Max Nettlau, Untitled Fragment (c. 1933)


[IISH Ms. 2005—untitled fragment]

By Max Nettlau

The efforts of the greatest part of the human generations are always limited to their preservation by “the conquest of bread” and harvesting as [much as] possible the fruits of that struggle in improvements of their situation (pleasures, accumulations) and in power and guarantees of security and continuation. That permanent struggle,—like that of the animals that, in order to live, pick or hunt continually some [inert?] plants and weaker animals,—is aggravated among men by the thirst for the accumulation and the refinement of pleasures, culminating in wealth and power as a supreme goal, founded on slavery and exploitation as means considered to this day as legitimate bases of a society the fine flower of which is the wealthy, the dominators and their faithful aides—the men of State, the clergy and the military chiefs. For all that, animality offers only some exceptional and rudimentary cases, such as the Statism of the bees and ants, the limitless slaughters of some carnivorous beasts, wolves, etc., and the sometimes exaggerated accumulations of grains by some hibernating animals. These three categories of animals show some physical differentiations between dominators, pleasure-seekers and workers, the irrepressible hunger for blood and the atrophy of solidarity and sociality proper to the miserly—thus the most disagreeable consequences and qualities. It has been the same for men on whom these deviations have imprinted some thus far indelible stigmas: a fusion of cruelty, concupiscence and anti-solidarity has directed and always directs the individual and collective actions of the majority of men: we seek to “arrive” individually by any means and we give full powers to the State to act by means before which individually even many men would recoil, but that which is done in the service of the State is always legitimized.

In the face of these anti-social and non-ethical dispositions, living organisms, in the interest of their reproduction, pass through short or long intervals of inter-sexual attraction and maternal cares for their progeny, in which sometimes, especially among men, the paternal parent takes part. From this results some family homes, some small, solidary groupings, and on that base an inter-tribal solidarity and a thousand other links can be established, but their influence can very well also weaken to the point of its almost complete disappearance. The struggle is permanent, but the mutual aid is more or less accidental, suffering permanent variations where a well nourished ethical sentiment and very real interests are not at its base.

It is in this general milieu that progress is produced, which is nothing other than an advantageous differentiation [2] which takes its origin from the convergence of favorable conditions, a mutation, something new in the way of value and vitality that interrupts the routine (which itself implies stagnation and decadence.) It is as futile to deny progress as to affirm its mechanical, inevitable action. Among the thousands of flowers and fruits, one shows a more beautiful variation; among the myriads of men, one has a more intelligent, practical and generous idea, and on such phenomena, if unfavorable conditions do not destroy them, a new progress is established and spreads.

But the opposite is also a very real fact: a convergence of unfortunate conditions produces decadence, deviation, ruin and death. Some illness, epidemic or plague destroys people; some desiccation produces deserts, and a sacrilegious intervention in the intellectual and moral life of a people makes hearts and minds dry up on a large scale. The past is full of peoples, regions and civilizations struck in this way, killed, dead, and this sad twentieth century—what barbarities hasn’t it already seen come to pass!

Reaction and progress are thus ever-present realities and possibilities, in a combat as constant and mortal as epidemics and hygiene, stupidity and thought, cruel covetousness and the kindness of solidarity. Reaction brings death, but it is sterile; it only knows how to contaminate, not to create. Progress is a new life that, weak at its origin, demands the best care. That incipient weakness often makes [us] despair of progress, but it is as inevitable and normal as the lack of strong fists in very small child. And the truculence of the reaction must not fool anyone about its actual powerlessness.

Since in the past and in the present time the rich and powerful have done everything to arrest and prevent the human development of the enslaved peoples, this development was and is in fact excessively slow, weak and defective, and progress was always persecuted, hindered, turned aside, mutilated and has only been able to blossom very partially and tardily, in the arts, sciences, the ethical sentiments and will of some, and more universally only in technical applications. But, little by little, and especially in the eighteenth century, some large popular masses have cheered the idea of progress, put their confidence in it, and expressed themselves in a revolutionary manner in its favor, overturning in fact some great obstacles as in the French Revolution and the democratic activities of that era in other countries. That has encouraged some thinkers to proclaim projects of universal social justice that had a new world of free producers as a base. From their side, some laborers had in fact [3] organized, especially in England, although this was done first and foremost for the very essential defense of their interests as laborers against mechanization. Elsewhere, especially in France, these masses gathered in the name of the democratic and social republic. There have been great riots, revolts and social revolutions, from 1834 (Lyon) to 1871 (the Paris Commune), and the period of the anarchist insurrectionary attempts, from 1873 to 1914, and after so many defeats that popular victory in 1917 in Russia, conjured away a few years later for the exclusive profit of a single party, the unmitigated dictatorship of which still continues. There followed anew some large and small popular acts and, at the same time, the popular forces directed toward the conquest of political power—the electoral political socialism—and the forces organized in syndicates for the immediate and future economic struggle, would not win true success anywhere and found themselves demoralized by the contact with the bourgeois political world, or weakened and without true momentum in the face of the economic crises that have given rise to the sorrowful millions of the out-of-work. From there to the present a cruel and truculent reaction has invaded the modern world, threatening to sap its foundations. That reactions is every bit as powerless to create as it is powerful to destroy, as the great plague would be, and in order to combat it the measures of intellectual and moral hygiene must not be less “one and indivisible” than those taken by medical and social hygiene against that same plague. However, we are very far from all reasonable cooperation on that terrain, and that has allowed the invasions of that plague of deplorable proportions.

