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Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism (Counter-Power vol. 1) is a book written by Lucien van der Walt and Michael Schmidt which deals with “the ideas, history and relevance of the broad anarchist tradition through a survey of 150 years of global history.”[1]

Black Flame
Black Flame cover.jpg
AuthorLucien van der Walt and Michael Schmidt
CountrySouth Africa
SubjectAnarchist Communism/ Anarcho-syndicalism/ Collectivist anarchism/ Social anarchism/ Libertarian socialism/ Platformism/ Syndicalism/ De Leonism/ Especifismo
GenrePolitics, History
PublisherAK Press
Publication date
12 February 2009

The book includes a preface by Scottish anarchist, and former political prisoner, Stuart Christie.

It is the first of two volumes in the authors' Counter Power series. Black Flame is a thematic work, on the history and theory of global anarchism and syndicalism. The forthcoming sequel, Global Fire, will provide a global narrative history of the movement. Lucien van der Walt has meanwhile also edited Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1870-1940. A German translation appeared in late 2013, entitled Schwarze Flamme: Revolutionäre Klassenpolitik im Anarchismus und Syndikalismus,[2] with Greek and Spanish translations nearing publication.

Global scopeEdit

In terms of scope, Black Flame takes a uniquely global approach which, while also analysing Western Europe and North America, takes the history of anarchism and syndicalism in Latin America, Africa, and Asia seriously.[3]

These regions are knitted together into a single global account, which overviews core themes, developments and debates in the anarchist and syndicalist tradition. Van der Walt and Michael Schmidt criticise the "standard" works on the overall history and theory of anarchism and syndicalism for focusing on the North Atlantic region, and for insisting upon an indefensible "Spanish exceptionalism," the notion that in Spain alone were anarchism and syndicalism mass movements.

A global view shows that Spain was by no means unique. According to Lucien van der Walt, "once you look globally, you find mass movements of comparable, sometimes even greater, influence in countries ranging from Argentina, to China, to Cuba, to Mexico, to Peru, to the Ukraine and so on. What gets a bit lost in studies that focus on Western Europe is that most of anarchist and syndicalist history took place elsewhere. In other words, you can’t understand anarchism unless you understand that much of its history was in the east and the south, not only in the north and the west."[4]

Therefore, besides movements like the Spanish Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, the book examines movements like the Industrial Workers of the World, the Federacion Obrera Regional Argentina, the Uruguayan Anarchist Federation, the Shinmin autonomous region founded by Korean anarchists, and the Ukrainian Free Territory of Makhnovism. Attention is also paid to figures and movements partially influenced by anarchism, like Augusto César Sandino, and the Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union, in southern Africa.

Black Flame also examines anarchist and syndicalist ideas and debates globally: for example, the account of anarchist debates on whether the Soviet Union was "state capitalist" includes the views of Asian anarchists, while sections on anarchism, syndicalism and race include coverage of Chinese, Mexican, Peruvian, and South African materials and movements.

Black Flame and a global anarchist/ syndicalist canonEdit

Black Flame argues that East Europeans like Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin are the two most important anarchist thinkers. However, the book insists that globally "the movement had an amazing array of writers and thinkers, truly cosmopolitan."[4]

The anarchist and syndicalist canon must be understood as a "global" one, that must "include figures from within but also without the West," ideally including figures like Li Pei Kan (Ba Jin) and Liu Shifu(“Shifu”) of China, James Connolly of Ireland, Armando Borghi and Errico Malatesta of Italy, Nestor Makhno and Piotr Arshinov, of the Ukraine, Juana Rouco Buela of Argentina, Lucía Sánchez Saornil and Jaime Balius of Spain, Ricardo Flores Magón, Juana Belén Gutiérrez de Mendoza, Antonio Gomes y Soto and Práxedis Guerrero of Mexico, Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis of the Netherlands, Ōsugi Sakae, Kōtoku Shūsui and Kanno Sugako of Japan, Lucy Parsons and Emma Goldman of the United States, Enrique Roig de San Martín of Cuba, Shin Chaeho and Kim Jwa-jin of Korea, Rudolph Rocker of Germany, Neno Vasco and Maria Lacerda de Moura of Brazil, Abraham Guillén of Spain and Uruguay, and S.P. Bunting and T.W. Thibedi of South Africa.[4]

Other "core theses"Edit

Black Flame's "core theses" include the propositions "that the global anarchist movement emerged in the First International, that syndicalism is an integral part of the broad anarchist tradition, that this tradition centres on rationalism, socialism and anti-authoritarianism, that the writings of Mikhail Bakunin and Pyotr Kropotkin are representative of its core ideas, and that this 'narrow' definition is both empirically defensible and analytically useful."[5]

According to the book, the core ideas of anarchism (including its syndicalist variant) include revolutionary class struggle by the working class and peasantry, internationalism, opposition to all forms of social and economic inequality,anti-imperialism, and a commitment to creating a self-managed global system of libertarian socialism, based on participatory planning and the abolition of markets and states.

Main themes, areas and topicsEdit

While Black Flame's' approach to defining anarchism has attracted a great deal of attention, this is actually a minor part of the book.

Other areas covered include

  • anarchist economic theory, compared to Marxian economics and economic liberalism;
  • the class composition of anarchist and syndicalist movements;
  • peasant anarchism: causes, patterns and outcomes;
  • the case against "Spanish exceptionalism";
  • debates over dual organisationalism;
  • anarchism, syndicalism and the promotion of revolutionary "counterpower" and "counterculture";
  • debates over trade unions in anarchism;
  • anarchists and syndicalists in anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggles; and
  • anarchism, syndicalism and women's freedom

The book engages with contemporary academic thinking on issues such as race and gender, but does so by a close examination of "the rich veins of anarchist and syndicalist thought on the national question, on women’s struggles, on union strategy."[4]

The aim is not "'update' anarchism by blending it with current academic approaches," but to examine "what the actual historical anarchist and syndicalist movement actually thought" and "actually did."[4] It is only from the basis of a solid understanding the movement's history and theory, as "a intellectual tradition that has a great deal of insight into issues of social and economic inequality, as well as a strategy around these issues," that it becomes possible and useful to engage with current academic work.[4]

Publicity and receptionEdit

The book has been very well-received, and quickly sold out its first print run.

