Cover image for Sex, Violence, and the Avant-Garde: Anarchism in Interwar France By Richard D. Sonn

Sex, Violence, and the Avant-Garde

Anarchism in Interwar France

Richard D. Sonn


$78.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03663-2

$34.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03664-9

272 pages
6" × 9"
5 b&w illustrations

Sex, Violence, and the Avant-Garde

Anarchism in Interwar France

Richard D. Sonn

“In sharp contrast to the anarchists of Spain, French anarchists seem to have disappeared during the interwar period. Or did they? In this compelling book, Richard Sonn examines fascinating, complex cultural themes and takes us into the lives of figures such as André Breton, Robert Desnos, Manuel Devaldès, and Eugène and Jeanne Humbert as they confronted the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, the rise of fascism, continued French depopulation, and the politics of sexuality and of eugenics.”


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By the end of World War I, the conflict between anarchism and the state had largely been eclipsed by the competing forces of liberalism, fascism, and communism. To combat their slide into irrelevance, French anarchists, especially those called individualists, redirected their attentions from violent revolution and general strikes to ethical issues that focused on personal liberation. Chief among these issues was sexual freedom, sought not only for the sake of pleasure but also to undermine the authoritarian family, bulwark of the patriarchal state. In this revelatory book, Richard Sonn approaches the French anarchist movement during this period from a sociocultural perspective, considering the relationships among anarchism and the artistic avant-garde and surrealism, political violence and terrorism, sexuality and sexual politics, and gender roles. He shows that, contrary to popular belief, anarchism in theory and practice played a significant role in the culture of interwar France.
“In sharp contrast to the anarchists of Spain, French anarchists seem to have disappeared during the interwar period. Or did they? In this compelling book, Richard Sonn examines fascinating, complex cultural themes and takes us into the lives of figures such as André Breton, Robert Desnos, Manuel Devaldès, and Eugène and Jeanne Humbert as they confronted the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, the rise of fascism, continued French depopulation, and the politics of sexuality and of eugenics.”
Sex, Violence, and the Avant-Garde is a fascinating work that will make an important contribution to studies of anarchism, politics, violence, immigration, and sexuality. Richard Sonn demonstrates that the anarchists were not a fringe group but were visible and significant in the arts, politics, and the causes célèbres of the interwar period. Furthermore, Sonn provides a refreshing new look at the relationship between gender and violence. Sonn’s breadth of vision goes beyond French anarchism to include Russian and American anarchists, analyzing their impact on their French cohort.”
“In this continuation of his study of French anarchism, Richard Sonn demonstrates persuasively that anarchism as theory and practice survived in some of its characteristic forms throughout the 1920s and ‘30s and later provided a remote but genuine inspiration for the radical and personal experiments of the 1960s. His history is a series of lively portraits of the declining fortunes or tragic failures of individual anarchists whose efforts to reform or destabilize the social and political order ranged from aesthetic experiments and eugenics to schemes for transforming human sexuality and gender.”
“I am aware of no fuller treatment of French interwar anarchism than Richard Sonn’s Sex, Violence, and the Avant-Garde. In addition to providing a rich examination of anarchism’s engagement with the politics of sexuality and the body, it demonstrates how important the movement was to surrealism as well.”
Sex, Violence, and the Avant-Garde is an illuminating study, the eclectic nature of which seems to reflect the individualism so prevalent in the interwar anarchist movement and the personal liberties its followers held dear.”

Richard D. Sonn is Professor of History at the University of Arkansas. His previous books include Anarchism and Cultural Politics in Fin de Siècle France (1989).



Introduction: French Anarchism in the Interwar Era: Decline or Renewal?

Part I: Anarchist Bodies

1. Gender and Political Violence: The Case of Germaine Berton

2. The Bad Father and the Prodigal Son: The Death of Philippe Daudet

3. Anarchism and the Avant-Garde

4. Utopian Bodies: Anarchist Sexual Politics

5. “Your Body Is Yours”: Anarchism, Birth Control, and Eugenics

Part II: French Anarchists Between East and West

6. Facing East: Russians and Jews

7. Facing West: American Heroes

8. Renegades

Epilogue: The Renewal of Anarchism





French Anarchism in the Interwar Era: Decline or Renewal?

Anarchists in interwar France knew that their movement had seen better days. Back in the 1890s they had been at the forefront of the revolutionary struggle, feared by the authorities for their penchant for violence and admired by the masses for their temerity. Their main rivals on the left, the socialists, were preoccupied with the parliamentary politics disdained by the anarchists; communists did not yet exist. While the wave of terrorism that swept the movement in the early 1890s may have been counterproductive, bringing down government repression on their heads and sending many militants into exile, to prison, or to the scaffold, the anarchists responded by reinventing themselves as anarcho-syndicalists. Instead of blowing up the Chamber of Deputies they began organizing workers into revolutionary unions. The main French labor union, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), was anarchist led and dedicated to direct action against the capitalists and the government. For thirty years, from the mid-1880s until the First World War, the anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists had threatened the stability of the Third Republic. The cartons of documents devoted to them in the police and national archives attest to governmental concern for their activities.

