Lighting a Black Flame: The history and politics of global anarchism and syndicalism

Transcript of talk by Lucien van der Walt, São Paulo, Brazil, 2 November 2010, Ay Carmela, Rua das Carmelitas

I would like to thank everybody for coming today. I understand it’s a public holiday today. So, thanks for coming. Now, Black Flame is a big book, and taken as a whole the book is quite a complex one. So I’m going to focus on some of the main arguments in the book. Maybe in the discussion time, later, we can go into detail about some of the other issues, but for the talk, I’m just going to stress the main issues. I must also just mention that this is volume one, of two: there will be a second book. Volume one is Black Flame; volume two will be Global Fire.

So this is the foundation block for a bigger project, and it focuses on themes in the history of anarchism, and its offshoot, revolutionary or anarcho-syndicalism, which is anarchist trade unionism.


Please note that when I use the term “syndicalism” here I am using it in the English sense of specifically meaning revolutionary syndicalism and/ or anarcho-syndicalism, not in the Romance language sense of meaning unions in general. And when I just say “anarchism” I am usually including “syndicalism” because its a variant of anarchism.

One of the key issues that must be addressed for a book like this, a book which looks at anarchism and seeks to do so in a truly global and planetary way, rather than through a narrow focus on parts of Europe (which is how the history of anarchism is often done), is that you have to think very carefully how you define the subject.


The issue of where you draw the boundary around “anarchism” is very important. This is important to the analysis and the research; I am not talking about drawing an arbitrary boundary, just to be exclusive for its own sake.

The problem with a loose definition is that you do not have a clear subject of study; inclusion and exclusion becomes vague, arbitrary and often absurd. There is, in English, a well-known survey of anarchism by Peter Marshall. This is an important and insightful book. But it defines anarchism very loosely: basically to be anarchist is to be against “authority”, especially the “authority” of the state. “Authority” is not really defined here, and evidently, as I will show, just being against the state, for whatever reason, by no means provides a reasonable basis to define something or someone as “anarchist.”

Using this approach, we find Marshall including in his survey of anarchism the neo-liberal Margaret Thatcher, because she opposed state intervention, as well as the Marxist-Leninist Che Guevara, because Guevara was mildly critical of some of the bureaucratisation of the Castro regime. These were people who embraced the state, as such, but were against certain state forms.

And remember, Thatcher played a key role in breaking the British welfare state and trade unions, in driving down wages and closing industries, and in shifting income to the rich. For her, being against the state meant merely to be against the interventions of the state in the free market. She was perfectly happy to use the state to beat up protestors, strikers, to invade the Falklands. As for Guevara, we are talking here about a man who admired Joseph Stalin, who worked with the Russian dictatorship, who helped erect a one-party state with a secret police, in Cuba. So, yes, he was mildly critical of some elements of the Castro regime, but it’s a regime that he, of course, helped construct and helped run, a regime he never repudiated.


But if we just define anarchism as being “against” the state, and use the notion of being “against” the state in a very loose and vague way (and here, it obviously does not even entail wanting the abolition of the state, but just some changes in the state), then it is logical to include Guevara and Thatcher.

But if, by the same token, we can logically have a study of anarchism, like that of Marshall on anarchism, that is comfortable including neo-liberals and Marxist-Leninists as part of the story anarchism, then we have a logical problem.

Specifically, if we define anarchism loosely, as mere anti-statism, or maybe as a vague commitment to “freedom” of “the individual,” then it becomes very difficult to consistently distinguish it from other ideologies – not least, from neo-liberalism and Marxism-Leninism. And if we cannot distinguish anarchism from neo-liberalism and Marxism-Leninism, then it is pretty difficult to demonstrate that such a current as anarchism even exists.

Analytically, the problem goes even further: if we follow the line of argument that Marshall makes, where anarchism is effectively reduced to opposition to the state, then one must be consistent, not arbitrary.

If you define anarchism just as being against the state, there is no reason why Karl Marx or Joseph Stalin or Mao Tse Tung cannot be included, because they all said, quite explicitly, that the state must “wither away” in the future, as part of the final emancipation of humankind. Guevara may have made an appearance in Marshall’s book, but there is no reason to exclude Stalin or Mao. That is simply arbitrary. If Guevara can fit, there is no reason Stalin and Mao cannot.

But to define anarchism in such a way that it can embrace Stalin or Mao seems to me highly problematic – not to add that this is an approach way that elides all sorts of crucial issues. For example, figures like Stalin and Mao were associated with massive repression, a one-party state and so on. I don’t think that it is unreasonable to suggest that historic anarchism has been in favour of pluralism, debate and basic political and civil rights. But if we define it in a way that can include Stalin, then surely we cannot claim that historic anarchism has been in favour of pluralism, debate and basic political and civil rights.

