One month late, we are finally back from summer vacation with a report from Anarchy 2023, a worldwide anarchist gathering in Saint-Imier, Switzerland. This festival celebrated the 151-year anniversary of the founding congress of the federation known as the Anti-Authoritarian International—the continuation of the International Workingmen’s [sic] Association, one of the most important European labor organizations of the 19th century. Drawing a reputed 5000 people—mostly from central Europe, but also from as far away as Chile and Australia—the gathering in Saint-Imier may have been the largest exclusively anarchist event of the year. Here, we offer a variety of accounts and appraisals.
The gathering comprised five days of activities distributed between 12 venues scattered across the town, not counting improvised events in public spaces. There were over 412 workshop sessions, 48 concerts, 36 film screenings, 11 theater performances, and 7 exhibitions, as well as a book fair including almost 100 tables. Despite this dizzying array of programming, the majority of these activities were standing room only.
Photographs were discouraged throughout the whole of Saint-Imier, though corporate media photographers surreptitiously took some. You can see a short photoessay by Greek anarchists here.
From 1872 to 2023
First, let’s set the record straight about the event that anarchists came to Saint-Imier to commemorate.
Before the Paris Commune revolt broke out in spring 1871, tensions had been brewing for years within the International Workingmen’s [sic] Association, Europe’s chief revolutionary labor federation. At that time, there were at least four currents within the International; we can roughly summarize them by association with the figures Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Louis Auguste Blanqui, Karl Marx, and Mikhail Bakunin.1 Proudhon’s adherents sought to change society by forming worker-owned labor cooperatives; Blanqui’s, by conspiring to seize dictatorial state power; Marx’s, by forming political parties to compete in elections. By contrast, Bakunin and his colleagues aimed to use revolutionary tactics to attack both capitalism and the state, aiming to mobilize the general population on a horizontal basis.
At that time, there was no anarchist movement, formally speaking. Some individuals identified as anarchists (Proudhon had famously done so in 1840), but there was no distinct organizing body advocating permanent opposition to all forms of the state and capitalism.
After the Paris Commune, when most of the participants in that uprising were in prison, in hiding, or buried in mass graves, Marx convened a closed meeting of the General Council, the central coordinating body of the International Workingmen’s Association. With the support of a recently added Blanquist member, and over the objections of representatives of rank-and-file sections of the International, the General Council declared that “the working class cannot act, as a class, except by constituting itself into a political party,” unilaterally imposing Marx’s preferred political strategy on the entire federation by fiat.
This was widely understood as an authoritarian power grab. Members of the International in Switzerland condemned this in a statement known as the Sonvillier Circular: “If there is one incontrovertible fact, borne out a thousand times by experience, it is that authority has a corrupting effect on those in whose hands it is placed.”
The next congress of the International took place in the Hague in September 1872. In order to ensure a majority, Marx and his colleagues used the authority of the General Council to manipulate the process via which delegates received their credentials; the Italian sections of the International boycotted the congress completely. Blanqui’s supporters joined Marx’s supporters in ratifying a controversial program of centralization and authoritarianism, expelling Bakunin in absentia and trying to do the same to his supporters. To everyone’s surprise, however, Marx then pushed through a decision to move the location of the General Council across the Atlantic to New York City—effectively attempting to kill the International rather than letting it escape his control.
On September 15, 1872, eight days later, delegates representing Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland, and the United States2 gathered in Saint-Imier to reorganize the International. Although the majority were anarchists, they established an inclusive structure, inviting all revolutionary socialists to organize on a horizontal basis rather than answering to a centralized, dictatorial cadre. (“The Congress denies in principle the legislative right of all Congresses,” reads the statement they drew up; “the destruction of all political power is the first duty of the proletariat.”) This is the event that the 2012 and 2023 gatherings in Saint-Imier commemorate.
A year later, in September 1873, delegates from England, France, Spain, Italy, Holland, Belgium, and Switzerland gathered in Geneva to continue the International, picking up where the 1872 Saint-Imier congress had left off. J.G. Eccarius, formerly Marx’s right-hand man, was among them. César De Paepe and many other longtime participants in the International also continued to participate.
Even anarchists are often unclear on this history. For example, in his coverage of the 2023 gathering for the Marxist paper Junge Welt, Gabriel Kuhn belittles the St. Imier congress, describing Saint-Imier as a “retreat for the anarchists who had been expelled from the First International at the Hague Congress” and claiming that
“the anti-authoritarian International was to be an anarchist alternative to the First International, which was classified as dictatorial. The success was modest.”
