My Summer With Anarchists

Last year, Tess Gruenberg spent two months living with an anarchist collective in rural France. She sent us these photos and diary of her thoughts at the place we will refer to as ‘L’ at request to protect anonymity.

Last summer, I lived on an anarchist collective in the southwest of France. I short-circuited the otherwise impenetrable anarchist community by way of blood-line. My cousins bought some forested land with inheritance money and spear-headed what we will call ‘L’ – a permaculturist, anarcho-feminist collective. 

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With soil to cultivate roots both literally and figuratively, L was to be a safe-space for young radicals to think, grow and dream of a more fair future. There were too many dashes and slashes for me to figure out the specifics of anarchist culture from afar, so I decided to spend two months there out of a keen curiosity to uncover the truth.

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At L, straight lines do not exist, everything dances. Mountains cradle the forested land. The air hangs low, and tastes like butter if you’re hungry enough. A, the eldest of the cousins, is a permaculturist and an ally to the earth. A wakes with the sun, his hard-working hands as stubborn as his mind. K is a social activist who can charm anyone she wishes. When she speaks, she sings, her voice as alluring as her ideas. Together, they drew bodies and minds from different corners of the world – activists, artists, writers, musicians and farmers, their minds exhausted yet still hopeful after years fighting an oppressive and conundrum-laden system.

The task at hand that summer was a tangible one – to re-build the roof of a century-old barn. In those first weeks, dirty swiftly became sexy. I felt my mind become supple and my body strong. The act of building requires an understanding of all moving parts. Nothing is as straight-forward as it seems. As our bodies worked tirelessly, our minds interwove with one another and conversations arose that complicated the stereotype of inflexible radicals into one of curious minds that welcomed nuance. 

The familiarity was not in the faces themselves, but in the sacred practice of trusting the ebb and flow of community. ‘They’ll be back soon,’ I heard often.

Friends were made in moments. Goodbyes were as frequent as morning coffee, and just as treasured. The familiarity was not in the faces themselves, but in the sacred practice of trusting the ebb and flow of community. “They’ll be back soon,” I heard often. 

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We bathed in the river together, laughed, cried and danced, and all the while I nagged myself for thinking I had any right to judge their truth. These young anarchists were living what they preached, stubborn and for what seemed like the right reasons. I fell deep into their collective dream.

In early August, the fantasy was lost when more than 150 radicals swarmed the grounds of L for a week-long gathering. Without a barn to build, the community scattered itself aimlessly in a multiplicity of directions. There was no longer a centre and – like bees without a hive – chaos and confusion reigned. The dream began to collapse, and specificity dissolved into fantasy as I watched the young anarchists free-fall into contradiction. 

Many of these radicals mistook stubbornness for strength, and were irrevocably close-minded to social and scientific points of view that did not fit their own picture. The hyper-factionalization of the gathering was Orwellian in its rigidity. Ignorance masked itself as irreverence, and debates that could have been intricate, compelling and thought-provoking became vague or hyperbolic. And along with that came anxiety and frustration.

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Deep within every powerful form of resistance exists a dream. In order to keep this dream alive, one needs something tangible to overcome. In the case of anarchy, the Greek root being anarkhos (without a ruler), this need to overcome something often devolves into a negative: an idea/person/thing to incessantly fight against.

Building the barn revealed the other side of that coin – successful pursuit of a tangible goal. In that process, the community came together and created something real, and we watched it dance with potential. And within that tangible space, I saw a genuine form of resistance cracked open wide.