Similarly, neo-liberals are sceptical of the state, and they believe the power of the state must be reduced as much as possible, whether it’s in the economy as a whole, or in economic transactions between contracting individuals. So, if to be anarchist is just to be against the state, then there is no particular reason not to include, for instance, J. S. Mill, von Mises or von Hayek or Milton Friedman, or even General Pinochet in Chile, into the anarchist tradition, because they are anti-statist in the sense that they distrust state intervention, and view the free market as emancipatory, efficient and natural.


But to include Thatcher – even if we stop at Mill and the rest, although as I said, there is no reason to stop there – must mean that certain elements that may be reasonably suggested to be part of historic anarchism, like opposition to capitalism, wage systems, and private property, must also be thereby treated as irrelevant to, as inessential to, historic anarchism. So, anarchism here has become something compatible with one party states (through Stalin) and free markets (through Thatcher), and simultaneously with increased and reduced state intervention, and with one party states and multi-party states.

Throughout history, you’ll find some people who are against the state in some way or other, but treating them all as “anarchists” leads us to straight into an analytical dead end.

If anarchism is just anti-statism, we can and must include as “anarchists” both Stalin and Pinochet. But if we can include Stalin and Pinochet, Marxist-Leninists and neo-liberals, dictators of left and right, and a whole host of others, then if there is anything evidently or specifically “anarchist” anywhere, it’s not clear what it might be.

We can treat all of those people as “anarchists,” but in this case, the very notion that something called “anarchism” even exists becomes nonsensical, because it becomes impossible to actually delineate anarchism from anything else. And once that is done, the very possibility or utility of actually studying and understanding anarchism in the first place is destroyed by the project of trying to do so.


But there is an alternative approach, which is argue that anarchism emerged, at a specific point in history, in the form of a new mass movement, that was evident to observers as a new movement – a revolutionary movement. Then we look at what that movement sought, and what its historical trajectory entailed. Then we can also start to understand the historical conditions – material, intellectual and social – in which this movement emerged, and so, explain its rise and fall and rise and fall, that is, its history as a social force, through social analysis. And we can also examine the evolution, that is, the history, of its ideas. And we can identify an anarchist lineage of movements, and an anarchist canon of writers.

That is, if we historicise anarchism, we can delineate it, and explain it and understand it.

If you use the argument that “anarchism” means pretty much anything that is against the state, then you will certainly find anarchists everywhere. Marshall is perfectly consistent when he says that the first anarchist was Adam, in the Garden of Eden, who didn’t listen to God. The problem, analytically, is that if anarchism is universal in human history, then it cannot be explained by reference to changing social conditions. This would mean, in effect, that anarchism is in some way a natural part of humanity. But if that is the case, then there is a serious analytical problem: if anarchism is natural to people, then we cannot understand much of human history, which undoubtedly involves the ongoing expansion of oppression, exploitation, and of the power of an elite few over the working and poor majority.

Now here we must grapple with a problem, which is that all political movements, all movements to change the world, create around themselves a set of myths … and the anarchists have also made their own myths. The argument that anarchism is somehow a universal feature of human society is one that some key anarchists also made, in order to legitimise their embattled, controversial movement.

Making claims that anarchism is universal and steeped in the ages is a simple and easy way of deflecting claims that the movement is new, impossible or bizarre. But it’s just not a valid claim, however politically useful it might seem to be.


We must distinguish between certain anarchist myths, from the actual history of anarchism. So, to study anarchism we have to study anarchism, but not necessarily always in the way that the anarchists themselves have presented themselves.

Allow me to draw an analogy. Nationalists usually develop a mythical history of their nation, presented as reaching back into deep antiquity, with an unchanging culture, a shared history, common food, dress, territory, language and so on. Very often, these claims are simply not true; we can recognise these as myths. Analysing these as myths is important, because it tells us something about how the nationalists view themselves, how their ideas are expressed and so on. But it would be fundamentally mistaken to take nationalist views of the nation’s history literally, since these views are usually profoundly flawed, misleading and elective.

Likewise, it is important to study how anarchist ideologues like Piotr Kropotkin and Rudolph Rocker created (to give two examples), these mythical histories, and why they did so, and what effects these histories had on anarchism and anarchists.

Nationalists, we know, make myths, and we do not take these at face value, as self-evidently true. But we examine the myths.

But anarchists also made up myths, and these should also not be taken at face value. Rather we must examine the myths.

What gets included in the myths is very interesting, since it tells us something about the anarchists. For example, Kropotkin is quite explicit in suggesting that anarchism has deep roots in both Asia and European cultures, and in this sense, it is striking to note how deliberately he presents anarchism as universal, rejecting Eurocentrism. And Rocker stresses the links between the anarchists and the first modern working class movement, citing similarities between the Chartists in Britain in the 1840s, and visionary early labour leaders like Robert Owen: this shows his stress on trade unionism and on anarchism’s links to other socialists.

