Radical Objects

Radical Objects: Anarchist Books

Despite being inanimate objects, books and publications have a life cycle and a biography. When thinking about books as radical objects it is the content, the transported idea, that makes those books radical in the eyes of readers and regulatory institutions like the police or the secret service. This is especially true for books about anarchism or written by anarchists, whose community is based on anti-state and anti-hierarchical ideas. People engaging positively with anarchists or anarchist publications knowingly take a risk when publishing books promoting anarchist ideas. Anarchist authors, printers, and publishers have been jailed or killed or at least closely surveilled by the police, especially in reaction to the years of the ‘propaganda by the deed’ at the end of the 19th century and during the rise of fascism and national socialism in the first half of the 20th century. Books, manuscripts, and printing presses have been confiscated or destroyed. Travelling readers have been deported for taking anarchist propaganda with them.

Maverick Davies (Instagram: mothillustrations). This illustration forms part of HWO’s collaboration with BA Illustration students at the University of Northampton in 2021-22, which aims to make history more visually accessible, democratic and engaging.

Such anti-anarchist policing and locally different modes of legal persecution affect the spatial distribution of anarchist communities and publishing networks. As a result, a publisher, the place of publication, or the book title are far from random. Kathy Ferguson (2014) states that anarchist communities organised around their publications, which were not just a passive element of the circulation of ideas, but ‘a happening of anarchism’. As commercial printers often rejected anarchist content between 1871 and 1945, activists from the movement often operated their own printing presses. Additionally, book sales were used to finance part of the movement. Book publications therefore are a good indicator for the local vitality of anarchist activists’ networks.

The editions and translations of Max Nettlau’s works on the history of anarchism illustrate the transnational and transatlantic character of the idealistic and material networks of anarchist books. They provide a particularly good basis for talking about the life cycle of anarchist books: Nettlau and his comrades who financed or promoted translation and publication might be many decades dead, but the books have lived on in various spaces, places, editions and (exile) communities.

Ethan Lyons (Instagram: Sketchi_skull). This gif forms part of HWO’s collaboration with BA Illustration students at the University of Northampton in 2021-22, which aims to make history more visually accessible, democratic and engaging.

Max Nettlau (1865-1944), who has been called ‘the Herodotus of anarchism’, published three volumes about the history of anarchy & anarchism during his lifetime. Starting in 1925 with Der Vorfrühling der Anarchie, ihre historische Entwicklung von den Anfängen bis zum Jahre 1864 [The early spring of anarchy, its historical development from its beginnings to 1864], followed in 1927 by Der Anarchismus von Proudhon zu Kropotkin, seine historische Entwicklung in den Jahren 1859-1880 [Anarchism from Proudhon to Kropotkin, its historical development in the years 1859-1880] and in 1931 by Anarchisten und Sozial-Revolutionäre. Die historische Entwicklung des Anarchismus in den Jahren 1880-1886 [Anarchists and Social Revolutionaries. The historical development of anarchism in the years 1880-1886]. The publishers ‘Der Syndikalist’, ‘ASY-Verlag’, and ‘Gilde der freiheitlichen Bücherfreunde’ were anarcho-syndicalists: an anarchist worker’s movement in favour of anarchist values like decentralised organisation, workers self-management, individual freedom and abolishing state power. The publishers’ location in Berlin, however, resulted in the confiscation of unsold copies, with the publishing house closed around 1934 by the National Socialists.

Maverick Davies (Instagram: mothillustrations). This illustration forms part of HWO’s collaboration with BA Illustration students at the University of Northampton in 2021-22, which aims to make history more visually accessible, democratic and engaging.

This significantly limited further dissemination of the books and Nettlau opted for a translation of his history of anarchy. Meanwhile, he had finished the fourth volume Die erste Blütezeit der Anarchie 1886-1894 [The first prime of anarchy 1886-1894] in manuscript and had written material for another six volumes waiting for publication. With the help of some comrades his work was translated into a shortened Spanish version as La anarquia a través de los tiempos, which covered the time from the antiquity to 1934. Supported by exiled anarcho-syndicalists from Berlin, the ‘Guilda de amigos del libro’ in Barcelona published the Spanish book in 1935.

La anarquia a traves de los tiempos by Max Nettlau, published in 1935 by ‘Guilda de amigos del libro’ in Barcelona. Copy of the ‘Friedrich-Ebert-Bibliothek’ in Bonn (cover overlapped due to a later binding of the book)

Neither the places nor year of publication were random. Berlin and Barcelona were hotspots of the German and Spanish anarcho-syndicalist movement at that time. The Spanish Civil War had inspiring and solidarising effects on the international anarchist movement. A poster created in the wake of the civil war against Franco’s fascist brigades labelled anarchist books ‘armas contre el fascimo’ [weapons against fascism]. Brodie (2020) states that ‘Spain was the primary exile destination for German anarchists, with many settling in Barcelona before 1936 due to the Spanish Republic’s liberal asylum policy and employment laws.’ The opportunity to put anarchism into practice did not last long, however. Anarchist and communist brigades were defeated in Barcelona and Catalonia in 1939, the anarcho-syndicalist workers’ unions in Europe collapsed during World War II, anarchists were persecuted by fascists, national socialists, and bolshevists, and (inter)national laws denounced them as terrorists and public enemies.

