Malatesta and Violence

If, to win, we have to set up the gallows in the public square, I would prefer to lose.

Errico Malatesta, “Revolutionary Terror”, October 1924.

Discussing Malatesta’s views on violence can be interesting because of the privileged perspective he had, writing in the 1920s in Italy, during the advent of Fascism. However, it can lead to some misunderstandings. Even if everyone works on the same text, “Anarchy & Violence” (September 1924) they can get quotes which range from its opening line “Anarchy means non-violence” to “anarchist violence is the only violence that can be justified”. So it seems necessary to look at this text a bit closer, as a whole rather than as a set of independent quotes, as Malatesta’s taste for short, efficient sentences can mask the complexity of his thought. He is not using style to build some artificial unity between opposites, as his text is precisely against what he calls “illogicality or hypocrisy”.

Firstly, we need to note that the use of the term “non-violence” can be misleading since, as far as we can ascertain, it does not refer to the doctrine of non-violence, as we can see not only from the fact that it is used conjointly with “non-domination” and “non-imposition”, but also from the words Malatesta does use when he refers to what we usual call non-violence: he writes, describing issues alive in the anarchist movement: “There are the partisans of non-resistance or passive resistance, who shrink from violence even where it serves to repel violence, and there are those who admit to the necessity for violence but who are in turn divided as to the nature, scope and boundaries of legitimate violence”.

The text opens, as often, with a definition of anarchism. A negative one at first: it is non-violence, it does not tolerate any system of domination, and it is neither Fascism nor democracy (“non-imposition by force of will of one or more over others”). Anarchism’s only distinctive characteristic, compared with other doctrines which claim to fight systems of dominations, is its relationship to violence: “what distinguishes the anarchists from all the others is precisely the horror of violence, the desire and the proposal to eliminate violence”.

The word “non-violence” no longer appears and Malatesta goes on to explain this shift by talking about being “forced to resist with all possible means”, which he illustrates with his first practical example. This example is chiefly interesting because it is truly a terrible one. I speak here as someone with little experience of violence, and I expect a large part of the people reading this today not to be regular street fighters or guerrilla strategists either. Personally, I read his example as if he were the DM of a role-playing game: “You come into conflict with some Dumini-type gangster and he is armed and you are unarmed; he is surrounded by a big gang and you are alone or with just a few companions; he is confident of going unpunished and you fear the eruption on the scene of the carabinieri, who will arrest and maltreat you and throw you into jail for an indefinite time…” As a player, those are all clear hints that you should look for a way out of this situation which does not involve fighting, or it will immediately result in the tragic death (or, at best, imprisonment) of your character. Malatesta, however, happily concludes “Then tell me if you could escape from your predicament by persuading the Dumini-type with good arguments to be just, good and gentle!” Well, I wouldn’t normally count on pity from a Fascist assassin, but it seems almost sensible when the alternative is to attack him, his mates and their guns, alone with my bare hands, knowing that even if the commotion attracts the police I’m screwed all the same. Even in Assassin’s Creed this does not sound like a wise move.

We can therefore assume that this example is not an illustration of when it could be necessary to use violence. It is an illustration of why, despite their best wishes and their horror of violence, anarchists must take into consideration that they live in a society where some people want to and can kill them with relative ease and impunity. Therefore, we can imagine Malatesta is advocating, or excusing, carrying weapons (which were common, legal or at least widely tolerated in the early 20th century), acting in groups and cop watching: all these things which give anarchists the appearance of a violent organization, as a way to protect themselves from violent situations. He also realizes that this will create the opportunity of unjustifiable acts of violence on the part of anarchists as we will see later.

To Malatesta, the discourse on violence is profoundly hypocritical, even if it comes from the oppressed. For him, “there is no cause to draw distinctions between sides” (“arrogant bullying, injustices, ferocious oppression on one hand, rebellion on the other”) “while finding it necessary and right to use force to defend their own liberty, their own interests, their own class, their own country, every faction has, in the name of their own particular code of values, gone on to condemn violence when this is turned against them by others, who seek to defend their freedom, their interests, their class and their country.” How does such an accusation of hypocrisy then directly leads to “Yet anarchist violence is the only violence that can be justified, the only violence that is not criminal”?

