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In progress.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

No.1 - The General Idea


I live in Newcastle upon Tyne.
I am interested in anarchism, and in the anarchist heritage that has come down to us.
I want to go on holiday.

In this blog I will be piecing together plans for a tour, a kind of atheist's pilgrimage, to visit the places where two particularly famous anarchist characters lived, escaped from, erected barricades and discovered new geographies.

I have chosen the two most famous early anarchist theorists and propagandists, both Russians, both imprisoned in the same place (at slightly different times), and both with impressive beards. Both of them spent time in Switzerland, Paris & London, talking & thinking through the ideas that became, for each of them, a clear and distinct doctrine of anarchism. Both still have books available on the shelves of Newcastle University Library.

The biographies of these two men, exciting as they are in their own right, are given particular prominence in the anarchist tradition because they intersect with some of the most formative and influential history of the western revolutionary tradition.

One led the split with Marx in the International Working Men's Association, developing what are now the core and standard anarchist arguments against centralism and authority. He formed international networks and conspiracies of anarchists to work against the states and empires of Europe, members of which ended up starting Britain's own history of anarchist organisation. (He also fought on the barricades with Wagner, lost his teeth in prison and pissed off uncountable people, from both sides of the revolutionary struggle.)

The other arrived in Irkutsk, Siberia, the year after the first had escaped (by ship, down the river to Japan). He developed his ideas amongst a new climate of repression and ended up having to escape in the other direction (North through Finland and down though Sweden). He toured the world, speaking in Newcastle on numerous occasions and writing works that inspired projects like the local Clousden Hill Anarchist Commune. When he died, the funeral procession though the streets of St.Petersburg became the last massive demonstration of anti-Bolshevik, anti-authoritarian revolution. After that, repression was pretty complete.

One's name was Mikhail Bakunin and the other's was Peter Kropotkin.

By retracing some of their journeys, and ruminating on some of their ideas and experiences and works as I go, I hope to connect (on at least a personal level), with the anarchism that they absorbed, worked with & developed. I will sketch some things I see, doodle and write in various notepads, take the odd photo and meet the odd person. I hope to persuade friends to come with me some of the way, and come out to meet me on the way back.

So I am not trying to recreate their lives. I am not a daring agitator. When the police demand a bribe to stop them chucking me off the train, I will probably pay up. I want a quiet life and - sad as it is to admit - I think I lack the great optimism and backbone of a great historical figure. I am a zine-maker and my mum says I can draw quite well, so that is what I will aim to do.

I have yet to figure out what exact route I will take. There are no boats from or to the ports that Bakunin used. Even the ferries to Scandinavia have been replaced now by planes. One thing I will certainly not be doing is using an aeroplane. I do know roughly when I will set off, because I finish work in mid July, and I am holding on to this dream as my way of getting through six months of what I consider quite soul-destroying work. The purpose of my wages will be to buy train tickets and pay for beds in far off towns. The light at the end of the tunnel will be the sun rising over Siberia!

I will try and work out my itinerary in blog post no.2, changing it each time something crops up. In post no.3 I'll stick in some words that might turn into the first page. As you read this blog, however, do remember that this internetty wotnot is purely preparatory. It's a place to make notes and jot down plans before I get started. The actual product of this journey will be hand-drawn and stuck together with pritt stick, as a proper zine should be. My other zine projects can be seen at and I'm also on the networking site

The final thing to say, though, is that I do hope this big holiday-research project-zine thing will not be solely about me and my navel. Issues of state repression, of border controls, of alliances amongst the powerful to screw up the rules in their own favour, keep the poor disunited, make profit from death and injustice. These things are as horrible in 2010 as they were in 1910. And are the wild mountains and flocks of geese still there, that Kropotkin recorded in the desolate forests of Siberia? Are the communal societies and moments of tragedy when the people rally round still as true? What ever happened to the alternative future which these two thinkers glimpsed? Does mutual aid still count in Putin's Russia? Where do the lies of power show themselves most plain, and where might hope be found. I don't know.

Anarchism is a theory of liberation against oppression, and if there's one thing that I think these two great bearded fellows have got right it's that the forms of both - of freedom and of unfreedom - are changing all the time. Domestic violence, internet technology, fear, friendship, we all have both sides of the struggle inside of us and the world at large has even more. The struggle never ends. Neither Bakunin nor Kropotkin had all the answers - & I'm neither a Kropotkinian nor a Bakuninite - but then they never claimed that their version of anarchism was complete and for all time. They were just two people, two of us, and in their own time, to their own ability, they tried to change the world, to increase our possibilities of freedom, and declare that the worst cases of injustice could indeed be stopped. I think that, looking back, they can give us some insights and inspirations that can help us in our own journeys.

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