Among the autonomistas
Lyon, November 21st, 1831. The silk weavers known as the canuts, who were concentrated in the Croix Rousse neighbourhood, went on strike. They walked around in a bunch, shutting down any workshops that remained open. In the course of their marching, they encountered a detachment of the National Guard, which was staffed mainly by wine-merchants. The guards opened fire, killing three weavers and injuring many. The canuts retreated to the Croix-Rousse, constructed barricades, armed themselves, and returned to march on the city, with a black flag at their head. The next day, they marched on the town and, in a great battle, defeated the military forces and took control of France’s second city. It was the first major workers’ uprising of the industrial era.
The revolution was not long-lived. 6 days later a force of 20,000 soldiers, sent from Paris, retook the city, and restored the established order without bloodshed. The uprising was, however, influential. It helped to popularise the idea of workers having a means of advancing their common interests in the political realm – the insurrection! The black flag of the canuts remains an emblem of anarchism to this day. The workers of the Croix Rousse rose again in 1834 – once again taking the city. This time the suppression was much bloodier – as many as 600 were killed in what became known as Lyon’s “semaine sanglante” (bloody week). Further major revolts followed during the revolutionary wave that crossed Europe in 1848 and in alliance with the Paris commune of 1871.
Today Lyon’s silk-industry and the canuts are long gone. However, the Croix Rousse and its culture of revolution remains. It was this neighbourhood that I stumbled into, almost totally by chance, in late October 1996. The neighbourhood was home to a large number of leftist organisations and alternative cultural spaces and had a high density of civic and community organisations. More importantly, from my point of view, It housed an anarchist bookshop, café and bar, restaurant and printing works and a large squat - more anarchist institutions than I had encountered in the rest of the world combined. It was my first real encounter with the organised anarchist movement.
I was in Lyon to study at the National Institute of Applied Sciences (INSA), situated to the East of the city in the bland commercial and residential neighbourhood of Villeurbane. The university campus was too grim to qualify as bland. It was constructed hurriedly to produce engineers to feed France’s reconstruction boom of the 1950s: 90 acres of run-down, dirty-grey concrete housing blocks and lecture-theatre buildings that resembled factories and warehouses.
I arrived a month late for term. This turned out to be a blessing. The administration considered foreign students to be an inconvenience, so the director just allocated me to a random selection of courses, none of which commenced before mid-February. When the courses did start, the attendance requirements were light. Most were more regimented than what I was used to, but not hard. The one deviation was in an eccentric direction. The artificial intelligence exam was largely about urban psycho-geography and only tangentially touched upon the traditional algorithmic focus of the field. The net result was that I found myself in a very interesting place with lot of free time on my hands.
A few weeks before I arrived in Lyon, a couple of anarchists from Lyon had happened upon the Garden of Delight, while on holiday in Dublin, and had left their contact details with Toner, who passed them on to me. Thus, upon my arrival in Lyon, knowing nobody else in the city, I called them. They gave me a place to stay and helped me to find an apartment on Rue Pouteau, in the heart of the Croix Rousse.
Lyon is a city whose social power relations are neatly overlaid on its geography. The centre of the city sits on a narrow finger of land between the Rhone and the Saone rivers. It is sedately fine, with attractive squares filled with pleasant cafés and restaurants, and boulevards lined with retailers of fine produce. It is the domain of the city’s traditional catholic bourgeois, with the Catholic University at its heart.
To the North and North West of the centre rise two steep hills. Fourviere, known as “the hill that prays”, sits immediately West of the Saone river. Its peak is crowned with a gleaming white basilica, with delicate, pointed towers rising from each of its four corners, like a fairy-tale castle. It’s origins are less pristine. Like its sister in Paris, the Sacre Coeur, it was constructed to celebrate the bloody suppression of the workers’ communes of 1871 and to stand as a physical symbol of the triumph of the old religious order against the godless socialists.
Immediately across the Saone from Fourviere, the hill of the Croix Rousse rises in defiance. It is known as the “hill that works”. Its steep slopes are tightly packed with tall apartment buildings, separated by a warren of narrow streets. Many of the streets are so steep that stairways frequently replace the roads. The staggered buildings are barely changed from the days of the canuts. One of the features that made it such a good base for revolution is the network of subterranean passageways that run through apartment buildings which connect different levels of the slope. There are large numbers of these passageways, known as traboules, and they have become something of a tourist attraction. One happened to pass through my apartment building and, when I went to collect my washing, I would occasionally bump into a column of tourists, snaking their way through the corridors leading to my laundry room.
The couple who had helped me to find an apartment – Davide and Anicee happened to live on the same street as me. They were members of the Anarchist Federation and were involved in running an anarchist bookshop and bar around the corner – called “La Plume Noir”: the Black Pen. They became my guides to the left-wing political landscape in Lyon and beyond, and introduced me to many interesting people, places and situations. This was particularly kind as I was of little use either politically or socially for several months until my ability to communicate improved: the French I had learned in school turned out to have very little in common with the language of either the Croix Rousse or the anarchist sub-culture.
