated clandestinely during democracy or dictatorship, and thus continuously developed their security practice, the CNT often suffered breakdowns in their decision-making procedures when they had to transition to clandestinity, as multiple anarchist historians have pointed out.

When the CNT had to go underground, it was the affinity groups that kept it alive, funded, and combative. Ealham claims that other, unnamed revolutionary groups funded themselves during periods of repression without recourse to robberies, thus the expropriations were not necessary, but the fact is, in Catalunya at least, there were no other organizations as large as the CNT that provided as much support to workers and prisoners as the CNT did. The only other organization that could hold a candle to the CNT was the socialist UGT. Are they the anonymous “revolutionary organization” that survived the military dictatorship without carrying out bank jobs? Well, they got donations from the petit-bourgeoisie, and this funding is reflected in their politics and their practice.

Ealham contradicts himself when he portrays the illegalists as “elitists” and claims that “the insurrectionary tactic had only really triumphed among a small section of the middle and upper leadership of the unions”, or when he describes mass village uprisings supported by insurrectionaries in Barcelona as “putsches.” This is Ealham at his most dishonest. Fortunately, he’s also a good historian, so he himself sets the record straight (although in coded terms, so that only a careful reader can notice the contradiction), by describing the massive popular support the affinity groups had in the neighborhoods, the generalization of illegal tactics beyond self-described illegalists, the setting up of barricades—in July 1936, May 1937, and many occasions before that—as a grassroots or spontaneous activity, and the multiple mass uprisings, such as the one in Hospitalet, that were the antithesis of elitism.

It is the democratic bias that alleges direct action to be elitist and assemblies to be egalitarian, and I long for a day when anarchists will leave this tired old lie for the authoritarians rather than repeating it themselves. Any but the most superficial analysis of what constitutes an elite would require that for an affinity group using direct action to be elitist, they would have to use fame or martial capacities acquired through their exploits to take over a preexisting hierarchical structure. Direct action tactics and affinity groups on their own are incapable of generating such hierarchies. Democratic institutions, on the other hand, are imminently capable of generating hierarchy. If it as exaggeration to say that assemblies tend towards manipulation, at the very least they are highly susceptible towards it. Revolutionary experiments and anarchic societies that have been most successful at preventing the development of authority tend to be those which have overlapping and redundant rather than centralized and unified decision-making spaces. It was the CNT which provided this very unity, that during most of its existence served to bring together the Barcelona working class, foster a sense of common identity, and potentiate solidarity, but once the organization had amassed the power to force the State into dialogue, that effectively harnessed and smothered the revolution.

Ealham frequently tries to minimize the accomplishments of the insurrectionary strategy, while simultaneously providing the information that disproves him. When syndical methods (mass protests and strikes) won an intermediate victory in February, 1936, he trumpets that “mass syndical pressure succeeded where the grupistas had failed, the rejuvenated CNT unions securing the return of many of the workers victimised after the ‘revolutionary gymnastics’ to their former workplaces.” But this episode comes after a whole list of victories won by the affinity groups. Furthermore, it’s a strawman: the affinity groups evolved, as Ealham himself documents, to deploy a set of tactics that would complement, not replace, other tactics such as strikes and protests.

To mention one last example (of many), Ealham casts doubts, without any real content, on the effect the insurrectionary anarchists had in preparing workers to defeat the fascist putsch. While the affinity groups were not the only ones to procure weapons before July 1936 (CNT-organized committees also snatched a number of handguns from night watchmen), they were the principal ones to use these weapons, to develop the competence and the courage to go on the attack, and to spread heroic examples throughout the entire society that they could attack and win. It was Nosotros that led the assault on the crucial Atarazanas barracks, and the Woodworkers Union, one of the most radical and supportive of the grupistas, that held the barricade on Paral·lel, preventing a military column from reinforcing the soldiers at the port. With the storming of the Sant Andreu Arsenal, these constitute the three most important military engagements that defeated the fascist uprising in Barcelona. How the years of armed struggle that came before this, including the repressed and failed risings, didn’t play a decisive role, cannot be logically explained, because the proposition is totally incoherent. Ealham can only offer the hypothesis that the struggle was “greatly” expanded through the participation of the Trotskyist POUM (even though the POUM was a tiny organization which at that time was militarily insignificant); presumably this growth in popularity was won by a more pluralistic, mass, non-“elitist” democratic CNT.