In truth, following Marx’s Pyrrhic power grab at the Hague Congress, the vast majority of the members of the International broke with Marx’s faction. The latter perished immediately. The Marxist historian G.M. Steklov emphasized this:
at best, its continued existence was barely perceptible to an outsider, and was nothing more than a long-drawn-out death agony… Attempts to revive the corpse were fruitless.
Meanwhile, a large number of the organizations that had comprised the original International Workingmen’s Association adhered to the reconstituted International that emerged from the meeting in Saint-Imier. They continued to work together, holding annual congresses over the following half decade despite intense state repression.3 Steklov, himself no friend to anarchists, documents all this in his History of the First International.
The narrative that the Saint-Imier International represented a minoritarian departure from the International Workingmen’s Association is historical revisionism, largely spread by Marxists who don’t read their own historians. What Steklov later called the “Anarchist International” was not, as Kuhn implies, an “alternative” to the International Workingmen’s Association—it was simply the continuation of it, liberated from a cadre of authoritarians who had unsuccessfully tried to hijack it. Anarchists were not a fractious sect within the labor movement of the 1870s and 1880s; they were a central current within it.
For more background on these events, you could start with Robert Graham’s We Do Not Fear Anarchy, We Invoke It: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement and Wolfgang Eckhardt’s The First Socialist Schism: Bakunin vs. Marx in the International Working Men’s Association. Graham himself has published a short history of the Saint-Imier congress and the continuation of the International thereafter.
And in 2023?
A great deal has changed since 1872.
Anarchism, established in 1872 as a formal movement, has spread across the world, been completely destroyed by repression, and reemerged and spread once more, again and again. Elsewhere, we have explored how the economy has changed over the past century and how that should inform contemporary revolutionary strategy. Here, it is enough to say that although those who gathered in Saint-Imier in 2023 were mostly workers of one kind or another, in today’s volatile context, sharing a profession or workplace is no longer a reliable starting point for building a long-term practice of collective resistance.
Hence, in place of labor federations, we have looser networks based around communications infrastructure and held together by ideas.
It is characteristic of our era that more and more people are turning against capitalism, the state, and other forms of oppression at the same time that those forces are rendering the old models of organizing and solidarity unsustainable. It is not surprising that there were more attendees at this gathering in Saint-Imier than at the last such event in 2012; likewise, it is not surprising that there were fewer membership organizations with long-term programs and formal organizing processes. We should not view this as a failure of the organizers, nor of the movement as a whole; there are structural factors at work here that are bigger than any one organizing group, milieu, or ideology.
Likewise, we should not imagine that those who can easily travel across the world to participate in such a gathering are representative of the contemporary anarchist movement as a whole. The attendees were disproportionately younger and from comparatively privileged backgrounds; structural challenges prevented many anarchists from attending, especially from outside Europe.
Nonetheless—if we want the anarchist movement to shape history rather than simply being a product of our times, it is up to us to establish new long-term anarchist infrastructure projects and networks that can rise to the challenges ahead of us and to make sure that these transcend the boundaries of privilege and geography. The fact that thousands of people made the effort to come together in Saint-Imier last July indicates how urgent this work is.
It is encouraging that a small number of organizers without any financial backing succeeded in creating a robust event in which virtually everything was available for free. This shows that anarchist models can succeed on a larger scale. It only remains to expand them.
To offer a multifaceted account of the gathering in Saint-Imier, we’ve assembled a collection of impressions here, composed by anarchists from Germany, Russia, Belarus, Finland, the United States, and elsewhere around the world.
We spend the first morning in the book fair area, where we are responsible for adjacent literature tables. When mealtime approaches, we delegate N— and B— to look into the food situation. They go off to figure out where lunch is being served.
N— comes back a few minutes later, dispirited. “There’s no way. I’ve never seen so many people in a line.”
“Did B— stay?” I ask. “Is he in the line?” I’m starting to get quite hungry, myself.
“He’s a goner,” N— answers. “There’s a thousand people in that line. It stretches all the way past the building and up the hill. I don’t think we’ll ever see him again.”
Five minutes later, B— appears, cheerfully balancing several full plates of food in his arms. “What happened?” I demand. “Did they have food set aside for people tabling?”
