Print Culture and the Formation of the Anarchist Movement in Spain, 1890-1915

…or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the book…

James Michael Yeoman

This is the first of a two-part discussion which explores the creation and contents of my book, Print Culture and the Formation of the Anarchist Movement in Spain, which was published last autumn. While the second part of the discussion will give a summary of the book itself, in this part I discuss my relationship with my work and my thoughts on its value and relevance.

I.

October 2019 feels like a very long time ago: before the outbreak of Covid-19; before widespread insurrection across the USA in support of Black Lives Matter (which, at time of writing are still ongoing and facing down state repression in Portland); and before the chaos across the global economy, with warnings of a decade of crisis yet to come.

On a personal level it also seems long past: as my 2-year teaching position ended, in August 2019 I married my best friend, and spent the following months travelling in Spain, Patagonia, New Zealand and Australia. At the time I was considering my future in academia, asking myself whether I was prepared to move home, or live apart from my wife, and if I was capable of managing further years of insecurity. These were decisions I struggled with not only due to the ingrained precarity of the academic job market, but also the anxieties that arose when I thought about my own work. Did I want to continue researching a niche aspect of radical history, writing to a small specialist audience, and working with publishers whose exclusivity and high prices operate as a means of controlling access and prestige? Though a break from academia, and travels—which I am extremely privileged to have been able to take—did not answer these questions, the decision is perhaps out of my hands, as the university sector retrenches by shedding temporary workers and asking permanent staff to consider redundancy or imposing pay cuts.

Figure 3. Front Cover: James Michael Yeoman, Print
Culture and the Formation of the Anarchist Movement
in Spain, 1890-1915 (Routledge, 2020).

Despite what has unfolded since, October 2019 will remain one of the high points of my academic life, as it was then that I received the hard copy of my monograph Print Culture and the Formation of the Anarchist Movement in Spain, published by Routledge [figure 3]. This book analyses the formation of a mass anarchist movement in Spain over the turn of the twentieth century, when the movement was transformed from a dislocated collection of groups and individuals into the largest organised body of anarchists in world history, with its syndicalist federation (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo: CNT) claiming almost a million members in 1919, in a country of 20 million. The book shows that grassroots print culture was central to these developments: driving the development of ideology and strategy – broadly defined as terrorism, education and workplace organisation – and providing an informal structure to a movement which shunned recognised leadership and bureaucracy.

I held in my hands the culmination of a work which began with my PhD in 2011: submitted in 2015, examined in 2016, sent to publishers in 2017, reviewed and revised in 2018, and proofed, formatted and indexed in the final months of my lectureship. Although the last thing I wanted to do was read it—a feeling I’m sure is familiar to many—I did include it in my pack as I set off for Buenos Aires, perhaps secretly harbouring hopes that I would find myself in a conversation that would warrant me pulling out my own book and turning to a particularly insightful passage. Unsurprisingly—and thankfully for all hypothetically involved—this did not happen.

However, I do think that carrying the book around with me helped to shift my feelings towards it. As I packed and repacked it in hostels and airports across three continents, the additional weight on my back began to feel less like an abstract expression of my time in academia and more like a physical object, existing beyond my person and available to anyone with access to the British Library. It was the kind of thing that I would have sat down with in the early stages of my PhD, perhaps loaned from another university library or picked up second-hand online. I often knew nothing about the authors of these highly specialised works or the process they went through to create them, whether they too had taken their freshly-minted hardbacks up a mountain in Chile or sent a copy to their mum, in full knowledge that she would never read it but would want it to display to her friends and herself. All I had was their books, their research and their analysis, detached from the author by academic writing conventions.

This too is how my book would exist: as something in and of itself, not as a reflection on my contingent value as an academic, or even as a person, not as a pointless frivolity or a stepping stone to a potential permanent job, an item that could be submitted to REF as an example of paradigm-shifting research.[1] I could now look at the book and not see a ‘research output’ or an esoteric hobby, but rather as a reminder of the best times of my PhD, finding and engaging with fascinating sources, thinking through my ideas with my supervisor and spending happy(ish) hours drawing maps on Microsoft Paint (artfully recreated by my colleague James Pearson for publication).

Frontispiece of Digger pamphlet ‘a declaration from
the poor oppressed people of England’ (1649).

Stepping away from academia also helped me to see the wider relevance of my work. Where once I had seen hackneyed appeals to relevance, I began to believe in the validity of the comparisons I make between the print culture of anarchists in Spain and the media of other grassroots movements, such as the use of Twitter during the Arab Spring, abolitionist newspapers of Antebellum USA, and the radical pamphleteers of the Diggers during the English Civil War.[2] In all of these grassroots movements, including in the one that I research, media was used in a collaborative manner which helped to form linkages across time and space.