But it would surely be a mistake to literally follow Kropotkin in claiming Lao Tze in ancient China, or Zeno in ancient Greece, was literally an anarchist, or to suggest, as Rocker almost does, that the Owenites were anarchists.

The point is that we must understand the movement that was making the myths, rather than take the myths the movement made as literally true. To understand anarchism, as a movement, we should understand what it says about itself, but we need to understand that there was a movement, which emerged, and which could then speak about itself, using various rhetorical strategies …

Let me stress here, and this is important, that not every anarchist has bought into these mythical histories, or that the anarchists even have one unified set of mythical histories.

There is a strong tradition in anarchism that was never involved in creating these mythical histories: Mikhail Bakunin, for example, never made such claims, while writers like Georges Fontenis were very critical of such myths. On the other hand, there were many myths and no real unified synthesis of them: different part of the movements had different myths. For example, the Korean anarchist Ha Ki Rak claimed that the Dong Hak peasant war of 1894 in Korea was in many respects identical to the anarchist 1936 Spanish Revolution.


Now, a last issue: if we define anarchism as anti-statism (or even as vaguely committed to “freedom”) and then, logically enough, must include under the anarchist banner such radically different people as Thatcher, Guevara and Bakunin, and so on, then our discussion of anarchism as a set of ideas must be always be profoundly superficial because it trying to understand ideas that are totally different to each other – and that do not belong together in any way.

That is, we can only group these disparate figures if our discussions of anarchist theory are vague, and if we ignore the many points of deep divergence between these figures.

If, to put it another way, we claim that Thatcher, Guevara and Bakunin can all be seen as somehow part of one tradition, then we have to only examine what they share; and what this means is that we cannot take into account a wide range of issues on which they differ, such as capitalism and states, not to mention the very meaning of “freedom” and “anti-statism,” not to mention even more complicated issues, of theory (for example, around social structure), of strategy (for example, over vanguardism and one-party rule) and tactics (even issues as key as how anarchists should act) …

Instead, we have to studiously vague, grasping for commonalities, and skirting over

With this sort of approach, the debates in the historical anarchist movement, the achievements of the movement, in theory and in praxis, and, indeed, the very basic theory and politics of the movement all get lost. We end up with banal discussions that deal vaguely and superficially with many issues, and that entirely ignore a great deal more issues …

So, a definition of anarchism as anti-statism, cannot really say who is in anarchism and who is outside of anarchism, cannot really say what anarchism was, and why it emerged, cannot really say what the anarchists did, and why, and why they succeeded or failed, and why, and cannot even say really, what the anarchists wanted and thought…

Again, the only way to solve this problem is to look history and see when the “problem” of anarchism as a subject emerges, and this means looking when an explicitly anarchist movement that is also recognised by its contemporaries as something new actually emerges. And to start there and to look at what that movement said and did.


Well, the historical record shows very clearly that a specific, self-defined, consciously anarchist movement only, and first, emerges in the First International around Mikhail Bakunin and the International Alliance of Socialist Democracy. That puts it in the period from 1864, around 150 years ago, and not in the Garden of Eden and not in the Ancient world.

This is not to say that there were not people who had ideas that anticipated that prefigured parts of anarchism or that there were not other libertarian currents, before this moment.

But it is to argue, to insist, that to understand what anarchism was and is, we have to use a historical approach. A historical approach points us to the First International. That locates, as a consequence, as rooted in the working class and socialist movement. That also places it firmly in a tradition of radical thought going back to the 1700s.

And if we look here, the First International, then a good place to start to grapple with its key ideas is to look at the writings of Bakunin, his theories, and also those of Piotr Kropotkin, the other great luminary of the movements.

Now, please let me stress that this approach, which stresses a historical approach, does not claim that these two, Bakunin and Kropotkin, had a perfect and comprehensive world view that was unchanging and that emerged perfectly formed. It does not claim that anything and everything that they said was a perfect revelation, against which all claims of truth have to be judged.

It’s not saying anything like that that.


Rather, it’s arguing, simply, that their ideas and writings are, by any reasonable measure, foundational and representative texts of the anarchist movement.

Certainly, the anarchist movement, which emerged in the First International, was influenced, very influenced indeed, by the libertarian socialism of P.J. Proudhon, who was writing from the late 1830s – and in particular, by his stress on self-management, decentralisation and anti-statism.

But influence does not mean something is identical. The anarchist current was very different to Proudhon because (as I will show in its strategy and its overall outlook) it engaged in some serious ruptures with Proudhon’s approach.

It’s not Proudhonism but it was influenced by it.

Similarly the new “anarchist” movement was influenced by Karl Marx, who was writing from the 1840s – and in particular, by the economic theories of Karl Marx, not his politics but his economics. It used Marxist economics, but in a critical way, in a way that that engaged and actually transcended and developed those economics, in a way that I would suggest even seems to solve some of the problems in Marxist economics (for example, it develops a better price theory, which takes into account the impact of power relations).