“Oh, no, nothing like that. It was just surprisingly quick.” He looks almost dazed.
I go out to get a look at the line myself. I have to walk quite a distance to get to the back of it. Several times, I think I’ve reached the end, and it turns out that I’m still somewhere in the middle. Finally, I get in the queue. I must be hundreds of feet from where food is being served. If this line moves as slowly as the lines at the toilets, I’ll still be standing in it at nightfall.
But the line is moving quickly indeed. I’m accustomed to standing in line, but in this line, we’re walking forward the whole time. Maybe people ahead of us are giving up and leaving? But no, we keep advancing in a steady pace.
After a couple minutes, I can make out two rows of tables ahead of us. The queue breaks in two and passes between them. On the other side of each table, there is a furious whirlwind of activity. I’m used to one volunteer languidly spooning potatoes onto a plate. What I see, instead, is a half dozen volunteers preparing plates of food in rapid fire, placing them in rows on the tables. The slowest part of the whole operation is the diners picking up the plates. You can take as many plates as you can carry and no one looks askance at you. It’s really an incredible operation.
After I eat, I take my dirty plate and go in search of a dishwashing station. I’m expecting to wash my own dish in a dirty tub of greywater that smells like bleach. Instead, there is a whole dishwashing operation going on involving what appears to be dozens of people. I can’t even fit inside the freestanding shelter they have set up—there’s too many of them. They insist that I deposit my dish in a pile and leave it to them.
The following night, I discover that my comrade has missed dinner. According to the schedule, it has been several hours since the kitchen team stopped serving food. All the same, just in case, I go over to the serving area to see if I can find anything she can eat. I’m picturing a leftover chunk of bread, or something.
There’s no one anywhere near the food serving area. At least, not on the receiving side of it. Things don’t look promising.
But when I get up to the tables, I see that there’s someone behind one of them, still piling food onto the dishes and lining them up on the table. It looks like a different menu than what was served for dinner. There are 5000 anarchists in this town, but here, no one else is around, just the two of us.
“Do you know if these are earmarked for some specific group or event, or something?” I ask, gesturing at the full plates of food he is putting out.
“I have no idea,” he answers without stopping his work. He has an embattled but determined air, the way I imagine the Kronstadt rebels. “They keep giving them to me, so I keep putting them out.”
“They who? Is there someone who can answer my question?”
He gestures behind him. Approaching from some distance behind the table is a kitchen worker, coming to replenish his supply of lentils.
“Is this food for some specific group or event, or something?” I ask, again.
“This food?” the kitchen worker answers, serenely, gesturing at the rows of full plates of food accumulating on the table. “No, this is for everyone.”
Anarchy works. Or at least—if the gathering in Saint-Imier was any indication, no one would go hungry in an anarchist society.
A Daring Experiment
Anarchy 2023 was a brave and risky experiment in self-organization. The gathering drew more than twice the number of inhabitants of the village. I was told that the initiative group of the gathering comprised around ten people, so most of the organization was left to the collectives and individuals invited, who were mostly completely strangers to each other. Nonetheless, the organizers all took a very idealist anarcho-communist approach to everything. No one was paid for their efforts; no one was charged anything more than a voluntary donation to participate and receive resources like food and accommodations; and no one was in charge. Anyone could announce a workshop and declare a space for it.
The organizers tolerated a very wide range of views, including some polar opposites. I noted that some discussions aimed solely at openly criticizing other existing anarchist projects were dropped from program, but there were still lots of events in the program that were doing that just a bit more subtly.
I do not know if the event was a financial disaster, but as for the daily functioning of the gathering, I would say it was a great success. Especially the organization of food was astonishing and completely scalable: I never had to wait in line for longer than 20 minutes, even though thousands of the people were flooding into the queue. Food was provided for those with specific dietary needs such as celiac disease; there was even a special section for people who still want to use masks and maintain social distancing.
Due to the huge number of topics and presentations, it was hardly possible to get a general picture of the events, and I was mostly kept busy pursuing my own field of interest—meeting activists from Eastern Europe and planning common projects with them. Probably most of the other attendees were busy in the same way. This means that it was not really Anarchy 2023 but rather Anarchies of 2023, not one movement but countless different movements that just happened to intersect in time and space but with little actual connection.
I never had a chance to meet any anarchists involved in the movement before the Second World War, so I was very happy to listen to Ben Morea, who has had a tremendous impact on the formation of the modern anarchist movement, for example by coining the English-language term affinity group.
