The riot against State-forms: An anarcho-workerist hypothesis

“All reasoning about the future is criminal, because it prevents pure destruction, and interferes with the progress of revolution.”

Souvarine, from Émile Zola’s Germinal

In the wake of France’s July riots, an essay/reflection by Erwan Sommerer, inspired by a work by Nicola Massimo De Feo. (lundimatin #391, 11/07/2023)

Published in 2020 by Divergences, Contre la révolution politique [Against Political Revolution][1] by Nicola Massimo De Feo is a decisive book that brings together Italian workerism and Russian anarchism of the late 1860s. De Feo’s thesis is that the pamphlets resulting from the ephemeral collaboration between Bakunin and Nechayev, in particular the Revolutionary Catechism, deserve to be brought back to the forefront of anti-capitalist reflection after a long period of discredit: the primitive and brutal anarchism that we discover there, far from being the mark of a bygone era, on the contrary illuminates the contemporary conditions of revolutionary struggle and autonomy in a context of increased social disintegration, alienation and dehumanisation.

I would like to show here that this theoretical analysis finds an echo in the current riots. The aim is not to lay down an overarching or anachronistic exegetic grid on these revolts, nor to speak in the place of those who participate in them, but to propose some avenues for interpretation.

“Despair” is the central category drawn by De Feo from Bakunin and Nechayev:

“Despair is that force which embodies the autonomy of the social and political negation of the existing state of affairs, but also of its morality, of its standardised ideals and values, of its reified system of ideologies and institutions, its policy which only passes through power and power relations. It is this force which separates and opposes the destruction of the present and the creation of a future society, which guarantees the autonomy of the social revolution against any illusory and mystifying form of political revolution, and prevents the latter, by taking the form of the State and of formal power (…) from reproducing the established system of domination and exploitation”.[2]

According to this definition, despair is characterised by a double gesture of radical separation. As a force of negation and abolition of the existing order, it implies a position of absolute autonomy vis-à-vis it. But the separation is also established between this act of destruction and the act of projecting or constructing an alternative to the existing order. In other words, the desperate aim to abolish the world as it exists without seeking to replace it. Despair as a category therefore does not arise from an analysis imbued with pathos or condescension, nor from any value judgment, but from the simple reminder of a requirement: as pure negativity, revolutionary energy must be put entirely in the service of destruction.

In order to develop this idea, we can examine four main consequences:

1. The “revolutionary subjectivity of the desperate”[3] is the contemporary form of the struggle against domination. This is De Feo’s strong proposition: the desperate, in Bakunin and Nechayev, are the vagabonds, brigands and thieves – on the model of the abreks, the outlaws of the Caucasus. Then, among the insurrectionalist and illegalist anarchists, there are burglars, robbers, looters… So many figures neglected by the Marxists. But with modern capitalism massively producing “newly excluded, marginalised and criminalised subjects”[4], this subjectivity has become generalised. It is now specific to a “diffuse proletariat” which is formed “at the intersection between precarious work, the ghetto, social marginalisation, the diffuse factory, undeclared work and criminality” and whose revolutionary mobilisation takes the form of “multiple direct actions”, “both mass and individual illegality, with its share of expropriations, sabotage, anti-institutional revolt, armed struggle, guerrilla warfare”.[5] De Feo, taking up the idea of a subversive potentiality of the desperate, makes them the main motor of a revolution that reconnects with anarchist goals and methods and calls, in short, for the “expropriation (… ) of the expropriators”.[6]

2. The horizon of the revolutionary action of the desperate is “amorphism”, that is to say a clean slate, the abolition of all the forms of the old world: its institutions, its socio-economic relations, economies, identities and values. The aim of the struggle cannot be to invent a better world from scratch, or to prefigure it. For De Feo, as for Bakunin and Nechayev, the “social revolution”, the phase of destruction, should in no way be subordinated to the “political revolution”, which is the hasty projection or construction, on a utopian basis, of a supposedly ideal society. The “only real alternative to the existing order” then consists in “renouncing the alternatives”.[7] The desperate, indeed, belong to the old order that produced them. They are imbued with it; they live and think according to its codes, they are dependent on it. This is why they assume themselves to be the carriers of negativity. Their sole objective is to create the conditions to liberate the “infinite multiplicity of ways of being, possibilities and individual and collective life forces”.[8] This liberation imposes that the abolition of old forms – including the abolition of oneself, of one’s identity, of one’s place in the social hierarchy – be the priority task, the only path to autonomy and to the ability to envisage the future without being kept dependent on what already exists.