Once again, the definition is mostly negative: anarchist violence is not violence perpetrated by anarchists in reaction to the insufferable. Although Malatesta seems quite resigned that it should keep happening (as anarchists are persecuted and armed), he does not try to justify it. The violence he deems justifiable on the other hand is a type of violence which has “anarchist characteristics”:

  1. It is limited in time and is reactive: it “ceases where the need for defense and liberation ceases”.
  2. It is limited in whom it targets: “It is tempered by the awareness that individuals, taken in isolation, are hardly, if at all, responsible for the positions which heredity or environment have bestowed on them”.
  3. It is sacred. “It is inspired not by hatred but love, and it is sacred because its goal is the liberation of all and not the substitution of one form of domination with another.”

He then proceeds to explain the importance to keep the possibility of violence as a means of action: to fight the rise of fascism. This also can explain the term “sacred” as it denotes the idea that violence can be a duty. He also hints here at who can carry out these acts of violence when he talks about “the mass of the people”, something which will be highlighted further in Emma Goldman’s writings on violence in the Spanish Revolution.

In this text, Malatesta tries to stir a course which is neither absolute non-violence, nor a comfortable justification of violence. Above all, he seems concerned with the tendency of violence to become institutionalized, and that is why he does not spell out precise circumstances which could be used to judge the actions of everyone, but rather gives some moral cautionary tales against our baser tendencies and presents anarchist violence as insurmountably ambiguous, a violence “inspired not by hatred, but love”, which is both a horror and a duty.

Translation: Georges Fontenis, the itinirary of an adventurist of the libertarian movement, part 1

Georges Fontenis: the itinerary of an adventurist of the libertarian movement – part 1 of 2

« Walking towards anarchy cannot mean renouncing anarchism through setting up a government of so-called anarchists. We need to tend towards what we want by doing what we can. »

Errico Malatesta
in Pensiero e volonta # 4, Roma, February 15 1924


Was there ever a character as sulphurous as Georges Fontenis was in the history of the 20th century French libertarian movement? The man who loves calling himself “Satan”, or “the Prince of Darkness”, the man who, only a few years back, during an incognito visit to the bookshop of Le Monde Libertaire, handed a check to the shop employee, saying: “From the devil’s hand”! Also the man who would see his name used to describe a sort of ideology, in a number of historical articles and books, as a noun “Fontenism” and an adjective “Fontenist”.

 

To evoke Georges Fontenis is no easy task, as an important literature, as diverse as it is passionate, exists on the subject. Many autobiographies and theses by academics, or by militants interested in the history of the movement treat of this character, and often the partisan argument contributes to create a myth about him.

 

Maurice Joyeux wrote about this in issue n°18 of the anarchist journal La Rue a long article precisely entitled “The Fontenis affair”.

 

As an introduction, he wrote: “For the last 30 years or so, there has been a myth among our people. This is the myth of the Fontenis affair.” Myth which is centered on a single man, whose presence among us was relatively short (6 to 8 years at most), and who only exercised his authority for half that time. For the successive militants, Fontenis was the “bad guy”, the “werewolf” of children’s tales, the “evil one” of the tragedy, the “Antichrist” which frightened off not only one generation, but also the following ones, who did not know him but who evoke him every time an ideological quarrel shakes our movement. The character did not deserve such an “honour” nor such consistency in this “classical” role which all human groups invent to discharge themselves from the weight of their “sins” and blame their own mistakes on “Satan”. I find this use of the Fontenis affair among some of our comrades to explain or justify their disagreements ridiculous. Using the “bad one” is nothing more than using the irrational, and philosophy has taught us that only in literature does it take the features of Goethe’s Faust when it is actually within us and that is where it must be attacked, instead of giving it a both seducing and anguishing face. And if, to exorcise the demon, we only have to talk about him, as the good fathers say, let’s talk about the Fontenis affair!

