Advanced Abstention. Democracy, Anarchism and Anti-Vote Candidates
In 1870, France became a republic with universal male suffrage. It was the country’s third try at that style of government and the first that lasted an appreciable amount of time, until the second World War. French anarchists, decimated and scattered at the outset of the Third Republic, following the failure of the 1871 Commune, had reorganized by the 1880s. In 1883, one of the more important Francophone anarchist newspapers of the time, Le Révolté, printed the manifesto of and a discussion around an “abstentionist candidate” in Bordeaux. From the manifesto:
“We who are your companions of the workshop and your brothers in misery, we who suffer from the same ill, “the exploitation of man by man” and have the same needs, we ask you, in awaiting the hour of our common emancipation, to abstain from participating in this immense dupery that one calls universal suffrage.”
Anarchists did not tend to vote. They felt it gave false legitimacy to the bourgeois republic and distracted from the main goal of a new revolution. The appearance of the first of many abstentionist candidates, however, showed that their program went beyond simply not voting. They were not above coopting a central republican institution to try to undermine the political system.
In John Dewey’s 1927 classic work of political philosophy, The Public and Its Problems, he argued that voting and all its technical underpinnings were a necessary but far from sufficient part of a healthy democracy. By “democracy,” both Dewey and anarchists were referring to representative political democracy. Voters also needed to have the capacity to see themselves as part of the public, to discuss with other members of the public and to reasonably reflect on common issues and opportunities. The state was obligated not only to set up the conditions for the individual act of voting but also the collective act of healthy public discourse.
A lot can be said about how public discourse, especially in Dewey’s native United States, has not exactly become healthier in the close to a century since his book was first published. A lot can also be said about the broad anarchist critique of modern politics. What I would like to focus on here is how we might understand public discourse against voting in a democratic context.
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For Dewey, democracy was a product of a variety of movements neither essentially democratic nor always compatible with it. The development of modern individualism, for instance, was key in justifying the vote yet also undervalued public, or common, goods. Technological progress, from the printing press onward, allowed for state cohesion over vast territories at the expense of smaller-scale organic communities.
“Even the least accidental, the most deliberately planned, political forms do not embody some absolute and unquestioned good. They represent a choice, amid a complex of contending forces, of that particular possibility which appears to promise the most good with the least attendant evil.”
The mythology surrounding democracy portrayed it as an “absolute and unquestioned good.” This distracted from reasonable inquiry into how institutions were actually used and how they might evolve. In this context, even a minor strategy pursued by a fringe Nineteenth Century political movement could prove instructive.
In a gross oversimplification of Vivien Bouhey’s thorough study on French anarchists between 1880 and 1914, Les Anarchistes contre la République, the movement started as an offshoot of socialism. It split in reaction against “authoritarian” ideas, eschewing hierarchy and centralisation.
Before splintering at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, the movement had two competing tendencies; individual and collective action. Individual action was rarely truly individual, though coordination was limited and short-term. The bombings the movement was known for during the 1890s were examples of this: one person usually planted a device, but acquiring materials and fabricating it took more. An even larger group was indirectly implicated, as instructions for putting it together, along with other advice, were regularly printed in anarchist publications.
Collective action tended to be more constructive. Anarchists were involved in creating cooperatives, and participated in unions, work actions, Labour Day marches and the like. Being constructive was not necessarily a positive trait. Anarchism was a revolutionary movement. The material support offered by cooperatives and union-driven labour reforms lowered working class interest in overthrowing the government.
Anarchist “propaganda” took three forms: oral, written and by fact. Discussion groups and speaking engagements formed the core of the first. The second was mostly posters, pamphlets and newspapers. The last ran the gamut from starting a cooperative through Robin Hood-style theft and redistribution to assassinating authority figures.
The abstentionist candidate idea arose as a solution to a very practical problem. Posters required a stamp to be put up legally. Stamps cost money, of which anarchists generally did not have a lot, and the money was paid to the state, which was “the enemy.” Unstamped posters were quickly ripped down by the police if they were in highly visible locations. They were not very effective if put in more obscure locations, such as public urinals.
There was a loophole to the stamp rule. Posters signed by candidates during election campaigns did not need them. So, anarchists put up candidates in order to put up posters for free.
The 1884 case of the mysterious abstentionist candidate J. Bardin shows how seriously the idea was taken. In May of that year, newspapers across the country ran stories of anarchist posters appearing in their cities; including Roubaix, Lyon, Marseille, Montpelier, Nantes and Amiens; all signed J. Bardin. “Keep your ballot papers to stuff your guns” was the central, anti-suffrage and openly revolutionary message.
