Anarchism, Voting Abstention and Russell Brand

Russell Brand’s recent editorial in the New Statesman and his subsequent appearance on Newsnight has attracted a significant amount of scrutiny this week. Brand had a lot to say on his ‘disenchantment’ with British politics, his disdain for the corrupt ‘frauds’ and ‘liars’ of every party, and his personal experiences with several types of protest action.

As a historian of anarchism in Spain, two particular points caught my attention. The first was Brand’s statement that ‘I will never vote and I don’t think you should vote either’ – which prompted a strong reaction from fellow comedian Robert Webb in this week’s edition of New Statesman[1] – and the second that he sees two choices available to those living in such blatant disenfranchisement from the political process: ‘apathy or rage’.

The first of these statements struck a chord because I encounter it so often in my work, the second because I know of at least one historic example to the contrary. I work on the development of the anarchism in Spain, the only country in which a long-lasting mass anarchist movement has ever existed. Apoliticism and the rejection of parliamentary socialism are defining features of anarchist ideology.[2] In the late-19th century anarchists in Spain maintained a constant polemic against the ‘farce’ of parliamentary democracy and mobilised during elections to remind the Spanish workers that voting served only to maintain the social and political order that ruthlessly exploited them. It was better to work for improved working conditions and educate yourself than to be the author of your own repression.

The anarchists had a point. The Spanish Restoration system (1874-1923) was designed to ensure the pre-arranged victory of one of two parties, both of which exclusively represented established interests and the maintenance of social order. Vote rigging and local strong-arming ensured the system’s stability and, outside of a handful of urban constituencies, completely shut-out more progressive socialist and republican candidates, giving considerable credence to the anarchists’ arguments. The question was what to do in such a situation.

‘Apathy’ was not on the agenda for anarchists in Spain. Anarchism was meaningless without action, since it was not based on an economic or political ideology  which saw revolutionary change as inevitable. Where anarchists generally struggled to agree was in what sort of action to take. ‘Rage’ was certainly an option – in the 1890s the number of high-profile violent attacks committed by anarchists rose dramatically across Europe and was sensationalised in the press, creating the image of the anarchist as the lone bomb-thrower that remains in part to this day. Yet this individual violence did not ‘awaken the masses’ to revolution as was intended, instead it was met in most places by fierce repression which forced the wider anarchist (largely peaceful) movements across the continent into a clandestine and marginal position from which they did not recover.

In Spain, however, this did not happen. Despite experiencing the most prolonged and violent repression in Europe, Spanish anarchists looked for alternative routes to a revolutionary future. An anarchist drive towards education took off in the first decade of the 20th century, prompting the foundation of schools, workers’ centres and libraries across the whole of the country, providing a highly moralised model of revolution based on the enlightenment of the self and others, particularly women and children. If everyone understood the rational basis of a non-hierarchical society then an intellectual  revolution would be inevitable; an idea not too far removed from Brand’s ’revolution of consciousness’.

In parallel with these developments came a renewed commitment to unionism, which culminated in the foundation of a national anarcho-syndicalist union – the Confederación Nacional de Trabajo (CNT) – in 1910. By 1917 the CNT claimed over 750,000 affiliates and exerted its strength through a series of mass strikes which considerably weakened the failing political system, which finally collapsed following a successful military coup in 1923.

As these initiatives demonstrate, anarchists in Spain, committed to remaining outside the formal political framework, were not limited to Brand’s choices of ‘apathy or rage’. Education and organisation are also possible ways to empower the disenfranchised majority.

Another option also exists, albeit perhaps an unlikely choice for anarchists, which does not seem to have occurred to Russell Brand: compromise. The 1930s saw a significant change in Spanish anarchist activity.[3] During the 1931 elections which brought an end to the Spanish monarchy and saw the declaration of the Second Spanish Republic (1931-1939), the CNT, by not launching their customary abstention campaign and publicising republican meetings, effectively endorsed the belief that a vote for a republic was ‘the better of two evils’.

The impact of this pragmatic shift was made clearer in the general election of 1933, when, disillusioned with the realities of a socialist-republican coalition, the CNT’s position shifted again and activists were advised not to vote in the ‘political comedy’. Turn out in anarchist strongholds[4] was negligible and a coalition of centre-right republicans and various right-wing groups came to power. Attitudes shifted again in the February 1936 election, when anarchist leaders supported several key Popular Front policies and some candidly backed political participation.[5]

The CNT had not simply turned itself into an arbiter of elections by mobilising abstention. It maintained its revolutionary focus through the 1930s and, during the Civil War (1936-9), was able to use its de facto control of North-Eastern Spain to implement radical social changes and the collectivisation of industry and agriculture. Yet the exceptional circumstances of the Civil War also saw compromise in anarchist practice to an unprecedented scale when, in November 1936, four CNT members joined the national government.[6]

What the history of anarchist action in Spain shows is that abstention can be a strong message, particularly if it comes in a context where disenfranchisement from the political process is clear. Whatever Brand’s apocalyptic message, history shows that models for alternative collective action are possible, models which can give radical and revolutionary ideas strong enough popular support to affect the cultural, social and political climate of a country, and put its leading activists in a position where they are forced to consider compromising their ideals.

Citing the freethinker Buckminster Fuller, Russell Brand has sparked a debate asking whether it is ‘utopia or oblivion’ that we are headed for, but radical social change need not be placed in either category. Compromise is not only possible but has happened in our recent past.

James Yeoman is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. He is currently working on his thesis, which focuses on anarchist print culture in Spain from 1890-1915.

Header image: Mural by Hoxton Station ©Nick Richards, [Creative Commons]

Image 1: ‘Workers, Don’t Vote! Front Cover of La Idea Libre (Madrid), 04/04/1896,  published a day prior to a general election ©James Yeoman

Image 2: A boy in the uniform of the Iberian Anarchist Federation during the Spanish Civil War [Wikicommons]

[1]     See also I would recommend that Webb takes his own advice to ‘go and read some ****ing Orwell’ in regards to his own comments that revolutions inevitably end in ‘death camps, gulags, repression and murder.’ The only revolution which Orwell saw first-hand was in Spain, and this is not the only impression he gives of his experiences in Homage to Catalonia.

[2] It was these issues which caused the breakup of the First International (also known as the International Workingmen’s Association) into ‘Marxist’ and ‘Anarchist’ factions in the 1870s:

[3] The CNT regained legal status in 1930 and immediately began to reassert their influence in Spanish politics.

[4] For example, cities such as Barcelona.

[5]     As in 1931, the republican-socialist coalition won, forming the government that would be in power in July 1936 when the military coup which sparked the Spanish Civil War was launched. See Chris Ealhm, Class, Culture and Conflict in Barcelona: 1898-1937, 52-53, 118, 148

[6]     One of these four was Federica Montseny, who as Minister for Public Health, became one of the first female government ministers in Western Europe and oversaw the first legalisation of abortion in Spain, along with the director of the Catalan health department, Dr Felix Martí Ibañez, also a member of the CNT. See Richard Cleminson, Anarchism Science and Sex: Eugenics in Eastern Spain, 1900-1937, 227-253

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