While the ‘horizontalist connectivity’ of contemporary social movements is sometimes presented as a new phenomenon produced by globalisation and facilitated by digital platforms, it is clear that much older—yet equally ‘social’—forms of media, such as pamphlets and periodicals, performed a comparable function, often with more significant and lasting results. I am not surprised that indigenous activists against neo-liberal reforms in Chile find solidarity and support from Palestinian rights organisations, building upon networks of migration and social media links. I am not amazed that bail funds for Black Lives Matter activists in the USA received a flood of contributions from across the world, prompted by campaigns on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Placing these contemporary examples of grassroots solidarity in a historical lineage which stretches back centuries does not downplay their significance, only their seeming novelty. Historical precedent can be empowering, revealing that people have consistently sought to find common cause with others, overcoming their limited resources and the barriers imposed by hostile authorities. To paraphrase Marx’s discussion of the Paris Commune, the greatest achievement of such activities is not their ideological programme or their sketching out of a plan for the future, but rather ‘their own working existence,’ their historical reality which stands as proof that people have imagined a different world and sought to bring it about.[3]

‘Egyptian protests,’ a man during the 2011 Egyptian protests
carrying a card saying “Facebook, #jan25, The Egyptian Social
Network” (1 February 2011).

The scale and longevity of the global anarchist movement over the turn of the twentieth century, particularly in Spain, was remarkable, and serves as a clear example of an internationalist, bottom-up, anti-capitalist mode of activism. Examining how this came about and how it functioned, its successes and failures, is thus of direct relevance to how we think about radical politics and organising ‘from below’, both in the historical past and the present day. My book is one attempt to account for and explain this phenomenon through the words of those involved, incorporating ideological and organisational concerns alongside political economies and personal relationships, while maintaining a focus on how such developments were manifest. Irrespective of ‘academic futures’, this research and this book will remain for anyone interested in these areas, and that is something I should be proud of and should share.

History does not operate as direct parallel to the present, or as a source of explicit lessons for how we should think and act in the world. I prefer to think of my work on radical organising as having resonances, or echoes, with contemporary and historical examples of similar phenomena. Rather than a lineage, I see the anarchist movement in Spain as one part of a constellation of grassroots mobilisations that have demanded a just, equal, even utopian, reordering of the world and developed a political culture which reflected these aims, through direct engagement with one another.[4] I hope that there are some aspects of my research which may chime with people interested in the intersection of political activism and the media, and grassroots organising in general: if anyone interested would like to discuss any aspect of my research further, please do get in touch.

James Michael Yeoman is an independent researcher who completed his PhD at the University of Sheffield in 2016. His publications include Print Culture and The Formation of the Anarchist Movement in Spain, 1890-1915 (Routledge, 2020), ‘The Spanish Civil War,’ in C. Levy and M. Adams (eds), The Palgrave Handbook of Anarchism (Palgrave MacMillan 2018) and ‘Salud y Anarquía desde Dowlais: The translocal experience of Spanish anarchists in South Wales, 1900-1915’, in International Journal of Iberian Studies 29:3 (2016). James co-hosts the radical history podcast ‘ABC with Danny and Jim’ with Danny Evans (Liverpool Hope University), which you can find here: https://anchor.fm/abcwithdannyandjim. Follow James on Twitter, contact him at jamesmyeoman@gmail.com, or find our more about his research.


[1] For potential future employers I can guarantee that my work has shifted the paradigm, if the paradigm being considered is an extremely small one, concerning English-language research on the extreme left of the Spanish labour movement.

[2] For an overview of the significance of print in social movements see Chapter 3: Print and Association of Sidney Tarrow, Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics (Cambridge University Press, 1994). 3rd edition (2011) available here.

[3] Cited in Kristin Ross, Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune (Verso, 2015), 79.

[4] These thoughts are inspired by a recent conversation with Danny Evans and Liz Stainforth on Ross’s Communal Luxury, which will be available as a podcast at anchor.fm/abcwithdannyandjim from 16/08/2020.


Banner. Collection of anarchist newspapers published in Spain during the early twentieth century (cropped). Available in the public domain and here.

Figure 1. Front cover of James Michael Yeoman, Print Culture and the Formation of the Anarchist Movement in Spain, 1890-1915 (Routledge, 2020). Rights held by Routledge, an imprint of Taylor & Francis, reproduced with the publisher’s permission.

Figure 2. Burning bin in Santiago, Chile during an anti-police demonstration (31 January 2020). Attribution: James Yeoman, reproduced with permission.

Figure 3. ‘George Floyd protesters: Minneapolis’ (28 May 2020). Photograph by Dan Aasland, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Figure 4. Frontispiece of Digger pamphlet ‘A declaration from the poor oppressed people of England’ (1649). Available in the public domain and here.

Figure 5. ‘Egyptian protests,’ a man during the 2011 Egyptian protests carrying a card saying “Facebook, #jan25, The Egyptian Social Network” (1 February 2011). Photograph by Essam Sharaf, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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One Comment on “Print Culture and the Formation of the Anarchist Movement in Spain, 1890-1915

  1. Pingback: Print Culture and the Formation of the Anarchist Movement in Spain, 1890-1915 – History Journal

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