The anarchist movement in France, and the broader radical left, operate on a scale that is unknown anywhere in the English speaking world. In 1996 The Anarchist Federation had 60 members in Lyon – more politically active anarchists than all of Ireland. In addition to a network of bookshops, bars and cafés, the organisation had a weekly newspaper, available nationally through newsstands in train stations, and a radio station. They were only one of several anarchist groups – the anarcho-syndicalist CNT was bigger still. The members of these groups that I came across in Lyon tended to be much more culturally mainstream and demographically diverse than the counter-cultural anarchists I had come across to date.
In, an act of social-democratic splendour, the French state was paying my rent. This gave me the opportunity to travel further afield to observe the European anarchist movement. From Lyon, in a few hours one can drive to several countries with different, old, rich, cultures and strong left wing political traditions. Coming from an island with a relatively narrow and simple culture, the opportunities for cultural and geographic exploration were irresistible. I invested in a 1972 Volkswagen Campervan and mounted expeditions around France and into Spain and Italy.
My new girlfriend, Deirdre, was based in Grenoble, just an hour’s drive away. While I had barely known her for a few months before leaving for North America, she turned out to be sympathetically disposed to my developing anarchist convictions. More importantly, she was a good sport and consented to accompany me on several trans-European trips through an anarchist sub-cultural world.
My brother John and my old friend, Helen O’Connell, were both living in Bologna. We made several trips across the Alps to visit them and to investigate Italy’s radical counter culture. What we found was another eye-opener. Throughout Italy there was a network of social centres – ‘centro-sociales’: alternative, largely voluntary, social spaces run by radical leftist groups, often in squatted property. They could be found in all significant towns. The major ones in Northern Italy – Milan, Bologna, Turin - were huge, capable of catering for thousands of people and multiple simultaneous events – plays, concerts, cafés, bars, dance-clubs, workshops, etc. They were popular – packing out for big concerts on weekend nights.
Although these centres and the counter-cultural world around them were open to the public and hosted large events, they were not easy to penetrate. They were very heavily focused on providing spaces for local alternative culture and weren’t particularly visible to outsiders. The organisers didn’t have a lot of time for explaining how the centres work and showing random tourists around. Furthermore, the counter-cultural milieu that surrounds them is always somewhat suspicious of outsiders.
Once you are on the inside, it is a different story entirely. Idealism, mutual aid and cooperation sustains the social network of the centro sociales and links them to the broader European counter-culture. People move between centres, cities and countries, all the while staying within that world and staying outside the normal world of the market economy. It is possible to survive almost entirely without money - trains can be jumped, free lodging in squats or social centres can be found, food can be pilfered. The more contacts one has within that network, the more readily doors will open. Helen was our key. She was volunteering in an anarchist social centre in Bologna and got to know many of the people who were involved in running centres around Italy. Furthermore, she had many admirers and was often willing to accept invitations to visit from them, provided that she could bring her friends.
This led myself, Helen and 5 or 6 of our old friends to travel to Catania in Sicily, in February 1997 for a tour of the centro sociales of Southern Italy. We were staying with a man called GianPierro, a Sicilian vulcanologist who had been active on the far left for decades and was involved in running a social centre in Catania. He was very hospitable and personable, despite his obvious disappointment that Helen hadn’t shown up alone. The social centre in Catania was housed in an old abandoned monastery, from the 16th century. Concerts, meetings and parties filled the old courtyards with dreadlocks, light, colour and noise. From Catania, we travelled onwards to visit centro sociales in Palermo, Naples & Rome. In Rome, we stayed in a centre which had occupied an old military base – forte prenestino. It covered many acres and incorporated a theatre, a communal dining hall, a sound and video recording studio, a gym and numerous artists’ workshops.
The Italian centro sociales are, in many ways, the most impressive creation of Europe’s modern radical counter-cultural movements. They are widely spread, operate on a large scale, and penetrate relatively far into Italian society. They are a major component in the everyday lives of a large cohort of urban youth. There have been frequent attempts to emulate their success internationally, but nowhere has come close to achieving their scale.
This did not happen by accident. The philosophy of the broad European counter-culture is vaguely anarchist: bottom-up organising, direct democracy and anti-authoritarianism are broadly shared principles. I had generally assumed that the organising groups of social centres and squats would espouse anarchist politics but this turned out to be wrong. In Italy, Marxist groups provided the backbone of the social centre movement. From the late 1970’s onward, Italian communists, having experienced a series of defeats in workplace conflicts, increasingly began to focus on building alternative cultural and social spheres. This change in emphasis affected both the offical communist party, which broke with Moscow in 1979, and independent Autonomist Marxists, In the late 1990s, some of the biggest and most impressive centro sociales were run by groups aligned to Refondazione Communista, the Communist Party’s successor, while others were considered to belong to the Autonomist camp. The main division was between Marxists and there was very little explicit anarchist influence. The establishment and survival of many of the centres was greatly aided by relatively sympathetic local administrations. Bologna, where the centro sociale culture was strongest, was a stronghold of the Communist Party and solidly left-wing. The communists provided both an organisational infrastructure and a scale of ambition that was difficult to find elsewhere in the counter-cultural world. Naturally enough they got little credit for this – the default vaguely anarchist ethos was not well disposed towards the communists and their centres were often seen as succeeding despite, not because of, their influence.
By the Spring of 1997, I was beginning to understand the European anarchist-influenced counter-culture, and the politics surrounding it. However, up until this point, I had been an observer, a tourist and a customer. This was all about to change, as things took a decided turn for the serious when I returned to France from Italy.