 

The thesis of a mythified Georges Fontenis, a sort of scapegoat for all the failures and divisions of an anarchist movement, the alibi of some of his travel companions who reject on a single man a rather cumbersome balance sheet, seems attractive. Because if Fontenis assuredly did play the main role in this play, nothing would have been possible without the blind obedience of his accomplices, nor the worrying passivity and light-heartedness of the militants of an organisation which claimed to be anti-authoritarian. Don’t anarchist say that where no-one obeys, no-one commands?

 

If this episode has such an echo and that the naming of Fontenis still generates among many militants feelings of worry and anger, it might be that it directly refers to a taboo, the taboo on the dangers of authoritarian and bureaucratic behaviours within the libertarian movement.

 

After this brief consideration, and from different testimonies more or less partial, as well as from the work of historians (academic and militants), let’s try, cautiously, to trace back the trajectory of Georges Fontenis.

 

From his first steps to his first responsibilities

To go back on the life and action of Georges Fontenis is mainly to trace back the complex evolution of the “libertarian communist” sensibility within the French anarchist movement from the aftermath of WW2 to our time.

 

He was born on April 14th 1920 from socialist and trade unionist parents. In 1936, he approaches the libertarian movement during the strikes of June and the Spanish Revolution. During a meeting on Spain organised in Noisy-le-Sec, he meets his first anarchist militants. He joins, soon after, a group of young libertarians who organise in Noisy and joins the Anarchist Union (UA). During the war, he becomes a primary school teacher, manages to avoid forced labour and joins the CGT and Ecole émancipée. This will allow him to take part in the commissions in charge of the purification of the National Education in 1945. In L’Ecole émancipée, he meets the anarchist militante Solange Drumont, who introduces him to the provisory administrative commission, in charge of the reconstruction of the anarchist movement and the organisation of a national congress. Immediately integrated into the commission, he is designed to organise communication among the young militants and becomes a member of the East Paris group. On October 6 and 7 1945 the congress of the libertarian movement takes place, and on December 12 the founding congress of the Anarchist Federation (AF) is held. Georges Fontenis contributes to the creation of the Federation of the libertarian youth and becomes its secretary at its founding congress. He is also in charge of making up the theoretical courses addressed to young new members. The AF quickly develops while Le Libertaire, now a weekly magazine, is printed by tens of thousands issues and is highly ranked among newspaper sales.

On September 13, 14 and 15 1946 the second congress of the AF is held in Dijon, where the pre-war divisions reappear and the conflict between factions gains in intensity. When the congress has trouble agree on a new secretary, Fontenis is, against all odds, proposed as new general secretary. As a new and irreproachable man, his youth, his status as a teacher, and the fact he is not part of any sides which are fighting each other quickly allows a large and unhoped for consensus: at 26 years old, he becomes the general secretary of the young AF and the publishing director of Le Libertaire. The same congress also decides on the creation of a self-defense committee. Kept secret, it was supposed to fight police, Stalinist or fascist infiltrations and intoxications and prepare the clandestine struggle in case of a totalitarian coup or a third world war. This commission will be during its entire existence under the responsibility of Fontenis, whether he is re-appointed as general secretary or not.
In 1947, Fontenis is re-appointed as general secretary after the third yearly congress held in Angers. He is then on unpaid leave from the National Education and can give himself full time to the AF and Le Libertaire, of which he becomes the permanent redaction secretary.
Georges Fontenis joins the young and energetic French CNT (CNT-f) and becomes the secretary of its education branch. In 1950, he leaves a declining CNT-f in crisis, and, still a member of L’école émancipée, he joins the National Education Federation (FEN).

 

The fourth congress held in 1948 in Lyon names him once again general secretary, this congress also decides on the creation of La Revue anarchiste, of which Fontenis is also responsible.

The same year, he takes part in an assassination attempt against Franco with some Spanish anarchists in exile. His role is limited to signing the buying certificate of a Norécrin tourism plane, which will be transformed into a bomber and flown by three Spanish militants, including the famous “general without god or master” Antonio Ortiz. The attempt fails by not much: at the moment they should drop the bombs stolen from a Luftwaffe deposit onto Franco’s house in the St Sebastien bay, two, then four, then 6 planes show up and force the Norécrin to flee. The attempt will not be renewed, Fontenis will later be questioned on this affair by the anti-terrorist police, who decided to drop the case.

