About No Gods, No Masters: A History of Anarchism
The Russian Revolution. The Spanish Republic. The Paris Commune. The Ukrainian revolution. The Mexican Revolution. From the late 19th century until World War II, anarchists played a key role in these events and in social movements that would shape the world we live in.
Yet these contributions are largely forgotten. Anarchists were considered so dangerous that forces of the state slaughtered them by the thousands, while they were betrayed, arrested, and killed by their erstwhile revolutionary allies.
Anarchy is often used as a synonym for chaos and destruction – with anarchists seen as black-clad nihilists fomenting violence at peaceful protests. But NO GODS NO MASTERS reveals the far more complex history of a viable social system and the men and women who devoted themselves to making it a reality.
NO GODS NO MASTERS is a sympathetic history of a century of anarchist thought and practice, featuring leading historians and essayists, dramatic archival footage, and lively commentary that keeps the subject engaging. Divided into sections each based on key events, NO GODS NO MASTERS is a comprehensive yet accessible introduction to the multi-faceted global anarchist movement – once a mass force that sought not to seize political power, but to utterly destroy it.
Part 1: The Passion for Destruction (1840–1906)
This episode of NO GODS NO MASTERS shows how anarchism emerged from the horrendous social conditions facing workers at a time when industrialization was, paradoxically, providing better hygiene and social standards – for some. In an era in which the life expectancy of workers was 30 years—most of those spent in misery—it is no surprise that new approaches would arise.
Tracing the history of early anarchist thought from Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who declared that property is theft, to Mikhail Bakunin, who advocated violent revolution to destroy the state completely, THE PASSION FOR DESTRUCTION provides a look at both the theoretical and practical origins of the movement.
Anarchists played a role in the revolutionary Paris Commune of 1871, which was crushed with unprecedented brutality that saw the deaths of as many as 20,000 people. It was the kind of response anarchists would soon face whenever they succeeded in wresting power from authority.
Anarchists issued a formal declaration of principles following their first international, held in St-Imier, Switzerland, in 1872, advocating free speech, free thought, equality for all, atheism, internationalism, and an end to political parties.
THE PASSION FOR DESTRUCTION follows the expansion of the anarchist movement from Europe to America, where it grew, fueled by disillusioned immigrants. Anarchists would spread their influence through general strikes – a form of action they developed – and collective action within the trade union movement, which was concerned with much more far-reaching change than working conditions. The film also offers an in-depth look at the Haymarket Affair, which saw four anarchists wrongfully hanged for a bomb that went off during a demonstration against police violence, and which would deeply influence anarchist activists such as Emma Goldman.
But even as anarchist-influenced revolts would spread through much of the world, the movement faced a sharp division between those advocating “propaganda of the deed” (bombings and other violent acts that would catalyze revolution) and those who favored the more incremental gains of syndicalism.
Part 2: Land and Freedom (1907–1921)
By the early 20th century, anarchists in France were a powerful enough constituency to draw the French president to an event. In England, they were considered so dangerous that when they occupied a London building, it took the full force of heavy artillery and 800 police officers (some under the eye of Winston Churchill) to dislodge them.
LAND AND FREEDOM looks at differing strains within the anarchist movement during the peak of its popularity – when it seemed, for a time, that the dream of anarchist revolution might come to pass. This was an era of social ferment and experimentation, including communal living, nudism, and gender equality; educational reform designed to usher in the development of “the new man”; the resurgence of propaganda of the deed in the guise of violent robberies and shootouts with police; and the participation of anarchists in revolutions from Mexico to Russia.
Anarchism waned in Europe during the years leading up to WWI, but the 1910 Mexican Revolution took up the torch and drew the support of anarchists and anti-authoritarians including the thinkers and activists Peter Kropotkin, Emma Goldman, and Joe Hill of the International Workers of the World. But despite the early gains of the Zapatistas, they would be betrayed and slaughtered by their allies. Anarchists who participated in the 1917 Russian Revolution suffered the same fate. Happy to have their support in toppling the government, the communists then suppressed them with what Trotsky called “an iron broom.”
While it seemed that the dream of an anarchist revolution was within grasp, World War I would put an end to popular revolt, as young men went to the front. A movement that had once seemed poised to take over the world was now severely weakened.
Part 3: In Memory of the Vanquished (1922–1945)
This episode of NO GODS NO MASTERS opens with the United States during the Depression and the galvanizing role of the conviction and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. It was a period during which anarchists were characterized as bomb-throwers, drunkards, and Bolsheviks. And in a country that saw trade unionism and any fight for workers’ rights as an existential threat, anarchists could not be tolerated. Indeed, the government and police sometimes teamed up with organized crime to fight them.
It’s not as though the propaganda was without basis: anarchists, including the strain of thought to which Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti belonged, had committed a series of bombings in the US. Indeed, to protest their arrest, the world’s first car bomb was detonated on Wall Street, killing 38 people. Communists saw the pair as martyrs, and fought for their release, in a calculated attempt to win over anarchist sympathizers.
IN MEMORY OF THE VANQUISHED traces the appropriation of anarchism by communists, and anarchist symbolism by fascists in France, Italy, and Spain, and takes an in-depth look at the Spanish Revolution of 1936, which was heavily anarchist in Catalonia. Remarkable newsreel footage from Barcelona shows smoothly functioning life in a city-run largely on anarchist principles, with collectively run arts organizations and companies and without bureaucracies and bosses. But this too, would not last, as anarchists paradoxically entered the republican government to face Franco’s fascists. The anarchist militias would end up being absorbed into the republican troops.
With the defeat of the Spanish Republic, and squeezed between Stalinists, fascists, and capitalists, anarchists found themselves in disarray, with nowhere to turn politically as the Second World War loomed. The anarchist movement seemed doomed. But was it?
The three episodes of NO GODS NO MASTERS offer an in-depth historical perspective on the anarchist movement, but also make implicit links to the present. Anarchism arose in a period of inequality and social unrest. The words “war on terror” were first applied to the late 19th-century fight against anarchists. Despite the diversity of thought among anarchists, the popular perception has remained remarkably static from opponents on both left and right – seeing them largely as violent nihilists. NO GODS NO MASTERS goes a long way towards rectifying that view and raises the question of whether anarchist thought could appeal to a new generation of activists too.