Interview with Martha Ackelsberg:
Martha Ackelsbergs book, Free Women of Spain: Anarchism and the Struggle for the Emancipation of Women, tells the story of Mujeres Libres. Formed during the Spanish Revolution, Mujeres Libres was an anarchist, feminist group dedicated to the liberation of women from "their triple enslavement to ignorance, as women, and as producers." Free Women explores the struggles faced by Mujeres Libres as anarchist women and offers insights for contemporary feminism on issues such as community, diversity, empowerment, and autonomy. It makes important contributions to both anarchism and feminism.
I met with Ackelsberg on January 6, 1997, to talk with her about the difficulties of researching anarchist history, her work as a radical social theorist, and feminist perspectives on anarchism. ~ Rebecca DeWitt
Was it especially difficult to acquire archival or historical material on the Spanish anarchists as a result of their intense political repression?
It was difficult to meet these women, or find out about them, because my initial informants were men and they really didnt take gender issues seriously. I dont think they were being deliberately obstructionist, but they just didnt think it mattered they couldnt get their minds around it.
As for the archives, it was a different situation. The archives were created by Francos armies and secret police. They took all the documents from places they captured and used them after the war to prosecute people for treason. There was incredible documentation there. When I first went to Spain in the mid-seventies, the archives were still run by the military, so they were not in any order that would have made sense to a historian. They were cataloged by where the materials had been found; thus there was no way of saying, "Okay, we want to find out something on collectivization which folder do we look at?" No, you had to go through all of it to see what was there. It was a ridiculous research process.
Later, in the early 80s, I also confronted this post-Franco fear. Lots of people were still very afraid to talk. Franco was only just dead and the political situation in Spain, from their point of view, hadnt changed that much. From the outside there looked like there had been this incredible transition to democracy, but they looked at it and saw all the same people in power, supposedly democratically elected.
The Mujeres Libres were essentially an anarchist, feminist group. Were the methods you used to research, analyze, and explore the Mujeres Libres structured by similar anti-authoritarian convictions?
I was using the techniques of social and oral history. The whole field of social history that has developed in the last 30 years has been about studying what used to be called marginalized or subordinated groups, e.g. workers, and saying that one cant look only at official documents, but has to spread a much wider net.
People like E.P. Thompson and Hobsbawm really created this field in the 60s, and Hobsbawms Primitive Rebels became one of my key resources when I began the project. Hobsbawm was totally anti-anarchist and I took issue with him on that, but he was looking at these people. Nobody had ever really looked at subordinated people before, and the kinds of sources that social historians are using now as a matter or course diaries, journals, etc. werent considered legitimate. Whole new ways of thinking about doing history have developed, and I think Free Women is part of that.
You hoped to strengthen the contemporary feminist move-ment by using Mujeres Libres as a historical example. Was it also your intention to strengthen or help develop a contemporary anarchist movement?
I certainly dont have any objection to doing that. I see a lot of connections between feminism certainly as it began again in the 70s and some strands of it that have continued and anarchism. I guess in my rational voice, I dont think that anarchism is the future in the US; its not like theres a major movement. On the other hand, I think there are insights about authority, organization, and ways of doing things that need to be reclaimed, remembered, and gotten back into the larger understanding of politics and society.
I was also trying to clarify that there is a whole history of anarchism as a transformative social movement thats tremendously important and valuable. I think its part of the general repression of the Left that we know so little about the anarchist movement in this country. Paul Avrich has certainly done a lot to reclaim that history but theres an enormous amount out there. Anarchists have made tremendous contributions to all kinds of social movements the labor movement most dramatically that nobody thinks of as anarchist.
The Mujeres Libres published a journal and organized extensive speaking tours. What do contemporary anarchists have to learn from the Mujeres Libres engagement with ideas and theoretical work?
The strength of the Mujeres Libres was meeting people where they were at. They were fundamentally a working class movement, and thats a major difference, as I understand it, from most anarchists in the contemporary US. Theres a small working class presence, but its mostly coming out of intellectual circles and college campuses.
Which isnt to say that the Mujeres Libres didnt have theorists, they did, but they were constantly trying to figure out what issues people were dealing with on a day-to-day basis and how to use anarchist theories.
Literacy was a big part of their work. You might say, "What does literacy have to do with anarchism?" Well, literacy was connected with a sense of self-respect: that unless people took themselves seriously and felt they deserved some kind of respect, they were never going to be able to make any kind of impact on the world. So, they spent a large portion of whatever resources they had teaching people how to read.
