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Still fanning the flames: An interview with Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt

Posted on October 15th, 2009 in AK Authors!

Dearest readers: We’re absolutely thrilled to bring you this wonderful new interview with Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt, the authors of AK’s stunning new book Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism. In recent months, we’ve posted excerpts from the book, and a roundup of recent reviews, but with today’s post, we’re able to bring you, for the first time, Michael and Lucien’s own thoughts on the book, its genesis, and its usefulness in our current context. Read and enjoy!


AK PRESS: There has been quite a buzz around Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism. This is, am I right, volume one of what you call Counter-Power. Can you tell us a bit about what how people have responded to the book?

LUCIEN VAN DER WALT: The response has been overwhelmingly positive. We’re very happy with it. Of course, not everyone agrees with us on everything: that’s only to be expected, and anyway, we make it clear in the opening chapter that we want debate and welcome critique. Some folks, of course, don’t like the book at all—but no book can please everyone! Anyway, we want to stir things up a bit.

AK: Who is the book aimed at?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: We have three main audiences in mind: activists on the left, university students and faculty, and the general reader interested in ideas, history and politics. The book is pretty much free of jargon, and tries to be as accessible as possible.

AK: What makes the book different to the existing general studies, such as Woodcock’s Anarchism?

Michael: Let’s start by making it quite clear that we greatly respect the earlier syntheses of writers like Woodcock, Joll, Marshall, Kedward—not to mention writers from within the movement, like Max Nettlau and Daniel Guérin. These inspired us, and helped lay the basis for our own project.

That said, one of the distinctive contributions of Black Flame is its global scope. We have set out to develop a genuinely global history of anarchism and syndicalism. In most studies, the focus has really been on parts of Western Europe, and to a lesser extent North America. In our project, we have placed movements in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Australasia, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe and Latin America centre-stage.

This is a single global story we are telling, though: we are not setting up any arbitrary divisions, positing any sort of binary “Northern” versus “Southern” anarchism. There is one movement, although it varies according to local conditions and initiatives.

AK: Why does a global perspective matter?

Lucien: It has a number of concrete implications. For one thing, “Spanish exceptionalism”—the notion that Spain, alone, developed a significant anarchist mass, popular, movement, especially in the early 20th century —simply cannot be defended anymore. It only works if you compare Spain to a narrow range of West European countries, and even then it falters when you look at the strength of contemporaneous movements in France and Portugal.

And 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.

AK: The book also spends quite a lot of time looking at issues of tactics and strategy.

Michael: Exactly. Looking at the movement, looking globally, trying to find patterns, you are forced to think seriously about the issues that mattered to the movement. The existing general works have rather little to say about the debates over tactics and strategy that preoccupied the movement.

Lucien: But you can’t, for example, get into the literature on, say syndicalism in South Africa, without seeing that people were always debating, grappling with immediate pressing issues, like colonial domination, trying to relate the big theory to their concrete circumstances of racial animosity and a deeply divided working class.

Michael: So, part of the strength of the book is that looks at how actual movements grappled with issues like nationality, colonialism, race and women’s oppression, and immersed themselves in organised labour.

AK: You have also raised questions about how we define the core of the anarchist and syndicalist tradition…

Lucien: Once you look globally, then you certainly have to start to rethink the “canon” of anarchist and syndicalist theorists. Mikhail Bakunin and Pyotr Kropotkin, the giants of anarchist thought, obviously feature heavily. They had a truly global impact. Kropotkin was, for example, the best known socialist writer in East Asia in the first decades of the twentieth century.

But beyond the Big Two, the movement had an amazing array of writers and thinkers, truly cosmopolitan. In our view, a serious list of key figures has to be global and include figures from within but also without the West, such as Li Pei Kan (“Ba Jin”) and Liu Sifu (“Shifu”) of China, Armando Borghi and Errico Malatesta of Italy, Nestor Ivanovich Makhno and Piotr Arshinov, of the Ukraine, Juana Rouco Buela of Argentina, Lucia Sanchez Saornil and Jaime Balius of Spain, Ricardo Flores Magón, Juana Belém Gutiérrez de Mendoza, Antonio Gomes y Soto and Praxedis Guerrero of Mexico, Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis of the Netherlands, Ōsugi Sakae, Kōtuku Shūsui, and Kanno Sugako of Japan, Lucy Parsons of the USA, Enrique Roig de San Martín of Cuba, Shin Ch’aeho of Korea, Rudolph Rocker of Germany, Neno Vasco and Maria Lacerda de Moura of Brazil, Abraham Guillen of Uruguay, S.P. Bunting and T.W. Thibedi of South Africa and others.