In this context, it is not at all unfair to point out that Ealham received academic grants from the Catalan and Spanish governments for researching this book. Subsequently, it becomes necessary to ask what is the State interest in sponsoring a history of anarchist struggle in Barcelona (note that the book came out in Spanish and English). Spain is one of the few states in which anarchism can not be entirely removed from the official narrative, because Spanish and even moreso Catalan history would simply not make sense without the anarchist struggles. These struggles still survive today, intervening significantly in popular responses to the ongoing economic crisis. Some of the same strategic debates that were relevant one hundred years ago are still hotly contested, and it is in these that Ealham intervenes, weighing in on the side of institutionalization. It would be unfair and dishonest to suggest that anyone who sides with the syndicalists against the insurrectionaries is a State tool: particularly the brands of insurrectionary anarchism that have flourished in Barcelona deserve a great many criticisms, while the anarcho-leaning labor organizations deserve at least some credit for potentiating social conflict. But what is historically obvious is that democratic, mass organizations distancing themselves from illegality and waiting for the “right moment” have consistently been a vehicle for the recuperation of struggles by the State. By weighing in sometimes underhandedly on the only side of the debate that will ever receive government funding, and without developing even standards for a nonpartisan critique, Ealham neglects his responsibilities.

It’s necessary to point out that the dispensation of academic grants is a mundane and nearly automatic affair, but the role of academics in elaborating alibis for the State is also a commonplace, and grants are one of many mechanisms that continuously bind academics and their production to the longterm needs of State and Capital. It is not a question of unethical or opportunistic academics succumbing to employment pressures and incentives, but the exact opposite; given the banality of evil, only the most valient and rebellious can rise above their institutional position and subvert the role assigned to them, although this subversion is not black and white but a matter of degrees.

On the whole, Ealham has subverted his role and, through this book, challenged dominant histories and developed theoretical tools for an anarchist approach to history. But where he intervenes in the contrived debate between insurrectionist/illegalist and syndicalist/mass organizing, he has coincided with State interests in constraining the historical repertoire of acceptable and effective forms of struggle. This error is compounded by the factual errors or logical contradictions he commits in the advancement of his argument.

The recent success of May Day in Barcelona (2011) demonstrates the potential of complementary struggles along the anarcho-syndicalist and insurrectionary lines, as well as the great popularity of insurrectionary tactics. Histories that portray the latter as an outdated peculiarity prone towards elitism and incapable of withstanding repression not only parody themselves, they also polarize people into camps and make occurrences like this year’s combative and popular May Day protest less likely. Histories that promote democracy and institutionalization miss out on the great mistake that has haunted anarchists in the Spanish state, in 1936, and again in the period of 1976 to 1980, a mistake that repeats itself on a smaller scale even today, and one that is encouraged in the State’s own portrayals of the past.

Nonetheless, it was an easy mistake for Ealham to make. Crediting the failings of the Barcelona anarchists to the excesses of “revolutionary gymnastics” is common enough among historians, even if this view is unnuanced, contradictory, and prejudicial; the most famous of the revolutionary gymnasts were extremely flawed individuals who personally deserve the critiques that are generalized upon the strategic currents for which they serve as avatars; furthermore the prejudices of our culture conflate democracy with liberty and direct action with tyranny.

Despite this blemish, which really only concerns a minor part of the book, Anarchism and the City has a lot to offer, not only by giving English-speaking anarchists an important and exciting part of our collective history, but by showing better ways to think about history, how we arrived at the present moment, and the contest that will shape the contours of our world well into the future.

Anarchism and the City: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Barcelona, 1898-1937, by Chris Ealham. 263 pages. Oakland: AK Press, 2010.