‘The total negation of everything that had existed before…’

Troughout the war, neutral Switzerland was a haven for radicals, deserters, pacifists and artists fleeing the insane carnage. In Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire in 1916, Hugo Ball, a young poet and theatre director, and Emmy Hennings, a cabaret dancer and singer, began a movement which aimed, through the destruction of Art, to assault the entire bourgeois order.

A dazzling array of artists from the various movements — Cubism, Expressionism, Post-symbolism and Futurism — that together formed the international radical artistic avant garde gravitated to the Cabaret. On July 14th, the anarchist poet Tristan Tzara declaimed his Manifesto of Mister Fire Extinguisher. Dada had arrived. This ‘poem’ attempted through its creation of a climate of chaos, disorder and vehement contradictions to destroy — to ‘negate’ — established order. Dada soirees became increasingly abstract and extreme. The Admiral Seeks a House to Rent was read by several people speaking simultaneously in different languages, accompanied by whistles, bangs, groans, bells, drums and blows on the tables. Tzara, in his Notes for the Bourgeois, explained that these poems: ‘provided the possibility for the spectators to link for themselves suitable associations with the characteristic elements of their own personality …’

Dadaists saw Art as the ultimate symbol of bourgeois culture, and as such attacked it relentlessly. But at the same time they believed that Art could be re-defined as the embodiment of the total experience of being in the world. So Dada had two aims: first, to destroy through Art the entire social order; second to achieve through Art a total freedom. This freedom is not simply an end to the tyrannies of bourgeois culture, or an increase of political freedom, but complete liberation from order itself. That is, they sought the end of all existing rationality and logic, the normal and the acceptable. As Hans Richter explained:

‘Art must be set on its way towards new functions which can only be known after the total negation of everything that had existed before — until then, riot, destruction, defiance, confusion. And the role of chance is not an extension oft he scope of Art, but a principle of dissolution and anarchy in Art — anti-Art.’

Dada sought to break the shackles that inhibit and condition the conscious mind, shackles that prevent the creation or recognition of freedom in a mind too confused by the absurd contradictions of a modern world — a world where, for example, governments execute criminals for the ‘crime’ of murder but mutually engage in mass slaughter. Dada recognised that these shackles could be broken by allowing chance, irrationality and disorder to develop, and this would reveal the possibilities of a new world which would itself be one of constant change, of no rules, of constant, spontaneous, individual creativity — a world of Art.

The Berlin rising of 1918 gave the Dadaists the perfect chance to put their ideas into practice. Richard Huelsenbeck and Raoul Hausmann rushed to the city and in April formed the Dadaist Revolutionary Central Council. Their manifesto demanded:

The international revolutionary union of all creative and intellectual men and women on the basis of radical communism.
The introduction of progressive unemployment through comprehensive mechanisation of every field of activity.
Only through unemployment does it become possible for the individual to achieve certainty as to the truth of life and finally become accustomed to experience.
The immediate expropriation of property — that is, its socialisation — and the communal feeding of all. Further, the erection of cities of light, the gardens of which will belong to society as a whole and prepare humanity for a state of freedom.
Daily meals at public expense for all creative and intellectual people.
The compulsory adherence of all priests and teachers to the ‘Dadaist Articles of Faith.’
The adoption of a Dadaist poem as a state prayer.
The compulsory requisition of churches for performance of Dadaist music and poetry.
The creation of 150 circuses for the enlightenment of the proletariat.
The immediate regulation of all sexual relations according to the views of International Dadaism through the establishment of a Dadaist Sexual Centre.

Berlin’s revolutionary Council responded to the Dadaists’ plan by appointing Huelsenbeck Commissar of Fine Arts! Around him gathered artists such as Franz Jung, John and Weiland Heartfield, George Grosz, Walter Mehring, Hans Richter and Kurt Schwitters.

Meanwhile, in Cologne, Max Ernst and Johannes Baargeld had founded the Dada Conspiracy of the Rhineland. Their anarchist magazine Der Ventilator achieved sales of twenty thousand before it was suppressed by the authorities. In 1920, Hans Arp joined them to produce the first major Dada exhibition. The only entrance to the exhibition, which was held in a courtyard behind a cafe, was through a public lavatory. As visitors filed through they were greeted by a young girl, dressed as if for her first catholic communion, reciting obscene rhymes. Among the exhibits was a sculpture by Ernst made of (extremely hard) wood with an axe and a note attached inviting the public to destroy the work.

Back in Berlin, the anarchist and Dadaist Johannes Baader had proclaimed himself ‘Superdada, President of the League of Superdadaist Intertelluric Nations and Representative of the Desks of Schoolmaster Hagendorf. At the ceremony that inaugurated the new German government in 1919 Baader threw posters into the audience nominating himself President of the Globe.