They were neither propagandizing nor out to teach people anarchist theory. They were out to mobilize people to better their lives, their working conditions, and their world, and they were doing that along anarchist lines. I think they assumed and hoped that over time people would learn from and through this what it means to be in a participatory, relatively non-hierarchical organization as opposed to an organization where everything comes from the top down. It was really leaning through practice rather than theory, and then applying it. I think thats one place where the contemporary Left could learn a lot.
In the last 30 years or so, many have recognized the necessity of reevaluating the basic presuppositions of many fields psychology, philosophy, linguistics, etc. as a result of the insights generated by feminism. Do you think that anarchism demands a similar transformation?
Yes and no. Just last year I wrote a piece on feminist transformations of anarchism. What seems clearest to me has to do with understandings of power, and its partly coming out of feminism and partly out of postmodernism. We need new ways of thinking about power. People like Kropotkin, Bakunin, and Goldman were really saying that we need to abolish power, and feminists have been saying that this is too simplistic in some ways. We need to reconfigure power. You cant get rid of it completely, and even Bakunin and Kropotkin, in some ways, talked about that; for example, they talked about natural authority as opposed to artificial authority. They too recognized that you cant get rid of it completely. I think now, with the insights of feminism and a more complex view of the world, there is a place for serious rethinking of anarchism.
The Mujeres Libres made a feminist critique of the anarchist movement in their time. How should feminists critique anarchism today?
Just this rethinking of power. While historically most anarchist theory seemed to be in favor of complete equality between men and women, certainly the anarchist movements didnt do a whole lot of thinking about what that would mean on a practical level. I would suspect this is probably still true; there are certain assumptions about mens and womens roles that are not dead yet.
Feminism is still a side issue, not as serious as ecology, for example. There is still a place for a basic feminist rethinking. You could end up with a very different picture of what the movement is about if you think about interpersonal relations as integral to what youre doing as opposed to an annoying thorn in your side.
As a scholar of anarchism and a feminist in academia, have you had to struggle to retain the political content of your work?
Yes and no. There certainly were people who didnt think I belonged here [at Smith] and who tried to get rid of me precisely for political reasons, but fortunately they were outnumbered. There were also several people who were very supportive of me and enthusiastic about my work.
I think for many academics on the Left the issue is how not to lose ones roots in the political questions that brought us to theory in the first place; and, at the same time, making your writing acceptable to your academic colleagues. For me, the big struggle was to write Free Women of Spain so that it communicated the spirit of these women and was accessible to an audience other than Spanish historians or political theorists, yet would still be recognized by political theorists or historians as relevant. I feel like I was more successful meeting the first goal than the second, and I suppose thats fine. Most of my colleagues didnt really care; they mostly cared that I had written this book and that it was published by a reputable publisher.
How do you see your work developing in the future?
Ive been looking at issues of gender and citizenship, and thinking about ways that people actually engage with one another in politics, broadly defined, as opposed to the ways that politics is normally represented. I see that as an extension of my work on Mujeres Libres. I was actually just talking with some friends about how weve lost the utopian, anti-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian vision we held in the 60s and 70s, and that its important to re-articulate that again. So, I might take that on next, but Im trying to decide at the moment.
What do we mean by politics? What could it mean to be a citizen at a time when everything is becoming centralized and people are feeling much more alienated? These are question Im concerned with. Id like to take some of these insights about grass roots organizations and work with others to help revitalize a utopian vision. Thats the political place I am coming from; how that gets worked out in an academic framework, I havent totally figured out.
Do you consider yourself an anarchist or do you adopt any specific political identification?
I definitely see myself on the Left. Actually, when I was conducting interviews for my book, I would ask people, "How did you become an anarchist?" and they would say "I dont claim to be an anarchist. Im not good enough." I always thought it was kind of cute when they said that, but I feel a little like that answering this question. I suppose theres a part of me that says if I were to take any label, I would take that. On the other hand, I dont always act like an anarchist; for example, I vote, I take elections seriously, etcetera. I can come up with this entire analysis of why it doesnt make any difference whom one votes for in a presidential election, and a big part of me believes that. However, I am still not willing to give up on it completely, given that this is the world in which we live.
The fact is, its very difficult to figure out how to live in this world, which is incredibly complex, incredibly alienating, in which there are extra-ordinary means of control and repression, and inequality is growing in leaps and bounds. At the same time people laugh at me sometimes for being too much of an optimist and I suppose thats the anarchist piece of me there is incredible potential for mobilization and change. I suppose thats what keeps me going.