Fanning the Flames

Sean Benjamin

Reviewed in this article

Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism. AK Press
Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt

Written by two members of the South African Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF), Black Flame is the first volume of a projected two-volume work on the history of the global anarchist movement and the theories that have emerged from it. The authors begin by framing the core principles of what they call “the broad anarchist tradition,” and use historical examples to explore strategic and tactical debates within anarchism. Their reframing of the anarchist tradition situates it as the libertarian wing of a larger socialist movement. Accordingly, they reject the commonly held view of anarchism as mere anti-statism and they place class struggle at the centre of the anarchist tradition. While the authors’ attempt to recover this classical anarchist tradition is bound to be controversial, their conclusions offer insights into the relations between anarchist politics and social movements generally.

Redefining Anarchism

In their first three chapters, Schmidt and van der Walt critique traditional definitions of anarchism. They argue that reducing anarchism to anti-statism “seriously distort[s] the anarchist position… purge[s] it of its socialist content and origins,” and “creates the impression that anarchism is contradictory as well as unfocused, and renders the theoretical analysis of anarchism a frustrating task at best” (15, 18). They maintain that the conflation of anarchism with anti-statism was first systematically presented in Paul Eltzbacher’s Anarchism: Exponents of the Anarchist Philosophy (1900). Eltzbacher took the so-called “seven sages” approach to anarchism. He identified seven figures who he deemed to embody anarchist principles – Godwin, Stirner, Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Tucker, and Tolstoy – and attempted to synthesize their often contradictory positions. Schmidt and van der Walt argue that Eltzbacher arrived at a distorted and incoherent understanding of basic anarchist principles and reduced anarchism to simple, undifferentiated resistance to the state. They show that despite the deeply flawed premises of Eltzbacher’s book, which neglect the centrality of class struggle and anti-capitalism in anarchist analysis, have been replicated in most subsequent studies of anarchism (35-45).

Schmidt and van der Walt set out to develop “a narrower, more clearly delineated, and more historicized and historically accurate understanding of anarchism” (7). Their intention is to work through studies of the early anarchist movement to identify the “core ideas that are sufficiently coherent… to be thought of as a shared ‘broad anarchist tradition’” (18). They reframe anarchism, explaining that it is a form of revolutionary and libertarian socialism with relatively recent origins in the late 19th century, and emphasize the centrality of class struggle in anarchist theory and practice. They identify Bakunin and Kropotkin as the key proponents of the ideas associated with anarchism, ideas that were realized in the anarchist movement at the time of the First International.

The authors argue that Godwin, Stirner, Tucker, and Tolstoy had a negligible influence on the broad anarchist tradition:

The point is not to dismiss other libertarian ideas and the wide range of anti-authoritarian ideas that have developed in many cultures but to suggest that we need to differentiate anarchism and syndicalism from other currents, including libertarian ones, the better to understand both anarchism and these other tendencies. ‘Class struggle anarchism,’ sometimes called revolutionary or communist anarchism, is not a type of anarchism; in our view it is the only anarchism. We are aware that our approach contradicts some long-standing definitions, but we maintain 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 (19).

It is controversial to exclude such notable individualist figures as Godwin, Stirner, and Tucker from the anarchist tradition, but Schmidt and van der Walt make a strong case. While these “anarchists” all opposed the state, their reasons for this stance differed from those of anarchist movements.

Schmidt and van der Walt avoid the “great thinkers” approach to historical research instead focusing on excavating the histories of largely unknown individuals and movements in order to analyze various strategies and tactics among these groups. They devote less attention to individual thinkers and focus instead on anarchist ideas and the movements they informed. In this way, Black Flame does much to undermine any incipient personality cult associated with anarchist history, and brings to life the experiences, actions, and beliefs of the multitudes of unknown working-class militants who built the anarchist movement.

