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Jonathan Campbell
Jonathan Campbell

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Words of a Rebel makes quite clear, in both political and economic terms, the grounds for the division between anarchists and socialists. Kropotkin rejects the ideas of parliamentary democracy put forward by the republican bourgeoisie; he also condemns the ideas of revolutionary government put forward by Marx's followers and the ideas of revolutionary dictatorship put forward by the followers and the ideas of revolutionary government of Auguste Blanqui. Like Bakunin before him he sees the revolution as a popular insurrection in the broadest of terms, with power abolished, or perhaps rather ignored out of existence, and with the general expropriation of property and its takeover by communal groups, the producers and the consumers. The public wealth, all that has been accumulated by the joint work of mankind over the centuries, would thus return to its rightful owners, the people. Anarchism in this way revealed itself as the logical extremity of populism, and one had only to read Words of a Rebel to realize why it became impossible for the anarchists to work any longer with authoritarian revolutionaries or with the advocates of representative government, whose democratic pretensions Kropotkin and his associates rejected with contempt as another form of tyranny. The attitude was not entirely a new one. Proudhon's tirades against universal suffrage had been monumental and seemed to be justified when the French people in the twilight of the 1848 revolution voted in Prince Louis Napoleon as their president.

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And it is in this context that he develops the idea of deeds as well as words as the media of revolutionary propaganda. Both in Words of a Rebel, and to a much greater extent in his major historical work, The Great French Revolution, so largely a study of grassroots insurrection, Kropotkin sets out to show that the real initiatives of the revolution were carried out by the people, who forced the politicians to act in ending serfdom and distributing the land, and that their action was prepared and encouraged by largely unknown militants who performed acts of symbolic defiance, sometimes involving violence against the regime and its representatives. His thinking ran parallel to that of the Italian anarchists, who had derived from mid-nineteenth century radical republicans like Carlo Pisacane the idea that the propaganda of the word was fruitless unless accompanied by revolutionary actions, even if for the moment they were futile. It was in accordance with these ideas that Italian militants like Malatesta and Cafiero led rather pointless peasant uprisings like the Benevento insurrection in 1877.

It is evident that we are advancing rapidly towards revolution, towards an upheaval that will begin in one country and spread, as in 1848, into all the neighbouring lands, and, as it rocks existing society to its foundations, will also reopen the springs of life.

Already, at the end of the last century, France was beginning on the same evolution. By transferring power, by attracting the bare-footed peasants to the towns and by enriching the bourgeoisie, the revolution gave a new impulse to economic evolution. At this point the English bourgeoisie became alarmed, even more than they had been by the republican declarations and the blood spilt in Paris; supported by the aristocracy, they declared a war to the death on the French bourgeoisie who threatened to close the European markets to English products.

As for the bourgeoisie, its leading characteristic was cowardice. A few isolated individuals occasionally took the risk of attacking the government and reawakening the spirit of revolt by some audacious act. But the great mass of the bourgeoisie bowed down shamefully before the king and his court, before the noblemen and even before the nobleman's lackey. Only read the municipal records of the period, and you will be aware of the vile servility that impregnated the words of the bourgeoisie in the years before 1789. Their words ooze with the most ignoble servitude, with all due deference to M. Louis Blanc[19] and other adulators of that prerevolutionary bourgeoisie. A deep despair inspired the few real revolutionaries of the period when they cast an eye around them, and Camille Desmoulins was justified in making his famous remark: "We republicans were hardly a dozen in number before 1789."[20]

The Commune of 1871 could not be any more than a first sketch. Born at the end of a war, surrounded by two armies ready to give a hand in crushing the people, it dared not declare itself openly socialist, and proceeded neither to the expropriation of capital nor to the organization of work, nor even to a general inventory of the city's resources. Nor did it break with the tradition of the State, of representative government, and it did not attempt to achieve within the Commune that organization from the simple to the complex it adumbrated by proclaiming the independence and free federation of Communes. But it is certain that if the Commune of Paris had lived a few months longer, the strength of events would have forced it towards these two revolutions. We should not forget that [in the French Revolution] the bourgeoisie devoted four years of the revolutionary period to proceed from a moderate monarchy to a bourgeois republic; it should not surprise us that the people of Paris could not overleap in a single day the gulf that separated the anarchist Commune from the rule of bandits. But we must also realize that the revolution, which in France and certainly also in Spain, will be communalist. It will take up the work of the Paris Commune where it was halted by the assassinations perpetrated by the men of Versailles.

