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 – 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. 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. 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 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.
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.
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.
Image 2: A boy in the uniform of the Iberian Anarchist Federation during the Spanish Civil War [Wikicommons]
 See also http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2013/oct/30/robert-webb-russell-brand-vote. 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.
 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: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/iwma/
 The CNT regained legal status in 1930 and immediately began to reassert their influence in Spanish politics.
 For example, cities such as Barcelona.
 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
 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
Great article James which makes some useful points about abstentionism as an organised, mass political strategy in the days when organised, mass political strategies made sense. It also clearly illustrates the fundamental difference between collective politics of ordinary people in the past, who claimed social transformation as their goal, and what passes for politics today: the narcissistic, self-aggrandising ramblings of celebrities.
The New Statesman’s Russell Brand edited issue perfectly sums up the vacuous nature of the ideas-lite contemporary left. When the incoherent, petty prejudices of moral entrepreneurs or sociopaths such as Brand and Noel Gallagher pass as serious political comment we really need to start worrying.
My own particular observation is that the current and intense interest by the political elite in Brand’s comments is just another example of the co-opting of high profile individuals as figureheads or ‘community leaders’ to speak for the rest of us, thus effectively sidelining the democratic process. Jamie Oliver, Steve Coogan, David Baddiel and David Attenborough all spring to mind.
Although I wouldn’t want to overstate Brand’s influence, his, now widespread, style of cynicism and disengagement from the democratic process may well serve to strengthen this trend. I, for one, will not be shouting ‘Vive le Russellution!’
Without wishing to find fault with Mr Yeoman’s interesting presentation on Spanish anarchy, I think it’s a mistake to take Russell Brand seriously. I suspect the whole thing is a publicity stunt to re-launch Brand’s craeer, which has been in trouble ever since he was sacked from his radio programme.
I think far from taking Russell Brand seriously, this article is designed to show exactly why he should not be. The problem we have is that so many people have found themselves agreeing with Brand and an example of why he is so wrong in his opinion is warmly welcomed.
Thanks to all of you for your comments on here. I’ve given it a bit of time to reflect on things before replying.
What I’ve been most pleased about with this article is how differently it has been interpreted. In this comment thread alone there are at least 2 interpretations of what I has intending to achieve by writing this. I’ve had many others through emails, facebook comments (where this was linked) and people I’ve talked to in person. It’s been really interesting to hear that I’ve managed to convince different people that I’m both ‘sell-out’ to revolutionary politics and an anarchist, that I’ve misrepresented history and that I’ve championed the cause of Russell Brand all at the same time.
I’ve enjoyed this, except at times when people have clearly misread what I wrote – in fact if you read the article on forgepress (the second comment posted) when it was originally published it badly misrepresented what I was saying and misquoted me – this was changed after James Pennock pointed it out to them and it was changed (without mention of the change – poor practice there). Thanks to James for this.
The blog post was intentionally left open in my opinion on Brand himself: I intended to contextualise some of the ideas he was putting forward, rather than pass judgement on them. Whether or not we should take him seriously I do think that his comments opened up a debate on the state of our system that went beyond his own personality/vanity project.
I think David Holland (above) put it nicely in his first paragraph, as I’d hope it make it clear that anarchism in Spain wasn’t just an idea held by a handful of aggrevied intellectuals: it was a movement of hundreds of thousands of people that lasted for over 70 years. For anyone suggesting something along those lines (however realistic or not) they would do well to look at how they went about it and how ideas change and can lead to strange positions, compeltely at odds with initial ambitions, when put into effect.
Thanks again for the thoughts and do keep posting if you are interested