Yet by the 1920s and 1930s anarchists could only look back nostalgically at a prewar era remembered as the heroic age of anarchism. As early as 1925, the major newspaper of interwar anarchism, Le Libertaire, already featured articles titled “The Crisis of Anarchism.” Anarchists were being jailed by Bolsheviks in Russia, fascists in Italy, and the dictator of Spain. In France the movement was beset by polemics and division. In what would become a familiar lament, the author said some anarchists still sought to prepare for the next revolution while others saw it as a philosophical or ethical force and spent too much energy exploring vegetarianism and sexual pluralism. The following month Le Libertaire published a response by the foremost proponent of the individualist strain of anarchism, E. Armand, who first denied that there was a crisis because the anarchist press had more readers than in prewar times, and then defended what we would now call “lifestyle” issues such as sexuality and diet by arguing that alcoholics or sexual exclusivists would never destroy political systems of domination.

Yet several years later, in 1931, Armand shared his own gloomy reflections on the problems of anarchism in the pages of another anarchist paper, La Voix Libertaire. Armand looked back at thirty years of effort as having accomplished little, since four or five anarchist papers, including his own paper L’En Dehors, vied for the same ten to fifteen thousand readers who constituted the base of anarchist support in France. The situation was even worse in the English-speaking countries, Armand wrote, with a mere five thousand subscribers to anarchist papers among 170 million English speakers. He concluded that their papers would only appeal to those already convinced of the truth of anarchist doctrines, and dreamed of a periodical that would not have to breathe a word of ideology but rather would treat daily events in such a way that readers would emerge with a distrust of the state. In fact he guessed that the satirical daily Le Canard Enchainé did more to promote anarchist ideas in the masses than a hundred papers for initiates.

Another anarchist paper, Plus Loin, published a series of articles in 1932 that contrasted the heyday of anarchism with the lamentable present state of the movement. The author cited a number of reasons for its decline, starting with the bloodshed of the Great War. Postwar prosperity and increasing access to petit-bourgeois comforts had further diminished its popularity among the workers, and of course there was competition from the camelots du roi on the far right and Bolsheviks on the left. He ruefully recognized that some of the most dedicated anarchist revolutionaries had turned to communism as more efficacious and realistic. He also blamed anarchists of the individualist tendency for discrediting the movement by focusing almost exclusively on sexuality, while the revolutionary syndicalists of thirty years ago were now risk-averse bureaucrats. As recession and class antagonism worsened, he hoped that a new generation would be mobilized, and concluded his series of articles on the unduly optimistic note that aspirations for liberty were imperishable. The fact that this writer could recall the glory days of anarchism forty years before suggests his advanced age, and in fact the editorial staff of Plus Loin noted wryly that they were known as the “under eighties” by other anarchists due to their redoubtable maturity. They were clearly out of the mainstream of interwar anarchism, being supporters of the ideas of Jean Grave, the major prewar anarchist-communist editor who had supported the French war effort in 1914 and had signed the Manifesto of Sixteen calling on anarchists to support the allied side. This had made Grave and his followers extremely unpopular after the war, when anarchists and many others were filled with revulsion against war as the ultimate murderous expression of nationalism.

Yet as we have seen, the writer for Plus Loin was hardly alone in perceiving the hard times upon which the anarchist movement had fallen. A similar discussion took place in the pages of La Voix Libertaire, a paper run by Sébastien Faure, the single most important figure in the anarchist movement throughout the Third Republic. Faure’s paper was open to anarchists of all persuasions, from individualists to syndicalists to anarchist-communists, since it had been founded in 1928 explicitly to unify the fractured movement. In the opening issues of La Voix Libertaire, Faure himself recognized that “Le mouvement anarchiste subit un temps d’arrêt. Il faut y mettre fin” [The anarchist movement has come to a halt. We must end that state]. Faure attributed the state of weakness first to the defection of such recognized leaders as Peter Kropotkin, Jean Grave, and Charles Malato to the war effort in 1914, and second the moral debacle of the unions, which had either become moderate and reformist or had gone over to the communists. Third he blamed the anarchists’ own mistakes, principally the divisions between the three major tendencies—individualist, syndicalist, and communist—which rendered the movement weak.

Linert, Faure, and Armand were older men (Armand was nearly sixty in 1932 and the others were even older), but their public declarations of disillusionment with the state of anarchism were more than nostalgic longings for their lost youth. Their statements reinforce the sense that anarchism thrived in the more individualist atmosphere of the turn of the century but was no longer relevant in an era of increasingly centralized and powerful states. The war itself had given vast new powers to governments on all sides, and the workers of those states largely acquiesced in that power, as shown by the spirit of 1914, called in France the union sacrée (sacred union). In the aftermath of war a new revolutionary movement arose in Russia that succeeded in seizing state power, and through its success fired the imaginations of revolutionaries everywhere. Even the anarchists were initially seized with enthusiasm for Bolshevism, until by the end of the Russian civil war they could see that far from being a government of workers councils, as the Soviets proclaimed, the Bolsheviks had created a centralized and repressive one-party state. No sooner had the anarchists decided that they would not follow the communist path after all than Mussolini had seized power in Italy and a new all-powerful ideology called fascism claimed the allegiance of the masses. Spain too succumbed to dictatorship and repression in the early 1920s, and libertarian aspirations retracted further as fascism spread to central and eastern Europe in the 1930s. The one bright spot in the international anarchist movement, the Spanish Civil War and the empowering of anarchists in eastern Spain in July 1936, would lead to a renewed sense of betrayal as Stalin’s forces crushed the anarchist movement in Barcelona and Valencia in May 1937 and ended the anarchists’ influence in the Popular Front government.