AK: What about Proudhon, then?

Lucien: In the book we argue that Proudhon (along with Karl Marx) was a formative influence on the anarchist movement.

It was to Proudhon—above all—that the movement was indebted for its stress on anti-statism, anti-capitalism, anti-landlordism and its focus on autonomy from the state, on radical democracy, and self-management. In this sense, Bakunin could say that Proudhon was the “master of us all”. Marxist economics were also absorbed (critically) by the anarchist movement, praised by Bakunin as “profound”, “luminous”, “scientific” and “decisive”. Some of these ideas themselves owed a debt to Proudhon.

However, Proudhon’s basic approach was to undermine the system by the creation of a non-capitalist sector based on cooperatives and self-employment, creating a sort of market socialism complete with competition. He did not favor strikes or direct action or unions.

Proudhon’s vision of transformation from below through building an alternative economy remains far more influential these days than many recognise. To take an example, many South African unions, and even the local Communist Party, favor building a self-employed “social sector” as a step towards socialism. This is straight from Proudhon.

Michael: The problem is that this strategy—sometimes called “mutualism”—is that it’s not very practical for most people, who lack basic resources. It does not really address the question of big industry, which cannot be replaced by piecemeal initiatives. Besides, Bakunin felt that it was unlikely that cooperatives could really win out against big business.

Bakunin proposed direct action instead: strikes, uprisings, the collectivization of the means of production and the abolition of the market. All defining features of anarchism as we argue below. That is why Bakunin stated that anarchism was “Proudhonism, greatly developed and taken to its ultimate conclusion.” It was indebted to Proudhon, but it was not Proudhonism.

AK: How exactly did you undertake a work on this scale?

Michael: Two things! One is the practical side: we worked for nine years on this project, debated endlessly, ran it by numerous reviewers and checked and rechecked everything. So, part one of the job was just plain old hard work.

On the methodological side: we defined the project clearly, and we embarked on a work of synthesis. It is simply not possible to undertake a project on this scale solely—even primarily—on the basis of primary, original sources. Like all such works, we drew heavily on existing scholarship, critically engaging a vast and diverse secondary literature by an amazing array of writers.

AK: Many studies view anarchism quite loosely as a general tendency opposed to centralism or to statism throughout history. Others identify figures like William Godwin in the 1790s, and then onto Max Stirner and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, before we get to Bakunin and Kropotkin. You disagree quite strongly. Why?

Lucien: Seeing anarchism as a universal tendency in human history is only possible if we define anarchism very loosely indeed, allowing all sorts of really quite unrelated ideas and movements to get grouped together.

You can’t put an extreme anti-social individualist like Max Stirner in the same camp as Bakunin, a libertarian socialist committed to class struggle … unless you use a very vague understanding of anarchism as a loose anti-statism. And then you have to also keep “anti-statism” pretty vague: Stirner, for instance, did not advocate the actual abolition of the state.

But reducing anarchism to anti-statism is very problematic. At one level, it’s actually pretty meaningless. The dictator Joseph Stalin’s declared goal was the withering away of the state. The neo-liberal Margaret Thatcher built her career on popular anti-statist sentiment. If anarchism is simply defined as opposition to the state, there is no logical reason to exclude either from the story of anarchism. They are usually excluded, of course, which is either arbitrary, or a tacit admission that the anarchism = anti-statism equation is an inadequate definition, because it can’t provide clear criteria for inclusion or exclusion.

Even so, there is a great deal of arbitrary inclusion going on in many works: you can find wildly different people ranging from Lao Tze, to Mohandas Gandhi, to Ché Guevara, to Murray Rothbard, to John Zerzan, labeled “anarchists” these days—and why not, anyway, using such a definition?