3. The struggle for amorphism is a confrontation with “State-forms”. De Feo believes that the intuitions proper to Russian anarchism have now become the most rational and effective mode of expression of contemporary resistance to the “system of capitalist reification”.[9] And if anarchy therefore appears as the “material condition of struggle”, it is because the set of forms to be abolished are in fact one and the same State-form: the State-form of the factory, of the company, the school, the “family, cultural and institutional State-form”; so many reified, frozen systems, which reflect the authoritarian functioning of the central state, which reproduce its mechanisms of domination and are the result of the colonisation of all sectors of society by capitalist exploitation. A crucial point, fruit of the Italian workers’ experience, this applies to political parties and trade unions: to maintain the autonomy of the social revolution, that is to say the pure unorganised spontaneity of destruction, without any organisation or plan for a future society come to hinder it; it aims to prevent the reestablishment of the State-form at the very heart of the struggle.[10]

4. Immoralism is the necessary counterpart of amorphism, not in the sense of the Nechayevian exaltation of the coldness of the professional revolutionary, ruthless with his friends as with his enemies – this was one of the reasons for breaking with Bakunin –, but because the values of the old order will be destroyed with her/ him. To judge revolutionary action by the yardstick of prevailing morality, to be offended by a few “expropriations”, therefore amounts to admitting one’s inability to get rid of the old world. Not to mention that the desperate, fruits of the system of “lies and violence” that created them, should not fear to turn its means against it. They will thus be able to implement their own morality, that of “revolutionary passion”, of “rebellious spontaneity”, of the “existential rejection of the existing society”, and free the individual and collective struggle “from the interference of values” which are external to it. This idea again stems from a principle of “absolute autonomy of action”,[11] which makes the revolution an end in itself and grants it “infinite and unlimited freedom of means”, a “plurality of forms of subversion” which “liberates new possibilities and opposes them, as a means of destruction, to the present misfortune”.[12]


De Feo’s anarcho-workerist hypothesis is a convergence between the contemporary evolution of capitalism, the structural reconfiguration of the proletariat – nourished by exclusion and social marginalisation – and the inevitable actualisation of anarchism as the struggle against the multiple incarnations of the State-form. Autonomy merges here with the goal of revolutionary action, namely the situation of absolute independence from the determinisms of the existing order, a sort of ultimate point from which something absolutely incommensurable to this order can emerge, which cannot be foreseen or thought about until the clean slate has taken place. A complementary hypothesis, in this context, is that the riot is the modality of maximum intensity of the revolutionary subjectivity of the desperate, of the refusal to bend the social revolution – therefore the spontaneous and unpredictable action of destruction, expropriation and of de-reification – to the demands of the political revolution, with its parties, its promises, its programmes, its attempts at prefiguration and its plans for socio-economic reconstruction. In this sense, it is the most dangerous expression, and therefore also the most ferociously repressed, of an “active and combative despair” which aims to destitute “politics as domination”.[13]

[1] Nicola Massimo De Feo, Contre la révolution politique, Netchaïev, Bakounine, Dostoïevski, Paris, éditions Divergences, 2020 (traduit de l’italien par Julien Allavena).

[2] Ibid., p. 31-32.

[3] Ibid., p. 51.

[4] Ibid., p. 54.

[5] Ibid., p. 55. The notions of a “diffuse proletariat” and a “diffuse factory” refer to the workerist thesis of an extension of the status of “worker” to all exploited or marginalised productive categories.

[6] Ibid., p. 51.

[7] Ibid., p. 78.

[8] Ibid., p. 84.

[9] Ibid., p. 89.


[11] Ibid., p. 81.

[12] Ibid., p. 83-84.

[13] Ibid., p. 76-77.

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