The first workshop I go to, it takes twenty minutes to walk to the building where it is scheduled to take place. When I arrive, it takes ten more minutes to push through the tight crowd thronging the entrance and make my way up to the second floor. There, I discover that two events have been double-booked for the same room. Looking online doesn’t help—in the official schedule, both events are listed with the same room number.
The attendees of both events are crowding into the room. It’s not big enough to accommodate all of them; many more people are trapped out in the hall, further congesting foot traffic.
I am not the one making this presentation. But I want to see it, and decades of anarchist organizing have given me a robust sense of my own agency. “We’re going to need one of the presentations to move to a different room,” I declare, hoping this will help me figure out who the presenters are.
“We can’t leave,” answers someone involved in the other workshop, the one I am not trying to attend. “We already put our visuals up on the walls.”
An industrious Finn who, like me, has only a tenuous connection to the presentation we are both trying to attend goes out to see if there are any empty rooms left. “Nobody leave, we are going to find another location!” I announce.
This gives one young person the mistaken impression that I am in a position of authority. “Can you tell me when it is going to start?” he says. “It’s already five minutes past the start time.”
“Listen,” I answer, “I’m not in charge of this event. I’m just trying to make sure that it can happen. This whole kerfuffle is not my idea.”
In the end, the Finn returns, having secured another room, and the event begins just a few minutes late.
The next day, I am scheduled to present a workshop myself. Drawing on my experience, I make sure to get to the room a full forty minutes early. To my surprise, it is almost empty.
I open up my computer and start trying to figure out how to connect it to the projector. I’m not what you might call technically inclined.
As I am struggling to find a cord, a very serious Latin American gentleman approaches me.
“I want to be clear,” he says. “I’m not in a position of responsibility here. I’m not in charge of the events in this room.”
“That’s fine—do you know who is?”
“No one is.”
“Oh, well, that’s great,” I say, despairingly.
“Now, do you have an HDMI port?” he continues, briskly. “If you want to appear on the livestream, we will have to set up the camera in this position, but if you prefer to remain anonymous, we’ll move it over here, so it only shows the screen, and it will be up to you to remember not to venture across this invisible line. Do you need access to a podium? How many of you are there, and when will your comrades arrive?”
This sign in one of the buildings hosting events during the anarchist gathering in Saint-Imier seems to imply that some of the discussions were announced as booby traps to force unsuspecting attendees to organize themselves.
What Gives Me Hope
A pair of giant skeleton puppets bobbing through a packed dance floor. An indoor ice-skating rink transformed into massive literature distribution hangar. A pop-up pizza tent where you can obtain vegan pizza made by comrades—provided you are willing to wait. People sprawled in the empty pastures around the village, talking and napping in the sun. The longest line I’ve ever seen for the kitchen, but also a surprisingly efficient and fast-moving one. All the bikes locked up outside the main show space, because we might not even trust each other. A hall packed full of hundreds chanting “Siamo Tutti Antifascisti!” and everyone meaning it wholeheartedly. Stumbling upon an art show on a rooftop patio, complete with bubbles and potato crisps in the shape of teddy bears, where prints made by some of the children are displayed. Holding hands and gazing at the Milky Way, making wishes on shooting stars until the dawn creeps blue on the horizon, beckoning the coming day.
I arrive late at night and the first thing I see is the countless little tents and caravans stretched out in vacant cow pastures. Walking through the night, I head to the main show space, embrace a dear love, and catch the last few songs of a Colombian punk band. I’ll return to this hall over the coming nights to talk with friends and revel to a hip-hop duo and witchtrap DJs, dancing myself back into my body, dancing myself home.
During the days, I scan the schedule, looking for the sweet spot: workshops I’m interested in in languages I understand. A presentation on Gustav Landauer, a 19th-century anarchist poet mystic, catches my eye—but unfortunately it is scheduled at the same time that I have a prior commitment. I go about my day and check the schedule again later, only to find the Gustav Landauer talk has been moved to the early evening. I make my way up the side of the mountain, intending to drop in on a somatic experiencing workshop on the way. I stop in and do some breathing and grounding exercises led by a presenter who alternates between English and French. Then I make my way across the packed square, where people have gathered to listen to a rousing presentation.