Throughout the First World War socialist parties and trades unions stood squarely behind their governments’ programmes of mass slaughter, and on the home front co-operated in the prevention and breaking of strikes.

With their actions declared illegal, workers were forced to create new forms of organisation. Wildcat strikes swept Europe. In Britain, the syndicalist Shop Stewards’ movement briefly elbowed the unions from the mines, shipyards and munitions factories. The end of the war initiated a further outburst throughout Europe of workers’ councils. Hungary’s General Strike in 1918 followed a wave of sabotage and violent strikes, and led to many factory takeovers by workers’ councils during the Soviet Republic of 1919. In the same year, Italy’s metal workers formed a network of councils which organised mass occupations of factories in 1920.

But it was in Germany that we see the best example of Council Communism. Workers had turned against the unions, and the navy mutinies in 1918 sparked a total revolt. Beginning in the ports of Kiel and Hamburg, existing authority in most towns and regions was replaced by spontaneous councils of workers, soldiers and peasants. Bavaria became the first Council Republic, with the anarchists Gustav Landauer and Erich Muhsam joining the Munich council. The Bavarian Republic was brutally suppressed by 100,000 troops, Landauer was beaten to death in the street and Muhsam died in the Oranienburg concentration camp in 1934.


In January 1933, the leader of the National Socialist Workers’ Party, Adolph Hitler, was elected Chancellor of Germany. Eager to take part in the expected battle between workers and fascists, a young Dutchman, Johan van der Lubbe, hitchhiked to Berlin. But he didn’t find what he expected:

‘I was a Communist until 1929. What I didn’t like about the Party was the way they lord it over the workers — the masses themselves must decide what to do. I decided to go to Germany to see for myself. I spoke to workers in the street, discussed ways and means, asked them to demonstrate — all I was told was “take the matter to the Party”.
Since the workers would do nothing I had to do something myself. I didn’t wish to harm people but the system itself: official buildings — the welfare office, city hall, the palace. When these fires failed I decided on the Reichstag (Parliament) as the centre of the whole system.’

The Nazis used the destruction of the Reichstag to ensure their victory in the election. Van der Lubbe’s act of defiance was almost the only one. Why did the majority of Germans not oppose the rise of fascism?


According to Wilhelm Reich, the answer lay in the way people were conditioned during childhood to avoid natural and spontaneous acts — especially sexual ones:

‘Under natural conditions the vital energies regulate themselves spontaneously, without compulsive duty or compulsive morality.’

In patriarchal authoritarian social orders, emotional expression is inhibited and sexual desire is rigorously frustrated. In such circumstances children soon acquire ‘pleasure anxiety’ — a fear of pleasurable excitement which ultimately destroys the capacity for full and complete orgasm.

Unspent energy is dammed up in the body where it feeds a variety of pathological but ‘normal’ conditions, including submissiveness and cruelty. It also appears in what Reich called ‘character armour’: rigid body postures, habitual facial expressions, chronic muscular spasms, and stiff, awkward movements. Such behaviour, he observed, is prevalent among people in all authoritarian regimes, but especially fascist ones. For Reich:

‘The orgastically unsatisfied individual develops an insincere character and a fear of any behaviour which has not been thought out beforehand.’

Incapable of spontaneity and naturalness, individuals hide in safe, dependable actions, seeking security in a system that tells them what to do. Barriers to sexual satisfaction also cause hate; and hate, when internalised, creates characters amenable to authoritarianism; people sacrifice happiness for the comfort of regimented conformity.

Reich’s ideal society, a ‘work democracy’ of ‘self-governing’ individuals free of authority, dependency and cruelty, could only be reached by eliminating compulsive marriage and the patriarchal family, our most repressive systems, and by ensuring that all people can enjoy sexuality without interference or fear of pregnancy. Such self-regulated individuals would never depend on or submit to irrational political structures and would spontaneously seek to satisfy all social needs. It would not even be necessary to impose on a nation Utilities such as a railway or postal system — they would simply grow from the social needs of transportation or mail delivery. In short, government itself would soon disappear.

A.S. Neill

A.S. Neill, a close associate of Reich, also emphasized that child-rearing lay behind authoritarian social orders. A teacher, he had left the state system of education on the grounds that ‘state schools must produce a slave mentality because only a slave mentality can keep the whole system from being scrapped’.

If the family is a miniature state for training children in obedience, the school is a large family with the teacher as father. Both thrive on guilt. Neill wanted to replace them with ‘a free school, with self-government and self-determination of the individual child’. In 1921 he started Summerhill School: ‘a tiny ray of light in a world of darkness’, whose ‘aim is to create happy, contented people, not cultural misfits dedicated to war, insanity and canned knowledge.’

In the 1960s, Neill’s ideas were influential not only on the development of a free school movement but also on many teachers within the state-sector. When they attempted to put his principles into practice, though, state reaction was prompt and punitive.