Let the self-styled bourgeois revolutionaries teach this idea -- that is appropriate. We know what they mean by the revolution. It is nothing more than the patching up of the bourgeois republic; it is the taking over by self-styled republicans of the lucrative positions that today are reserved for Bonapartists or Royalists. It is above all the divorce of the Church and State, followed by their concubinage. This is all very well for the bourgeois revolutionaries. But that socialist revolutionaries should make themselves the apostles of such an idea can be explained, it seems to me, only by supposing one of two things. Either those who accept it are imbued with the bourgeois prejudices they have absorbed, without realising it, through the literature and above all the history created by bourgeois writers for the use of the bourgeoisie, and remain permeated by the spirit of servility, the product of centuries of enslavement, from which they cannot imagine liberating themselves; or, they really want nothing of that revolution whose name has always been on their lips; they would be content with renovating existing institutions, so long as they themselves are carried to power, when they will be prepared to decide later on what must be done to calm the "beast," that is to say, the people. They hold no grudges against those in power so long as they can take their places. With such individuals there is no point in arguing. We will speak only with those who have been honestly deceived, often by themselves.

To imagine that the government can be overthrown by a secret society, and that this society can take the government's place, is an error into which have fallen all the revolutionary organizations born in the heart of the republican bourgeoisie of France since 1820. But other facts abound which give added witness to that error. What devotion, what abnegation, what perseverance did not the secret republican societies of Young Italy[65] display -- yet all this immense work, all these sacrifices made by young people in Italy, before which even those of Russian revolutionaries seem to pale, all these corpses piled up in the casemates of Austrian fortresses and under the axe and bullets of the executioners -- all of it became the inheritance of the rascals of the bourgeoisie and the hangers-on of royalty.

For what picture could be more gripping, more sublime or more beautiful than that of the efforts made by the precursors of revolutions? What incessant labour on the part of the peasants and a few men of action from the bourgeoisie before 1789; what persevering struggle on the part of the republicans from the Restoration of the Bourbons in 1815 to their fall in 1830; what activity on the part of the secret societies during the reign of the grand bourgeois Louis Philippe! Could any picture be more poignant than that of the conspiracies initiated by the Italians to shake the Austrian yoke, their heroic attempts, the unspeakable sufferings of their martyrs? Could there be a tragedy more sad yet impressive at the same time than that which would recount all the vicissitudes of the secret activity undertaken by the youth of Russia against the government and the landowning and capitalist systems from 1860 down to our own day? What noble figures would rise up before the modern socialist in reading such dramas; what examples of sublime devotion and self-sacrifice, and at the same time, what revolutionary education -- not theoretical but practical -- from which the present generation might profit!

But the people knew nothing like this. On the political question they repeated in 1848, imitating the bourgeoisie, "Republic and Universal Suffrage," and in 1871 they said, with the petty bourgeoisie, "The Commune!" But neither in 1848 nor in 1871 did they have any precise idea of what must be done to solve the question of bread and work. "The organization of work," that slogan of 1848 (a phantom recently resuscitated by the Germany collectivists), was a term so vague that it said nothing; the same was the case with the equally vague collectivism of the International in France during 1869. If, in March 1871, one had questioned all those who worked to bring about the Commune on what should be done to solve the question of bread and work -- what a terrible cacophony of contradictory answers one would have received! Must we take possession of the workshops in the name of the Commune of Paris? Can we lay our hands on houses and declare them property of the insurgent city? Is it necessary to take possession of all the provisions and organize rationing? Should one proclaim all the riches piled in Paris to be the common property of the French people, and apply these powerful means to the liberation of the whole nation? On none of these questions did the mass of the people form any opinion. Preoccupied by the necessities of the immediate struggle, the International itself neglected a thorough discussion of such matters. "You are indulging in fantasy and theory," was the answer to those who brought them up; and when the social revolution was mentioned the discussion was limited to defining it by other words just as vague, such as Liberty, Equality, Solidarity.


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