Above the din, I swear I can faintly hear singing. It draws me. Making my way back across the crowded square away from the location of the Gustav Landauer talk, I trace the sweet sound around the corner, where a group of anarchists are assembled in a church courtyard. A dear friend had alerted me to the fact that there would be an anarchist choir here—and now I have stumbled on them.
In delight and awe, I stand and listen. I chime in where I can, looking over the shoulder of someone with an anarchist songbook.
At length, I tear myself away, intent on catching at least a tiny bit of the Landauer presentation. I walk back through town and scale flights of stairs to catch the last few minutes. The punchline is that it turns out the talk was really about Spinoza, or rather, Gustav Landauer’s relationship to Spinoza’s work.
At one point, though, the presenter remarks that Landauer wrote that when someone becomes a comrade, you gain twice: first, by making a new friend, and second, by having one less enemy. This gem alone made it worth attending.
My time in St. Imier was heady and full. It felt like time stretched out, then concertinaed back in. A day felt like many days, two days like a week. Like many other people in this world, I consider myself a lost child, divorced from a fulfilling cultural heritage and stripped of a relationship to the land. I strive to rebuild the latter in my daily life; the former, I build and lose and build again. I went to St. Imier, in part, to connect to the anarchist lineage that binds me to history, linking me to both the past and the future, which has helped me make sense of my life for the past twenty-five years.
In a small Swiss village with a street named Rue Bakounine, I could feel the tug of belonging, the thread that keeps pulling me home. It’s not that these temporal spaces make me feel young so much as that they make me remember who I am. The thing that was most notable, in a tiny town filled with thousands of anarchists, was not who was there, but who was absent. Because despite the many, many anarchists who were there, I know there are so many more around the world who were not. And that—that gives me hope.
The Inspiration We Need
I came home from the gathering in Saint-Imier with a lot of new motivation and strength. Walking down the streets of Saint-Imier, passing self-organized workshops and discussions in different languages at almost every corner, showed me once again what becomes possible when people come together in self-organized spaces.
Exchanging ideas and experiences, discussing strategies, meeting old comrades and friends and making new ones, a book fair filling a whole ice arena (I mean, how crazy is that?)… Being surrounded by thousands of anarchists from all around the globe sharing similar ideas and connecting the different struggles we fight… all this inspired me a lot. The kind of inspiration that we desperately need to continue our struggle.
On the other hand, the gathering left me with a lot of open questions regarding how to deal with conflicts and contradictions within our movement. What is needed for us to be willing to listen to each other so that we can learn and grow together? At what point does solidarity become an empty phrase? How do we live up to our ideals across borders in times of war? How much formal or informal organization do we need? What do we consider victory to mean in the struggles we are engaged in?
Imagine the Authoritarian International
Corporate reporters discussing the gathering in Saint-Imier trotted out the usual clichés about anarchism. “Much of what is offered here is contradictory,” declared one journalist. Criticizing a sparsely attended talk at which an elderly German parroted some pro-Russian talking points about Ukraine, the same author crowed:
“This would be unthinkable in a curated, moderated programme. But that would also require more authority than most anarchists would like.”
Many people who have not previously been exposed to anarchism take it for granted that “more authority” is the solution for every problem. The question, of course, is how to decide who gets to wield that authority. In Russia, in which one can arguably find more authority than Switzerland, the authorities are the very ones pushing the talking points to which this journalist took exception.
For perspective, let’s imagine a comparable gathering for the opposing side. Picture the Authoritarian International, an event welcoming everyone who passionately believes in the importance of authority as a value unto itself. Would such a gathering be less contradictory, less disputatious?
What location and anniversary would the partisans of authority choose? Every nationalist would propose the capital of his own country; every monarchist would argue for the date of the founding of his favorite royal line. Perhaps the city of Rome could satisfy almost everyone: republicans for the Roman Republic, imperialists for the Roman Empire, autocrats for the coup that turned the former into the latter, Catholics for the Vatican, Nazis for the March on Rome that brought fascism to power. But which date would they pick?
Even if they could agree on a place and time, think how bitterly they would squabble, united only by faith in the importance of hierarchy, centralization, and domination. Proponents of religious theocracy, military dictatorship, corporate oligarchy, and constitutional republic would shout each other down, each striving to force the others to obey his preferred despot or legal code. Devotees of Ayn Rand would bicker with Stalinists; Trump-voting Klansmen would brawl with earnest Norwegian social democrats.
