Jean Giono: ‘The Peasant-Anarchist’
The unique, if unhelpful, thing about the word ‘anarchy’ is that it is possible, not only to understand it in completely different ways but, worse, perfectly acceptable to change its meaning ad hoc and with barely a pause for breath. While the human brain, in its quieter recesses, may have no great difficulty with the concept of anarchism as a vision of society rebuilt on principles of respect for the individual and mutual assistance, elsewhere, in the mind’s eye, is triggered stock footage of riots and looting. From its first flowering the term has been ambiguous. As Peter Marshall tells us in his mammoth study Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism, as early as 1840, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–65) – probably the first card-carrying anarchist intellectual – was gloomily acknowledging the popular association of ‘anarchy’ with the inevitable mayhem arising from the removal of government. In challenging this, Proudhon, says Marshall, ‘deliberately went out of his way to affirm the apparent paradox that “anarchy is order” by showing that authoritarian government and the unequal distribution of wealth are the principal causes of disorder and chaos in society. By doing so, he became the father of the historic anarchist movement.’1
The very idea of an anarchist movement may still seem laughable to some. Nevertheless, anarchism unquestionably distinguished itself as a serious political force in nineteenth-century Europe; a jagged offshoot from the deep fissures created by the First International, the socialist crusade which, by the end of the 1860s,...
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