It’s not Marxism but it is influenced by it. Influence is not identity.

And last, the anarchist ideas were only possible against the backdrop of massive ferment in radical thought, driven by massive class struggles, from the 1700s. They were part of the ferment of modern ideas of science and freedom, which we can give many labels, including that of “the Enlightenment.”


Now, I’m assuming people here have an understanding of what anarchism is, but perhaps I should take a step back and clarify: if we look at it [anarchism] there’ve been three or four main fundamentals of the movement. These include opposition to relations of domination between human beings, including those expressed in the government (or the state) and those expressed in capitalism, but also including those expressed in all sorts of other ways among human beings (such as national oppression).

The liberals stress the importance of individual freedom and so forth, just like the Marxists stress the importance of abolishing capitalism, but it was anarchism that took these two parts, and put them together in a way that none of these others really managed.

So, anarchism is a movement that’s against hierarchy and that’s against exploitation, and its a movement that (in other words) links the struggle for individual freedom to the struggle against capitalism and the state … With this theoretical position it was able to develop a critique of a range of other forms of domination, for example imperialism and national oppression, and to also point out the dangers of opposing capitalism by using, for example, dictatorial states.

And, in terms of its strategy, the overall strategy that it emphasised was the need to build a movement from below of the popular classes (the broad working class and the peasantry), which would fight against all those inequities and create a new and better world. It aimed at revolution from below, the forcible occupation of the workplaces and the defeat of the state machinery in a conflict… this was quite different to Proudhon, who envisaged a slow process of cooperatives being built up, slowly replacing capitalism …


One of the key things in this regard, in regard to this revolutionary perspective and stress on class struggle, that I must just stress before moving on, is that what defined anarchism (contrary to, say, nationalism) was a thoroughgoing internationalism– a literal and principled internationalism, literally “Workers of the World Unite!” as a vision, as a practice, and as a way of thinking…

This means a class-based politics, which sees the popular classes worldwide as having more in common with each other no matter their country, than they can ever really have with the political and economic elites within their home countries …


Now, armed with a historicised definition and understanding of anarchism and its offshoot of revolutionary and anarcho-syndicalism, and an idea of its basic principles and its key figures, we can start to analyse anarchism globally, and look at it as a worldwide movement … something that has major implications for how we understand its history, its impact and its achievements.

In one way, we have “narrowed” the definition of anarchism but this very narrowing allows us to have a clearer focus, just like with a camera: you can see more, despite a tighter focus.

So, then, we can work in a systematic way to understand this anarchist movement, as it emerged and as it operated globally, and we can start to really understand the patterns in the movement. So if we are looking at the movement from the 1860s onwards, and we are taking a global view there are some important changes in our mindset that must arise, that must follow.


Now, one of the key things that arise, which I want to stress here, is that, very often when we think of the history of anarchism, we focus very much on Spain and on Spanish anarchism. And of course, the story of Spanish anarchism is central to the story of anarchism and syndicalism worldwide.

But when we look globally we find that the story of Spain is not so unique, we find that Spanish anarchism just one “province” in a in a worldwide anarchist “country.” And, in fact, by some measures (for example if we look at the influence of anarchism in trade unions) we find movements elsewhere that are bigger than that of Spain.

So, this isn’t to say Spain is not important but that Spain is part of a larger anarchist world and that Barcelona is just one of a whole chain of red-and-black cities

To Spain’s great fiery rose of anarchism, Barcelona, we must add other red-and-black cities like Auckland, Buenos Aires, Chicago, Guangzhou, Glasgow, Havana, Mexico City, Montevideo, Santos, Tokyo … all cities with a major anarchist or syndicalist influence. And then the second tier red-and-black cities, with substantial movements (but not as large as those just mentioned), like Alexandria, Auckland, Johannesburg …

I could go on, I’ve given examples, but the point of this is that when you understand anarchism clearly and you take a global view, you start to see that this history needs to be brought back into many other histories: the histories of unions, peasant struggles, of civil rights and national liberation struggles were all histories that the anarchists and syndicalists shaped … and histories that cannot be understood adequately unless we look at how these histories intersect with anarchist and syndicalist history, globally.


Now, looking at international patterns is one way to understand and assimilate all of this information. So let us take one trend, let’s look at one trend, which is the role of anarchists (including syndicalists) in founding and pioneering trade union movements

And let’s start in the colonial and postcolonial world. Isabelo De Los Reyos, who founded the first trade union in the Philippines in 1902, was deeply influenced, in doing so, by the Spanish anarchists. In China it was the anarchists who formed the first modern trade unions from 1914 onwards, and in Guangzhou and Hunan the unions in China were led by anarchists far into the 1920s.

