Eduardo Colombo: The intransigent anarchist

Eduardo Colombo is the third of our anarchists whom we have grouped under the title of writers of “May 68”, which includes Jaime Semprun, Miguel Amorós and Amedeo Bertolo. The reference to “May 68” is a political metaphor in this instance, for aside from Semprun, the other three writers were in their respective countries of origin at the time (Amorós was in spain, Bertolo in italy, and Colombo in argentina), but all four writers would be profoundly marked by the events of May and would endeavour to rethink anarchism in the wake of those events.

Colombo became an active anarchist militant in 1947, through the Federación Obrera Regional Argentina (F.O.R.A) and was involved in the anarchist newspaper La Protesta, for which he would be arrested in 1949. With a military coup in 1966, the loss of his post as professor of social psychology, Colombo would find exile, with other comrades, in 1970, in france. In europe, he would contribute to numerous european anarchist publications (newspapers, journals, publishing groups), as well as being an active member of the french Confédération nationale du travail.  In addition to his political activity, Colombo would also pursue work as psychoanalyst and his critical thought would constantly seek to bridge the two worlds.

Our ambition in this context is to offer, over time, a full english language translation of his work, El espacio político de la anarquía: Esbozos para una filosofía política del anarquismo (The political space of anarchy: Outlines for a political philosophy of anarchism).

We begin with an extract from a short article by Colombo, of 1970, dedicated to the history of anarchism in argentina, published in english in the Rebel Worker ( The extract below traces already general themes that are dear to Colombo’s anarchism: its absolute rejection of the state and capitalism, its roots in rebellion and insurrection, the necessity of revolution to break with oppression and domination, the state as a paradigm of power and its diffusion throughout multiple social relations, the assimilation of the proletariat in capitalist social relations, and the necessity for anarchism to remain a philosophy or way of life of direct action.

20th Century Anarchism

In Argentina

Anarchism as a modern revolutionary ideology is, in the theoretical field, a pointed criticism of the established system with special refernce to the system of political domination.

We are not concerned here with the Utopian aspects of the revolutionary ideal, but with the fundamental anarchist political theory (as illustrated in the refusal to legislate on the future society) that the essence of the revolutionary system is its incompatibility with the established system and therefore: “If the revolutionary project is what the society is not, if its essence is critical thought, the total negation of established society, it is clear that both the established system and the revolutionary idea form part of the same historical continuity.

Revolution breaks this historical continuity, revolution is insurrectional action, only action can create new social conditions. This is important because anarchism’s fundamental stand is a total opposition to established society; it cannot accept any form of integration into the system.

This total confrontation with the established system was, as they were well aware, the real situation of the urban proletariat in Buenos Aires and Montevideo at the beginning of the century. Faced with the traditional mentality of the ruling class and the appalling economic exploitation, the only legal means for change was the suffrage. But in the first quarter of the 20th century 50-70 per cent of the key politically significant electoral age-group (adult males over twenty years old) resident in the central areas (the capital and coastal provinces) were foreign born. In electoral terms this meant that between 50 and 70 percent of the population were disenfranchised just where voting potentially had the maximum importance.

During this period of the take-off of industrialisation the embryonic capitalist system excluded the proletarian masses from any real participation in law and in fact in the management and running of the system. Various institutions existed to ensure and control their exclusion, such as social services run with the object of keeping the poor well segregated; the police; laws, such as the 1909 law against ‘unhealthy’ immigration, i.e., prostitutes, syphalitics and anarchists, or law no. 4,114, the electoral law, etc.

Gradually, however, channels of integration emerged, as the economic situation improved in the next stage of economic development. The middle class increased in numbers, composed mainly of second-generation immigrants with university degrees – the university was a major route upwards for many years – and, most important, the development of a reformist trade union movement which was prepared to negotiate on the class struggle. This stage saw a great deal of labour legislation.