Wherever fascism’s origins lay, by the mid-1930s it seemed unstoppable. In Spain, however, it was halted for a while by the world’s strongest anarchist movement.

The Spanish National Confederation of Labour (CNT) was formed in 1911 from a federation of workers’ and peasants unions that had been inspired by French anarcho-syndicalism. Completely independent, its goal was the overthrow of capitalism and the state and the establishment of an anarchist-communist society. This they believed could only be done by the workers and peasants seizing the means of production in order to produce and distribute goods and services in the interests of the community.


The CNT was a non-hierarchical, or horizontal, federation of many unions — syndicatos. Each union was made up of workers grouped each in their own particular trade. Such unions joined together in local or district federations which in turn were grouped into regions. The CNT itself was formed out of these regional federations. Regular union assemblies elected delegates to all organisations. It was known as the ‘Union of sacrifice’: there were no permanent bureaucrats or paid officials, and all union activity was done after work hours. The national federation was directly responsible to the regions and so on down to the base — the assemblies of workers and peasants.


By 1919, membership stood at one million. Continually outlawed, it organised massive general strikes. Originally the CNT supported the Russian revolution but once the nature of Bolshevik dictatorship was revealed it cut all links with Moscow.

Declared illegal in the 1920s, the CNT fought countless gun battles with police and fascists. Out in the open again with the downfall of the monarchy in 1930, it prepared for revolution. The first rising, in Catalonia in 1932, was swiftly put down. In the following year, workers and peasants throughout Catalonia, Andalusia and Levant took up arms but they too were defeated with incredible cruelty. 1934 saw the army slaughter hundreds of miners in an uprising in Asturia.


July 18th, 1936. The army, led by General Franco, launched their coup against the government. Instead of an easy victory they met immediate, massive resistance from the people. With the rebels supported by the military and police, and the government in ruins, the worker and peasants seized the administration of the country and organised a voluntary, revolutionary militia to fight the well-armed fascists. The workers’ committees, peasants’ assemblies and democratic militias were very similar to those of the Paris Commune and Russian Revolution. The Spanish people were not fighting to defend the government but to create a revolutionary society.


Behind the battle lines Spanish society was transformed by a sweeping social revolution. Seventy years of intense struggle, anarchist education and the organisation of the CNT had prepared the people to put into practice 'The Idea'. Collectives were created by the free initiative of the people, not imposed by decree. Factories, mills, mines, docks, workshops, transport, public services, Utilities and shops were re-organised and administered without bosses, managers or state. In the countryside, yields increased by over half when three million peasants organised themselves in two thousand anarchist collectives. This revolutionary transformation involved eight million men, women and children, fighting against overwhelming odds to realise their anarchist society.


From the outset this revolution was sabotaged. While fascist Italy and Germany poured men and munitions into the rebel army, the ‘democracies’ refused to aid the Republicans. The Republican government itself withheld money and resources from the anarchist collectives.

Only Stalin sent arms, and then only on condition that the tiny Spanish Communist Party be given government positions and the popular militias be ‘re-organised’. The communists refused arms to the CNT militias at the front and began disarming the Barcelona workers; attacks on anarchists were stepped up. On May 2nd, 1937, the CNT issued a warning:

‘The guarantee of the revolution is the proletariat in arms. To attempt to disarm the people is to place oneself on the wrong side of the barricades. No councilor or police commissioner, no matter who he is, can order the disarming of the workers, who are fighting fascism with more self-sacrifice than all the politicians in the rear, whose incapacity and impotence everybody knows. Do not, on any account, allow yourselves to be disarmed!'


Next day the Barcelona central telephone exchange, run by the CNT, was attacked. Thousands of workers took up rifles behind their barricades. Fighting spread, and soon the government and communist troops were surrounded in their strongholds. The anarchist militias prepared to quit the front for Barcelona. But instead of directing the struggle, some of the CNT leadership now holding government posts tried to halt the fighting and find a compromise. Meanwhile thousands of government troops converged on the city. Confused and demoralised by their leadership’s betrayal, the workers ceased fire and laid down their arms.


With Catalonian anarchism broken, the communists seized power. The revolution was lost, though the war dragged on for two more bloody years.

The factories were forcibly returned to their owners and the collectives put under state control. Morale at the front collapsed: troops were more afraid of communist execution squads than of fascist bullets. Popular hatred of the communists was such that one communist general said:

‘We cannot retreat. We must stay in power at all costs, otherwise we shall be hunted down like predatory animals in the streets.’

The end was near. The ‘re-organised’ Republican army tried one last offensive at Ebro, with 70,000 casualties. As tens of thousands fled into France, General Franco’s fascist army entered Barcelona on January 26th, 1939. The revolution was over.