In South Africa the first trade union for black Africans was set up by revolutionary syndicalists in 1917. Similarly in Ireland the first industrial unions were led by people identified with the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World, formed in the USA in 1905) tradition of revolutionary syndicalism, in 1900. And these unions were successes, they won victories, they organised and educated people, and at times they grew explosively: in Ireland, by 1920, the revolutionary syndicalist-influenced unions had grown from 5,000 to 120,000.

And this points us to another major pattern in the history of the anarchist and syndicalist movement, which was its role in organising massive strikes and class struggles. I will illustrate this by referring here to some important strikes: Parma, Italy, in 1907; Paris, France, in 1910; Auckland, New Zealand, in 1913 …

If you look at this photo, if you look at the banner carried by these workers from the New Zealand Federation of Labour (known as the “Red Feds”), that slogan is straight from a poem wide;ly distributed (author unattributed) by the IWW, and which starts “We have fed you all for a thousand years, and you hail us [greet us] still unfed…” A poem that tries to explain how the working and poor people have built the world we have, but have been excluded from its benefits. And that text on the banner, which says, “If blood be the price of your cursed wealth, Good God, we have paid in full,” is based on the poem. It means the wealth of the ruling class is paid for by the blood of the working class – and that the working class has paid heavily, has paid more than enough.

And to continue: in Mexico City, they led massive strikes in 1915 and 1916; in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1918, syndicalists worked with black nationalists to try and organise a general strike; in Chicago, the United States, in 1919, syndicalists like William Foster played a leading role in a massive strike by steel workers. In Japan, too, the anarchists were very important in the trade unions, and published the first paper dealing specifically with labour, called “Labour Movement.” Anarchist-led syndicalist unions in Portugal included a range of groups not normally thought of as union members, such as artists and tenants, and this enabled a leading role in actions such as a major tenants’ strike against high rent in Lisbon in 1921.

To draw together this outline of the union role, and the role in workplace struggles, I want to list some countries where the anarchists or the syndicalists at one stage or another were the main force in the labour movement: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, France, Mexico, the Netherlands, Peru, Portugal, and Uruguay. And of course Spain, although there they were always challenged by a large social democratic rival union, the UGT, that often matched them in numbers and influence. And other countries where they were large and influential, but not hegemonic, in labour, include Australia, Bolivia, Bulgaria, China, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Guatemala, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mozambique, New Zealand, Paraguay, Poland, South Africa and the United States.

That’s an outline covering just a few years, and a few places, just a narrow slice of history; that is not the whole history of the movement by any means, a movement that went back into the 1860s and continues today, and that has had many major organisations and achievements in that 150 year span of time. But more examples, I think, would not add much to the point and would take a lot more time …


Now, the point of this is simply to underline the popular imprint of the movement, to show that the movement of Bakunin and Kropotkin was important in workplaces, was important for millions of people, was able to win real material gains, whether in the form of higher wages or in the form of lower rents; also, that it was also a movement that organised in the neighbourhoods and territories of the working class and of the peasantry.

And this was not a movement that only dealt with issues like wages and rents … it was actively involved in political issues, in struggles around rights, in struggles over power. Let us take the IWW in Australia. This was an important current in the larger union movement, and opposed the prevailing trends of social democratic reformism and of overt white racism.

When Australia, as part of the British Empire, entered into the First World War in 1914 against the German bloc, the IWW stood firm to its internationalist, anti-militarist and anti-imperialist positions. It stood against the tide. The leadership of the IWW was tried for treason, and the organisation was made illegal. Some people paint the revolutionary and anarcho-syndicalist unions as solely focussed on wages and conditions; this is just not true, as this example surely illustrates.

You see, with that Australian case, just one example of the movement raising basic issues around war and the power of the state, and asking the simple questions: Whose war? In whose interests? And why should working class youth kill each other, for the benefit of elites that do not sacrifice or risk life or limb, yet gain from the bloodshed of others?


Now, another of the key features of the movement, especially in the period from the 1890s to the 1930s, was the role of networks of people, of newspapers, and of the linkages created by worker migrations.

A lot of the history of anarchism and syndicalism is written in the mode of national case studies, that is, for example, the history of Cuban anarchism, of Brazilian anarchism and so on. This is useful, but it also actually blinds us to an important process in the movement, and so, to an important part of its history.

There are many processes and connections which take place across state borders, and despite the existence of state borders, but these don’t get captured by a national framework of analysis. And we need to look at these transnational processes and connections, so that we can understand what happens within specific countries better, and so that we can also examine processes that operate transnationally and that cannot be understood within national frameworks.

I’m just going to give one example, I can give others, but I’m just going to give one for now. Lala Har Dayal, a brilliant South Asian (that is, Indian) scholar, born in Delhi, won a scholarship to Oxford University in Britain. Increasingly politicised, he moved to India, then to France, Algeria and Martinique, before ending up in California in the United States in 1911. Associated increasingly with anarchist ideas, he joined the IWW and served as secretary of its San Francisco branch, and also set up a Bakunin Institute; he also had a job at Stanford University.

