Monday, 5 September 2011

Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism

Black Flame is the first of two volumes that reexamine anarchism’s democratic class politics, its vision of a decentralized planned economy, and its impact on popular struggles in five continents over the last 150 years. From the nineteenth century to today’s anticapitalist movements, it traces anarchism’s lineage and contemporary relevance. It outlines anarchism’s insights into questions of race, gender, class, and imperialism, significantly reframing the work of previous historians on the subject, and critiquing Marxist approaches to those same questions.

Lucien van der Walt teaches at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

Michael Schmidt is a Johannesburg-based senior investigative journalist.

Mandisi Majavu reviews 'Black Flame The revolutionary politics of anarchism and syndicalism', Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt, LibCom
In writing 'Black Flame: The revolutionary politics of anarchism and syndicalism', Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt set themselves an ambitious task of writing a history of anarchism. I use the word ambitious mainly because, as Guerin (1970) once pointed out, it is difficult to trace the outlines of anarchism.

Its master thinkers rarely condensed their ideas into systematic works. If, on occasion, they tried to do so, it was only in thin pamphlets designed for propaganda and popularization in which only fragments of their ideas can be observed.

Schmidt and van der Walt, however, logically map the history of anarchism by showing that the 'idea' has, since the 1860s, inspired movements globally. As the authors of the book argue, one of its distinctive contributions is its global scope. Further, the book's intellectual exploration goes deep, and, most importantly, the whole project is carried out with remarkable independence of thought. Schmidt and van der Walt write that what motivated them to undertake this project is the belief that the role of anarchism and syndicalism is indispensable to the understanding of modern history.

Schmidt and van der Walt's historical investigation of anarchism is based on the view that anarchist movements only emerged in the 1860s, "and then as a wing of the modern labour and socialist movement". They argue that syndicalism is central to the narrative of broad anarchist tradition.

Consequently, in recounting the history of anarchism, the authors particularly focus on syndicalism. They define syndicalism as a "revolutionary union movement capable of a wide range of tactics and actions: syndicalism should not be narrowed down to the politics of forming brand-new unions, for many syndicalist unions were created through capturing and revolutionising existing unions" (p. 9). They add that syndicalism is essentially an anarchist strategy, and not a rival to anarchism.

Schmidt and van der Walt's argue that anarchism was theoretically shaped by two thinkers, Bakunin and Kropotkin. They reject the argument that sees William Godwin, Max Stirner, Proudhon, Benjamin Tucker and Tolstoy as part of the broad anarchist tradition. As far as Schmidt and van der Walt are concerned, Proudhon and his disciple Tucker represented an approach, mutualism, that influenced anarchism, but that cannot 'truly be called anarchist'. They add that there is something odd about grouping 'extreme individualists' such as Stirner, and racist, misogynist inclined thinkers such as Proudhon with revolutionary socialists like Bakunin and Kropotkin.

If these figures form a single tradition, however, that tradition must lack a coherent theoretical corpus, suffer from major internal contradictions, and prove a manifest inability to find common ground on the meaning of and rationale for individual freedom and antistatism. (41).

My view is that the anarchist tradition is 'formless', diverse and that at times it is contradictory. Murray Bookchin (1995) refers to anarchism as 'a very ecumenical body of anti-authoritarian ideas'. The reason for this diverse range of views is the fact that "we do not understand very much about complex systems, such as human societies; and have only intuitions of limited validity as to the ways they should be reshaped and constructed" (Chomsky, 1996).

Guerin (1970) further adds that there are several kinds of anarchism and many variations within the thought of each of the anarchist thinkers. "It follows that the views of the libertarians are more varied, more fluid, and harder to apprehend than those of the authoritarian socialists whose rival churches at least try to impose a set of beliefs on their faithful." Guerin points out that in spite of the contradictions and the doctrinal disputes within the anarchist tradition, anarchism presents 'a fairly homogenous body of ideas'.