To determine who qualifies for inclusion in the broad anarchist tradition, Schmidt and van der Walt examine the content of an individual’s ideas and the nature of her or his actions. Then the authors decide if their findings – the individual’s ideas and actions – accord with their understanding of the core principles of anarchism. Because they don’t rely on ideological self-identification in determining who has contributed to the anarchist tradition, the authors exclude some self-identified anarchists and include some people who never identified as anarchists and who even condemned anarchism. This is likely to be controversial.

The authors argue that all forms of syndicalism descend from the anarchist tradition, whether its exponents embrace this connection (the anarcho-syndicalists), ignore, or repudiate it (the revolutionary syndicalists). This assertion is fairly straightforward. What’s surprising is their inclusion of Daniel De Leon and James Connolly in the anarchist tradition. Despite his advocacy of the strategy of revolutionary syndicalism, De Leon was a Marxist in the classical sense, and he adopted such typically Marxist positions as advocating electoralism as a revolutionary strategy and criticizing any use of direct action by socialists and the labour movement. Perhaps the syndicalist strategy of De Leon and Connolly gave them a libertarian analysis that left them closer to modern anarchists than to such strains of authoritarian Marxism as Leninism and Trotskyism. Admittedly, De Leon significantly influenced syndicalism in many countries, but should his adoption of an anarchist-influenced strategy like syndicalism be conflated with anarchist principles? Most contemporary anarchists would be deeply uncomfortable with including such a patently anti-anarchist figure as De Leon within the anarchist tradition.

Rather than including syndicalist Marxists like De Leon and Connelly, perhaps the authors might have found common space within the broad anarchist tradition for such libertarian socialists as Anton Pannekoek, Maurice Brinton, Marty Glaberman, and the French group Socialisme ou Barbarie. While these figures and groups did not self-identify as anarchists and were often critical of anarchism as they understood it, if the criteria for inclusion in the broad anarchist tradition is the content of ideas rather than self-identification, perhaps they warrant a closer look. The authors acknowledge that while anarchism is a form of libertarian socialism, not all libertarian socialists are anarchists. Nevertheless, the lack of substantive discussion of left communism, council communism, and other forms of libertarian socialism in this book is an unfortunate omission.

Strategic and Tactical Debates

Having laid out the core principles of their broad anarchist tradition, Schmidt and van der Walt analyze strategic and tactical debates within the anarchist movement. They argue that the main strategic distinction within anarchism is between insurrectionist anarchist and mass anarchist tendencies. For the authors, insurrectionist anarchism “argues that reforms are illusory and organized mass movements are incompatible with anarchism, and emphasizes armed action – propaganda by the deed – against the ruling class and its institutions as the primary means of evoking a spontaneous revolutionary upsurge” (123). In contrast, mass anarchism “stresses the view that only mass movements can create a revolutionary change in society, that such movements are typically built through struggles around immediate issues and reforms, and that anarchists must participate in such movements to radicalize and transform them into levers of revolutionary change.” What matters is that gains are won from below rather than doled out from above. “Mass anarchism is possibilist, believing that it is both possible and desirable to force concessions from the ruling classes.” While the authors clearly prefer the mass anarchist approach, they treat insurrectionary anarchism fairly and recognize its status as a longstanding current within the anarchist tradition (123-124).

Unlike the very real division between the insurrectionary and mass wings of anarchism, Schmidt and van der Walt assert that the distinction between anarcho-syndicalism and anarcho-communism is an artificial one, with no substantive historical basis (124-127). They show that the most prominent historical anarcho-communists, including Kropotkin, Alexander Berkman, Ricardo Flores Magon, and Liu Shifu, embraced syndicalism as a strategy, while most anarcho-syndicalists advocated “anarchist communism” as an end goal. But they note that contemporary anarcho-communists – including the Italian FdCA and the Irish WSM – continue to make this distinction, based in large part on the presumption that anarcho-communists support the idea of “organizational dualism” and anarcho-syndicalists do not. The idea that there is no definable or identifiable anarcho-communist tendency would come as a surprise to many contemporary anarcho-communists, but if the authors are correct in denying a substantive contradiction between these two tendencies, it might also make cooperation more possible among those who identify with the working-class oriented, pro-organizational tradition within anarchism.