How would technocrats and militia leaders resolve their differences over how to apportion authority? Voting? A rigorous job application process? Brute force?
Capitalists would vie to fleece each other. Food, housing, and other necessities would be available only at market prices—or worse, if some magnate or state agency managed to establish a monopoly. (What is a monopoly, if not “more authority” in the realm of economics?)
Rather than disagreeing over how to end the war in Ukraine, attendees would contend to cash in on it or to emulate Putin’s strategies for suppressing protest movements. Rather than debating COVID-19 safety protocol, some would discuss how to create artificial scarcity in access to medical treatment as a means of increasing profits while others studied how to use lockdowns as a pretext to crush dissent. For a considerable fee, attendees could choose between workshops with titles like “Stage Your Own Coup” and “The Iron Rule of Law.”
Let’s stop here before we accidentally reinvent the League of Nations or the New York Stock Exchange. Looking through this lens, the various groups and discourses that converged in Saint-Imier look surprisingly coherent. Taking the simple idea that inequality and oppression are bad things as our point of departure will not resolve all the questions before us. But it will put us on the right track.
Something Was Missing
It is hard to evaluate the festival in Saint-Imier. Thousands of anarchists from different parts of the world (mostly from western/southern Europe) created so many parallel worlds that no one could say something about most of them. From theater performances and concerts to the book fair and hundreds of workshops/presentations/meetings, the diversity of the anarchist movement was there, but at the same time something was missing…
For the event that celebrates one of the very important steps in the emergence of an organized anarchist movement, there was little space that could bring us further on the matter of international organizing. Talking about this with some comrades, I was told that those were the wrong expectations to bring to an event that presented itself as a festival and not as a congress or something like that.
As a festival, the event in Saint-Imier stands—there was enough entertainment and serious programming to keep you busy. The infrastructure was there to consume and participate in volunteer structures. But beyond consumption, the revolutionary ideas of the 19th century seem to have disappeared from parts of anarchist movement in the same way that they have disappeared from the heads of Swiss watchmakers.
With the decline of the anarchist movement in some parts of the world, the question remains: do we need more festivals with completely open programs, hoping that there is cooperation going on somewhere behind closed doors? (I’m quite sure there was some cooperation in St.Imier, at least on the level of individual groups.) Or is the internationalist anarchist movement missing something more important to keep the ideas alive and continue supporting each other across borders?
The international anti-authoritarian gathering that took place in the little town of Saint-Imier built a sort of parallel village life.
This 5000-anarchist village displayed an intense rural life with its rumors, its intense conflicts and mutual aid, its patterns in which we would meet the same people at every corner every day yet fail to find some people even once in the course of five days. Some people were irritated by the format; they could not understand whether it was a gathering or a festival or something in between.
The veterans of earlier gatherings at Saint-Imier reported that such fierce debates have always taken place, but the topics change. In comparison to the last big meeting (in 2012), this year was much queerer and there were no debates about whether to eat meat—this time, everything was vegan with different kitchens for gluten-free food and an extra kitchen for people with allergies. Wonderful! Amazing supplying efforts. And no meat-eaters’ riots.
It was an amazing space where you could bring together people from Chile and Belarus to compare notes about their experiences participating in uprisings and enduring repression. On one day, at the same time, you could choose between the “DIY abortion” workshop and “happy birth giving” workshop.
Some of the points of controversy this year included:
- There were some talks on the “corona dictatorship” and vaccination “obligation,” which irritated a lot of people due to the conspiracy theory direction. A few people brought up their anti-vaccine talking points even at workshops that had nothing to do with the subject.
- Anti-racist critique (for example, a critique of a Sea Punks presentation to the effect that it reflected a “white savior” attitude).
- There was a big brouhaha about an attack on one book table, where some books which the attackers considered Islamophobic were destroyed.
For us, the biggest clash was on the topic of the war in Ukraine. It exploded on the second day at a round table discussion about Ukrainian resistance to the invasion. The organizers were not interested in discussing “whether” to support Ukrainian resistance; they wanted to talk about “how.” Certain self-proclaimed anti-militarists did not accept this; in the end, they screamed about censorship, saying things like “You don’t know what anarchy is!”
