Black flame : the revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism by Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt [Review]

This is volume one of an introduction to the history and ideas of anarchism, but not like any you’ve read before. Rather than repeat conventional commentaries, the authors make a series of challenging decisions. Against the lowest-common-denominator approach of writers from Eltzbacher to Marshall they limit anarchism to the class struggle anarchist movement (that is, libertarian socialism) from the mid-nineteenth century onwards.

No serious examination of Lao Tzu, the Anabaptists, and Bakunin can maintain that they shared the same views and goals, so it is not clear why they should be grouped together; […] To claim that anarchism is universal is a useful legitimising myth for an embattled movement; to take such a claim seriously, however, does little to advance the analysis and activities of that movement.” (p18)

This is a helpful and necessary distinction. “The point is not to dismiss other libertarian ideas and the wide range of antiauthoritarian 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.” (p19)

Against standard Marxist “explanations” of the existence of anarchism, “we reject the view that the broad anarchist tradition is an atavistic throwback to the precapitalist world, and argue that it was a response to the rise of capitalism and the modern state, that its origins were as recent as the 1860s, and that it emerged within and was an integral part of modern socialist and working class movements.” (p14)

Though dependent on English-language sources, Schmidt and van der Walt take a global approach, pushing beyond the “usual suspects” in Western Europe and North America, to Latin America, southern Africa and East Asia. This is helped by another, more controversial and less successful, redefinition: all types of syndicalism are claimed as anarchist.

Syndicalism is a variant of anarchism, and the syndicalist movement is part of the broad anarchist tradition.” (p16) “That some syndicalist described themselves as Marxists or rejected the anarchist label does not invalidate their place in the broad anarchist tradition; we do not use self-identification but rather ideas as the basis for inclusion.” (p17)

No doubt discussion on this will run and run, but I think they’re too energetic claiming every syndicalist for anarchism. James Connolly and Daniel De Leon may be close to our ideas, they are certainly worth studying, but fighting for “industrial socialism” is not the same as anarchism. The drawback to disagreeing with their definition is having to note if historical figures are anarchists, or syndicalists and “honorary anarchists”. Otherwise their potted biographies of thinkers and militants are very useful.

Having defined the broad anarchist tradition (and its historical roots), the remaining two thirds of the book is a discussion of anarchist strategy and tactics, illustrated with examples from the movement’s history. The first section here suggests a further division of the anarchist movement into followers of “mass” and “insurrectionist” strategies.

First, “mass” and “insurrectionist” are current terms, not the ones used historically. Luigi Galleani, with his suspicion of unions and his calls for political violence, certainly “was one of the most articulate spokespeople for the insurrectionist tradition” (p128), though at the time it would more likely have been called “anti-organisational anarchism”. But deciding anarchists have changed their political strategy when they follow different tactics is problematic. For example, when he was released from prison in 1917, Nestor Makhno began organising peasants to expropriate the landlords, rather than carrying on shooting policemen. Was this because he “broke with insurrectionism” (p255)? Or was he using different tactics in different circumstances? Rather than a change of heart (or ideology), was it not that he had other fish to fry? This quote, from one of the authors in an online forum, shows that they do appreciate that sometimes it comes down to local possibilities:

We do not say that the insurrectionaries are anti-mass, just that their method is based on the inspiration of insurgent actions by minorities, instead of being based on mobilising broad class organisations. Lucien and I accept both mass and insurgent anarchism – and only those two, as both are located firmly in class struggle – as legitimate, holistic expressions of fully-fledged anarchist praxis, although we tend towards the mass approach ourselves. Both approaches of course have their dangers: reformism / gradualism for the mass anarchists; and vanguardism / substitutionism for the insurgent anarchists. But still, I stress, both are legitimate – and sometimes either one is adopted because of the different possibilities of local conditions; thus anarcho-syndicalism in Barcelona in the 1870s, but insurrectionism in rural Catalonia.”

Thankfully, the authors are able to make their discussion of anarchist ideas accessible. There’s no jargon introduced for its own sake. You might need to have been in the anarchist movement a year or so before you bump into “praxis” for theory and practice but other technical terms get explained clearly: see page 124 onwards for a dissection of the different meanings of “anarchist communism”. Organisations have their names translated into English (which is more useful in an introductory work) but not their initials. It would have been nice to have their original names in an appendix (or the index). And it has a proper index, with ideas in it, and not just a list of names.

This book is obviously the result of a huge amount of work and a valuable synthesis of an awful lot of historical and political writings. Their clear idea of what they wanted from it has kept their writing to the point. Their discussions of ‘whiteness’ and current arguments among anarcho-syndicalists are both short and interesting.

This book is unlikely to end debates about “what is anarchism?” but it’s a useful (if not perfect) contribution to them. It’s also a great contribution to anarchist history. Not everyone will like the political choices they make, but anyone would be able to learn something from their work. But this is not just about history, nor just about the internal affairs of the anarchist movement. After the blind alley of authoritarian “socialism”, it’s about putting liberation back on the agenda, and how to make it a reality. It’s enjoyable to read something where the “big picture” is handled so confidently. Roll on volume two, a global history of anarchism.

Black flame : the revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism by Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt. Counterpower, volume 1.
AK Press, 2009. 395 pages.
ISBN 9781904859161 $22.95, £18