Launches have taken place in Brazil, Britain, Canada, Germany, Mexico, Sweden, and South Africa.

Reviewers have praised the book for its "deeply impressive quality of research, analysis and writing," as an "outstanding contribution," for "examining anarchism from a worldwide perspective instead of looking at it only from a west European angle," for its "useful and insightful treatment of one of the most fascinating alternatives to industrial capitalism and the modern nation state," its "grand work of synthesis," and its "remarkable job in drawing together a vast international body of literature, showing convincingly that anarchism and syndicalism were far more significant political forces than historians have generally given ... credit," and "a serious and coherent political philosophy.”[4]

Defining anarchismEdit

A striking feature of Black Flame is the argument that “‘class struggle’ anarchism, sometimes called revolutionary or communist anarchism, is not a type of anarchism … it is the only anarchism,” and so it does not include ideas sometimes called individualist anarchists, identified with figures such as William Godwin and Max Stirner. Regarding the so-called “philosophical, individualist, spiritual and ‘lifestyle’ traditions,” the authors say “we do not regard these currents as part of the broad anarchist tradition.”[6]

Black Flame insists that while anarchism owes an immense debt to the earlier current of mutualists and to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, it cannot be reduced to, or conflated with, Mutualism. For example, its stresses class struggle and social revolution, unlike Mutualism, which envisaged gradual change through building cooperatives.

The book argues that there are no rational or historical grounds for including currents like Stirnerism and Mutualism in the anarchist tradition.

Some studies do this, by defining anarchism as basically an anti-statist movement (this sort of approach can be found, for example, on Wikipedia at Anarchist schools of thought). However, the authors argue, if this was true, then Marxism-Leninism and economic liberalism must also be considered "anarchist," as one aims at the "withering away of the state" and the other, at a massive reduction in state control. These currents cannot be logically excluded from anarchism, if anarchism is defined as anti-statism, but it would also be nonsensical to include them within anarchism.

Rather, anarchism (including syndicalism) emerged as a movement in the International Workingmen's Association, or "First International," founded in 1864: the new anarchist current emerged simultaneously in Europe and Latin America. After the International split in 1872, the anarchist majority (sometimes known as the Anarchist St. Imier International) attracted affiliates in central Asia and North Africa. This is ignored by flawed twentieth century scholarship, which reduced anarchism to anti-statism, so conflating the movement with earlier (as well as parallel) libertarian currents. Thus, anarchism is regarded here as a distinct, continuous and novel ideological and political tradition, not a gallery of superficially similar moments and thinkers.

Anarchism was, that is, born as a radical, anti-capitalist current in the radical working class and peasant milieu. Since this milieu was the product of modern capitalist and the modern state in the 1800s, the first anarchist formations emerged in the 1860s and 1870s in areas by then being reshaped by these forces: parts of East as well as West Europe, North Africa as well as North America, and Latin America and the Caribbean. As capitalist modernity expanded into southern Africa from the 1880s and east Asia from the 1890s, anarchism spread into those regions as well.

Further, since syndicalism is a variant of anarchism, argues Black Flame, syndicalists who rejected the anarchist label, like James Connolly and Bill Haywood are nonetheless still part of the anarchist tradition.

It is not, Black Flame stresses, self-identity (such as calling oneself an 'anarchist') that makes one an "anarchist": the term "anarchist," after all, has been used by the radical right, by free market neo-liberals, and by rock stars. It is the ideological content that matters, and this content goes back to the Bakuninist wing of the "First International." Thus, figures like the syndicalist Bill Haywood, who often used the term "anarchism" in a negative way, form part of the larger anarchist tradition - while figures with no real connection to that tradition, like Stirner, do not.

Mass anarchism (including syndicalism) versus insurrectionist anarchismEdit

Van der Walt and Schmidt argue, instead,that the main divide in the anarchist movement has been between two main strategic approaches, "mass and insurrectionist anarchism." The book is closer to the mass anarchist perspective, although it provides considerable coverage of insurrectionism.[6]

For the authors, mass anarchism "stresses that only mass movements can create revolutionary change in society," and "that such movements are typically built through struggles around immediate issues and reforms.”[6]

A key example of "mass anarchism" is syndicalism, which is a variant of anarchism, and a key "mass anarchist" approach. However, it argues, not all mass anarchists are syndicalists, nor are all anarchists, mass anarchists.

They go on that “[t]he insurrectionist approach, in contrast, claims that reforms are illusory, that movements like unions are willing or unwitting bulwarks of the existing order, and that formal organisations are authoritarian." Consequently, insurrectionist anarchism typically emphasises violent action – ‘propaganda by the deed’ – as the "most important means of evoking a spontaneous revolutionary upsurge” by the popular classes[6]

Sequel: Global FireEdit

Black Flame is the first of two volumes in the authors' Counter Power series. Black Flame is a thematic work, on the history and theory of global anarchism and syndicalism. The forthcoming sequel, Global Fire, will provide a global narrative history of the movement.

The authorsEdit

The authors are South Africans.

Michael Schmidt, a senior journalist with an activist background, is now a journalism trainer.

Lucien van der Walt, an industrial sociologist who works on labour and left movements and capitalist restructuring, also has an activist background.


External linksEdit