So, you need to have a more solid definition than anarchism = anti-statism, with better developed criteria. Otherwise there is nothing to distinguish anarchism from any other set of ideas, whether Marxist-Leninist, or neo-liberal, or primitivist or whatever—and no point looking at anarchism-as-anarchism since it’s an empty label.

At a second level, reducing anarchism to anti-statism is quite a-historical. It is only possible to posit a universal “anarchist” tendency throughout history, regardless of social conditions, if we treat anarchism as a sort of built-in human impulse. But if that is the case, then society should be naturally anarchist, and an anarchist movement would never have had to emerge anyway. Besides, the bloody history of humanity is hardly supportive of claims that people are somehow inherently hard-wired anarchists.

AK: What’s your solution?

Lucien: You need to explain the emergence of anarchism in relation to specific social contexts. The fact of the matter is that a conscious, identifiable, anarchist movement only emerged from the 1860s, and it emerged in the context of the rise of the modern working class.

That is, anarchism emerged as part of the struggles of the working class in the context of the new world of industrial capitalism and the modern state, and as part of the left, the socialist movement. More specifically, it emerged in the First International (1864-1877), and around the International Alliance of Socialist Democracy, founded by Bakunin and joined by Kropotkin.

This is very significant.  The First International was a global body, bring together radical workers and intellectuals from Europe, the Americas, Australasia and Africa, among them Bakunin and Karl Marx—it was a hothouse of ideas and debates, an early example of globalisation-from-below.

And if we look at the actual writings of that movement, and its organized expressions, it’s clear that anarchism is about libertarian, revolutionary, internationalist, class struggle for a classless, stateless, egalitarian, self-managed and cooperative society. This all gets lost when vague notions, like anarchism = anti-statism, are used. As if anti-capitalism, for example, or an orientation to the masses, the broad working class and the peasantry, are not absolutely central to anarchist history, theory, and struggle!

Michael: So, for us, the broad anarchist tradition does not include figures such as Lao, Godwin, Stirner, Zerzan and so on, who reject the positions that emerged from within the libertarian socialist, labour union, majority of the First International. Anarchist history is the history of the movement, the tradition, which started with Bakunin and the Alliance.

Lucien: The tradition’s ideas draw heavily on the economics of Karl Marx, a profound thinker, and even more deeply on the revolutionary ideas of the great French radical Proudhon. Both men made an immense contribution—Proudhon, for example, was the key source of anarchist ideas like self-management—but anarchism, proper, was neither Marxism not Proudhonist mutualism.

AK: You speak nonetheless of the “broad anarchist tradition”. As part of this, you set up a very close link between anarchism and syndicalism. Can you tell us more about this?

Michael: By the “broad anarchist tradition” we mean the tradition that shares these basic ideas, and the class-centred analysis of society in which they are embedded. Accepting these ideas, this lineage, places you in the broad anarchist tradition regardless of what label you personally prefer. The label is not the main thing. You can call yourself an anarchist and have nothing to do with anarchism. You can consider yourself, I don’t know, a good classical Marxist, but actually embrace anarchist praxis—that would actually make you part of the anarchist, not Marxist tradition. The ideas, not the label, are the key.

Now, syndicalism—revolutionary trade unionism aiming at direct workers’ control of production—is a labour movement rooted in anarchism, emerging in the 1870s. It emerged within anarchism, with Bakunin. It is not an unrelated movement that anarchists latched onto because of structural and ideological similarities.

Lucien: The broad anarchist tradition therefore includes the syndicalist movement—even those syndicalists who did not call themselves anarchists; the content, not the label, is what counts. So, as far as we are concerned, then, if Stirner has nothing to do with anarchism, Big Bill Haywood and the revolutionary syndicalist IWW, for instance, are integral parts of the broad anarchist tradition.

AK: So why keep speaking of anarchism AND syndicalism?

Lucien: We don’t phrase things that way because we want to set up a false division between the two. No. It’s just that two terms are not precisely interchangeable: not all anarchists accepted syndicalism, not all syndicalists identified overtly, or even consciously, with anarchism. Plus, precisely because of some of the confusion about the anarchism/ syndicalism relationship that’s out there, we couldn’t assume that the label “anarchism” would be understood to include syndicalism.