At first sight it is true that there may seem to be a vast difference between the individualist anarchism of Stirner (1806-1856) and social anarchism. When one looks more deeply into the matter, however, the partisans of total freedom and those of social organization do not appear as far apart as they may have thought themselves to be, or as others might at first glance suppose. The anarchist societaire is also an individualist and the individualist anarchist may well be a partisan of the societaire approach who fears to declare himself.

Bookchin (1995) writes that for two centuries anarchism has been characterised by two contradictory tendencies, "a personalistic commitment to individual autonomy and a collectivist commitment to social freedom." These tendencies, according to Bookchin, have not been reconciled in the history of libertarian thought.

Schmidt and van der Walt, however, disagree.

A sweeping and loose definition tends to group quite different ideas together, and does not historicise anarchism; by presenting anarchism as vague and rather formless, it also makes it difficult to consider how the broad anarchist tradition can inform contemporary struggles against neoliberalism. (Schmidt & van der Walt, 2009, p. 19)

Schmidt and van der Walt further disagree with the definition that views anarchism as an opposition to the state simply because anarchists are averse to regulations. They explain that "anarchism rejects the state as a centralised structure of domination and an instrument of class rule, not simply because it constrains the individual or because anarchists dislike regulations" (p. 33). They add that to portray the anarchist stance on this issue in any other way is to strip anarchism of its class politics.

I agree with Schmidt and van der Walt on this point. Be that as it may, I think we ought to concede that anarchists are partly to blame for the distortion of anarchist doctrines. For example, in dealing with the contradictions between the two anarchist tendencies (i.e. personalistic commitment to individual autonomy and collective commitment to social freedom) anarchists have allowed these two tendencies to coexist on the basis of the lowest common denominator - the opposition to the state (Bookchin, 1995).

Schmidt and van der Walt argue that the way to resolve this issue is by rejecting the personalistic commitment to individual autonomy as part of the anarchist tradition. I disagree with this argument. I am of the view that anarchism covers a broad spectrum of political ideas. These ideas include the personalistic commitment to individual autonomy, as well as the anti-statist position. Furthermore, these ideas are very much rooted in the Enlightenment. Chomsky (1970) explains that these "ideas grew out of the Enlightenment; their roots are in Rousseau's Discourse on Inequality, Humboldt's Limits of State Action..." The point is to extract from this tradition whatever is useful and relevant for the 21st century socio-economic environment.

Schmidt and van der Walt write that they are aware that their approach contradicts 'some long-standing definitions' of what anarchism entails. They maintain, however, that "the meaning of anarchism is neither arbitrary nor just a matter of opinion - the historical record demonstrates that there is a core set of beliefs" (p. 19). Based on that historical record, Schmidt and van der Walt develop a distinction within the broad anarchist tradition between what they perceive as two main strategic approaches, namely: 'mass anarchism' and 'insurrectionist anarchism'.

Insurrection anarchism, according to Schmidt and van der Walt, argues that reforms are illusory and organised mass movements are incompatible with anarchism. This strand of anarchism emphasises armed action, also known as 'propaganda by deed'. Mass anarchism, on the other hand, is based on the assumption that only mass movements can create a revolutionary change in society. Further, mass anarchism "underscores the importance of daily struggles, even around limited goals, as a means of strengthening popular movements, raising popular consciousness, and improving popular conditions..." (p. 124)

Syndicalism, write Schmidt and van der Walt, is part and parcel of mass anarchism. "Syndicalism is a powerful expression of the mass anarchist perspective" (p. 21). They argue that syndicalists who identified themselves as Marxists, such as Connolly and De Leon, should be considered part of the broad anarchist tradition. Schmidt and van der Walt caution that "syndicalism cannot be conflated with anarchism - not all anarchists accepted it, and some syndicalists rejected the anarchist label - but syndicalism must be regarded as the progeny of anarchism, as an anarchist strategy or variant rather than an alternative to anarchism" (p. 153).

Their exploration of the link between anarchism and syndicalism is presented in a very convincing manner. Nevertheless, their investigation into feminism and anarchism is not so well argued, I feel. For example, Schmidt and van der Walt argue that they have 'a certain discomfort' with the tendency to label women anarchists and syndicalists 'anarchist-feminists' or 'anarcha-feminists'. They explain that although women played a critical role in promoting a feminist analysis in anarchism, it is problematic to assume that women activists in the movement were necessarily feminist or that they should primarily be defined by feminism. They admit that there were many anarchists and syndicalists whose views and lives contradicted gender equality, but the broad anarchist tradition championed gender equality.