And meanwhile, always committed to Indian independence and radical social change, Dayal made contact with local South Asian communities, mainly Sikhs from the Punjab region of India, and in 1913 co-founded and played a central role in the radical Ghadar Party in California. “Ghadar” means “mutiny,” referencing an uprising, a rebellion.

The Ghadar party platform, and ideas, had elements of anarchism, and elements of Indian nationalism mixed up… it developed as a global formation, building an international network that included Canada, Japan, parts of Africa (notably Kenya), Afghanistan and elsewhere. In India its key connections were in the Punjab and in 1915, the party launched an armed uprising in India against British rule. By this time Dayal had lost his job, and arrested in the United States, had fled into exile in Europe.

Now the 1915 rising was repressed and defeated, but in the years that follow the party rebuilt itself and remained active into the 1940s, not least in Kenya. And it retained throughout an anarchist imprint.

The point is that a story like this, is a global story, and it locates anarchism and syndicalism firmly in international migrations, transnational networks and worldwide movements. It is not easy to grasp a story like this through a national framework that divides the world into discrete movements in the United States, in India, in Kenya …


Another pattern that I am going to point to, as I start to bring this to a close, is the role of anarchists and syndicalists in moving in some cases from resistance to attempt to change society in a fundamental way, that is, to revolution.

What I have mentioned, as struggles so far, were about building mass movements and campaigns. These were about resistance and they were about fighting … but there were times when the popular classes, with and through the anarchists, actually took control of society and remade it … in this sense, they moved from being classes in an existing class system, to creators of a system without classes.

Some of these experiences are partial, and some far more thoroughgoing.

Let’s start with some of the more limited attempts at recreating the world.

An early example was in Macedonia in 1903, in the struggle for independence from Turkey, which was then called the Ottoman empire. Anarchists were leading figures in this struggle and in 1903 a number of the key areas were taken over by militias in which anarchists were key figures, and there were attempts to create radical “communes.” Then in Mexico 1911, Ricardo Flores Magon’s movement, in Baja California, attempted to create a revolutionary anarchist territory.

Some struggles were perhaps more modest than these, yet still radical and still able to start making some real changes in society. In Ireland, during the Irish war of independence, syndicalist-influenced unions were involved in taking over workplaces and running them. One, a creamery, had the slogan “We make butter not profit.”

There is also of course the Italian factory occupations movement of 1920, centred in the metal industry of Turin, and this was in a context where there was a powerful revolutionary syndicalist movement and an important anarchist influence at the working class base. Many of these workers were not, in fact, in the important Italian Syndicalist Union, then almost 1 million strong, but they were influenced by the large anarchist and syndicalist current of the time.

At least in the English-speaking world, much of the story about these events has been retroactively written around the figure of Antonio Gramsci, later a famous Marxist. He’s presented as the intellectual leader of the movement. But this is simply not true. In fact Antonio Gramsci’s newspaper, “New Order.” was selling over 5,000 copies every two weeks, and this at a time that the anarchist Errico Malatesta’s anarchist “New Humanity” was selling 50,000 a day. And the editor of the Gramsci paper was a follower of the anarchist Kropotkin, while the early Gramsci was far closer to anarchism and syndicalism than many Marxists of the time.

Now, I’m going to look at actual revolutions that anarchists made, because all these things I have looked at so far should be, I think, be seen more as rehearsals, as revolutionary rehearsals. In terms of anarchist revolutions, I am talking about events that in terms of scale, in terms of depth, in terms of the number of people involved, and in the amount of time that they lasted, were quite distinctive, were qualitatively different.

I am sure many here will have heard of the anarchist revolution associated with the forces of Nestor Makhno in the Ukraine from 1917-1921. This involved a territory of millions, a democratic and participatory system of councils and assemblies, for workers, peasants and soldiers, and various efforts at self-management. It was also, and this is worth remembering, deeply entangled with the struggle for independence for the Ukraine from Austria, Germany and Russia. And for the anarchists an independent Ukraine would have to be a revolutionary, anarchist, society.

Less well known was the revolution that took place on the Manchurian and Korean borderlands. In 1929, Korean anarchists including militants from the Korean Anarchist Federation and anarchists like Kim Jwa-Jim (who led a larger part of the Korean Independence Army) organised a revolutionary society, rather similar in key respects to that seen ten years earlier in the Ukraine. The parallels do not stop there either. This revolution was also deeply linked to an independence struggle, in this case against Japanese imperialism.