AK: What distinguishes anarchism, or should I say, the “broad anarchist tradition”, then?

Lucien: Like liberalism, anarchism opposes the oppression of the individual, by race, gender, class, arbitrary law and so on. Against liberalism (and like the larger socialist movement), it stresses that capitalism is inequitable, exploitative and divisive, and so totally incompatible with real individual freedom. Yet unlike mainstream Marxism and social democracy, it does not see the solution as more state control.

The aim is individual freedom through a cooperative, participatory, stateless socialist society controlled and planned from below through assemblies, groups and councils. It was, and is, resolutely modernist, aiming at conscious human control of history, and the use of science and technology to better the human condition. It is something quite different to an “anything goes” approach, or to a post-modern scepticism about radical change.

Of course, once the movement emerged it developed some of its own myths, some of which have backfired a bit. While Kropotkin’s early work stressed that anarchism emerged in the First International, his later work pioneers the claim that anarchism was a universal tendency in human history. This is simply propaganda, an attempt to legitimize a new and very controversial movement—and has caused a great deal of needless confusion.

AK: But doesn’t this narrower definition lose some of the richness and diversity of the anarchist tradition?

Michael: We are perfectly happy to debate our approach: all we ask is that people engage seriously with our reasoning and evidence, and avoid just asserting that we are wrong. Saying that Woodcock or whoever used another definition does not actually refute us. Saying we are being “sectarian” or have an “agenda” does not—in any way—show that we are wrong. That’s not debate; it’s actually closing down debate. We ask that engage with our methodology, and assess in concrete terms the usefulness of our definitions of that tradition.

Besides, you can’t really engage with the ideas of anarchism until you know what they are, and define them clearly. So, while we sacrifice the illusion of breadth that loose approaches provide, we gain focus, precision and depth. Godwin is out, for example, but Shifu is in, and we can get into the ideas of the latter in detail, and usefully examine them as part of the same intellectual and political tradition as those of Guerrero, or Makhno, or Parsons, or Thibedi.

Lucien: This allows us to really get to grips with the real debates and developments in the movement. And the result—which was a surprise to us, too, as the project developed—was a genuine, international breadth to the movement that has most often been too focused on the North Atlantic. So, a precise definition allowed us to actually work very systematically, and unearth an amazing amount of material, an incredibly rich history.

As we indicated earlier, we really are talking about a very diverse and contested tradition. For example, anarchist analysis has usually seen class, understood in terms of both power and wealth, as central. But while figures like Bakunin used a very open, non-reductionist, non-determinist approach to class, there were certainly currents that were crudely class-reductionist and economically determinist.

Likewise, the question of syndicalism. It was hotly debated—could unions provide a concrete, practical means of attaining the revolutionary future it sought, or would they weaken struggles, bureaucratizing and co-opting workers? Or national liberation: should anarchists and syndicalists involve themselves in anti-imperialist struggles, and, if so, to what end?

AK: Does your book attempt to incorporate current academic thinking on issues such as race and gender?

Michael: What we do is locate these debates within the historical circumstances of the times. We recover, we tap, the rich veins of anarchist and syndicalist thought on the national question, on women’s struggles, on union strategy …

Lucien: Our aim is not to “update” anarchism by blending it with current academic approaches; not at all. What we set out to do was to find out what the actual historical anarchist and syndicalist movement actually thought, actually did, in relation to national and racial oppression, in relation to labour movements. Only with this historical depth is it possible to make judgements, and realistic to develop comparisons and contrasts with other approaches.

So, readers waiting for us to incorporate, say, so-called “whiteness studies”, or “intersectionalist” approaches to race, class and gender are going to be left waiting.

First, because we want to understand anarchism / syndicalism in its own terms. Second, because it’s a distinct intellectual tradition that has a great deal of insight into issues of social and economic inequality, as well as a strategy around these issues. Its interesting in itself, it does not have to conform to academic or leftist fashions. It’s not an abstract lecture room theory, but a tradition defined by a combination of theory and practice—a radical, libertarian praxis.