The feminist elements of anarchism and syndicalism were neither the exclusive province of women activists, nor should the activities of women activists in the broad anarchist tradition be reduced to an advocacy of a feminist perspective. (p. 23)

As far as Schmidt and van der Walt are concerned, the Spanish anarchists were the 'most sensitive' amongst European political group to the agenda of linking socialism with women's liberation. However, writers such as Kaplan and Ackelsberg disagree, arguing that the Spanish anarchists were not that sensitive to women's liberation. Kaplan (1971) writes that the traditional relationship between men and women was carried over into revolutionary Spain. "In the unions and collectives dominated by the CNT, women continued to perform the same work - homemaking, baking, and washing - that they had performed before the revolution" (p. 109).

Ackelsberg (1985) agrees with this Kaplan's analysis. She points out that the subordination of women 'was at best a peripheral concern' within the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist movement's agenda. According to Ackelsberg, most anarchists simply refused to recognise the specificity of women's subordination, "and few men were willing to give up the power over women they had enjoyed for so long" (p. 66). She explains that although many anarchist men might have been committed, in principle, to a sexually egalitarian movement, "for too many of them commitments ended at the door of the home or at the entrance to the union hall" (p. 76).

Ackelsberg (1985) writes that Spanish anarchists argued that women's subordination "stemmed from the division of labour by sex, from women's domestication and consequent exclusion from the paid labour force" (p. 66). To overcome their oppression women ought to join the labour force as workers and struggle in unions to improve the position of all workers, they argued.

It is these attitudes that compelled Spanish women to establish the Mujeres Libres in 1936. The goal of the Mujeres Libres was to end 'triple enslavement' of women to men, ignorance and capital. This was an anarchist-feminist movement in the sense that it articulated a perspective which recognised and addressed the particularity of women's experience. Further, the Mujeres Libres organised independently of men, "both to overcome their own subordination and to struggle against male resistance to women's emancipation" (p. 68). To state this historical fact does not, on its own, reduce women's contribution to the anarchist tradition to that of gender activists, as Schmidt and van der Walt argue. I agree that due to its class content the anarchist-feminism critique differs from liberal feminism.

I should point out that although I disagree with Schmidt and van der Walt on a few points, I think their book is brilliant and thought-provoking. I think 'Black Flame' is a valuable study for activists, students and academics alike. I am inspired by the independent thinking that Schmidt and van der Walt employed in carrying out this project. This is the proper way to pay homage to the anarchist history and anarchist tradition.


Ackelsberg, M. A. (1985). "Separate and equal"?: Mujeres Libres and anarchist strategy for women's emancipation. Feminist Studies, 11 (1), pp. 63 - 83.
Bakunin, M. (1998). God and the state. In D. Guerin (Ed.), No gods no masters: An anthology of anarchism (pp. 129 - 131). San Francisco: AK Press.
Bookchin, M. (1995). Social anarchism or lifestyle anarchism: An unbridgeable chasm. Spunk Library. Retrieved on October, 23, 2009, from:
Chomsky, N. (1996). On anarchism: Noam Chomsky interviewed by Tom Lane. website. Retrieved on October, 23, 2009, from:
Chomsky, N. (1970). Notes on anarchism. website. Retrieved on October, 22, 2009, from:
Guerin, D. (1970). Anarchism: From theory to practice. Retrieved on October, 20, 2009, from:
Kaplan, T. E. (1971). Spanish anarchism and women's liberation. Journal of Contemporary History, 6 (2), pp. 101 - 110.
Kropotkin, P. (1998). The anarchist idea. In D. Guerin (Ed.), No gods no masters: An anthology of anarchism (pp. 231 - 135). San Francisco: AK Press.
Schmidt, M. & van der Walt, L. (2009). Black Flame: The revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism. Oackland: AK Press.