The OPB and the infiltration of the AF

 

During the summer 1949 is held near Cannes, in a youth hostel managed by José and Renée Salamé, a “training session” grouping several libertarian communist militants and whose debates lead to the necessity of constituting a secret fraction. The Organisation Pensée-Bataille, named after a book by Camillo Berneri, is created in January 1950. The OPB is a clandestine organisation within the AF, it is based, according to Fontenis, on the “necessity of a highly structured organisation, joining ideological unity, tactical unity and class nature” in the aim of “ending the domination within the AF of the individualising and synthesist currents which made immobility and confusion prevail”.To do so, they need to fight and get rid of those who are deemed “muddy”, “wank”, “purists”, “verbose”, “liberals” in order to “transform anarchist movements as much as possible in the way of efficient and serious organisations defending a coherent doctrinal corpus” (OPB statutes). Alexandre Skirda, in his book Individual Autonomy and Collective Strength: Anarchist Organization from Proudhon to our times [Facing the enemy, AK Press] will claim that the self-defense committee, deviating from its original mission and using the secrecy around its functioning, constituted the birthplace of the OPB.

 

Fontenis becomes, since its creation and until its dissolution, its bureau secretary, also called “responsible of the plan”. People can join the OPB by co-optation, after an enquiry into the militant’s past and on a proposal of two godfathers. Its members are held to secrecy and the strictest obedience, with the OPB bureau verifying the strict application of orders, its statutes even precise astonishingly: “any active, suspended, excluded or resigned member must keep an absolute secret about the OPB and its members. Any failure to do so leads to the adequate judiciary measures by the OPB, which can go as far as killing in the case of a denunciation endangering the militants’ safety”!

The OPB quickly infiltrates every responsibility seat in the AF, every meeting, every congress is prepared beforehand and the OPB’s decisions systematically become the AF’s decisions.

 

The fifth congress in Paris in 1950 installs voting within the organisation on a one militant = one vote basis, replacing the vote by group, but positions remain indicative and do not concern the opposing groups. Fontenis remains the general secretary of the federation.

During the sixth congress in Lille, Fontenis claims he no longer wants to be nominated as secretary general after 5 years of consecutive mandates. Under the pretense of leaving space for the young, he proposes André Moine, a fellow East Paris and OPB member, who is nominated without problem. Actually, Fontenis is not giving up anything since, by the Lille congress, the OPB is fully operational and has placed and imposed its partisans in 8 of the 9 secretarial seats, while the responsibility for the peasant, worker and Libertaire reading committees are also held by OPB members.

In May 1952, Fontenis asked to meet with Maurice Joyeux, a member of the most numerous group of the AF, the Louise Michel group (Paris 18th arrondissement). The meeting, set in an alleyway of the Buttes-Chaumont, worthy of an old spy movie, was aimed at, without disclosing the existence of the OPB, test the attitude of Joyeux and the inevitable Louise-Michel group before the next congress. Fontenis wanted to offer Joyeux some sort of double-leadership of the AF: the intellectual leadership would be Fontenis, the worker leadership would be Joyeux’s. His refusal was going to, without him knowing, force Fontenis and the OPB to get rid of Joyeux and the Louise-Michel group.

In June 1952, at the Bordeaux congress, Fontenis and the OPB profit from the division to obtain a majority at each vote on every post and responsibility, while a “resolution on orientation and tactic, prepared by the OPB and amended til the last minute” of clear libertarian communist inspiration, is adopted. In October, a first schism among the opponents happens: exclusions are pronounced against Joyeux, Aristide and Paul Lapeyre, Fayolle, Arru, Vincey, etc. These militants then regroup within L’Entente Anarchiste, “an organ aimed at making contact, without any exclusivism, between federations, groups and individuals who identify as anarchists”. In its first issue, Raymond Beaulaton wrote: “The post-war anarchist unity was quickly broken. Two years ago, at the Paris congress, the system of consultation by vote was installed. In two years, this unity was broken.”