AK: Anarchism has an image of being extreme, purist … even utopian …

Michael: Generally speaking, though, most anarchists were quite pragmatic, most supported syndicalism and immersed themselves in unions and community movements, and most were active anti-imperialists. Most anarchists were what we call “mass anarchists”: they favoured immersion in the movements of ordinary working and poor people, pushing those movements through anti-authoritarian education and example to develop along the lines of radical democracy and direct action.

To take an example, anarchists and syndicalists founded and ran powerful unions in many countries (including Brazil, China, Peru and many others), while and anarchists like Yu Rim and Shin (to take an example) are famous anti-colonialists in their homeland, Korea.

Actually this is where our series title comes from: by “counter-power” we have in mind the attempts of the anarchists and syndicalists to organize right now, immediately, alternative ways of doing things, of relating to each other, and of fighting back against the parasitic ruling class. The idea was generally to build tomorrow today, acting to create the new society in the ruins of the old.

Lucien: As for utopian, sure, anarchism is utopian if we think a world of justice, equality, fellowship is utopian. But utopian outlooks are not to be despised. Unless we can really think out of the box, aspire to the best of all possible futures, we set our sights very low. Way too low. Unless we see the present as a passing moment that will one day seem absurd, and disgraceful, we end up accepting far too much of its evils. I mean, it would have been dismissed as utopian to think, 200 years ago, that forced labour like slavery could be abolished, or 100 years ago to say women were full human beings. Right now, it seems utopian to think we can get rid of hunger, militarism, racism!

AK: In closing, why would the book be of interest to the general reader?

Lucien: Well, the question is itself a bit problematic. Given its subject matter, the book already has quite a defined audience: it is going to be of particular interest to people who are interested in issues like unions, working class history and anti-colonial struggles and so on, to people interested in political theory and ideas, and it is going to be of interest to people on the left more generally.

Why? Well, for people interested in unions and history, we think the book tells a very important part of the story of ordinary people’s struggles. It’s a history that has often been lost, obscured or misunderstood, but it’s absolutely critical to understanding the history of those struggles. For people interested in political thought, the book provides a very thorough introduction to anarchist ideas and debates, comparing and contrasting these to classical Marxism, nationalism and liberalism. And for activists, we think the book will be stimulating and revealing—at worst, it will provide food for thought, and, at best, a new way of looking at things and hopefully, a spur to further research and exploration of the rich international praxis of anarchism.

AK: So, now we wait for Counter-Power volume 2, a global history of the movement, Global Fire: 150 Fighting Years of Anarchism and Syndicalism?

Michael: Yes. Black Flame lays out the theory, and the big historical themes, like the role of the movement in rent strikes, or in organizing in the colonies and so on. Global Fire is the big narrative, aiming at a truly global coverage of the movement. Like we said, there is so much stuff out there. One book really can’t cover it all. From Albania to Zimbabwe, it’s going to be here if we can find it.

Lucien: Black Flame is quite a rich work, which repays several readings. Global Fire, likewise, is ambitious and bold. As for its release date, there is much work in the rewriting and peer-review process still to be done, so we are keeping that close to our chests for now!

AK: Thanks for your time, and good luck!

Lucien: Thanks for the interview and the support.

Michael: Red and black regards to AK Press!

Michael Schmidt is a Johannesburg-based investigative journalist and journalism trainer, with more than twenty years experience in the field as a reporter for South Africa’s leading newspapers including the Sunday Times and ThisDay, and as a co-editor of the anarchist news and analysis website A seasoned activist, his work has taken him to Chiapas, to Guatemala during the civil war, to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Rwanda, Darfur, Lebanon, and beyond.

Lucien van der Walt is based at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where he teaches in development, economic sociology, and labour studies. His recently completed PhD on anarchism and syndicalism in early twentieth-century South Africa was awarded the prestigious 2008 Labor History international prize. He has written and lectured widely on contemporary working-class struggles and the relationship between race and class, and, together with Steven Hirsch, he is the editor of the forthcoming volume, Anarchism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1880-1940: the praxis of national liberation, internationalism, and social revolution (Brill 2010).