But winning rights does not necessarily mean any actual gain. During the French revolution Brissot said: “The enormous harm that the anarchist doctrine has caused our armies is now obvious. Under the cover of equality of rights it seeks to establish actual universal equality; whereas the one sustains society, the other only injures it. Anarchism wants to level out talent and stupidity, virtues and vice, positions, salaries, services.”

The objective reality of economic exploitation and political domination did not change, but the influence of increased material well-being and consumption changed subjective reality. Anarchism no longer expressed the revolutionary aspirations of the new proletariat. While anarchism still called for revolution, the social situation had become increasingly conformist; while it demanded direct action, the paternalistic state was discussing labour problems with union leaders.

The change in the international ideological climate must also be taken into account. The 1914 war put an end to internationalist ideas; then came the triumph of the Russian revolution and the constitution of the Soviet state, the failure of revolution in Central Europe, the advent of fascism, and the tragic end of the Spanish revolution. The second wave of immigration began at a time when the anarchist movement was already declining. “These internal migrations were very considerable; from 1936 to 1947 the proportion of Argentines born in the provinces who moved to the metropolitan area of Buenos Aires amounted to almost 40 per cent of the natural increase of the population of these same provinces. This mass exodus brought vast numbers of people from the underdeveloped areas – people previously completely outside the country’s political life – into the big cities and in particular in Buenos Aires.” This internally migrating proletariat had been suddenly uprooted from a traditional way of life and deposited in the big city. It was not as the previous influx of the European proletariat, fleeing from highly developed industrial areas. It was the industrial revolution which brought the proletariat into the cities.

In Argentina, limited participatory democracy was already in a state of crisis. The “revolution” of 6 September 1930 marked the beginning of the period of military coups and the “patriotic fraud” of the conservative backlash. From then on the army has, either openly or covertly, controlled the state apparatus – no institutional structure existed which could integrate large masses into the system. These masses demanded some kind of participation but were bemused by the violent impact of the secular society. Charismatic leadership provided the answer; it adopted itself to mass demands for participation and granted the masses a series of actual gains which changed the traditional structure of the country. This movement, commonly known as “Peronism”, was bitterly opposed by the ruling classes (the bourgeoisie and the traditional upper classes) because it lead to an increase in popular participation. On the other hand, the Left generally failed to understand the process, and when it did not gain the support of this new proletariat – not attracted by its secular ideology – it attacked Peronism as a whole and in return was violently repressed by the state’s special forces.

Anarchism – like other groups of the traditional Left, the Communist and Socialist Parties – saw only one side of the problem: the military fascist origins of the ruling group (Perón himself, and his political origins in military freemasonry and his early contacts with Nazism and fascism), the the suppression of oppositional political liberties, the persecutions, closings down of newspapers, imprisonments, police tortures, deaths, permanent states of emergency, etc. They were unable to perceive the increased participation which Peronism provided for the great masses of the people. They themselves remained isolated, unable to fulfill their promises. Their criticisms became increasingly abstract and removed from attainable reality. Peronism reinforced the drift of anarchism towards marginalism, and strengthened reformist trade unionism and the paternalist state, which reached its maximum under the charismatic leadership of Perón. Thus anarchism is suffering from what one can call a decay in “praxis”. It became virtually impossible for anarchist groups to keep their ideas and their practice when faced with popular withdrawal from direct-action organisations. Maintaining their ideological “purity” now meant withdrawing increasingly from reality; but giving up “purity” meant moving towards reformism. How could electoral abstention be advocated if only a small number of militants abstained and no one even noticed? Some of the older anarchists became conformists, abandoned the revolution, disowned insurrection, the people, and the possibility of change and withdrew into an anarchist liberalism which pined for democratic liberties. Others secluded themselves in “sects”, ritualised their ideology and periodically brought out the liturgy of the revolutionary martyrs, the Chicago martyrs or Sacco and Vanzetti.

(Colombo’s article is peppered with footnote references that are not provided with the post. The complete article can be read here.)

Video: In a remarkable thirteen chapters, the series “Ni Dios, Ni Amo” traces the history of anarchism and the rich history of anarchism in argentina (in spanish) …

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