To make matters even bleaker for French anarchists, the main hope for the creation of an alternative anarchist society, revolutionary unions, had also been lost by the early 1920s. The principal union, the CGT, had already begun to move away from anarchist control before the war, and its leader in 1914, Léon Jouhaux, had declared labor’s support for the French war effort. After the war the CGT split between a moderate majority and a revolutionary minority, the CGTU, or Unitaire; several months later, in 1922, this minority affiliated itself with the French Communist Party. Such party affiliation was anathema to the anarchists, who stood by their Declaration of Amiens of 1906 that the unions should remain independent of all political affiliations. Eventually a third variant of the CGT was born and called itself the CGT-SR, appending “revolutionary syndicalist” to proclaim its anarcho-syndicalist loyalties, but it remained so numerically insignificant that anarchists joked that the s.r. stood for “sans rien,” without anything. French anarchists thus faced the specter of the rise of totalitarianism abroad and marginalization at home, as the communists displaced them as keepers of the revolutionary flame. Even as their comrades were being persecuted in the Soviet Union, some French anarchists were nevertheless beguiled by the red star shining from the east. While communists sang in unison, anarchist voices seemed more disunited than ever. Libertarian ideals seemed more than ever as unrealizable dreams out of step with the cruel realities of the modern world. The interwar era was not a period in which to be sanguine about ideals of stateless liberty. What was an anarchist to do? What is a historian of anarchism to do with them?

<1> Interwar Anarchism and the Historians

Some indication of the diminished place of anarchism after World War I in the historical canon can be gleaned from perusing the classic study of French anarchism by Jean Maitron, Le mouvement anarchiste en France. First published in 1951 as Maitron’s doctoral dissertation, it was expanded and re-edited in two volumes in 1975. The first volume, covering the movement from its nineteenth-century origins to World War I, is nearly five hundred pages long; the second volume contains two hundred pages of text and an additional two hundred of appendices and bibliography. Eighty pages are devoted to the period from 1914 to 1939. Since Maitron (1910–1987) was himself active in the anarchist movement in the 1930s, it cannot be said he was either biased against or ignorant of that period. More general histories of anarchism also concentrate on the 1880 to 1914 period, and coverage of the interwar era focuses on Russia and Spain, with a glance at the Sacco and Vanzetti case in the United States, and barely a mention of France. Perhaps the most dismissive treatment of interwar French anarchism is that of Peter Marshall. In his seven-hundred-page magnum opus, Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism, he summarizes: “Outside the syndicalist movement, a small band of ageing militants kept the anarchist message alive in a few papers with declining readership. Their international connections were maintained by the increasing number of anarchist refugees from the Soviet Union, Italy, Germany and Spain to seek asylum in France.”

Even the recent study by David Berry devoted to The History of the French Anarchist Movement, 1917–1945 focuses on the French anarchists’ response to the two great revolutionary movements of the era, the Russian Revolution and the Spanish Civil War. Berry generally follows Maitron’s interpretation and approach, offering a political and ideological history of the anarchist movement, and like Maitron he is thorough and conversant with the sources. He accepts the division of interwar anarchism into anarchist-communists, individualists, and syndicalists, and argues that the former element dominated in the interwar era as syndicalism declined; individualists such as Armand are portrayed as marginal to the movement. He provides little social or cultural analysis of anarchism, confining his comments on the social and gender makeup of anarchism to a concluding chapter, in which he argues that anarchists did not differ from communists sociologically but only doctrinally. This suggests that they were no longer drawn primarily from the artisanal classes of printers and cobblers, as they had been at the turn of the century. My own research has revealed one especially popular occupational category for Parisian anarchists: a remarkable number worked as proofreaders for various newspapers and controlled the proofreaders’ union. This suggests that anarchists had adapted to the modern economy while not entirely discarding their artisanal and print-shop heritage.

The only other major study of interwar French anarchism is the 1993 study by Claire Auzias, Mémoires libertaires, Lyon, 1919–1939. As her title indicates, she focuses almost entirely on anarchist activity in the city of Lyon, and her study is based on, and enriched by, oral interviews with eighteen anarchists, men and women, active in Lyon between the wars. In contrast to Berry’s near-fixation on organization and ideology, Auzias conveys a fuller sense of anarchism as a way of life. She is particularly sensitive to gender and cultural implications mostly missing from Berry’s account. Her Lyonnais anarchists admit that by their time anarchism sometimes resembled a group of friends more than a mass political movement, but their recollections underscore the importance of sociability as well as ideology. Anarchism was lived as much in daily life as it involved planning a utopian future.

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