Digging into it, journalists discovered that the poster was a page from a Lyon-based anarchist newspaper. There was no actual candidate, just an idea disseminated from a centre of anarchist activity and implemented by a scattering of local companions. Everyone saw an opportunity to plaster posters for free under the cover of a fictitious office-seeker. Given the coverage in the generalist press, the plan to spread their message worked better than they likely imagined.
The case brings to the fore two points. First, anarchism as a political movement was not chaotic, but organized. Communication and coordinated action across the country, and often enough across borders, was common. What made the movement unique was the lack of hierarchy; the Lyon newspaper offered a ready-made poster and instructions for what to do with it but did not order companions in other cities to use it.
Second, the technological means used by anarchists to spread their message, in this case the printing press and railways allowing relatively rapid delivery of a newspaper across the territory, were the same that made modern democracy possible. As Dewey argued, there was no single, inevitable form of politics technological progress favoured.
Whether the candidate was real or fictitious, the early results tended to be the same. An opinion piece from the August 30, 1885 Le Révolté gives a sense of the strategy’s limits and the push in the movement for more direct action:
“You say in №10 that to have posters signed by an abstentionist candidate is a joke but that we should make use of it, as up until the period of open propaganda it avoids us having to give money to our enemy the State.
There is, first, a point on which we agree, that the abstentionist candidate is a joke; however you will agree with us that if the candidate was elected, he could very well profit from the situation in which he finds himself.
It is true that a candidate’s signature spares the cost of a stamp. The law is formal on that point, but us, anarchists, what do we care about the law? Nothing stops the sergots [informal form of sergeants] from ripping down our posters, unless one strangles some of them. So, one should get used to putting up posters without worrying about the stamp or the law, etc.
As to the period of action, we figure that it is open from the day when all the governments persecuted us. That all those of us who are arrested sell their freedom at a steep price. Align our actions with our words, it will be the best means of opening the era of propaganda by fact.”
A candidate’s signature may have made a stamp-free poster legal; it did not stop the police from removing it. The only way it would stay up would be under the demonstration of, and threat of more, violence. What, though, would be the point of risking prison for written propaganda calling for things like “Keep your ballot papers to stuff your guns?” It made more sense to move on to propaganda by fact; actually stuffing the guns rather than just talking or writing about it.
The drive toward violence led to a vicious circle of state repression and terrorist attacks. This culminated in the assassination of the president of the Republic, Sadi Carnot, in 1894. While the anarchist who killed him was Italian, the act was intimately linked to the years-long increase in violence and repression in the country.
As for abstentionist candidates, some went on to adopt forms of direct action that reflected the times. In April, 1890, newspapers recounted the story of a former candidate named Antoine Vignaud who was on trial for stealing an umbrella. He planned to participate in the Labour Day (May 1) march with the intention of giving it a more revolutionary flavour and the forecast called for rain. Two years later in July, a former candidate named Faugoux was put on trial for his part in the theft of dynamite. At that point, anarchists were using explosives to target police and prosecutors.
Others continued to see the value of being candidates. In a local news column for Toulon in Le Petit Marseillais on September 17, 1889: “The anarchists have an abstentionist candidate, the citizen Monat who, given a rather grand logic and a certain oratory talent, provides in our region a lively abstentionist campaign.” The same month, Le Radical described a candidate in the 18th Arrondissement of Paris as “candidate for the tribune, abstentionist by principle.”
In the early 1890s, even with propaganda by fact in ascendance and the passing of increasingly repressive laws, announcements like the following from the August 15, 1893 issue of Le Petit Provençal, showed the continued interest in the abstentionist candidate strategy:
“Socialist, abstentionist and anarchist voters are urgently invited for this evening 9 o’clock, at the Chalet Mirabeau, chemin de Saint Barnabé, 60 — Citizen Basset, abstentionist candidate, is asked to come and elaborate on his program — An abstentionist manifesto will be submitted to attendees.”
The above examples point at a more significant benefit of being a candidate than stampless posters; increased opportunities to speak. Not only did non-anarchist newspapers advertise their events, they were invited to debates and other multi-party gatherings. This gave the movement a higher level of respectability and thus more relevance in mainstream political discussions.
At the same time, respectability was undermined by every bomb and assassination. When the Republic was not seriously shaken by the death of the president — and it became obvious that repression was not effective in stopping the terrorism — both anarchists and state actors stepped back and made efforts to calm the situation. Despite the détente, too much blood had been spilled to wash out the spot from even the black flag of anarchy.