During the nearly twenty years that have passed since 1917, when we saw, for the first time, a revolution which put its hand on the statist and military apparatus and on capitalist property and the large agrarian properties, breaking the resistance of the old powers, but broken itself in its rush forward by a new usurping caste, the doctrinaires of Marxism,—during this nearly twenty years that also saw all the aspirations and attempts of other revolutionary efforts on nearly all the continents,—we have discussed the questions attached to them, with a realism and some occasions of experience that we did not know before 1914 when for the greater number of socialists the social revolution was a complete unreality that they even imagined to be able and wanted to avoid by reformism. The libertarians then, in large part, either trusted that syndicalism would overturn capitalism—without reflecting that in such a case a victorious syndicalism would establish its own dictatorship and would not think for a single moment of abdicating in favor of the anarchists,—or else trusted in a vague libertarian spontaneity of the people, who, straightaway, would know how to realize the ideas of Kropotkin, who, himself, did not believe at all in such improvisations, but was fascinated by the idea of a long period of insurrections that would break the obstacles and show the ways towards some realizations in the spirit of libertarian communism. He understood that such a large and profound task would not take place in a more narrow setting and in a shorter period of time than that of the Revolution in France of the years 1788 to 1794, and Russia before and after 1905, Mexico also in a certain period, have been for him some points of reference for his opinion. But the one that put his hand straight to an [4] insurrectional work was Malatesta in going to Italy in June 1913 and animating the spirits in all the countries until the Red Week one year later, in 1914. He knew that for that it was necessary to know how to coordinate forces and not to make an effort to divide them by insisting meticulously to put all the dots on all the i’s, to always be right and to be in dispute with everyone. He was not able to succeed, but he had done more than all the others to group elements for action. He tried to do the same in 1919-20 and all his hopes and plans until his death had that same basis: cooperation against the immediate obstacles under the condition of autonomy and liberty of the proper experimental life of the anarchists after the success of the socialists was, as always, incapable of anything but to hinder revolutionary efforts, and many libertarians are so out of the habit of any new effort, so accustomed to a doctrinaire isolation, that the ideas of Malatesta, dear and well understood by the people locally, always collided with the ill will of the reformists and with the non-will or abstention of the doctrinaire libertarians.

The only frankly libertarian efforts, besides those of Malatesta, have been accomplished in Spain between 1931 and 1934, in the name of communismo libertario. I lack more direct knowledge to discover with what utility, but one will recall to what degree individual factors, doctrinaire attitudes and other unfortunate conditions have prevented their more complete blossoming. Their interpretation in the international anarchist world, which is to say far-off and little informed, was a devastating spectacle.

As much by the experience of Malatesta as by what we have seen take place in Spain, we learn that the initiative and good sense of the libertarians knows how to quickly bring about a local cooperation of the good elements among the people, but that every local effort has tenacious adversaries in dominant factors that are at the center of the large organizations. There are general staffs that always hesitate to send the whole of their forces into battle and thus the most energetic local efforts perish by their isolation. Whatever was done locally in the time of Malatesta, the men at the head of the Confederazione italiana del Lavoro have always sabotages it. They take as their duty the preservation their organization from risks and injuries and they have an instinctive aversion to local initiatives not foreseen by the statutes. The great size of the organizations appears to make necessary a central apparat, but in serious situations this apparat always becomes a hindrance, an obstacle.

At times, during these nineteen years, we have discussed the problem: if the Revolution should or should not be a question of class, or rather a human question and I understand the importance of that problem, to which one should listen for not a single solution, but for an ensemble of opinions that would permit a suitable latitude for action. It is not a question of laxity, but of breadth, of the absence of rigidity and narrowness. If some say that humanity contains many elements that would always be hostile to a revolution, the others respond with good reason that it is the same for a class, which always contains some worthless elements. A good cause attracts the good elements from all the classes of humanity then, and leaves the others indifferent or hostile. The present reaction has perfectly grouped the bad elements from all the classes, and it will only be defeated by the awakening and the impetus of the progressive elements of all the classes. We find ourselves here before a truly vicious circle.

[End of manuscript.]

Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur

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