Portugal: Histories of rebellion, histories of anarchism

Every year, since 1974, the portuguese state, through its politicians and institutional “nobility”, commemorates the 24 of April, as the birthday of the country’s democracy. Ignored, forgotten, brushed away, is the “revolution” occasioned by the military coup d’état of that day: factory and land occupations, appropriation of housing estates, the proliferation of “grassroots” artistic-cultural expressions, the refusal of the colonial war, in sum, a sustained and fracturing insurrection against the old, fascist regime, that created and generated experiments of freedom that would only be closed down by another coup, on November 25th of 1975.

Today, it is the revolution that is pushed aside, because among those who hold power, there is fear; the day has even been transformed officially into “Freedom Day”!

However, preceding the events of 1974-75, there was a long and rich tradition of not only anti-fascism, but a much older and radical revolutionary anti-capitalism expressed in the country’s anarchist and revolutionary anarcho-syndicalist movement, a moveemnt that emerged towards the end the 19th century and that found expression above all in the Confederação Geral do Trabalho – CGT.

We share below an excellent testimonial-documentary dedicated to the history of anarchism and syndicalism in portugal, from 1886 to 1975. What we share below however is without subtitles, but a version with english language subtitles can be found here.

And, so as to in some manner contextualise this all too often forgotten history, we begin with the words of the anarchist, Christian Ferrer.

Anarchism is a shelter against what not a few people seek. It is curious to call what is today a shadow of its older political and cultural splendour a “shelter”, but sometimes the places or beliefs which give us refuge and certainty fit on the end of a pin head. Ever since I can remember my interest in political thought, I have always felt myself to be an anarchist. The word today sounds less fearful than strange, as if one were speaking of an extinct animal; a heavy bird which was never able to fly or a mammal whose last specimen was seen decades ago. It was, furthermore, an animal accustomed to beatings and to being frequently hunted down. It could be said that impotence, persecution or irreversible demographic decline sealed its fate. However, any advocate of libertarian ideas is conscious of the long record of failures that surround and precede her/him; and also of the scant but very significant successes. Each of these was paid for in blood and each demanded an enormous collective effort.

It will be understand that a movement of such radical ideas was almost born extinct. There tasks were those of a Hercules; their enemies, ancient and immense like pyramids; their forces, limited and, in the end, exhausted. And thus every anarchist feels sometime in their life the weight of so dramatic a history and ponders about “who will be the last of us”. After all, at some moment there was a last Blanquist, a last follower of Garibaldi, a last member of the Carbonari. Every movement of ideas that aspires to remain among men and women should sound out – and eventually play on – the discontent of an epoch. Anarchism has known how to pick that string again and again. For their part, the anarchists themselves have refused to depart. Ethical firmness and political irrepressibility were undoubtedly conditions of survival, for there were times when the word anarchy was synonymous with freedom and not unmotivated chaos. A history of dissidence and of struggles for freedoms denied or violated must necessarily take them into account. They were their wildest minds; the first to announce and promote freedoms that today are enjoyed in some parts of the world. The other sides of their history reveal as much a way of fighting as a loving consideration for men/women and the earth. Had there been no anarchists, our political imagination would be more squalid, and even more miserable. And even though it is only filtered drip by drop, the “idea” continues to be a good antidote against the justifications and crimes of the powerful.

Anarchism has been in my life like a magnet. I readily became accustomed to the precarious and frightful places inhabited by anarchists, as well as having read the classical works of anarchist thought and the testimony of intense and not less often ill-fated lives. I had, like so many others who had read Bakunin and Malatesta, the sensation of having discovered the secret of the domination of man by man. This conviction was both a terrifying and an ethically orienting concept. Nevertheless, doubts regarding so extreme a doctrine were not lacking. Anarchist beliefs seemed to suffer from unreality; there was not even a mooring line tied to some relief of the world as it existed. But even if the anarchists constructed capsules where only their grammar, their symbols and their passions thrive, as happens with the time that children dedicate to play or lovers to their games, it is in itself an antipodal reality which sometimes succeeded in moving and fracturing the institutions and customs of the hierarchical world. Moreover, as the stomach and lungs are so important for the normal functioning of certain bodies, so too are the organs of anarchy.

A hundred years ago, anarchism was an organised movement, culturally significant and politically feared. This momentum, this stimulus, did not reach us. Yet nothing has been lost, neither the words said, nor the ideas published, nor the leaflets and pamphlets distributed, nor the actions carried out. Having now radiated for a long time, its influence has spread beyond its own sympathisers. Tributaries of this frustrated cultural mutation have covertly flowed into the aspirations and conduct of the present. And as anarchists have always been the living witnesses of a promised freedom, the political memory of the present is surrounded by voices and recollections of libertarians who are no longer and of events that recede in time; protests or stories, which in another time were read in books or heard from old militants, are still whispered. …

Christian Ferrer, “Presentación”, Cabezas de tormenta: Ensayos sobre lo ingobernable. Logroño: Pepitas de calabaza ed., 2004.  

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