Several so-called anti-militarist events took place during the week, as well, and those were not disrupted by those who support anti-authoritarian fighters on the front in Ukraine. But at the panel discussion about anti-authoritarian perspectives on support for the Ukrainian resistance, some calling themselves an anti-militarist group tried to sabotage the event. There was screaming and shoving, which retraumatized people from Ukraine who were on the podium to speak. They laughed aloud during a minute of silence for our comrades who died fighting against Putin. It was ugly and contrary to solidarity, or even human decency. But still, at the end of the day, there were many more people ready to listen the experiences of anarchists directly affected by the war and Putin’s imperialism. There were many voices of solidarity from all over the world, and that was empowering.
The nicest thing we heard about was a workshop on anti-fascist yodeling, where even people who resist singing opened their minds and mouths and found a mutual relaxation moment in voice pitching.
On the last night, we met on the street some local people who were talking about the gathering. One was telling the other that it was good that this event was taking place: finally, there was some activity in the village. This, despite all the graffiti, blocking of streets, and train cancellations.
The Saint-Imier gathering… it was diverse, emotional, vibrant, and loud.
P.S.: On Sunday evening, after the event was over and people were cleaning up and going home, a strong thunderstorm hit the town. The news reported that there was a meter and a half of water in the central square, but that no one was hurt. We hope that everyone stayed safe!
The DPA [Deutsche Presse-Agentur], the largest press agency in Germany, reported on the anarchist meeting with the remarkable conclusion that there was even a street named after Bakunin in St. Imier, but that it was a dead end.
Of course, this is not my assessment of anarchist ideas. Yet I too have to shake my head at some developments in the anarchist subculture. My feelings range from amused amazement to sad resignation.
For example, in the absence of any other communication infrastructure capable of reaching a comparable number of people, the organizing team tries to reach the participants by making megaphone announcements at the food lines. People should cross the tracks only at the official railroad crossings, we are told, or else the Orgateam will be charged enormous fines. And if the façades of the houses are painted, then the collective cashier will have to pay for the cleaning and, in addition, the lack of sympathy in the village will reduce the chance that such an event can take place here again.
Where should I start? Should I note that the death of Sébastien during the Castor transport in France in 2004 taught me to step on train tracks only in very well-planned actions? That I have absolutely no idea of the Swiss legal situation and therefore do not know whether the crossing of tracks by event participants can be charged financially to the organizers? That I would have been interested in this information? That the announcements are centrally about money and not about the sense and nonsense or dangers of crossing the tracks? That it seems to me out of place to carry out subcultural debates with lacquer paint on house walls in Saint-Imier?
But my first impulse is another one: disobedience. And I think it’s because of the form of communication.
I had the feeling of having been treated as condescendingly by some of the people who made these announcements as the authorities treat me elsewhere. Their appeals seemed to assume that “we” would want “the same” without question. What is this “same” conveyed in the subtext? A meeting that receives positive reports in the media? A municipality that is not opposed to hosting such an event again in ten years? Whether I personally share these goals is irrelevant to my discomfort. It is the matter-of-factness with which other views are branded as undesirable deviations that bothers me. Because the answers could be different and those positions deserve their space as well.
A History of Criticism
People tend to view the past through rose-tinted lenses while focusing on the negative aspects of the present. Anarchists are no exception. Comparing the 2023 gathering with the one in 2012, for example, some participants complained that the 2012 gathering was a serious political organizing event, whereas the 2023 gathering was just a big party.
I wasn’t at the 2012 gathering, but I read the reports that appeared afterwards. Attendees charged that there was not enough meaningful political content, that the discussions were superficial, that there was insufficient engagement with race and gender and a lack of accommodations ensuring accessibility. There was controversy over the pieing of a politician who had apparently denounced militant anarchism. Vegans carried out an intervention against attendees who were cooking meat.
The organizers of the 2012 gathering also faced criticism for attempting to curate the program themselves. One critic grumbled, “If another international gathering is called in the future, it would be great to see anarchist principles of co-operation and shared responsibility at the forefront of the organizing.”
Arguably, the organizers of the 2023 gathering overcorrected, creating an almost entirely open process via which anyone could announce an event. And yet, surprisingly, this experiment was more or less successful on its own terms. Next time, we can anticipate that organizers will overcorrect again, reacting against the shortfalls and critiques of this year’s gathering.
Criticism is an essential part of organizing. But the proper role of criticism is to inform our own active efforts, not to marinate in negativity, nor to bully others into doing things the way we want them to. We should not be distracted from the tremendous things our comrades have accomplished by the fact that there is still room for improvement.