Why a “Korean” anarchist revolution that was not really in Korea? Well, Japanese colonialism in the Korean peninsula was very, very severe, so nearly three million Koreans were in exile in Manchuria; anyway, Manchuria was not quite a discrete territory either. It was claimed by Chinese, claimed by Koreans. And it was at the time an area largely outside the control of the Japanese empire and also largely outside of the control of Chinese warlords and Chinese authorities.

So, in this territory for three years, in Shinmin, anarchists made a revolution that was in many ways the same as uh as that we saw in Ukraine. This included institutions like collective production, libertarian education and a fairly free social order based on worker and peasant councils and so forth.

And of course, Spain from 1936-1939, was also very important indeed, incredibly radical.

The point is that the Spanish revolution was very important but wasn’t the first or the only anarchist revolution. It was the third in a period of around twenty years. Certainly in much of the literature, including on the left, the impression is generally created of “Spanish exceptionalism”: that is, that only in Spain was there a big anarchist and syndicalist movement and that only in Spain was there a revolution.

But in fact some of the questions faced by the Spanish anarchists (for example whether to join the government) had already been posed elsewhere. Indeed in Korea a section of anarchists joined the Korean government in exile, and after independence in 1945, a wing of the movement even ran in elections, and some anarchists had seats in government.


I see there is a question being asked about which of the “big three” revolutions should be seen as the biggest? According to me?

It depends what we use as a measurement. If we are talking about complete control of an area, that is, the full realisation of popular self-governance through councils and self-management and so on, then both Ukraine and Korea are “bigger” than Spain, where the revolutionary forces co-existed in the republican zone with a capitalist state…

But if we are talking of numbers of people involved, or the number of self-managed collectives, then it’s probably Spain that was the biggest, in that there were more collectives than Korea, than Ukraine. Part of the difficulty for the movement in Ukraine and the movement in Korea was the situation of extreme warfare, and rapid shifts over territory controlled: for both of them this posed the difficulty of creating sustainable and stable structures. In contrast, for much of say, Catalonia, in Spain, the territory was defended and enemy incursions were slow and steady rather than rapid land seizures by the enemy, followed by rapid expulsions of the enemy by anarchist forces, as in Ukraine…

These points, in fact, help us understand better the reality of an anarchist revolution led by Koreans and Korean anarchists but largely outside of Korea itself. We need to bear in mind that for East Asia large-scale war does not start in 1939 with the Second World War but goes back to the 1920s. And the anarchist territory created from 1929-1931 was facing on the one side pressures from the Soviet Union, which was arming Korean Marxist communists (who waged incessant attacks on the zone), on the other, Chinese forces, and on the third, a very determined and powerful Japanese Imperial Army that was pushing through Korea and Manchuria and into China …

So the first part that I spoke about was on the issue of how we define anarchism, and on this issue, the need to be historical; the second part of my talk has stressed the need to think globally.


When this is done, it is important to identify the political debates within the anarchist and syndicalist movement. It’s easy enough to say you’re against capitalism or against domination or against the state, but what do you do tomorrow? What does this mean for concrete political activity, what does this mean in terms of strategy and tactics?

When we look historically, and when we look globally, at anarchism and syndicalism, its possible to identify two basic strategic approaches in anarchism.


The first one is insurrectionist anarchism. When we are using this term, we are talking about a wing of the movement which says that reforms are useless, that all small improvements are useless, that if wages go up then prices go up … and you’re back where you started. That’s an example of this sort of thinking.

And politically, strategically, this leads straight to the conclusion that instead of fighting for reforms and small improvements, that you must only fight for revolutions and do so right now ….that would be the idea.

Luigi Galleani, an Italian anarchist, was one of the key thinkers in this tradition, and he argued that anarchists must use the “tactics of corrosion,” by which he meant that rather than supposedly “waste” time with things around wages and rents, the anarchists must attack the ruling class directly and relentlessly all the time. And do so without demands, without negotiations, with instead the perspective of an immediate revolutionary assault…

You could, of course, simply do this by making by telling people “now, you must make a revolution,” that is, propaganda of the word. That is a “tactic of corrosion,” in that it undermines the system and the ruling class. But in practice the insurrectionist anarchist approach, which cannot really immerse itself in movements like unions, in struggles for lower rents, in demands for better laws, ends up with one main tactic of “corrosion,” a tactic that becomes a strategy. And this is “propaganda by the deed” in the form of direct armed action against the ruling class: assassinations, of “expropriations” of banks, of bombings.

This is “corrosion” since it supposedly weakens the ruling class, but how is it propaganda? Its propaganda, claim the insurrectionists, in that these actions will supposedly inspire and awaken the masses, showing them their enemies and showing them they can fight these enemies, and showing them how to fight these enemies. The idea is basically that these actions will provoke massive spontaneous rebellions with directly revolutionary purpose i.e. sudden uprisings for the creation of anarchist society.

