Socialism from below

Published by Irene Publishing

Mike Davis on a trilogy of libertarians

Liberate and Federate – Mike Tyldesley published by Irene

The title comes from a work by Silvio Trentin, one of the subjects of this book. Subtitled “Three Proudhonian socialists in an age of Fascism, Stalinism and War” Tyldesley’s study uncovers the lives and writings of these relatively neglected Italian, Latvian/Russian and French libertarian socialists. It is a fascinating study in which the author has mined many French and Italian texts to explore the insights of these dissident refugee writers.

Proudhon was a 19th Century libertarian socialist whose work was rather eclipsed by Marx and Engels, although they drew from his thinking.

The trilogy of thinkers, each explored through their published works, manifestoes and reviews, were unlikely to have met or shared their thoughts concludes the author.

Georges Gurvitch, a Latvian involved in the early years of the Russian SDP, a Menshevik, then in 1917 a “white”, then back to the left embracing “guild socialism” with a heavy stress on ethics. He left Russia ending up in the late 1920s in France where he remained teaching a writing promoting the idea of social law seeing himself an intellectual outsider. Vichy France and the rise of antisemitism meant a temporary retreat to New York during the war, returning to teach sociology until his death in the early 1960s. He saw communism as a species of state capitalism where worker’s exploitation remains, not the dictatorship of the proletariat, but the dictatorship of the police.

His Manifesto “The declaration of social rights” was a synthesis of his writings in which he sought to construct an ideal democracy. For him the essence of socialism was neither the fight against private or individual property but the fight against the perversion of power of people over things into the power of people over people. Increasing state monopoly would only increase that perversion.

He was impressed with the Yugoslav system of decentralised pluralist collectivism. For him planning must be decentralised and based on workers’ self management. Tyldesley highlights Gurvitch’s view of an odd grouping of Trotsky and Stalin versus Lenin seeing the former inaugurating the terror, with both pressing against Lenin for the suppression of the councils of workers.

Essentially Gurvitch sought to promote federalist limitations on state power, socialisation without statism.

Silvio Trentin, dubbed “the bookseller of Toulouse” argued autonomy must be at the base of all activities and powers. He also echoed Proudhon in prioritising the struggle against the centralising tendencies of the national state. Federalism and pluralism was the key to offsetting the tendency of the centralised state towards totalitarianism. He was active in the French Resistance to the Nazis and produced two draft constitutions for France and Italy based on federalist ideas. For Italy the principles were personal liberty, institutional autonomy, collective property and social justice.

Andrea Caffi, of Russian origin, arrived in France in the 1920s, fleeing fascist Italy. He majored on a critique of violence. He could not condone the terror and the anti-social mentality of either the Jacobins or the Bolsheviks. In this he was more aligned to anarchist thought. He retreated to Toulouse when the Nazis invaded France. He wrote regularly for French publications and for Dwight MacDonald’s  Politics journal. His manifesto was published in December 1945. He argued for the autonomisation of the European people. He was for a radical decentralisation of power and decision-making with a maximum of autonomy at the bottom and a minimum of unrestricted power at the top.

Tyldesley goes into much more detail on his subjects referencing numerous untranslated works in French and Italian for the multilingual reader. Sometimes the narrative on the subject’s lives is difficult to follow but the result nevertheless shines a light on a necessary radical but libertarian twist on the sort of socialist politics sorely needed in today’s world of authoritarian politics from right and left.

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