Likewise, let us not imagine that the anarchist movement can accomplish the things we desire it to without our own active involvement.
Accompanied by the Spirit of Mary Shelley
We found ourselves in the Jura mountains experiencing some sort of phantasmagoria brought on by jet lag and heat exhaustion. Upon reaching Saint-Imier, we employed the few French words that hadn’t evaporated from our minds as spells to summon espresso to lift us from the fog. With each espresso, we became more aware of what was actually happening. We were increasingly impressed by the food logistics and increasingly fascinated by the crowds. Every day, more people arrived from Latin America, the Balkans, Eastern Europe, and, for whatever reason, so many from Leipzig, Germany in particular.
Although it was largely a linguistic sea of French and German with splashes of Italian or Spanish, our US accents cut through the currents and reached curious ears. In one instance, a UK anarchist began to chat us up at the stream beside the ice arena hosting the book fair. We compared notes about the currents of transphobia and recuperation of trans struggle in the name of consumer identities in our respective contexts. Bemoaning the climate nightmare, we explored the related possibility of dark horse wineries coming out on top. The we reviewed our respective regions’ anarchist book fair drama and commiserated about experiencing dire economic situations while also being located in the imperial core.
Another such encounter occurred behind Espace Noir. We sat in the thick smoke, alone in a crowd, discussing various things for a while, but when one of us mentioned Chicago and another mentioned the gorgons, an older Swiss woman interjected, “What’s this about gorgons?”
“Gorgons used to be guardian figures,” one of us answered. The conversation wandered from monsters as portents to Frankenstein’s monster as a depiction of “the abject” and “the excluded,” and from there to the revelation that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein while on a train in the Jura region, quoting her friends’ poetry throughout. We all got a big laugh at “Schützengarten” beer, which then opened the door for the gun conversation, with us being surprised by the sporting gun culture in Switzerland and the Swiss women being surprised that we routinely do a version of trap shooting that includes firing beer cans out of a legally augmented AR15 lower so we can shoot them out of the air with a sporting shotgun. This conversation left us thinking about generational gaps in US anarchism and what it would be like to pursue more affective encounters rather than more regimented ones.
This “pursuit of the affective” didn’t go so well in practice, with one of us getting their glasses broken in the pit the night before our talk, but on our second-to-last night in Saint-Imier, we successfully hunted down the source of the gabber and hardtek music that had been lulling us to sleep from far away each evening. We started from the fried snack stand (where the music wasn’t the right bpm) and passed by the cheese vending machine. Finally, we found a mini-rave in a clearing by a train bridge. As soon as we saw their sound system, the logistics were immediately intelligible to those of us with audio know-how, which gave us a myriad of ideas to bring back home.
Before we left the region, we headed to the lakeside city of Neuchâtel. Alongside the beautiful blue water of the lake and the colorful Prussian statues, the walls of the city were decorated with graffiti—the good ol’ three arrows covering up NS tags, “ZAD Partout!,” and “Nique la Police.” Fittingly, we saw some words by Mary Shelley written on the wall, a through line for our reverie.
The last thing we experienced before leaving was a choral ensemble in the city square of Saint-Imier, comprised of various revolutionary choirs from around Europe singing century-old anarchist songs together. The voices of the past, addressing us in the present. It was deeply moving.
Trends, controversies, even individual anarchists come and go, but the spirit of what we are doing is greater than us, older than us, and it is an honor to witness its transmission from one century to the next.
Painting with a broad brush, we can characterize the politics associated with these currents thus: Proudhon (pro-market, anti-state, anti-feminist, anti-insurrection), Blanqui (anti-capitalist, pro-state, anti-feminist, pro-insurrection), Marx (anti-capitalist, pro-state, pro-feminist, anti-insurrection), and Bakunin (anti-capitalist, anti-state, pro-feminist, pro-insurrection). ↩
The two American sections of the International were represented at the Saint-Imier by Gustave Lefrançais—a participant in the Paris Commune and, incidentally, the person to whom the lyrics of the revolutionary anthem “The Internationale” were dedicated. ↩
Bearing in mind that the International had been founded in 1864, the five years of activity of the “Anti-Authoritarian International” between 1872 and 1877 compare favorably enough with the eight years during which Marx was involved before that. The latter part of the history is less known simply because the vast majority of the history of the International has been passed on by Marxists. ↩