In a chapter devoted to exploring various anarchist positions on forming specifically anarchist political organizations, Schmidt and van der Walt lay out the common arguments for anti-organizational anarchism and the syndicalist argument that the union is a sufficient form of political organization. The authors then make a clear case for the necessity of an “organizational dualism” that recognizes the need for a specific and distinct anarchist organization devoted to promoting anarchist ideas within larger mass movements. They examine the origins of and controversy surrounding the 1926 Organizational Platform of the Libertarian Communists. Schmidt and van der Walt (understandably, as members of the platformist group ZACF) position the Platform as a re-statement of fundamental anarchist principles rather than a radical departure from them. By arguing that anarchists need a coherent organization to promote anarchism within mass movements through the “leadership of ideas,” and that anarchists must involve themselves in mass social movements to push them in a more libertarian and revolutionary direction, Schmidt and van der Walt present the Platform as a highly effective approach to anarchist organizing (247-263).

The authors also discuss how anarchists should relate to national liberation struggles. Some anarchists take a position of relatively uncritical support for these struggles, while others reject them entirely. The authors take a more nuanced approach. They discuss a number of historical anarchist interventions in national liberation and anti-imperialist struggles – including in Mexico, Cuba, the Ukraine, Korea, and Algeria – in which the approach was to:

participate in national liberation struggles in order to shape them, win the battle of ideas, displace nationalism with a politics of national liberation through class struggle, and push national liberation struggles in a revolutionary direction. Underlying this approach is the view that nationalism is only one current in national liberation or anti-imperialist struggles, and not necessarily the dominant one, and that national liberation struggles could develop into a variety of outcomes (310).

While most historical studies of anarchism have focused on Western Europe and North America, Black Flame counters this Eurocentric approach. As the authors explain, “the broad anarchist tradition was an international movement that can not be adequately understood through the focus on Western anarchism that typifies most existing accounts” (8). Anarchist movements in Africa, East Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and (to a lesser extent) the Middle East are amply documented. It should be noted that this coverage is not systematic in a geographic or chronological sense. Rather, cases from specific countries and eras are used as examples to support particular arguments, or to illustrate strategic and tactical positions and debates within the global anarchist movement.

Unfortunately, the sections dealing with anarchism’s response to race and gender oppression are the weakest parts of an otherwise excellent book. Schmidt and van der Walt critique the “abolition of whiteness” analysis espoused by David Roediger and Noel Ignatiev as well as some of the more divisive features of identity politics. However, they do not do anarchism justice by using classical anarchist writers to explain the anarchist position on racial and gender oppression. Anarchist analyses of race and gender have come a long way since the days of Kropotkin, Rocker, and Berkman, and this more recent theoretical and practical elaboration has made contemporary anarchism deeply relevant. In particular, the authors might have devoted more attention to intersectional approaches to race, class, and gender. Such approaches highlight the interrelation of various forms of oppression while avoiding the class-blind and “divisive” elements of the cruder forms of identity politics.

Conclusion

In recent years, there has been an upsurge in class struggle anarchism, or social anarchism. This tendency has even been notable in North America, a region commonly seen as a bastion of individualist, anti-organizational, lifestylist, and primitivist anarchisms – all of which Schmidt and van der Walt exclude from the broad anarchist tradition. In these circumstances, there is a need for a clear and more forceful theoretical statement of principles, and Black Flame serves as an excellent opening statement of the relevance of class struggle anarchism in a twenty-first century context. Whether or not one accepts all of the components of the authors’ analysis of the broad anarchist tradition, this book is an impressive introduction to the history of anarchist theory and anarchist movements. It radically reframes the debate over anarchism and how it is perceived by both its advocates and the world at large, and successfully argues for anarchism’s relevance in contemporary struggles. Their forthcoming second volume, Global Fire: 150 Fighting Years of International Anarchism and Syndicalism, will focus on the history of the global anarchist movement to complement the theoretical focus of Black Flame. If the second volume is as good as the first, they will stand together as a truly significant contribution to both anarchist theory and history.