Nonetheless, Nettlau’s books survived. They are revived with every translation, re-edition, or reprint. The four books that Nettlau and his publishers were able to publish before his death in 1944 paved the way for the widespread distribution of the anarchist history books after the Second World War. In addition, the unpublished German manuscripts of another 6 volumes on the history of anarchy survived the war and were stored in the International Institute of Social History (IISG) in Amsterdam, together with Nettlau’s extensive collection. With the help of libraries’ OPACs (online public access catalogue), it is possible to retrace the location of some of the book’s copies, as well as extracting time and place of publication, and map this data in a GIS (geographic information system). These maps illustrate that books move and travel physically and virtually, and that translations have contributed significantly to the worlding of anarchist publications. Books have a time and place of production and are therefore situated in specific historical-geographical context – a dot on a map signals far more than just a book publication. Each book edition can be interpreted as a materialized repository of situated knowledge and as a clear proof of the existence of social, political, and material networks by the time of publication or translation. On the animated map below, you can see the migration (each signalled by a red dot) of Nettlau’s history of anarchy and its translations and editions during the last century. Historical networks of German and Spanish speaking activists acted as a starting point for further and persistent cycles of the books’ publication up to the present today.

Places of publication of Max Nettlau’s history of anarchy & it’s translations and editions (1925-2020). Animation prepared by Anna Regener (2021) with nodegoat. Data retrieved from national libraries’ OPACs (121 OPACs last checked April 2021).

In the case of books, the author’s death does not equal the death of their written words. Probably as early as the mid-1950s, the ‘Ediciones CENIT’ published a shortened version of Nettlau’s Spanish edition titled Breve historia de la anarquia [A brief history of anarchy]. At that time CENIT operated from France, where many exiled anarchists went after Barcelona fell to General Franco in 1939. Vladimiro Muñoz, who wrote the foreword to the book, also had a history of deportation and exile due to the Spanish Civil War and the persecution of anarchists by fascists and national socialists: after concentration camp and slave labour in France, he moved to Uruguay and joined the Uruguayan anarchists. As there is some uncertainty about the place and year of publication, this edition is not shown on the map. Eventually, by the time of the end of the Franco regime in 1977, the Spanish La anarquia a través de los tiempos was republished in Barcelona and Madrid. It was also republished in Mexico in 1972.

Beside of reprints, translations played a vital role in the further diffusion of Nettlau’s work. A shortened Russian version of Nettlau’s history of anarchy was published in the US in 1951 by ‘Профсоюз’ (profsoyuz, or in English: union or association). It was supported by Russian-American anarchists in Detroit, where Russian immigrants had formed an anarchist community since the early 1910s. In 1954, the Spanish version was translated to Swedish, in 1964 to Italian, in 1979 and 1996 to English, in 2001 to Croatian and in 2008 to Portuguese. The Italian version also had some impact on the diffusion of the work: it was translated to Japanese (1970) and French (1971). In addition, each translation had its own republication cycle, while anarchist and activist networks played an important role in facilitating translation and publication. In many cases the translators themselves were anarchist activists: for example, Diego Abad de Santillán for the Spanish translation during the 1930s or Ida Pilat Isca who used the Spanish and Italian version for an English translation during the 1990s.

Overall, the compact overview of the history of anarchism that Nettlau prepared for La anarquia a través de los tiempos was translated most widely. The more extensive German writings, on the other hand, were regularly republished by publishing houses in Germany and Liechtenstein, but so far have not been fully translated; except for a shortened Japanese translation of the first volume in 2004. The fourth and fifth volume of Nettlau’s history of anarchy, which had previously only existed in manuscript, were first published in 1981 and 1984 – the series was now called Geschichte der Anarchie [History of Anarchy]. One chapter written by Nettlau about anarchist activism in México was translated to Spanish and published in 2008 in México. This translation is the first partial edition of a hitherto unpublished manuscript. During the 2020s, the remaining unpublished volumes will be edited by ‘Libertad’ in Potsdam, Germany.

The editions and translations of Nettlau’s work reveal diffusion across time and space: crossing national borders, waiting for (re)discovery on the (digital) bookshelves of libraries, bookstores, or in the publisher’s archives. Each printed book copy migrates (‘bibliomigrancy’) and travels physically and virtually (for example, via ‘translation bibliomigrancy’). Copies of an authors’ written words have a history and spatiality which can be geographically mapped. This can retrace the expected and unexpected branches printed books and their editions take, from their place of publication to the place of storage. As Nettlau’s books have shown us, books and their copies survive longer than either authors or networks of publishers and printers. Ideas promoted by books’ authors can be revived by reprints. Over time, one manuscript can burst into thousands of copies and thousands of reissues or special editions which get distributed or stored by sellers, buyers, readers, collectors, translators, and (finally) libraries. Looking at the worldwide availability of Nettlau’s work and the transnational networks involved in the process of publication, we can forecast that his historic works, and the idea of anarchism, will not be forgotten in the coming century.

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