In a very modern maneuver, a significant portion of the movement rebranded from “anarchist” to “libertarian.” Louise Michel and Sébastien Faure set the tone when they founded a new newspaper, Le Libertaire, in 1895. It was still openly anarchist — the subtitle was Newspaper of Anarchists — , but it provided a less loaded term to use in mixed company.
The attraction of the abstentionist candidate survived the turmoil. In March, 1896, Le Libertaire included an abstentionist manifesto and instructions for how to use it as a poster without having to pay for a stamp. Themes of the illegitimacy of authority and the farce of universal suffrage stayed substantially the same as the phantom candidate J. Bardin’s 1884 manifesto and the one used in Bordeaux in 1883.
A comment in the October 15, 1887 issue of Le Figaro regarding a certain Mr. Roux, abstentionist candidate for the municipal election in Paris, is telling: “He is an original who wants not to harvest votes, but to seed ideas.” The implication being that ordinary candidates aimed primarily to collect votes. The collection could include presenting new ideas, but recycled ones attractive to voters could work just as well.
Dewey explained how the use of established ideas was a problem:
“The new era of human relationships in which we live is one marked by mass production for remote markets, by cable and telephone, by cheap printing, by railway and steam navigation. […] Steam and electricity have done more to alter the conditions under which men associate together than all the agencies which affected human relationships before our time. There are those who lay the blame for all the evils of our lives on steam, electricity and machinery. It is always convenient to have a devil as well as a savior to bear the responsibilities of humanity. In reality, the trouble springs rather from the ideas and absence of ideas in connection with which technological factors operate. Mental and moral beliefs and ideals change more slowly than outward conditions. If the ideals associated with the higher life of our cultural past have been impaired, the fault is primarily with them. Ideals and standards formed without regard to the means by which they are to be achieved and incarnated in flesh are bound to be thin and wavering. Since the aims, desires and purposes created by a machine age do not connect with tradition, there are two sets of rival ideals, and those which have actual instrumentalities at their disposal have the advantage. Because the two are rivals and because the older ones retain their glamor and sentimental prestige in literature and religion, the newer ones are perfore harsh and narrow. For the older symbols of ideal life still engage thought and command loyalty. Conditions have changed, but every aspect of life, from religion and education to property and trade, shows that nothing approaching a transformation has taken place in ideas and ideals.”
The solution Dewey proposed was on the side of the voter, supported by the state. While the institutions for democratic rule were key, quoting Samuel J. Tilden, “the means by which a majority comes to be a majority is the more important thing.” “The essential need […] is the improvement of the methods and conditions of debate, discussion and persuasion.” The state needed to provide educational and community-building opportunities for the public so that, first, it recognized itself as a public and, second, it developed ideas for pursuing common interests.
In this scenario, seeding ideas would be counterproductive. Candidates should collect those already expressed by the public. Competition between candidates would then be more on the level of prioritization and implementation, rather than idea generation as such.
Dewey argued, however, that we need to avoid seeing democratic institutions as inevitable ideals. Instead, we should inquire into the contradictory forces that brought them about and how they are actually used. As such, it is difficult to argue how the use of the electoral system to raise and debate ideas could be considered illegitimate. Difficult to argue, that is, so long as we exclude phantom candidates and strangling people as part of the message. The campaign trail may not have been the ideal place for such debates; it was still a state-supported opportunity for community discussion.
One could suggest the abstentionist candidate strategy showed that the onus should be on candidates to present ideas going beyond Dewey’s rival “ideals” of nostalgia and progress. The need for self-aware and critical publics remain. Candidates, however, should be self-aware and critical, too. This is perhaps true, but would have to be tested for compatibility with the pursuit of common interests.
At the very least, the strategy highlighted how candidate motivations and the reward structure of vote collecting can make a difference in linking ideas, votes and representation. Dewey assumed the basic infrastructure for political democracy was already in place. What was needed was a broader democratic life that would result in coherent publics. For his solution to be plausible, we would also need a sense of how expressions of common interests by a public can make their way through the system intact to become, or meaningfully inform, government action.
As to the anarchist position that universal suffrage did not legitimize authority, it is worth taking seriously. For example, abstentionist manifestos regularly included a point about the elected government sending working class sons to fight in French colonial adventures in Southeast Asia. Even if we disagree that authority is never legitimate and Dewey’s self-aware public has been achieved, not all uses of authority — especially when it comes to state violence — can be justified by the vote. To do so would be to treat suffrage as a mythical unquestioned good rather than a reasonable choice.