Sometime in the mid-1890s, a reader of the London anarchist journal Freedom wrote a letter to the editor. In it, this person sketched an amusingly sarcastic portrait of what passed for anarchist activism at the time.
The letter highlights a contradiction between radicalism in theory and conformism in practice, which should be familiar to many (if not most) people who claim to desire revolutionary social change. I give you the text of the letter, courtesy of the Freedom Archives at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam (Folder 440):
To the Editor, Freedom,
Taking a retrospective view of anarchist propaganda during the last two or three years, and comparing it with work done in the years immediately proceeding, one is constrained to put the question, do we continue to progress? If the answer is a negative one, what then is the reason? How is it explained?
Is it because, as we are constantly telling the masses, they are apathetic and indifferent, and show no desire to better their conditions? We tell them that the Social-Democratic leader, the Radical, Conservative, Liberal, and I.L.P. ditto, are frauds, faddists, fortune-tellers etc.
Shade of Bakunin!! Anarchists petitioning the government!
We remind the uninitiated wage-slave that by having faith in these gentry they are following a will-o-the-wisp; that the politician has in the past, and will again in the future always convert the workers faith into a means for his own aggrandizement. We are condescendingly charitable when we accuse them only of insincerity.
Do we, as anarchists, ever question our own sincerity? Not we.
We call ourselves Anarchists, and in consequence we are sworn foes of government and all its agents. We advocate rebellion in all the ramifications of our economic life. We preach disloyalty and revolution in theory: we are loyal and law-abiding in practice.
We convene a meeting, and assemble on behalf of our Walsall comrades now languishing in prison. We invite would-be politicians, deadly enemies of freedom as we understand it, to address the audience. We swell with indignation, and call upon government to release our imprisoned comrades. We compromise with the very powers that oppress us! We hold a candle to the Devil we despise. In fact we tacitly admit the right of government to govern. Shade of Bakunin!! Anarchists petitioning the government!
We again assemble to protest against the treatment meted out to our Spanish comrades by the Spanish government. We theorists express sympathy for men of action. How they must scorn our sympathy! How they must despise our cant!
We organise another meeting, ostensibly to bid farewell to old and tried friends. But I can tell you some of us thought it a splendid opportunity for a little commercial enterprise on our own.
A particular section of us, whose language is most vehement when describing themselves as Anarchists, have recently inflicted upon their friends a juvenile burlesque, i.e. ‘the Associated Anarchists’; subsequent events proving their too close association, and bearing out the old adage about familiarity breeding contempt. They quarrelled, and ended by calling in the police!
Again. When we heard of the new regulations concerning the sale of literature and blasphemous speech, about to be enforced in Hyde Park, we swore, yes, swore that we would resist this latest tyranny. Posterity should never assert that Anarchists, above all people, should have failed to stand their ground. Because we knew that we had only to make a slight show of resistance, and the victory would be ours. But somehow or other most of us failed to put in appearance when the time came, having, I suppose, a particular engagement elsewhere. We were too modest to desire notoriety; we left the honours for each other.
Yours Truly, E. Daly