 

From 1952 to 1953, Fontenis writes in Le Libertaire a long series of articles under the title “Essential issues”, while, since the dismissal of Maurice Joyeux, he now also writes the paper’s editorials.

 

The creation of the FCL

 

The Paris congress on May 23, 24 and 25 1953 saw the end of the AF take over operation and the consecration of the OPB and its leader, Georges Fontenis. The last groups which refused to submit to the OPB’s political line are excluded (Asnières, Louise-Michel and Bordeaux). The AF becomes the Libertarian Communist Federation (FCL) by a majority vote of 71 mandates against 61 (the other names proposed being “Anarchist Communist Party” and “Libertarian Communist Party”!). From then on, members have to publicly defend the congress resolutions, even if they voted against them. The FCL thus reaps the fruit of the whole efforts of reconstruction of the anarchist movement since the Liberation: the newspaper, the shop on the Valmy quay and the treasury. The title of Le Libertaire, which becomes “the organ of the Libertarian Communist Federation” is now printed in red instead of black, symbolizing the rupture with the “old” anarchist movement.

 

In reality, the FCL only groups 16 groups and around 130 to 160 militants placed under the control of the OPB. Rapidly, the “collegial” character of the OPB is replaced by the authority of one, its commissary to the plan, Goerges Fontenis. The first tensions, which others will call rivalries, appear within the libertarian communist camp, including from the Kronstadt group, who protest the authoritarian excesses and the “Fontenist deviation”. In March 1953, they are excluded from the OPB (out of the 17 founding members of the OPB, only 6 are still members in 1954, including 3 people who are still the 3 same members of the bureau). The Kronstadt group published, in August 1954, an 82-page memorandum publicly denouncing, for the first time in detail, the existence of the secret group OPB as well as the Leninist orientation of the FCL. It will be excluded in turn of the FCL in March 1955.

Between anarchism and Leninism

 

Early may 1953, a compilation of the Fontenis articles published under the title “essential issues” is edited under the title Manifesto of Libertarian Communism. A barely modified version of this text will be adopted by the congress of the FCL a few days later as a “Declaration of principles” of the new organisation which will consecrate the new orientation of the FCL: “The specific organisation of the militants of libertarian communism considers itself the vanguard, the conscious and acting minority expressing in its ideology and action the aspirations of the proletariat…”

 

Jean Maîtron, in its History of the anarchist movement in France speaks, about Fontenis’ Manifesto of Libertarian Communism, of an “attempt at synthesis between anarchism and leninism”. Roland Biard, in his History of the anarchist movement, 1945-1975 writes about the Manifesto: “this text, under the platformist pretenses was actually an apology of vanguardism and contained a clearly Leninist orientation”. Alexandre Skirda, in his book already mentioned, questioned the aim of said Manifesto, in order to know whether it was aimed at the anarchist movement in order to bolchevise it, or if it wished to reach the worker militants, friends and resigned from the French Communist Party, in order to “anarchize” them. Which seems to be confirmed by the FCL strategy which, in january 1954, published a Worker’s programme, denounced by the Kronstadt group as a “pale copy” of the programme of demands of the CGT. This tendency to model itself on the French CP and the CGT became a constant leitmotiv.

 

This orientation is accentuated by Fontenis’ attitude who, as soon as november 1953, does not bother to hide his real views: “The libertarian communist doctrine is more accurately based on dialectic materialism than marxism’s political positions.” He also starts to take part in the Marxist magazine and collective Socialisme ou Barbarie, close to the council communists, with an article “Participation in trade unions” in the october 1954 issue.

 

In june 1954, a short-lived Libertarian Communist Internationale holds its first and last congress in Paris. Three countries are represented (France, Italy and Spain, as well as a few observers) but only one organisation, the FCL.

 

The issue of the creation of a new “Popular Front” or “Workers’ Front” is raised. In may 1955, along this line, Le Libertaire gives some space to André Marty, MP and leader of the French CP who has recently been excluded. In the same way, the FCL takes part, in july 1956, in a common meeting with the Communist MP René Bellanger and Le Libertaire publishes a “Call for front unity of the revolutionaries” with signatories from the FCL and the different Trotskyist currents.

