THE BLOG
12/02/2014 04:37 pm ET Updated Jan 31, 2015

The Relentless Vision of an Old Anarchist

Federico Arcos -- "Fede" as he's known -- is 94 years old and currently in a Windsor, Ontario, hospital recovering from a recent heart attack. Federico, an anarcho-syndicalist, is a living link to one of history's most remarkable episodes, the Spanish Civil War, and one of the most remarkable stories within this history: How the Spanish Anarchists, with a sizable following, were able to run a number of towns, villages, agrarian collectives and the entire city of Barcelona along anarchist lines, subscribing to anti-authoritarian principles. It didn't last long -- barely a year and wasn't entirely successful -- but it demonstrated some possibilities: If you removed the coercion inherent in any modern state (for example, cops) folks wouldn't necessarily be at each others throat.

Anarchism developed during the nineteenth century and became a major movement during the First International (1866) and afterwards. In fact, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin, according to some historians, were better known at the time than rivals Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Many of the labor movements in Europe - France, Italy and Spain -- were founded and nurtured by anarchists.

We first encountered Federico during the 1980 production of the Pacific Street Films documentary, Anarchism in America, an exploration of various anti-authoritarian streams that have threaded themselves through American history. Federico along with his wife, Pura, had settled in Canada but maintained close ties with many of the immigrant anarchists we were filming in this country; in fact, they had friends and colleagues scattered throughout North and South America and Europe. Quite a few were part of an anarchist diaspora that fled Spain following General Franco's brutal victory in 1939. Federico had been a member of the anarchist Libertarian Youth organization which fought on the barricades in July 1936, repelling the first of Franco's assaults, but when the war ceased the repression went into overdrive and former opponents -- Republicans, Socialists, Communists, Anarchists -- all found themselves squarely in the cross hairs. While some like Federico managed to escape many simply disappeared in Spanish concentration camps.

Federico's home in Windsor is of a rather modest sort, on a tree-lined street, and when the two of us -- Steve Fischler and myself -- showed up to chat Federico was intent on first showing us his finished basement; not your usual wood-veneered, tchotchke-filled basement, but one that was a filled with bookshelves containing books, pamphlets, photographs, and letters; a virtual repository of anarchist history, much of it secreted and saved from a fiery end in Franco's bonfires by Federico's compatriots. For a long time this basement was the go-to destination for scholars and researchers. It was also a Mecca of sorts for anarchists young and old and many made the pilgrimage over the years to pay their respects. Federico's collection also included a holy grail of sorts: Emma Goldman's suitcase, one of two she used on her final trip to Canada where she settled and eventually passed away on May 14, 1940.

Anarchism as a political and social movement had made its way to Spain in 1868 care of a middle-aged Italian revolutionary, Giuseppi Fannelli. His journey came on the heels of a knock-down, dragged-out fight between Bakunin and Marx during the First International over the need to establish a "Dictatorship of the Proletariat," a selected group imbued with the power to "guide" the revolution. Bakunin would have none of it. Like a broken light bulb in a socket, once installed it's a bitch to remove and Bakunin, presciently, knew the appeal of power and its perks. Anyone joining a "dictatorship" of any sort will never willingly give up their position.

Fanelli was one of many purveyors of what became known as "the idea," and they scoured Europe in search of anyone who'd listen. Perhaps Emma Goldman summed it up best: in her view the idea was predicated on the "the philosophy of a new social order based on liberty unrestricted by man-made law; the theory that all forms of government rest on violence, and are therefore wrong and harmful, as well as unnecessary."

This idea struck a particularly resonant chord with Spanish peasants and urban workers struggling to breath in a country suffocated by twin pillars of oppression: the Catholic Church and an entitled ruling class. By the early 1930's, in poverty-stricken regions of Andalusia and Aragon, inhabitants of villages like Fraga embraced this anarchist gospel with a vengeance. Money was abolished. The necessities of life, like food, were dispensed directly from the collectivized stores. One anarchist newspaper boasted:

Rockefeller, if you were to come to Fraga with your entire bank account, you would not be able to buy a cup of coffee. Money, your God and your servant, has been abolished here, and the people are happy.

George Orwell, in Homage to Catalonia, painted this picture of Barcelona, late 1936, under the sway of the Anarcho-Syndicalists:

Every shop and café had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black (the colors of the Anarcho-Syndicalists). Waiters and streetwalkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared ... Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged in an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to act as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine. In the barbers' shops were Anarchist notices (the barbers were mostly Anarchists) solemnly explaining that barbers were no longer slaves.

History is replete with instances of anarchists making appearances in the most unlikely of places. How many pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong know that one of China's literary heroes, Ba-Jin, was a committed anarchist and that his name - a pseudonym actually - is an amalgam of Bakunin and Kropotkin? He also considered Emma Goldman to be his "spiritual mother." The same can be said for brothers Ricardo and Enrique Flores Magon, whose followers played an important role in the Mexican revolution. Inspired by Peter Kropotkin's The Conquest of Bread and the direct action of the syndicalist union, the Industrial Workers of the World, the brothers helped establish revolutionary communes in Baja in 1911. Today, you'll find streets, schools and neighborhoods in Mexico that bear their names but little reference to their anarchist roots.

Pacific Street Films captured a good bit of this history on 16mm negative film, nearly sixty hours worth, shot for two documentary films: Free Voice of Labor: The Jewish Anarchists (1980) and Anarchism in America (1982). Interviews are wide-ranging: from Mollie Steimer discussing her work with Emma Goldman to her companion Senya Fleshin recounting the 1905 "Bloody Sunday" assault on St. Petersburg's Winter Palace. There's Enrico Arigonni, who used the pseudonym, "Brand" (after the Ibsen character), living in New York and still worried that immigration would nab him for re-entering the country illegally fifty years after he had been deported for being an anarchist. Phil Mellman, an eighty-something former merchant mariner, anarchist member of the IWW, openly gay had been busted for LSD possession shortly before we interviewed in in the 1980's (which I guess is something of a geriatric record).

All of these outtakes, taken as a whole, offer extraordinary testimony and first person accounting of a period of history that was significant but now rapidly faded from memory. The Harvard Film Archives - where we've deeded the collection - has now taken on the goal to digitize, catalog and make the collection easily accessible to both researchers and the public.

We also ended up returning many times to that small Windsor house to interview and re-interview Federico for a work-in-progress documentary, Relentless Vision: The Legacy of Federico Arcos, Emma Goldman and the Spanish Revolution.

Federico, at age 94, now hospitalized, has consistently maintained the relentless anarchist vision of unfettered freedom and will do so, no doubt, to the bitter end which we hope is still many years down the road.

Joel Sucher is a writer/filmmaker with Pacific Street Films.