And these insurrectionist anarchists were not idle speech makers, they were and are very committed to this politics. As a simple example, the first car bomb, many writers suggest, was done by a Galleanist who bombed Wall Street in 1920, a man called Mario Buda… And you get this movement not just around Galleani and his network, but also in Spain, Argentina, in Japan and elsewhere. In Japan Kanno Sugako, an anarchist woman militant, was executed in 1911 for being part of a plot to kill the Japanese emperor.

Now, for many people, at first, insurrectionist anarchism, emerging from the 1880s, was very appealing, and it was actually widely defended even by anarchists who were not insurrectionists. Even Kropotkin thought it a good idea for a while.

And the reputation for militant violence also attracted people to anarchism who were looking for alternatives, among them Chinese and Indian youth. And insurrectionist anarchists certainly managed to assassinate a great many heads of state.


But there were many problems with insurrectionist anarchism, and these ensured that most anarchists remained in what was always the main current in anarchism: mass anarchism, what we call mass anarchism.

Some of the problems with insurrectionist anarchism are obvious. First, it never came close to inspiring a revolution, and this partly because there was and is a certain passivity built into this model. People watch the armed attacks of the active insurrectionists, admire them, and identify with them. But they don’t join them. They really watch them, they’re spectators.

Secondly, as people like Malatesta noted, kings and emperors and presidents and big capitalists are easily replaced; the system is not really weakened by a few assassinations, and the basic problem of most people accepting the need for such rulers is not really tackled by the insurrectionist model. After all, Wall Street still operates, nearly a century after Buda’s bomb; in fact it was operating the very next day after Buda’s bomb, and hasn’t stopped since.

And last, of course, insurrectionist anarchists provided a pretext for massive crackdowns on labour and the left: just to go back to Japan in 1911, 26 anarchists were executed for treason against the emperor and most of them had nothing to do with insurrectionism: Kōtoku Shūsui, the key figure in Japanese anarchism, and who promoted anarcho-syndicalism, was among the victims. The Red Scare repression in the United States in the late 1910s was directly precipitated by Galleanist and related bombings. And most victims of that repression were trade unionists and rights activists among ethnic and racial minorities, including in all these cases anarchists and syndicalists, but also the larger left, including the most moderate of socialists.

And of course anarchists are still tarred with this brush, of terrorists, bombers and killers, long after insurrectionists has ceased to be a significant force … this was made possible by the insurrectionists’ actions, and continues to hinder anarchism even today.


The alternative approach, far more influential amongst the anarchists, and certainly an approach that demonstrably had a record of building up mass movements and a mass base for anarchism – of securing for anarchism many social “vectors” into the popular classes – was mass anarchism.

I am talking here about a type of anarchism which says that immediate struggles, for small improvements, whether around wages, prices, transport, rent, land, discrimination, oppression, civil rights are where it is possible to build a mass revolutionary anarchist movement.

The key task, from this perspective, is for anarchists to immerse themselves in these immediate struggles, and in the movements that are built around these struggles. And within these spaces to systematically link the daily struggles and concerns of the popular classes to the larger vision of the anarchists for radical social transformation.

How? It is possible to use these immediate struggles to build confidence; to clarify thinking, debate politics and win the battle of ideas for anarchism; and to build strong and participatory movements that directly lay the foundations for a new anarchist order.

So for example, winning a higher wage will give a worker more confidence that he or she can really make a difference, can really matter. It builds confidence and motivation, and also provides more time and space to think and fight. Someone who is not willing to stand up to their boss is not going to make a revolution that gets rid of all bosses. But in these immediate struggles themselves, people get opened to new ways of seeing the world, and open to the anarchist critique of domination and exploitation, and the anarchist explanation of where the problems come from and who the enemy is.


There is nothing automatic here: there is an opportunity to win people to anarchism, and to win respect for anarchism, and to show the validity of anarchist ideas and methods (especially the use of direct action, and participatory movements).

At the same time, large and stable organisations get formed, which lay a basis for further struggles and victories, such as trade unions. Here too the anarchists can play a key role in ensuring that such movements are open, democratic and participatory schools of bottom-up democracy, comradeship and equality.

The key thing, in short, is to use those immediate struggles that are happening today to start to lay the foundation of the future. It’s what Black Flame describes as building a counter culture (that is, winning the battle of ideas among large numbers of people), and building a counter power (that is, building mass movements that can both challenge the ruling class in the day-to-day reality, and eventually also replace it entirely with alternative structures to run society).

The syndicalists, as an expression of mass anarchism, called this the revolutionary role of syndicalists unions: to fight battles today, to educate the masses, and to organise, through the unions themselves, the very basis of self-managing the factories and other workplaces, the structures that would occupy and run the workplace itself…


Simply put, for this perspective, you still need a revolution, but there are no shortcuts. To have a revolution, you need the masses to make it; and to get the masses, you need to go to the masses, and fight alongside them, but also point them to a better future and the methods and ideas needed to bring about that future.


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