 

The decline of the FCL
The militants and groups excluded from the AF quickly react: from december 25 to 27 1953 a congress is held in Paris, with 56 groups in attendance. It organises the reconstruction of the new AF (since the name has been abandoned by the FCL) and starts a newspaper: Le Monde Libertaire, the first issue of which appears in october 1954.

 

The FCL, which seized the AF treasury, headquarters and bookshop, and, above all the weekly Libertaire, survived until 1956 when it took part in the parliamentary elections of january. As soon as February 1955, the issue of taking part in elections is raised. A motion asking the following question: “Since the electoral battle has become a form of the social struggle, could we not envision this issue as an issue of tactic linked to circumstances and the realities of the social struggle?” is passed unanimously. In the April Internal Bulletin, a nine-page article signed F. (Fonténis?) and titled “For revolutionary practicism” claims: “We can take part in electoral struggles – we would then occupy not the role of law-makers, but of agitators. We see in this a form of agitation we should not leave aside.” The debate started and the May congress accepted the participation in elections with a rather large majority (only the Mâcon and Grenoble groups opposed it and left the FCL). With the parliamentary elections of January 2, 1956, the FCL presents 10 candidates, including Fonténis and André Marty. Le Libertaire was titled “The FCL enters the struggle” while Maurice Joyeux, in Le Monde Libertaire replies with a strongly-worded “The FCL enters shit”! In the end, the libertarian communist list got 2219 votes, that is, around 0.5% of valid votes while the electoral adventure cost a lot: on January 19, Le Libertaire mentioned that “the FCL owes over a million for the costs of the electoral campaign”.
A few militants of the Kronstadt group, excluded by the FCL, create the Noir et Rouge group and magazine in November 1955. They will create along with the Mâcon and Grenoble group, the Anarchist Groups of Revolutionary Action (GAAR). These same groups, and a few others, will join back the AF in 1961 as an organised faction, the Union of Anarchist Communist Groups (UGAC). “The aim of the UGAC is no longer to eliminate, like Fonténis, other factions by secret bureaucratic manouvring, but to lead, to constitute an active nucleus which should replace them in theory as in action” (Rolland, Le Monde libertaire, October 1962). Despite a rather laudable initial drive, their manoeuvres to access responsibilities as well as their publishing of a secret bulletin rekindle bad memories and quickly create tensions. Maurice Laisant denounced “an UGAC which acts as an external organisation which only joins to infiltrate and take over the AF”. Deemed a “Leninist-style fraction” by Joyeux, the UGAC, recognising their failure, left the AF in 1964.

 

The last important campaign of the FCL, which no doubt precipitated its end, was its unconditional support to Algerian independentists. In a kind of glorious last stand, the FCL throws itself entirely into the struggle, and goes from trials to Le Libertaire being searched, to militants getting arrested, including Pierre Morain, who will be imprisoned. Militants from the FCL will act as suitcase carriers for Messali Hadj’s MNA and Ahmed Ben Bella’s FLN (who will become the first president of the independent Algerian state). Between october and december 1956, Fontenis receives no less than 10 court decisions for complicity of public insults and diverse label against the police, the army and the state, inciting the military to disobey… He totals already 19 months of jailtime and 900.000 Fr. in fines. Le Libertaire, exhausted by the almost systematic searches and the fines, and having lost a major part of its readership, stops being published in jJuly 1956. The FCL is put to sleep never to wake up. A few militants, including Fontenis, go underground. In July 1958, anti-terrorist forces puts an end to his flight and, after a few weeks in a military camp, he is provisionally liberated before benefiting from an amnesty decree from the General de Gaulle about every crime concerning the Algerian War.

 

With the combined effects of the departures and exclusions of groups and militants who disagreed with the authoritarian and Leninist and vanguardist excesses, or, on the other hand, who were attracted to Trotskyism, of the disaffection caused by the pitiful electoral episode, and of the repression following the support to Algerian nationalist struggles, the adventure of the FCL ends.

 

Julien (group of Rouen)